One line in particular jumped out at me while reading David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God two weeks ago:
“It seems obvious to me that a denial of divine simplicity is tantamount to atheism” (p. 128).
Oh no. I have tried to avoid thinking about divine simplicity for a good while now. Eight years ago, in response to an internet debate between Orthodox and Catholic apologists, I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand what divine simplicity means and why the Latin Church developed the notion in the way that it did. I also read David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West, in which he launches a trenchant attack against absolute divine simplicity in favor of the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies. The first thing I learned from all this reading is that divine simplicity ain’t simple. The second thing I learned is that I do not have sufficient philosophical training and acumen to grasp the critical issues and questions. At the conclusion of my study I reached this tentative conclusion: divine simplicity should not be considered a church-dividing issue between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I then put my thoughts down in a series of blog articles dedicated to Absolute Divine Simplicity and promptly forgot everything I had read.
A few years later I began reading Herbert McCabe’s writings. They propelled a personal re-assessment of my beliefs regarding the nature of God. I mentioned this intellectual turn in my recent article “How Anthropomorphic is Your G-O-D?” But I still saw no need to return to the question of divine simplicity. Earlier this year I read Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity. This book persuaded me that no philosophical formulation of divine simplicity can be allowed to inhibit Christians from speaking of God in ways that the gospel demands.
And then along comes David Hart telling me that divine simplicity is so important that its denial is nothing less than a form of atheism. That woke me up from my dogmatic slumbers. I still have little interest in doing more reading on the question; but perhaps I should.
And then today I read Dale Tuggy’s critique of Thomism, in which he rejects divine simplicity. In the course of his article, he mentions an alternative position (one with which he appears to disagree) based on abstracta (whatever they are). The proposal allows the possibility that God is actually dependent on abstracta. This means that God may not be the ultimate metaphysical reality; but he still remains the “Greatest Possible Being.” As President James Dale told the American public after the Martian attack on the Capitol: “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.” Well, even though I’m incapable of refuting this argument (someone please remind me in the morning to do a Google search for “abstracta”), I just know it can’t be right. The God I confess and believe in is the ultimate ultimate and the absolute absolute. He is not a being, not even the “Greatest Possible Being.” He is infinite, unconditioned, transcendent Being. In the words of St Gregory the Theologian: “He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature” (Or. 38).
And then this evening I stumbled upon an instructive video on divine simplicity. The participants belong to the Reformed school of theology, which I normally avoid like the plague (excepting Torrance and Barth), but I suppose I’ll just have to overlook their Calvinism. If you are at all interested in the subject, I recommend it highly. The guest speaker, James Dolezal, subsequently published a book titled God without Parts.
I still don’t know how to reconcile Latin and Palamite understandings of divine simplicity, and quite frankly, I don’t feel a pressing need to do so. I remain convinced, as Brian Davies puts the matter, that “from first to last the doctrine of divine simplicity is a piece of negative or apophatic theology and not a purported description of God” (Language, Meaning, and God, p. 59). That’s good enough for me.
But I’m still looking over my shoulder in case atheism should sneak up behind me.