Classical Theism (again) and the Incarnate God

“For the classical theist, what the doctrine of God Incarnate entails is that that which is subsistent being itself, pure actuality, and absolutely simple or non-composite, that in which all things participate but which itself participates in nothing, that which thereby sustains all things in being — that that ‘became flesh and dwelt among us.’ That is a truly astounding claim, so astounding that its critics often accuse it of incoherence. The accusation is false, but those who make it at least show that they understand just how extremely strange and remarkable the claim is — and how radically unlike the ‘incarnations’ of the various pagan deities it is. You can plausibly assimilate the incarnation of the ‘God’ of theistic personalism to those of Horus, Zeus, et al. You cannot so assimilate the Incarnation of the God of classical theism. It is sui generis.”
(Read the entire blog article by Edward Feser.)

Feser’s critique of theistic personalism seems spot on, but I keep wondering how Plantinga or Swinburne might respond. Is there a real difference here or is it just a matter of emphasis or semantics? Dale Tuggy, for example, has no problem stating:

God certainly belongs to a class we can call “Deity,” but that’s not a class that could contain other members. His radical difference is, for one thing, existing a se – not because of anything else. No other thing has that distinction.

What is the difference between saying “God transcends genus and class” and saying “God is the only member, and can only be the only member, of the class ‘Deity'”?

Any thoughts?

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15 Responses to Classical Theism (again) and the Incarnate God

  1. Matthew N. Petersen says:

    Is the class “Deity” created? If so, how can we say God belongs to it? (There may be an interesting claim there about our knowledge, but not about God himself.) If not then either the class is God, or the class is uncreated and God did not create all things.


  2. AR says:

    Isn’t a class just a special type of description, one that describes the likeness of various things that are said to be “in” the class? So to say that God is in a class by himself (which is the meaning of sui generis) means that he is like nothing else. To say that he transcends class would be to say that he transcends both likeness and unlikeness.

    To tell the truth neither of these things seem to mean anything to me at least without further clarification. In one sense we say that nothing is like God. In another sense we say that man is like God, or at least, in his likeness. And in another sense this is true of all creation if you want to say that every created thing was created after a pre-existing ‘logos’ of that thing in the mind of God. What it could mean to transcend both likeness and unlikeness I really don’t know. Perhaps it means that “likeness” is a relationship that, as we know it, is insufficient to describe the ways in which God causes the things which he creates to approach him. So, it just goes back to the whole “language is insufficient” thing, right?

    What I then wonder about is whether language is insufficient because of limitations in language or because of “indescribability” is somehow a property of the divine nature, as Lossky suggests. Again, we are back to something that doesn’t seem to mean anything. Is theology all about pushing language to the point where it doesn’t mean anything so that the mind forms a concept of divine otherness? Or is this way of speaking properly the poetry of those who have experientially known God and found, not just their language, but their whole mind contained within God and unable to circumscribe him? I really don’t know…


    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      Even so, God is only completely unique if He belongs to no other class, and the class “Deity” is so unlike other classes that it can only equivocally be called a class.


  3. whitefrozen says:

    I’m going to go ahead and say that Tuggys use of ‘a se’ is an arbitrary cop-out. The comment above is a good criticism – if we persist in operating with the idea that God is a member of a class, then either the class is god, or the class is uncreated.

    I think Tuggys statement could be transcribed into fregean terms: God is a member of a class > God is the instantion of various properties/etc – this kind of thinking would help explain how Tuggy can make statements like this one. If God isn’t seen along the classical lines (and the corresponding notions of participation/being/etc), it’s no great leap to say that God is just a member of a class.


  4. Danielius says:

    Isn’t this a sort of repackadged version of the Problem of Universals? If Tuggy’s some form of nominalist then he regards all classes as merely useful fictions, names created by human minds with no ontological reality. And hence saying that God is not member of any class makes no sense, because we can invent out of thin air endless (fictional) classes with God as a member.


    • Matthew N. Petersen says:

      If class is really a human fiction, it is theologically uninteresting to say God is in a class, since it really means “We classify Him as such and such…” and makes no claim about God Himself.


    • AR says:

      Danielus, I’m no expert, but isn’t it ideas, rather than names, that are supposed either to have reality or to be “useful fictions” in the nominalist/realist debate?

      I ask because Fr. Kimel posted some essays about a heretic called Eunomius who held a heresy that names reveal essence and are not just conventions and therefore believed that we can know God exactly and fully by knowing his name.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Wow, you remember those articles on Eunomius? I’m impressed! 🙂


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I’m still impressed!


      • Danielius says:

        Well, it’s about universals, of course! And, of course, people disagree about what counts as a universal. 🙂 Ideas? Are you thinking perhaps of Platonic Ideas here? People tend to conflate them, but I think Lloyd Gerson argued convincingly that Ideas are not meant by Plato as a solution for the Problem of Universals.

        Anyway, I guess my point here would be to ask people to clarify their terms – universal vs. genus (type) vs. class. All are technical terms, and types and classes aren’t considered synonyms (All types are classes, but not all classes are types. Classes have members, types have particular instances). So father K. might equivocating here by playing the posts against each other. Then again Tuggy does quote a part about instantiation and then talks about classes and members, so he may be using them as synonyms after all? And now I have managed to lose myself in an ontological maze, help, help!


  5. AR says:

    OK, how’s this? If class means simply “a group with member(s)” then saying that God is in his own class doesn’t really distinguish between the classical position and the personal theist position.

    However, if we mean “class” as part of a categorical proposition as per the first couple of paragraphs of the following:

    then classical theists definitely cannot make God a member of a class, and this does indeed distinguish their beliefs from (what I understand about) those of theistic personalists.

    This is because classes are governed by categories, so even though God would be the sole member of one absolutely unique class, and creation would be collectively the sole member of another, God and creation would be united under some governing category such as “persons” or “entities that exist.” I think the classical objection might be to this, because this way of talking indicates that God and creation exist in the same sense, or that God is a person in the same sense that human beings are persons – just as Feser says.

    So it might be saying more to say that God forms his own category, but can categories have single memberships or are they always composed of groups? I don’t know – I got tired and stopped reading the page on categorical propositions.

    I still am not certain of the meaning of saying that God transcends things.

    Does this address your actual question, Fr. Kimel?


  6. John B says:

    I share your frustration – and think that part of this is due to a lack of precise definition of terms.

    Can anyone tell me if there is a difference between ‘a class’ ‘a member of a ‘set’ and ‘a domain’.?

    John B


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    One thought: I think that aspect of the patristic assertion of the incomprehensibility of the divine essence is the recognition that we cannot properly make up a list of all the divine attributes and then go around looking for a candidate that fulfills them.


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