Divine Simplicity as Negative Theology

“From first to last,” writes philosopher Brian Davies, “the doctrine of divine simplicity is a piece of negative or apophatic theology and not a purported description of God” (“Classical Theism and the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity,” in Language, Meaning and God, p. 59). That is to say, it belongs to the necessary theological task of properly distinguishing the Creator from creation. Sounds easy. All we need to do is to think of God as a person and then add a bunch of omni-attributes. But this personalist approach only leads to our thinking of God as a Superman on the same plane of ontological existence as the rest of us—and that just can’t be right. Hence it is unsurprising that from very early on we find Christian thinkers employing the via negativa: we cannot say what God is, only what he is not. Most theologians, of course, have not been content to restrict themselves to the silence of the via negativa and have advanced various justifications for cataphatic statements about God, the two most famous being Dionysius’s rendition of the divine names and St Thomas Aquinas’s theory of analogy. If Davies is correct, we should interpret divine simplicity not as a positive description of the divine nature but as refusal to import creaturely categories into the Godhead. Unlike finite beings, the uncreated Creator is not composed of parts, whether physical, temporal, or metaphysical. Or as Davies provocatively puts it: “God has no nature in any intelligible sense. He is divinity through and through without parts or aspects. … Everything that God is is God” (p. 51).

Consider physical objects. We take a juicy steak off the grill and immediately slice it with a knife, put a piece into our mouth, chew it and swallow it. Very quickly that piece of steak is broken down and assimilated into our bodies. Hours later the waste products are expelled. The steak no longer exists. Not only was it divisible, but it was dissoluble.

Now consider that steak from a metaphysical perspective. It has a nature that differentiates it from other entities in the universe. It is one kind of thing and not another kind of thing—a steak and not a potato, my rare steak in Roanoke and not your over-done steak in Dallas. A steak, any steak, is composed of accidental and essential properties. Take away one or more of its accidental properties, and it becomes a different kind of steak; eliminate one or more of its essential properties, and it becomes something different altogether.

God, the doctrine of divine simplicity announces, is incomposite and indivisible. He is not like any thing that we know in this world. If he were, he could not be the ultimate source and cause of all that exists. William Vallicella elaborates: “God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter-form composition, potency-act composition, and existence-essence composition.” This all sounds technical and abstruse, but one does not have to have a firm grasp of these philosophical distinctions (I certainly do not) in order to glimpse the decisive significance of the doctrine. “Simplicity,” James Dolezal declares, “is the ontologically sufficient condition for God’s absoluteness” (God Without Parts, p. 2). Aquinas puts it this way:

Every composite, moreover, is subsequent to its components. The first being, therefore, which is God, has no components. Every composite, furthermore, is potentially dissoluble. This arises from the nature of composition, although in some composites there is another element that resists dissolution. Now that which is dissoluble is in potentiality to not-being. But this cannot be said of God, since of His very essence He is necessarily. There is, therefore, no composition in God. Every composition, likewise, needs some composer. For, if there is composition, it is made up of a plurality, and a plurality cannot be fitted into a unity except by some composer. If, then, God were composite, He would have a composer. He could not compose Himself, since nothing is its own cause, because it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now, the composer is the efficient cause of the composite. Thus, God would have an efficient cause. Thus, too, He would not be the first cause—which was proved above. (Cont. Gent. I.18)

To make the point a bit clearer, consider what the denial of divine simplicity must logically entail. If God is a complex being, then he is not in fact the unconditioned Absolute but an entity made up of parts, properties, and aspects that are metaphysically prior to him and upon which he ontologically depends. A molecule of water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen—H2O. Water depends upon these constituent atoms to be water. In similar fashion, if God is a metaphysical conglomerate, then he too depends on his constituent parts in order to be himself. They are more ultimate and fundamental than he is. “The basic logic,” Dolezal explains, “is that if God were composed of parts he would, in some sense, depend upon those parts inasmuch as those parts would be indispensible to the explanation of his existence and essence” (p. 72). Of a composite deity we may ask: Who composed him? What keeps him in existence? Why can’t he be decomposed? That such questions even occur to us demonstrates that complex divinity cannot be the self-existent, transcendent Creator whom Christians have always confessed. As St Irenaeus wrote in the late second century:

God is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good—even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God. (Adv. Haer. 2.13.3)

In its negative function the doctrine of divine simplicity does not commit one to a specific construal of the trinitarian unity and aseity. It does not commit one to a Thomist understanding of the divine essence (God is his existence), as opposed to a Scotist understanding (God is infinite Being); nor does it automatically exclude Byzantine formulations of the distinction between the divine essence and energies. Nor does it render unsayable essential Christian assertions, such as the dogma of the Holy Trinity. What it does do is enable us to conceive God as God and not as a godlet or demiurge.

Hence we are not dealing here with an arcane piece of philosophical speculation irrelevant to the gospel. In his essay “The Simplicity of the Living God,” Christopher Franks protests the way contemporary philosophers and theologians have addressed the topic, the former treating it as a metaphysical conundrum, the latter as a non-biblical accretion. Both have failed to see how the doctrine flows from and undergirds a specifically Christian understanding of God as Creator and Redeemer: “Simplicity teaches us how to think about a God who is the fully Living One, the one who lives so fully and completely that this Life is uncontradictable. This God is the source of life for others, and precisely as cause of being, this God is fully free to create (or not to create), free even to enter into union with creation, even the intimate union of the Incarnation, without abandoning that Life” (p. 276).

As an expression of apophatic theology, the doctrine of divine simplicity might be best understood, suggests Davies, as a grammatical rule: “To cast things in a more modern idiom, the Thomist doctrine of divine simplicity is an exercise in ‘logical grammar’; its aim is to tell us the sort of conclusions about God which are not to be drawn” (p. 59).  Yet by telling us what divinity cannot be, the doctrine also clears a space for us to proclaim and indwell the one God of biblical revelation—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(Go to “St Thomas Aquinas, Divine Simplicity, and Knowing the Unknowable God”)

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23 Responses to Divine Simplicity as Negative Theology

  1. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    Pace Davies, DS can be understood as a positive affirmation stemming from divine perfection and divine self-subsistence (aseity). But of course even the positive affirmation becomes a negative one, demonstrating profound dissimilarity with creation. Which underscores to me that the cataphatic/apophatic is not mere contradiction of absolutes, but interdependent methods of knowing the one who is always infinitely beyond.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      At this point I think I have to side with Davies here. When explicating the divine simplicity, the theologians I have read typically treat it not as asserting a divine perfection, as do terms like “goodness” and “justice,” but as excluding a creaturely feature. This is how St Basil speaks of simplicity. He treats haplous (simple) as synonymous with asunthetos (incomposite) and ameres (partless). For Basil negative terms do not denote real properties. Of course, he might be wrong. 🙂

      I’ll be returning to this interesting question in my next post, which will be focusing on Aquinas.

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        “For Basil negative terms do not denote real properties”

        Evidently another point about which a fraternal rift may be detected. Gregory counts immortality and invisibility as names “employed and understood absolutely” (pointing to divine transcendence) in contrast to titles containing the “declaration of the operations of the Divine loving-kindness in the creation” such as Creator, Protector, King, Lord, full of pity, merciful, gracious, among others.

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  2. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    Basil must have had a spat with his younger brother 🙂

    Gregory links perfection conceptually with simplicity time and again, and in conjunction with the assertion that “God is all His attributes always” and that God is “identical with goodness rather than possessing it.” He also links properties of the divine essence such as wisdom, power, and goodness to simplicity, denying degrees of quantity, volume, difference. “…simplicity in the case of the Holy Trinity admits of no degrees…there is no mixture or conflux of qualities to think of; we comprehend a potency without parts and composition…” Nyssa denies the distinction found in the created natures, which possess the good by acquisition or participate in goodness, which in contrast “in its own essence it is good….it is a source of good, it is simple, uniform, incomposite.”

    He too may be wrong 😉

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  3. My difficulty with this is that it necessarily entails the instrumentality of the flesh of Christ. Either Christ is not simple, and thus not God, or the humanity of Christ (which is not simple) exists in an instrumental union (a la Nestorius). Yet, Christian proclamation asserts that the body of Christ was not merely a tool used by a simple divine person.

    That is, I don’t know how to reconcile even an apophatic view of simplicity with Cyrilline Christology. I’m open to solutions to this problem.

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Nathanial,

      I don’t see the problem following the Chalcedonian hypostatic formula. Christ’s divine nature is and remains simple, his human nature likewise remains unchanged, truly and fully human.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Nathaniel, I too am having difficulty seeing the problem that you are seeing. Clearly there is a mystery here that we cannot fathom and which the christological dogmas do not seek to metaphysically explain. Could you elaborate further please.

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    • https://bekkos.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/st-cyril-on-divine-simplicity/

      Nathaniel,

      St. Cyril, like every educated person in his age of which I have ever heard, accepted divine simplicity. How then can you have difficulty reconciling St. Cyril’s own Christology with his acceptance of divine simplicity? –are you saying that he is inconsistent?

      -G

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  4. ‘Two molecules of water are composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen…’

    Oops! I think you wanted to say ONE molecule of water!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      That’s what I thought, too. But before I posted my article I double-checked and found this article: http://witcombe.sbc.edu/water/chemistryelectrolysis.html. So now I’m confused. 😕

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      • This is from the site: ‘It takes two molecules of the diatomic hydrogen gas, combined with one molecule of the diatomic oxygen gas to produce two molecules of water.’

        That’s correct as it stands, but I naturally assumed you were speaking atomically in the OP, as is what most people usually mean. But in nature of course, oxygen atoms don’t just exist singly except at sufficiently high energies, So, well, it’s correct — but only when properly qualified.

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  5. “Yet by telling us what divinity cannot be, the doctrine also clears a space for us to proclaim and indwell the one God of biblical revelation—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

    I am increasingly wary of the quarantining of these two things. The language of revelation-as-data-we-can’t-get-on-our-own-steam and the language of public divinity (which results in the language of simplicity) don’t play well together. The latter cannot be used as a prelude to the former; the latter leaves no space for the former. The Trinitarian language must be understood in a way that is in keeping with this language of DS.

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Gregory

      Do you see a conflict between Trinitarian language and DS? If so, please detail.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ApoSpeak,

        Only potentially, and only if Trinitarian language purports to get at truths and properties that can be thought, but which cannot be had via thought, because they depend upon an assertion, and are immune from reflection.

        Obviously, Christology requires something of this sort: the person of Jesus may be historical, but we do not simply announce historical events, as though they interpreted themselves: in the event of recognition of the divinity of Jesus, we register that this man’s face enfolds all faces, including our own, and register the promise implicit in the announcing of his rising from the dead, as the sign of the eventual victory of life over death.

        Trinitarian theology deals, in part, with Jesus: but one cannot speak about the divinity of Jesus without having some sense of what the word “divinity” means, and Trinitarian teaching, if it is going to make sense on its own, or in relation to the person of Jesus, is going to need to, well, make sense. It cannot violate the very meaning of what it assumes (the shared idea of divinity) in order to demonstrate what it attempts to show (the divinity of Jesus).

        -G

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        • P.S.: when I wrote “the person of Jesus may be historical”, it was not supposed to read as though I had any doubts about his historicity. I roll my eyes at people who seriously doubt that. –at least, on the inside.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      If I am reading you accurately, Gregory, you are posing the intractable problem of faith and reason. In what ways and forms should the Church conform its articulation of the faith to the dictates of philosophy. This is an on-going challenge. If we allow philosophy to have the final say, then all revelatory claims will inevitably be rejected, and the Church will just end up proclaiming that which philosophy and history already knows.

      Note that if the doctrine of simplicity is principally a form of negative theology, then the doctrine is not in fact teaching and imposing a pre-conceived philosophical conception of simplicity. Rather, it takes us right to the edge of the Mystery of God.

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      • I’m fine with something being asserted only to find that it makes sense publicly after it is asserted; what I object to is to make God a being again with properties once DS has clearly said that this is not the case. Talk about “the Mystery of God” often attempts to smuggle in positive determinate content into the wholly indeterminate God, which is what DS is all about. All things are enfolded in the super-saturated Simple and the trans-unitary One; all things, insofar as they are, are unfoldings of, and theophanies of, this One — God.

        Trinitarian language must be able to make sense publicly. As a speculative aside, I have not given the third-, fourth-, and fifth-century sources the close reading they demand in this regard, but I strongly suspect that the debates about the relative divinity of Jesus in the Arian controversy, or of the nature of divine intelligibility in the Eunomian controversy, are not about faith-vs.-reason (despite any rhetorical flourishes to this effect that some of the orthodox authors in the debate may throw out — I am not convinced that we read these rightly), but about locating the Logos within theogony or cosmogony. Just a hunch.

        Philosophy regulates intelligibility; I am not suggesting that disciplines, much less institutions and faculties, be collapsed. Confessionalism has been the bane of theology for nearly 500 years, however, and it is time to let it go.

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        • P.S. — if we want to say that God “takes on determinacy” in the generation of the Logos, I’m down. I suspect that something like this can be defended publicly as the origin of differentiation (and so determinacy and being) cosmically. DS is, in a very strong sense, higher than Trinitarian language, then, however, and somehow regulates the sense it must have.

          Furthermore, differentiation in the Godhead, in some sense, seems to be necessary for all of Christian theology. Quoting him from memory, Nikolai Velimirovich wrote something along the lines of: “You were like Nirvana, O Lord, You were without number or name, until the Ultimate Man, the Wisdom of God, was born in your heart.”

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  6. apophaticallyspeaking says:

    In all ways, not merely time and space; but also logically, conceptually, ontologically – there is no Father without the Son.

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    • Of course — but we are already dealing with some form of “two”, now.

      _Some_ form. Not just ordinary duality.

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        Yes, the great stumbling block of the first four ecumenical councils. Tri-hypostatic multiplicity of the One.

        Can this be argued publicly as you asked earlier? Yes I suppose but there remains of course an irreducible antinomy, which I suppose one can formulate as the faith vs. reason tension. Not that faith is against or has no use for reason, but to say that reason has it limits.

        But as it is, “Tri-hypostatic multiplicity of the One” is the claim upon which the classical orthodox Christianity stands or falls.

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