Hugh McCann and the Simplicity of Divinity

The late Hugh J. McCann characterizes his book Creation and the Sovereignty of God as an exercise in perfect being theology: “I wish to defend the thesis that God is an absolutely perfect being, who as creator exercises complete sovereignty over all that was, is, and will be” (p. 1). His defense is vigorous, incisive, and at certain points quite innovative. Two years ago I reviewed his thoughts on divine eternity and divine and creaturely agency. In this series I will examine his presentation of divine simplicity, freedom, and creation. Readers should find him interesting and challenging. McCann stands firmly in the analytic tradition, but he is also conversant with the metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas. This present series follows nicely upon my just completed series on Thomas and divine freedom.

McCann begins book with a Thomistic-like cosmological argument: the world does not explain its existence. It can only be explained by the positing of a personal being that possesses overwhelming power, will, and “the capacity of knowledge and intention that goes with its employment” (p. 7). This being “exists a se, or of his own nature, so that it is impossible to separate the fact that God exists from the kind of being he is” (p. 7). In his aseity and self-existence, therefore, the Creator cannot possess accidental properties; all properties that qualify as appropriately divine are essential to his being. He can neither lose an attribute nor gain one. God is immutable, impassible, timeless, perfect. “Otherwise, there would be something about God that either had no explanation whatever, thus violating sufficient reason, or else was explained by some condition or circumstance extraneous to God, so that he would depend in part on something beyond himself to be what he is” (pp. 217-218). But this logically leads, so many contemporary philosophers believe, to a serious problem:

But now if all of God’s characteristics arise from his own nature, then everything he does as creator counts as a manifestation of his essence, which presumably belongs to him necessarily. It would seem to follow that God has no freedom as creator. Every detail of the world, no matter how refined, is something that, simply by virtue of being God, he has to produce: the structure and constituents of the universe and of every atom in it, each of the world’s inhabitants, every event that occurs. God was not free in creating you and me, nor is he free in his involvement in those acts in which we sin; he was not free in forming his covenant with Abraham or in any other redemptive act. And it is not in the true sense up to him who is saved or lost, what prayers are answered, what prophecies are made or fulfilled. Rather, it seems, the totality of things is fixed from eternity by a fate that overmasters God himself. For all that exists is a manifestation of God’s inmost being, of his essence, the nature he would have no matter what. (p. 218)

If God to be God must unchangeably possess his essential attributes and cannot add or shed an accidental attribute, how can he be free? He seems to be enslaved to his nature—and we along with him. The source of our dilemma, says McCann, “lies in drawing a distinction, to begin with, between God and his nature—or more properly … between God and the activity in which his nature is displayed” (p. 220). To be a being is to possess one or more attributes over which we have no control. I am born as a member of the species humanity. I did not ask for a human nature, nor can I will it away. By this nature I am distinguished from beings with other natures—dogs, fish, rocks, quarks. As an individual I “have” my attributes. If we think of Deity as an individual defined by the essential attributes that he has, then he is no more free than the creatures he has made. The world is merely his necessary manifestation:

When we think of an individual as a “haver” of attributes, therefore, we must be committed to the idea that at least some of its substantive attributes are essential to it … No individual that may be distinguished from its essence can determine by its own action what its essential attributes are to be. In God’s case, this leads to the result that if all of his attributes are essential then he has no freedom, and there is but one possible world. The case with respect to God’s sovereignty over his essence is similar. However many his essential attributes may be, if God may be distinguished from his essence and the activity in which it is displayed, then there can be no sense in which he may be viewed as creative with respect to his essence or as exercising any sort of sovereignty over its manifestation in him. And this is simply because any activity we might postulate as a means by which God achieves such supremacy would presuppose his nature as ‘already’ present to him. (p. 220)

If God is a possessor of properties, he is enslaved to his necessity. Deity is stuck with his nature, just as we are with ours. One might wonder what McCann would have thought about the Byzantine distinction between the divine essence and the energeia. The scholastic point of the distinction was to secure the divine freedom.

McCann is aware, however, that the classical Western tradition does not think of Deity as a haver of attributes. God is simple. He cannot be analyzed in terms of properties: “God has no parts, and there is in him no composition, whether of matter or form, potency and act, or substance and attribute” (p. 221). He is dependent on nothing and thus absolutely free. We, of course, commonly make claims about God using subject and predicate (God is wise, God is loving)—how could we talk about God otherwise?—but if the doctrine of divine simplicity is true, these claims cannot be literally true. We are doing something which we cannot properly do. At best can only speak of the divine perfections by analogy.

But how do we construe divine simplicity in a way that liberates divinity into freedom? We might, for example, propose that God is identical with his nature (“where by ‘nature we understand a set of universals—that is, the set of properties God exhibits” [p. 221]), but this solution presents problems of its own. With which universal is God identical? With all of them as a collective set? That just reintroduces complexity into the divine essence. With each of them taken severally? This dissolves the properties one into the other. If the universals creating a dog and creating a cat are identical, then it follow that dogs are cats and cats dogs. God becomes an abstractum. More to the point, this formulation of simplicity does not help us “to discern any freedom he might have respecting his makeup” (p. 223). What we need, says McCann, is “some exercise of his will involved in God’s being what he is—something that must be entirely lacking if God turns out to be no more than a universal or a congeries of them” (p. 223).

At this point I can’t help thinking that McCann has pushed divine simplicity beyond its original regulative function. As Brian Davies remarks: “From first to last, the doctrine of divine simplicity is a piece of negative or apophatic theology and not a purported description of God” (“A Modern Defense of Divine Simplicity,” p. 555). The purpose of the simplicity doctrine is to remind us of the inconceivable difference between Creator and creature, not to represent the metaphysical innards of divinity. It speaks of what God is not. Divine simplicity is best construed as a grammatical rule: “God is not to be thought of (cannot be known) as something with properties distinguishable from each other, or as something we can conceive of as distinct from the nature we ascribe to it” (p. 555). The rule does not deny that when we say “God is wise” and “God is good” we mean different things; but it does assert that the attributes we ascribe to God ultimately refer to the One whose existence is his essence. That which makes God “wise” and “good” and “powerful” and “loving” is simply God. Divine simplicity, therefore, must be understood in correlation with other negative terms—immutability, impassibility, eternity, infinity—that likewise open to us the transcendence of Deity. Because this significant point is so often lost in discussions of divine simplicity, perhaps I might be excused for quoting Michael Hanby at some length:

To say that the doctrine of creation is a function of the doctrine of God is to say that its first task is to articulate and preserve this difference between God and the world. Its chief purpose, in other words, is to deny that God is a thing within being, even a very grand thing, which would make “being” the higher term and issue in a notion of divinity as incoherent as it is unorthodox. Insofar as the doctrine of creation is a function of the doctrine of God, it has always been a fundamentally apophatic or negative doctrine, insisting upon what God is not: not a being within being, not a species or a genus, not finite, not composite, not lacking in any perfection and actuality, not therefore an item either within or beyond the universe, and not really related, by being or necessity, to the world. This negative moment is likewise preserved in the Christological formulations, which do not define the hypostasis of the Son or the union of the two natures in this hypostasis so much as delineate what they are not: undivided and unconfused.

Such apophatic clarifications are not simple negations of course. Rather, they are the reverse side of the corresponding cataphatic assertion of God’s superabundant fullness, a necessary stipulation if we are to conceive of God as “that than which none greater can be thought” and thus avoid the incoherence of subordinating God to a higher term. We might initially account for the unity of these apophatic and cataphatic dimensions by taking recourse to Nicholas of Cusa’s coincidentia oppositorum inasmuch as the negations, by removing all trace of limit, unrealized potency, or composition characteristic of finite existing things, leave a simplicity in which “substance and accident,” essence and existence, identity and distinction, and possibility and actuality are convertible with one another in the indivisible unity of infinite act. This is not the infinity of a simple magnitude in the sense that Newton seems to have imagined, nor is it simply an infinity of duration. Such “bad infinities” follow from the reduction of being from act to brute facticity. They presuppose that “being” applies univocally to God and creatures, and they remain, in the end, exalted projections of finitude. A being of such “infinite” dimensions would still be divisible into spatial and temporal “parts” and would thus be a composite, finite being after all, determined in its being with reference to space and time (rather than the reverse). An adequate conception of divine infinity, one which altogether transcends and does not merely negate these finite distinctions, entails simplicity and indivisibility. God is what he has. His essence is his existence and is thus “everywhere entire” (Augustine, De Civ., XI.5; Conf., I.3). Only thus can God be absolutely infinite; absolute infinity must belong to God alone, and as absolute infinity, God must be infinitely one. As the fullness of being he possesses, or rather is, the whole of his being in every part, place, and instance, which is to say that he transcends such dimensions altogether and to such an extent as to be whole and wholly immanent within each of them as their source and precondition. Alan of Lille famously attempted to depict this absolute infinity by characterizing God as “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Nicholas of Cusa followed in this line by characterizing God as an infinite circle and thus also a straight line and a triangle, all the while denying (of course) that God is really any of these things. Such simplicity and infinity also form the condition of possibility for the Eucharist, in which the whole Christ (totus Christus) is present to all. (No God, No Science?, pp. 307-308)

Analytic philosophers are typically impatient with the mysterianism of classical theology. They eschew what William Desmond calls “the hyperbole of being.” They prefer a univocity of analysis—all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. Dionysius and Aquinas knew better—not because they advocated irrationality but because they grasped the incomprehensibility of the divine essence. They knew that we are, as Thomas says, “joined to God as to the unknown” (ST I.12.13). But that is by the by. Back now to the McCannian script.

(Go to “Utterly Simple State of Affairs”)

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1 Response to Hugh McCann and the Simplicity of Divinity

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


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