Divine Simplicity: Into the Negative Zone

by David Mahfood, Ph.D.


A clear set of premises leading to a conclusion is a remarkable intellectual gift, for then one’s options are clear: accept the conclusion, reject one or more premises, or find a fallacy in the way they’re supposed to lead to the conclusion. And this is what Ryan Mullins has offered in his recent argument against divine simplicity. Mullins is a skilled analytic philosopher and theologian who has offered substantial arguments against more than one element of classical theism—see, for example, his noteworthy monograph arguing against divine timelessness, aptly titled, The End of the Timeless God. His arguments there and in this recent conversa­tion are clear, substantial, and worthy of engagement, especially by those of us who hold a classical theistic understanding of God. Other defenders of various versions of simplicity have offered responses within the series at the Theopolis Institute Website, including Peter Leithart (who agrees to some degree with Mullins’ critiques and defends a weaker version of simplicity rooted in the Cappadocians and Robert Jenson), Fr Joe Lenow (who defends an apophatic interpretation of simplicity along similar lines to the position I try to develop here), and Ed Feser. Mullins has offered a response to these responses, which has already inspired a further response from Feser at his own blog. My goal here is to offer an expanded version of the apophatic interpretation of simplicity (that is, understanding it as a negation) and try to show in a different way from Lenow why this interpretation avoids Mullins’ critique. In any case, here is Mullins’ argument, to which I will refer going forward:

1) If God is free, then God can refrain from acting to give grace.

2) God is free.

3) Therefore, God can refrain from acting to give grace.

4) If God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary, then God cannot refrain from acting to give grace.

5) God can refrain from acting to give grace.

6) Thus, God’s act to give grace is not absolutely necessary.

7) God’s existence is absolutely necessary.

8) Anything that is identical to God’s existence must be absolutely necessary.

9) All of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one divine act.

10) God’s act to give grace is identical to God’s one divine act.

11) God’s one divine act is identical to God’s existence.

12) Therefore, God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary.

13) If God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary, then God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary.

14) Therefore, God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary. [Contradicts 6.]

15) Therefore, God cannot refrain from acting to give grace. [Contradicts 5.]

16) Therefore, God is not free. [Contradicts 2.]

It seems to me there are two places to object here: premise 1, and premises 8 to 13. I object to Mullins’s libertarian notion of freedom as applied to the giving of grace, because I think it’s possible for an act to be both necessary and free. This objection, however, is not fatal to Mullins’ argument, since even though it seems to me some acts are both necessary and free, I agree some divine acts are not necessary (or more precisely, some of the effects of the one divine act are not necessary—but more on that below). And while I think God’s saving work might be necessary given creation and its intended end plus God’s goodness and omnipo­tence, it still is not absolutely necessary in the way God’s existence is, since creation itself is not necessary.1 This objection, therefore, can’t rescue divine simplicity from Mullins’ argument.

On the other hand, I do think that I think the latter set of objections (to premises 8-13) might do so, and so it’s there that I will focus this essay. I will first offer my own explanation of simplicity as a negation rather than a positive predication, and then explain how this affects premises 8-13. In short, I will argue that, if simplicity is understood as a negation, then simplicity is corrective against the fact that we must speak about God in ways that seem to imply composition. That is, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, simplicity names a difference between our mode of understanding and the thing understood. Our mode of understanding is always “by composition and division [that is, of subjects and predicates],” but we under­stand that “what corresponds to [our conceptions] is absolutely one.”2 For reasons I will try make clear, I think Mullins’ argument conflates these two moments in thinking about God (positive thinking about God via applying terms that seem to involve complexity, and the qualification that in this case, the object described by our terms is absolutely one and simple). I will try to show how this mistake creates the central confusion in this debate. I will conclude by considering Mullins’ objections to playing the “mystery card.”3

I. Simplicity as Negation

As Mullins notes, for centuries, most theologians affirmed that God is simple. The funda­mental motivation for saying this comes from the bedrock intuition that the divine essence is utterly transcendent, unconditioned by anything that is not God. Though of course different theologians developed this intuition in different ways, generally speaking, premodern Christian theologians thought genuine transcendence required that God must be simple, because the alternative (being composite) involves dependence on one’s parts. Even if one’s parts are not in fact separable, it seems one is still logically dependent on them to be what one is. So, if God is essentially transcendent and depends on nothing outside of God, God cannot be composite. Christians have thought this important enough to say that it appears in a diverse array of official confessional and catechetical statements, including the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Belgic Confession, and many more.

But how should we understand this claim that God is simple? I propose we understand simplicity as a negative predication (and here I follow some well-known examples in the Christian tradition, for example Thomas Aquinas4). That is, instead of attaching some positive attribute to the subject, we are denying an attribute. This may seem like a distinc­tion without a difference—doesn’t negating something imply positing the opposite of what we negate? If we say God isn’t foolish, aren’t we saying God is wise? If we say God is not weak, are we not saying he is strong? Part of the confusion here has to do with different ways of thinking about how speech and thought relate to reality. For many premodern thinkers, to be able to make a positive predication requires a cognitive grasp of the predicate and how it is true of the subject. It requires the form of the thing known to be “in” the intellect, so that the intellect “sees” why a given predicate applies. Human beings, let’s suppose, gain con­cepts which we can then predicate by observation and experience. We see or experience some way of being, and we abstract it from the particular subject which has it. We can then predicate the abstracted concept of other particular subjects.

For this process of abstraction and predication to work, the subjects we are predicating about must have some commonality of being.5 They need to belong in a genus together such that they can both bear the same predicate in the same way. Things which we can call “red” (in the same sense) must be in the genus of visible things. Things we call wise must be in the genus of rational beings. The shared genus makes it possible for us to know that the predi­cate means the same thing in both cases. Given this requirement, we can see that a denial of a predicate to a subject need not imply any specific positive predicate. If I say that a rock is not foolish, I am not saying it must be wise. It’s neither foolish nor wise, since it simply does not belong in the same genus as things which can be wise or foolish. This suggests that at least in some cases, predicates and their negations are genuinely asymmetrical: we cannot simply replace a negation with a positive predicate. In denying that a predicate as we grasp it applies to a given subject, we are not necessarily implying some other positive predicate we grasp belongs to it.

We can see, then, why simplicity is a negation even when presented in a positive grammat­ical form: we are denying all forms of composition to God, and forms of composition are concepts we grasp based on abstraction. For instance, we can grasp by abstraction the difference between what a thing is (its essence) and that it is (its existence), and we can see that in a really existing thing, an essence is joined together with real existence, so that it both exists and is some specific kind of thing. We can likewise grasp the difference between a thing’s form and the matter which has that form, or between a thing’s essential properties and its accidents.6 Even more basically, we can grasp the difference between an object’s various physical parts. When we say God is simple (at least on a version of simplicity like St. Thomas’s), we are denying all of these forms of composition to God. We are saying there are no real distinctions in the divine essence, only conceptual or perhaps formal ones.7

Granted, there must be some mode of being on the other side of these denials, some positive content which corresponds to God’s being in a way that is simple. But we have no direct purchase on what it is to be utterly non-composite. Such a mode of being lies entirely outside of our experience or observation. We have nothing from which to abstract such a concept so that we could apply it to God. After all, every created thing—every thing with which we share a genus—is composite. Other physical beings (or most of them, at any rate) are composite of different physical parts. Spiritual beings are composite of essence and existence. And all of these are composite of act and potency. So, although we can assign a word to this mode of being that must be true of God (i.e., “simple”), we lack positive cognitive content to associate with it. Its content is primarily negative: it is a denial of an array content which we do grasp. We are saying, “God is not the sort of thing that is composed of physical parts,, or a union of form and matter, or essence and existence, or act and potency, etc.” We are not thereby saying what God is.

If we want to speak about God, we must make this negation, because everything else we know is composite. We therefore cannot speak of God at all except by using terms and concepts we derive from composite things. Affirming that God is simple does not rescue us from this situation. It is still the case that we have to speak of God as if he had an intellect and a will which were not really identical in him, as if his goodness and wisdom and justice and mercy were really distinct. We have to engage in such speech in order to do Christian theology. For instance, if we could not talk about God having intellect and will, we would lack a way to see God’s actions as oriented towards ends, because the only way we know how to conceive of goal-directed activity is in terms of an agent grasping the way an end can be achieved (using the intellect) and then choosing the way to achieve it (with the will).

One might notice that all of these terms which we predicate of God (intellect, will, goodness, wisdom, etc.) face the same difficulty with respect to knowability. That is, since God is not in a genus with the rational, good, or wise creatures we know and derive those concepts from, they cannot apply to God, at least not in the same way we know how to apply them from our own experience. We qualify this kind of predication (which, unlike simplicity, really is positive predication) by admitting we don’t know how they are true of God. We don’t know what it is to be good the way God is good, or wise the way God is wise, or to have an intellect and will like God’s. We only know finite and composite goods, intellects, and wills. And so, although both scripture and philosophical reasoning lead us to conclude that these terms must apply to God, we have to qualify our use of them by denying that they are true in the same way they’re true in created things.8

Simplicity is precisely this sort of qualification. Taking simplicity as negation means we admit there are conceptual distinctions we can’t avoid making in our thinking about God. We don’t know how to think of God without complexity because of what we are, but we deny that any of these conceptual distinctions amount to a real distinction. We can and must speak of God as having intellect and will, but we add the qualification that his having intellect and will is radically different than ours, because (among other reasons) his intellect and will are one with his essence, whereas our intellect and will are really distinct. In God’s case, the terms “divine intellect” and “divine will” name the same thing in reality understood under different aspects.

Now, one might ask, when we make these qualifications, are we not thereby losing whatever understanding we seemed to gain by using these terms in the first place? It turns out we aren’t. We can still reason a great deal from these positive ascriptions—we can say, for instance, from the fact of God’s having an intellect, and of it being completely infinite and unrestricted, that there is no truth God doesn’t know. There again we have to qualify our sense of the term “know,” since God’s knowing must be very different from ours in many ways—for instance, whereas our knowing has to move from discrete fact to discrete fact, God must know everything in a single, infinite act of understanding. But still, there must be a genuinely analogical sense in which God must be said to know all things. At any rate, there can be no truth of which God is ignorant.

Moreover, the qualifications we impose via the negative predication of simplicity can assist us in moving towards deeper positive understanding. For instance, take the case of justice and mercy. With our ordinary concepts, they seem to be obviously at odds (since justice means giving to each what is due to them, while mercy means giving less than what is strictly due to the guilty). But the fact that God must be at once both justice and mercy, and that in God justice and mercy must be identical, pushes St. Anselm to great specula­tive depths over the course of the Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo, where he strives to see God’s justice and mercy as one. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm arrives at an understanding of the incarnation and cross in which God is infinitely merciful precisely by perfectly satisfy­ing justice, and perfectly just precisely by pouring out infinite mercy.9 So, it does not follow from simplicity understood as a negation that we simply undermine all progress in theology. Even so, if Anselm thus makes real progress across the gap between our grasp of justice and mercy and the reality of justice and mercy as they are in the simple God, the gap nonetheless remains infinite, unbridgeable even by such steps as Anselm takes. We do not arrive at the other side except if God grants us by grace the perfect vision of himself that is beatitude. Then we will simply see God the way God is in himself, according to our capacity.

In any case, we need to notice another implication of taking simplicity as a negation in the way I’ve suggested. Simplicity, as I’ve suggested, is a qualification on our positive speech about God. Since we cannot gain intuitive purchase on what it is to be simple—that is, what it is to exist without any composition—we cannot get beyond the need to continue making this qualification. We must continue to speak about God using terms which, given that they are derived from creatures, we can only think of as going with being composite. We cannot hop to the other side of the ontological gap and start speaking in terms that are perfectly and visibly consistent with simplicity. That would require beatitude, at the very least. The reason, again, is that we simply have no direct cognitive access to an utterly simple reality. When we seek to understand God, even using the words of scripture (as profound an aid as they are), we make use of concepts abstracted from our experience of created things, all of which are composite and finite.

This should be no problem, really—it is a familiar enough thing in the physical sciences to construct models by drawing on concepts we know to apply them to things we don’t know, and then paring away aspects of the concepts that don’t turn out to fit the reality we’re describing.10 For example, when we apply the descriptors, “particle” and “wave” to describe light, we have to qualify that even though ordinarily being a particle seems to exclude being a wave, in this case, the same reality has both particle-like and wave-like characteristics. We thus distinguish the implication of mutual exclusivity that goes with our ordinary concepts of particle and wave from what we express by saying that light is a particle, and light is a wave. This is not so far off from simplicity: we use terms we know which, in their ordinary application, involve composition in the subjects they describe, and then pare away this implication. Ordinarily, to be just and and to be merciful mean two non-identical things, but in God’s case we don’t mean this. We mean one identical thing thought of in two ways. This comparison with the sciences suggests another way progress is made in theology: ordinary terms gain technical usage over time as the qualifications required for them to be applied to God become standardized. This is exactly the kind of work which took place with respect to terms like begotten, person, and nature, not to mention the terms Father and Son, as the doctrine of the Trinity took shape. Begetting ordinarily implies a beginning in time, and yet the 4th century church insisted that the Son’s begetting takes place eternally, implying no time at which the Son was not. We do not have the option of doing away with this creaturely term, imperfect as it is. We cannot go observe the eternal generation of the Son directly and derive a concept of it that isn’t built up from creaturely generation. There is no way forward for Trinitarian theology that does not involve continuing to use the term “begotten,” and then making the qualification that in this case it doesn’t involve passions, or a beginning in time, or inferiority in the begotten.

The situation is the same with simplicity. We must use terms that seem on their face to imply composition, and then clarify that in reality God is not composite. We must be careful to keep each of these moments distinct. If we demand that our speech simply conform to the requirements of simplicity so as to obviate the need for any qualification, we are asking for a kind of cognitive grasp on the divine essence we cannot have in this life. We cannot know what it is to be God, and so we cannot know what it is like to know an infinite multitude of truths through a single, simple act of knowing. We cannot know what it is like to be able to produce a vast multitude of effects from nothing through a single, simple, infinite will and act. And we cannot know what it is to know, will, and act in one simple act of existence.

It follows that we have to speak of things God is, knows, wills, and does, as if these were separate and non-identical. We have to speak about God using terms that remain irreducibly complex in our understanding because that is the only way for creatures such as we are to speak and think at all. It is crucial, then, to keep simplicity as a negative qualification on our positive claims, rather than turning it into a positive claim of its own. We affirm that God is simple, implying whatever we say of the divine essence is indeed identical in God, even though we do not know how to think about them as identical.

A metaphor might help here: imagine white light passing through a prism.11 On one side of the prism is white light, in which all the various wavelengths associated with various colors are mixed together. And on the other side, this white light is divided into diverse colors. When we do theology, it is as if we are on the side where the light is refracted into various colors. We have to speak about them in ways that are shaped by this refraction, even if we know that on the other side, before the light is refracted, the light appears to be simply white. We don’t know how the refraction works, so that this can seem like a contradiction: to be blue and yellow and red might seem obviously to entail being different colors, and the person who said, “actually, before the refraction, all these colors are together and appear as white light” might sound incoherent. But in fact, all of the colors which appear after the prism really are present in the white light and come from it, and the white light really does contain all of the other colors under the appearance of just one color. We stand on the side after the prism: what we know of God is inevitably refracted by the finite nature of our own minds and by the fact that we know God through God’s marvelously diverse effects. Our minds move from discrete thought to discrete thought, and every concept we have available for use in our thinking about God is derived from something composite and finite. It follows that we can’t leap across to the other side of the prism to see the white light directly. We must be content simply to qualify our claims: in God, the reality we name with these different terms which we can only understand as complex—intellect, will, power, existence, goodness, justice, mercy, essence—are all one simple reality.

II. Necessity and Divine “Acts”

With that too-lengthy prelude out of the way, I will now argue that Mullins’ argument fails to abide by this rule. That is, it moves back and forth between the way we have to reason about God and the qualification that God is in reality simple. It’s true, for instance, that God’s existence is absolutely necessary, and, therefore, that anything identical to God’s existence is absolutely necessary. But we must be very cautious in how we try to think of anything as identical to God’s existence. Consider premise 9: All of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one divine act. This premise, we must say, is true in God, which is to say, in God, there is but one act which produces a diverse array of effects. But it is not true that we can grasp how this is so—we must go on thinking about this eternal and singular act, refracted as it is through the world of time and space and grasped by our finite minds, as if it were a discrete set of acts particular to each effect or discrete set of effects. We must speak and think as if God’s calling Israel is a distinct action from God’s speaking through the prophets or upholding the world in existence or becoming incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and then qualify that in God the act which produces these really distinct effects is actually one. We simply don’t know how one simple act could do all of this.

Premise 9 as it goes on to be interpreted in Premise 13 fails to account for this point. It moves too quickly from one side of the prism to the other, since it reasons as if whatever is true of God’s act understood as one must be true of God’s act as we reason about it from diverse effects. This is so because to talk about “God’s act to give grace” seems to refer sometimes to the one divine act considered as one and at others it seems to refer to the one divine act considered with respect to only one of its effects, excluding the others. This movement between the two sides of the prism produces an ambiguity.

To see the problem here, consider two act-terms:

A1: “God’s act to give sanctifying grace”

A2: “God’s act to harden a sinner’s heart.”

Under the assumption of divine simplicity, there seem to be two ways A1 and A2 could be understood. First, they might mean something like, “God’s one act, which happens to have the effect of [either sanctifying grace or hardening a sinner].” In this case, the terms refer chiefly to the oneness of the act and seem to be close to interchangeable. The one divine act happens to have both effects: God’s act which happens to have the effect of giving sanctifying grace is also the act which happens to have the effect of hardening sinners. So far, so good. But in this case, there is still room to say only one part of each act term (namely “God’s act”) carries necessity, while it may have any given effect only contin­gently. God’s one act certainly is necessary when considered precisely as God’s one act—because in that sense, it’s the same as his existence. But this way of speaking can only involve negation, since we have no direct grasp on what is for an act to be simple (not to mention immutable, eternal, and so on). So, on this interpretation, even though Premise 9 is true, we have no basis to infer that because the act itself is necessary, all of its effects are necessary.

But there is a second way to interpret these terms under divine simplicity. The first term might mean:

A1′: God’s one act considered insofar as it has the effect of giving sanctifying grace.

A2′: God’s one act considered insofar as it has the effect of hardening a sinner’s heart.

In this case, however, A1′ and A2′ clearly do not mean the same thing. The difference is in thought rather than the act itself, but it is enough of a difference to remove simple identity between them—they do not have identical referents (nor are they identical with A3: God’s act of existence). While the “act” in each case is one in reality, each term refers to that one act considered under different aspects. God’s act considered insofar as it results in grace for sinners is what produces salvation; God’s act considered insofar as it results in harden­ing of a sinner’s heart does not lead to salvation—at least, unless God’s act eventually stops having the effect of hardening and begins to have the effect of sanctifying grace.

There are important positive implications from the fact that these two effects come from what is really only one act. For instance, these “acts” must not conflict with one another, but must harmonize towards a single end, namely God’s own goodness. They must each be compatible with God’s immutable being. In each of these “acts,” God truly is everything he is (that is, God in himself is not just in one moment but merciful in the next, even if different effects of his act express one attribute more visibly than another). But we can’t infer that because God’s act is necessary considered as one, that it necessarily has any of the effects that it has.

The main thing here is to be clear which side of the prism we’re talking about at any given moment. Premise 11 is a statement about the unrefracted side of the prism, the side we point at only by negation. We do not know how it can be that God’s one act is identical to his existence and essence, though we deny that there is a real distinction between them. But Premise 13 and 14 connect this to the refracted side via a specific effect of God’s act. To this the classical theist12 should say agree that the act itself is absolutely necessary given that in God it is identical with God’s existence. But this doesn’t entail that its having every effect it has is also absolutely necessary in the way God’s existence is. That is, just as the effects of God’s one act differ in time, place, and in many other ways, they can also differ in modality.

How can we decide, then, whether any given effect of God’s act is necessary or merely possible? We would need to consider the effect itself and its relation to the divine will.13 By necessity the divine will is directed towards the divine essence, because the divine essence is Goodness as such. It follows from this that every effect of the divine will must be ordered to this end, which is to say, it must cohere with God’s goodness. It is impossible that anything which is in no way ordered to the divine goodness could be an effect of the divine will. But the only way an effect can bear a relation of necessity to the divine will is if that effect is necessary to the divine goodness. That is, if God could not be perfectly good without some particular effect, then that effect is as absolutely necessary as God’s existence (albeit still in a way that depends on its relation to the divine goodness). Arguably, however, no creature bears such a relation to the divine goodness, since God is not good through creatures, but creatures are good through God.

It seems, then, that no created effects of the one divine act can be necessary to that act, even though the act is necessary in itself. The only necessary effect of the divine act is God’s own being and goodness. Creatures (including the gift of grace insofar as grace involves created realities such as faith, hope, and love within human beings) will bear only a contingent relation to the divine goodness—they are possible but not necessary for God’s goodness.14 One may well wonder how it could be that the divine act which is necessary in itself can have contingent effects. But this is just to ask for a positive account of what it is for God’s one act to be what it is, and we cannot offer this. All we can do is reason as best we can from God’s effects and from the truths God makes available through divine revelation. We must avoid confusing what is true about the effects with what is true about the God who brings them about. So, we observe of the effects of the one divine act which God is: they include contingent things which bear no necessary relation to God’s goodness, and yet God does them anyway. So, it must follow that the one simple act which God is can pour itself out into contingent effects, things which do not have to exist by any necessity, but to which God graciously (though mysteriously) chooses to give existence.

We can modify Premise 9, then, or at least clarify the sense in which we affirm it. Consider this version, Premise 9′:

Premise 9′) The divine act which contingently produces the effect of grace is identical with God’s existence.

The classical theist can happily affirm this, and follow it to the implication,

Premise 13′) If God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary, the divine act which contingently produces the effect of grace is absolutely necessary.

But now Premise 15 (“Therefore, God cannot refrain from acting to give grace”) no longer follows. To make it follow, we would need another premise:

Premise 0) If God’s act is necessary, then all of its effects are necessary.

Given a premise like this, Premise 9′ would be incoherent, because every effect of the divine act would be necessary rather than contingent. But the classical theist can simply deny Premise 0. We can concede that this is a counterintuitive result. We can give no account of how it is that God necessarily and essentially is everything that he is in himself while his act has effects which are merely contingent—that is, effects which could have been other than what they are. Though this is strange, it does not seem to me that any straightforward contradiction follows from this denial.

Any defense of Premise 0 that would force a contradiction in denying it seems likely to hinge on an interpretation of simplicity as a positive claim rather than a denial. It would imagine we could follow the denial of composition in God to a positive grasp of God as one (so that an act being one and simple would entail that the act’s modality extends to all of its effects). Only with such a positive account could we smooth out all of the diverse terms and concepts use imperfectly to describe God, and thus arrive at a single concept that captured God in toto, by which would could understand what it means positively that God is simple. But affirming simplicity does not require this. Although we cannot avoid thinking of God’s act in relation to its diverse effects in all their differences (so that it is at one time this and at another time that, and in this aspect necessary while in that aspect contingent), this act is one, simple, immutable, and identical to God’s own essence. Though we do not grasp God’s act as simple, we confess that it must be.

We should not be surprised that God presents a metaphysically unique case. Our concepts of act, being, and so on are drawn from created realities, and God transcends these. Though this essay has been concerned with engaging an objection to simplicity rather than building a positive case for it, it is helpful to recall once again that the doctrine of simpli­city is motivated by the intuition that God must be metaphysically ultimate, unconditioned by anything else. This is why God can’t be composite: whatever is composite is not metaphys­ically ultimate, but is dependent on and conditioned by its parts. This same principle motivates the classical theist to say that the world cannot be a necessary effect of God’s act. If God wouldn’t be perfectly good without creating, then it seems God is lacking something without creation, and thus is not simply Goodness itself, but just another participant in the Good needing to be perfected. And in that case, God wouldn’t be metaphysically ultimate—whatever Good God would participate in more fully by creating would be the true ultimate. Since this cannot be so, we conclude that God who is simple creates out of sheer, gratuitous, non-necessitated generosity.

III. The Mystery Card

I wish to conclude by considering Mullins’ objections to appeals to mystery. Have I played the cheap mystery card, undone all basis for progress in theology, or stumbled into sheer incoherence? I will take these one by one. First, Mullins says in his initial essay that on the “cheap” version of the mystery card, “the proponent of divine simplicity might say that it is just a mystery as to how God can be free and simple,” and I have indeed said this. But this is only “cheap” according to Mullins if I fail to specify which premise in the argument I reject, and I have indeed specified which premises of his I reject. Like Edward Feser, I reject Premise 9 and 10 insofar as they attach an effect of God’s act (the giving of grace) to the necessity of his act considered as simple.15

Have I appealed to the limits of our language (and thought) about God in an unfair way? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I have made an attempt, at least, to say why we are con­strained to think about God in ways that suggest complexity even though we deny he is complex. It is because a positive account of God as simple which would obviate the need for conceptual distinctions lies outside our cognitive grasp. After all, we and everything we can know directly are finite in time and space, and we think by moving from one thing to another, dividing terms and bringing them together. Until we can behold the divine essence unmediated, at least, we are forced to think about God using terms we derive from creatures, which are all composite in the ways we deny of God.

Have I undermined all hope of progress in theology, or doomed all speech about God God to be denied as soon as affirmed? I think not. Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems to me we have convincing grounds for taking it that our claims about God are true—negative claims like “God is not composite” are strictly true. Positive ones like “God is good” are true as well, though we do not have a direct grasp of how they are true. Mullins takes issue with Lenow’s suggestion that God is “essentially unknowable,” but Lenow probably does not mean that we can know no true propositions about God. Instead, it seems likely that he means we cannot know God’s essence, which is to say, we cannot grasp fundamentally what God is. Through negative predications, we can mark off what God is not, and through analogy we can say much about what he is, even though we do not thereby arrive at a genuine cognitive grasp of the divine essence. Despite imposing these limits, Thomas’s own theology and the traditions which have followed from him (to say nothing of other theological traditions which make use of similar apophatic limits) seem to have produced a great deal of theological development and even progress, rather than undermining the very possibility.


[1] Mullins insists that if grace is necessary (it seems even in the consequent sense I suggest here) then it is a mystery how it is gracious. For an extended argument that salvation would still be rightly called grace even if it were a matter of necessity, see Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, II.5. There, Anselm insists that God is even more gracious and to be thanked if he is so good that he would unfailingly give grace than he would be if he perhaps might not have given grace. I would add, of course, that the good which God gives in saving is still not a matter of the creature’s deserving it, and so in that sense too the gift of salvation is gracious–it is infinitely more than we deserve–even if God’s goodness is such that he necessarily would give it.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I.36.

[3] In many ways, my thesis here is consonant with Joseph E. Lenow’s essay in response to Mullins.

[4] See Summa Theologiae I.3, in which Thomas treats simplicity through a series of denials of different kinds of composition that might be applied to God.

[5] At least, if we are predicating in a univocal sense.

[6] Granted that we might not tend to call the elements in these latter kinds of composition (form/matter and essence/existence) “parts,” but even so we can see that in most objects they are distinct. It would be odd, as Mullins suggests, to say that my favorite part of a movie is its existence, but I can still distinguish between the essence of a movie and the fact that it really exists, and I can see that these things come together in order for there to be an actual movie.

[7] There are, of course, real distinctions between the divine persons to whom the essence belongs, that is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that is another matter which would take too much space to discuss here in detail.

[8] This is where St. Thomas’s concept of analogy comes into play. For Thomas, we can apply such terms to God without equivocation because the meaning as they are applied to God is logically connected to their meaning as they apply to creatures. Specifically, the term as applied to one subject must be part of the definition of the term as applied to the other subject to which the term is applied analogically. Thomas’s main example is the term “healthy” applied to an animal and as applied to food or to a urine sample. These three things (animal, food, and urine) do not belong to a common genus such that “healthy” can apply to them in the same sense. It is primarily said of the animal, but can be said analogically of food, where it means that the food conduces to the health of the animal, or to a urine sample where it means that the urine is indicative of the health of the animal. In the latter two cases, “health of the animal” shows up in the definition of health used analogously. For Thomas, this is what allows the analogous use of healthy to avoid simple equivocation.

Notice that analogy in this sense does not involve any particular ontological similarity between the analogous cases; it requires no univocal basis. Health in the animal in no way similar to health in food or in urine. Likewise, notice that analogy does not imply causation in any particular direction. Food is healthy by causing health in the animal, but urine is healthy only by being a sign of health; in both cases, the primary analogate is the health of the animal, even though it stands in a different causal relation to the other two analogical senses. In any case, the key point when it comes to the divine essence is that although we know terms like good, wise, loving, and so on do apply to God in a way analogous with how they apply to creatures, we do not have direct epistemic purchase on how they are true in God.

For a more detailed explication and defense of this interpretation of analogy in Thomas’s thought, see Bruce D. Marshall, “Christ the End of Analogy,” in The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God?, ed. Thomas Joseph White (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2010), 294 – 313.

[9] See Proslogion, 9-11, and Cur Deus Homo, II.20.

[10] For a classic analysis of this as it relates to theology, see Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

[11] This metaphor might mislead if pressed too hard–in the case of light, even in white light, blue and red are not identical to white. They are parts which are separated by the prism, which of course is exactly what simplicity denies in the case of God. My point is only to consider the phenomenon abstracted from what we know about the actual mechanism at play in optics.

[12] I am using “classical theist” here as a shorthand for affirming the strong account of simplicity I am defending, though there are classical theists who defend different interpretations of simplicity.

[13] Here I am glossing Thomas Aquinas’s argument spelled out in Summa Theologiae I.19.3, and in a little more detail in Summa Contra Gentiles I.81.

[14] Although, as Anselm of Canterbury argues in Cur Deus Homo, it may well be that the gift of grace is necessary given the fact that God opted to create human beings ordered to beatitude, and that they sinned. It seems to me that Anselm is correct when he argues that such necessity would not conflict with divine freedom.

[15] Feser helpfully spells out this objection in slightly different terms, identifying properties that God has in virtue of having certain effects vis-a-vis creatures as Cambridge properties. If what I have argued is correct, it would follow that any effect of God’s act towards creatures could only be a Cambridge property with respect to God’s act.

[16] Considered in itself, it must be said, the divine essence is supremely knowable (after all, it is the object of God’s own act of knowing), so infinite in its intelligibility that our feeble intellects cannot contain it, or see it directly except by grace.

[17] That said, given that he became a human being, Jesus Christ, we can say many things that are true of God the Son personally without analogy–for instance, that he was born, walked around Galilee, wept, ate, suffered, and died on a cross.

* * *

David Mahfood is Assistant Professor of Theology at Johnson University in Kissimmee, Florida. His main research interests include atonement and the doctrine of God, especially drawing on the thought of Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. David consistently tries, with varying levels of success, to combine analytic philosophical sensibilities with patristic and medieval theological reflection. He can be found tutoring the brethren in the philosophical mysteries on Twitter.

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84 Responses to Divine Simplicity: Into the Negative Zone

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The biggest flaw in Mullins’ argument seems time to be that it assumes the thing it denies. The argument relies on treating God’s action in giving grace as distinct from God’s existence, since he is in making the argument using disctinct, different and separate statements about God’s action on giving grace and about God’s existence, and setting them off against each other. Since if divine simplicity is true making this distinction is of itself completely incoherent, it is not at all surprising that a chain of reasoning relying on that distinction ends up being self-contradictory.


    • David Mahfood says:

      Well I think to be fair to Ryan, he’s trying to put those of us who affirm simplicity in a position where we have a hard time choosing what premise to deny in order to avoid contradiction. That’s a legit strategy of argumentation! But, I hope I’ve found a way to avoid simple contradiction (even on pain of deep paradox).


  2. John H says:

    Dr. Mahfood;

    I am not sure that I follow the hypothetical that you raise in the essay. If God wills the salvation of all and God’s will is effective in accomplishing its purposes–both relatively uncontroversial, scriptural statements–than how is it possible that God’s simple and undivided will causes some to become more entrenched in their sinfulness?


    • David Mahfood says:


      I’m not taking a position on universalism in this essay (though I’m pretty sympathetic to it myself). I’m just suggesting that at least in time, in certain cases we’d say God’s act is having the effect of a person’s heart being hardened, and that’s not the same thing as God’s act having the effect of sanctifying grace within the person’s heart. If universalism is true, then surely God hardens for the ultimate purpose of salvation, but that just means (as I tried to suggest) that at some point the effect of hardening ends, and the effect of sanctifying grace begins. Hope that makes sense,



  3. Mateo Porter says:

    I thought that divine simplicity meant that God’s existence and essence are identical, not that His essence and His actions are identical. Is that why the Orthodox tend to deny divine simplicity? Because it would deny the essence/energies distinction of Saint Gregory Palamas. But what if divine simplicity applies only to God’s essence?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maximus says:

      This is my understanding also, Mateo, that, in the main, the Orthodox deny absolute divine simplicity. Heavyweights like Origen and St. Augustine indeed taught it, but the East has followed neither of them on this issue. Instead, the teaching of fathers like Sts. Athanasius, Basil and Maximus on the essence/energies distinction–codified by Palamas–has carried the day. ADS also seems to require the teaching of created grace. Furthermore, the christological doctrine of dyoenergism (based on dyophysitism) assumes the essence/energies distinction, so it seems to be integrally tied to ecumenical dogma.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        I take issue with this Maximus. First, the distinction between the essence/energy in the early fathers is quite different from that developed by and used in the context of St Palamas. For the early fathers the distinction was that to distinguish the immanent vs. the economic Trinity. The fathers to a man affirm that the only way creatures encounter God is by way of God’s works – the essence is unknown and unknowable. For Palamas it was to defend the uncreated encountered in and by the created. Palamas was situated in a completely different political, theological and intellectual context – nearly a thousand years will have passed. For him the affirmation was that of the nature and source of God’s self-revelation: is the origin and nature of God’s revelation creaturely or uncreaturely? He undeniably affirmed the latter. Second, absolute divine simplicity was upheld by ‘easterners’ such as the likes of St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, Ps. Dionysius, and John of Damascus. St Gregory for instance makes a big deal in his arguments about the inability to distinguish between what God does and what God is. Thirdly, the Palamite distinction in no way can be read back into the ecumenical debates without committing the worst of anachronisms. Not only was this distinction not a topic of debate as it was for Palamas, the distinction doesn’t function at all in the dual will/energy/nature theology of the ecumenical councils. Their point is to affirm the distinction in unity of the two-fold will and and nature of the incarnate Son, not the explication, nor assumption, of a distinction between the essence and energy of the immanent Trinity.

        Liked by 2 people

        • William says:

          I don’t know enough to say anything about other fathers on this topic, but St. Maximus the confessor’s logos/logoi doctrine is at least similar to (and certainly at least a seed of) the Palamite essence/energies distinction, because for Maximus, the logoi that are the basis of everything and which human beings can directly encounter in themselves and in everything around them, were not considered by Maximus to be merely economic but eternal and were identified with God’s wills, in turn identified with God’s works/operations/energies and are ultimately identified with and revelatory of the one Logos himself. I have no books with me so I can’t cite anything, but Loudovikos does a pretty good analysis along these lines in his Eucharistic Ontology book, delineating how Maximus taught that via the logoi in creation, it is precisely the uncreated itself that is directly encountered in and by the created. And Maximus was apparently interpreting what he found in Dionysius. Also, the Macarian homilies and Diodochus of Photike’s writings use language of direct experience of God (the uncreated) with definite references to this happening through the operations (energies) of the Holy Spirit. Both also maintain that God isn’t known in his essence. These writers are not addressing the concerns that Palamas was, and they aren’t making an essence/energies distinction the studied way that he did or for the reasons he was, but I’m not sure that it’s totally anachronistic to see that they are suggesting, if only implicitly, something similar, if not in many respects the same thing.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I don’t see how the logoi of St Maximus constitute, or were intended to be, an explicit or implicit rejection of divine simplicity.


          • William says:

            If it seems like I was suggesting that the logoi were or were intended to be a rejection of divine simplicity, that wasn’t my intent at all. As far as I know, all the fathers uphold divine simplicity. Palamas upholds divine simplicity. St. Maximus regularly upheld divine simplicity, while at the same time, in Ambiguum 22, equating perception of the logoi with perception of the the infinite “divine energies” and saying that God is “present in the logos of each thing in itself, and in all the logoi together, according to which all things exist.” Going on to say “every divine energy indicates through itself the whole of God, indivisibly present in each particular thing, according to the logos through which that thing exists in its own way” and then asking who can comprehend how “God is whole in all things commonly, and in each being particularly, without separation or being subject to division and without expanding disparately into the infinite differences of the beings in which He exists as Being, or without being contracted into the particular existence of each one, or without contracting together and fusing all the differences of these beings into a single totality, but on the contrary is truly all things in all, never going out of His own indivisible simplicity?” Earlier in the same Ambiguum, he refers to God “who is truly none of the things that exists, and who, properly speaking, is all things, and at the same time beyond them.”

            Liked by 2 people

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            you weren’t William, but comments by Mateo and Maximus were making the implication.


        • Maximus says:

          Hi, Robert. My point was specifically about *absolute* divine simplicity (ADS) and to deny that Sts. Athanasius, Basil, Maximus, etc. taught this doctrine. As William mentioned, yes, they all upheld divine simplicity—but seemingly not in the absolute form that Origen or Augustine (or Thomas) taught. For instance, Athanasius affirms the distinction between the Word’s essence and His dynamic activity/power in the world: “And, as being in all creation, he is in essence outside everything but inside everything by his own power” (De Incarn. 17). For Athanasius, God’s essence is not in the world, but His power is. This kind of distinction leaves no room for the scholastic doctrine of actus purus in which all divine activity/energy is identified with the divine essence, in which every predication of God is really about the divine essence.

          You state, “The fathers to a man affirm that the only way creatures encounter God is by way of God’s works – the essence is unknown and unknowable.” I agree. But this is not the teaching of ADS. The contrast is seen clearly when one considers Augustine’s approach to the Angel of the Lord in the OT. Because of God’s (alleged) ADS, Augustine reads these instances not as God the Logos himself appearing but as created manifestations which mediate His presence. There is no immediate encounter with the absolutely simple God (the very teaching Palamas defended against). Thus, grace must be understood as a created reality. Even more, herein lie the seeds of the analogia entis finally built up by Aquinas in the West.

          Fr. Georges Florovsky comments on Athanasius’ text, “Now, this distinction between “essence” and “powers”…is never applied to the relationship between God and Logos, as had been done even by Origen. It serves now a new purpose: to discriminate strictly between the inner Being of God and His creative and “providential” manifestation ad extra, in the creaturely world.” Again, from the same article, “There are, in fact, two different sets of names which may be used of God. One set of names refers to God’s deeds or acts—that is, to His will and counsel—the other to God’s own essence and being. St. Athanasius insisted that these two sets of names had to be formally and consistently distinguished. And, again, it was more than just a logical or mental distinction. There was a distinction in the reality itself.”

          Along these same lines, St. Basil writes, “We say that we know our God from his energies (activities), but we do not profess to approach his essence—for his energies descend to us, but his essence remains inaccessible” (Epist. 234). If the divine essence is to be identified with divine existence as ADS teaches, then God remains inaccessible to us, except for created manifestations and analogies. I do not question the absolute transcendence of the divine essence, but theosis is precluded without a direct encounter between God and man. When Constantinople III condemned monoenergism, I agree that this specific point wasn’t the issue. But St. Maximus—who could be called the council’s unnamed architect—wrote frequently about the direct, divinizing encounter with God within a theological framework in which God’s essence and energies are distinguished. As William mentioned, Ambiguum 22 is a key text, but Ambiguum 7 along with his Disputations with Pyrrhus make this distinction clear in his thought.

          Because St. Maximus had such a deep influence on both the 6th Council and later Byzantine theology (including Palamas), I think it fair to say the essence/energies distinction, something very similar to the Palamite understanding, was assumed at Constantinople III. Fr. Maximos Constas explains, “Maximos’s distinction of essence and energies, his doctrine of uncreated grace, and his theology of divinization so profoundly shaped the Hesychastic theology of the fourteenth century that the latter cannot be understood properly without recourse to the Ambigua and, to a lesser extent, the Questions to Thalassios. Maximos’s prominence in the Philokalia, a classic collection of Orthodox spiritual writings, is largely due to the fact that the collection originated in Hesychastic circles in Byzantium.” I sense here an historical and literary nexus (between St. Maximus, the 6th Council, and St. Gregory) in which theological doctrine was shared, even if transposed into a different context. At the least, maybe this softens my “worst of anachronisms.” 🙂


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Maximus, why add the adjective “absolute” to divine simplicity? Divine simplicity states that God is incomposite. What does “absolute” add to the divine simplicity affirmation?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Maximus says:

          Absolute divine simplicity (ADS) denies all non- composition, but also assumes (inconsistently) that any real distinctions imply composition. For instance, the divine will cannot be really distinct from the divine essence, else God be composed of parts. The reason I said “inconsistently” is because those who hold to ADS, who hold that real distinctions imply composition, fail to apply this principle to the real hypostatic distinctions. However, if these real hypostatic distinctions don’t mean God is “composed” of Father, Soon and Spirit (which they don’t), then neither should any other real distinctions–such as between God and his attributes, between the attributes themselves, or between the essence and the energies–imply composition.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Maximus, on your account of divine simplicity, is God identical with goodness, or does God possess goodness? The question could be framed in another way – is God one thing, and His attributes or qualities another?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Maximus says:

            Robert, I think I’d want to to say that God, per se, is not identical to His goodness. God’s goodness is one of those “things around God,” to use a phrase from St. Maximus, truly distinct from God’s essence yet truly God nonetheless. God’s qualities/attributes are God, yes, but they are not identical with the divine essence, and therefore not identical with one another, as ADS teaches.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Maximus, some thoughts.

            I don’t know how you understand it, but the way you put it could very easily lead into divine composition: that God possesses attributes, and various kinds of it. Can we really speak of the infinite, limitless divine mode of being in that way? Possession denotes achievement and acquisition, and there could be more of less of it. Such must be denied on account of simplicity (any account of simplicity, not merely what you call “absolute” simplicity). If God is the fullness of the good, then He is such without measure, fully actualized as pure act without potential, and always; God is the “all good”, and as such He is the good and goodness, the source of goodness and by which (whom) all goodness is measured.

            Reflecting on this makes one realize that being and existence and doing for God, and how God is and exists and acts, must be infinitely different from our being and existence and doing, and how we are and how we exist and how we act. Notions of possession, even of perfection (denotes progress, of becoming to be), do not have purchase on the divine life. You say you reject God as pure act – but by this do you escape the introduction of divine unrealized potential, avoid divine composition; and as a consequence, can you still affirm divine simplicity, even the simplicity in a most minimalist sense (“non-absolute” simplicity I suppose)?

            “Things around God” – this is a patristic term of course. But what can this truly denote, and is it really used to mark a true distinction within (or perhaps outside) God? If power or operation (as one example of the “things around God”) is outside God, then it is His effect, and not God. If it is God, then it can’t be the effect of his power, but the power within God. Then we must say that God is the power, God is the one operating, operates and is the operation (I am assuming we don’t suppose that God needs tools and a bench). All silly talk isn’t it, if taken in a literal way, talk about “around” and “inside” and “outside.” However to understand this term it fails to hold as a warrant to suppose there is a literal distinction in God.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Maximus says:

            I would just add, Robert, that if God’s attributes were identical to the divine essence, we could never know/experience them as a direct encounter with God. We could only know/experience the attributes of God via created, mediatory means, since we all agree (?) that the divine essence is unapproachable.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Maximus: “If God’s attributes were identical to the divine essence, we could never know/experience them as a direct encounter with God.”

            This, I think, is the driving Orthodox concern. Whatever divine simplicity means—and it’s critical, in my opinion, that we always keep in mind that divine simplicity is an expression of negative theology, right along with eternity, infinity, immutability, impassibility, etc.—it cannot mean that God cannot communicate himself to human beings and therefore cannot mean that we cannot experience God (just as it cannot mean that God is not enhypostasized as Father, Son, and Spirit, as you rightly point out). This as a basic Christian datum.

            But how God’s self-communication to human beings is elaborated philosophically is a different matter, though. At this point I find it helpful to return to Scripture and the language of faith. When the New Testament writers want to speak about our intimate experience of God, what language do they use? They use trinitarian language, with special reference to the Spirit. We are baptized in the Spirit, we are filled with the Spirit, we are indwelt by the Spirit, etc. So why is this way of speaking and thinking insufficient?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            It is a concern about the encounter of the living God which is driving the Orthodox because of the essence/energy distinction. 😉

            Didn’t the incarnation address this concern?


          • Maximus says:

            Fr. Aidan, thanks for the reminder to return to Scripture. I do think its language should remain fundamental in our philosophical discussions. It seems to me that David Bradshaw has done very good work in the Greek NT with energeia, especially in “The Divine Energies in the New Testament” and more fully in Aristotle East and West. Thus, I see the the divine energies as a legitimate biblical category. God “works” in us (by the grace/energy of the Spirit) and we “work it out.”

            Philosophically speaking, I also see what absolute divine simplicity (ADS) has lead to in the West: created grace, the analogia entis, no unmediated encounter with the divine. If all of God is identified with the unapproachable essence, then we have no access. And if theological doctrine works as a kind of instruction manual for the spiritual life, then the slow and steady decline in the West toward atheism may not be mere historical happenstance (a theory I’ve heard elsewhere but rings ominously true to me).


          • Maximus says:

            Near the bottom of this thread, Thomas makes the following point, which is the consistent outworking of ADS:

            “One never experiences a mathematical point, a soul, an elementary particle, etc…. why would we think we can experience God? (Hopefully no classical theist would title a book “The Experience of God” …)”

            Absolute simplicity seems to be the cornerstone of classical theism. And experience of God doesn’t really fit within that system–because we can’t rationalize the essence of God. Perhaps this is some of why Aquinas finally said, “Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.”


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Attention to what is meant by knowledge, experience, and vision makes the world of difference. Moses apparently experienced God without seeing or knowing him. (who are you? “I am”, well thank you, that clarifies!). How can we speak of a true experience without vision or knowledge? And how may essence be separated from energy: was essence absent from Jesus? Those who encountered him only did encounter his energy while his essence was securely hidden? “Look Ma, no essence!”

            What about the meaning of what is real? And the distinction between real and conceptual? Can something be real and conceptual? Seems to me yes, that is possible, my thoughts are real and conceptual, but yet not something you can experience. Yikes.

            All this to say that as much as the difference between essence and energies may be considered to be real – what can this truly denote? Real as a stone, or real as my thoughts? As real as hypostatic differences?

            Given the presence of these abiding difficulties the absolute ( 😉 ) distinction between the essence and energy troubles the waters: a reified distinction amounts to nonsense and looks like the worst type of scholasticism to me.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Robert, I too am troubled by the practical reification and depersonalization of the energies in popular Orthodox discourse. I’m sure that a sophisticated theologian can calm our fears, yet the way it is presented in sermons and catechesis (not to speak of pop-internet stuff) the energies-talk inevitably sounds like something detached from God himself—something along the lines of electricity. Just a couple of months ago I read an internet piece by an Orthodox priest talking about being filled with the divine energies. My immediate thought was, Why not just talk about being filled with the Spirit? Why isn’t that sufficient and adequate? That’s what we need to hear, that God himself comes to us and indwells us and deifies us. And the language of the Spirit immediately connects us to the biblical story and the Trinity, whereas the essence/energies distinction might just as easily be used by unitarians.

            I too see the Palamite distinction as a piece of Eastern scholasticism—interesting, perhaps, but unhelpful for Orthodox theology today. I’m sure it was helpful when the Church found itself in the midst of the controversy caused by Barlaam in the 15th century, but once the controversy has passed, why invoke it? In it’s own way it’s as obscure as the created/uncreated grace distinction in Latin scholasticism.

            Liked by 2 people

          • William says:

            If people didn’t have the essence-energies distinction to get all weird or wonky about, they’d find other things (as can be seen among some people who don’t care about the essence-energies distinction). Theology and its environs provide ample opportunity for weirdness.

            A very nice guy at my church years ago when I first became Orthodox used to talk about phenomena like dark matter and such and say he thought those might be the uncreated energies. I was a newbie but knew better, yet I saw no use in trying to contradict him because he would have talked me into the ground. That sort of thing aside, most talk I’ve heard about it hasn’t been loopy (or maybe I’m loopy and can’t tell the difference), and generally uses “energies” or “uncreated energies” together with and basically synonymous with terms like “grace” and “God’s glory” and “the Holy Spirit’s presence,” or just “God’s working,” which all grounds it in its intended scriptural (and the overall patristic) sense. But I like that it emphasizes the “uncreated” aspect, that “shekhinah” aspect. It seems to me like it would be a shame to jettison talk of an essence-energies distinction as a useless relic of the 14th century. After all, it’s a distinction made not just in the Palamite elaboration but has patristic bona fides and is a significant part of our theological heritage. If nothing else it checks certain theological tendencies and serves as a bit of a line in the sand about the genuine experience of God that humans are meant to have. Notwithstanding those who feel that Palamas’ essence-energies distinction is something that completely departed from and misused any essence-energies distinction made by earlier fathers (something I simply don’t believe is true when I read passages in Basil, the Second Theological Oration, Athanasius’ letters on the Spirit, the Macarian homilies, Diadochus of Photike, Maximus the Confessor, Isaac the Syrian, Symeon the New Theologian, etc., etc. — or the Life of St. Columba, if you think I’m being too Byzantine), it seems better to interpret and understand both Palamas and earlier fathers in light of each other, which is certainly what I see good Orthodox theologians trying to do when they approach the question.

            It seems to me that Robert is right in that attention is needed regarding what’s meant by knowledge, experience, vision, etc. These words are used in various ways and people who think there is simply one definition for knowledge are simply wrong (or, if they’re right, they’ll find that most of the rest of the English-speaking world is wrong in its stubbornness about refusing to limit its use of that word in accordance with that one definition). Experience is a kind of knowledge, though it’s certainly not necessarily comprehension. Moses on the mountain knew God in some fashion. Paul says we know in part, (but then I shall know just as I am known!). Knowing in part is still knowledge of some sort. “Vision” is certainly a kind of knowledge. It may not understand what it sees but it sees, which is an encounter and is conscious and is known in some manner and degree. And “vision” is often in theological language just a shorthand for “perception” which can be roughly synonymous or analagous with “tasting,” “feeling,” “encountering” and can often simply refer to a spiritual perception. And this way of understanding vision isn’t esoteric. We all use the concept this way all the time.

            And what is meant by “real,” is also something to consider, as Fr. Kimel suggested elsewhere in this thread. The essence-energies distinction is certainly “real” in the sense that it really is a distinction that has been made between God “ad-intra” and God “ad-extra,” but I honestly find it rare to hear someone describe the distinction as “real” in the sense of there being these two different “things” as if they could be dissected from each other. Even that Loudovikos quote of Palamas down below said the energies could be called essence. This is why I quoted Maximus down lower where he emphasized the two (essence-energies) as belonging to each other, specifically the energies belonging to the essence and any essence only being known by energies and how this is linked to the personal/hypostatic.

            All this being said, Fr. Kimel, I agree that it’s better to speak in more biblical ways like being filled with the Spirit rather than filled with the energies. It would be helpful if we remembered that “energies” could also be translated as “operations” or “works,” which if we were more cognizant of it might help us to avoid some of those “electricity” notions. I’m guessing a lot of the Orthodox usage of “energies” though is more about using Orthodox lingo, so we sound more Orthodox and don’t sound like Pentecostals or something (not saying that’s a good reason, but there it is). To my discredit, I myself have sometimes avoided the word “grace” because I don’t want some of the people close to me to interpret what I’m saying in an Air One Radio sort of way (I have a few Calvinists in my life).

            However, when you say that “essence/energies” could be used by Unitarians, by the same token, “filled with the Spirit” is most definitely a phrase that has been used generically by any number of dive bar blues bands.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Maximus says:

            No news to this group, but the classic biblical example is Moses in the cleft of the rock in Exodus 33. When God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live,” but then says, “You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen,” a real distinction seems to be made. I wouldn’t want to separate the two, or make a sharp divide between two dissectable “parts” of God. However, Scripture does seem to indicate at least two aspects of God—even two polarities of the divine. One can be “seen” and one cannot. Perhaps we could think of God’s glory (His “back parts”) as the shining forth of His essence, the latter we experience only via the former. I think Vladimir Lossky said something like this.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Right, and there are various ways to interpret/understand this. What and how does Moses really behold? What does the back (vs. the front presumably) really denote in God? We do know Moses had a transforming experience, so much so that he had to veil his face.

            There may be a danger in a fixation about these sort of distinctions; these are not unimportant questions which indeed should be asked, but it does too easily marginalize what seems to be a universally (i.e. Christian west and east) accepted truth: to experience the living God is to be transformed, and such transformation occurs only in an encounter with God-self. Hence, I believe, the remarkable (and costly) insistence upon the rejection of , Arianism, Apollonarianism, modalism, Nestorianism; for the incarnation is not merely an energy, not merely an appearance, not merely a creature – in the flesh we encounter God-self, divine essence and energy en-hypostasized.

            Liked by 1 person

          • William says:

            Maximus, your comment evokes Gregory the Theologian early in his second theological oration, where he talks about himself climbing the mount, withdrawing from material things and into himself and glimpsing up at the back parts of God from the shelter of the Rock, which is the God-man Jesus. He says he doesn’t see the “unmixed” nature that only God knows, but he sees the nature that “reaches to us” which is what he says David calls the Glory, which is seen among the creatures, and he calls these the back parts of God, seen like reflections of the sun in water (which suggests what he means by the “mixed” light that creatures can see. But despite the talk of “mixed” and “reflection” he also calls it “nature that reaches to us”.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Since this part of the thread has exhausted the indentation, I’m going to continue it with a separate comment (see below).


    • David Mahfood says:

      See Thomas’s treatment of simplicity in the Summa Theologiae (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1003.htm)–essence/existence is *one* form of composition Thomas denies of God, but he also denies that God is a combination of form and matter, or genus and difference, or subject and accident, etc., and insists that actually the divine essence is *in no way* composite. This means that intellect, will, goodness, wisdom, power, and act all name the same reality in God, just understood under different aspects by us.

      Many folks on both sides have thought Thomas’s account of simplicity contradicts Palamas’s distinction of essence and energies, and maybe it does, but at least my understanding is some scholars have tried to harmonize their views. Along the lines of what I’ve suggested here, it’s tempting from a Thomist point of view to think of some of what Palamas talks about as divine energies as effects of God’s simple act.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Daniel Carriere says:

        Have you looked into Aquinas’ discussion of esse divinume versus esse commune? I believe that is in Summa Contra Gentiles. The esse divinume is not the same as the esse commune, but the esse commune is God’s primary act of creation. The esse divinume is God’ own esse, the ipsum esse. Could this understanding be mapped to Palamas’ talk of divine energies?

        God bless,


    • kattthemouse says:

      God’s simple simplicity is: God is not a liar.


    • Thomas says:


      Simplicity usually refers either generally to an absence of parts or specifically to act-potency composition. The distinction between subject and accident involves act-potency composition. Broadly speaking, existence is an accident. But it also covers actions intrinsic to the agent (e.g., when one contemplates). It does not include, at least for those of an Aristotelian bent, the action of one thing on another.


  4. William says:

    Where I would pick a bone is with Premise 7. “God’s existence is absolutely necessary.” I can see where many people of faith would take this as a given (because we see it necessary to posit that God necessarily exists, given that we ourselves exist and we are aware of our own contingency). But God’s existence, per se, is not necessary and to say that it is is to deny God’s freedom (Premise 2). It’s stuff like this that make me groan about analytic philosophy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Yes indeed William. My groan comes from applying the analytic to the paradoxical: the whole approach and method is a fool’s errand: as problematic as the attempt to measure God with a yardstick. All theology is idolatry.


    • David Mahfood says:

      That’s interesting! With Thomas, I’d say God’s existence *is* necessary, since his essence is his existence and he is Being itself subsisting. But I’d say it’s also free–God necessarily and freely wills himself.


      • William says:

        Rather than saying God is being itself subsisting, I am conditioned by formulations such as those of Dionysius or Maximus like “beyond being” and “superessential,” “undetermined,” “altogether excluding notions of when and how.” Maximus writes that God is not being, potentiality or actualization, but that “on the contrary, He is the author of being and simultaneously an entity transcending being; He is the author of potentiality and simultaneously the ground transcending potentiality; and He is the active and inexhaustible state of all actualization. In short, He is the author of all being, potentiality and actualization, and of every origin, intermediary state and consummation.” He goes on to say that God contains “in Himself all-inclusively the totality of substantive being, since He transcends even substantiveness itself.” I can’t say I know what that last sentence means, but it does seem meant to solidify the beyond being notion.

        But I do agree that God freely wills himself. I feel like there is a great patristic quote to that effect, but I can’t recall where to find it. There is a sense in which you could say that God is necessary because he wills himself, but I don’t believe that’s at all what is being communicated in Premise 7 above. That’s why I think Premise 7 should be rejected.

        Liked by 3 people

        • David Mahfood says:

          I think whatever the “cause” is, it’s simply true that God exists necessarily–IMO, Anselm proves this (pace Thomas’s objections) with the second version of his ontological argument, and Thomas proves it too with the Third Way (the argument from contingency).


          • William says:

            Those arguments of Anselm and Thomas are proofs that begin from the fact that we exist, the fact that creation exists, to show that God existence is “necessary” in the sense that we must necessarily acknowledge it or that it is “necessary” in the sense that because this one thing is it is necessary for this other thing to be. I’m talking about something conceptually different, the necessity of God alone, independently of creation, as if there were no creation. The reason I have that in mind is because that’s the way I take Premise 7 to be used (whether that was Mullins’ intent or not). It’s baldly saying that God’s existence per se is necessary, not that we must necessarily acknowledge God’s existence because we can deduce it from examining creation’s contingency or examining our own minds.


    • Thomas says:

      This is an odd objection, since the necessity of God’s existence goes back to the Greeks and is firmly ensconced in the speculative Christian tradition. And it’s not a matter simply taken on faith, Christian thinkers have over the centuries provided arguments, arguments which have been pored over, developed, revised and reformulated.

      I don’t think there are many issues in metaphysics that are simply knock-down arguments. But that God, the cause of the universe, is necessary, is one of those.


      • William says:

        I was writing about God’s necessity considered independently of, or prior to (conceptually speaking), the existence of anything else. This is what I understand the original Premise 7 to be doing. You appear to be talking about God’s necessity in light of the fact of the universe. These are two different ways of thinking of necessity. I grant that given that there is a universe, there must be a cause for it (God). But to say that God’s existence, per se, is necessary is to speak of what we can’t know. All we can say is that God’s existence is.


        • Thomas says:

          > You appear to be talking about God’s necessity in light of the fact of the universe.

          No. What I (and most of the tradition) are talking about is the absolute necessity of God’s existence, which is not conditioned on the universe in any way.

          This is not a recent idiosyncratic intrusion of analytic philosophy; it is the longstanding view of the Christian intellectual tradition. The idea that God is conditioned on the world is inimical to the affirmation that God is the creator of the world.

          And you beg the question on the matter of whether we can know God’s existence to be necessary by denying the point in contention without engaging the arguments.


          • William says:

            Maybe my most recent comment to Dr. Mahfood above helps to slightly clear up what I’m driving at. If not, I guess I just have to say that my poor powers of expression must be muddying up what I’m trying to say and that I’m probably not going to do a better job with more comments. One thing I haven’t been saying is that God’s existence is conditioned on the universe. I was saying that when we philosophically conclude that God must exist, we have made a deduction after consideration of the universe or of some aspects of the universe.

            And I didn’t beg the question as you describe. I said that there are different ways of thinking about necessity and I think you and I are thinking about it in two different ways. The only reason I’m thinking about it in the way that I am right now is because I think Premise 7 above treats it this way.. I think Premise 7 sours the whole argument, or maybe the whole argument is sour because it doesn’t use the concept of necessity consistently.


          • Thomas says:


            > Given that, I can still think of God’s knowing as a kind of seeing–but seeing is a metaphor there, to be sure. Grasping, comprehending–“seeing” with the intellect, not the eyes, and what the intellect can “see” is the intelligible.

            What you describe here is pretty close to the Scotist view of knowing (or at least to the way that Thomists have portrayed Scotus as the nefarious other to St. Thomas). The Platonic theory of knowing that Aristotle rejects and Scotus (or pseudo-Scotus) refines conceives of knowing has a subject-object relationship, in which the subject must have some kind of experience, some vantage, on the object. This is the “extroversion” theory of knowing.

            Aristotle, famously, opposes this view with the doctrine that knowing is a perfection and is by identity, the paradigm case of which does not involve a subject relating to an object. Knowing just is the actuality of the intelligible as intelligible. An intelligible being in act, therefore, is an instance of knowing just in virtue of being what it is. Extroversion is not an essential part of knowing.

            However, for beings that start out not knowing anything, seeing or experiencing provokes us to inquire, and provides a means for validating our theories. But though experience is a stimulus to knowing in our case, experience is not knowing.

            St. Thomas gives an even sharper outline of the form of knowing. The concept is not something presented to the intellect; the concept is something produced by the intellect’s act of understanding. The human mind involves three stages: experience of some presentation (sensible form is relevant here), an act of understanding that makes sense of that presentation resulting in the actualization of intelligible form in the mind by the production of a concept, and a judgment which grasps whether or nor that concept actually is.

            (Interestingly, the reason St. Thomas had to work this out in such detail is to explain the Trinitarian relations: precisely because looking or imagining would not do.)

            Anyway, the point is that for St. Thomas, knowing is a perfection and is an identity. Immaterial intellects know by what they are: intelligibles. They don’t do any looking, and especially in the case of God, there is no subject-object distinction. God is an unrestricted act of intelligibility; one knows by possessing intelligibility in act, and because God’s act is infinite, there no intelligible content outside it. Therefore God knows everything.

            For beings that start in ignorance, there must be a stimulus to knowing, and this is had by looking. But looking requires something to be looked at, whereas knowing is a perfection had by identity. And therefore knowing is not looking, and the metaphor of looking is more misleading than helpful. At least if one is not what Thomists fear Scotists to be.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. “With that too-lengthy prelude out of the way…”

    On the contrary: it was absolutely necessary and eminently insightful.


  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I shared the following comment over at the Thomism FB group. I wasn’t sure if it would add anything to our discussion, so I held off copying it here; but the recent turn to the Palamite distinction between essence and energies got me thinking that it might be of interest:

    I know we think it makes sense to talk about God’s reasons for creating and whether he could have created a different world or not created any world at all … but I still suspect that we think it makes sense only because we have lost our apophatic moorings and are therefore treating God as a perfect being who has a bunch of itemizable properties. On my blog I’ve made a couple of amateurish attempts to get a handle on this fascinating question–and it is fascinating, because arguments like the one Ryan Mullins’ advances seem so plausible–but given that I’ve not been able to persuade anyone but myself (and even of that I’m not sure), I thought I’d take another stab. Help me along, please.

    I propose the way forward is to return to the beginning. Thomas’s arguments for the existence of God begin with the effect of creation and from there he infers the necessary existence of an eternal Creator. If we have grasped his general approach, we will immediately see that it cannot make sense to ever ask, “Who created God?” God is the metaphysical buck where all our questions terminate. In other words, to ask “Who created God?” is to commit a category mistake. To ask the question simply shows that we haven’t yet understood why we are talking about “God.” Am I on track so far?

    Once having established this transcendent source and cause of the cosmos, Thomas doesn’t then jump to elaboration of the the divine perfections; rather, he specifies its principle negative attribute–incompositeness–on the basis that we cannot know what it _is_ but only what it is _not_. This is the logical way for Thomas to proceed, because his five ways haven’t told us much if anything about this transcendent source and cause, except that it necessarily exists. Thomas then explains why this transcendent source and cause cannot be a composite being (ST I.3). Bottomline: a composite being cannot be the transcendent source and cause we have inferred from the five ways. Hence everything we want or must say about God must conform to this negative attribute of transcendent simplicity. You will note that I am emphasizing the apophatic dimension of divine simplicity. It doesn’t tell us anything about what God is or how he does what he does. It simply tells us what he is not. It functions, in other words, as a primary rule for our reflection upon divinity. Am I on track so far?

    Now fast forward to the modal collapse objection advanced by analytic philosophers. They forget or ignore why Thomas inferred the existence of God and its primary negative attribute of divine simplicity and instead immediately jump to the question of God’s libertarian freedom: “Was God free to create a totally different cosmos or not even create at all?” Formulated that way, how can we answer no? “God is absolutely free,” we declare in response. “Of course he could have done otherwise.” And then they spring their trap: “Gotcha! So God’s being and his acts are not identical. God is composite after all.” And here we are scratching our heads and wondering why we didn’t see the trap beforehand and how to get out of it.

    So how do we avoid the trap? Obvious answer: don’t play the perfect being game. Divine simplicity is not one (contestable) divine attribute among many. It simply points us to the infinite Mystery that is the transcendent source and cause of the cosmos. The trap into which the analytic philosopher hopes to lead us represents a category mistake. The question “”Was God free to create a totally different cosmos or not even create at all?” is as nonsensical as “Who created God?” At least that is the argument I would like to develop if I were smart enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grant says:

      I guess looking at the discussion above that from the perspective of of creation God is necessary, in that God as divine simple transcendent cause of all finite existence. So God is necessary for for any finite and contingent existence, and is necessary for creation. God is necessary for anything else to be.

      But it seems equally a category mistake to say God is necessary unqualified towards creation as it is to say God could have created differently or not at all. Such is really a nonsense before the infinite Mystery that the word God inadequately refers too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • David Mahfood says:

      Fr. Kimel,

      I think there’s wisdom in avoiding excessive focus on the hypothetical, though that is where people seem to dig in for a fight. Even so, I can’t help thinking we have to say that creation exists in a contingent way because it is conceivable that it not exist, and because it seems to stand in no relationship of necessity to the divine goodness. Saying this much seems to have the hypothetical implication, and I’ll own up to that, but the reason for accepting that implication is because it seems to follow from something I think we need to say with the world that actually exists about God and creation, namely that God’s goodness is not dependent upon creation.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        A subtle but important distinction which marks creation’s contingency has to be noted – the necessity between God and creation is radically assymetrical – to God creation is unnecessary; to creation God is necessary. This has a bearing on the meaning of creation’s contingency (as indeed it may not exist, but it does) and its relationship of necessity to God. So it doesn’t follow that for the Good, the hypothetical of creation is a necessary implication.


  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    When divine simplicity is discussed, the Palamite distinction cannot be far behind. 🙂

    So let me throw this citation from Nikolaos Loudovikos into the mix, from his essay in Divine Essence and Divine Energies:

    “For Palamas there is a fundamental ontological identity between essence and energies, which it is absolutely necessary to know if we want to avoid any separate ontologization of the latter. So it is clear that for Palamas, through the distinction between essence and energies, it is the very divinity of God that becomes ‘participated in and non-participated in at the same time, so that we participate in the divine essence and we do not participate in it’ (Theophanes 13). In this way ‘when you hear the fathers calling the divine essence non- participated in, think that they mean that essence as it is in itself, without expressing itself to the world. When you hear them calling it participated in think that they thus mean the procession and the expression and the energy, which pre-exists in God … But if you think that, through this energy, it is the very divine essence that expresses itself, even not thoroughly, you are not out of the terms of piety…” (Theophanes 17). Thus, Palamas asserts that “it is possible to use the name of divine essence even for the energies’ (Akyndos 2,17,86), and ‘it is impossible to consider energies as sorts of natures or beings different from the essence’ (2.14.63; 3.13.32) … But for Palamas, divine energy can be called by the same term as divine essence, as it has the same essential characteristics with it, while it can be called differently as far as they represent different aspects of the one divinity.”

    If the distinction is understood as real in the Thomist sense, then there is, I think, a problem. Why? Because a composed being cannot be the absolute reality upon which creatures depend. The point here is the proper distinguishment between Creator and creatures. Did St Gregory Palamas teach a “real” distinction between essence and energies? Loudovikos does not think so, not when the entirety of the Palamite corpus is taken into account. More importantly, did the 15th century hesychast synods dogmatize a real distinction? If someone thinks they did, they need to provide the dogmatic definition. I have yet to see the assertion documented by quotations from the synod. What does seem to be the case is that even after the synods, the nature of the “distinction” continued to be debated by Byzantine theologians up unto the fall of Constantinople. St Gennadios Scholarios, and others, advocated something along the lines of the Scotist formal distinction, and as far as I know, none of his contemporaries accused him of heresy. Hence I find it implausible that the “real” distinction (again, we need to clarify what this means) is dogma within Orthodoxy.


    • Maximus says:

      Fr. Aidan, love the Loudovikos quote. Beautifully nuanced. Concerning your comments, you note that there is a problem with positing a real distinction in God. Yet, all orthodox Christians posit real distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Could you flesh out why the real essence/energies distinction is unacceptable while the real hypostatic distinctions are acceptable?

      Liked by 1 person

    • William says:

      For some background on Loudovikos’ interpretation of Palamas, we can look at his book about Maximus, where Loudovikos argues that the Palamite distinction can’t be understood without reference to Maximus’ doctrine of logoi. He has this quote from Maximus’ Opuscula: “It is not possible to know the divine or human nature, even to know that it exists or that it differs from another nature, apart from its essential energy. For the principle of a thing’s essential force is strictly speaking the definition of that thing: when that force is annihilated, the subject is certainly annihilated along with it.”

      Loudovikos goes on after some other considerations to say that “in Maximus the doctrine of a distinction between essence and energies in God cannot be understood without the doctrine of the uncreated logoi of entities in God, which in turn expresses and promotes the distinction between essence and will in God made by Athanasius and the Cappadocians. What is the significance of this functional (and not real) “precedence” of the logoi relative to the uncreated energies? This “precedence” relates, we think, to the fundamentally personal/hypostatic character of God and the mystery of the consequent distinction of Essence and Persons/Hypostases in Him. For hypostasis or person means free will and power as a possibility of activating the personal/hypostatic essence, and ultimately energy that belongs to the essence or nature of the actual living person. In the supreme development (from a theological point of view) of the question of a distinction of essence and energies in God worked out by Gregory Palamas, it is quite obvious that he is making use of this teaching of Maximus’s, as he constantly grounds the reality of the uncreated energies in the personal/hypostatic character of the living and true God of Holy Scripture — in total contrast to the philosophical and theological essentialism of someone like Barlaam, which is unable to see the reality of a living personal God Who wills, acts and moves through His uncreated energies. The theory of the essential principles of entities in its absolute connection with the theology of the uncreated energies of God is what principally explains the “personal” character of those natural energies (not in the sense of course that they spring from persons — as they derive from essence — but in the sense that they are en-hypostatic, i.e., they express an essence that exists only as a person/hypostasis), justifying the later theories of Palamas.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thomas says:

    Similar themes always seem to come up in discussions of divine simplicity, including background assumptions that in my view get in the way. I see a few big ones:

    The idea that knowing is looking. I.e., to know something, one must experience it. This traces its lineage back to Plato and seems to come up a lot in the question of the divine energies. But knowing and looking are distinct cognitive acts, and what is known is what, in principle, cannot be experienced. One never experiences a mathematical point, a soul, an elementary particle, etc…. why would we think we can experience God? (Hopefully no classical theist would title a book “The Experience of God” …)

    This causes all sorts of problems in trying to understand how God knows the world. After all, if God is immutable, and knowledge requires looking at things and registering the way they happen to be, how can God know? If he knows contingent facts, he is mutable–on that view of knowing.

    Knowing is not looking; knowing is the actuality of an intelligible as an intelligible. So knowing God is not a matter of somehow getting a look at him (nor is knowing an electron, for that matter). It is a matter of possessing the complete actuality of the divine intelligibility in oneself. Given that our minds are finite, we can’t do this.

    The ambiguity in the predicate “action”. It is tempting to say, when defending the traditional view, that God is a single act, and to identify God’s act of creation with that act. However, this causes as many problems as it solves. It is not an oversimplification to say that God’s actions or operations are not identical with his central act.

    This presumes a somewhat Aristotelian background. But the idea is that actions we think of as outwardly directed (building a house, etc.) occur in the thing acted upon and are really identical with the change in that thing. There is in the agent no distinct reality corresponding to the action; the reason say that the agent acts (rather than not acting) is the change brought externally.

    So God’s actions/operations are distinct from his act of being, but they are not in him, they are in the world. In fact, they are identical with creatures acts of being. Yet they are his, because they depend on him and reflect him.

    Now this is the Thomist theory of operatio, and is somewhat sectarian. I think it also parts ways with this article (which I find otherwise excellent). It cannot claim the virtually universal support of the tradition that divine simplicity, immutability, or necessity can. But, in my opinion anyway, it is a theory that not only adequately answers the difficulties around divine action, but is grounded in a correct theory of agency.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Mahfood says:

      On knowledge, I’m with Thomas in thinking God knows all things by knowing his own essence, because all things that exist or could exist are various modes of participation in Being, which is to say God. So in knowing himself, God knows all possible modes of participation in himself. Given that, I can still think of God’s knowing as a kind of seeing–but seeing is a metaphor there, to be sure. Grasping, comprehending–“seeing” with the intellect, not the eyes, and what the intellect can “see” is the intelligible.

      As far as the theory of act/agent you give, I actually think this what I’ve tried to articulate in slightly different terms by pointing to a distinction between the act and its effect. On the account of simplicity I’m defending, if by “act” you mean the change that happens in the world, then of course God’s acts are not identical either to one another or to God. But if by God’s act you mean God’s act of being, which is also the act that *produces* the changes in the world (albeit changelessly) then I’d say that act is identical to God. That’s the ambiguity I tried to clear up (albeit how successfully is up to the reader).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. William says:

    St. Maximus’ logos/logoi doctrine are key in his view about how God knows his creation (and for that matter how we know God). It’s not entirely different from saying that God knows creation by knowing his own being since the logoi by which Maximus says God knows entities is said to be in God and are equated with the Logos himself.

    Here are a few pertinent passages from Ambiguum 7 (keeping in mind that for Maximus logoi can also be called “predeterminations” or “divine wills”):

    “Moreover, would he not also know that the many logoi are one Logos, seeing that all things are related to Him without being confused with Him, who is the essential and personally distinct Logos of God the Father, the origin and cause of all things, in whom all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities: all things were created from Him, through Him, and return unto Him?”

    “From all eternity, He contained within Himself the pre-existing logoi of created beings. When, in His goodwill, He formed out of nothing the substance of the visible and invisible worlds, He did so on the basis of these logoi. By His word (logos) and His wisdom He created and continues to create all things—universals as well as particulars—at the appropriate time.”

    “In God the logoi of all things are steadfastly fixed, and it is on the basis of these that God is said to know all things before they come into being, for in absolute truth, in Him and with Him are all things, even though all things — things present and things to come—were not called into existence simultaneously with their logoi or with their being known by God.”

    “…it is not possible, as has been demonstrated, that He who is beyond all beings should know’ beings in a manner derived from beings, but we say that He knows beings as His own wills …”

    “If God created all things by His will—which no one denies— and if it is always pious and correct to say that God knows His own will, and that He willingly made each of the things that He made, it follows that God knows beings as His own wills, for He willingly brought them into being. Based on these considerations, I think that Scripture, consistent with these same principles, says to Moses: I know you above all; and concerning some others: The Lord knows those who are His own. To still others it says: I know you not. In each case, the voluntary decision to move either in accord with the will and logos of God or against it prepared each person to hear the divine voice.”

    And as to the experience of God, whether one wants to call it knowledge or not, Maximus writes in the same Ambiguum 7, not denying language of vision (perhaps also not equating “vision” with “knowledge”) referring supremely to participation and joy, but certainly describing real experience of God, which if one can have such a thing, likely involves some form or amount of knowledge:

    “[Gregory the Theologian] teaches the same thing in his oration “On the Plague of Hail,” when he says: “They will be received by the ineffable light and vision of the holy and majestic Trinity, shining upon them with greater brilliance and purity, and which will be wholly mingled with the whole of the intellect, and this alone I take to be the kingdom of heaven,” at which point—if I may dare to add my own words to his—the whole of rational creation, both of angels and human beings, will be filled with spiritual pleasure and joy I mean those creatures that did not, out of negligence, violate any of the divine logoi, who by their natural motion were inclined to the end established by the Creator, but kept themselves wholly chaste and faithful to their end, knowing that they are and will become instruments of the divine nature. For God in His fullness entirely permeates them, as a soul permeates the body, since they are to serve as His own members, well suited and useful to the Master, who shall use them as He thinks best, filling them with His own glory and blessedness, graciously giving them eternal, inexpressible life, completely free from the constituent properties of this present life, which is marred by corruption. The life that God will give does not consist in the breathing of air, or in the flow of blood from the liver, but in the fact that God will be wholly participated by whole human beings, so that He will be to the soul, as it were, what the soul is to the body, and through the soul He will likewise be present in the body (in a manner that He knowrs), so that the soul will receive immutability and the body immortality In this way, man as a whole will be divinized, being made God by the grace of God who became man. Man will remain wholly man in soul and body, owing to his nature, but will become wholly God in soul and body owing to the grace and the splendor of the blessed glory of God, which is wholly appropriate to him, and beyond which nothing more splendid or sublime can be imagined.

    “What could be more desirable to those who are worthy of it than divinization? For through it God is united with those who have become Gods, and by His goodness makes all things His own. This state, which is brought about by the contemplation of God and the enjoyment of the gladness that follows it, has rightly been described as pleasure, passion, and joy. It is called pleasure, insofar as it is the consummation of all natural strivings (for this is the meaning of pleasure). It is called passion, insofar as it is an ecstatic power, elevating the passive recipient to the state of an active agent, as in the examples given above of air permeated by light, and iron suffused with fire. These examples, drawn from nature, demonstrate persuasively that there is no higher summit of transformation for created beings apart from that in which their natural elements remain inviolate. It is, finally, called joy for it encounters nothing opposed to it, for they say that joy neither remembers former sorrows, nor fears the possibility of any future satiety, in the way that pleasure fears the inevitable consequence of pain. Thus the whole of inspired Scripture, as well as our holy fathers who from it learned divine mysteries, affirm that joy is the most appropriate name for the truth that is to come.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. John H says:


    I think that the metaphor of the prism that you utilize in the article may help to illustrate many theeological conundrums. For example, the white light side of the prism is analogous to God’s antecedent, absolute will to save everyone while the rainbow side would then be that same will as experienced by human beings in all their contingency and sinfulness, which we would then call the consequent will.

    Similarly, the economic trinity would be on the multicolored side of the prism, as humans with our limited intellects are only capable of experiencing God’s actions as they are revealed in historical events like the call of the chosen people, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the history of the Church. But in God everything is present in one eternal and simple Act of existence, which is beautifully illustrated by the doctrine of the immanent trinity, with the generation and procession of the Divine Persons being simultaneous with their perichoretic interpenetration. Of course one must always temper such a distinction by remembering KarlRahner’s observation that the economic trinity is identical to the immanent trinity.

    Finally, I think that the prism metaphor has something to say about the problem of religious pluralism. God is always simple and one so His understanding of Himself is also simple and one. That would be the white side of the prism. Yet God as He reveals Himself to various cultures throughout many different historical epochs is experienced by humanity in various ways, thus resulting in the diversity of religious traditions, even within Christianity. So truth is one but the way in which our feeble intellects grasp it is many, the rainbow side of the prism.

    So I guess that I am a Catholic pluralist, which I hope does not make me a heretic as well. But if I am, I suppose that I am in good company. After all, one of Rahner’s favorite ideas was the notion of the anonymous Christian.


  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    (Hmm, WordPress appears to have lost my comment—or more likely, I didn’t hit the “Post Comment” button hard enough. I’ll try again.)

    Maximus, I want to continue our conversation about “absolute” divine simplicity. I deny there is any such thing. Divine simplicity is a negative attribute, and like all negative attributes it denies something that is characteristic of creaturely being—in this case, composition. To say God is simple is simply to say that he is not constituted by parts, whether physical or metaphysical. Divine simplicity, in other words, is right up there with infinity, eternity, immutability, incomprehensibility, impassibility. For this reason, there isn’t any difference between “divine simplicity” and “absolute divine simplicity.” There can’t be, because divine simplicity doesn’t communicate any content, except of a negative kind. It simply tells us what God is not. Hence there are no degrees of divine simplicity and no different kinds of divine simplicity or whatever. God is simply simple. He’s simple because he’s God and not a finite being. This is not just my private interpretation—it’s the way that Thomas Aquinas understands it—and if I read him rightly, David Mahfood.

    Now perhaps there are other ways of understanding divine simplicity, but I’m fairly confident that what I have stated above describes the view of Aquinas. So the question I pose to you is this: do you disagree? If so, why?


    • Maximus says:

      Fr. Aidan, thanks for this. When I took a Thomistic view of simplicity, I too argued the same thing: there is no other simplicity than “strong” simplicity, none other than the “absolute” variety. Following the work of James Dolezal, I argued fairly vigorously for this position during a PhD seminar, with a paper to match. But I have come to believe that the Thomistic view is not the mainline Orthodox view. I agree that “simplicity” refers, by definition and in a negative mode of predication, to non-composition—God is not composed of parts. However, my use of the term “absolute divine simplicity” (ADS) is meant here to carry historical-theological connotations (rather than strictly definitional denotations). In other words, it is meant to convey the fact that Thomas’ version (that is, ADS) is not the only account of simplicity on offer in the history of the Church.

      Indeed, it seems that ADS implies *more* than God is not composed of parts. It also assumes that real distinction in God would amount to divine division, and thus assumes there are no real distinctions in God. This is why Augustine and Aquinas get so flaky (IMO) about the hypostatic distinctions, claiming that the Persons are “relations” within the divine essence. No, the Persons are *really* distinct from the essence (and each other); and while the divine essence is common to the Persons it is inaccessible to us. In this second view, real distinctions in God viably obtain without threatening simplicity—but this is *not* ADS in which real distinction in God is seen as a metaphysical threat to non-composition. I believe this second view better represents the Orthodox tradition and better delineates our true participation in God’s existence, not in the transcendent essence but in the immanent energies of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Maximus, some thoughts.

        I don’t know how you understand it, but the way you put it (“God, per se, is not identical to His goodness. God’s goodness is one of those “things around God”) could very easily lead into divine composition: that God possesses attributes, and various kinds of it. Can we really speak of the infinite, limitless divine mode of being in that way? Possession denotes achievement and acquisition, and there could be more of less of it. Such must be denied on account of simplicity (any account of simplicity, not merely what you call “absolute” simplicity). If God is the fullness of the good, then He is such without measure, fully actualized as pure act without potential, and always; God is the “all good”, and as such He is the good and goodness, the source of goodness and by which (whom) all goodness is measured.

        Reflecting on this makes one realize that being and existence and doing for God, and how God is and exists and acts, must be infinitely different from our being and existence and doing, and how we are and how we exist and how we act. Notions of possession, even that of perfection (denotes progress, of becoming to be), do not have purchase on the divine life. You say you reject God as pure act – but by this do you escape the introduction of divine unrealized potential, and thereby avoid divine composition? Consequently, can you still affirm divine simplicity, even the simplicity in a most minimalist sense (“non-absolute” simplicity I suppose)?

        “Things around God” – this is a patristic term of course. But what can this truly denote, and is it really used to mark a true distinction within (or perhaps outside) God? If power or operation (as one example of the “things around God”) is outside God, then it is His effect, and not God. If it is God, then it can’t be the effect of his power, but the power within God. Then we must say that God is the power, God is the one operating, operates and is the operation (I am assuming we don’t suppose that God needs tools and a bench). All silly talk isn’t it, if taken in a literal way, talk about “around” and “inside” and “outside.” However one understands this term, it fails to hold as a warrant to suppose there is a literal distinction in God.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Maximus says:

          Robert, I appreciate the thoughts. But, in another sense, I don’t, because you remind me that I’m still far from having the mind of the Fathers. 🙂 I wish I could, without some research, give a better explanation of “the things around God,” especially in St. Maximus’ theology (bc that’s where I’ve read it). But I can’t. I do think it refers literally, whether ontologically or epistemologically, to something, or the saint wouldn’t have said it. (Of course, he’s not infallible and thus could be wrong.) I want to dig a little deeper into this now, finding the references and reading what the commentators say.

          One question I still have within this discussion concerns the hesitancy to attribute *any* literal distinction to God’s being. Am I reading you wrong on this? I think specifically about Trinitarian theology and the real, literal hypostatic distinctions. It seems like within the Thomistic model, God = the divine essence, full stop. So, the divine Persons, each of Them and all of Them = the divine essence. How does such a conception not teeter on the brink of modalism without falling in? To say that the Persons are (merely) “relations” within the divine essence (as Aquinas does) leaves me scratching my head.

          However, if we are willing to say that true, literal distinctions obtain between the Persons (and I think we should say this) without thereby attributing composition to God, then on what grounds can we argue that other true distinctions in God equate to divine composition? The assumption seems to be that distinction = division, and I would challenge that assumption. For God is not composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and neither can these *truly distinct* Persons be divided.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Maximus, while you’re waiting for Robert to reply, you might check out his fine articles that he has written for Eclectic Orthodoxy over the years. Some of these address the concerns you’ve been raising: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/category/robert-fortuin/

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            We are all in the same boat, an infinite, limitless apektasis!

            The phrase “things around God” or “things around him” “peri auton”, is not exclusive to St Maximus, it was in use much earlier by the Cappadocians, and I would be surprised if it can’t be traced back to Clement of Alexandria, Origen, as well as neo-platonic usage. The usages in the Cappadocians I am familiar with exclusively and explicitly function to establish the incomprehensibility and ineffability of what God is (i.e. his essence) and the affirmation of epinoia (concepts) about God based on that which is related and relatable to us, in terms diastematic which can be comprehended and spoken about in their given limit. It is widely accepted that this forms the basis of St Gregory of Nyssa’s epistemology and language theory. Epinioa and words always fall short of grasping the limitless (infinite) God – by definition the diastematic cannot comprehend, by thought or word, the Adiastematic. But I have not seen usage of ‘peri auton’ to argue for a reification of a distinction in God. The concern about and the issues related to the essence/energy distinction (as manifested in the Palamite fashion) simply wasn’t on radar at this time. In any case, can we really suppose that God’s essence is something so distinct as to be a substance? A distinction more original than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

            I am not an expert on Aquinas, but I don’t think that he claimed the hypostases to be mere relations, relations so fundamental as to erase or minimize what makes a person a person. Perhaps someone more versed in Aquinas can weigh in.

            The lesson of Chalcedon is that one cannot foreground unity over multiplicity nor multiplicity over unity. Unity is in trinity, and trinity in unity. Divine hypostatic diversity does not introduce divine composition. It does not divide because there is no composition, yet there are three distinct persons. To be clear, I understand Chalcedon to say that there are no literal distinctions in God – hence we do not conclude that there are three Gods. The hypostatic distinctions are real, but not literal in the sense of dividing up God into three Gods. We cannot think of God as we do of a material, created object, for a material object which has distinct parts is divided and composite. Not so of God. This signals, in my understanding, that when we speak of distinctions in God, even non-hypostatic distinctions, we are not speaking of ordinary distinctions (diastematic distinctions as we know it). And so the cautions against the essence/energy distinction. And so, for the God who is beyond being, His essence is the act of being that for God, in infinite contrast to the creature, there is no difference between what He is and His existence.

            The lesson I take away from it all is that when we theologize theology proper we must shed lower (i.e. diastematic) notions of substance, division, limits. I find that reified notions of the essence/energy distinction fundamentally fail in that regard.


          • Maximus says:

            Robert, thanks for these reflections. I’ll certainly raise a glass to infinite epektasis!

            I hope I haven’t argued for a reification of distinction in God. And I suppose that if “literal distinction” has to mean dividing up God in some materialistic fashion, I don’t believe in that either. The Father and the Son are really distinct, but not literally. 🙂 I understand the concern that we ought not get all diastematic and univocal with our predictions of God, since he’s not a creature. I tend to understand the term “distinction” in a similar way to the term “source.” The Father is the source/cause/fountainhead of the Son and Spirit. This Source is infinite and timelessly eternal, and yet surely we know what a source is, just as we know what a distinction is.

            I would agree that we are not speaking of “ordinary” (i.e. material, division-causing, composition-making) distinctions in God’s life. Yet I’m still captivated by the language of Scripture and the non-negotiable dynamic of direct participation in the divine. “Moses, you can’t see my face, but I’ll show you my glory.” Not This, but rather That; two (distinct) aspects, two (distinct) polarities. It seems that unless we understand these *uncreated* divine energies as somehow distinct from the divine essence—as the eternal shining forth of the essence, as the always-enhypostatized activities of God in the world—then we are cut off from any real participation in the One who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. If we fudge on the (real, literal, or whatever) essence/energies distinction we don’t really possess God’s eternal life. This is my central and abiding concern.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I aver, and there’s much warrant for this in patristic writings (such as Cappadocian arguments that the diversity we encounter in God is so because of our diastematic perception and conception, not because God is composite), that the accounts in Scripture, the front and back of God (“the two distinct aspects, the two distinct polarities” to which you refer), His provision, justice, mercy, love, and so forth and so on, do not constitute real differences in God. At least not difference as we know it, as some thing distinct from some thing else which then make up the whole. The distinctions and polarities are such because our only reference is diastematic – we have no other way of forming thoughts, epinioia, but by limit, marking this from that. So when we do theology, and read Scripture, we have to keep in mind the utter inability of our epinoia to comprehend the divine mode, we must acknowledge the infinite difference, always.

            We are not cut-off from participation as God shares of himself personally, and we partake of the divine nature as St Peter states, and this is made possible by the incarnation of God the Son. In the flesh did the disciples encounter only the essence, or the energies, or both? It’s nonsense to think this way. The disciples encountered God in the flesh, the hypostatic union of God and man, a union of natures which is “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”

            Don’t forget that participation is not primarily by discursive knowledge, as many of the fathers make very clear. In fact knowledge only gets us only so far. True union with God is a mystical union of participation, a union acquired by love in faith.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Maximus says:

            “Don’t forget that participation is not primarily by discursive knowledge, as many of the fathers make very clear. In fact knowledge only gets us only so far. True union with God is a mystical union of participation, a union acquired by love in faith.”

            Great reminder. And the very point I was making in my last paragraph. Without the essence/energies distinction, we’re cut off from the unapproachable essence of the Son incarnate, leaving us with only head knowledge and no real participation. If, as you say, “the diversity we encounter in God is so because of our diastematic perception and conception,” then such encounters are not encounters with the Uncreated and thus not real, direct encounters with God. (This is Augustine’s position in summary.) Instead, these are encounters with created similitudes, and voila, you have the doctrine of analogia entis. True participation in God is suprarational via the enhypostatized, uncreated activities of God, just as it was (and is) for the human nature of the Savior, by which we are deified.

            At your convenience, Robert, could you please cite a specific reference(s) for the Cappadocian arguments you mention in your last comment? I’m willing to be challenged on this, but the readings I’ve heard to the contrary have convinced me otherwise thus far. Thanks. And thanks for continuing the conversation.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            What I meant Maximus is that knowledge runs up against a limit, however such is not the case with mystical union by participatory love. There’s full participation in God-self, full participation in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and not in creatures. Your thinking is still governed by the paradigm of the e/e distinction.

            Maximus: “True participation in God is suprarational via the enhypostatized, uncreated activities of God, just as it was (and is) for the human nature of the Savior, by which we are deified.”

            Robert: What? Why the “uncreated activities”? What scriptural or conciliar warrant do you have for this strange formulation? Do you really mean to say that in the person of Jesus his human nature was not in union with the divine nature, that the union was by operation/energy/activity only? Are you not radically altering the meaning of the Chalcedonian confession by insisting on the essence/energy distinction?

            Fathers at Chalcedon: “One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union” Maybe I am wrong, but the union of which they speak is a union of natures, not uncreated activities.

            What a shamble salvation would be if it is based on the union of mere activities. No, I insist that salvation is nothing short of the participation of human nature in the divine nature, and this by way of the incarnate Son of God.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Maximus says:

            Robert, thanks for the fulsome responses! First, about Christ. I’m definitely not talking about a hypostatic union based on will, a moral union as Nestorius would have it. As you said, the union is one of natures, divine and human, in the one divine Person of Christ, as St. Cyril taught and Chalcedon codified. Our salvation would indeed be a farce otherwise. So, the content of the union is not at question. The means of the union is of course an unfathomable mystery. But my statement referred specifically to the imparticable divine essence of the Son of God and its participatory relationship to the assumed human nature. Would you not agree that the divine essence is imparticable? Because this seems to be widely taught by the fathers.

            My understanding is that the human nature of Christ was divinized via participatory synergy with the uncreated energies of the Son. But here’s the main point: human participation in the *essence* of God is precisely what contradicts Chalcedon’s definition, for the Two Natures were united “unconfusedly and unchangeably.” Human participation in the essence of God would mean becoming God in essence, resulting at least in a tertium quid, and at worst in a complete absorption into the divine. Chalcedon disallows both modes of mutability. Instead, our human nature, following His human nature as the first fruits, becomes God by grace—i.e. by divine energy, by uncreated activity—through a synergistic relation in which each nature has its own activity and its own will, God, of course, playing the leading role as we become his co-workers.

            Thus, Chalcedon is not radically altered by this teaching but rather firmly upheld, and indeed further enhanced by the teaching of St. Maximus and the fathers of the 6th Council.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Maximus: “Would you not agree that the divine essence is imparticable? Because this seems to be widely taught by the fathers.”

            Robert: well depends on what is meant by participation. If meant that human nature changes into divine nature, then no. But if meant a union in which participation denotes that the lesser becomes like the greater, without confusion and loss of identity, then yes I affirm with St Peter participation in the divine nature, in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

            Maximus: “My understanding is that the human nature of Christ was divinized via participatory synergy with the uncreated energies of the Son”

            Robert: Again – what is your warrant for this, other than the importation of the Palamite distinction?

            Maximus: “human participation in the *essence* of God is precisely what contradicts Chalcedon’s definition, for the Two Natures were united “unconfusedly and unchangeably.” Human participation in the essence of God would mean becoming God in essence, resulting at least in a tertium quid, and at worst in a complete absorption into the divine.”

            Robert: This is only so on the assumption that participation or union means a change of essence. Such a conception of participation and union is denied of Jesus’ hypostatic union and likewise, since He is our model as the perfect Man and the First among the brethren, our union with God.
            The union affirmed by Chalcedon is a hypostatic union, and as it is a union of and in person we cannot divide up the person into compartments of essence and energy. We are saved by and joined en toto through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, to the Father. Essence and energy and all!
            And thus we don’t baptize “in the name of the energies of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. The folly!

            I surmise that you are reading a neo-Palamite concern backwards into Chalcedon and Constantinople III, and in patristic writings in general, a concern which is wholly unfounded. This steers you into a strange theology, dividing up God and warping soteriology and anthropology in the process.

            Since you brought up St Maximus and Constantinople III – read for a moment this passage of St Maximus without reading the essence vs energies distinction into it, try it. The Incarnation was so that “the whole people might participate in the whole God, and that in the same way in which soul and body are united, God should become partakable of by the soul, and, that by the soul’s intermediary, by the body, in order that the soul might receive an unchanging character and the body immortality; and finally that the whole man should become God, deified by the grace of God become man, becoming whole man, soul and body, and becoming whole God, soul and body, by grace.”

            And read Constantinople III’s declaration without recourse to the essence/energy distinction.


          • Robert Fortuin says:


            Here are some pertinent citations from the Cappadocian fathers. I recommend you do your own reading to capture the full contexts. I have put these together hastily. If you are looking for any in particular, let me know.

            On my reading I take these and other passages to indicate, among other things, that there is a distinction between words or semantics on the one hand, and the metaphysical realities they signify on the other; to wit that the diversity of names is due to our diastematic epinoia (always requiring more names, never exhausting what it attempts to signify, as God is incomprehensible), not because God is composite.

            “the very thing which God is, is life as a whole, light as a whole, and good as a whole” – Basil, Against Eunomius 2.29.13-23.

            God, says Nyssa is “holy, immortal, Father, unbegotten, eternal and all of them at once” Contra Eunomius 1.596 (GNO I. 198.1) and
            “With the simple and omnipotent nature all things are perceived as together and simultaneous, both willing the good and possessing what he wills. In the eternal nature the good and the eternal will is envisaged as everlastingly actual, realized and substantial, neither arising at a particular starting-point, nor conceivable without what is willed.” C Eun 3.6.17

            Basil, “for this reason we maintain, guided by the ungraspability and inapprehensibility itself, that we discover absolutely no difference of substance in the case of the Holy Trinity except for the order of the persons and the confession of the hypostases” Epistle 24.7

            “We must remember God is not a compound; whatever He is is the whole of Him” Nyssa Contr. Eun. 1:38

            Nyssa, speaking of the divine nature (not the energies), “the Holy Spirit conveys to us the divine mysteries, making accessible to us his teaching about things beyond our understanding. It does the same on other occasions, when it describes the Divinity corporeally, talking about eye, eyelids, ear, fingers, hand, right hand, arm, feet, sandals and the like in connexion with God; none of these can be understood in its literal sense of the divine nature, but by elevating the instruction, through words familiar in human speech, towards what is easy to envisage …. as in a process of analogy we are raised up by each of the things said about God to a kind of superior understanding.” C. Eun 3.6.198

            Nyssa, making no distinction between what God is (“above every name”) and His activity, avers that the multiplicity of names we give to Him are due to relation: “He who is above every name becomes many-named for us, with titles according to his various acts of kindness, Light when he abolishes the darkness of ignorance, Life when he bestows immortality, Way when he guides us from error to truth; so too Strong Tower, Fenced City, Fountain, Rock, Vine, Physician, Resurrection, and all such names are given to him in relation to us, distributing himself variously between his benefits to us.” C Eun. 3.8.10

            Nyssa: “We learn many names for the Only-begotten from the divine writings: Stone, Axe, Rock, Foundation, Bread, Vine, Door, Way, Shepherd, Wellspring, Wood, Resurrection, Teacher, Light and many others….It would indeed be quite absurd to think that the incorporeal and immaterial, the single and formless, changes its shape into the meanings implied by some of these names, so that we think when we hear “Axe” of that sort of iron shape, or when we hear “Light”, of daylight,
            or when we hear “Vine”, of what comes from planting vineyards, nor to any of the others do we apply the meaning suggested by habit. Rather, we transpose the meanings of those words to something more appropriate to God and think of something else: though we call him by
            those names, it is not as though he is any of them in the definition of his nature, but while he is called these things, something else is understood by the words used.” C Eun 3.1.127

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            There’s more:

            Nyssa, again no mention of energies, or distinction: “We make use of many and various names for Him, adapting these names according to different conceptions. For since no suitable one word has been found to express the divine nature….we address God by many names, each according to a different understanding, adding something distinctive to our notions respecting Him.” C Eun 1. 267, 18-28

            Nyssa, some strong words about identity of being and willing: “God however, being a single Good with his single and uncompounded nature, looks perpetually to the same goal and never changes in response to impulses of choice; rather, he always both wills what he is and, of course, is what he wills” C Eun 3.1.125

            Nyssa, on the identity of act and potency: “It is not like other beings whose nature includes the power to act, where one observes both the potential and the accomplished action. We say for instance that the one who is skilled in the science of shipbuilding is potentially a shipbuilder, but he is effective only when he displays his science in practice. It is not however like that with the blessed Life: rather, in that Life what is thought is in its entirety action and performance, the will passing
            instantly to its intended goal.” C Eun. 2.230

            Basil “if anyone should examine each of the names one by one, he would find the various conceptualizations, even though for all there is one substrate (ousian) as far as substance (upokeimenon) is concerned.” C Eun 1.7.27

            Well I could go on and on. But hopefully this provides some insight.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Maximus says:

            Robert, thank you for taking time to post these quotes. I am genuinely eager to read them context. The quotes from St Gregory concerning 1) the identity of being and willing and the 2) about identity of act and potency are particularly striking. I appreciate the work you put into gathering these quotations. If I might share one of my own, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

            Below is the first section of St Basil’s Letter 234. I’ve broken it into three blocks. In the first block, Basil could be read to be saying what you’ve said, that the distinction of God’s attributes is just on our end of things, understood as multiple only because of our created human perspective. However, Basil seems to clarify himself in different direction in the second block. He states that all God’s attributes, His names, are not identical to God’s essence (ad intra). And the reason he gives is that these attributes are clearly not identical to each other (e.g. “His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments…” are all distinct activities). In the third block, he affirms that such distinctions in God—between the essence and the innumerable attributes—do not endanger divine simplicity. He also identifies the multiple divine attributes with the divine energeia (“operations”).

            Based on this section of the letter, and referencing especially the last block, here’s my question: Do you think Basil understands these energeia/operations that “come down to us” as uncreated or created? If created, then wouldn’t we be cut off from God since “His essence remains beyond our reach”? But if they’re uncreated, then wouldn’t we need to affirm certain distinctions in the simple God (ad intra)?

            St. Basil the Great – Letter 234

            “Do you worship what you know or what you do not know?” If I answer, “I worship what I know,” they immediately reply, “What is the essence of the object of worship?” Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, “So you worship you know not what.” I answer that the word “to know” has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated.

            “But God,” he says, “is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence.” But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them inquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know.

            If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            And thank you too Maximus. I pray you will not take my rhetorical approach as disdain but rather receive in the most brotherly way as possible, as it is certainly intended to be such.

            As to St. Basil the Great – Letter 234:

            The Cappadocians epistemology is more than a simple stricture on the knowledge of God’s essence – it is unknown they claimed because God is without limit and thus cannot be captured by our thoughts which are by definition beset by and constituted of limits and composition. God therefore cannot be measured. Here’s the important thing as to what this meant for Cappadocian language theory (this comes out in particular in their arguments against Aetius and Eunomius): that no one attribute, nor a collection of attributes, can measure up what God is. One or all the pious attributes we ascribe to God fall short of His limitless infinitude. We can mention a 1000 of them, or a 1000 trillion – we will still not have measured up (or “declared” in the quote) what God is, His essence, nature, ousia. This is what St Basil is pointing out in Block 2 of the quote. He calls it a sophism to suppose (as some do) that all the attributes taken together measure up, comprehend, God’s substance. I read Basil to say that they do not, but what the attributes do affirm is that God is awful, just, merciful, and so forth. And to us, the attributes are not the same but diverse (do not carry “the same mutual force”) for they are conceived by us in part and in diversity. Do we therefore conclude that God’s nature is composite and diverse? Not according to Basil, for “the operations are various, and the essence simple.” I take this to be the point made by base in Block 3 of the passage. You can guess by now that I would take it to be a gross anachronism to read some sort of (neo) Palamite distinction in to Basil’s reasoning.

            Maximus: “He states that all God’s attributes, His names, are not identical to God’s essence (ad intra). And the reason he gives is that these attributes are clearly not identical to each other”

            Robert: I think you have this wrong. The reason they are not identical to the essence is because (as I have described above) not one or all the attributes we can ascribe will ever be identical to the essence. If they were then we, by way of our concepts, would be able to comprehend what God is. But we can’t. That’s the reason, not that they are not identical to each other for they aren’t not to us. To us, concepts describe the various realities as we know them in diversity and composition, which is after all the only way we can think and speak.

            Maximus: “Do you think Basil understands these energeia/operations that “come down to us” as uncreated or created?”

            Robert: A silly question. Who comes down to us, as the Scriptures declare and the Apostles attest to, is the one God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit whose luminous self-revelation we perceive in overflowing diversity.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Now that St Gregory of Nyssa has been pulled into the conversation, let me plug this article I wrote on him and the divine energeia a few years ago: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/__trashed/

            Liked by 2 people

          • William says:

            The quote from Gregory of Nyssa from Against Eunomius 3.8.10 does indeed make a distinction between what God is and his activity, when it says God “becomes many named for us, with titles according to his various ACTS of kindness.”

            Those acts of kindness are then characterized as God “distributing himself variously between his benefits to us.” This also seems to get at precisely what St. Maximus would later develop on a more cosmic scale in his logos/logoi distinction (which itself is crucial to properly understanding essence/energies).

            Gregory, just before this passage, indicates that he is making a bold declaration. And in that passage, nothing is more bold than the words “distributing himself variously,” a phrase which is not qualified to make it any less literal than it sounds. It is a one/many distinction made of God. Certainly it is “for us” but that doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t apply when developed on a more cosmic scale. Throughout the passage at large, Gregory is arguing against the idea that because we know God by a name or title that he has taken on for us, we somehow therefore know the essence of the Father. These points taken together seem to me to be exactly what a good essence/energies distinction is about.

            Incidentally, the passage from Gregory’s Against Eunomius 3.6.17 that “With the simple and omnipotent nature all things are perceived as together and simultaneous, both willing the good and possessing what he wills” also gets at precisely what St. Maximus elaborated with logos/logoi. The passage in Against Eunomius is specifically arguing about the fact that the Only-Begotten Son is co-eternal with the Father because God always has what he wills. The logos/logoi distinction clarifies how this idea about God’s will is applied to creation, which God always possesses by his will but which is not therefore co-eternal with him (since all things in creation come about at their proper time, though they are willed eternally, and the willing of all things is contained in the willing of the Logos himself, if my paraphrase of Maximus’ idea is not too oversimplified or confusing). This notion is a vital grounding for any proper essence/energies distinction.

            It seems to me that one of the useful aspects of making a distinction between energies and essence, considered with the logoi/logos distinction firmly in mind, is that it describes the way that God is indeed wholly present and nowhere absent in all things, creating and sustaining them in their proper place and time. It explains how all things declare the glory of God, not simply as results standing apart, but as prisms through which the glory (which is not a separate thing from God) is refracted into creation, so to speak, or how the “resonance” of God himself echoes through and can be sensed in all things. Or, maybe better put, how all things are “words” right out of the mouth of God. It explains how God is at work in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure. An energies/essence or logoi/logos distinction isn’t necessary to simply affirm these things, but as an explanation, the logos/logoi distinction in particular is invaluable in showing a very real and intimate union between God and his creation in a way that doesn’t succumb to or flirt with pantheism, which does seem to be a danger in some currents of theology that do not have such distinctions at their disposal (Meister Eckhart comes to mind, though I am not at all versed enough to defend that accusation).

            Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Maximus, I suppose other formulations of divine simplicity are possible. I’m told, e.g., that Scotists understand it a bit differently than Thomists do, but I haven’t been able to make sense of it. But that isn’t really the point, is it? Given that Aquinas is the principal target for modern Palamites, they need to understand what Aquinas meant by divine simplicity and why he believed it’s an essential negative attribute for God. And it is precisely here, I think, that the modern Palamites just don’t get it, just like the analytic critics like Mullins don’t get it. The analytics seem to think that divine simplicity is an attribute that the ancient Christian theologians picked out of thin air and arbitrarily decided that a perfect being must have it. But that is certainly not how Aquinas thought about it. For him it goes right back to the beginnings of our philosophical reflection upon the existence of God and divine creation: finite composition cries out for ontological explanation, and that is why divine simplicity is a negative attribute. Whatever God is, he can’t be composed of parts, physical or metaphysical. If he were, we could then ask the question, who composed God?

        Now maybe there are other ways to properly distinguish God and creation, ways that do not need the apophatic construal of divine simplicity. Please share them with us. What I think we will find is that each theological system plays by its own set of rules, which is why comparing and adjudicating between respective systems is so difficult. This is one reason Scotists and Thomists are always complaining that the other side doesn’t understand what they are saying. And that is another reason Western understandings of divine simplicity should not be lumped together under “absolute divine simplicity.” That kind of generalization only confuses.

        For the Eastern tradition, the divine essence is simple. Perhaps we need to begin with this question: why? I can take a pretty good guess, I think, why Dionysius the Areopagite would say this—namely, God is beyond being. He thus ends up in an apophatic place very similar to Aquinas. But why do you, Maximus, affirm divine simplicity? What does it mean to you? Why must God be simple? Why not go the route of Mullins and excise divine simplicity from our understanding of God?

        Let me throw into the mix this article by philosopher Brandon Watson:

        BTW, good conversation! Thank you.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Maximus says:

          Fr. Aidan, I concur, good conversation! The reason I hold to divine simplicity is pretty mundane, and based on the weakest of arguments, that from authority—i.e. this is what Christians have always said of God. I don’t believe simplicity was arbitrarily invented as just another divine attribute, and I agree that the Church listened to the best of Greek philosophical speculation as it sought to interpret God’s revelation in Christ. But I also believe that the Thomistic version of simplicity may be overly enthralled to such speculation, and less carefully conscientious of God’s revelation. Christians have always said God was simple, so I’m sold. And I’m willing to explore different views within the scope of that doctrinal agreement. But I do plan to stay where it seems safest, within the Church’s consensus. In my Protestant days, I enjoyed more wiggle-room on these issues, but all that “freedom” eventually worn me down.

          I’m also aware of the “negative move” from creaturely composition to divine simplicity: only creatures are composed of essence *and* existence, potentiality and actuality, etc. Likewise, the fully-actualized God does not have attributes, properties or qualities, as if these were so many component parts of his nature. D.B. Hart is especially eloquent, and rhetorically forceful, on these matters. But when I start to hear that real distinctions in God are out of bounds, I begin to suspect that the spellbinding effects of philosophical consistency have prevailed at the cost of fidelity to Christian Tradition. This sort of (overly) philosophical approach, I believe, entails an impersonal emanationism and determinism (pace the Blessed Augustine), along with the problems of created grace and the loss of direct encounter with God in theosis (as mentioned above). I find these critiques convincing, and so their spiritual implications drive me to a more revelation-based theology. The problem of the One and the Many doesn’t drive me as much, however important that may be.

          I will admit that as I read the threads on this blog, I quickly realize my own stature as a philosophical and theological plebeian. So, I’m unable to do as you ask, Fr. Aidan, and share “other ways to properly distinguish God and creation, ways that do not need the apophatic construal of divine simplicity”—mainly because I’m all for apophatic theology! I just don’t think Aquinas’ apophatic construal captures the fullness of the Christian teaching on simplicity. I’m willing to drop the nomenclature of ADS. We could call it Thomistic, or whatever. But I distinguished it from other views because I don’t think it’s the only (nor best) presentation of theology proper.


  12. Maximus says:

    Well, Robert, I’ve been enriched by our conversation here. I recognize I have more study and much more prayer to attend to. I do take your responses in a brotherly way and have been helped (and challenged) by them. Mine were likely less helpful, though I hope you took them in the same spirit.

    I don’t initially agree with your reading of Basil’s letter 234, but the case you present is strong. I will revisit this again with your thoughts in mind. So, thank you.

    One final thought from St. Gregory Palamas. He states somewhere in the Triads—I haven’t found the reference—that the divine essence infinitely transcends the energies, and yet the essence fully subsists in each of the energies. The paradoxical nature of this statement is palpable. But I think the holy fathers would have agreed.

    Grace and peace.


  13. Robert Fortuin says:


    re: quote from Gregory of Nyssa from Against Eunomius 3.8.10, God “becomes many named for us, with titles according to his various ACTS of kindness.”

    I take issue with using this passage to argue for a divine essence/energy distinction.

    “God becomes many named for us” God cannot become, as becoming denotes change, and change denotes composition. Therefore we must understand Gregory to have something other than a divine essence/energy distinction in mind: the distinction’s locus cannot be within God. The distinction is as it is perceived and experienced by us at different times and different occasions.

    “various acts” – Variety denotes composition, so this cannot be so for God. The acts are various to us, but not in God.

    “distributing himself variously” – surely you don’t mean to understand Gregory to mean this univocally, literally? I must misunderstand you!


    • William says:


      Where I highlighted St. Gregory saying “ACTS of kindness,” my point was mainly to say that he was indeed specifying God’s activity, as opposed to what God is. Even if not actually making a distinction, he is talking about them in separate terms in ways similar to his brother Basil.

      “distributing himself variously” … no I don’t think this is meant univocally literally, but neither do I think it’s meant non-literally, if that makes sense. I think it is meant as a bold and blunt statement of “reality.” Not necessarily exact metaphysical reality, but just what is happening on both ends of the Divine-Human relationship. Even if something is one way for God and another way for us, it’s still “real” both ways (insofar as we and the rest of creation are “real”). In any case, as I’ve mentioned ad nauseum with quotes in other comments in this thread, I believe St. Maximus the Confessor elaborates this very notion quite beautifully as a key element in his whole thought system and gives it a scope that may be beyond Gregory of Nyssa’s original intent but is not at odds with Gregory’s words. I think the thought of St. Maximus is the wise working out of these ideas of Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, et al. (and the wise corrective of Origen, who influenced all of them). Having said all this, I believe that the thought of Maximus is the key to properly understanding the thought of Palamas on essence/energies. That is, Palamas really needs to be interpreted in ways that conform closely to what Maximus already laid out.

      And so it’s in this way that I think the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa “relate to” an essence/energies distinction. I do not at all think that St. Gregory in the above passages is per se expounding an essence/energies distinction, certainly not articulating in different words exactly what St. Gregory Palamas eventually articulated. However, what Gregory of Nyssa says here and what the other Cappadocians wrote in this regard, as well as what other fourth-century writers had to say, understood exactly as you explained them above, are not at odds with a proper essence/energies distinction. There are connections in the sense that they are part of a lineage of thought (with earlier conceptions offering latent possibilities that later theologians would find necessary to elaborate), in the sense that these fourth-century writers (and Origen and others who influenced them) were the ones who began to clear the path that would lead in a certain direction, in the sense that Gregory of Nyssa’s (and others’) words and Palamas’ words are attempts to scratch similar itches, and in the sense that sometimes a future understanding often gives us a fuller, more expansive scope on a past understanding (of course, such a notion could be abused, but I mean it along the lines of what one American bishop means when he likes to suggest that the future gives the past its ultimate meaning.)

      Please take note that when I say things about the essence/energies distinction, I usually say “an” essence/energies distinction or “a proper” essence/energies distinction or an essence/energies distinction “that is understood in light of St. Maximus’ logos/logoi distinction” or with other qualifiers. That’s because I acknowledge what has been said elsewhere in this thread — there is more than one way people think about essence/energies, including some quite oddball ways. I think that sometimes when people talk about Palamism, both for and against it, they have in mind things that likely aren’t what Palamas himself had in mind. My reading of Palamas has not been as thorough as others, so I could be easily contradicted by people who’ve studied more, but I do believe Palamas in elaborating the essence/energies distinction in the Triads, isn’t attempting an explanation of God. For him, as for others before him, God is beyond essence (“essence” is really just another name that can’t give us any grasp on God) “Essence” could even be called an “energy,” Palamas says. The whole essence is contained in every energy, he says. And if that is so, then all the energies are really single in or with the essence (I say). How can this be, or what does this mean? I’m convinced that this is best understood by recourse to Maximus (and I’ve offered a few relevant Maximian quotes elsewhere in this thread to suggest what I mean). Palamas is concerned to say that both “essence” and “energies” are realities but not for the purpose of providing anything new for the metaphysics of God. His purpose is to refute Barlaam’s apparent notion that what is encountered in God’s dealings with us is something created and intermediary. So I think his distinction, literal and nonliteral, is somewhat of a hearkening to the kind of idea that Gregory of Nyssa is trying to express with “distributing himself variously. No, they aren’t saying The. Same. Thing. but there are resemblances. They both experienced God himself and used the rhetorical powers and references at their disposal to describe the reality. And both can be helpful to us today.

      Please excuse my rambling, ambiguous, sometimes circuitous, and often parenthetical way of writing. I know it doesn’t always make the best sense, but it’s often the best I can do.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Robert Fortuin says:

    When the Nyssen speaks of acts, relations, manifestations, etc. this is not to mark a distinction between what God does and is, for “God is what he wills and wills what he is” just like there is a perfect coincidence in God between what he wills and what he does. There is no unrealized potentiality in God. These metaphysical claims by Gregory (and Basil and Nazianzen) are explicit; sound hermeneutics take these terms to be used to understand his writings, rather than to import developments that came 300, 1000, or 1600 years later. If we want to say that Maximus or Palamas or Lossky added something important, I am fine with that, as long as we don’t stuff their words into his mouth; alas, with more time passing, the latter seems to be a lost skill.


  15. Robert Fortuin says:

    I mean sound hermeneutics seems to be lost on those who do the latter.


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