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.
 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.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I.36.
 In many ways, my thesis here is consonant with Joseph E. Lenow’s essay in response to Mullins.
 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.
 At least, if we are predicating in a univocal sense.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 See Proslogion, 9-11, and Cur Deus Homo, II.20.
 For a classic analysis of this as it relates to theology, see Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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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.