Perfect Being Theology, Theistic Personalism, and the Eclipse of the Apophatic

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Readers of this blog are well-acquainated with the term “theistic personalism.” It was coined by Brian Davies to describe what he believes to be a problematic understanding of divinity, commonly advanced by analytic philosophers. He specifically names Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, perhaps the two best-known contemporary Christian philosophers on the planet. Unlike the metaphysically simple God of classical Christianity, theistic personal­ists begin with the notion of God as an incorporeal person. “Person” here means just what it does in our ordinary discourse—a being that possesses intelligence and will. To this divine Person we may attribute various properties, such as omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, righteousness, benevolence, and so on. These properties are typically determined by perfect-being extrapolation and the plain reading of the Scrip­tures. Philosophers of the analytic school debate among themselves which properties may be properly attributed to the Deity. Does God foreknow the future, for instance? Some say yes, others no. How can even the Creator know what hasn’t happened yet? Many theistic personalists also divine passibility and mutability. “Indeed,” comments Davies,

many of them make a point of doing so. Why? Largely because they think that, if God is impassible and unchangeable, then he cannot be taken seriously as a person. The persons we call people are changed by what they encounter and discover. They are modified by other things. And, says the theistic personalist, this is how it must be with God. An impassible and unchanging God would, they argue, be lifeless. Such a God, they often add, would also not be admirable. We admire people who can be moved by tragic events. We admire people who can become elated when good things happen. And, theistic personalists sometimes say, we can admire God only if he, like admirable people, is suitably affected by the good and the bad which occurs in the world.1

Theistic personalists also commonly reject the metaphysical attribute of divine simplicity, both because they deem the notion philosophically incoherent and because it ostensibly contradicts the biblical portrayal of divinity. The God of the Bible is, if nothing else, a distinct individual with distinct properties and perfections. As William Lane Craig remarks: “the doctrine of divine simplicity is one that has no biblical support at all and, in my opinion, has no good philosophical arguments in its favor.”

Classical theists wonder whether the deity of theistic personalism can be properly described as God. David B. Hart is characteristically blunt:

Many Anglophone theistic philosophers …, reared as they have been in a post-Fregean intellectual environment, have effectively broken with clas­sical theistic tradition, adopting a style of thinking that the Dominican philoso­pher Brian Davies calls theistic personalism. I prefer to call it monopoly­the­ism myself (or perhaps “mono-poly-theism”), since it seems to me to involve a view of God not conspicuously different from the poly­theis­tic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggests that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehen­sive reality embracing both him and other beings. For philosophers who think in this way, practically all the traditional metaphysical attempts to understand God as the source of all reality become impenetrable.2

Theistic personalists emphatically reject any suggestion that in their prayers and reflections they are intending any other deity but the Holy Creator rendered in the biblical witness and worshipped by Christians for the past two thousand years. All affirm that he is a metaphys­ically necessary being, existing in all possible worlds. As Swinburne puts it: “His existence is not merely an ultimate brute fact, but the ultimate brute fact.”3  Most affirm that God created the world from out of nothing and continues to sustain it by his providential will. How then can the personalist Deity be compared to a god? Aren’t the classical theists being more than a bit unfair?

Barry Miller does not think so. In chapter 1 of his book A Most Unlikely God, he contrasts the classical theistic understanding of divine nature and attributes with what he calls “perfect-being theology.” He cites Thomas Morris as a notable practitioner of this “Ansel­mian” method. Given the limited availability of Miller’s book, I quote him at length:

In challenging the controlling notion of God employed by perfect-being theologians, I have no wish to deny that he is indeed the absolutely perfect being. What I shall be denying, however, is their particular understanding of that notion. Aquinas, for example, understands a perfect being as Actus Purus, a being devoid of all potentiality; Maimonides conceives of it as One, a being ‘without any composition of plurality of elements’; but Anselmians understand it as a being having the maximally consistent set of great-making properties or perfections. Whether the Anselmians’ view is acceptable, however, depends on what they mean by a perfection. As explained by Morris, it is a property that fulfils the following conditions:

1.01.  It is better to have than not to have.
1.02.  It may vary in degree.
1.03.  It is ‘constituted by the logical maximum of an upwardly bounded, degreed great-making property.’ Omnipotence and omnipotence are offered as examples.

The procedure for determining which great-making properties belong to God could hardly be simpler, namely, if having property P contributes to the excellence of a thing that does have P, then an absolutely perfect being has P, otherwise the being does have not have P. Among those that pass the test are omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and indeed all the perfections.

The Anselmians’ notion of a perfection has immediate implications for their understanding of God’s transcendence over his creatures. They succeed in setting him well apart from his creatures, many of which may perhaps have great-making properties but no one of which would have even one of them to the maximum degree possible. On this view, the gulf between God and creatures would therefore be wide, and perhaps unimaginably so, though it would not constitute an absolute divide. It is difficult to see how it could be more than a difference of degree, since the terms indicating his properties—‘powerful,’ ‘knowing,’ ‘loving,’ ‘merciful,’ ‘generous’ and so on—seem to be univocally of God and creatures. True, when applied to God, those terms are often qualified as ‘maximally powerful,’ ‘all knowing,’ ‘infinitely merciful,’ unsurpassably generous,’ but the qualifiers do nothing to change the sense of the terms they qualify. Hence, the role of ‘maximally,’ ‘all,’ ‘infinitely,’ and ‘unsurpassably’ cannot be that of alienans adjectives like ‘decoy’ in ‘decoy duck,’ or ‘negative’ in ‘negative growth,’ each of which does serve to change the sense of the term it qualifies. Rather, they are merely superlatives, which of course leave quite intact the sense of the terms they qualify. Thus under­stood, God’s properties are merely human ones, albeit extended to the maximum degree possible.

As conceived of by perfect-being theologians, therefore, God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship. The point is that the terms that perfect-being theology predicates of God are being used in precisely the sense that ipso facto precludes their being predicated of a God who is absolutely transcendent, since it is a sense in which they could equally be predicated of creatures. The difference between creatures and any God of whom they really could be predicated would therefore be simply one of degree. Although this may seem to be a hard saying, it follows straightforwardly from the fact that absolute transcen­dence cannot be attained merely by extending human attributes to whatever degree is deemed to be ‘maximal.’ The Anselmians’ God is therefore anything but ineffable, for not only can we talk about him, we can do so in precisely the same terms as those we use in talking about humans. Such a view succeeds in presenting God in terms that are comfortingly familiar, but only at the price of being discomfitingly anthropomorphic.4

The give-away here for Miller is the univocity of language for God. For perfect being theology, to say that God is “wise” and that Plato is “wise” is basically to say the same thing, though God’s wisdom is also qualified as (infinitely?) greater. In this sense, the eternal Creator and his creatures share all sorts of properties in common. The difference between them is relative, not absolute—at least so it appears. For the classical theist, on the other hand, to affirm the univocity of language for God is to reduce divinity to the status of a finite entity. On the basis of creaturely perfections, via their participation in the divine perfections, we may speak of God analogically; nonetheless the interval between the two remains infinite, ineffable, absolute. We do not know how our language for God applies to him, for we do not comprehend his transcendent essence. And so the debate continues, world without end.

The contrast between the God of theistic personalism and the God of the Church Fathers and medieval doctors is stark. Although St Basil of Caesarea and St Gregory of Nyssa may have affirmed the univocal use of language when speaking of the divine propria, they also insisted upon divine simplicity and the incomprehensibility of the divine essence. How they pulled this off is the burden of Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s ground-breaking book Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity.5 But for the Cappadocian brothers, God remains absolute, incomprehensible Mystery, as he was for St Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Thomas Aquinas.

 

Footnotes

[1] Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, chap. 2, pp. 12-13. I am told that the first edition of his book is to be preferred. I have not compared the first and the third. A fourth edition was published last Fall.

[2] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 127-128.

[3] Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, p. 277.

[4] Barry Miller, A Most Unlikely God, pp. 1-3.

[5] Radde-Gallwitz has recently changed his mind and now believes that St Gregory affirmed a stronger version of absolute divine simplicity than the formulation he explicated in his book. See his essay “Gregory of Nyssa and Divine Simplicity,” Modern Theology 35 (July 2019): 452-466.

 

(30 May 2016; rev.)

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57 Responses to Perfect Being Theology, Theistic Personalism, and the Eclipse of the Apophatic

  1. Rob says:

    “For perfect being theology, to say that God is “wise” and that Plato is “wise” is basically to say the same thing, though God’s wisdom is also qualified as (infinitely?) greater.”

    The problem is, if we do *not* mean that the quality of wisdom is something held in common by both God and man, however tenuous the link, then when we say that God is wise we are just spouting a propaganda slogan. “God is wise” just turns out to be “God is something which we know not”, which is just useless gibberish that provides no conceivable motive for worship. The very idea of revelation presupposes the ability of the ones receiving it to understand something about the thing being revealed. If we can’t understand anything about God, then we’re all wasting our time and we may as well worship Azathoth. In fact, I don’t see much practical difference between worshiping one utterly unknowable thing and another.

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    • Alex says:

      You may be interested to study the tradition of analogical predication as the answer to this false dichotomy between univocity and equivocity in our language about God. An example:

      “The pen and the sky are both blue” (univocal predication—terms are used in the same sense)

      “I cannot bear to watch the bears in the zoo” (equivocal predication—the two uses of “bear” are homographs and are entirely distinct in meaning)

      “This healthy meal helps me to remain healthy” (the classic example of analogy—the terms are used in a related sense, specifically with respect to cause and effect, which, incidentally, is how we might think of terms like “good” and “beauty” when applied to God)

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      • Rob says:

        Stretch the analogy as far as you please, it all ends the same way. Either there is some component that analogical predicates (such as the aforementioned dual uses of “healthy”) do share in common (for example, “promoting a state of good health”), or there is not.

        If there is, then analogical terms bottom out in some univocal concept. And if not, then analogical terms are equivocal, revelation is impossible, and religion is useless. There is no third alternative.

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        • Alex says:

          I don’t think that analogy must “bottom out” in univocity, as you say. You seem to conceptualizing the relationship as between two terms that share meaning through a third; for example, the health of my body and the health of the meal are both healthy because they both ____________. (Incidentally, I think you’d have trouble identifying what to put in that blank—your example above doesn’t hold, as the health of my body doesn’t “promote health.” It is health). But in analogy, it is the first term that is the ground of its use with respect to the second. In other words, the two uses of “health” are related not because they partake of some common thing between them; rather, the second partakes of the first. The health of the body is the most proper use of the term and its essential meaning, with the term being used of the food only analogically insofar as it can be said to promote the latter. There is no “univocal concept” that stands above the relationship, no third.

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          • Rob says:

            “In other words, the two uses of “health” are related not because they partake of some common thing between them; rather, the second partakes of the first.”
            I must disagree. Both are “healthy” in the sense that they partake of the concept of physical well-being of the creature as such. But that’s a sidetrack.

            Even if one granted your presuppositions, it would still not be a valid form of reasoning about God for the simple and obvious reason that we cannot, under this system, know anything substantive about what we are talking about. To use your example, we would not know what “healthy” as applied to your body actually means, consequently we would not be able to make any substantive analogy to “healthy” as a applied to a meal.

            Let us take a concrete example: wisdom in God is ________ wisdom in man. Is it alike? If so, there is a commonality between us. Is it not? If so, wherein do you find warrant to apply the word to God?

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          You have said, in a post below that I can’t reply to:
          “Both are “healthy” in the sense that they partake of the concept of physical well-being of the creature as such.”
          This is simply untrue. “Healthy” in the sense of a body being healthy *is* “the concept of physical well-being of the creature as such”, it does not “partake” of it. “Healthy” in the sense of food being healthy, however, *does* “partake” of that concept, in that it relates to it, but it is not the thing itself. That these two meanings of healthy are not the same may be evinced by the fact that the food is not healthy in the sense the body is healthy: by contrast it is, in fact, dead and cut up into little pieces, which is anything but “healthy”. Likewise, cannibalism is anything but healthy, so the body, if eaten, would be anything but healthy in the sense the food is. These concepts are related, but not the same.
          The “gotcha” example you used was that of wisdom. One way in which we can say Plato is “wise” is because he can impart wisdom to people. God is also “wise” in this sense. Plato, however, can do so because is “wise” in the sense that he has learnt and understands a lot of things about the world and logic etc. God’s “wisdom” on the other hand is not derived from receiving knowledge from a source external to him in the way Plato’s is but because he himself is the creator of all things and the direct source of knowledge. Two related but not the same things.

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          • Rob says:

            I’m going to ask this again until I get a straight answer: starting with the presumption that there is no univocal quality being referred to when a term is used of both God and man, by what right do you apply the term to God at all? If we do not first know anything about God in and of himself, what warrant is there for any particular human word for a concept derived from experience of finite creatures being applied?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Rob – analogy’s construal is based on the principles of relationality, proportionality, and participation. Effect is related to its cause proportionally and by means of participation in its cause. The likeness of the cause is in its effects. In the effects the cause is known through similarity and dissimilarity. Univocity, equivocity, multivocity – these fail in their ability to express the constant tension between the “similarity in dissimilarity” which the Adiastematic/diastematic relation presents.

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      • Chris Walsh says:

        But bears are beautiful, Alex! Perhaps, though, they should be in nature, not in zoos

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Rob,

      You bring up an excellent point, and your concern of the loss of meaning by way of equivocity is indeed very legit.

      I have written about predication here on this blog on several locations: here’s the main one: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/10/04/analogous-predication-in-gregory-of-nyssas-contra-eunomium/

      It is not the case Rob that predication is a simple binary, either meaning is univocal or else it is equivocal. The analogical spans the ever-so-important difference between God and creation (the main point made Fr Kimel in this repost) by way of true and real (i.e. analogical) similarity.

      I hope you will read it and let me know if it is of help.

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      • Rob says:

        Not really. Here is the problem: if there is no univocal concept at the root of any analogy, by what means can you make an analogy at all? If for example God’s wisdom is like man’s wisdom but you cannot identify in what way it is like it, how do you know it is like it at all? An analogy presupposes some univocal concept that applies to both things in it (ie. “he stood strong like a rock”). You cannot even know by negation, as to know what something is not one must have some concrete idea of what it *is*.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          It is like it, but it also is not like it. There are more ways to skin this cat of meaning. Univocity is but one way of establishing meaning, and it so happens univocity fails miserably up against the limitless Excess that is God. Unless we want to confine God to our image.

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          • Rob says:

            “ It is like it, but it also is not like it.”
            Then by what means do you know that it is, in fact, like it? As opposed to randomly unrelated?

            Suppose we take an especially pertinent example; love. If man’s love is best defined as willing the good of the other for their own sake, how is God’s love alike to it? How is it different? If these are not questions that can be answered, then what right do you have to apply the word “love” to God at all?

            “Unless we want to confine God to our image.”
            Quite the reverse, actually. I hold that we are in his, and hence can have a meaningful idea of what he is like.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Rob – analogy’s construal is based on the principles of relationality, proportionality, and participation. Effect is related to its cause proportionally and by means of participation in its cause. The likeness of the cause is in its effects. In the effects the cause is known through similarity and dissimilarity. Univocity, equivocity, multivocity – these fail in their ability to express the constant tension between the “similarity in dissimilarity” which the Adiastematic/diastematic relation presents. I find no better construal of meaning than what analogy generally, and Analogia Entis specifically, posits.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Rob says:

            “The likeness of the cause is in its effects. In the effects the cause is known through similarity and dissimilarity.”

            So, we know God by what he does, but not by what he is? That is precious little to go on, for if we know nothing about what he is in himself the answer to what he is may well turn out to be “dishonest”. An utterly unknown thing that acts one way today may well act completely differently tomorrow. There is no assurance.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I suggest reading up on analogy a bit. Erich Przywara is a good start. It is precisely the loss of meaning that analogy prevents….I hate to tell you, but you haven’t stumbled upon a new concern.

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          • Rob says:

            I’m aware it’s not new, I just don’t find the proposed answers satisfactory. No one has yet provided me with an answer to a very simple: if we start with the premise that God *as he is* is a complete unknown to us, on what grounds can you draw any analogy whatsoever?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            On the grounds that the likeness of the cause is found in its effects, and that God does what God is. The analogy approximates in its affirmation of similarity and its affirmation of dissimilarity – it circles around and around. The dissimilarity does not undercut or eliminate the similarity however (hence the ability to make the analogy), the cataphatic remains but is augmented if you will by the apophatic. So we can say that indeed God is love as we know love (of course we know supremely so by Jesus) but *also* unlike love we know. I hope that is helpful.

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          • Rob says:

            “So we can say that indeed God is love as we know love (of course we know supremely so by Jesus) but *also* unlike love we know. I hope that is helpful.”

            That is to say not much of anything at all. It may be unlike love we know by being the complete opposite. It may be unlike the love we know by being completely apathetic to our well-being. There is no logical reason under this principle to suppose that it is not.

            Suppose I told you that a gshurblesnatch is like a elephant but also not, and then when asked how replied that I have no idea, because I don’t know what a gshurblesnatch is actually like in any positive way whatsoever. The “analogy” is a meaningless tautology.

            I feel that C. S. Lewis words are appropriate here:

            “This, for all practical (and speculative) purposes, sponges God off the slate. The word good, applied to him, becomes meaningless: like abracadabra. We have no motive for obeying him. Not even fear. It is true we have his threats and promises. But why should we believe them? If cruelty is from his point of view “good,” telling lies may be “good” too. Even if they are true, what then? If his ideas of good are so very different from ours, what he calls Heaven might well be what we should call Hell, and vice-versa. Finally, if reality at its root is so meaningless to us—or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbeciles—what is the point of trying to think either about God or about anything else?”

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            “It may be unlike love we know by being the complete opposite.” Nope. As I said, the affirmation is not negated, but rather augmented by the denial.

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          • Rob says:

            “Nope. As I said, the affirmation is not negated, but rather augmented by the denial.”

            That is meaningless jumble of words except insofar as you can actually state in some meaningful way in what way the affirmation is actually an affirmation. In what way is it like, and how do you know?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            From common experience, and thus not meaningless at all. The effects of the sun are like the sun, progeny like its progenitor, et cetera.

            On what grounds do you establish meaning for your theo-logoi?

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          • Rob says:

            But common experience with finite things is inapplicable to God under this scheme. He is radically other, unknowable in his essence and hence neither the behavior of finite objects nor indeed his purported past behavior can be any reliable guide to how he will behave in our present or future.

            My grounds are fairly simple. I believe that in any coherent analogy, at least some underlying quality must be shared between the two objects in question. Moreover, I believe that it is perfectly possible to describe God using terms that are univocal. For example, I believe that the term “honesty” in man and “honesty” in God refer to more or less the same thing, and hence God having perfect honesty is neither unknowable nor even particularly difficult to grasp. If you disagree with this analysis and believe that God’s honesty is not fundamentally the same quality as in a man who was perfectly honest at all times, then I would ask you on what grounds?

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      (Again with the problem it’s not possible to respond to the actual post.)
      You say below:
      “I’m going to ask this again until I get a straight answer: starting with the presumption that there is no univocal quality being referred to when a term is used of both God and man, by what right do you apply the term to God at all?”
      By your own argument your question is gibberish.
      You cannot apply the term “straight” to the word “answer” because answers do not have a physical form and you can’t apply a geometric term to an abstract concept.
      A quality cannot be “univocal” because “univocal” means having one voice, and qualities can’t have voices.
      A “right” is meaningless term because it is a direction or side and can’t be used of some abstract quality which can’t have hands of physical directions.
      You see how this works? All thought and language involves taking simpler, understood things, like physical shapes and directions etc and using them as analogies to refer to, describe and understand other, more complex things which we are less familiar with, but which in some sense are related to or share features in common with the things we do understand. (“Feature” is another one of these words used by analogy for something which is nor, now much to do with facial features, the early, concrete use of the word. “Concrete” is yet another one. And so on.)

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Analogy is not some esoteric theological slight of hand but an ordinary and necessary feature of language itself. If this were not so, the sentence I just wrote would be incomprehensible. Language has no “features” – it has no eyes or nose or mouth, and yet, somehow we all know what it means for language to have a “feature” because the various different aspects of how it works are understood to be equivalent to the features of a face by analogy: not the same, but understoodby equivalence and comparison. If you can’t understand how this works, you can’t understand language or basic conceptual thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      For what it’s worth, ‘feature’ comes from ‘factura’ and need not refer to ‘lineamentum corporis’ or ‘vultus’, e.g., ‘factura corporis’ means one’s ‘build’, but note Vulgate Psalm 91:5, “Quia delectasti me, Domine, in factura tua” (Challoner Douay-Rheims: ‘For Thou hast given me, O Lord, a delight in Thy doings’; Septuagint has ‘poiemati’ where Vulgate has ‘factura’) and Ephesians 2:10, “Ipsius enim sumus factura” (Challoner Douay-Rheims: ‘For we are His workmanship’; the Greek has ‘poiema’ where Vulgate has ‘factura’).

      That said, I find ‘analogia entis’ appealing, but to what is ‘being’ analogous, and how? Again, what is ‘actus purus’ in (inter)relation to created temporal being? What kind of instance of ‘analogia entis’ is it?

      When Barry Miller writes of “a God who is absolutely transcendent” wonder what he is also thinking in terms of ‘immanence’, Incarnation, the logikoi of St. Maximus, and (might one say) ‘such like’?

      I enjoyed hearnig Richard Swinburne give his inaugural lecture as Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and was intrigued to find it making something like a case for psychosomnolence (!), but have not kept up with his work since he became Orthodox, and so wonder what he says about, e.g., Trinitarian theology, as I have had interesting discussions with a philosophical theologian who seemed only able to arrive at tritheism.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I looked up the origin of “feature” in English before writing the post – I missed that it started off as a verb meaning to form or fashion something before it became associated with facial features (from about the 14th Century apparently). It may be that it started to get used for the shaped or fashioned bits of the face, while the original meaning got dropped. According to what I have read the use via analogy to mean particular stand out bits or parts of something generally came later.

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  3. Pretty Lamb says:

    Just how ‘classical’ is so-called classical theism really? It seems to me it could be a mostly post hoc fabrication – following a scholastic bias, along the lines of Thomas Aquinas being the summa of classical theology, rather than the summary of a subsection – and not really descriptive of the many streams of sophisticated theology in the classical world.

    The idea that all the thought of the Hindus and the Greeks, for example – and even the Taoists and Buddhists, inasmuch as the Tao or Dharmakaya / Buddha-dhatu is analogous to God or Brahman – can really be summed up or typified as: “God is the Supreme Being”, or “God is self-subsisting Being” . . . I think is a very tendentious reading.

    I suspect that classical texts may be more open to “theistic personalism” than our neo-classicalists might want to admit. For example, all the texts which say that God is beyond the categorical distinctions of being and non-being, good and evil, etc., would suggest that God being passible & mutable in some relative and conditional sense might be true. The idea of the Tao especially, which I get from the classical Taoist texts, is much more dynamic and open to some idea of process or change than a pure Platonic or Aristotelian ‘stasis’ constructed from higher and higher levels of abstraction, from a chain of being or chain of causation that leads ultimately to a divinely static Thing, a kind of geometrical God: the divine circle or divine triangle. Here I think the so-called classical theists are, in the end, just falling back on Parmenides; whereas I think true classical theology was, as a whole and to a degree, able to synthesise Parmenidean stasis and Heraclitean flux; a synthesis which our modern theistic personalists might in their own way be trying to recover.

    Granted there’s much more to the mystery of God than a ‘higher being’ or ‘perfect being’, might there also be more than the ipsum esse subsistens, the All or the Good, noeseos noesis, etc.? It seems by an intellectual system as that you arrive at a God who’s well enough perfect in the order of logic and abstraction, but in the order of reality is not much more than a kind of geometrical ecstasy.

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    • Thomas says:

      I’d be perfectly fine with the notion that the medievals were radically original geniuses who achieved a level of sophistication not only unmatched by previous generations, but wholly without precedent.

      But that has little more connection with intellectual history than the notion that Plato or Aristotle though of God as a “static Thing”.

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      • Pretty Lamb says:

        I didn’t say the medievals worked without precedent. Obviously they had their classical influences, but that doesn’t mean they continued all of classical theology or managed to summarise it as a whole. Besides, they went off on their own direction and did innovate. You see in the medieval nominalists themselves a movement away from what is here being called “classical theism”, almost as if they sensed the system was built on air and could be made to collapse with a little prodding. And sure Plato and Aristotle make God out to be pure stasis, a purely static divine Object; especially Plato who seemed to think that change or motion was a metaphysical contaminant. They were logicians and what you get with them is the God of logical abstraction, the less concrete and the less phenomenologically present the more perfect and divine.

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        • Thomas says:

          That God is immutable is, for those who hold to the councils at least, a matter of dogma.

          But it’s also a matter of fairly basic metaphysics. If X can change it is neither infinite nor perfect — whatever it acquires during the change it did not have before, and therefore there is something it was lacking. Again, if contingent explanations (which could be otherwise) do not come to rest in a necessary (hence, unchangeable) ground, then there are brute facts. And if there are brute facts, there are no explanations.

          To be sure, Freud was on to something when he suggested that some religious believers engage in infantile wish fulfilment, thinking of God as a finite personality along the lines of our own. But this, fortunately, is excluded both as a matter of doctrine, and as a matter of philosophical reflection.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Pretty Lamb says:

    Quote Barry Miller:
    As conceived of by perfect-being theologians, therefore, God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship.

    I want to offer a contrary thought to Miller’s here. I’ve come across recently in Meister Eckhart and Adi Shankara, Christian mystic and Hindu mystic, a similar concept . . .
    That what Eckhart calls “the Godhead” and what Adi Shankara calls “Brahman” is the absolute beyond all thought and all categories; and that what Eckhart calls “God” and Adi Shankara calls “Ishvara” are some kind of means or dialectically lower stage that allows us creatures to approach that absolute mystery. In other words, what we worship as God is the Most High according to our creaturely way of thinking, but the “Godhead” (Brahman) is so beyond our way of thinking that I would venture we do not offer this properly worship at all. This absolute beyond all cateogries, this “absolutely transcendent” as Barry Miller calls it, is NOT “worthy of worship”, because “worship” cannot approach it in any way. Only God, Ishvara, can be worshipped, precisely because He is not “absolutely transcendent” in every conceivable way.

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  5. Rob says:

    Question for those who hold to absolute divine simplicity: could the Father or the Holy Spirit have incarnated instead? Is that possible? Why or why not?

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      • Rob says:

        Then the Father and Holy Spirit have un-actualized potential (they could have incarnated but in fact did not) and hence are not absolutely simple.

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        • Thomas says:

          In the Incarnation, it’s not a divine potential that is actualized, but a human potential (i.e. a human nature is actualized).

          The position that the Word is mutable was condemned as heresy at the initial Nicene council, and the anathema was even part of the initial version of the creed.

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          • Rob says:

            The traditional formula is one divine person with both a divine and a human nature. Now, being that two of the three divine persons do not have a human nature, that would seem to differentiate one such person from the other two.

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          • Thomas says:

            The three persons of the Trinity are not differentiated by the fact that one became Incarnate. They are different independently of human history.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Though I am not a Thomist, though I’m clearly sympathetic to his metaphysics (to the limited degree that I understand it), I’d like to bring Norris Clarke’s essay on analogy into the discussion: http://www.anthonyflood.com/clarkenielsenanalogy.htm.

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I wonder if it’s really possible to specify a clear and rigorous theory of how our language for God works, given divine transcendence. Clearly it’s not a matter of comparison between two entities that exist side by side in the same universe. We aren’t talking about similarities and dissimilarities between apples and oranges, for example. God is beyond being and the source of being. We are thus immediately confronted with God’s radical dissimilarity, a dissimilarity that we cannot state but only point to, as it were. This is why, I believe, that the Church Fathers insist that the divine essence is incomprehensible. How do we specify the boundaries of a being who is not a being? We can’t, of course, which is why we speak of God as infinite, incorporeal, immaterial, immutable, etc. Such a being does not have properties as a finite substance has properties. Perhaps, then, as Rob suggests, Christians should not speak of him at all. Yet we do and have always done so. But on what basis?

    We may speak meaningfully about God, I would think, for two reasons: (1) God’s creation of the world and (2) his enfleshment in Jesus Christ. Both must be thought together. Regarding the first, I have found Dionysius the Areopagite most helpful. He teaches us that the world is the free unfolding of the divine into finitude, with the result that the world as a whole and in its particulars is a manifestation of the divine–theophany! The world reveals God analogous to the way a painting reveals the artist or the novel the author. Yet the analogy breaks down because the work of art is external to its creator; yet God is not external to his creation in this way. God contains all things, is in all things, is reflected in all things as in a mirror–yet is not a thing. Eric Perl elaborates:

    For Dionysius, then, as for Plotinus and Proclus, the whole of reality, all that is, is theophany, the manifestation or appearance of God. For the entire content of any being is God present in it in a distinct, finite way, and in virtue of this distinction, knowable in that being as its intelligible content. It is just as distinct, or finite, that God is present in the being, or that the being is a presentation of God. For to be “present” means to be given or available to thought, i.e. to be intelligible. And as intelligible, as given to thought, God is apparent, or manifest, in and as the being. To be present, to be manifest, to be finite, to be distinct, to be intelligible, are ultimately all the same, and all are elaborations of the only possible meaning of “to be.” The understanding of being as theophany is thus a strict consequence, developed in the Neoplatonic tradition, of the original principle that to be is to be intelligible.

    To say that reality is the appearance of God, however, may be misleading, if it is taken to mean that God is, so to speak, “there,” behind or inside all the appearance, an object prior to and apart from them. If God is not any being, then what is reality the appearance of? Such a question again attempts to reduce God to a “what,” a being, an object of thought, violating all that has been said about divine transcendence and about all being as appearance. When we speak of reality as the appearance of God, we must remember that since all reality is theophany, God, as “that which appears,” is not another being, another member of reality. The doctrine of being as theophany means not that God is and is himself, and also appears, but rather that God is nothing but what is differently present, or appears, in and as all things. To pass from appearance to what is appearing, from being to God, is not to pass from one thing to another thing. Rather, since God is not another thing but the enfolding of all things, to go from beings to God is to gather the whole diverse content of reality together, and in so doing, since being necessarily involves multiplicity and distinction, to pass beyond being. (Theophany, pp. 32-33; also see Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, pp. 85-86)

    The world as theophanic revelation is perfectly and wondrously realized in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. In him the unintelligible Creator (unintelligible because he transcends all finite differentiation) comes to intelligible expression. Christ is the foundation and ground for our meaningful speech about God.

    Is our speech about God univocal, equivocal, or analogical? Perhaps all of the above, perhaps none of the above. I don’t know. The 4th Lateran Synod well captures, I think, the mystery of our theological language: “For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.”

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    • Rob says:

      “The 4th Lateran Synod well captures, I think, the mystery of our theological language: “For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.”

      And therein lies the crux of the problem with this concept. If there is no similarity between, say, honesty in a creature and honesty in God which is not in fact marked by a greater dissimilarity between the two, there is no basis on which one can assume that the dissimilarity is not in fact what in man we would call “shameless lying”. If we cannot know God to be perfectly honest *exactly as men define it*, then there is no basis left for trust, love, or even fear.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Rob, I’m confused. Are you arguing against the existence of a transcendent Deity or just the meaningfulness of theological language?

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        • Rob says:

          I don’t view God as radically unknowable by man, but my contention is that if he is, if this description of every similarity being exceeded by a still greater similarity is in fact true, then religion is pointless. We know nothing for we CAN know nothing, God could not talk to us even if he wanted to, and it would be impossible to trust him even if he did. As I said, if honesty at the least is the not the same (that this, a univocal quality) in God as in man, why believe anything he has purportedly said? He might be lying, if it was him speaking at all.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            On what grounds do you suppose that dissimilarity does away with similarity? It doesn’t in everyday experience by my view of things. The dissimilarity which exists between a child and its parent does not negate the similarity between them. And from the knowledge of the child we can know about the parent. I think Jesus said something to that effect.

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          • Rob says:

            The parent and child share several fundamental, underlying qualities (“being human” not the least among them) and even those who are not parents themselves generally understand the continuity between parent and child and fundamentally have some idea of what a parent is. Whereas, if this concept is true, you and I have no idea whatsoever what God is in himself. Which in turn means no more valid analogy can be constructed in regards to him than a random jumble of letters I threw together that signify nothing.

            To have a similarity, at least one quality must be shared between two objects in some fashion. If the dissimilarity in that quality is great enough, the analogy fails. If I tell you that a man is sturdy as a rock but actually he’s flighty, cowardly, and all around the opposite of the qualities deriving from or inferred from a stone, I have told you nothing. If I don’t know anything about him in himself, any analogy I make has no basis.

            Again, if the dissimilarity in honesty in man and honesty in God is truly greater than the similarities, as the above passage says, why should we presume his idea of honesty is anything like ours? And if it isn’t, why would we believe anything he allegedly said?

            And regarding what Jesus said? As it happens I agree. We have some idea of what the fatherhood of God is like based on human fatherhood. It is not more dissimilar than similar, it is not incomprehensible, and it truly describes God *as he is in himself*. Or, at least, that is my belief.

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  8. johnjlamb says:

    For the Ultimate to be bound off by itself in its limitlessness is itself a kind of limitation. Hence the Christian idea of kenosis, the self-emptying of the Godhead, and the many classic Zen statements such as:
    “What is Buddha?”
    “Three pounds of flax.”

    God as a Higher Being living in sovereign seclusion is not so problematic, but that’s also what classical theists are calling idolatry, an unworthy image, not a true conception of divinity, etc. When you go beyond that concept of God as the highest and most perfect being, the most loving and fulfilled person, and reach to the absolute beyond or transcendence, the primeval Source or whatever… you eventually have to do away with a secluded God resting in His perfections, and get to something which is beyond being and non-being, changing and unchanging, infinite and finite, and so on.
    Like it says here in Zhuangzi:

    Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way – where does it exist?”

    Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”

    “Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!”

    “It is in the ant.”

    “As low a thing as that?”

    “It is in the panic grass.”

    “But that’s lower still!”

    “It is in the tiles and shards.”

    “How can it be so low?”

    “It is in the piss and shit!”

    Master Tung-kuo made no reply.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. brian says:

    I am in the midst of a move and have not wanted to weigh in on this interesting discussion. However, I am irritated enough to tell folks to get off my lawn, though its techically not my lawn anymore. It’s a commonplace of patristics, “if you can comprehend it, it isn’t God.” There is a form of aphophatic restrain at the center of Thomist metaphysics. We can know that God is without knowing what He is. This does not equate to sheer ignorance, but the Cloud of Unknowing. One of Aquinas’ five ways indicates that we understand degrees of perfection in our ordinary experience of life. We can say that X is more beautiful than Y or stronger than Z, though we never encounter a definitive minimum or maximum. Our capacity to make this judgement points to an exemplar that is not encountered as objective entity, but rather is the unseen ground that allows for consciousness to know and make comparisons in the world. There is a lived, prereflective union with the Uncreated that makes possible all our acts that move from potency to actuality. This union of creature with Creator is not a function of faith, it is the underlying reality that makes second order metaphysical reasoning a possible act. Hence, one could say that the aniconic source that gives birth to all images is also the source of our knowing that is activated by our encounters with beings in the world. We don’t know God apart from them, we’re not angels.

    Yet it is indisputable once one recognizes the difference between the unique Being whose essence is its existence and all finite, contingent beings that participate in Being, that there must be greater dissimilarity than similarity because no creature “owns” its own existence. You own your nothing, says St. Anselm. Also, God is not comprehended by his Creation. He is not merely the sum of all creatures. The infinite excess of the Divine is why the Beatific Vision is not a static wonder before a totalizing completion, but a continual progress of ever more wondrous discovery (Gregory of Nyssa’ epektasis.) Every creature is sacramentally rich with an excess of meaning, a signpost to the loving Creator, but even the border creature man who lives the line between time and eternity is ignorant of his most inner depths which is where God gives the gift of life. In short, we do not even have univocal knowledge of creatures, though one may bracket everything that is real in a creature and create a reductive idea. That you may have univocal knowledge of, what isn’t real. Everything else is necessarily analogical, reaching from the known to the yet undiscovered depths of reality.

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  10. dianelos says:

    Barry Miller writes in his book: “Thus understood, God’s properties are merely human ones, albeit extended to the maximum degree possible.”

    Perhaps a better way to think about this is “Human properties are divine ones, albeit limited to creaturely condition.” One would think that’s the meaning of “We are made in God’s image”.

    “God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship.”

    Actually God is understood to be the greatest being we can conceive, or, slightly better, no less than the greatest being we can conceive. Frankly, Miller’s “thing around” and “maximum degree” strike me as weasel words used to build a paper tiger. In this context I would like to point out that personalist theist (such as Plantinga or Swinburne) do not believe that there is some background standard of goodness to which God perfectly comports. They too affirm the there is nothing prior to God just like classical theists do. They do not believe that God is just one more existent in the set of existents.

    Now I happen to believe that both the classical and the personalist conceptions of God are correct though incomplete; I think they complement each other. But I would like to explain how on the personalist view God is still absolutely transcendental: So God is good and we are good in the same sense of “goodness”. God’s transcendence resides in him being not just good but goodness itself, the metaphysical ground of all that is good. Whereas we are good only to the degree that we transform us into the likeness of God (or more specifically of the God-human Christ). Similarly with all other great making properties: so Socrates is wise in that he to some degree resembles or reflects God’s wisdom, we experience a flower or a poem or a deed as being beautiful in that they to some degree resemble or reflect God’s beauty, and so on. We are radically limited creatures, yes, but we are also divine creatures for we are made by God as objects of his self-transcending love with the end to self-transcendingly love him too and be actually united with him in perfection. God is transcendent but the there still is an ontological bond connecting us with him.

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  11. joel in ga says:

    The ironic thing is that I’m not sure which camp “my” philosophy professor, theistic idealist and personalist philosopher Border Parker Bowne (1847-19010), would fit in best. A knowledge of his Metaphysics (1898) would lend clarity to the discussion, I think. Bowne finds basic being in the concept of causality, so talk of ‘being beyond being’ could only mean infinite being/cause is beyond finite being/cause. Impassibility would mean that the Infinite being is not subject to finite causality apart from the will of the Infinite. And simplicity of being would be found again in the concept of causality because a cause is necessarily simple. Bowne also distinguishes between agent and action, so (my understanding of Bowne) talk of God as pure act only hypostasizes an abstraction and therefore is necessarily misleading.

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  12. Rob says:

    I found a quote that almost perfectly summarizes my position, so much so I can’t believe I didn’t remember it before:

    “If in ascribing goodness to God I do not mean what I mean by goodness; if I do not mean the goodness of which I have some knowledge, but an incomprehensible attribute of an incomprehensible substance, which for aught I know may be a totally different quality from that which I love and venerate – and even must, if Mr. Mansel is to be believed, be in some important particulars opposed to this — what do I mean by calling it goodness? and what reason have I for venerating it? If I know nothing about what the attribute is, I cannot tell that it is a proper object of veneration. To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good? To assert in words what we do not think in meaning, is as suitable a definition as can be given of a moral falsehood. Besides, suppose that certain unknown attributes are ascribed to the Deity in a religion the external evidences of which are so conclusive to my mind, as effectually to convince me that it comes from God. Unless I believe God to possess the same moral attributes which I find, in however inferior a degree, in a good man, what ground of assurance have I of God’s veracity? All trust in a Revelation presupposes a conviction that God’s attributes are the same, in all but degree, with the best human attributes. If, instead of the “glad tidings” that there exists a Being in whom all the excellences which the highest human mind can conceive, exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, nor what are the principles of his government, except that “the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving” does not sanction them.; convince me of it, and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say in plain terms that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do: he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”
    -John Stuart Mill

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Great quote Rob, nothing to disagree with for it is a tilting at windmills. Your replies notwithstanding, analogy does no such foreclosure of knowledge instead quite the opposite (which I and others have at great length tried to communicate to you, apparently to no avail). This is so silly really, as anyone with a rudimentary understanding of analogy in general, and Analogia Entis in particular, grasps perfectly clear. Analogy establishes meaning based on similarity, it is therefore the ground upon which meaning is established. Now you may disagree with analogous predication, but you can’t complain about forestalling of knowledge, as this is incontrovertibly demonstrable.
      Think about the how analogy functions vis a vis universalism, and the loss of meaning and knowledge vis a vis infernalism…….there’s something to chew on!

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      • Rob says:

        “Analogy establishes meaning based on similarity, it is therefore the ground upon which meaning is established.”
        I keep trying to communicate back to you: for there to be considered a valid similarity, not only must there be something in common between the objects of it, at least part of what is held in common must be understood as applying to both objects. There is no ground to consider a complete unknown similar to anything.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Yes I have explained it Rob, so I will let you have the last word on it – fire away. I’m getting dizzy. 😉 Thank your sincerely for the engagement and the questions.

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