On the Putative Threat of Modal Collapse Within the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

by Alexander Earl

Prompted by Dionysius’s doctrine of God and its Neoplatonic foundations, the question of Divine freedom has been the subject of theological reflection on this blog for the past few months. That it would become a sustained avenue of inquiry is not at all surprising; one of the commonplace dichotomies between Platonism and Christianity is that the former advocates for Divine necessity, while the latter for Divine freedom. As I summarized in my first article:

Platonism offers us optimism about our rational and moral capacities to ascend “alone to the alone,” that is, to the absolute simplicity of the one, of which we are all necessary emanations and to which we all must necessarily return. Christianity, on the other hand, offers us the grace of biblical revelation, which reveals God as a personal Tri-unity that creates ex nihilo in utter freedom and creativity, and even deigned to become incarnate in history, in flesh and blood, suffering death for our sakes.1

If it is not entirely obvious yet, I wholeheartedly reject this dichotomy, and find it is usually based more on prejudice, lack of nuance, and a failure to engage the texts in question, than on anything philosophically substantive. That’s not to say there are not significant differences between Christianity and Platonism, only that this rendering inadequately identifies them. My intention was not to comment on this particular issue until further into my “Defense of Christian Platonism” project, but now seems as good a time as any to engage it. However, I want to be clear that I assume that readers have been keeping up with the various blog posts on the subject, and, most pertinently, are familiar with the ideas of modality and Divine simplicity (I expound the latter in my previous article “Plotinus, Augustine, and the One God,” and other analyses can be found throughout this blog’s archives).

From my vantage, the central concern that has cropped up, and is insatiably persistent to remain part of the conversation, is the question of the modal contingency of the cosmos in light of Divine simplicity. I am genuinely perplexed by the insistence by which commenta­tors want to apply questions of modality to God, as if we cannot do without it; it is an idea that clearly must be pried from their cold, dead, analytic fingers. Essentially, the worry is that the consequences of Divine simplicity would entail an inevitable reduction of the existence of the cosmos to that ghastly and awful word ‘necessity.’  William F. Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher) presents the conundrum in the following premises:

  1. There is no absolute necessity that God create: “God could be without creatures”
  2. God created (better: ongoingly creates and sustains) the universe we inhabit
  3. God, being simple or metaphysically non-composite, is devoid of potency-act composition and unexercised powers: God is pure act
  4. The universe we inhabit, and indeed any universe God creates, is modally contingent: it does not exist of metaphysical necessity.2

The aporia here is implicit, arising when we seriously consider how all four of these premises can be true. Premise 1, that God freely creates ex nihilo and so is perfectly self-sufficient is a staple of Christian theology. Premise 2 clarifies that creation is not some deistic efficient cause relegated to some distant past, but is an ongoing act of God. In other words, he sustains creation at every moment of its being. Premise 3 provides the philo­soph­ical ground for P1-2: it is only because we believe God is absolutely simple, actus purus, that we also believe that he is thereby self-sufficient, eternally the same, undergoing no change, and so on; and so there can be no meaningful way of saying he ‘once created’ or that he ‘needs creatures’. And, lastly, premise 4 is a sort of redux of premise 1 in the language of contemporary analytic philosophy: one way we know creation is not necessary is because we can deduce that this world is modally contingent inasmuch as there are seemingly infinite ways the universe could be in any number of possible worlds, worlds God could have actualized, but did not. Therefore, if God’s act-of existence and act-of-will are convertible and eternal, and he undergoes no change such that he undergoes some new act-of-will (i.e. creating), then it seems he must have always been creating, and so necessarily creates, and, moreover, necessarily creates all that there is—Aporia!

I have suggested P1 and P2 are really elaborations on P3, leaving the core of the issue to P3 and P4. The aporia only persists, of course, if we do in fact have good reason for believing P3 and P4 to be true. While some philosopher’s might be willing to sacrifice P3, it is a non-negotiable commitment in classical theism.3 But another way of resolving the inconsistency is proposed by Vallicella:

And suppose that the relevant propositions are all true. There is yet another way out. We can go mysterian. The problem is a genuine aporia. It is insoluble by us. God is simple; he freely created our universe; it is modally contingent. How is this possible? The answer is beyond our ken. It is a mystery.4

In brief, Vallicella suggests we do have good reasons for accepting P1-4, and therefore there is a genuine inconsistency, but all we need to do is bite the bullet of mystery and punt the aporia heavenward. I find this option wholly untenable, as I’m not sure how such a move does not amount to an appeal to a brute fact dressed in theological garb, or how it does not lead to a vapid voluntaristic view of God. My position depends on a commitment to the rational consistency of all Christian dogma, especially its central mysteries—the Incarnation and the Trinity. In other words, the appeal to mystery or mysterianism does not, in my mind, allow a convenient trap door for Christians that have been pushed into a corner by cogent, but inconsistent, premises. Properly understood, mysterianism is a disposition to the reality that is the condition for all rationality, and of which rationality finds its end and consummation, but of which it cannot venture qua rationality. As Andrew Louth explains, a mystery is an unending and inexhaustible source of wonder, insight, and engagement; a mystery ultimately prompts metanoia, a radical change in perspective, and thus is not a synonym for a logical contradiction, nor a happy concession to Divine sovereignty or power (I once had a fundamentalist student that was quite certain God could make one-sided pieces of paper should he want to). We should not confuse problems with mysteries, or reduce mysteries to difficult puzzles.5 There must be another way.

Since we have good reasons for believing P3, the culprit must be P4. I suggest P4 is dubious, not because it states that the cosmos is modally contingent, but that it implicitly applies the category of modal contingency univocally to God, such that it leads to an inconsistency with P3. Yet the majority of the Christian tradition maintains, in one way or another, that nothing applies to God univocally, but rather all language about God is analogical. In which case, the issue that needs to be addressed is what it even means to apply the terms necessity and freedom to God, which, in these conversations, all too often slips into univocity.

Both terms must be applicable inasmuch as God is the cause of all things, though we can all agree freedom seems the more appropriate of the two. But what do we mean by necessity? Our experience of necessity may be formulated as the following: it does what it does and could not do otherwise than it does. However, that kind of necessity seems perfectly fine when applied to God, given the doctrine of Divine simplicity. For surely we would not suggest that God could be otherwise than he is? I submit, could God choose to not be God? Could God choose to be an evil demon? Surely not. Let us call this kind of necessity, minor necessity. Since there seems to be no incompatibility with God and minor necessity, it must be a stricter form of necessity we find problematic in reference to God, what P1 refers to as absolute necessity. Let us formulate it as so: it does what it does, and could not do otherwise than it does, because it is conditioned to do so by its nature, which it has no control over. It should be clear why absolute necessity is problematic. P3 entails that God has no nature proper, in the sense of a nature over and against himself that conditions himself, as if he were two, himself and the nature he possesses, but rather is actus purus, or in Thomas Aquinas’s words, ipsum esse subsistens. Therefore, Divine simplicity seems to entail some kind of necessity, what we have called minor necessity, but is incompatible with another kind of necessity, what we have called absolute necessity.

How about freedom? Let us formulate freedom similarly: it does what it does because it chooses to do so, and because it chooses to do so it could have done otherwise, since choice entails alternatives. This formulation of freedom may seem in contradiction with necessity in both its minor and absolute forms. Yet, again, given Divine simplicity, it does not seem particularly problematic to say there is minor necessity in God; otherwise we could say God could, if he wanted to, be evil inasmuch as he could choose otherwise than he is, which is false. Therefore, we have good reason to think Divine freedom is compatible with minor necessity but incompatible with absolute necessity. In which case, both freedom and necessity are applicable, in some way, to God without inconsistency.

Of course, since we speak of God analogically, the kind of freedom and necessity he has is not like the freedom and necessity we often encounter in the material world. Since God is simple, and so immaterial and incorpo­real, we must drop any and all material and univocal implications of the terms at hand, which I suggest would render something like the following: God does what he does because he chooses to do so, and he could not do other­wise because he does not do otherwise than he does. Behind this phraseology, again, lies P3, because God’s simplicity entails convertibility between God’s existence, goodness, and will; thus, God always chooses himself, and could not do other­wise, because to be himself is to be the Good, and by being the Good he freely does what he does without hindrance. In case there was any doubt, this formulation rejects any implication of libertarian freedom, a conception of freedom utterly alien to antiquity, going all the way back to Plato who insists frequently that freedom is not libertarianism, but the ability to choose the Good.6 Thus, despite our earlier definition, although our experience of freedom often entails possible alternatives, such cannot be said of God. We come upon an insightful conclusion, while minor necessity does not entail freedom, the fullest freedom entails something akin to minor necessity.

Moreover, Plotinus maintains, rightly, that all good things are productive. As such, the Good entails absolute fecundity.7 To be the Good is to be creative and productive, they are convertible. Does that mean God is forced to create? Absolutely not. The question reverts back to the beginning of this essay and disregards everything said so far. God freely chooses to be himself, and since he is the Good, and it is natural to the Good to be productive, then God freely chooses to create, eternally, and could not have done otherwise. This “could not have done otherwise” is not due to any external necessity, but by the internal necessity of God’s own Goodness in being freely himself, which, per above, is just what it means to be free in the fullest sense.

Does this mean the cosmos is necessary, in the sense of metaphysically necessary? The answer depends on orientation. If by metaphysical necessity the object of your inquiry is God (which is not an object, anyhow), then yes, with the aforementioned qualifications. If by metaphysical necessity the object is the cosmos, no. The universe is contingent inasmuch as it is finite, dependent, composite, and so on. It depends on God at every moment of its existence. It is contingent, and yet it is, and always would be, not because it imposes necessity on God, but because God imposes necessity on it qua the manifestation of his own goodness. God does not need the cosmos to be himself as if when you get God plus cosmos you have arrived at both quantitively and qualitatively more good stuff. Again, Divine simplicity entails that God is not a thing alongside the cosmos. Likewise, when you have God plus cosmos you do not get any improvement on God, any progress, change, increase, perfection, or what have you, as if it adds to God’s goodness. The necessity is unilateral; God creates the universe as an expression of his own goodness because that is what it means to be God.

Now what of this pesky insistence on modal contingency? This issue seems to stem from some reasoning approximating the following:

  1. I can think of unicorns
  2. unicorns do not exist in this universe
  3. however, I can imagine a universe where unicorns exist (a possible world)
  4. There is no logical impossibility regarding unicorns
  5. Thus, there could be a universe where unicorns exist
  6. Therefore, God could have created a universe with unicorns if he wanted to
  7. But God did not create this universe with unicorns
  8. Thus, there is a world which God could have created, but did not
  9. (1)-(8) would equally apply to this world, in all of its particulars
  10. Therefore, God may not have created this world or any of its particulars

However, God did create a world with unicorns, and it is a world in which unicorns exist in the imagination of human beings. If God is the Good, then we should assume that the world he creates is a reflection of his goodness. As a caveat, this point is not threatened by human sin, for human sin does not infringe on God’s goodness or the overall goodness and perfection of the cosmos if God deemed the existence of rational creatures that could sin an exceedingly good thing to have in the cosmos, the absence of which would infringe on the cosmos’s overall goodness (what is known as the principle of plentitude). Moreover, in the Christian vision, it is not as if God considers fallen humans and death to add some exquisite contrast to the cosmos that somehow contributes to the goodness of the whole, but rather that God not only deems it good to have rational creatures that could sin, but that when they sin, he will rescue and redeem them through the incarnation of the Son, uniting them and the cosmos to himself, which was in fact the plan all along, sin or no sin.8 The point is further bolstered by the classical account of sin as privation and non-being, finding its most profound expression in Dionysius’s The Divine Names with his account of evil as absolute unintelligibility qua inactivity.9

If all of that is so, we need not assume there are other possible worlds which God could have created, but did not, but rather that the things we postulate as possible are in fact actual, but in ways other than we might imagine. Should we say that it is feasible that in some possible world God could actualize the existence of unicorns, we can retort that it was better that unicorns be actualized as a potential in this world, or actualized as an idea in the imagination of the human being in this world, rather than actualized in material reality. Perhaps instead of materially actualizing everything that could ever be actualized, God deemed it an exceedingly good thing that humans have imagination in which to actualize material potentialities in the intellect, and perhaps humans may one day even actualize them in material reality (say we somehow breed unicorns). Perhaps God deemed it exceedingly good that humans participate in the act of creativity, instead of merely perceiving external facts created by God.

Therefore, God does actualize all potentialities we could imagine, since he actualizes them through the imagination of human beings when they sit around conceiving of modal contingency. Plotinus, in fact, has something like this in mind when, speaking of artifacts and products of art, he says that there are certain forms that are found in the form of man.10 Perhaps it is not only exceedingly good that something like this account is so, but it is the best that it could be; and if we do not comprehend it as such, it is because we are in epistemic ignorance regarding the whole. This reflection too, then, is not a mystery but rather a puzzle, one which we will understand when our epistemic ignorance is overcome, when we can perceive the whole of reality and the interlocking web of relations that constitute it as good and as a perfect expression of the Godhead.

For the sake of argument, I have given consideration to things that properly cannot be predicated of God, such as the idea that God considered various possible worlds and actualized the one that was best. If we are to be consistent with Divine simplicity, such considerations are metaphysical nonsense, although conceptually helpful. As Eric Perl rightly points out, and it cannot be stressed enough:

In fact, the disjunctive presupposition that either God chooses between possible alternatives or he is necessitated to create situates God within a total framework of possibilities, as though the logical conditions of possibility and impossibility were prior to and more universal than God, conditions to which even he is subject. This presupposition envisions God either as confronted with a multiplicity of logical possibilities among which he can choose, or as subject to a logical law such that there is only one possibility open to him.11

As Perl points out, such a framework entails the merely “ontic” God that the classical tradition routinely rejects. If we are to meaningfully consider the question of applying freedom and necessity to God, like any good analogy, we must be careful to avoid the extremes. Should we put too much emphasis on God’s freedom, tending toward the libertarian, we will end up with arbitrariness. If we put too much emphasis on necessity, we will inevitably lapse into onto-theology and find a God conditioned by realities prior to himself. So why privilege the language of freedom instead of necessity, as Christians are wont to do? Freedom is ontologically prior to necessity. When we look at things that act out of necessity, say that the sun necessarily emanates its rays, it seems utterly unlike our freedom; but, nonetheless, it still retains an image of the Divine freedom inasmuch as it is in accord with its own nature. When it comes to our freedom, it is an image of God inasmuch as it involves rational choice, but it is unlike God’s freedom inasmuch as we can choose to not act in accordance with our nature (i.e. sin). By time we ascend the scala natura, reaching beyond to its condition, analogically speaking of that condition, we say that true freedom always chooses the Good; and since the Good is what it is to be God, God always chooses himself; and since the Good is always productive, God always creates; but since this involves no external necessity, God freely does so even though he could not do otherwise, for there are no possible alternatives prior to God.

Once we come in sight of the true mystery of God’s freedom, metanoia is demanded. We must rethink the nature of human freedom. Perhaps we should, likewise, not too easily dismiss our kin, like the Sun, mocking them for their lack of freedom, but instead begin to see how they, too, image the Divine in a way that we might need to learn from. In short, I suggest the language of modal contingency is not only unbiblical in the broad sense, but not grounded in tradition, and theologically dubious since it assumes univocal predication in order to substantiate a non-existent aporia within Divine simplicity.


[1] Alexander Earl, In Defense of Christian Platonism

[2] Vallicella, God, Simplicity, Freedom, and Two Senses of ‘Contingency’

[3] For an example of a rejection, see R.T. Mullins, ‘Simply Impossible: A Case Against Divine Simplicity‘ in the Journal of Reformed Theology 7 (2013) pp. 181-203. Mullins helpfully summarizes his case in three points on p. 199: “First, God cannot create another universe in the actual world with my individual essence in it. Thus, He has an unactualized potential. Second, God cannot exist without creation. Thus, He has an unactualized potential. Third, the possibility that any of the divine persons could be incarnate creates a whole host of unactualized potential in God.” Part of a response to such a view will be apparent in the rest of this article.

[4] Vallicella, God, Simplicity, Freedom, and Two Senses of ‘Contingency

[5] Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery, pp. 111-114

[6] For example, see Plato’s Republic IV 443c-444a on the virtuous soul and IX 573c-580d on his description of the tyrannical man.

[7] Plotinus, Ennead V.4.1, 30-35

[8] On the question of the relationship between the incarnation and the fall, see Maximus the Confessor, Question ad Thalassium 60, and Thomas Aquinas, ST IIIa, Q. 1, art. 3.

[9] Dionysius, Divine Names IV.19-35

[10] Plotinus, Ennead V.9, 11

[11] Perl, Theophany, p. 50

(25 September 2018)

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Alexander Earl is presently a student at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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2 Responses to On the Putative Threat of Modal Collapse Within the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

  1. Bob says:

    Since God does not fall under concepts, there is also no concept of God that could serve as a starting point or result of conclusions. We can never reason from God to the world, but only speak of God in apointing way.

    This article is maybe heplful:

    Click to access TheologyandSp3.pdf


  2. Myshkin says:

    You know Him. I hope you have more to say.

    Would it be fair to say that the principle of plenitude invites us to consider the cost to the cosmos eternally if Lucifer is not redeemed.

    We think of freedom as unpredictable; it is anything but. We value spontaneity because we are bored out of our mind.

    You are so close to saying something in the unicorn section that is profound, and here I am not throwing shade. You are speaking of holy things, and were bumping up against things I can see out of the corner of my eye during contemplation but can’t quite put into words; you were close; that was cool.


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