Absolute Simplicity: Q & A

This is from an older blog, but I thought it worth reposting here.  I hold to the doctrine of simplicity virtualiter, ala Charles Hodge.   The below is more of an attack on the Thomist doctrine of simplicity.  My original interlocutor was a rabid fan of Ron Paul.  I don’t feel like switching the names for time reasons.

Plato’s works are more popular, if longer, than Aristotle’s because they are written in conversational format. I will give it a try.

Ron Paulite for the Republic (RPR): I don’t get why you always talk about “absolute divine simplicity” when we could be exposing the FED and beating up on Arminians.

Triadic: (Tr): Priorities. If there is a problem in our Triadology and understanding of reality, then it will manifest itself in every area of life.

RPR: You said “Triadology.” What do you mean by that?

Tr: Triadology is a specific way to speak about the Trinity. More importantly, it explores the implications of Trinitarian belief.

RPR: Could you expound on that?

Tr: Sure. St Gregory of Nazianzus, a man whom all Christian traditions hold as either a great saint and/or a great teacher, said that if you make a mistake in one area of Trinitarian belief, it will come out in every area, including those of politics and culture.

RPR: That makes sense, I guess. Since we are having this conversation, you seem to think I have a mistake in my Triadology?

Tr: That’s for you to find out. My point is that trying to have the better government or economics, without fixing the problems within, is pointless.

RPR: Care to elaborate?

Tr: It does no good to “rail against the evils of the Hegelian dialectic” when you have just as robust a dialectic within your own system.

RPR: That’s an argumentum ad elenchio!

TR (to himself): ???? (To RPR): Don’t use Latin words unless you know what they mean. We’ll see if I can demonstrate step by step what I am saying. First of all, do you know what absolute divine simplicity (ADS) is?

RPR: Isn’t it the doctrine that God isn’t made up of parts?

TR: That’s the doctrine of simplicity, which all Christian traditions uphold. The doctrine of ADS says that God is so simple, his essence is simple and one to the degree, that it admits, not only of no parts, but of no distinctions. In other words, God’s essence is his power, his will, his love, his wrath.

RPR: Meaning…

TR: Think of simplicity as a big “=” sign. God’s essence = God’s love = God’s wrath.

RPR: That’s not a big problem. Isn’t God so holy that his wrath is pure, like his love, and so can’t they function similarly?

TR: That’s an interesting suggestion, but we’ll have to discuss it later. My argument is that given ADS, God’s simplicity is so strong that it admits of no distinctions; yet, the Christian faith argues for three persons in the Godhead. My question is whether ADS can sustain this.

RPR: You’ve thrown out a lot of philosophical jargon. I want to see if you can back it up.

TR: Okay. The Western tradition is Augustinian, right?

RPR: Okay.

TR: Augustine drew from Plotinus, right (City of God, Book VIII)?

RPR: Yes, Augustine did say that.

TR: Didn’t Plotinus posit the One as a completely Simple Entity that is all there is (Enneads, 1:3:1; 6:9)

RPR: Yes, it seems Plotinus did say that.

TR: Here we have a problem. On one hand we have “The One” as unity throughout with all philosophical categories not applying to it; yet, on the other hand we find ourselves talking about it. How can we speak of the One–know the one–if it is utter unity?

RPR: You tell me.

TR: Plotinus says we know The One by means of the dialectic, which is clarifying a term by comparing it to its opposite (Enneads 1:10).

RPR: I told you not to read Hegel back into Augustine!

TR: I just quoted from Plotinus. If you are seeing Hegelian connections, well and good. We’re not done with the One, yet. While Plotinus knows the One by dialectic, the One’s simplicity and unity is so strong that it swallows up these distinctions.

RPR: So?

TR: this was the problem Aquinas saw when he dealt with Augustine’s triadology. He saw that Augustine’s view of simplicity was so strong that he couldn’t logically posit three persons of the Godhead (see Augustine’s letter to Nebridius, found in Letham on page 164, I think ). Therefore, Aquinas, in good neo-platonic tradition (see Milbank), identifies and distinguishes the persons as “relations of opposition.”

RPR: Well, who cares what Augustine says? I follow the Bible!

TR: No tradition, eh? So you’re a Baptist?

RPR: That’s uncalled for? There is no point insulting people in a debate? Let’s not say things we can’t take back.

TR: My apologies. The baptist remark was unnecessary. However, you want to define sola scriptura, you do realize that everyone draws upon a tradition, and even if this tradition is not authoritative like the Bible, it cannot merely be dismissed, either.

Be patient with God–he’s learning, too!

Does God know all future contingencies?

If yes, does he control them?  If not, then we have just posited an area that is not God and is outside his control.    The alternatives are Calvinism or Manicheanism.

On the other hand, we can deny the proposition above and opt for open theism or middle knowledge.   In this case, every day God learns even more, since the realm of unknown/uncontrolled contigencies gets bigger (more people; more potential decisions; more instantiations of free will, etc).  Remember, God is responding to my free will.

This is why atheists die laughing at most Christian apologetics.  Positing free will as a theodicy merely removes the problem one step.

A Bit More Seriously

Middle Knowledge:  God’s foreknowledge about future contingent events whose truth depend not on God’s free decree (being anterior to this), but upon the liberty of the creature (which God certainly foresees).  As Turretin clarifies,

Whether besides the natural knowledge of God (which is only of things possible) there is in God a middle knowledge of men and angels where he knows what they may without a special decree preceding (I: 214).

Turretin responds:  things not true cannot be foreknown as true.  Now, conditional future things are not true apart from the determination of the divine will; for example, the Sidonians would have repented if the powers had been supplied to them, for they would have been indifferently disposed in their nature to repend or not repent, those powers being given. ..

No effect can be understood as future without the divine decree, so no future conditional can be knowable before the decree.

Again, knowledge either makes the event certain or foresees it as certain…


Person-Nature, a summary and footnote

I never expected any blog post of mine to get 100 comments.  I don’t write about politics (much) or sex (at all), so who would care?   I’ve been criticized over the past four months by some Anchorites for running my mouth and not listening to my elders.   In actual fact, all I’ve done is simply voice some difficulties with anchoretic triadology  that I’ve had for three years. (What’s funny is that when I was writing all these essays against absolute divine simplicity, I was praised and no one said a word; even today, I still get email requests to access the old Tsar Lazar site.  Unfortunately, I forgot both the username and password; I can’t even access it). Here are some of the difficulties:

  1. I still agree with Damascene that distinguishing between person and nature is important.
  2. However, is there an ontological distinction or a logical/rhetorical?  If the former, then we have a quaternity.  If the latter, then we really lose the force of Damascene’s statement.
  3. I then asked my friends to define both “person” and “nature,” particularly “person.”   Several did not even try.  One got on to what I was asking and said it was impossible on a patristic gloss (he is correct).  He went on to say that apophatic theology precludes such a task.  He is correct.  I then came to the conclusion that one can either have apophatic theology or use the “person/nature” distinction as a kritique of Calvinism, but one may not do both.  The point is quite simple:  if you cannot define “person” then by a simple definition of terms and logic, you cannot accuse the other of confusing the two!
  4. However, even if you are successful at (3), we still have the problem of (2):  either a quaternity or at least some kind of confusion.
  5. No wonder Fr Sergius Bulgakov got into trouble.  He tried to answer both (2) and (3).

Some thoughts on the Trinity Foundation

For the past ten years I’ve always been wary of the Trinity Foundation.   If you peruse the older comments on Puritanboard (I wouldn’t do it sober), many of them often border on shrill hysteria (of course, that could simply be my projecting Sean Gerety onto all of the Clarkians).   However, my (then) dislike of the Trinity F. usually focused on some of their responses to men I knew personally.   However, I do like free stuff, especially quality mp3s.

As some are aware, I spent about four years sympathetically inquiring into Anchoretic Christianity (HT to Drake for that term).  While finding most of its Triadology outstanding, I couldn’t go for other reasons.  Notwithstanding, I still hold to their criticisms of Western Scholasticism.  I like the essence-energies model, but I always had suspicions about it.  <<<pause this line of thinking for a moment>>>

A solid critique of Van Til

While I appreciate Van Til the man and rejoice in his godly testimony, I’ve finally seen that his apologetic method is chaotic and incoherent.   Getting past some of the more-heat-than-light in John Robbins’ critique of Van Til, it must be admitted, Doug Jones’ reply notwithstanding, that Robbins put his finger on the pressure point of Van Til’s system, and crippled it.  If, as Van Til alleges, God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at any one point, and God knows everything, then man knows nothing.


Imagine my delight when I read how the essence/energies distinction is, as Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart admits (Illustrated History of Christianity), incoherent, yet at no time does this rejection of e/e entail the scholastic doctrine of absolute simplicity.

I’m currently listening to Dr Robbins’ lectures economics and am impressed how he incorporates an axiomatic understanding of Scripture into economics.

Nature and Necessary willing, revisited

I still subscribe to what is purported to be the Eastern Triadic critique (hereafter ETC) of Absolute Divine Simplicity (hereafter ADS).  However,  I am revisiting old issues to see if the ADS critique works in its supposed implications.  For example, because the Thomist and Scholastic doctrine identifies nature and attributes, hence identifying each of the attributes with the other, it is critiqued that ADS makes God’s willing necessary.   The argument is this:

1.  Nature = attribute(s)

2.  Will is an attribute

3.  God’s nature is necessary

4.  Therefore, God’s willing is necessary

5.  God’s will to create the world is necessary.

In short, it’s not a bad critique.   But it is open to a few criticisms that do call for a qualification.  In these discussions, “necessary” is often assumed to mean “determining,” usually in a mechanistic way.   But can “necessary” simply mean “non-contingent?”  I don’t see why not.   Secondly, I deny premise (1).  What does it look like when a compatibilist denies (1)?  This question is rarely raised in these discussions.

As I reflect on it, I don’t see how any Christian can deny that God’s nature is necessary?  Surely it isn’t contingent, for then he would not be God!  Contingent upon whom or what?

Further, is it really Origenism to say that God wills “according to” his nature?  Surely he doesn’t will contrary to it.  But at the same time nobody is saying that God’s nature determines what he wills (or maybe some do, but I don’t).

Prima facie problems with Orthodox claims


Note several things:  I am challenging Orthodox claims, not the lives of saints and monks, nor the theology passed down in the Councils.  Further, I still remain sympathetic to much in Orthodoxy.  However, when I was communicating these Orthodox claims to other Protestatnts, I was met with the following responses.  Dealing with these responses successfully will better help Orthodox Apologists in the Western world.  I am doing you a favor.  Please allow me to be very clear:  I really like you guys.  Some Orthodox thinkers like Fr Seraphim Rose and Fr Raphael Johnson have been so influential I really can’t put it into words.  I am doing this so that your own presentation of the faith will be so much sharper.  This is not a combative debate.

And when I use the term “convertskii,” I am doing it in good fun.  An orthodox convert friend of mine coined that term.

1.  By the nature of the case, oral tradition is resistant to verification.  One needs a written document to verify that the tradition exists.

2.  Even if we deny the principle of sola Scriptura, yet when explicit appeal is made to Scripture to ground a given dogma, then such an appeal must be exegetically sustainable.

3.  In what sense is the church “objective,” but the Bible is not?  Chrysostom thought it was objective.

4.  Given that no Magisterial promulgation is necessarily perspicuous, any answer anyone gives to the question of “what is the criterion by which perspicuity can be identified?” must have been discovered by some other means. And since knowledge and application of this criterion will be a precondition for even understanding what Magisterial proclamations in fact mean, it turns out that the sort of private judgment about which RCs lament follows from Protestantism really follows from RC. (I realize this more touches on Roman Catholic claims).

5.  to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church begs the question of how we identify the true church. In which church is the Holy Spirit to be found? What are one’s  criteria? Why those criteria?  I suspect that the very positing of the criteria begs even further questions.  Of course, this is true of any tradition.

6.  Appeal is often made to Vincent of Lerins canon. Yet in that same work, building that very argument, Vincent says that the church has always taught the Federal Headship of Adam’s sin (Commonitories, chapter 24).  The reply is, “The Fathers aren’t right on everything.”  Fair enough, by what criteria, then, is Vincent right on the canon and wrong on imputation of Adam’s sin?

6a.  In other words, we are hearing an appeal to the Fathers to help prove tradition.  But to justify the Fathers elsewhere, we appeal to other aspects of tradition.  How is this not circular reasoning?

6b.  Energetic Procession once made the criticism that sola scriptura was faulty because it relied on an appeal to what Scripture said elsewhere to interpret what it says here.   Admittedly, this is circular reasoning.  How is doing it with the Fathers and tradition any better?

7.  By what criteria do we affirm that your miracle stories are true and mine are not?  (And for the record, I affirm the stories to be true).

8.  You laugh at the grammatical-literal method of interpretation of the Bible, yet you employ this same interpretation when you read the fathers.  Why?  Can I employ Chrysostom’s method?

9.  It’s easy to make fun of the so-called 20,000 Protestant denominations, yet is the Orthodox church truly “one?”   Do the “True Orthodox” count as part of the Orthodox world?  Are they in communion with SCOBA, for example?  What about the catacombers?  Yes, ROCOR did reunite with MP, but the fact that ROCOR existed for so long seems to be an argument against the “seamless unity.”

9a.  These True Orthodox guys deny communion with you, saying you “lack grace in the sacraments.”  Here the Protestant inquirer faces an insurmountable difficulty:  both sides claim to be Orthodox.  One side was even formed out of resistance to Masonic and government apostasy (which seems to line up with what St Cyril of Jerusalem said on the end times–the True Orthodox shall fight Satan in his very person; therefore the prima facie claim to the real Orthodox guy goes to the True Orthodox).  Yet both sides make mutually exclusive claims.  Who gets to adjudicate?  Appealing to one side over another begs all sorts of questions.

10.  Which Orthodox churches have condemned Freemasonry and which are in bed with it?  This is important because 33rd degree Freemasons swear an oath to Lucifer.

10a.  If Athanasios is correct and that communing with someone is sharing in that person’s life and doctrine, what are the implications of sharing in the life and doctrine of one who has sworn an intimate oath with Lucifer?

11.   Can I appeal to Gregory the Great of Old Rome on the extent of certain canonical books?  Jnorm responded to me saying that Gregory was responding to Western needs, or something like that.  Fair enough.  My question remains:  I am a Westerner who resonates with Gregory’s liturgy.  Can I quote Gregory on this?  Is his understanding of the scope and limit normative for me, a Western Christian?

12.  I understand that many balk at the Calvinist’s understanding of God’s sovereignty.  I don’t like it either. Ultimately, though, all sides have to deal with the claim:  Is the future certain for God or not?  If it is, how is this not God’s causal determining of the future?  If not, open theism.

13.  Cyril of Alexandria solved many problems.  Did he create more?

14.  Are earlier fathers like the Cappadocians and St Maximus using the term energia/logoi in the same sense as Palamas?  Bradshaw affirms it of Nyssa but denies it of Maximus.  Radde-Galwitz denies it of both.  If they aren’t, does this not represent some form of development?

14a.  As Drake points out, how is God simplicity itself and beyond simplicity?

15.  Did Athanasius affirm the extra-Calvinisticum?

16.  Why does Monachos block my threads inquiring about ecumenism and Freemasonry (okay, you don’t have to answer that question).

17.  Much is made of the person-nature distinction, and the claim that Western models confuse person and nature with regard to Federalism.  Yet the Corporate Person is unavoidably biblical (see also Achan’s sin in Judges; Isaiah 53).

18.  The East rightly critiques Rome’s claims to unity based upon Rome’s faulty doctrine of God, Absolute Divine Simplicity.  This view reduces all reality to “The One.”  Applied to ecclesiology, Rome reduces unity to a visible, singular unity.  Yet often when Orthodox talk about the unity of the Church, they use this exact same argument.

19.  The Orthodox make the claim that God is hyperousia, beyond being.  All of God is beyond being, essence, energies and persons.  I know this is from Plato (Republic, 549 b, I think).  Is it really wise to base your divine ontology off of Plato?  ROCOR condemned Fr Sergii Bulgakov for doing precisely that.  I know that some sharp Orthodox philosophers will deny that their view is Platonic since they deny that God has an opposite.  Maybe so, but Andrew Radde-Galwitz, to whom these very same guys appeal, says that for Gregory of Nyssa every good has an opposite (pp. 206ff.), and these goods are correlative with the divine essence.

20.  I know this next one isn’t true of all, but it is something I have been seeing a lot of:  there seems to be an incipient Manicheanism concerning the use of reason.  When I make logical arguments over at Orthodox Bridge, I am told that there is more to Orthodoxy than just books.  Fair enough.  But why the aversion to propositional reasoning?  Maybe this is also why many Orthodox don’t like Perry’s blog.

Charles Hodge on Divine Simplicity

Takes the teeth out of the claim that Protestants are necessarily crippled by their view of Absolute Divine Simplicity:

…[S]tart with the revelation that God has made of himself in the constitution of our own nature and in his holy word.  This method leads to the conclusion that God can think and act, that in him essence and attributes are not identical (I: 564).

It’s also interesting to note Hodge’s comment about God constituting our nature in a certain way.  Shades of Thomas Reid.

To say, as the schoolmen, and so many even of Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God…If in God knowledge is identical with eternity, knowledge with power, power with ubiquity, and ubiquity with holiness, then we are using words without meaning (I: 371-372).

The attributes of God, therefore, are not merely different conceptions in our minds, but different modes in which God reveals himself to his creatures…just as our several faculties are different modes in which the inscrutable substance self reveals itself in our consciousness and acts (I: 374).

So what do we mean by simplicity?  Rome has a thorough, if ultimately chaotic, answer to this question.   Orthodoxy has an outstanding response to Rome, but nothing in terms of a constructive view of Simplicity.  Following Turretin, Hodge writes,

The attributes are to be distinguished not realiter, but virtualiter; that is, there is a real foundation in the divine nature for the several attributes attributed to him (I: 370).

What does virtualiter mean?

Richard Muller defines it as “literally, i.e., with virtue or power” (Muller 371).

It’s interesting that Muller mentioned “power.”  This corresponds with Radde-Galwitz’s interpretation of Gregory of Nyssa.  Alluding to Michel Barnes he notes that divine power is the causal capacity rooted in the divine nature; inseparable from the divine nature and gives rise to the divine energies (183; Barnes).  Further, each “Good” (or attribute, in our case) entails another.

Works Cited:

Hodge, Charles.  Systematic Theology, volume 1.

Muller, Richard.  Dictionary of Greek and Latin Theological Terms

Radde-Galwitz, Andrew.  Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity.