Simplicity’s Not So Simple

Simplicity’s Not So Simple March 22, 2018

Is God simple? Christian theologians from the Cappadocians to Aquinas and beyond said Yes. But we need to probe this consensus: Did they mean the same thing by saying Yes? Andrew Radde-Gallwitz says No (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity).

What is divine simplicity? “Some theologians have taken the doctrine of divine simplicity to entail that every term one attributes to God names God’s essence or substance, and that, metaphysically, God’s essence and God’s properties are in fact identical. I call the latter claim the ‘identity thesis.’ It is precisely the thesis that Basil and Gregory faced in the version articulated by Eunomius of Cyzicus, their principal doctrinal opponent. The identity thesis, in a vastly more sophisticated version, would be the interpretation of divine simplicity given by such theological authorities as Augustine and Aquinas. It has also become an almost universal presupposition of contemporary discussions of divine simplicity among philosophers of religion. Among them, it is taken as an analytic truth that if God is simple, God is identical with his properties; that is, the latter is taken as the meaning of the former” (5).

According to Radde-Gallwitz, this is the version of divine simplicity that the Cappadocians rejected: “They endorse the doctrine of divine simplicity. However, they rightly perceive that the identity interpretation of it, in the version they encounter in Eunomius’ theology, conflicts with the inherent complexity of the knowledge of God, and if any theory does this, so much the worse for the theory” (6).

The simplicity doctrine of Eunomius is of a peculiar kind. In his view, theology is meaningful only if “the ontology of simple divine being is perfectly reflected in our speech about it. Words for God cannot be privative because there is no privation in God. Different names reveal distinct essences. The linguistic realm is a direct map of the ontological.” In his response, Basil critiques the claim that there is a “one-to-one correspondence between theological language and the being of God.” While denying this, Basil strives to defend the coherence of theological language. He arrives as a “median position . . .  between direct correspondence and hence comprehensibility on the one hand, and pure agnosticism or equivocation on the other” (114).

Part of Basil’s strategy is to defend the accuracy of “common usage” when applied to God. For Plotinus, the category of “relation” applies only to the sensible world; Plotinus argues that of Aristotle’s ten categories, only one – substance – applies to the intelligible world, and that applies analogically. Basil, though, “holds that the category of relation, understood in the same way as we understand it here below, applies to language about God. Consequently, the relative terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ and the relation they imply are predicated of God in a way that is neither metaphorical nor catachrestic” (115-116).

Thus, for Basil, the “meanings of terms are fixed by their ordinary sense. Hence Eunomius’ claim that terms like ‘light’ and ‘life’ are synonymous in the case of God strikes Basil as absurd. If they are distinct in meaning in their ordinary use, so too must they be when used in scripture and in theological reflection upon scriptural language” (116).

The same logic applies to the Persons of the Trinity: “If we call God ‘Father,’ the term no less implies an offspring in the case of God than in the case of humans; the status of God as immaterial, free of passion and simple does not negate this. We may not comprehend how a simple being can have any relative properties. However, Basil takes it as a necessary implication of the titles ‘Father’ and ‘Son’: the logic of these titles works in the same way when applied to God as when they are applied to humans” (117).

This doesn’t violate simplicity, however, because there isn’t a direct correspondence between language and ontology. Basil, further, acknowledges that our language has to pass through a process of “purification” in order to be applicable to God. Yet this purification doesn’t leave us ignorant of God, and doesn’t imply that all theological language is metaphorical. The Father’s “begetting” doesn’t involve bodies or passion, but it’s a genuine begetting; even in common usage, Basil points out, “beget” can be used without reference to passion (119-20).

For Gregory of Nyssa, Radde-Gallwitz argues, simplicity implies multiple properties: “in his hands, the doctrine of simplicity actually comes to entail that God has multiple properties. Why is it simplicity that entails this? Because it is the perfect virtues that are reciprocally entailing. And being a perfect virtue is just being a virtue without the admixture of that virtue’s opposite. And this state of being unmixed, in turn, is one of Gregory’s fundamental ways of describing the state of being simple. So, if God is good and God is simple, then God’s goodness is unmixed with its opposite—and, consequently, God is also powerful, just, wise, and so forth” (212).

In place of the identity thesis, they articulated a version of simplicity that accomplished two things: it avoided what they saw as the dangerous apophaticism of Eunomius, while at the same time affirming the consistency of God.

It’s on the latter point that simplicity comes into play: “To say God is simple is to provide a sort of second-order rule for speaking about God. At the most basic, affirming divine simplicity means that if one says ‘God is just’ and ‘God is merciful’ one does not view God’s justice and mercy as parts of God. But, additionally, it means that one should not take these attributes as contradicting one another—since only complex beings can have contradictory properties at the same time” (6).

Simplicity thus isn’t a means for defending “God’s aseity and immutability in the abstract,” but a way of affirming the consistency of God, as He is revealed in the gospel. It’s somewhat paradoxical that in Gregory’s use in particular, simplicity becomes a way of affirming that God has multiple properties, but to stress that these multiple properties that are perfectly harmonious: “if God is good and God is simple, then God’s goodness is unmixed with its opposite—and, consequently, God is also powerful, just, wise, and so forth. These properties are at work in God’s activities in creating the world and entering into it in the incarnation. As we have seen, for Ptolemy, because God is simple and perfect, God cannot interact with the world. For Gregory, God’s creative and saving action is in no way an embarassment for the doctrine of simplicity; it is the display of God’s pure and perfect goodness, wisdom, justice, and power” (212).

Simplicity understood in this sense guides the reading of Scripture. But the point of this guidance is to clarify the Bible’s claims about God, not to subvert those claims. Commenting on Basil’s discussion of John 14:28 (“the Father is greater than I”), Radde-Gallwitz observes:

“Time and again, Basil shows himself committed to preserving the complexity of the basic scriptural and liturgical language of Christian faith, even in his theological classifications of it. Divine simplicity does not negate this diversity. Nor, certainly, does it impose an alien ‘philosophical’ or ‘Platonic’ mentality onto biblical idiom. It clearly rules out crude ways of accounting for biblical language, such as saying that the Father is greater because he is bigger. But more fundamentally, commitment to divine simplicity does not impose upon biblical idiom but rather forces deeper and closer attention to biblical language, as it compels the reader to discover more precise and more faithful ways of explicating—albeit through a glass darkly—the consistency and unity of the God of scripture without sacrificing the sense of the words. Basil offers ways of reading scripture as a record of God’s perfect self-consistency, displayed without variation in the acts of the Father and the Son” (172).

Can we say, once again, revisionary metaphysics?


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