Aquinas, Distinction, Composition and Divine Simplicity

Aquinas, Distinction, Composition and Divine Simplicity April 12, 2018

In continuing to comment on the idea of divine simplicity, as it pertains to the Trinitarian God of Christianity, I am going to move on to speak about Aquinas.

Setting the Scene

Commenter (and contributor) here at ATP Ficino asked:

Jonathan, I would very much appreciate it if you can comment on the thesis that there is no composition in God but there is *real* distinction in God, not *only* notional distinction or distinction “in ratione sed non in re” or distinction as described by us.

From a commentator on Feser’s blog:

“Divine simplicity is not lack of distinction, but lack of composition. Aquinas is extremely clear about this; he repeatedly states it, so there is no excuse for ignoring it here. It only rules out distinctions that require composition … Rational distinctions are not ruled out by strictures against real distinctions that imply composition. (For that matter, real distinctions that don’t imply composition wouldn’t be ruled out, either.)”

Adding: I see from a quick perusal that Aquinas holds that there is a real distinction, not only a rational distinction (i.e. only in the mind), of the Persons of the Trinity. It’s grounded in relations of origin, i.e. Son and HS proceed from Father. Aquinas says it’s the smallest distinction in quantity but the greatest in dignity. So Aquinas says the Trinity does not violate divine simplicity, since real distinction is not an instance of composition.

My initial reaction to this is “word salad” and not in what Ficino is saying, but in the source content. I suppose, some might say, this is the nature of theology. We shall see. As I write this, part of me wonders whether nominalism and realism will come into play. His (Brandon, the commenter on Feser’s blog) full comment is:

(1) Divine simplicity is not lack of distinction, but lack of composition. Aquinas is extremely clear about this; he repeatedly states it, so there is no excuse for ignoring it here. It only rules out distinctions that require composition. Your argument is based on an incorrect understanding of what Aquinas means by simplicity.

(2) Rational distinctions are not ruled out by strictures against real distinctions that imply composition. (For that matter, real distinctions that don’t imply composition wouldn’t be ruled out, either.) As I pointed out, this shows that you have misunderstood Feser, as well.

(3) ‘The will to create X’ literally and on the face of the expression refers not only to the divine will but also to X, which is not a divine attribute at all. Therefore ‘the will to create X’ and ‘the divine will’ are not interchangeable salva veritate, as your argument illogically assumes.

Likewise, ‘the will to create X’ and ‘the will to create Y’ both indicate the divine will, but do so with respect to a different source of extrinsic denomination; a distinction in the source of extrinsic denomination is not a distinction in the divine nature.

Brandon later quoted Feser himself:

As to divine simplicity, allow me to present a quote from Professor Feser himself: “There is also no distinction within God between any of the divine attributes: God’s eternity is His power, which is His goodness, which is His intellect, which is His will, and so on. Indeed, God Himself just is His power, His goodness, etc., just as He just is His existence, and just is His essence. Talking or conceiving of God, God’s essence, God’s existence, God’s power, God’s goodness, and so forth are really all just different ways of talking or conceiving of one and the very same thing. Though we distinguish between them in thought, there is no distinction at all between them in reality.”

This is referred to in the introduction to Aquinas on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aquinas and his metaphysics. It states:

Primarily, for Aquinas, a thing cannot be unless it possesses an act of being, and the thing that possesses an act of being is thereby rendered an essence/existence composite. If an essence has an act of being, the act of being is limited by that essence whose act it is. The essence in itself is the definition of a thing; and the paradigm instances of essence/existence composites are material substances (though not all substances are material for Aquinas; for example, God is not). A material substance (say, a cat or a tree) is a composite of matter and form, and it is this composite of matter and form that is primarily said to exist. In other words, the matter/form composite is predicated neither of, nor in, anything else and is the primary referent of being;

Let me unpack this for you. As I understand it, Aquinas is again dealing in terms of essences and matter. A tree has the essence (form) of a tree and the matter in instantiating that essence. This is a composition of essence and matter, as well as existence.

The problem here is that I already fundamentally disagree with Aquinas’ position because I do not adhere to essentialism. Things don’t have essences or prescriptive ideas of form. Things are and we ascribe labels and categories and talk of “essences” as a way to describe these things, especially when they are similar. But these universals do not exist outside of our conceiving minds.

I will park this in a hope to better understand this Thomistic view of existence but it is fundamentally flawed in its foundation.


Let us look at what Aquinas variously means by composition:

On the basis of these considerations, we have to say that material substances are composite in several ways, depending on how we consider and identify their various integral parts.

  1. They are composed of matter and (substantial) form, as is obvious
  2. Their essence itself is also composed of matter and form considered in general
  3. They are also composed of their essence (which comprises their matter and form in general) and their individual, designated matter, which is the principle of their individuation, i.e., that on account of which one individual of the same species is numerically distinct from another individual of the same species.

These three types of composition are peculiar to material substances, since all of these are the result of their having matter, informed by their substantial form.

But they also exhibit two further sorts of composition, which they share even with immaterial substances, except for God. These are

  1. The composition from subject and accident
  2. The composition of essence and existence (potentiality and actuality)

The former type of composition is present even in angels (“intelligences”, as Aquinas also refers to them), given the fact that even angels are changeable in respect of their spiritual activity, say, changing the objects of their thought or their will. It is only God, who is eternally immutable, self-thinking thought, who knows of all changeable things by understanding His own nature, which is only fragmentarily and imperfectly represented by the finite natures of His creatures, just as the light of the sun can be reflected by several, brighter and dimmer, variously tinted mirrors.

The second type of composition also has to be present in all creatures given that their essence is really distinct from their existence (this fundamental Thomistic thesis is often referred to as “the thesis of real distinction” [between essence and existence in creatures]). It is only God whose essence is nothing but His existence, which is precisely the reason why His essence, not being distinct from His existence, does not put any limitation on the infinite actuality of His existence. By contrast, the essences of creatures, even of the highest-ranking angels, are some determination of the act of existence which actualizes this essence. Indeed, given that angels cannot be numerically different on account of their designated matter (since they are immaterial), they differ from one another in their essence, that is, in virtue of the differences between how much limitation their essence imposes upon their existence: thus they differ in their essential perfection, and so they have to differ not only numerically but also specifically; according to Thomas, therefore, there cannot be two angels of the same species.

God Is His Nature

Aquinas’ next step follows, in showing that God is not a composition of essence and existence, but that they are one and the same:

Thomas begins stage three with the premise that whatever belongs to a thing belongs to it either through its intrinsic principles, its essence, or from some extrinsic principle. A thing cannot be the cause of its own existence, for then it would have to precede itself in existence, which is absurd. Everything then whose essence is distinct from its existence must be caused to be by another. Now, what is caused to be by another is led back to what exists in itself (per se). There must be a cause then for the existence of things, and this because it is pure existence (esse tantum); otherwise an infinite regress of causes would ensue.

There is a distinction between existence and essence in, say, a tree. But with God, then, his existence and essence are one. And here is the key to the simplicity. There is no distinction between the two, and there is no matter to boot. God is an immaterial substance, like angels, but not composite where they are. We can park any problems entailed with being able to see and experience angels and God moving in the material world for a while.

God is omniscience. God is his nature.

This quote is key: “Indeed, God Himself just is His power, His goodness, etc., just as He just is His existence, and just is His essence.”

This is, it appears, a wild metaphysical assertion. Defining things like power and goodness are meaningless, in my opinion, without context. God, one presumes, existed causally prior (if that even makes sense) to the beginning of the universe. If this is so, then there was no time at the point of GodWorld, as we might call it. There was nothing else other than the pure existence in essence of God.

As Aquinas says in Summa Theologiae, “All perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly.”

There is a problem with asserting that God has all of these properties in essential nature, but that they are not distinct properties.

All that appears to exist of God is potential. There is potential to be good, potential for power and so on. If God knows everything, where is all this knowledge stored? I don’t want to sidetrack here, but we know only of knowledge in material contexts: computers, books and brains and their storage. The meaning of knowledge is derived from thought, which appears to need a brain or other material machine in order to compute and understand. God, evidently, just does magic to allow for these abilities immaterially. Perhaps this is analogous to a brand new state ruler being a good person because they have the potential to do good – it is in their nature, or DNA even, to make benign decisions even if they have not yet done so. They also have power, even if they have not yet wielded it.

At least with humans, though, we understand potential and nature in what is materially defined by our bodies and temporally defined by our learning and past. But, with God, this is not the case. I struggle to understand nature as applied immaterially to God.

In this way, God is (prior to creation) all these good things in potentiality, rather than actuality.

Actus Purus

What we need to do, then, is describe these terms in the context of Thomistic philosophy. Potentiality and actuality are perhaps different notions than otherwise conceived.

In scholasticphilosophyactus purus ( literally “pure act”) is the absolute perfection of God.

Created beings have potentiality that is not actuality, imperfections as well as perfection. Only God is simultaneously all that He can be, infinitely real and infinitely perfect: ‘I am who I am’ (Exodus3:14). His attributes or His operations, are really identical with His essence, and His essence necessitates His existence. (Contrast this understanding with the Essence–Energies distinction in Eastern Christian, particularly Palamite, theology).

In created beings, the state of potentiality precedes that of actuality; before being realized, a perfection must be capable of realization. But, absolutely speaking, actuality precedes potentiality. For in order to change, a thing must be acted upon, or actualized; change and potentiality presuppose, therefore, a being which is in actu. This actuality, if mixed with potentiality, presupposes another actuality, and so on, until we reach the actus purus.

According to Thomas Aquinas a thing which requires completion by another is said to be in potency to that other: realization of potency is called actuality. The universe is conceived of as a series of things arranged in an ascending order, or potency and act at once crowned and created by God, who alone is pure act. God is changeless because change means passage from potency to act, and so he is without beginning and end, since these demand change. Matter and form are necessary to the understanding of change, for change requires the union of that which becomes and that which it becomes. Matter is the first, and form the second. All physical things are composed of matter and form. The difference between a thing as form or character and the actual existence of it is denoted by the terms essence and being (or existence). It is only in God that there is no distinction between the two. Both pairs – matter & form and essence & being – are special cases of potency and act. They are also modes: modes do not add anything to the idea of being, but are ways of making explicit what is implicit in it. [source]

God is pure actuality. I get a sense here of playing with terms and making definitional assertions so as to suit the purpose. God is pure act, and is not potential by virtue of that simply being how Aquinas defines him. “Act” here seems to have the sense of being rather than doing so that God is all that he can be, which leads to immutability. There is a prime mover style of argument here so that the only pure axiomatic act can be God, with all other things contingently containing potency with regard to some other act.

God and Time

But without time, you have no thought, no deliberation, no intention, no decision. Without time, there is arguably no personhood. I am struggling to make sense of a Thomistic view of God in a timeless vacuum. Ah, but the Thomist will reply that this is because God has no personhood. God is the qualities that we may ascribe to persons. More on this later.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states (on Divine Simplicity), though:

Besides perfection and necessity, immateriality, eternity, and immutability also seem to point to simplicity as their ground. Because God is simple, he cannot have parts and so cannot have material or temporal parts. And because God is simple, he cannot harbor any unrealized potentialities, and so must be immutable.

But how can he not harbour unrealised potentialities as a pure form in GodWorld without time? He is merely potential!

As mentioned, I actually refute personhood making sense without time; the problem being that God just becomes a potential to be all of these things without actually being them. But then one needs to define being. To return to the IEP’s quoteIt looks rather tautologous in saying:

Primarily, for Aquinas, a thing cannot be unless it possesses an act of being, and the thing that possesses an act of being is thereby rendered an essence/existence composite. If an essence has an act of being, the act of being is limited by that essence whose act it is. The essence in itself is the definition of a thing…

What is God? He is his essence. What is his essence? These attributes A, B and C, but not as separate composites, as one essence in existence. What is being? The act of having those essences.

It’s a very murky and circular world of assertions as claims. God is these attributes as his nature, and they exist immaterially as a single abstract entity.


Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher held in high regard, disagrees with this approach to divine simplicity (as does William Lane Craig):

A central threat to coherence is the question of how a thing could be identical to its properties. Alvin Plantinga (1980, p. 47) maintains that if God is identical to his properties, then he is a property, and they are a single property, in which case God is a single property. Given that properties are abstract entities, and abstracta are causally inert, then God is abstract and causally inert — which is of course inconsistent with the core tenet of classical theism according to which God is the personal creator and sustainer of every contingent being. No abstract object is a person or a causal agent. No abstract object can be omniscient, or indeed know anything at all. More fundamentally, no abstract object can be identical to any concrete object. Abstracta and concreta are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. Objections similar to Plantinga’s have been raised by Richard Gale (1991, p. 23 ff.) and others….

It is easy to see that Plantinga-style objections will not appear decisive to those who reject his ontological framework. Plantinga, along with many other philosophers, thinks of individuals and (first-level) properties as belonging to radically disjoint realms despite the fact that individuals exemplify properties. Individuals are causally efficacious concreta whereas properties are casually impotent abstracta. Such an approach to ontology renders the divine simplicity inconceivable from the outset. For if God is a concrete individual and his nature (conceived perhaps as the conjunction of his omni-attributes) is an abstract property, then the general ontology rules out an identity of God with his nature. Any such identity would violate the separateness of the two realms. To identify an unexemplifiable concretum with an exemplifiable abstractum would amount to an ontological category mistake. At most, a Plantinga-style approach allows for God’s exemplification of his nature where the (first-level) exemplification relation, unlike the identity relation, is asymmetrical and irreflexive and so enforces the non-identity of its relata. In short, if God exemplifies his nature, then God is distinct from his nature. His nature is something he has, not, pace Augustine, something he is.

I would agree to be something more than an abstract concept, then I think the Christian has to adhere to this line of thinking. I think the Thomistic approach renders God an abstract idea in an incoherent network built upon faulty foundations of ontology.

The Thomistic Reply

The problem is for Plantinga and people who might agree with him (myself included) is that the Thomist won’t buy this. God has no personhood as he is not a person. For them, God is not in time, but is timeless:

For Aquinas, God’s timeless eternity is unending, lacking both beginning and end, and an instantaneous whole lacking succession. It is a correlate of divine simplicity (see the SEP entry on divine simplicity), and it is incapable of being defined or fully grasped by a creature. For Aquinas too, timeless eternity constitutes part of the “grammar” of talking about God. Since God is timelessly eternal it does not make any sense to ask how many years God has existed, or whether he is growing old, or what will he be doing later on in the year. [SEP entry on eternity in Christian thought]

So God cannot be in time, only his effects can be, rather conveniently. I am somewhat dubious about how this can possibly work, and how it works in terms of interactionism and the God of the Bible working in unison with mankind. The end result for the Thomist is that it doesn’t matter whether time is a necessary condition for personhood, since God is not a person (though might be personal in that he has intellect and will, but in a sense that he is those things rather than having them as properties). God does not instantiate personhood because he simply is those qualities.

I have argued in my book on free will that a timeless god acting within time simply makes no sense. It also renders God very strictly immutable such that any changing of his mind as found variously in the Bible needs to be denied in some fashion. Of course, this all plays merry havoc with the idea that God supposedly has free will. He simply cannot.

Thomists will maintain that God cannot be a potentiality but is an actuality. This looks to be a tough thing to do when considering that God is timeless.

I also find it hard to consider entering into a loving relationship with something that is so abstract in ontology, with no personhood as commonly understood. I think this is where abstracting God philosophically and working so hard to find a coherent idea for God works against the Christian who is also trying to convince others to enter into a loving relationship with such a god.

And Finally

Finally, let’s dwell on this point, but not for long:

Likewise, ‘the will to create X’ and ‘the will to create Y’ both indicate the divine will, but do so with respect to a different source of extrinsic denomination; a distinction in the source of extrinsic denomination is not a distinction in the divine nature.

Divine will is problematic, especially in God prior to the creation of the universe. I have argued before in This World as Philosophically Necessary. I adhere to the idea that, again, without time, intention and desire is meaningless.

There we have it. A whistlestop tour around some ideas concerning Thomistic views on divine existence. Personally, I don’t essentialism is coherent (given my conceptual nominalist position), and, as such, the whole project fails. I also fail to see how God can coherently have all these properties timelessly, and yet not be a complex entity with a whole host of properties. To me, every entity is an instantiation of properties, God included. I see love, power and mercy all around me, and it doesn’t depend on or dip into God’s nature. Don’t just assert God is love and mercy, and then tout the Bible as evidence of this. The book is a far cry from all those properties God’s nature is supposed to imbue.

I will, in a next post, look more closely at how this works in the context of the Trinitarian understanding of God.

[NOTA BENE – this article might well be edited for clarity if necessary, and given discussion below]

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