Divine Simplicity and Theological Epistemology

I’ve been reading a well written, helpfully conceived and clear minded work on divine simplicity (no easy task). Furthermore, it was a former dissertation under Lewis Ayres (and yes, I said it is well written and clear). The volume is entitled Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (Oxford, 2009) written by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, and it is in the “Oxford Early Christian Studies” series. Radde-Gallwitz notes that much of the contemporary dissatisfaction with divine simplicity (most notably in the philosophy of religion sector in the analytic philosophy sphere) starts with the assumption that Aquinas’ view on divine simplicity is the standard and definitive statement. Going back to the Cappadocians and focusing on Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, Radde-Gallwitz seeks to show that the early adoption of the position was not simply (pun intended) the uncritial acceptance of Neo-Platonic thought.

Central to the debates were epistemological questions concerning the knowledge of God. For Eunomius, for instance, knowledge of God necessitated knowledge of God’s essence. Basil’s attack on Eunomius focuses, in contrast, on how knowledge of God does not depend on a knowledge of God’s essence. Following Radde-Gallwitz’s line, we will briefly look at Basil’s negative definition of simplicity (what it does not imply). Radde-Gallwitz outlines some of the issues:

For Aetius and Eunomius, the only way theology can be meaningful is if the ontology of simply 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 order to refute them, Basil cannot merely dwell on doctrinal differences, but must engage head-on the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between theological language and the being of God. Yet – and this is crucial – he must do so while preserving the meaningfulness of theological discourse” (114).

One such move by Basil to avoid the pitfalls noted above is to highlight that certain logical principles and terms are fixed so that the “common usage” of the terms applies to creaturely and divine realities. Therefore, the terms “Father” and “Son” are meaningful terms of relation in the divine realm which can be properly understood. Furthermore, Radde-Gallwitz notes, Basil utilizes this point to argue against Eunomius’ move to make “light” and “life” synonymous. This, Basil will argue, is absurd. Theology, therefore, must attend to the logic of revealed language about God, but cannot push beyond that to, say, comprehend how an infinite, simple and divine being has relational properties. This lack of penetration does not lead to the mire of agnosticism, but it does lead to a restricted usage. The attending to revealed terminology, furthermore, does necessitate a kind of penetration into divine realities (Fatherhood must be read alongside the other attributes of God – i.e. immutability).

Radde-Gallwitz provides a helpful summary of Basil’s negative definition of simplicity using Eunomius’ favorite term: “ingenerate:”

‘Ingenerate’ cannot be identical with the divine essence (in fact it cannot even be an essential attribute at all), because it only tells us how God is, not what he is, whereas essences answer the question ‘What is it?’; because it is a relative rather than an absolute term, being used interchangeably with ‘Father’, and relative terms never name essences; because it names a property peculiar to the Father, just as ‘generate’ names a property peculiar to the Son; but no such properties that distinguish those who share a common essence names the common essences itself; and finally, because it only tells us what God is not, namely, subject to generation, whereas all essential attributes name real properties” (141).

Eunomius couldn’t get around, in his own mind, that predicates of God be identical with God’s essence, and, therefore, must be synonymous with “ingenerate” – his key term to talk about the Father. Basil, by contrast, argues that the divine unity is predicated by a “formula of substance” (154-155). According to Basil’s use of theological language, to the chagrine of Eunomious, “It is entirely possible for Basil to be consistent in, on the one hand, offering descriptions of the common divine substance, and, on the other, holding it to be incapable of being defined” (155). When Basil attributes life, light and goodness to the divine essence, he is not naming parts of the essence – even essential components – but is referring to “coextensive properties” predicated of the divine substance as a whole. Instead of collapsing God’s attributes into synomyous terms (goodness, life, light), Basil allows for these to coextesive properties of the whole, so that, in his words, “goodness of will, which, since it is concurrent with the substance, is considered to be similar and equal, or rather, identical in the Father and the Son” (158). Radde-Gallwitz notes that “concurrent” is the word of choice for Basil rather than “identical” as in Eunomius.

What do we think about this move to avoid collapsing attributes into one another, as well as avoiding the move to focus knowledge on the “essence” of God?


3 thoughts on “Divine Simplicity and Theological Epistemology

  1. I think we should not be afraid to speak about the Father, the Sod and the Holy Ghost in terms of different attributes assigned to them. It is divine essence (or, rather superessence) that is coextensive in the Hypostases, but their attributes that has to do with God’s accidental properties are not necessarily coextensive. Because of this, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost appear as distinct and as having their own names through which they can be addressed during prayers.

  2. Dear Polygrammaton:
    I dont think we can confuse “relative names” of God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, wich indicates de property of each Divine Person that makes the only diference in the Holy Trinity; and the “divine attributes”.
    The divine attributes are those like: Powerfull, Wise, Good, Judge, Holy… All those names indicate the Only One God in the different ways that we can know Him.
    The attributs do not have to do with God’s accidental properties because God has not accidental properties, he is absolutely simple. And the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indecates the true personal relations that there are in God.

  3. May I suggest here a very interesting and relevant refutation of Plantinga’s claim that “properties are univocal and invariant features of reality”? The article that challenges the “property-based metaphysics” of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy lying behind Alvin pLantinga’s denial of Divine Simplicity, is Siobhan Nash-Marshall’s “Properties, Conflation, and Attribution: the Monologion and Divine Simplicity”.
    In the respective article Nash-Marshall introduces his readers to a very interesting and, alas, neglected anselmian distinction between the properties and characteristics of a thing or being. A careful study of her argumentation would be quite helpful for an informed conversation about God’s attributes being in the class of properties or in that of characteristics.

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