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#111 Divine Simplicity

June 01, 2009

Hello Dr. Craig.

Thank you very much for your enlightening work in Philosophy of religion. I am writing all the way from Malaysia! so you know your work has touched a lot of people globally.

I am a student in Computer science just reading up on Christian Apologetics. My question regards the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. I have not yet read any articles that you have written about Divine simplicity so i am not aware of your stand on this doctrine.

Someone however does quote you and JP Moreland as basically being opposed to the doctrine:

The doctrine [divine simplicity] is open, moreover, to powerful objections. For example, to say that God does not have distinct properties seems patently false: omnipotence is not the same property as goodness, for a being may have one and not the other.

My questions therefore are:

1. Are you for or against DS?

2. Would it be correct to assert that your understanding of the doctrine of divine simplicity as characterized by the above given quote (if indeed its yours) is wrong given that Nicholas Wolterstorff Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, and Fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University, thinks that medieval Christian thinkers like St. Aquinas conceive of predication in terms of subjects possessing constituents. Whereas contemporary philosophers think of predication in terms of subjects exemplifying properties.

This makes all the difference on someone's view of DS.

Instead of God merely exemplifying eg Omnipotence, we can say that Omnipotence is a metaphysical constituent of God. And therefore it is not distinct from God. The same applies to Omnibenevolence. Instead of God just simply exemplifying goodness, we can say that goodness is part of God's nature, and thus not distinct from him.

Can't we then be charged with reducing God to an abstract property? I believe not. Since we have clearly indicated that we are talking of God's-goodness, which is a metaphysical constituent of God. If God's goodness is part of god's nature, then god's nature is surely identical or equal to God, God's-nature is just the same as God.

An objection can be raised that, We do know that there is a conceptual difference between God's nature and eg God's justice. Since God's nature is that which makes him God, and God's justice is that which makes him just. Therefore this seems to refute the doctrine of DS.

To me, this does not seem to defeat DS since DS does not claim that God's properties are conceptually similar, rather they are metaphysically similar.i.e the claim that God is identical with His nature becomes that God is identical with that constituent which makes him divine, i.e with his divine-making constituent. And the claim that God is identical with his Justice will amount to the claim that God is identical with that constituent that makes him just (just-making constituent).

I know this topic can get rather long, and i apologise for writing such a long post. I would love to hear your view on the issues i have raised.


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Dr. craig’s response


Thank you, Ernest, for such a stimulating and profound question concerning divine simplicity! I've addressed this doctrine briefly in my second chapter on "The Coherence of Theism" in my and J. P. Moreland's book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP, 2003). The passage you cite appears on p. 524.

As I explain there, the classic doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is an absolutely undifferentiated unity Who has no distinct attributes, stands in no real relations, Whose essence is not distinct from His existence, and Who just is the pure act of being subsisting. As such, the doctrine of divine simplicity is one that has no biblical support at all and, in my opinion, has no good philosophical arguments in its favor. Moreover, it faces very formidable objections. So in answer to your first question, I do reject the traditional doctrine that God is absolutely simple.

Now as for your second question, I assume that you're referring to Nicholas Wolterstorff's very interesting article "Divine Simplicity," in Philosophical Perspectives 5: Philosophy of Religion (Atascadero, Calif.: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991), pp. 531-52. There Wolterstorff argues that the doctrine of divine simplicity has been misconstrued by moderns because we fail to understand the medieval metaphysical framework of that doctrine. The problem, he argues, is that we moderns work with a "relation ontology," according to which a thing's nature or essence is a sort of abstract object to which the thing stands in a relation of exemplification. For example, a cat is thought to exemplify the property being feline, which is an abstract entity to which the cat is related. But medieval thinkers were working with a "constituent ontology," according to which natures were actual constituents of things. In fact, an individual nature was more like a concrete object than an abstract object. Thus, Plato's humanity was not, in this sense, the same as Aristotle's humanity; each had his own individual human nature which was individuated by the matter out of which each man was composed. (I think Wolterstorff seriously downplays the extent to which the medievals also recognized a common nature shared by all things of a certain kind, but let that pass.) Now for entities which are immaterial, like angels, for example, there is no matter to individuate their natures. So each one just is its nature. Each angel is therefore literally one of a kind! Moreover, created things have in addition to their natures certain additional properties, which are called accidents, for example, being brown, being intelligent, being good, and so on.

Now in the case of God, God is immaterial, so He just is His nature. Moreover, the claim of the doctrine of divine simplicity is that God has no accidents; He has only His essence. Finally, in the case of God alone, His nature involves existence. He exists by His very nature. So understood, the doctrine of divine simplicity does not commit one to the absurd notion that God is a property and, hence, an abstract object, as modern critics of the doctrine have sometimes alleged.

Wolterstorff's corrective of the modern reading of divine simplicity is welcome. Certainly medievals would not have thought of God's identity with His nature as His being an abtract object. But this mistaken critique is not the one I offer in Philosophical Foundations.

Rather Wolterstorff has really watered down the classic doctrine of divine simplicity. On his explication God could have a very complex nature and yet count as a simple being. The traditional doctrine is much more radical. It makes four identity claims:

i. God is not distinct from His nature.
ii. God's properties are not distinct from one another.
iii. God's nature is not distinct from His existence.
iv. God has no properties distinct from His nature.

Claim (i) is not unique to God. Angels, too, are identical with their natures. So this claim is not problematic when understood in the medieval metaphysical framework.

Claim (ii) remains problematic, however. Existence is part of God's nature. But existence is not the same property as, say, omnipotence, for plenty of things have existence but not omnipotence. It remains very obscure, therefore, how God's nature or essence can be simple and all His properties identical.

Claim (iii) is misrepresented by Wolterstorff, I believe. His is what Thomistic scholars call an "essentialist" reading of Thomas Aquinas' doctrine: Existence is a property that is included in the divine essence. But many Thomists insist that the correct reading of Thomas is an "existentialist" one: existence is not a property at all, but is the act of being which instantiates an essence. Everything other than God is composed of an essence to which an act of being is conjoined to make it exist as a concrete particular thing. But in a sense, God has no essence on this view, rather He just is the pure act of being unconstrained by any essence. He is, as Thomas says, the pure act of being subsisting. The problem is, this doctrine is just unintelligible.

Finally, claim (iv) runs into the severe problem that God does seem to have accidental properties in addition to His essential ones. For example, in the actual world, He knows, loves, and wills certain things which He would not know, will, or love had He decided to create a different universe or no universe at all. On the doctrine of divine simplicity God is absolutely similar in all possible worlds; but then it becomes inexplicable why those worlds vary if in every one God knows, loves, and wills the same things.

This is not to say that the doctrine of divine simplicity is wholly bereft of value. On the contrary, I have elsewhere defended the view that God's cognition is simple. But I do think that the full-blown doctrine in all its glory is philosophically and theologically unacceptable.

- William Lane Craig