My Senior Thesis: Part 1 (for the 2 or 3 people interested: it's about ADS and Thomism)

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A Simple Defense of the Complexity of God:
Examining Three Arguments Against Absolute Divine Simplicity and Suggesting a New One

This paper will deal with the Latin Christian doctrine of divine simplicity which I will hereafter refer to as Absolute Divine Simplicity, or ADS.  I will attempt to get clear on exactly what this oft-misunderstood doctrine actually is, as well as why one might be motivated to believe it.  After this, the majority of the paper will be devoted to examining a few of the arguments against ADS provided by Christopher Hughes in his book On a Complex Theory of a Simple God.  I will examine three arguments: one having to do with God’s omniscience and possible worlds, one having to do with the compatibility of ADS and the doctrine of the Trinity, and one having to do with the compatibility of ADS with the doctrine of the incarnation.  I will explore possible lines of reply for the proponent of ADS and then take up the task of defending Hughes against them.  Finally, I will attempt to give a “bare-bones” sketch of how an argument might go to try to show ethical tension between ADS and the fact that Christians are motivated to love God on the basis of rewards.  This argument will not be entirely complete and will certainly not be a “knock-down, drag-out” argument, but it will hopefully provoke some thoughtful discussion. In the conclusion I will make a few recommendations to the Christian philosophical and theological communities regarding how to go about articulating a coherent picture of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  Before we move on, though, let it be stated that the thesis of this paper is that ADS is not compatible with various tenants of orthodox Christian theism.

Before we examine any argumentation, we ought to get clear on what ADS is and why anyone would want to believe it.  For Thomas Aquinas, ADS amounts to the denial of seven types of composition:  1) the composition had by all physical bodies, 2) the composition of form and matter, 3) the composition of quiddity, essence, or nature and subject, 4) the composition of essence and existence, 5) the composition of genus and difference, 6) the composition of subject and accident, and 7) God entering into composition with other things.[i] Another characterization can be found in Jay Wesley Richards’s The Untamed God.  Richards lists eight main theses about simplicity that are found in theology but names one as the strongest form of simplicity:  “All God’s properties are (strictly) identical with God Himself.”[ii] This is a shorter and more “to the point” way to characterize ADS.  Perhaps the clearest of all characterizations of ADS can be found in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann’s famous paper, “Absolute Simplicity.”  Stump and Kretzmann characterize the doctrine of ADS as denying “…possibility of real distinctions in God.”[iii] They go on to point out that this entails that “it is…impossible that God have any kind of parts or any intrinsic accidental properties, or that there be real distinctions among God’s essential properties or between any of them and God Himself.”[iv]

One might be wondering here why anyone would want to believe such a doctrine.  Surely it isn’t just immediately obvious that God has no real distinctions.[v] For one thing, the doctrine has an impressive list of defenders, including the three big “A’s” of western Christian theology:  Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.  The doctrine is a standard part of what has come to be known in philosophy of religion as “classical theism.”[vi] As for the philosophical motivation behind the doctrine, it largely stems from concerns about God’s perfection and absolute sovereignty.  The basic idea is that the perfect, absolutely sovereign God must be free of all composition because if God is composite than he must depend for his existence on some ontologically prior parts (like Platonic forms).  Furthermore, what is composite seems to be able to be broken back down into its original parts.  Finally, if God is to be a necessary being, His existence must be essential to Him.  There is much more to say here as there are many senses of divine simplicity, but this gives one at least some idea of why one might want to believe in ADS.


[i] See Thomas’s Summa Theologica, I.3.

[ii] Jay Wesley Richards, The Untamed God (Downer’s Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2003) 217.

[iii] Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Absolute Simplicity,” Faith and Philosophy Vol.2 No.4  (October 1985) 353.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Especially when one considers the distinctness of the three persons of the Trinity and the distinction between person and nature/essence in Christian theology.

[vi] Although I would contend that this moniker is not very accurate.  Arguably, the denial of this doctrine is entailed by the theology that undergirds the ecumenical councils via the fathers whose theologies most influenced the councils (i.e.:  Athansius, the Cappedocians, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene).  For an explanation of this claim, see David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West:  Metaphysics and the Division of Christiandom.

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6 Responses to “My Senior Thesis: Part 1 (for the 2 or 3 people interested: it's about ADS and Thomism)”

  1. David Nilsen Says:

    MG,

    “The basic idea is that the perfect, absolutely sovereign God must be free of all composition because if God is composite than he must depend for his existence on some ontologically prior parts (like Platonic forms). Furthermore, what is composite seems to be able to be broken back down into its original parts. Finally, if God is to be a necessary being, His existence must be essential to Him.”

    Will you be dealing with these concerns in the rest of your paper, or only dealing with objections to ADS (and possible responses)? If you don’t specifically address them in your paper, would you mind responding to them here? Thanks!

  2. ZSDP Says:

    Actually, this is Krause’s paper, of which there were two versions—one rather long, the other quite condensed. From what I can tell, this is the condensed version, which (if I remember correctly) pretty much leaves the motivations for ADS in skeleton form in order to leave as much space as possible for Hughes’s and Mark’s arguments.

    As for whether MG or Krause will respond to those concerns here, I obviously can’t say. I doubt you want my take on them, since it isn’t particularly generous.

  3. Krause Says:

    Nilsen,

    What exactly did you have in mind?

    I don’t know if this is what you want but in short I can give my take on everything in that paragraph:

    I agree with everything in that paragraph. The proponents of ADS is that there is more than one gloss of Divine Simplicity. The Orthodox don’t think that God is composite either, so arguing for ADS on the basis that God is not composite doesn’t really do the trick.

    The only other thing I would say is that while it would be true that God’s existence would be essential to him if He were a Necessary Being, God is neither a being, nor subject to necessity.

    Thus, that this line of reasoning is correct, it does not specifically recommend ADS as a solution. You need to believe that distinction is opposition and thus commit yourself to a subjection of value of the many to the one in order to get ADS. I’m not a NeoPlatonist so I am not moved.

    Let me know if any of that was in the neighborhood of what you were looking for. If not, feel free to let me know and ask me to clarify about anything.

  4. Perry Robinson Says:

    If I might suggest, God is not a being on the Orthodox gloss but he is also not being in the sense of self subsisting being either. Any good Thomist would agree that God is not A being.

  5. Krause Says:

    That’s true. I was being a little sloppy.

  6. David Nilsen Says:

    Krause,

    That was perfect. Thanks. And having just read Farrell’s book, it sounds quite familiar! 🙂

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