God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness

James E. Dolezal (2011) The doctrine of divine simplicity has a long pedigree in the history of the church, but it is under severe attack by contemporary theologians and philosophers. Many are rejecting the doctrine as incoherent. In this book Dolezal responds to the philosophical and theological challenges that are being urged against God’s simplicity. He endeavors to demonstrate that these objections fail, and that simplicity is necessary in order to understand God’s attributes and nature. Dolezal interacts with both historical and contemporary sources to make his case that the doctrine of divine simplicity is actually an essential theological point for a right understanding of God.

Chapter 1: Friends and Foes of the Classical Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

The doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) is necessary if God is to not to be ontologically dependent on anything besides himself. If he is composed of parts, then he is dependent on those parts for his existence. God is not composite but is identical with his existence and all of his attributes. Everything in God is God. DDS has been the normative view in church history. The church fathers recognized that if something was composite it was divisible, and also that a composite entity could not be ontologically ultimate. DDS was necessary to preserve the full deity of each person of the Trinity, while ensuring that God was one rather than three. God’s attributes cannot be separated from his essence. Medieval theologians and philosophers continued to uphold DDS, and it was Thomas Aquinas who articulated the doctrine with great precision. He argued that anything that is composite can be dissolved, and everything composite requires a composer. Aquinas’ most important contribution was seeing that even souls and angels were composite in that their existence and essence were not identical. In God, therefore, essence is identical with existence. The Reformers and their followers did not modify Aquinas’ position, but they did seek to demonstrate its biblical foundations. The Reformed and Thomist traditions carried this view forward into the Twentieth Century.

Despite its historical strength, DDS has been challenged today by both Christian and non-Christian thinkers. The atheist Richard Gale rejects two forms of DDS, the property identity account and the property instance account. He argues that properties are abstract not concrete, that if God is identical to his properties they cannot be shared with creatures (without making the creature God), and that simplicity makes all of God’s attributes identical with each other, which is clearly not the case. On the property instance account, Gale contends that God would actually be dependent on his instancing of his own properties, and that God’s attributes would all require causal capacity (which they do not have). Christopher Hughes contends that DDS reduces God to a blank existence, and that his other properties disappear into existence itself. Hughes also argues that if all of God’s attributes are identical, then the theological distinction between communicable and incommunicable attributes cannot be sustained. Another point Hughes makes is that, using the semantics of possible worlds, DDS challenges God’s creative freedom. In a similar way, Thomas Morris argues that DDS destroys the distinction between God’s necessary and contingent properties. Alvin Plantinga’s criticism of DDS has been highly influential. He argues that God can be sovereign without DDS being true. He also argues that there are many Platonic realities that exist independently of God (like numbers, propositions, properties, sets). Plantinga maintains that DDS mistakenly entails that all of God’s attributes are identical, and that if God is identical with his properties, then it follows that he is a property rather than a person. Evangelical philosopher Ronald Nash has largely followed Plantinga. He suggests that if God has the property of goodness, then God does not control this fact, nor could he exist unless goodness existed. John Feinberg likewise rejects DDS, and he does so in large part on the basis of its lack of biblical evidence. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig also reject DDS. All of these objections have in common the fact that they posit God’s existence and being as univocal with created beings. They also allow for Platonic realities that exist independently from God.

Chapter 2: Simplicity and the Models of Composition

If God is absolute, he cannot be composite. There are positive implications for DDS, but it is phrased negatively (i.e. God does not have parts, he is not composite). The difference between being simple and composite is essential to the distinction between Creator and creature. If a being is composite then it is dependent on its parts, it can come into or go out of existence, and something else must compose it. If a being is composite, it must be a creature, not an independent, self-sufficient cause. Aquinas argued that change and motion occur when something moves from potentiality to actuality (Aquinas was following Aristotelian thought). God, therefore, must be pure act, not a composite of act and potential. All of his potency is fully actualized, whereas all creatures have some non-actualized potency. God can act by bringing about changes outside of himself, but he himself does not change. He cannot be changed by being acted upon by others. Created entities can experience changes in location, quantitative changes, qualitative changes, and substantial changes.

Aquinas argues that God is spirit and that spirits cannot have flesh and bones. Bodies are capable of division since they are spatially extended, but God is not. If God had a body he would be potentially divisible, and thus not pure act. Having denied that God has a body, Aquinas quite naturally denies that God has form-matter composition. He insists that God is essentially form and has no material component. Material substances must exist with both form and prime matter, but prime matter is pure potency. Material substances are individuated by individual matter in a form. In creatures the supposit (what is) and the nature (that by which it is) are not identical, but in God they are. God is not defined within a species; his nature does not locate him in a genus. God does not share a common nature with anything else. Aquinas also denied that God had accidental properties—God is not made up of numerous discrete acts. Since accidental properties are caused, if there were any such properties in God they could not be caused by him, or if they were caused by him, God could not be pure act. Aquinas’ most significant contribution to defending DDS is his argument that God is not composed of essence and existence. Thomas argues that God is identical with his own act of existence. An essence cannot cause itself to come into existence, so the ultimate cause must have an essence that is identical with its existence. Every creature receives its existence, so there is no creature where essence and existence are identical. Every composite being is dependent.

Chapter 3: Simplicity and the Theological Rationale for Divine Absoluteness

DDS is not explicitly revealed in Scripture, but it is the conclusion that must be drawn from a wide range of biblical data. Simplicity is necessary for God’s aseity, unity, infinity, immutability, and eternity. It is simplicity that fully separates God from the rest of creation. Both the advocates and the detractors of DDS recognize that it is tied to aseity. Aseity means that God is from himself: he is not dependent on anything. God is the absolute sufficient condition for his own existence. God is not self-caused (since a cause would have to exist before it can cause itself), but rather he is identified with his existence and essence. If God were composed of parts his existence would be dependent on those parts, which would entail that the existence of something less than God must exist in order for God to exist.

The Scriptures abound in passages that teach that God is one. Even composite beings exist in a unity (or else they would disintegrate and cease to exist). Yet God’s mode of unity is not univocal with his creatures. God is not just undivided, he is indivisible. God’s unity is grounded in his simplicity, so that he is unlike any other being. Simplicity is also necessary for God’s infinity. If a material substance consists of form and matter, then the form is limited by the matter and vice versa. God’s infinity does not just refer to his limitlessness, but to the fact that he is full perfection and actualization. Parts delimit each other, so God must not have parts if he is infinite. God’s existence and essence are unlimited because of their ontological mode, so God’s infinity is predicated upon his simplicity.

A being who is infinite and perfect cannot undergo change by addition or subtraction. Biblical texts affirm God’s immutability, and even though the focus in those passages is on God’s ethical immutability, such ethical immutability is grounded in God’s ontology. All creatures depend on God, so they are mutable and changeable, in that God brings them into existence and could change their existence. Material substances are very mutable, both in accidental and substantial ways. Since God is without composition, and his existence and essence are identical, it is impossible for God to change. God’s immutability does not mean that he cannot act. In fact, God is immutable not because he is inert, but because he is pure act. Rocks are immobile and seem not to change, but God cannot change because he is already perfect in act.

God’s atemporal eternality is necessitated and supported by DDS. There is no chronology inside of God. Time requires change and movement from one state to another. God’s eternity is identical with his unchanging, complete, and indivisible life. All of God’s acts in time are contained in his one limitless instant. Because God is simple he is able to be wholly present in all of his completeness to all points in time.

Chapter 4: Simplicity and God’s Absolute Existence

God is absolute and his absoluteness has often been thought of by removing from him everything that is imperfect or dependent. God is not one more being in a great chain of being, merely occupying one rung above other creatures. God is identified with being itself and is the ground for all other beings. Contingent beings exist, but their existence cannot be explained without appeal to something besides themselves. Every being other than God does not have existence as part of its essence. There is a real distinction between existence and essence in every creature, but no such distinction exists in God. Only one being can have existence as an inherent part of its essence, because multiple beings with this identical nature would then be separable by form, which would preclude their absoluteness. The fact that there are contingent beings requires an explanation from a non-contingent mode of existence—God is a necessary being.

God’s identity is being, and this sets him apart from everything else. Since God is pure act, the ontological concept of his existence is analogical to his creatures’, not univocal. The language of being and “to be” applies to God in a unique way. God is distinguished from his creatures by the fact that his existence is self-subsistent. God is the proper cause of being in general and cannot be categorized as simply one being amongst others. The mode of God’s existence is radically different from the way that other things exist and the way that they differ from one another in their being and existence. God’s existence is not the existence found at the highest rung on the chain of being, but rather it is the existence in which all other existence is grounded. The order of the world’s existence and the order of God’s existence are two separate orders. All creatures have a contingent existence rooted in God’s perfect, necessary existence. Everything in the world (and the world itself) exists because it participates in God, but God does not participate in anything besides his own nature. God is not the first cause or the first instance of being in a chain: he is above and outside of the chain in a transcendent ontological mode. God is not just one more thing in the world. Many philosophers who think about possible worlds have assumed that God is one more item alongside of others that can be considered under the rubric of the possible world semantics. Such thinkers are reducing the uniqueness of God’s existence and failing to see that God and the world are of different orders or magnitudes of being altogether. Only God is identical with that by which he exists.

Chapter 5: Simplicity and God’s Absolute Attributes

It is important for DDS that God is not a collection of separable attributes. Everything in God is God and all of his attributes are identical with him. This view has been rejected and modified by a number of individuals and a variety of alternative understandings have been proposed. Many who deny DDS assert that there are real differences in God’s attributes and properties, so they cannot all be fully identical with God. Philosophers and theologians throughout history have tried to understand how God’s simplicity relates to his attributes. Some have argued that there are formal distinctions but not real distinctions between God’s attributes, and others have asserted that our knowledge and definitions of God’s attributes are equivocal when we move from the creature to the Creator. Aquinas argued that God’s essence rather than distinct concepts underlays his attributes. He maintained that many perfections are united in God, and these perfections are multiplied and differentiated when they are expressed in the created order. So certain attributes are distinguished in creation, but not in God. All of God’s attributes are what they are because of his simple divine nature, and all of his communicable attributes found in diverse ways in creation are rooted back in his singular nature. The sense of each attribute is different, but the referent for all of them is the same (i.e. God). As finite creatures we cannot fully comprehend God, so we cannot conceptualize him exactly as he is. The perfections of creatures are divided, but in God they are all united.

Some defenders of DDS have rejected this strong identity account and are advocating a harmony account, wherein God has each of his essential attributes necessarily, and there is no conflict between them. In this model, the simplicity is in the harmony rather than in the identity of the attributes. Harmony advocates seem to miss the point that DDS is not merely about unity in God, but the special unity that alone can make him absolute and the Creator of the universe. DDS maintains that God is the reason for the attributes, but other models can make the existence of the attributes the reason for God.

The identity model has been challenged on multiple bases. One objection is that properties are abstract, so if his properties are identical with himself, then God would be abstract. One response is to note that God’s attributes are not properties in himself—attributes are only properly considered properties when they are found in creatures. Attribute inhere in creatures, but they do not inhere in God. In creatures, attributes are properties, but God is not a property-bearing substance. Our knowledge and language about God’s properties and attributes is analogical, since he does not exist in the mode of a created, dependent, composite substance. Another objection is that if all of God’s attributes are identical, he could not share some of them with us without sharing all of them. This objection fails because it doesn’t recognize that there are no univocally shared properties between God and creatures. God is not good because he possesses the universal property of goodness; goodness is what it is because of his nature. As a result, God and creatures cannot exemplify the same attributes through common participation in universals. God creates a finite replica of his attributes in the creation, but the mode in which the attributes are exemplified is not identical with his own—what God has essentially, creatures can only have by participation.

It is best to recognize that we are speaking inexactly and analogically when we refer to God having properties. God is not what he is because of properties, properties are what they are because of God: he is the “truthmaker” of all of his attributes. God is the standard for each attribute. God is unmeasured and the measure of all. Wisdom or goodness (and the rest) are not universal abstractions, but are what they are through the concrete existence of God. A creature has attributes as properties, but God’s attributes are grounded in his substance. The reason why all of God’s attributes are identical with himself is that they are all measured by the standard of God’s substance. For example, both mercy and justice are what they are because of what God is.

Chapter 6: Simplicity and God’s Absolute Knowledge and Will

One challenge to DDS is how God can be simple and yet know multiple things and have multiple ideas and concepts. God knows all things on the basis of his own substance. Human beings add knowledge through contact with accidental and external things, but God does not acquire knowledge through external things. On the contrary, God’s knowledge is logically prior to everything. It is his knowledge that makes things what they are, rather than the reality of things informing his knowledge. God is omniscient, so no item of knowledge can be added to his understanding. God knows all things through the mediation of knowing his own essence. Since God knows himself perfectly, he comprehends all that his power can bring about. As a result, God knows every way that his perfections can be shared and distributed in a created order. God knows all things in knowing how everything could participate in himself. God’s knowledge, therefore, is not a composite set that is cobbled together by awareness of things as they exist outside of himself. The knowledge of God is most absolute because it is based on DDS.

Since God is pure act, his will and his willing are identical with himself. God’s act of willing and the final end he wills are the same, since the ultimate end of his will is himself. God does not possess a will as a separate faculty, but he does have a will. It is not added to his essence but identical with it. The will of God is moved by himself, by his own essence, rather than by external things and ends. We will after ends that our intellects present to us, and God’s eternal knowledge and will work together in identifying himself as the thing to be desired and willed. If anything was more desirable to God’s will than himself, he would not be the highest and most perfect reality. Since God’s will is perfect it cannot be altered or improved. God wills all non-divine things for his own glory, so in willing them he is still willing himself. God wills all things in a single act of will, since his will is perfect and complete (which precludes additional acts of willing). Knowing a multitude of non-divine things does not entail a multiplicity in God’s knowledge, and willing a multitude of non-divine things does not entail multiplicity in God’s will.

Chapter 7: Simplicity and the Difficulty of Divine Freedom

Many thinkers believe that DDS is not compatible with divine freedom. If God is pure act, then it would seem that everything he does must be done determinately rather than freely. How does pure act leave room for freedom? Norman Kretzmann believes that if God creates as an act of his goodness, then this reduces his freedom, since on DDS God is identical with his goodness and therefore must create out of it. Kretzmann locates God’s freedom not in the decision to create, but in the decision about what to create. While Kretzmann upholds DDS and limits God’s freedom, most philosophers take the opposite approach and reject DDS in order to maintain God’s absolute freedom. Many of the difficulties we have when we are discussing God’s freedom stem from our univocal ascription of terms like “free will” and “possibility” to God and his creatures. If we project our understanding of human freedom onto God, we will end up falling into error.

The biggest challenge advocates of DDS have in the area of freedom is to explain what is meant when we say that God “could have” done x. If God is atemporally eternal and pure act, how could he ever have done otherwise? Eleanore Stump has argued that God may have differences in different possible worlds, but be unchanging inside of each of those worlds. She is trying to maintain simplicity and freedom, but this proposal is not sustainable. It leads to the entailment that God is essentially or accidentally different in different possible worlds. Yet if God is identical with his pure act, and if his pure act changes in different worlds, then God is not identical with God in certain possible worlds.

As creatures, we make choices when we stand before an array of options, deliberate on these options, and choose. Our choices are marked by contingency and uncertainty. God, however, does not deliberate and he does not choose in a temporal matrix. His modality of choice and freedom is unlike ours. God’s act of willing is eternal and free in that it is fully in accord with what he most desires. Since God already has his chief end (himself and his goodness), he does not need to create in order to attain his end. We can allow that God could have created something different as an abstract possibility, but DDS precludes God actually creating something different. As finite creatures we do not comprehend the modality of God’s freedom and will, but he never moves from “could will” to “does will”: God doesn’t have an actual openness to counterfactuals. The actual world is the only possible world that could really be actualized because God eternally wills its existence. We can acknowledge that there is good reason to believe that God is both simple and free, even though we do not comprehend the modality of how that can be the case. If we work from a framework of ontological univocity, we will always end up in contradictions, so we must remember how limited our understanding is, and that our reasoning must be analogical.