Simply Impossible: A Case against Divine Simplicity

In: Journal of Reformed Theology


Within contemporary philosophical theology the doctrine of divine simplicity has regained attention.1 The pertinent literature has increased by several new defenses of the doctrine.2 One of the more surprising, and troubling, aspects of the contemporary defenses amongst Christian philosophers and theologians is a seeming lack of understanding about how radical the doctrine of divine simplicity truly is. As such, I wish to do a few things in this paper. First, systematically articulate the doctrine of divine simplicity. Second, argue that divine simplicity is not a possible perfection. Third, offer some concluding remarks and highlight remaining issues that will need to be sorted out for the debate over simplicity to meaningfully continue.

  • 2

    Jeffrey Brower, ‘Making Sense of Divine Simplicity,’ in Faith and Philosophy 25 (2008). Stephen Holmes, ‘Something Much too Plain to Say: Towards a Defense of the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity,’ NZSTH 43 (2001). Christopher Franks, ‘The Simplicity of the Living God: Aquinas, Barth, and Some Philosophers,’ Modern Theology 21 (2005). James E. Dolezal, God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011).

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  • 6

    Nicholas Wolterstorff, Inquiring About God: Selected Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 153.

  • 9

    Dolezal, God Without Parts, 31.

  • 11

      Kevin Timpe, ‘Truth Making and Divine Eternity’, Religious Studies 43 (2007), 299. Eleonore Stump, Aquinas (New York: Routledge, 2003), 96-7. Jeffrey E. Brower, ‘Simplicity and Aseity’, in eds. Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 105. Brian Davies, ‘Simplicity’, in eds. Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 37-40.

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  • 12

    Richard Cross, Duns Scotus on God (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 108-9. John F. Wipple, ‘Metaphysics,’ in ed. Norman Kreztmann and Eleonore Stump, The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Scott MacDonlad, ‘The Divine Nature,’ in ed. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kreztmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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  • 14

    See Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes: 1274-1689 (London: Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 18. Also, Richard Cross, Duns Scotus on God, 122.

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  • 20

    See, ‘Absolute Simplicity,’ 369, and their ‘Simplicity Made Plainer,’ Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987). For a critique of their move see Katherin Rogers, ‘The Traditional Doctrine of Divine Simplicity,’ Religious Studies 32 (1996).

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  • 24

    Stock, A Stock of Divine Knowledge, being a lively description of the divine nature (London: T.H. for Philip Nevil, 1641), 88.

  • 29

    Rogers, Perfect Being Theology, 27. The types of objections she has in mind come from Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Morris. Alvin Planinga, Does God Have a Nature? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980).Thomas Morris, Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987).

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  • 37

    John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001), 327-29.

  • 38

    Nicholas Wolterstorff, Inquiring About God, 108.

  • 39

    Rogers, ‘The Traditional Doctrine of Divine Simplicity’, 165.

  • 44

    Katherin Rogers, Perfect Being Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 2. Cf. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I.7.

  • 47

    Richards, The Untamed God, 33.

  • 50

    Brower, ‘Simplicity and Aseity,’ Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, 107.

  • 52

    Dolezal, God Without Parts, 30. Throughout his book he seems to have this assumption that one must hold either divine simplicity or fall into Platonism.

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  • 55

    Klaas J. Kraay, ‘Theism and Modal Collapse,’ American Philosophical Quaterly 48 (2011).

  • 57

    Dolezal, God Without Parts, 205-6. Rogers, The Anselmian Approach to God and Creation (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), 54 and 68-9, Perfect Being Theology, 33-6. However, in personal correspondence Rogers has stated that she recognizes the problem, and would like to figure out a way to avoid a modal collapse.

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  • 59

    John Webster, ‘Trinity and Creation,’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 12 (2010), 12.

  • 60

    Rogers, Perfect Being Theology, 37.

  • 61

    Michael J. Dodds, The Unchanging God of Love: Thomas Aquinas and Contemporary Theology on Divine Immutability, 2nd Edition (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 175-80. Oddly, Dodds claims that such counterfactual thinking has no place in theology after he articulates and endorses the medieval modal distinction between absolute and conditional necessity. If Dodds can use modality in theology, then so can I.

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  • 63

    Richard Cross, The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 179.

  • 65

    Thomas McCall and Keith Yandell, ‘On Trinitarian Subordinationism’, in Philosophia Christi 11:2 (2009).

  • 67

    G.R. Evans, Philosophy and Theology in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1993), 60.

  • 68

    John Duns Scotus, De Primo Principio, 143-5. Also, Richard Stock, A Stock of Divine Knowledge, 86.

  • 71

    For more on this see Thomas Senor, ‘The Compositional Account of the Incarnation’ Faith and Philosophy 24 (2007). Also, Anna Marmodoro and Jonathan Hill (eds), The Metaphysics of the Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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  • 72

    Rogers, ‘The Traditional Doctrine of Divine Simplicity’, 172.

  • 73

    Gregory of Nazianzus, The Theological Orations, 3.6.

  • 80

    Brian Leftow, ‘Is God an Abstract Object?’ Nous 24 (1990): 581-598, and ‘Divine Simplicity,’ Faith and Philosophy 23 (2006): 365-380.

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