Monday, May 18, 2015

“The Self-Contained Fullness of God”

Cornelius Van Til never wrote a “Systematic Theology”. He did write an “Introduction to Systematic Theology”. He begins with God. John Frame writes:
Evidently, then, our first priority in trying to understand Van Til’s metaphysics of knowledge is to explore his doctrine of God. On the first page of his Introduction to Systematic Theology, he says, “Fundamental to everything orthodox is the presupposition of the antecedent self-existence of God and his infallible revelation of himself to man in the Bible”.

“Self-existence,” sometimes called aseity, refers to the fact “that God is in no sense correlative to or dependent upon anything besides his own being. God is the source of his own being, or rather the term source cannot be applied to God. God is absolute. He is sufficient unto himself.” Often Van Til summarizes this concept by referring to the “self-contained God.”

He quotes favorably a passage from Bavinck to the effect that all of the other virtues of God are included in his aseity. Thus, when Van Til goes on to discuss God’s immutability, he bases that doctrine on the divine aseity: “Naturally God does not and cannot change since there is nothing besides his own eternal Being upon which he depends (Mal 3:6; James 1:7).” Since God’s immutability is based upon his “self-contained fullness,” it is quite opposite to the immutability of Aristotle’s unmoved mover, an abstract thought [which is] thinking itself.

Notice how [Van Til] moves here from “self-contained” to “self-contained fullness.” That is important…

(From John Frame, “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought”, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, ©1995, pgs 53-54.)

Reading this, I was struck by the comparative use of the term “fullness” by Rome. Rome says it has “the fullness of the faith”.

Consider that term in juxtaposition with another account of what can be called the “self-contained fullness of God”. Here is the account by Scott Oliphint:

The first thing that is necessary to grasp about the attributes, properties, or perfections (which I use as synonyms) of God, therefore, is that a basic distinction must be made between God as he is and exists in himself and God as he condescends. The theological (i.e. biblical) reason for this distinction is that it is obvious that before anything was created, there was and has always been God. That is, God himself is not essentially subject to time; he does not, according to his essential character, live, move, and have his being in a temporal context. He has no beginning and will have no end. Not only so, but before there was anything created, there was only God. It is not as though things existed—ideas, concepts, properties, and so forth-alongside God prior to creation. Before creation, there was nothing but God. To put it more starkly, before God created, there was not even nothing. There was God and only God.

(K. Scott Oliphint, “God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God”, Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2012, from the Introduction, pg 13.)

Consider, for a moment, “the self-contained fullness of God”, compared with what Rome calls “the fullness of the faith”. Let that thought sink in for a few moments.


  1. Not only so, but before there was anything created, there was only God. It is not as though things existed—ideas, concepts, properties, and so forth-alongside God prior to creation. Before creation, there was nothing but God. To put it more starkly, before God created, there was not even nothing. There was God and only God.

    I see this as problematic. If there are no properties which distinguish the persons of the Trinity, doesn't Trinitarianism collapse into Sabellianism? If there are no ideas or concepts, how can or do the persons know themselves and what they can create?

    Granted Van Til's arguments against Platonism, I think there is still a correct way of conceiving of these things as being eternally [and perhaps mutually?] dependent on [and perhaps with?] God rather than strictly identifying them with God. That's what RC's do when advocating Aquinas' overly stringent doctrine of divine simplicity, and it leads to numerous problems aside from the above.

    1. I don't see a problem (and I'm sure it's the case, given that we are talking about Westminster folks here), with "God and only God" being "God the Trinity".

      Frame, in fact, suggests that the "ideas, concepts, properties, and so forth" "fully fit the ... descriptions" ... of "the divine attributes". This comes up in his chapter on "The Clark Controversy". Maybe you've read more about that than I have, but I read Frame's "proposed solution" in this area, which he says "apparently never occurred to anybody on either side of the controversy", and (from my perspective of not having ever paid attention to the controversy), "this sounds like a good solution". This is on pgs 104ff in the work.

    2. Ryan,

      I think theistic conceptual realism (a la Greg Welty, James Anderson) is the best way to ground eternal ideas.

      I agree with you that there must be at least one "property" to distinguish each person of the Godhead from the other two persons. And I agree with you that Thomistic simplicity generates more problems than it solves.

      Although Oliphint is out of his depth, he doesn't say there were no ideas or properties prior to creation, but only that there were no ideas or properties "alongside God" prior to creation. Prior to creation, you don't have an independent realm of ideas or properties, alongside God.

    3. I didn't mean to give the impression that Oliphint denies ideas, concepts, or properties exist at all, I just don't think he's trying to separate his view from a Platonic one. Rather, I think he's trying to metaphysically identify ideas et al. with God by rooting such in Thomistic simplicity. Admittedly, I don't have that book of his, so I don't know the full context. But I suspect that he's saying here - e.g. "There was God and only God" - is intended to convey the same thing as in Oliphint's Reasons for Faith:

      "The simplicity of God holds that God's attributes are not characteristics or properties that exist (in the same way that he exists) in any way "outside" of God, such that his having such a characteristic or property entails his participation in something other than himself. God just *is* his characteristics and his characteristics are identical to him...

      Not only so, but when we think of the simplicity of God, we are also committed to the notion that God's attribute of truth and his attribute of goodness themselves are, since they are God's, attributed to him essentially and thus are his essence. God's truth is a good truth, and his goodness is true goodness, just because the one is included in, and identical with (in God), the other...

      It seems, therefore, that to deny the simplicity of God is too high a price to pay for too little return. That is, though giving up on God's simplicity may resolve the epistemological dilemma, what one must also give up in the process is perhaps the most crucial and essential theistic truth that must be affirmed for a Christian - the truth of the existence of the triune God as *a se,* in the first place, and then the dependent existence of everything else.

      But suppose we take Aquinas' own premise. Suppose we take seriously the fact that God as an infinite, eternal, and necessary being is also the Creator of all that is. And suppose, rather than positing "being" as a *transcendental* notion, we posit a twofold or duality theory of being in which being becomes, not a unifying principle, but rather a basic principle of differentiation. That is, if we start with Thomas' premise, we can start also, not with a transcendental notion of being such that it is set forth to bring unity to all that exists, but with a twofold notion of existence (being) such that the existence (or being) of God is primary and everything else, which is secondary. In this way, we cannot simply posit existence without at the same time saying whether it is God's existence that we are positing or something that exists because created by God.

      Now Thomas would no doubt quickly agree with such an idea of God. It was for this reason that he was constrained to develop not only an analogy that would have as its controlling motif "proposition" (so that in this kind of analogy we could learn something about those things in which there is a bona fide relationship between esse and essence), but also an analogy of intrinsic attribution (in which the causal factor is primary). In other words, in speaking of both kinds of analogies, Thomas is aware that there must be a fundamental difference between the being of God, including also the way in which we know him, and the existence or being of his creation, including also the ways in which we know that. Or to say in another way, the reason that there must be *both* an analogy or proper proportion *and* an analogy of intrinsic attribution is simply because of the different relationships that obtain between the things that are created, on the one hand, and between the Creator and creation, on the other." (emphasis his, pgs. 109-110, 91-92)

      Oliphint (and Van Til, for that matter) would take issue with identifying his view of God with Aquinas's, but I gather that the disagreement is whether to arrive at this same metaphysic by presupposition or demonstration. That's also why I don't find it surprising both held to analogical knowledge.

    4. It could be that he's operating with Thomistic simplicity, as he construes it. Or some variation thereof.

      As far as Reformed philosophers go, I think James Dolezal would be a better foil, since he's more astute than Oliphint.

      And, of course, you have Catholic popularizers like Feser, as well as more sophisticated philosophers like Pruss–both of whom attempt to expound and defend it.

      I myself espouse God's mereological simplicity, but that's as far as I go.

    5. I have Dolezal's book and Feser's book on Aquinas, and while they are clearly better - perhaps naturally so, since the topic is a central focus for each - I just don't think either solve the problems that result from a metaphysic which makes God so transcendent as to be Totally Other. I'll have to check out Pruss.

      What do you mean by "mereological simplicity"? I recall from an earlier blog post you reject that God has spatial or temporal parts. If that's what you mean here, I agree with you about the former and tentatively agree about the latter. I'm still working through understanding the concept of time.

    6. i) Yes, I mean God has no spatiotemporal divisions. He's "simple" in that respect.

      ii) I'm not sure if I understand Thomistic simplicity. I've read numerous expositions. I think it's hard to grasp because it's probably unintelligible. No amount of sympathetic exposition can make it comprehensible.

      iii) To the extent that I understand it, I reject it:

      a) It's nonsensical to say divine justice and mercy are identical, or omnipotence and omniscience are identical.

      b) It's in conflict with the Trinity.

      c) It's in conflict with divine freedom.

      iv) Here's Pruss: