Saturday, March 02, 2013

Parting with God Without Parts

In this post I’m going to comment on Dolezal’s theory of divine simplicity. This is an extension of my response to Shannon’s critique of the Welty/Anderson’s theistic ontology of logic. One of Shannon’s objections was to deploy the theory of simplicity against Welty/Anderson. And Shannon is indebted to Dolezal.

Historically, some Reformed theologians like Owen and Turretin defended divine simplicity. They did so in opposition to Socinians and Remonstrants. In that respect, I support what they are opposing.

However, it would be a mistake to imagine that there’s a Reformed consensus on this issue. For instance, Charles Hodge was an outspoken opponent of divine simplicity.

Dolezal seems to have a following in some Reformed circles. One reason may simply be that he’s a Calvinist, so there’s a built-in constituency for whatever a Calvinist publishes. A sympathetic predisposition.

It may also be that some young Calvinists enjoy philosophical theology. They’d like to see Calvinists get back in the game. They look forward to a renaissance of Reformed scholasticism.

I have no problem with that. But we must also acknowledge the limitations of philosophical theology.

In addition, divine simplicity is often presented as a bulwark for classical theism generally. To some extent, I think divine simplicity becomes a synecdoche for other components of the classical theistic package, like aseity, impassibility, timeless eternality, omnipotence, omniscience. By the same token, some (but not all) of those who object divine simplicity do so because they object to other components of classical theism.

But in that case we need to be clear. Are we defending simplicity in its own right, or by association with other tenets we hold dear? Is simplicity inseparable from the other tenets? And what if simplicity is actually in tension with some other important tenets?

Dolezal’s monograph doesn’t address major objections to divine simplicity involving divine freedom, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. He does, however, sketch his position in that respect in other forums. Among other things, he’s said:

As a Christian who confesses God’s incomprehensibility based upon his pure actuality, I cannot see how I can avoid appealing to mystery in the sense of (1). Yet there seem to be good reasons for this appeal. Most notably, as pure act God is beyond all categorical being and thus beyond definition in any scientific sense. (Hence, my commitment to analogical predication about God) It is God as ipsum esse subsistens (or, in biblical terms, as “I AM”) that chiefly accounts for his incomprehensibility and the mystery that permeates any discussion of his existence, essence, or triunity.

With respect to the difficulty of explaining how God is both free and simple (point 4 of your post), I would not locate the mystery primarily in the “conjunction” of the terms, but in the terms themselves. Yes, the conjunction is mysterious and I, like you, am not convinced by the numerous theistic attempts to overcome it. But, if I do indeed make a “mysterian move” it is not made at the end of a process in which I have grasped all the terms involved and simply cannot figure out how to link them together. Rather, I confess divine mystery at the outset, at the moment I conceive of God as pure act (as “I AM”). Admittedly, I did not make this as clear as I should have in chapter 7 of my book. The mystery of the conjunction follows from the mystery of God’s purely actual existence. Indeed, the mystery of divine freedom itself follows from the same. It is for this reason that I don’t expect (or even desire) “resolution” to the difficulty; such resolution could only be achieved by eradicating the ontological distinction between God and his creatures (which I would regard as impossible since God cannot produce a purely actual being distinct from himself). In this regard the “cognitive limitation” of humans is be located not in the circumstances of their present mental development or non-development, but in the fact of their ontological and intellectual compositeness.

If God produced the world by an absolute necessity then his very being as God would be correlative to the world’s existence. But such correlativity would obviate his pure actuality, i.e., he would be made actual in some sense by something other than himself and consequently would fail to satisfy the requirements for an agent that is pure act. In other words, he couldn’t be the absolutely sufficient explanation for the world’s existence if he were in any way correlative to the world.

It seems to follow, then, that if an absolutely simple God is going to create (and only a simple God satisfies the requirements for creation ex nihilo) he must do so freely.

I am hesitant to move too quickly in the direction of “libertarian freedom” before considering other ways in which divine freedom might be expressed. Perhaps most importantly, if divine simplicity means that God’s is the primary object and final end of all his knowing and willing (as I argue in chapter 6 of my book), then he is first and foremost free in that older Aristotelian sense of the one who is “for himself.” As pure act, he must be most “for himself” and thus most free, absolutely free of dependence upon all things not identical with him. I think that this is one sense of divine freedom that is often lost sight of in the modern stress upon power for counterfactuals.

Still, you are right to raise the question of God’s power for counterfactuals. How shall I explain the modality of such freedom? I confess that I cannot. I have no idea how to adequately express the modality of a free choice made by an agent who is pure act. And yet his pure actuality requires that his will for the world’s existence be free. I would not hesitate to affirm that human libertarian freedom is an analogue of this divine liberty; but it fails to convey the precise modality of that freedom as it is in God. Human acts of knowledge are also analogues of the divine act of knowledge and they too do not disclose an adequate (or univocal) notion of the modality of God’s knowledge. As I cannot form a univocal notion of God’s pure actuality, neither can I form a univocal notion of all he does in that actuality (knowing, willing, relating among the divine persons, creating, etc.).

i) Dolezal is resorting to mystery or paradox to justify his position. A position grounded in his view of divine incomprehensibility.

ii) I think appeal to mystery or paradox is a legitimate defense when we’re dealing with revealed truths. Faith in revealed truths is authorized by divine revelation.

However, I don’t think simplicity enjoys the status of a revealed truth. Simplicity is a philosophical construct. Even if it has some revelatory truths feeding into it, I think it goes well beyond the logical implications of God’s self-revelation.

That, of itself, doesn’t make it illicit. However, that does have two consequences:

a) As a philosophical construct, it has to withstand philosophical scrutiny. It can’t be justified by arguing from authority, for it’s not a revealed truth. The theory of divine simplicity is only as good as the rational arguments marshaled in its favor. It must stand or fall at the bar of reason. It must be cogent on its own terms. It can’t fall back divine authorization.

b) In case of conflict between the theory of divine simplicity and revealed truths, we should sacrifice simplicity. We can’t defend simplicity at the expense of revealed truths.

iii) There’s a viciously circular quality to his appeal. For simplicity figures in his definition of divine incomprehensibility based on God’s pure actuality. Isn’t simplicity one of the primary ways in which he explicates the pure actuality of God? If simplicity grounds divine incomprehensibility, then he can’t turn around and invoke divine incomprehensibility to give it cover.

iv) He seems to duck the question of whether God has counterfactual power. I assume that’s because he hasn’t made up his mind. And I assume he hasn’t made up his mind because he doesn’t have a strategy for reconciling divine counterfactual power with his precommitment to divine simplicity. At the same time, he clearly wants to affirm something like divine counterfactual power.

v) Consider what it would mean to deny God’s counterfactual power. It would mean the actual world exhausted the resources of divine omnipotence. But surely that’s implausible. Does God lack the knowledge or power to do a single thing differently than he did? Can’t God imagine alternatives? If so, is God impotent to do what he imagines?

vi) That would also make the created order commensurate with God. The finite effect would mirror the scope of divine omnipotence. A spent force.

vii) In addition, if God lacks counterfactual power, then the Son cannot become incarnate in one world unless he is incarnate in every possible world. But is it reasonable to stipulate that there is no possible world where the Son is not incarnate? Doesn’t the Bible tie the Incarnation to redemption, which is, in turn, tied to the Fall? Is every possible world a fallen world?

viii) Some Calvinists might say that we’re already used to denying human counterfactual power, so there’s no compelling reason why we should apply a different definition to God. There are, however, some basic problems with that comparison:

a) Calvinists deny the specific contention that humans must have counterfactual power to be moral agents. But the argument for divine freedom is not predicated on the assumption that God must have counterfactual freedom to be a moral agent.

b) Calvinists typically deny human counterfactual power precisely because that would conflict with divine counterfactual power. The human agent would be choosing what will happen rather than God. The creature would control the outcome. So the denial of human counterfactual power stands in contrast to divine power.

c) Apropos (b), why should Calvinists expend so much energy rebutting freewill theist restrictions on divine sovereignty only to embrace divine simplicity? Why stand adamantly opposed to Arminian, Molinist, and open theist restrictions on God’s sovereignty to spin around and enthusiastically accept a theory of divine simplicity which imposes a restriction on God’s sovereignty at least as radical (and arguably more so)? It’s like barring a wolf at the front door while inviting a tiger inside through the backdoor.

ix) One source of the problem may be the way in which Dolezal defines counterfactual freedom. He seems to think counterfactual freedom involves one or two assumptions: (a) choosing which possible world to create requires God to transition from a state of indecision to a state of resolve; (b) God’s range of options is confined to platonic realm of abstract objects or a plenum of preexistent possibilities, which subsist independently of God.

However, God’s counterfactual freedom doesn’t require either one of those assumptions. God’s omnipotence is the source of alternate possibilities, and his choice of one possibility over another is a timeless intention.

x) When he says:

As pure act God is beyond all categorical being and thus beyond definition in any scientific sense. (Hence, my commitment to analogical predication about God)

That seems reminiscent of Neoplatonism, where God is not a being, however exalted, but beyond being or nonbeing. Isn’t that a form of words without any intelligible concept to back it up?

Moreover, his statement seems to commit him, not to analogical predication, but apophaticism. God is incommensurable with human experience. None of our categories corresponds to what God is really like, in himself.

I don’t see how appeal to analogy will salvage his position, for analogy is a comparative relation. But if God is beyond all categorical being and thus beyond definition in any scientific sense, then we have no comparative frame of reference. 

xi) When he says:

It is God as ipsum esse subsistens (or, in biblical terms, as “I AM”) that chiefly accounts for his incomprehensibility and the mystery that permeates any discussion of his existence, essence, or triunity…Rather, I confess divine mystery at the outset, at the moment I conceive of God as pure act (as “I AM”).

Is he deriving the concept of God as pure act from God’s name in Exod 3:16? That’s how Aquinas tries to prooftext his position:

I answer that, This name HE WHO IS is most properly applied to God, for three reasons:

First, because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other (Q[3], A[4]), it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form.

Secondly, on account of its universality. For all other names are either less universal, or, if convertible with it, add something above it at least in idea; hence in a certain way they inform and determine it. Now our intellect cannot know the essence of God itself in this life, as it is in itself, but whatever mode it applies in determining what it understands about God, it falls short of the mode of what God is in Himself. Therefore the less determinate the names are, and the more universal and absolute they are, the more properly they are applied to God. Hence Damascene says (De Fide Orth. i) that, "HE WHO IS, is the principal of all names applied to God; for comprehending all in itself, it contains existence itself as an infinite and indeterminate sea of substance." Now by any other name some mode of substance is determined, whereas this name HE WHO IS, determines no mode of being, but is indeterminate to all; and therefore it denominates the "infinite ocean of substance."

Thirdly, from its consignification, for it signifies present existence; and this above all properly applies to God, whose existence knows not past or future, as Augustine says (De Trin. v).

Reply to Objection 1: This name HE WHO IS is the name of God more properly than this name "God," as regards its source, namely, existence; and as regards the mode of signification and consignification, as said above. But as regards the object intended by the name, this name "God" is more proper, as it is imposed to signify the divine nature; and still more proper is the Tetragrammaton, imposed to signify the substance of God itself, incommunicable and, if one may so speak, singular.

Reply to Objection 2: This name "good" is the principal name of God in so far as He is a cause, but not absolutely; for existence considered absolutely comes before the idea of cause.

Reply to Objection 3: It is not necessary that all the divine names should import relation to creatures, but it suffices that they be imposed from some perfections flowing from God to creatures. Among these the first is existence, from which comes this name, HE WHO IS.

a) There is no scholarly consensus on the right way to render the Tetragrammaton. Cf. V. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker 2011), 64-66.

b) Even if the rendering favored by Aquinas and Dolezal was correct, it commits the word-concept fallacy to imagine that you can derive the highly specialized concept of “pure act” from one of God’s Hebrew names.

Yes, I do interact with the truthmaker account and argue that it provides a way out of the problems that plague the various “property accounts” of DDS defenders like Stump, Kretzmann, and Mann. In short, I conclude that God does not actually possess properties in a metaphysical sense. All talk about “divine properties” is simply an accommodation to our creaturely way of thinking. Among the truthmaker theorists, I found Jeffrey Brower to be the most useful for the Reformed and Thomistic view of simplicity.

i) There are problems with the truthmaker defense. For instance:

ii) In addition, we don’t have to begin with a general category of “properties” or “attributes.” We can start with specific ascriptions of Scripture, viz. God is just, holy, righteous, gracious, merciful.

Justice characterizes God. So does mercy. Surely those ascriptions aren’t merely accommodations to our creaturely way of thinking. Is there nothing in God to which those ascriptions actually correspond? Is God in himself “beyond” those categories? That’s not Reformed theology. That’s theological noncognitivism.

Likewise, is justice reducible to mercy, and vice versa? Doesn’t Calvinism demand that justice and mercy are not interchangeable? According to Reformed theology, God treats the elect mercifully in contrast to treating the reprobate justly. Likewise, justice is necessary whereas mercy is discretionary.

Why would a Calvinist adopt a theory (simplicity) that erases these crucial distinctions? Isn’t that antithetical to Calvinism?

1 comment:

  1. This was a very helpful and interesting series of posts. Thanks.