Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Thomistic Simplicism"

I'm going to comment on this post:

I'll begin with two general observations:

i) A basic problem with Oliphant and Shannon is how they seem to be saying more than they really are. They are writing words. Words which denote ideas. They put certain words together, which makes it look like they are putting certain ideas together. Combining ideas with other ideas. 

But they aren't showing how the ideas go together. They aren't showing how these concepts are logically interrelated. At most, they assert that this idea is related to that idea.

So it's combining words with other words, words which denote ideas, as if that explains anything. The words are doing the work of logic. The discussion stays at a verbal surface level. They are saying far less than they appear to be, to the casual reader. We see words on a page, words connected to other words, as if that connects ideas to other ideas. But the performance is illusory.

ii) Another problem: in his post he keep claiming that Helm's position (i.e. God is unaffected by the world) is grounded in Thomistic simplicity. However:

i) He doesn't quote Helm making that connection.

ii) He doesn't show how that follows from Thomistic simplicity.

iii) The denial that God is affected by the world doesn't presuppose Thomistic simplicity. One can hold that on other grounds. 

Moving along:

On the one hand:

Metaphysical simplicism renders all biblical teaching about God ‘metaphorical’, at best, or “not literally true,” says Helm: “On the theory of divine accommodation, statements such as ‘God repented’ are in a sense false, false if taken literally.

On the other hand:

Oliphint acknowledges that speaking of God’s essence requires that we speak apophatically, but he affirms a notion of analogy which allows us to speak theologically after the pattern of God’s own trustworthy speech about himself. That is, Scripture affords true knowledge of God as he is in himself, even given creaturely epistemic limitations. “We can affirm that of which we cannot conceive”

i) But if we can only speak of God's essence apophatically, then isn't "God repented" literally false? 

ii) Notice how Shannon goes straight from apophaticism to analogy, as if those are compatible concepts. But doesn't analogy requires some degree of positive knowledge? 

iii) No, we can't affirm what we can't conceive. We can affirm what we partially conceive. 

And so Helm describes a dichotomy between eternal decree and historical event. “In short what God timelessly decrees is a complete causal matrix of events and actions” (Eternal God, 170). In his post he writes, “[b]iblical theism requires that we make a sharp distinction between what God has eternally decreed, and what as a result comes to pass moment by moment, stage by stage in time. Otherwise we confound the Creator with his creation. The coming to pass of what is eternally decreed is executed in time. But God is not in time, though what he decrees to come to pass most certainly is.”

i) I'd say that's a distinction, not a "dichotomy." Those are not in tension. 

ii) What's wrong with Helm's formulation? 

God decrees eternally; and we see this as God acting temporally. 

That's because we're on the receiving end of the transaction. We experience the effect. 

Following Thomas, Helm claims that God eternally decrees historical event E, and therefore we do not say that historical event E affects God in any way or implies the historicity of divine activity.

i) That's because an effect cannot affect its cause. Otherwise, you have retrocausation. 

ii) I don't know what he even means by the "historicity of divine activity." Frankly, I doubt he knows what he means by that.

iii) Although the relation between the decree and the outcome goes in one direction, we can infer the decree from the outcome. The order of knowledge can reverse the order of being. Shannon fails to distinguish between ontological priority and epistemological priority. 

 This is an obvious non-sequitur which gently overlooks the entire economy of salvation, as a result of which Helm denies a historical transition from wrath to grace.

i) Well, you could have a historical transition from wrath to grace, in terms of how sinners experience God's wrath and grace. Take a transition from an unregenerate to a regenerate state. 

What you can't have is an eternal transition from wrath to grace. 

ii) The "entire economy of salvation" is the result of God's decree. So, no, that's not reversible.


  1. "Well, you could have a historical transition from wrath to grace, in terms of how sinners experience God's wrath and grace. Take a transition from an unregenerate to a regenerate state."

    To me, the idea of God's wrath seems kind of strange when His timelessness is figured in though. It's pretty straightforward to think of God's love as being eternal; we can say that the Father has eternally loved the Son, the Son has eternally loved the Spirit, etc. But wrath seems to be primarily a reactionary attribute. What would God be wrathful about before Adam sinned?

  2. What you can't have is an eternal transition from wrath to grace.

    Steve, does this have any bearing on the speculation of some Calvinists regarding "eternal justification"?

    1. Both are true in different respects. If justification is a divine act, and God is timeless, then the act of justification is timeless.

      However, the effect of justification can be temporal. A delayed effect of a timeless cause. In this case, contingent on, and synchronized with, the human act of faith.

  3. Mathetes, the problem with what you are asking is that it is non-sense. There is no before or after in a tensed sense for God. So he is what he is, because he experiences things in timeless way.