Aquinas and the Simplicity of God

By Tim Butler | Posted at 7:37 PM

Mark asks,

With respect, and if I have the right guy, that should be Saint Thomas Aquinas. And what do you mean by God’s simplicity? From an engineering perspective, God is as complicated as it gets. Heck he created everything we hear, see and feel and it all works perfectly. There is nothing simple about that.

Note: I'm going to give the long answer first. If that bogs anyone down, you'll find my own, simpler two cents, probably much more Barthian than the top part, below.

To the first point, yes, that would be one and the same. Being a Protestant, I often favor dropping the “saint” designation, although I will use it at times (I don't reject the bestowing of sainthood on Aquinas or others so much as support the sense that all believers are saints). For some reason I find it more natural to refer to Augustine as “St. Augustine” than I do Thomas Aquinas as “St. Thomas Aquinas.” I'm not sure why, I guess because he can't just be referred to as “St. Thomas.” “St. Augustine Hippo” wouldn't be much better, so Augustine is lucky that he had a more unique name. Really, though, I think part of it is that one can have a general theological discussion without any presumptions when talking about “Thomas Aquinas,” but not even the name will be agreeable to all if you use “St. Thomas Aquinas.” Interestingly, Aquinas is often referred to as just “Thomas” in the field of theology, maybe because one comes to feel as if he is an old friend over time.

At any rate, Thomas — there I go using that reference to him — makes it his first key point in Summa Theologica about the nature of God, other than that God can be demonstrated to exist, that God is simple. This follows on St. Augustine and St. Anselm, and agrees with Angelic Doctor's friend, St. Bonaventure, although more exactly, it seems to be a doctrine whose influence stretches back to Plato. Aquinas uses this doctrine to define first and foremost what God is not (complex) and thus set the stage for the rest of his discussion on God (Aquinas is nothing of not methodical and perfectly rational — hence my quibble with Francis Shaeffer a few weeks ago).

What simple means here is that an object has no smaller parts. For instance, I am made up of many physical parts and metaphysical parts that aren't essential to humanness, they are “accidents” (unnecessary). Anything that makes me me is not necessary for me being a human, only for making me Tim Butler. Moreover, even essential parts of my humanness come merely from my “participation” in humanness and not my being “human,” full stop, for you are a human too. God, on the other hand, is necessarily as He is (unchanging and perfect) and does not participate in things such as goodness, love, mercy, etc., but rather is those things. As the Bible says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Following the Thomistic-Aristotelean viewpoint, when I say John is good, but Susan is better and Mark is best, I am defining the characteristic of goodness based on the “benchmark” of goodness, that is, God. The emphasis here is that when I say that John is good, that means part of his nature is goodness, but when I say God is good, I mean really that God is God (or, as Barth would say, “God is freely being Himself”) — His entire nature simply is Him. God can't be less than any of those things, because when we isolate the “attributes” of God, we are really just speaking in terms humans can understand by analogy, in reality, God's attributes are all merely one divine nature.

Does that help? I can try to explain more — I'm not really doing Aquinas much justice. For anyone interested, the appropriate part of the Summa is 1.3

My Simple Two Cents: God is freely Himself so we can merely say God is God. However, when I talk about anything else in the world, I essentially spend my time defining what that thing is not. I am using a keyboard, which means I am not using a toaster. Moreover, as everything in this world is corrupt and unable to follow its own nature, we often talk in terms of what a thing is suppose to be and what it actually is. I need to be talked about in attributes, because I do not live up to the ideal of perfect humanness because of my fallen nature (so we talk in terms of defining which parts of God's nature I am suppose to be like but am not). Moreover, even if I did live up to God's plan for a human, I'd still not encompass all good things, so I'd still need to be attributed as being “human” (which really is a limiter saying which parts of God's nature I am not even suppose to be).

I think that's a fair explanation of the gist of the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). I'll probably post the paper I am writing on the subject, perhaps broken into smaller bits within the not too distant future.


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