Critique of the Protestant & Thomist Views of Absolute Divine Simplicity

By: Jay Dyer 

When Taylor Marshall and crew originally fussed about this, they were content to dismiss it as “Palamism” – some form of obscure medieval Byzantine mysticism. Now, after more reflection and realizing that the Eastern Fathers all teach a distinction between essence and energy in God, it’s now become an exercise in seeing if oil and water can be mixed. I tried to do this for a while as well. Is there some way to reconcile the two? As a good buddy of mine put it the other day, if the two communions have argued against one another on this issue for hundreds of years, is it really plausible that the Church needed Mike Liccione’s bad arguments to reconcile the two? Nope.

So let’s look at some recent arguments given in attempt to both prove Thomistic absolute simplicity or reconcile it. My friend Ben follows Taylor Marshall in trying to argue that because St. John of Damascus talks about the one energy in God, somehow this is to Thomism. This is false for two reasons. First, it’s false because Thomas explicity rejects any distinction between essence and energy, and second, St. John says both that the energy of God is both one and multiple. Ben argues that this “oneness” of energy means that “in God” all actions and attributes are one and identified. Calvinist blogger Steven Wedgeworth (who won’t allows my comments) argues this here. A reading of the entire Book I is necessary to get the complete meaning of what St. John is saying, as well as Book III where St. John applies the essence – energy distinction at length to Christology.

St. John says the energy of God is one because there is one God. There is one will in God because will is a property of nature. There is one divine nature, so there can only be one God operating. This is in contrast to heretics who said that each Person has a will. This was applied to Christology by the post-Chalcedonian Nestorians, who argued that since there are two wills in Christ, there must be two Persons, since, they assumed, will is a property of Person. Will is not a property of Person, but of nature. St. John will make this very clear in Book III on Christology. Since God has one will, it is one God operating, and that God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, operates with one energy. However, this does not mean that all of God’s actions are exactly identified. St. John does not believe this and, in fact, makes it clear that the operations are multiple. And, contrary to Ben, the are not “all one in Him.” We can show this simply by asking whether, when Christ was Incarnate, when that divine Person’s operation of Providence was the same as His operation of foreknowledge. Was Jesus’ raising of the dead man (a divine operation) identically the same operation in Him as walking on water? Of course not. They are two different operations. It is one God who is operating and it’s one energy in that sense, but it’s not absolutely and identically the same operation. In Thomism, they must be, since Act and will and essence are all strictly one.

St. John says:

“Each then of the affirmations about God should be thought of as signifying not what He is in essence, but either something that it is impossible to make plain, or some relation to some of those things which are contrasts or some of those things that follow the nature, or an energy. ” (I.9)

A bit earlier he had written:

“The Deity being incomprehensible is also assuredly nameless. Therefore since we know not His essence, let us not seek for a name for His essence. For names are explanations of actual things. But God, Who is good and brought us out of nothing into being that we might share in His goodness, and Who gave us the faculty of knowledge, not only did not impart to us His essence, but did not even grant us the knowledge of His essence. For it is impossible for nature to understand fully the supernatural. Moreover, if knowledge is of things that are , how can there be knowledge of the super-essential? Through His unspeakable goodness [an energy!], then, it pleased Him to be called by names that we could understand, that we might not be altogether cut off from the knowledge of Him but should have some notion of Him, however vague. Inasmuch, then, as He is incomprehensible, He is also unnameable. But inasmuch as He is the cause of all and contains in Himself the reasons and causes of all that is, He receives names drawn from all that is, even from opposites: for example, He is called light and darkness, water and fire: in order that we may know that these are not of His essence but that He is super-essential and unnameable: but inasmuch as He is the cause of all, He receives names from all His effects.”

Notice that we do do analogia entis, as I have continually argued, but not of His essence. This is a key quotation. St. John says that in deification, we do not participate in God’s essence, but in His “goodness.” The goodness of God is an energy or operation, not some attribute of an absolutely simple essence. It’s an operation of a Person. This also refutes Steven Wedgeworth’s argument that the ”energy” is somehow one of many attributes of God’s essence.

Thus St. John says:

“When, then, we have perceived these things and are conducted from these to the divine essence, we do not apprehend the essence itself but only the attributes of the essence: just as we have not apprehended the essence of the soul even when we have learned that it is incorporeal and without magnitude and form…”

According to Thomas, the attributes are real, substantial predicates of God’s essence, although not exhaustive. St. John says the attributes are not statements of what He is, but of his energies. Thomas explicitly rejects energies as distinct from essence as well as these arguments from St. John which should show you that Thomas thought they weren’t “saying the same thing.”

Thomas writes in his work “On Divine Simplicity,” Art. 4:

Are good, wise, just and the like are predicated of God as accidents?

It seems that they are.

1. Whatever is predicated of something not as signifying substance but what follows on nature signifies an accident. But Damascene says that good and just and holy as said of God follow nature and do not signify substance itself.

On the Contrary:

Boethius says that God, since He is a simple form, cannot be a subject. But every accident is in a subject. Therefore, in God, there cannot be any accident….
Moreover, Rabbi Maimonides says that the names of this kind do not signify intentions added to the divine substance of God. But every accident signifies an intention added to the substance of its subject. Therefore the foregoing do not signify an accident in God.” (McInery, Selections From Thomas Aquinas, pg. 306-307).

In other words, everything must fit into the Aristotelian scheme that differentiation in God must somehow mean “composition.” Instead of looking to what had been declared already in the Ecumenical Councils regarding God’s operations distinct from His essence, Thomas relies on Rabbi Maimonides and the absolute simplicity doctrine of Boethius. Note also that he explicitly rejects this argument in St. John:

“Each then of the affirmations about God should be thought of as signifying not what He is in essence, but either something that it is impossible to make plain, or some relation to some of those things which are contrasts or some of those things that follow the nature, or an energy. ” (I.9)

That is the distinction between essence and energy and Thomas explicitly says he thinks it’s impossible, because in his Aristotelian dialectical mind, distinction necessitates division or composition. This is why, as I showed elsewhere, for Thomas “many” is opposed to “one.” It all goes back to the philosophical assumption of what absolute simplicity is. God must conform to this scheme, and whatever doesn’t, must mean composition and division. But no Eastern Father thinks that different operations of God distinct from nature and Person implies any kind of composition. There is absolutely no need to think that it does. Everyone admits the Father is not the Son – does that imply composition? Of course not. Then neither does a distinction between what God is and what God does.

Another example of where these are not reconcilable is Thomas’ doctrine of analogis entis telling is something about the divine essence itself and his doctrine of divine ideas. Thomas says:
“Therefore we must hold a different doctrine–viz. that these names signify the divine substance, and are predicated substantially of God, although they fall short of a full representation of Him. Which is proved thus. For these names express God, so far as our intellects know Him. Now since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows Him as far as creatures represent Him. Now it is shown above (Question 4, Article 2) that God prepossesses in Himself all the perfections of creatures, being Himself simply and universally perfect. Hence every creature represents Him, and is like Him so far as it possesses some perfection…” (ST, I.13.2)

So creatures teach us something of God’s essence (since God is His essence). But remember what St. John wrote:

“The Deity being incomprehensible is also assuredly nameless. Therefore since we know not His essence, let us not seek for a name for His essence. For names are explanations of actual things. But God, Who is good and brought us out of nothing into being that we might share in His goodness, and Who gave us the faculty of knowledge, not only did not impart to us His essence, but did not even grant us the knowledge of His essence.”

“Each then of the affirmations about God should be thought of as signifying not what He is in essence, but either something that it is impossible to make plain, or some relation to some of those things which are contrasts or some of those things that follow the nature, or an energy. ” (I.9)
Two different views.

Thomas: Therefore we must hold a different doctrine–viz. that these names signify the divine substance, and are predicated substantially of God, although they fall short of a full representation of Him.

St. John: ”[God] gave us the faculty of knowledge, not only did not impart to us His essence, but did not even grant us the knowledge of His essence.”

One says we can substantially predicate of God’s essence. The other says we cannot. So much for reconciliation. And, I want to stress – as I showed above – Thomas himself explicitly rejects St. John’s very argument on a distinction.

The other way to show this (before getting to divine ideas) is to look at what St. John says of Christology and the two energies in Christ. St. John writes in Book III:

“We hold, further, that there are two energies in our Lord Jesus Christ. For He possesses on the one hand, as God and being of like essence with the Father, the divine energy, and, likewise, since He became man and of like essence to us, the energy proper to human nature.

But observe that energy and capacity for energy, and the product of energy, and the agent of energy, are all different. Energy is the efficient (δραστική) and essential activity of nature: the capacity for energy is the nature from which proceeds energy: the product of energy is that which is effected by energy: and the agent of energy is the person or subsistence which uses the energy. Further, sometimes energy is used in the sense of the product of energy, and the product of energy in that of energy, just as the terms creation and creature are sometimes transposed. For we say all creation, meaning creatures.

Note also that energy is an activity and is energised rather than energises; as Gregory the Theologian says in his thesis concerning the Holy Spirit : If energy exists, it must manifestly be energised and will not energise: and as soon as it has been energised, it will cease.

Life itself, it should be observed, is energy, yea, the primal energy of the living creature and so is the whole economy of the living creature, its functions of nutrition and growth, that is, the vegetative side of its nature, and the movement stirred by impulse, that is, the sentient side, and its activity of intellect and free-will. Energy, moreover, is the perfect realisation of power. If, then, we contemplate all these in Christ, surely we must also hold that He possesses human energy….

And with regard to the effect, the touching and handling and, so to speak, the embrace of what is effected, belong to the body, while the figuration and formation belong to the soul. And so in connection with our Lord Jesus Christ, the power of miracles is the energy of His divinity, while the work of His hands and the willing and the saying, I will, be thou clean Matthew 8:3, are the energy of His humanity. And as to the effect, the breaking of the loaves John 6:11, and the fact that the leper heard the I will, belong to His humanity, while the multiplication of the loaves and the purification of the leper belong to His divinity. For through both, that is through the energy of the body and the energy of the soul, He displayed one and the same, cognate and equal divine energy. For just as we saw that His natures were united and permeate one another, and yet do not deny that they are different but even enumerate them, although we know they are inseparable, so also in connection with the wills and the energies we know their union, and we recognise their difference and enumerate them without introducing separation. For just as the flesh was deified without undergoing change in its own nature, in the same way also will and energy are deified without transgressing their own proper limits. For whether He is the one or the other, He is one and the same, and whether He wills and energises in one way or the other, that is as God or as man, He is one and the same.”

So with this in mind, let’s take Marshall, Ben and Wedgeworth’s argument to it’s fullest absurdity. The claim is that since the energy is one, that must mean that all the actions of God are identified and one “in Him” as attributes of His essence. So, when Jesus worked one miracle, and then worked another miracle, these are two numerically different actions are really numerically the same actions “in His essence”? That must be the conclusion of their silly claims. Jesus’ walking on water was then the same act as His multiplying the loaves, as divine acts in His essence. This is grasping at straws to save a ridiculous argument. Thomism and St. John are not reconcilable on Thomas’ own terms, so I doubt you dudes are gonna come up with something Thomas couldn’t.

In regards to Thomas’ doctrine of divine ideas, we see similar confusion and nonsense. This doctrine is intimately tied into absolute simplicity as well as these others. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, we read of the divine ideas:

“For them (the Fathers) the ideas are the creative thoughts of God, the archetypes, or patterns, or forms in the mind of the Author of the universe according to which he has made the various speciesof creatures. “Ideæ principales formæ quædam vel rationes rerum stabiles atque incommutabiles, quæ in divinâ intelligentiâ continentur” (St. Augustine, “De Div.”, Q. xlvi). These Divine ideas must not be looked on as distinct entities, for this would be inconsistent with the Divine simplicity. They are identical with the Divine Essence contemplated by the Divine Intellect as susceptible of imitation ad extra.” (citation)
For St. Maximus, these divine archetypes are uncreated logoi or patterns or predeterminations of creatures, but do not exist in the divine essence. In Thomas and Augustine, because of simplicity, these divine ideas all subsist in the absolutely simple essence. In fact, according to Thomas, God does not directly relate to the world at all, but indirectly through the archetypes in His essence.

Thomas writes:

“7. In the Gospel according to John (1:3-4), we read: “What was made in him was life…” This means, as Augustine says,”, that all creatures are in the divine mind as a piece of furniture is in the mind of a cabinetmaker. Now, a piece of furniture is in the mind of a cabinetmaker by means of its idea and likeness. Therefore, ideas of all things are in God.

8. A mirror does not lead us to the knowledge of things unless their likenesses are reflected in it. Now, the uncreated Word is a mirror that leads to the knowledge of all creatures, because by the Word the Father utters Himself and all other things. Therefore, likenesses of all things are in the Word.
9. Augustine says: “The Son is the Father’s art, containing the living forms of all things.” Now, those forms are nothing other than ideas. Therefore, ideas exist in God.

10. Augustine says that there are two ways of knowing things: through an essence and through a likeness. Now, God does not know things by means of their essence, because only those things which are present in the knower are known in this manner. Therefore, since He does know things, as is clear from what has been said previously, He must know them by means of their likenesses. Hence, our conclusion is the same as before.” (citation)

This sounds fine, except that what is meant as later explained in the Summa by this is not what St. Maximus means, but rather that the ideas are all “stuck in” the absolutely simple essence:
“Reply to Objection 1. Creatures are said to be in God in a twofold sense. In one way, so far are they are held together and preserved by the divine power; even as we say that things that are in our power are in us. And creatures are thus said to be in God, even as they exist in their own natures. In this sense we must understand the words of the Apostle when he says, “In Him we live, move, and be”; since our being, living, and moving are themselves caused by God. In another sense things are said to be in God, as in Him who knows them, in which sense they are in God through their proper ideas, which in God are not distinct from the divine essence. Hence things as they are in God are the divine essence. And since the divine essence is life and not movement, it follows that things existing in God in this manner are not movement, but life.” (ST, I.18.4)

So all the divine ideas are the absolutely simple essence as well. This is absurd, since God doesn’t relate directly to us, but rather He relates only to the divine ideas of us “in His essence.” As Fr. Romanides points out, this system comes close to denying that God has any real love for the world. Thomas writes:
“Objection 2. Further, the love of God is eternal. But things apart from God are not from eternity; except in God. Therefore God does not love anything, except as it exists in Himself. But as existing in Him, it is no other than Himself. Therefore God does not love things other than Himself.”

And the response to this good question:

Reply to Objection 2. Although creatures have not existed from eternity, except in God, yet because they have been in Him from eternity, God has known them eternally in their proper natures; and for that reason has loved them, even as we, by the images of things within us, know things existing in themselves.” (ST, I.20.2)

If God has no direct relation with creatures, then how did the Incarnation occur? Remeber, in this scheme God does not act within time, as this would mean that God has direct relation with creatures according to His essence. In other words, as St. Gregory Palamas said, atheism is the result. As St. Gregory wrote in response to the Barlaamite [Western] arguments on simplicity:
“Barlaamite. They [Westerns] claim that God is active essence but that he has no other activity besides His essence lest He be a composite being.

XXXI. O[rthodox]. Take caution that they do not bestow upon God “active” as an empty sound of a word, while they contrive precisely by that fact to lead astray those who are in dialogue with them. For the divine Maximus says: “Just as it is impossible to be without being, so is it not possible to be active without activity.” [To Marinus200C] Hence, by taking away the divine activity and by fusing it with essence by saying that the activity does not differ from that essence, they have made God an essence without activity. And not only that, but they have also completely annihilated God’s being itself and they have become atheists in the universe [a world without god]; for the same Maximus says: “When the divine and human activity is taken away, there is no God, nor man.” [To Marinus 96B; cf. 201AB] For it is absolutely necessary that the person who says that the activity in God is not different from his essence falls into the trap of atheism. For we know that God is only from His proper activities. Hence, for him who destroys God’s activities and does not admit that they differ from His essence, the necessary consequence is that he does not know that God is. Furthermore, because the great Basil has revealed everywhere in his writings that “no activity can exist independently,” [Against Eunomius4] those who contend that the essence of God does not differ from His activity, have surpassed even Sabellius in impiety. For he made only the Son and the Spirit without existences (hypostasis), but those people make the essence of God, which has three hypostases, without existence (hypostasis).
–St. Gregory Palamas, Dialogue between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite which Invalidates in Detail the Barlaamite Error, XXX-XXXI (Global Publications/CEMERS, n.d.; tr. Rein Ferwerda).
In other words, if God has no operations different from His simple essence, which even Thomas says that the “attributes” are only human intellectual descriptions of causal effects we experience in time (and never really God directly), then God cannot be known. Only the effects are known of an absolutely simple essence–and even these cannot be known, as they are all the same! One does not know whether he is experience wrath, love, justice, etc., as all are merely causal effects in history.

This is why St. Basil said the following in response to Eunomius (who identified essence and attribute in God) which applies word-for-word to Thomas:

“Letter 234
To the same, in answer to another question.
Do you worship what you know or what you do not know? If I answer, I worship what I know, they immediately reply, What is the essence of the object of worship? Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, So you worship you know not what. I answer that the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. But God, he says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.

2. But, it is replied, if you are ignorant of the essence, you are ignorant of Himself. Retort, If you say that you know His essence, you are ignorant of Himself. A man who has been bitten by a mad dog, and sees a dog in a dish, does not really see any more than is seen by people in good health; he is to be pitied because he thinks he sees what he does not see. Do not then admire him for his announcement, but pity him for his insanity. Recognise that the voice is the voice of mockers, when they say, if you are ignorant of the essence of God, you worship what you do not know. I do know that He exists; what His essence is, I look at as beyond intelligence. How then am I saved? Through faith. It is faith sufficient to know that God exists, without knowing what He is; and He is a rewarder of them that seek Him. Hebrews 11:6 So knowledge of the divine essence involves perception of His incomprehensibility, and the object of our worship is not that of which we comprehend the essence, but of which we comprehend that the essence exists.

3. And the following counter question may also be put to them. No man has seen God at any time, the Only-begotten which is in the bosom has declared him. John 1:18 What of the Father did the Only-begotten Son declare? His essence or His power? If His power, we know so much as He declared to us. If His essence, tell me where He said that His essence was the being unbegotten? When did Abraham worship? Was it not when he believed? And when did he believe? Was it not when he was called? Where in this place is there any testimony in Scripture to Abraham’s comprehending? When did the disciples worship Him? Was it not when they saw creation subject to Him? It was from the obedience of sea and winds to Him that they recognised His Godhead. Therefore the knowledge came from the operations, and the worship from the knowledge. Believest thou that I am able to do this? I believe, Lord; and he worshipped Him. So worship follows faith, and faith is confirmed by power. But if you say that the believer also knows, he knows from what he believes; and vice versa he believes from what he knows. We know God from His power. We, therefore, believe in Him who is known, and we worship Him who is believed in.”

4 thoughts on “Critique of the Protestant & Thomist Views of Absolute Divine Simplicity

  1. This was deep. All that neoplatonism, orphic cult and chaldean oracles are bad and make people into atheist unbelievers, so sad. I wonder how many thomists actually believe higher criticism’s claims that the Bible is a legend and fable put together and modified by priests to favor their religious reforms.

  2. Pingback: Darwinism and its Mongoloid Mutations Refuted | Jay's Analysis

  3. Pingback: Darwinism Refuted | The Soul of the East

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