Saturday, March 19, 2005

On divine simplicity: an answer to Perry Robinson

Perry Robinson is a former Anglican who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy after weighing his options carefully. Currently a student working on his doctorate at St. Louis University, he has recently offered criticisms of the Western understanding of absolute divine simplicity and other aspects of Catholic teaching on Al Kimel's blog (Pontifications). Robinson has written what Pontifications calls "a lengthy, substantive, complex, and challenging apologia on behalf of Eastern Orthodoxy" in the form of theological counsel for "Anglicans in Exile" and has made it available online. Kimel warns that it is "a difficult piece" that will "require slow and patient reading." Robinson's essay [in PDF format] is available online under the title "Anglicans in Exile." The discussion of Robinson's essay by multiple contributors on Kimel's blog is available on his Pontifications blog: "Perry Robinson Offers Theological Counsel for 'Anglicans in Exile.'"

Robinson's reflection is thoughtful and considered. There is much that one could comment on here and much to admire. His insistence upon principled action, based on careful reasoning and animated by desire for truth is a quality both laudible and increasingly rare these days, sad to say. All of which makes it the more difficult to take issue with him.

When I first read Robinson's piece, I was struck by what seemed to me the precariousness of trying to balance nearly his whole apologia for Eastern Orthodoxy (not to mention his critique of nearly every significant distinctive of Roman Catholicism) upon a relatively obscure metaphysical argument from Gregory Palamas (d. ca. 1360). Orthodoxy theology is hardly a unified monolith, whatever St. Vladimir's Seminary and the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) may seem to suggest, and Palamite theological speculations can hardly to be taken as representing Orthodox dogma. One can readily find Orthodox theologians who dispute the views of Palamas, as well as sectors of Orthodoxy that seem utterly indifferent to his views, if not utterly ignorant of them. But an argument is made or unmade on its own merits, as Robinson reminds us, not on secondary considerations such as these; so let us examine his argument.

Robinson offers both positive arguments for Eastern Orthodoxy as well as negative arguments against what he appears to take as its most viable competitor: Roman Catholicism. But both the positive and the negative appear to come down to flip sides of the same coin: an argument about the nature of God. On the one side are the Palamite arguments underscoring the inter-personal diversity within the trinitarian Godhead, the freedom of God's will in His act of creation, and so forth--all of which Robinson identifies with Orthodoxy. On the other side are his criticisms of the classic Augustinian and Thomistic arguments for God's simplicity, as well as all the allegedly negative implications that follow from this, such as a supposedly semi-Sabellian, Modalist, and monotheletic Christology, an autocratic Papacy, and so forth--all of which he identifies with Roman Catholicism. He remarks: "The problems for Rome are principled problems and the arguments against their theological position are about as close as one gets in theology or philosophy to a knock down argument."

So what is the argument? In a section preceded by the heading "Why I Am Orthodox," Robinson summarizes it:

The argument is fairly simple. If God is absolutely simple, the act of will to create is identical to his essence. Since his essence is had by him necessarily, it follows by transitivity that the act of will to create is necessary as well.

Robinson is arguing that on the classical Catholic Augustinian-Thomistic understanding of God (which, as he pointes out, is found also in mainline Protestantism), it cannot be asserted that God's act of willing to create is truly free. Is Robinson right about this? Let us see for ourselves.

On his blog, Energies of the Trinity (January 17, 2005), Robinson offers a formal elaboration of this argument, the essential drift of which can be garnered from the excerpt below:

  1. If God is absolutely simple (P), then his act of will to create is identical with his essence (R).
  2. If God's act of will to create is identical with his essence (R), then his act of will to create is necessary. (Q)
  3. If God is absolutely simple (P), then his act of will to create is necessary. (Q) (From 1, 2 by Hypothetical Syllogism)
  4. God is absolutely simple. (Premise S)
  5. Therefore, God's act of will to create is necessary (R). (From 2,4, by Modus Ponens).

Now this is quite interesting. There are several ways in which a syllogistic argument can go wrong. In order for an argument of this kind to yield a cogent conclusion, at least three conditions must be met: (1) the reasoning must be valid, (2) the premises must be true, and (3) the terms must be unequivocal. The logic of Robinson's argument cannot be faulted, as far as I can tell, so let us agree that his reasoning is valid. This does not yet mean that his argument is sound, however; we must still ask whether the other conditions are met. But as soon as we ask whether the premises are true we run into the problem of equivocity in his term "necessary." Let's take a closer look. Premise #1 says:

If God is absolutely simple (P), then his act of will to create is identical
with his essence (R).

This is clearly true, as it is understood in classic Catholic metaphysics.

What about the second premise? Premise #2 says:

If God's act of will to create is identical with his essence (R), then his act of will to create is necessary. (Q)

Is this true? The moment we ask the question, it can be seen that we must first ask what Robinson means. One cannot answer simply either with a "Yes, it's true" or "No, it's not true" here, because it all depends on what Robinson means by "necessary." On the one hand, it seems to be identified with "being identical with [God's] essence." On the other hand, in what he wants to conclude from his argument, it seems to mean that God's act of creation is not free but strictly determined by His nature (= essence).

What Robinson neglects to distinguish is whether he means necessity of supposition (e.g., if Socrates is sitting, then Socrates is not not-sitting) or absolute necessity (e.g., a dog is necessarily an animal). God wills His own goodness, and nothing else, with absolute necessity. The proper object of God's will is His own goodness, as the proper object of our will is happiness. God wills creatures for the sake of His own goodness (perfection-as-desirable) as end, but not as a means to His own attainment of that end (He is already in complete possession of it, and creatures add nothing to it). Rather, He wills creatures that they might attain Him as their end (likeness to His perfection and personal union with Him).

Thus, when Robinson states that "[God's] act of will to create is necessary," we must clearly distinguish what we mean. It is true if we are speaking of the necessity of supposition, but false if we are speaking of absolute necessity. God wills nothing of absolute necessity except his own goodness. But if God wills to create, then He is unable not to will it, as Socrates is unable to be not-sitting if he is sitting (= necessity of supposition). [St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 19.3 corpus, ad 1, ad 4, and ad 6.]

If God wills to create, He wills this eternally. But from the eternity of this willing, nothing at all follows about its necessity, unless we are speaking of the necessity of supposition. If we speak of necessity of supposition, then Q ["God's act of will to create is necessary"] is true. But Q's truth has nothing to do with R ["God's act of will to create is identical with his essence"]. Q would be true of any act of will that was actually actual, so to speak, just as Socrates is not able not to will to stand and not to stand at the same time and in the same respect.

Here are some things that logically do follow from divine simplicity:

  • If God's will is identical with his essence, then His will is eternal.
  • If God's will is identical with his essence, then His will is unchangeable.

But from the eternity and unchangeability of the divine will, it simply does not follow that God wills whatever He wills of absolute necessity. Nor is any sort of necessity imposed upon the things God wills from the eternity and unchangeability of the divine will. They come to be with whatever kind of necessity or contingency He wills them to have [ST 19.8]. Nor does the efficacy of God's eternal will to create mean that the creature is eternal. God eternally wills the creature to exist according to whatever manner of existence it has. Nor do "will" and "act of will" differ in God, because there is no distinction between power and act in Him (that awe-ful divine simplicity again).

Thus: "If God's act of will to create is identical with his essence, then his act of will to create is necessary" comes down to saying: "If to be God is to be the divine Will, then to be God is to will this rather than that." The if-clause is true (divine simplicity). The then-clause does not follow, and is false.

Robinson's use of "necessary" thus seems equivocal. On the one hand, it is identified with "being identical with [God's] essence." On the other hand, in what he wants to conclude from his argument, it means that God's act of creation is not free and strictly determined by His nature. Yet this conclusion does not follow, thus yielding a paralogism. The cause of things is God's will, not any necessity of His nature. The fact that God wills what He wills eternally doesn't mean He has to will it. There is nothing causing His act of will: He wills x to cause y, but x does not cause Him to will y.

There simply is no problem in the implications of divine simplicity of the sort alleged by Robinson. Rather, where there may be a problem is in an impoverished notion of "essence"--the notion of what a thing is, that ends up supposing that it entails something like an engine of absolute necessities. "What God is"--"what it means to be God"--is something utterly inconceivable to us here below. We simply have no human concept of God. That is what the classic doctrine of God's "incomprehensibility" means, after all. The Book of Job shows as much. But we do know that whatever God is, it is one and the same with a boundless act of existing (esse) and a boundless goodness and a boundless freedom to communicate itself to creatures. There is no part of Him which is not Himself.

There is an irony here. How odd to attack the Catholic metaphysics of divine "simplicity," which is the ground of God's incomprehensibility, when Eastern Orthodoxy herself revels in the mystery of divine incomprehensibility.

By way of conclusion, I do not suppose for a moment that any argument for or against a metaphysical notion such as divine simplicity is ultimately going to be what sways individuals one way or another in their quest for a spiritual home. Still, as Aristotle clearly saw, the desire to know what is metaphysically true--true about what is--has a logic all of its own, and our obligation, as Robinson suggests, to own up to our own positions and provide honest answers to honest questions, ought not to be slighted.

[Gratia tibi, Kirk Kanzelberger, for remarks on St. Thomas.]

For additional reading on this topic see: