Divine simplicity and negative theology

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Thinking and Speaking about the Absolute: Three Views Vallicella summarising the three views (Univocity, Analogicity, Via Negativa)


Aristotle (384-322 BC)

  • On univocity (SEP)
    • 'At one point, Aristotle denies that there could be a science of being, on the grounds that there is no single genus being under which all and only beings fall (SE 11 172a9–15)'.

Plotinus (204/5 – 270)

Standing before all things, there must exist a Simplex, differing from all its sequel, self-gathered not inter-blended with the forms that rise from it, and yet able in some mode of its own to be present to those others: it must be authentically a unity, not merely something elaborated into unity and so in reality no more than unity's counterfeit; it will debar all telling and knowing except that it may be described as transcending Being- for if there were nothing outside all alliance and compromise, nothing authentically one, there would be no Source. Untouched by multiplicity, it will be wholly self-sufficing, an absolute First, whereas any not-first demands its earlier, and any non-simplex needs the simplicities within itself as the very foundations of its composite existence. Ennead V.4.1

See also Ennead II.9

The 'concept' of the One is not, properly speaking, a concept at all, since it is never explicitly defined by Plotinus, yet it is nevertheless the foundation and grandest expression of his philosophy. Plotinus does make it clear that no words can do justice to the power of the One; even the name, 'the One,' is inadequate, for naming already implies discursive knowledge, and since discursive knowledge divides or separates its objects in order to make them intelligible, the One cannot be known through the process of discursive reasoning (Ennead VI.9.4). [1]

‘We state what is not; what is, we do not state’:

14. How, then, do we ourselves come to be speaking of it?
No doubt we deal with it, but we do not state it; we have neither knowledge nor intellection of it.
But in what sense do we even deal with it when we have no hold upon it?
We do not, it is true, grasp it by knowledge, but that does not mean that we are utterly void of it; we hold it not so as to state it, but so as to be able to speak about it. And we can and do state what it is not, while we are silent as to what it is: we are, in fact, speaking of it in the light of its sequels; unable to state it, we may still possess it.
Those divinely possessed and inspired have at least the knowledge that they hold some greater thing within them though they cannot tell what it is; from the movements that stir them and the utterances that come from them they perceive the power, not themselves, that moves them: in the same way, it must be, we stand towards the Supreme when we hold the Intellectual-Principle pure; we know the divine Mind within, that which gives Being and all else of that order: but we know, too, that other, know that it is none of these, but a nobler principle than any-thing we know as Being; fuller and greater; above reason, mind and feeling; conferring these powers, not to be confounded with them. Ennead V.3.14

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395)

When I first read Jean Danielou's compilation of selected texts from Gregory of Nyssa's mystical writings, I was immediately struck by the remarkable similarities of themes and experiences in both Gregory and Plotinus. Although Danielou, and Courcelle, among others, have explored the question ot a definite Plotinian or later Neoplatonic influence on Gregory of Nyssa, a lack of compelling concrete evidence makes the case in its favour extremely difficult to develop with any degree of certainty. The question of a Plotinian influence on Gregory's thought is compounded by the fact that he seldom acknowledges any source other than Scripture and Basil. My own view, especially with regard to the strong apophatic element in Gregory's writings, is that he had some acquaintance with the writings of Plotinus. Even if Gregory had not read the Enneads himself, there is the possibility that he was influenced by Plotinian thought through Basil. Had he read Ennead VI 9, as J. Rist suggests Basil had done, then we could conclude that the very strong theme of the return to the One to be found in that treatise did have some influence on Gregory's thought. Whatever the diversity of scholarly opinion concerning this intriguing question, perhaps the best method of approach is to let the texts speak for themselves. ('The Mystical Journeys of Plotinus and Gregory of Nyssa', Deirdre Carabine, The Perennial Tradition of Neoplatonism, John J. Cleary, Leuven University Press, 1997, p.188.

Against Eunomius III. 5[1]

Now if any one should ask for some interpretation, and description, and explanation of the Divine essence, we are not going to deny that in this kind of wisdom we are unlearned, acknowledging only so much as this, that it is not possible that that which is by nature infinite should be comprehended in any conception expressed by words. The fact that the Divine greatness has no limit is proclaimed by prophecy, which declares expressly that of His splendour, His glory, His holiness, there is no end [2]
For by what name can I describe the incomprehensible? By what speech can I declare the unspeakable?
Accordingly, since the Deity is too excellent and lofty to be expressed in words, we have learned to honour in silence what transcends speech and thought: and if he who thinks more highly than he ought to think[3], tramples upon this cautious speech of ours making a jest of our ignorance of things incomprehensible, and recognizes a difference of unlikeness in that which is without figure, or limit, or size, or quantity (I mean in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), and brings forward to reproach our ignorance that phrase which is continually alleged by the disciples of deceit, 'You worship you know not what ,' if you know not the essence of that which you worship, we shall follow the advice of the prophet, and not fear the reproach of fools , nor be led by their reviling to talk boldly of things unspeakable, making that unpractised speaker Paul our teacher in the mysteries that transcend knowledge, who is so far from thinking that the Divine nature is within the reach of human perception, that he calls even the judgments of God unsearchable, and His ways past finding out[4], and affirms that the things promised to them that love Him, for their good deeds done in this life, are above comprehension so that it is not possible to behold them with the eye, nor to receive them by hearing, nor to contain them in the heart.
Learning this, therefore, from Paul, we boldly declare that, not only are the judgments of God too high for those who try to search them out, but that the ways also that lead to the knowledge of Him are even until now untrodden and impassable. For this is what we understand that the Apostle wishes to signify, when he calls the ways that lead to the incomprehensible past finding out, showing by the phrase that that knowledge is unattainable by human calculations, and that no one ever yet set his understanding on such a path of reasoning, or showed any trace or sign of an approach, by way of perception, to the things incomprehensible.
Learning these things, then, from the lofty words of the Apostle, we argue, by the passage quoted, in this way:— If His judgments cannot be searched out, and His ways are not traced, and the promise of His good things transcends every representation that our conjectures can frame, by how much more is His actual Godhead higher and loftier, in respect of being unspeakable and unapproachable, than those attributes which are conceived as accompanying it, whereof the divinely instructed Paul declares that there is no knowledge:— and by this means we confirm in ourselves the doctrine they deride, confessing ourselves inferior to them in the knowledge of those things which are beyond the range of knowledge, and declare that we really worship what we know. Now we know the loftiness of the glory of Him Whom we worship, by the very fact that we are not able by reasoning to comprehend in our thoughts the incomparable character of His greatness; and that saying of our Lord to the Samaritan woman, which is brought forward against us by our enemies, might more properly be addressed to them. For the words, You worship you know not what, the Lord speaks to the Samaritan woman, prejudiced as she was by corporeal ideas in her opinions concerning God: and to her the phrase well applies, because the Samaritans, thinking that they worship God, and at the same time supposing the Deity to be corporeally settled in place, adore Him in name only, worshipping something else, and not God. For nothing is Divine that is conceived as being circumscribed, but it belongs to the Godhead to be in all places, and to pervade all things, and not to be limited by anything: so that those who fight against Christ find the phrase they adduce against us turned into an accusation of themselves. For, as the Samaritans, supposing the Deity to be compassed round by some circumscription of place, were rebuked by the words they heard, 'You worship you know not what,' and your service is profitless to you, for a God that is deemed to be settled in any place is no God,— so one might well say to the new Samaritans, In supposing the Deity to be limited by the absence of generation, as it were by some local limit, 'you worship you know not what,' doing service to Him indeed as God, but not knowing that the infinity of God exceeds all the significance and comprehension that names can furnish.

Contra Eunomium Lib. XII Migne 958 (translated here):

This view, then, has been carefully enunciated by our great master, whereby all whose eyes are not blindfolded by the veil of heresy may clearly see that, whatever be the nature of God, He is not to be apprehended by sense, and that He transcends reason, though human thought, busying itself with curious inquiry, with such help of reason as it can command, stretches out its hand and just touches His unapproachable and sublime nature, being neither keen-sighted enough to see clearly what is invisible, nor yet so far withheld from approach as to be unable to catch some faint glimpse of what it seeks to know. For such knowledge it attains in part by the touch of reason, in part from its very inability to discern it, finding that it is a sort of knowledge to know that what is sought transcends knowledge (for it has learned what is contrary to the Divine nature, as well as all that may fittingly be conjectured respecting it). Not that it has been able to gain full knowledge of that nature itself about which it reasons, but from the knowledge of those properties which are, or are not, inherent in it, this mind of man sees what alone can be seen, that that which is far removed from all evil, and is understood in all good, is altogether such as I should pronounce ineffable and incomprehensible by human reason.
But although our great master has thus cleared away all unworthy notions respecting the Divine nature, and has urged and taught all that may be reverently and fittingly held concerning it, viz. that the First Cause is neither a corruptible thing, nor one brought into being by any birth, but that it is outside the range of every conception of the kind; and that from the negation of what is not inherent, and the affirmation of what may be with reverence conceived to be inherent therein, we may best apprehend what He is— nevertheless this vehement adversary of the truth opposes these teachings, and hopes with the sounding word ungeneracy to supply a clear definition of the essence of God.

Augustine (354 – 430)

Augustine will say in On the Trinity that because God is supreme among all beings, God is said to exist in the highest sense of the expression, “for it is the same thing to God to be, and to be great” (De trinitate, V.10.11).

Proclus (412-485)

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (7th century)

Reading Dionysius can be a difficult business for many reasons: partly because his frequent hyperbolic theological language is foreign to our own English-speaking practices; partly because almost every word he employs resonates with the whole history of ancient thought, from the Christian Platonism of the Fathers, particularly, Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocians, to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus, while his theology focuses predominantly upon the Jewish and Christian scriptures (which Dionysius calls “divine oracles”); partly, again, because the order in which we are to read his works is unclear and because Dionysius mentions at least seven works that have been lost. SEP
One of the many incontrovertible debts of Dionysius to Proclus regards precisely this insistence that any negation of the transcendent must itself be negated. For Proclus, the negations are also "more proper" than and "superior" to the assertions.[5] Furthermore, Proclus also insists that it is "necessary... to exempt [God] from the negations also... [for] if no discourse belongs to it, it is evident that neither does negation pertain to it." [6] In order to guard God from even these negations then, Proclus introduces the notion of a transcendent negation, borrowing the term hyperapophasis (ὑπεραπόφασις) from Stoic logic[7]. For Proclus, a "transcendent negation" or "hyper-negation" is not so much a discrete operation as it is a commitment to perpetual negation. As he says in Platonic Theology 2.10, "language when conversant with that which is ineffable, being subverted about itself, has no cessation, and opposes itself." And although the term hyperapophasis never appears in the CD, that very commitment to the ceaseless negation of even what is already negated pulses through the Mystical Theology: "[W]hen making the assertions and negations of things after It, we neither predicate, nor abstract from It." [8] (Stang, C.M. Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite, OUP Oxford, 2012, p.130)

Stang again

Negative theology is not peculiar to Christianity. In fact, much of the distinctive vocabulary and conceptual moves of Christian negative theology come from Platonism.[9]

John Scottus Eriugena (c.800 - c.877)

SEP article:

Contrary to what some earlier commentators supposed, it is most unlikely that Eriugena had direct knowledge of the original texts of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, or other pagan Neoplatonists, but he did have some direct knowledge of Plato (a portion of Timaeus in the translation of Calcidius) as well as familiarity with the pseudo-Augustinian Categoriae decem.
Despite the claims of some nineteenth-century commentators, it is now clear that Eriugena did not have direct knowledge of the writings of Plotinus, Porphyry or Proclus. He had almost no contact with pagan Neoplatonism in general (apart possibly from Priscianus Lydus and Calcidius' translation of the Timaeus). His familiarity with Aristotle was also indirect — through the anonymous but widely circulated compilation, Categoriae decem, the Pseudo-Augustinian paraphrase of Aristotle's Categories. He knew Boethius’ trinitarian tracts (Opuscula sacra) and possibly the Consolation of Philosophy, since a set of glosses on this work may be in Eriugena's hand (although this is disputed). His chief authorities in the Latin Christian Tradition were the works of the Fathers, chiefly Augustine (especially his De Genesi ad litteram), Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, and Jerome. His originality is largely due to the manner in which he assimilated (often translating) the Neoplatonic thought of Eastern Christian writers such as the Cappadocians, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, as well as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus Confessor. He also had familiarity with Rufinus’ Latin translation of Origen's On First Principles and was often linked with Origen in medieval times. Though he took the view that the authorities of East and West were not in conflict, nevertheless he usually expressed a preference for the Eastern Church Fathers. An especially important authority was Maximus Confessor, whose account of the return of all things Eriugena copiously borrowed.
The discovery of Dionysius had a profound effect on Eriugena's thinking. He enthusiastically adopted the Areopagite's main ideas (many of which appear to be drawn from Proclus’ Commentary on the Parmenides), e.g. the distinction between affirmative and negative theology, according to which denials concerning God (e.g. ‘God is not good [in the way we know goodness]’) are ‘more true’, (verior) ‘better’, ‘more apt’, than affirmations (‘God is good’), as well as the analysis of the divine names as applying only metaphorically (metaphorice, transferre, per metaphoram) and not literally (proprie) to God, who is ‘beyond all that is’. For Pseudo-Dionysius, we do not know God directly but know Him only through his theophaniai, or divine appearances (Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, ch. 7, PG III 869c-d). We could, in affirmative theology, attribute attributes to God, because He is the ‘cause of all’ (aitia panton, Mystical Theology, ch. 2, PG III 1000b), but in fact God in His nature is transcendent and ‘unknowable’, he is the ‘more-than-divine divinity’, which Eriugena renders as superdeus deitas in his translation (PL CXXII 1121c). Pseudo-Dionysius claims that God is the affirmation of all things, the negation of all things, and beyond all affirmation and denial (in Eriugena's translation: God is omnium positio, omnium ablatio, super omnem positionem et ablationem inter se invicem, PL CXXII 1121 c-d).

Al-Kindi (801-873)

The philosopher is unable to make any positive statement concerning God. All he is able to state is in the negative: that ‘he is no element, no genus, no species, no individual person, no part (of something), no attribute, no contingent accident’. (Tis’ rasa’il: 59). [10]

Anselm (1033-1109)

‘I would be surprised’, says Anselm, ‘if we could find anything from among the nouns and verbs which we apply to things created from nothing that could worthily be said of the substance that created all’.

Maimonides (1135-1204)

Guide I.52: (1) No definition can be given of God, since there are no previous causes to his existence by which he could be defined. (2) When we say e.g. ‘man is rational’, we describe an object by part of its definition, but this is inappropriate to God, for it would imply his essence was a kind of compound. (3) We cannot ascribe non-essential qualities to God, for this would diverge from the true conception of his essence. He is not a magnitude, is not affected by external influences, and has no quality resulting from emotion, is not subject to physical conditions such as health or illness, is not an animate being and so has no dispositional qualities of the soul such as meekness, modesty etc. ‘Hence it follows that no attribute coming under the head of quality in its widest sense, can be predicated of God’.

Since it is a well-known fact that even that knowledge of God which is accessible to man cannot be attained except by negations, and that negations do not convey a true idea of the being to which they refer, all people, both of past and present generations, declared that God cannot be the object of human comprehension, that none but Himself comprehends what He is, and that our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him. All philosophers say," He has overpowered us by His grace, and is invisible to us through the intensity of His light," like the sun which cannot be perceived by eyes which are too weak to bear its rays. Much more has been said on this topic, but it is useless to repeat it here. The idea is best expressed in the book of Psalms, ‘Silence is praise to Thee’ (Guide I.59)


One of the most important sources to keep in mind when reading Maimonides and Islamic medieval philosophers is the Theology of Aristotle, a text that, while thought by Jewish and Islamic philosophers to have been a work of Aristotle, was in fact an edited summary of parts of books 4-6 of Plotinus’ Enneads.[3] Likely dated to the 9th century and edited by al-Kindi (and/or members of his circle), this text—as well as the rest of the Plotiniana Arabica and the Kalâm fî mahd al-khair (lit. the Discourse on the Pure Good, known to some in its later Latin translation as the Liber de Causis, or Book of Causes)[4]—should be read in connection with any serious study of Maimonides. In way of summary, we might highlight the following key ideas in the Theology of Aristotle that play important roles for later Jewish and Islamic thinkers:
God is a pure unity who is pure goodness and pure being
God is creator, first cause of all beings
God emanates forth Intellect, then Soul, then Nature
Here, we have a uniquely modified set of Plotinian insights that feature prominently in Maimonidean thought. For Plotinus (following Plato’s own highlighting of a Form of the Good over and above the Form of Being), God is himself a pure One identical to goodness per se, and is as such entirely above and beyond intellect and even entirely above and beyond being. In the Theology of Aristotle tradition God is identified with pure unity and goodness, but is as such also identified with a pure grade of being.

The Influence of Islamic Thought on Maimonides (SEP):

The very act of predication involved in attributions (formulas of the form “God is…”) are doomed to failure in the light of God's utter unity. To approach God apophatically is, hence, to approach God with a heightened sensitivity to the failures of language to say very much about Him at all. This is called “negative theology” in the sense that claims about God (with the exception of such claims as “that He exists,” and “that He is pure being, pure goodness, and pure wisdom qua pure intellect”) are seen as never actually telling us anything substantive about God. At best we can come to understand what God is not.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Summa Iª q. 2

Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God. Iª q. 2 a. 3 co. 2
Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. Iª q. 2 a. 3 co. 3
Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God. Iª q. 2 a. 3 co. 4
Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God. Iª q. 2 a. 3 co. 5
Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. Iª q. 2 a. 3 co. 6
Now we cannot know how God is, but only how he is not; we must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which he does” (Summa theologiae Ia q.3 introduction).
For as the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else beside God; which is opposed to faith. For the ultimate perfection of the rational creature is to be found in that which is the principle of its being; since a thing is perfect so far as it attains to its principle. Further the same opinion is also against reason. For there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees; and thence arises wonder in men. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void. Hence it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God. Iª q. 12 a. 1 co

Summa Iª q. 3

  • Article 1 God is not a body, because
    • No body is in motion unless it be put in motion
    • the first being must of necessity be in actuality, and in no way in potentiality.
    • God is the most noble of beings.
  • Article 2 God is composed of matter and form, because
    • matter is in potentiality
    • everything composed of matter and form owes its perfection and goodness to its form; therefore its goodness is participated, inasmuch as matter participates the form
    • every agent acts by its form; hence the manner in which it has its form is the manner in which it is an agent.
  • Article 3 God is the same as His essence or nature
    • Since God then is not composed of matter and form, his nature or essence must differ from the suppositum. He must be His own Godhead, His own Life, and whatever else is thus predicated of Him.
  • Article 4 God is not only His own essence, but also His own existence.
    • whatever a thing has besides its essence must be caused either by the constituent principles of that essence or by some exterior agent. But God is the first efficient cause.
    • existence is that which makes every form or nature actual, but in God there is no potentiality.
    • If God is his own essence but not his own existence, he will be not essential, but participated being, and therefore not the first being.
  • Article 5 God is not in any genus
    • since in God actuality is not added to potentiality, it is impossible that He should be in any genus as a species.
    • no difference can exist distinct from being; for non-being cannot be a difference. It follows then that God is not in a genus.
    • since the existence of God is His essence, if God were in any genus, He would be the genus "being". But being cannot be a genus.
    • all in one genus agree in the essence of the genus, but they differ in their existence. But in God they do not differ.
  • Article 6 there can be no accident in God.
    • there can be no potentiality in God, whereas subject is compared to its accidents as potentiality to actuality
    • although every essence may have something superadded to it, this cannot apply to absolute being
    • what is essential is prior to what is accidental, but God is absolutely primal.
  • Article 7 God is truly and absolutely simple
    • there is neither composition of quantitative parts in God, nor composition of matter and form, nor does His nature differ from His suppositum, nor His essence from His existence, neither is there in Him composition of genus and difference, nor of subject and accident.
    • every composite is posterior to its component parts
    • every composite has a cause
    • in every composite there must be potentiality and actuality
    • nothing composite can be predicated of any single one of its parts
  • Article 8 God does not enter into the composition of other things
    • God is the first efficient cause
    • since God is the first efficient cause, to act belongs to Him primarily and essentially.
    • no part of a compound can be absolutely primal among beings

Summa Contra Gentiles

Summa Contra Gentiles I.18

The first cause argument

Courtesy of Jeff Speaks:

  1. If something were causally responsible for itself, it would be prior to itself.
  2. Nothing is prior to itself.
  3. Nothing is causally responsible for itself. (1,2)
  4. A chain of causes cannot be infinite.
  5. At least one thing has an efficient cause.
  6. Every causal chain must be (i) circular, (ii) infinite, or (iii) have a first cause.
  7. There is a first cause. (3,4,5,6)
  8. If there is a first cause, then God exists.
C. God exists. (7,8)

Duns Scotus (1266-1308)

Cambridge Companion p.241 – according to Maimonides, to say God is living is to mean that God is not dead etc. One reason is that there is no metaphysical composition in God. Scotus wants both to retain the doctrine of metaphysical simplicity, but reluctant to accept the negative theology. (1) Every negative concept is parasitic upon some positive concept. (2) the negations apply because of some affirmation we believe true of God. ‘God is bad’ denies our belief that God is good, so we deny the denial. How do we know this affirmation? (3) our greatest love is not directed at negations etc. The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, Thomas Williams

Kant (1724-1804)

The transcendental idea of a necessary all-sufficient original being is so overwhelmingly great, so sublimely high above everything empirical, which is at all times conditioned, that partly one can never even procure enough material in experience to fill such a concept, and partly if one searches for the unconditioned among conditioned things, then one will seek forever and always in vain” (Critique A621/B649).
Despite his insistence that the idea of God is indispensable and “inescapable” (cf. A584/B612), Kant again denies that we can acquire any theoretical knowledge of the alleged “object” thought through such an idea. On the one hand, then, the idea of God is “the crown of our endeavors.” On the other, as in the cases of both rational psychology and cosmology, the idea answers to no given and theoretically knowable object (A339/B397).

Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.
6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- but it would be the only strictly correct method.
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


William Lane Craig

Thomas Williams

  • Williams on the doctrine of univocity, Modern Theology 21:4 (October 2005)
  • Williams ‘Radical Orthodoxy, Univocity, and the New Apophaticism’. ‘Catherine Pickstock, one of the leading lights of Radical Orthodoxy’. ‘there is no middle ground for theological language between univocity, on the one hand, and complete unintelligibility, on the other. ‘Take the sentence, “Dogs are not reptiles.” The only reason I can say this is that I have some positive idea of dogs first. And thanks to that positive idea I can then exclude other possibilities that don’t fit with that positive idea’. ‘Along these same lines, the proponent of univocity can (and I think should) argue that God is beyond our power to grasp on the basis of positive facts about God that we can know — however dimly and tentatively we might be said to know them.’ ‘I confess I don’t know how to respond to someone who says, with a straight face, that theology is a dance; he inhabits a world of thought entirely alien to my own.’ ‘There seems to be some connection between the denial of univocity and a style of theologizing that largely eschews careful argument of the sort that analytic philosophers are so fond of.’


Divine Simplicity (IEP)

Alvin Plantinga’s critique of simplicity in his Does God Have a Nature (1980) has become a touchstone in the contemporary debates […] One of Plantinga’s major criticisms is that simplicity is incompatible with God appearing to have multiple attributes. According to the doctrine, “[God] doesn’t merely have a nature or essence; he just is that nature, ... [and] each of his properties is identical with each of his properties...so that God has but one property.” But this “seems flatly incompatible with the obvious fact that God has several properties; he has power and mercifulness, say, neither of which is identical with the other” (1980, 46–47).
There is an additional line of objection here that commentators often miss. Plantinga takes it for granted God is a person: “If God is a property, then he isn’t a person but a mere abstract object . . .” (1980, 47). Persons are not abstract objects. Moreover, persons are composite and changeable. They have faculties of understanding and volition that involve composition and a temporal sequence of states. So nothing simple can be a person. Yet God is obviously a person, according to Plantinga and others. He is obviously then not simple. David Hume (1711–76) argues along a similar line. A simple and immutable being has no mind, for “a mind whose acts and sentiments and ideas are not distinct and successive . . . has no thought, no reason, no will, no sentiment, no love, no hatred; or in a word, is no mind at all” (1980, part 4). A simple God is not a person, nor could God have the sort of mind persons have.



  1. The context is John 4:22 'You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know'
  2. Psalm 145:3 ' Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.'
  3. Romans 12:3 ' For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. '
  4. Romans 11:33 ' O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!'
  5. Proclus, Commentary on the Parmenides, 427-8
  6. Proclus, Platonic Theology 2.10
  7. Procl. in Prm. p.913S
  8. MT 51048B; CD II 150.6-7
  9. Negative Theology from Gregory of Nyssa to Dionysius the Areopagite, Charles M. Stang. In Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism Julia A. Lamm (ed) 2013 Blackwell Publishing (link)
  10. http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/books/kindi-met.pdf p. 112
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