Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Divine simplicity and the divine attributes

Dr. James White has recently addressed the issue of divine simplicity, correctly pointing out that there is a difference between biblical simplicity and an "Aristotelian doctrine of simplicity." There is indeed a difference between what the Bible teaches about simplicity (God having no parts), and the entire metaphysical connotations that comes with one's embrace of Aristotelian presuppositions. Dr. White's argument however goes back to the issue of the divine attributes, and how historically, simplicity implies that the divine attributes are one in the being of God. On this, White agrees that "there is no disharmony in God, God is not the sum total of sub-concepts called attributes." However, he states that if one holds to simplicity in such a way that holds that there must be metaphysically one in God, then that makes the attributes indistinguishable to God. Here, White explicitly cites Francis Turretin as someone who errs in his discussion on the matter.

The interesting thing here is that I concur with Turretin yet agree with the first part of White's argument. How is that so? Well, Jacob Trotter decided to write a response to Dr White on the issue, and this helps to muddies the issue yet also provides a way to discuss it as well.

In his response, Trotter agrees that the divine attributes must be distinguishable, but asserts that in classical theism they are so while holding to the classical view of simplicity. Trotter's argument, seemingly propped up with multiple references, is that the attributes are one ad intra while multiple and distinguishable ad extra. In other words, Trotter seems to think that the traditional view is that the attributes of God are truly metaphysically one in the being of God (ad intra), while the reason why they can be distinguished is due to their effects out of God unto the world and its creatures (ad extra).

Is Trotter's argument correct? Certainly, he seems to have many sources supporting his view on the issue. However, I will suggest that this is not so. A major problem comes when we compare this assertion of the ad intra-ad extra categorization with what the Reformed tradition actually teaches. In his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Turretin argues that the attributes of God are "really the same with his essence, but are to be distinguished from it virtually and eminently" (3.5. Emphases added). Does that sound the same as an ad intra- ad extra categorization? Trotter cites Turretin in his Institutes to prove his point, but it must be noted that he cites 3.5.13, that is to say the thirteenth section of the third topic, question 5, when the entire third topic question 5 is on divine simplicity. Turretin has already states that the attributes of God are really one with the essence yet virtually and eminently distinguishable in the fifth section, way before the thirteenth section. Is 3.5.13 correct in stating that they may be regarded as either on the part of God (ad intra) or towards creatures (ad extra)? Of course they can. But is that Turretin's main way of discussing the divine attributes? NO! And that is the main problem with Trotter's characterization of the Reformed tradition. Most certainly, they do say that the attributes of God can be discussed along the lines of an ad intra- ad extra characterization. However, that is NOT the main way they discuss the divine attributes. Turretin for example discusses it along the lines of really versus virtually and eminently. These terms "really," "virtually," "eminently," are all qualitative descriptors. They are words examining the relations of objects along the axis of "kind." They are not examining the relation of objects along the axis of "manner" or "in relation to," which is what the ad intra- ad extra categorization is about.

Trotter therefore does not correctly represent at least Turretin on the matter. The reason why Turretin can affirm distinguishable divine attributes and the classical view of simplicity is that he states that the reason why they are one is because in kind, all of them are one and the same in God, but in terms of what they are in eminance, which is to say in their extravagence and haecceity ("this-ness"), they are distinct. All of this has nothing to do with whether they are to be seen absolutely ad intra or relatively ad extra. Now, as 3.5.13 show, some of the attributes CAN be differentiated along the ad intra - ad extra axis, but that is not how we should primarily think of the relation between divine attributes and simplicity.

A major problem for Trotter's characterization can be seen when we apply the argument on the divine attribute of simplicity. Is this attribue (simplicity) only distinguishable as it relates to creatures? Here, we see that problems start to emerge when we reflexively curve the argument on itself. If divine attributes are only distinguishable as it relates to creatures, then ALL divine attributes are only distinguishable when it relates to creatures. However, attributes such as simplicity and aseity are divine attributes that relate to God ad intra, as Trotter should agree. Yet, they are divine attributes. Therefore, Trotter's simplistic use of the ad intra- ad extra categorization fails to do justice to the issue of simplicity and the divine attributes. That is not how the Reformed Orthodox such as Turretin has thought of the attributes. In fact, I would assert that this use of the ad intra - ad extra categorization is an extremely modern phenomenon of the early 21st century, where it seems everything with regards to God must be pigeon-holed into either ad intra or ad extra, and anyone who refuses to do the same is accused of being "theistic mutualist," "theistic personalist" or slurs to that effect.

Following Turretin, if we distinguish (pun not intended) between "really" and "virtually and eminantly," then we can say that the attibutes of God are one with the divine essence really, which is to say ontologically. Translated to something hopefully more understandable, the attributes of God as to their origins, their beginnings, are one with the divine essence, such that one cannot separate essence and atttribute. That is after all what biblical simplicity is all about (the non-divisibility of the one God). We can then say that the attributes are distinguishable "virtually and emininantly," due to haecceity. Translated to a less technical parlance, the atttributes of God when anyone (both God and us) see it for what they are, they are truly distinguishable. God's wrath is not his justice is not his simplicity.

This is the reason why I agree with the first part of Dr. White's argument yet reject the imputing of error to Turretin. Was Turretin an Aristotelian. Of course! But the key issue was never about whether someone was an Aristotelian. The key issue is whether someone is an Aristotelian because that philosophy is his tool, and therefore the content is biblical though the form is Aristotle's, or whether someone is an Aristotelian through a full-throated embrace of Aristotelianism as mediated by Thomas, warts and all. I would assert that Turretin is the former, while the modern "retrieval" of Classical Theism is the latter, confusing the ministerial use of Aristotle by the Reformed Scholastics with their magisterial appropriation of the same.

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