Saturday, February 20, 2010

Divine Simplicity and the Formal Distinction, Part 2

The first part of this essay is posted here.

In order to grasp the kind of simplicity which all Christians acknowledge is proper to God it may be useful to look briefly, for contrast, at the conception of Neoplatonist philosophers like Plotinus. Plotinus’ theology has strong prima facie similarities to Christian theology. He posits an absolute first principle beyond the world, not a part of it, from which the world and all beings are produced or emanate. He posits three “primal hypostases,” the One, the Intellect, and the Soul, which seem to correspond to the three Persons of the Trinity. Upon examination, however, strong differences emerge. The three hypostases for Plotinus are not coequal, of one substance, and so forth. The One is really prior to and greater than the Intellect, which is prior to and generates the Soul. The One is “beyond Being,” in a way that recalls the formulations of some Orthodox theologians, and is absolutely simple in a way unacceptable to Christians. In the One there are no differentiations or multiplicities whatsoever, so there is no knowledge, no will, no properties, no relations—in a sense, nothing; in another sense, everything, but in a manner wholly without distinction. The first distinctions are reserved for the Intellect, which necessarily emanates from the One, similar to it but lesser, since it contains the first seeds of multiplicity. The Intellect knows all things and contains within itself the exemplary forms of all possible beings, in a single unified glance, but with the distinction of subject and object. The One has no thoughts, while the Intellect thinks all things within itself. However, the Intellect does not will or produce the world, but necessarily generates the Soul, which has the function of necessarily (no free and voluntary creation here) reproducing the Intellect’s Ideas in the lower world.
Without elaborating Plotinian philosophy at unnecessary length, the differences between this kind of theology and any Christian theology are enormous and unacceptable. As Christians we must affirm that all three hypostases in the Trinity are equal in substance, power, knowledge, glory, and everything else that applies to God. The Father can be no more simple than the Son and Spirit, nor less of a creator or less all-knowing. Everything that one has, all have. Neoplatonic philosophy can have really absolute simplicity because anything involving distinction or multiplicity can be relegated to the posterior and lesser divine hypostases. For Christians since the divine hypostases are coequal in every way, differing only in their origin, this is not a way out. If the Word of God has a multiplicity of knowledge or the Spirit of God a multiplicity of will, so must God the Father.
But we do want and need to say that there is some sort of multiplicity in God. Leaving aside the distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity, we have to say, for instance, that God is both wise and just. But wisdom and justice are not the same thing; they have different definitions; therefore God must have two attributes, wisdom and justice. Furthermore, God knows and thinks of me, and He knows and thinks of you. But I am not you; thinking of me is different than thinking of you; therefore God must have two thoughts, one of me and one of you. Further examples can be multiplied indefinitely. And yet in spite of this Catholics insist that God remains entirely without composition and therefore entirely simple.
How to get around this? Orthodox theology, to the probable knowledge of anyone reading this essay, does so by means of the essence/energies distinction. God’s essence is “beyond Being,” wholly unknowable, unapproachable, wrapped in the eternal divine darkness. Everything that can be known or experienced or spoken of in God relates to the divine energies, the logoi, the rationes, the predestinations, i.e. all of His thoughts, acts of will, operations, attributes, etc. These energies are uncreated; they are God and not His creatures or effects—and yet they are really distinct from the divine essence and from one another.
My intention here is neither to embrace nor critique this Orthodox formulation. On one interpretation of the real distinction between essence and energy in God, I believe it is either perfectly consistent with Catholic theology; on another interpretation it is certainly inconsistent with Catholic thought and (possibly) nonsensical in itself. My purpose for the present however is to show why Catholic theologians would not formulate any answer to the problem on these terms.
Recall that for the Latin tradition it is inappropriate to refer to God as “beyond Being” when, for reasons given above, Being is God’s own proper name. Recall also that Aristotle, who first formulated the term energeia, meant by the word what is translated in scholastic Latin as “actuality,” and not “operation,” as later Greek theologians used it. Recall again that God’s Being, since it is devoid of all potentiality, is therefore pure actuality, that in God essence and existence are one and the same, and that therefore to a Latin mind God’s essence and his energeia would very naturally be considered to be identical. This however tends to produce arguments about words, not substance. The real question is, do or can Latin thinkers posit along with Greeks a set of uncreated “somethings” distinct from God’s essence and from each other?
Well, the prima facie answer is no. The most familiar Catholic approach to this problem, the Thomistic one, would conclude that the Orthodox formulation introduces too much distinction into God and makes Him complex, composite, not supremely One.
For Thomas as for Orthodoxy the divine mystery surpasses all created understanding. God in His essence can never be exhaustively grasped. The fact that we know something about the essence, its proper name of Being, the fact that we know God to be ipsum esse subsistens, does not mean that we understand God’s Being, that we can put it in its place in our systems of categories. We know His name but we don’t know what it means; although we can know the essences of created things we can’t know what it is to be God. All knowledge and all concepts we have of God in this state of the viator are derived from His effects, His creatures, and while every creature reflects Him and can give us knowledge of Him, none does so fully or adequately. Because of this concepts that we have of God, which are true of Him, are necessarily separate and exclusive, while the reality in God which they (truly) reflect is identical. So from one creature I may derive the idea of God’s justice, and from another the idea of God’s wisdom, and in every creaturely instance that can present itself justice and wisdom are non-identical properties; therefore I am forced to think of God’s justice and wisdom as distinct, even though I know that due to His simplicity they are actually identical with each other. Everything that God has, he is: so for Him to be, to be just, to be wise, are all one and the same thing. God’s simple nature, his simple act of Being, in itself always wholly and entirely just and wise, is reflected and imitated in creatures now as justice, now as wisdom. Similarly God is His thought, and therefore thinks of you and of me and of all individuals in a single simple ineffable thought which is himself, and yet knows all these distinct composite beings in His own simple act of Being. This is incomprehensible to us since we are unable to think that way. And again, by His one simple act God produces now necessarily (in the Trinitarian processions) and now freely and contingently (in creation); in one action he voluntarily creates a multitude of effects, the way a skilled archer can shoot two arrows and hit two targets with a single shot. We see God’s thoughts, actions, and wills as distinct because of the limitation of our knowledge, not because there is actual composite multiplicity there. In other words, God’s essence and his attributes are notionally and not really distinct.
For the Orthodox theologian this sounds as though it cannot be right without producing a number of gravely unacceptable consequences. To name just one, how can God freely create if His necessary essence is completely identical with His will? Won’t His will have to be equally necessary? Won’t creation be reduced to a series of necessary emanations, as for Plotinus? To the Orthodox theologian it looks as though the Thomistic account allows too little distinction in God and thereby robs Him of distinctively Christian attributes.
Traditionally the Catholic way to truth has been to find the middle way between opposing positions. Sometimes this requires finding the truth that balances two opposing errors, the way Aristotelian virtues find the mean between two opposite vices. Here it would be gravely rash to accuse both Palamas and Thomas of being heretical; I find it much more likely to assume that neither of them are, and to look for a middle way which could see and affirm the truth in each.
In order to see what this middle way might consist of, I have to stop a moment and talk about distinctions. So far I have acknowledged two kinds of distinctions, real and notional or mental. It is relatively simple to grasp the meaning of each. Two things are really distinct when they are really independent, or when they can really be separated, or when one can really exist without the other. Corporeal parts are obviously really distinct in this way. So are metaphysical elements, such as matter and form: this matter can take other forms than the one it now has, and this form can inform other lumps of matter than the one it currently does. Two things are mentally or notionally distinct when in reality they are identical but in my knowledge or concepts they are separate. Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens are really identical but they may be mentally distinct. In the two formulas “2+2=x” and “3+1=y” x and y are notionally distinct but really identical.
It seems clear then that when Palamas posits real distinctions in God and Thomas merely notional distinctions, they are saying radically different things and they cannot both be right. However I suspect that this is not the case. For to take Palamas at face value seems to introduce real composition into God, and to take Thomas at face value seems to imply that even the Persons of the Trinity are really all one and the same, as well as problems with divine freedom, etc. Neither of these thinkers however would be at all willing to grant any of these conclusions and so, unless we want to convict one or the other or both of radical inconsistently, we must find a way to understand them which is not absurd or contradictory.
I think that this way is through Bl. John Duns Scotus’s formal distinction, the distinctio formalis a parte rei, formal distinction on the part of the thing. This kind of distinction finds the middle ground between fully real and merely notional distinctions, but it is subtle and more difficult to grasp than the other two. Let’s try to get a sense of it through a few examples.
Perhaps most people have seen those visual puzzles that seem to produce an optical illusion. On a piece of paper there is a single figure in black ink. What is it? Viewed in one way it is clearly a picture of two black faces turned towards each other with white space in the middle; viewed from another way it looks like a white cup with an incomplete black outline. Which is the true picture? Clearly both are “there.” When asked how many images there are we have to say that there is one figure or shape but two pictures or two images. They are not merely notionally distinct: a face is not a cup and a picture of one is not a picture of the other. And yet they are not really distinct: one cannot be removed or changed without destroying the other. The puzzle has been constructed such that here really is one shape or figure and two pictures or images, and these images are formally distinct.
Again, think of a book, say, the Iliad. It contains a number of different—well, we will call them formalities. It contains themes (the rage of Achilles, the horrors of war, the beauty of nature etc.), characters (Achilles, Hector, Odysseus etc.), a plot (the sequence of events from the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon to the truce of Achilles and Priam), as well as meter, vocabulary, the Greek Alphabet, and so forth. Now surely these are not all merely notionally distinct. The character of Achilles cannot be reduced to the letters of the Alphabet or to the instances in which the sequence of letters in his name occurs in the poem. The plot is not identical to the meter. And yet they are not really distinct either: each of these different formalities or elements is embodied in every other and is wholly inseparable from them. The characters and the plot and the vocabulary all shape and determine each other in a unique way to form this individual poem, and all exist simultaneously and in harmony in the very same determinate sequence of words and letters. Each set of formalities is identical with the poem, and each is formally distinct from the other.
Finally, to take a philosophical example that Scotus actually discusses, I in my individuality am not really distinct from my nature. I can not exist as this individual with my humanity (nor can humanity exist without being the humanity of some or other individual man). But my individuality and my humanity are not merely notionally distinct—it is not true for Scotus as it is for Thomas that matter is the principle of individuation and that therefore an individual person is merely a singular instance of the nature. For Scotus there is really a formal me-ness which makes me distinct from all other men—and yet, though this is my intrinsic and essential form, I also share the formal essence “humanity” with all men and my me-ness cannot be really distinct from this human-ness. Socrates is himself by his form; he is a man by his humanity and he is Socrates by his Socrateity. Socrateity and humanity then are a single substantial form in Socrates, but they are also and at the same time two formally distinct formalities. This implies no composition in Socrates’ form (although there is certainly composition in Socrates). Socrateity and humanity are not added or blended together to produce the whole. Rather each is the whole, each contains and is limited by the other.
By now the application of the formal distinction to the problem of divine simplicity should be obvious. With our third and middle distinction to show the way we can see how there can be a plurality in God without there being a true multiplicity. The infinity of ideas within God is a real infinity of formalities, without there being an infinity of separate forms in God. God’s free will and His necessary knowledge are not identical, they indicate a real difference; to the precise degree that to will and to know are different they indicate two formalities in God, and yet each is inseparable from the simple actuality of God’s infinite Being. Applications to Trinitarian theology should also suggest themselves. Paternity is not the same thing as Filiation; Fatherhood and Sonship are not identical; in the divine generation then there can be two (and three) distinct realities in the form of three distinct hypostases or supposits without there being a real multiplicity in being or substance. Since Fatherhood, Unbegottenness, Fontal Plenitude, Monarchy, or however the First Person is best characterized, is not entirely and completely identical with the Divine Being, there is a “real” distinction between the Father and the essence without there being a real distinction; that is, the Father can be God, and all of God, without this precluding the Son and the Spirit also being God. The way in which all this is fully and consistently elaborated, however, is of course, far beyond the scope of my present ambition.
Since this essay is not scholarly in character I cannot attempt to prove that this is the view implicitly looked for in both Thomistic and Palamite theologies, but hindered by a poverty of vocabulary and (perhaps) conceptual subtlety. Nevertheless I suspect strongly that such is the case. This Scotistic middle way both avoids the pitfalls of a real distinction between God’s essence and his attributes which seems (if the term “real” is stressed at all strongly) to lead inexorably to some form of composition in God, as well as those of merely notional distinctions in Him which seem not to allow for simultaneous contingency and necessity, for meaningful differences between being, knowing, willing, creating, and operating. Because Palamas does not want to introduce composition into God and because Thomas does not want to prohibit free unnecessitated creation, I believe that neither the one nor the other should be hastily accused of putting either too much or too little distinction in God. Rather, just as the medievals interpreted the Fathers charitably whenever a Father used words which seemed to conflict with known dogmatic truth, showing that the Father could be understood in an orthodox way as well as in the apparently heretical way, so we ourselves should charitably interpret the medievals. Thus before we accuse Thomas’ views of inevitably implying consequences which he himself would condemn as damnable heresy, it is our duty to ask ourselves if his views can be understood in a manner which does not imply such views. In any case, whatever a historian may eventually show St Thomas to have held, it seems to me clear that, thanks to Blessed John, Catholic dogma itself can certainly be interpreted in a way which attributes to God the right amount of distinction, neither too much nor too little.
When I began this essay I intended to devote a significant portion of it not only to the exposition of the problem and Scotistic solution of divine simplicity, but also on the effect that the doctrine has on Catholic mystical theology and deification. Orthodox writers frequently claim that their distinction between God’s essence and energies is necessary to preserve an authentic experiential mysticism and true theosis, and I intended to show that neither of these is absent in genuine Catholic tradition. I find now however that I have already gone on longer than intended and must only give the broadest sketch at this point.
As noted in the beginning, mystical theology has its seeds in the patriarchal walking, talking, wrestling with God, while dogmatic theology begins in the personal revelation of God as Being and as One. We cannot, however, divorce Moses and mysticism, for Moses saw the back of God as He passed by; Moses spoke with God face to face like a man does with His friend; and when Moses descended from the mountain the divine light shone from his face. In the obvious foreshadowing this event has of the Transfiguration we see a mystical experience tied to dogmatic revelation in a way that seems particularly “Orthodox,” while Catholic mysticism has tended to find its Old Testament exemplar with Elijah in the cave, listening to the still, small voice. For the Orthodox, mystical experience and the very joy of the blessed in heaven reach as far as the uncreated energies of God while leaving the divine essence “beyond Being,” untouchable, ungraspable, wholly shrouded in the dark cloud of unknowing. We with Moses can see the glory of God in His back, and participate in it, and this glory can shine forth from our countenance, but we do not see him face to face. Catholics however, insisting more on the divine simplicity than on the divine plurality, and holding that God is not “beyond Being” but IS being, do not take the revelation and experience on Sinai to be the final and definitive word. God IS unfathomable, he is ungraspable. But he dwells not so much in a divine darkness beyond being but in the infinite light of infinite Being, so bright that it blinds our finite minds and seems like darkness. And so the vision of God’s back in the end is not the best that humanity can do; after long acquaintance with the Word of God, after suffering and persecution and near-despair, we may find ourselves once again on a mountain with the glory and splendor and terror of the divine operations surrounding us. But though they do indeed reveal Him God is not really in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, but in the still, small voice speaking within us. Thus St John of the Cross’s distrust of mystical “manifestations”; to take the experience of the Light of Tabor as normative for Christian experience would I suspect strike him as rather bizarre.
For both Catholic and Orthodox the mystical experience of the viator is both foretaste and preparation for the fullness of the next life. Both affirm that by grace we become partakers in the divine nature. For the Orthodox however this is by participating in the energies of God, seeing him now like Moses on Sinai, and then like the Apostles seeing Christ on Tabor. But Catholic mysticism goes beyond this: though God dwells in light inaccessible, yet in His light we shall see light. Now we know in part, but then face to face. We will be like Him, for we will know Him as he is. These phrases have a different sense for the Catholic, for, with his emphasis on God’s simplicity, not considering the divine energies as in any way secondary “things” to God’s essence, he indeed hopes to see God in His very essence itself in the Beatific Vision.
Two things may be noted in connection with this. The first is the connection for the Catholic between simplicity and perfection in prayer. The deeper and the better I learn to pray, the more all my diverse faculties will be quieted, stilled, drawn up and united into a simple loving gaze focused on God. All of the complicated “practices” associated with Catholic prayer belong to its early stages. True prayer is like that of St John Vianny, who used to simply sit before the Sacrament and look at God as God looked at him. In this life we in no way draw near to God’s essence in prayer, but as our attention on him becomes more and more simple and reposed in a kind of loving knowledge, a kind of ever-deepening knowing love, we become better disposed for the vision of God’s essence upon glorification.
The second thing to be noted is that the kind of union attained upon the Beatific Vision is neither, as some Orthodox claim, a hypostatic union in which the distinction between Creator and creature is eliminated, and nor is it a devaluation of God’s transcendency, as though its possibility implied that the depths of divine being could be plumbed. True, in Latin theology the blessed are called “comprehensors,” they comprehend God when they see him whole. But the manner of this comprehension is like the way in which I see a great and profound painting: I see it all at once, for there is no part of it which I do not see. And yet I do not grasp its entire meaning and beauty; indeed, although in one sense as I continue to gaze on it I never see anything new, in another and more important sense the longer I look the more I see. The Beatific Vision is like that. It is a union, not of hypostasis, so that distinction of natures is erased, but a union of knowledge and love, in which our whole soul is informed by God as its object while remaining in its nature itself.
To conclude, may I say that it is immediately apparent that there are wide and significant divergences in Catholic and Orthodox prayer and mystical theology. As I hope this essay has to some extent indicated, the roots of these differences can be at least to some extent traced back to differences in dogmatic theology. While I have certainly been concerned, however, to justify the Catholic attitude and approach in all the matters dealt with, and to defend it against accusations of bearing false implications, I hope I have also indicated room for hope that between the two theologies (and therefore the two mysticisms) the gulf is not necessarily impassible. The two notions of Christian experience which seem so incompatible are based on two dogmatic accounts of the Godhead which themselves seem incompatible. And yet if, as I believe, an intellectually rigorous account of divine simplicity exists which ought to satisfy both sides, perhaps the two sides are not as far apart as they seem to each other, but may in fact eventually find one another mutually complementary.
There seems to be evidence on which to support this hope that neither side may prove in the end to have simply been wrong on dogmatic issues (although only a few could be touched on here). After all, throughout the centuries, neither Catholics nor Orthodox have ceased to produce saints.


Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

Thanks for posting this. Reading it again, one can see that it is very much an introduction to the vast and forbidding land of the study of divine simplicity, but it does fairly well in that regard. What is most clearly lacking, as you note, is a deeper investigation of the relationship between mystical and dogmatic theology. I look forward to the final post.

--Anthony Roberts

(edited for typos)

AT said...

"Similarly God is His thought, and therefore thinks of you and of me and of all individuals in a single simple ineffable thought which is himself, and yet knows all these distinct composite beings in His own simple act of Being. This is incomprehensible to us since we are unable to think that way."

In a way we think like this all the time. For example, when we know "tree" we know all trees, at least enough of "treeness" to distinguish it from "horse".

It's true that "treeness" doesn't exist in reality, but it exists in the intelligibility of the form of this "apple tree in my yard".

As for the formal distinction - I don't see how it is other than in our way of knowing. Does Scotus claim that God knows in this way? That God really makes a formal distinction between his will and intellect, etc?

Henry Karlson said...

For anyone interested in Palamas, and one which I think is important for understanding his position and some of the criticism it gives to Western scholastic thought, I suggest Dialogue with an Orthodox and a Barlaamite.

One of the things which must be stressed and not forgotten is that there was a wide variety of thought going on in scholasticism, and not all of it was good (which is why there were many heretics in this period as well). Barlaam was influenced by scholasticism, but many pick up that he was probably influenced by the developing nominalist tradition. That should give a bit of a background for the kind of scholasticism Palamas was most familiar with. And if you combine nominalism with apophaticism, one can understand why Palamas would push that issue a great deal.

Lee Faber said...

AT: God doesn't "make" a formal distinction between his attributes, the distinction is there ex natura rei prior to the operation of the divine intellect.

Henry: stressing the diversity of scholastic thought is one of my hobby-horses, but I think you might go to far with equating this with heresy. Generally, if by scholastic you mean theologians who became masters of theology, only Eckhart was formally accused of heresy (and maybe Wycliff), as far as I know. Even the nominalists didn't consistently apply their philosophy to theology, but, as in the case of Gerson or his master Pierre d'Ailly, advocated a return (yet another resourcement) to the pious theology of Bonaventure and Thomas as a corrective to their great enemy, scotism. Nominalism was condemned at many universities, but I am not sure this is on the level of a magisterial declaration but a political move by faculties at various universities (realism was also prohibited).

Henry Karlson said...

I said there were many heretics in this era; now of course, one might want to ask when one begins the scholastic era and when it ends. Peter Abelard was at its formation, and the Council of Sens certainly condemned many of his propositions. Of course, there was also Joachim who did work within the scholastic milieu writing in condemnation of Peter Lombard. We have also Alexander IV's criticism of the errors of William of St Amour, or the council of Vienne on Peter John Olivi. There are others as well, without discussing the Cathars. Denzinger gives us a good examination of many of them.

On the other hand, Meister Eckhart was, as you said, criticized for heresy but yet, when some of his notions were criticized, the Pope made it clear the man himself was not being condemned ( I really like Eckhart, I admit).

From the Greek point of view, there were other heresies, and Barlaam presents one of them. The point being he was taking troubling aspects from scholasticism and ending with something which was indeed condemned, but even then, one must not take that as being representative of Western thought. His was a mixture gone bad.

AT said...


"makes" - as in "is aware of".

Anyway, the "formal distinction" already presupposes that God has infinite ideas of things other than himself.

Makes more sense to me to say he has one idea by which he knows everything, including himself.

Lee Faber said...

AT, consideration of the formal distinction is logically prior to that of the divine ideas; it involves the relation of the persons to the divine essence, and distinction of attributes; both of these are presupposed in a discussion of divine knowledge.

AT said...

I don't understand what it means to be logically prior if it means independently of someone's intellect. Perhaps you could explain this?

I also don't understand how logically prior could mean anything but according to human understanding. But I don't expect you to be able to explain to me how logic applies to God and man in the same way. That is, you may have an explanation but you would be wasting your time trying to get me to understand it.

Also, I don't see how anyone can say that God's knowing is such-and-such: how would he know?

Michael said...


I'll respond briefly, and Faber can again if he likes.

I don't understand what it means to be logically prior if it means independently of someone's intellect. Perhaps you could explain this?

This means that, for instance, wisdom and love are not distinct in God only because we think of them as distinct. There is a formal distinction between them even if there were no creatures to think of it.

I also don't understand how logically prior could mean anything but according to human understanding.

What it means is that the distinction between wisdom and love in God doesn't depend on God's thinking of them as distinct, any more than on my thinking of them that way. They just are distinct.

But I don't expect you to be able to explain to me how logic applies to God and man in the same way.

We're not the sort of folks who insist that just because God transcends our understanding, therefore we can say absurdities about him. If we are to know anything true about God, our knowledge has to be consistent with the laws of logic, like non-contradiction. This is how we differentiate between good and bad versions of the "coincidence of opposites" approach: whether someone is simply being contradictory or not.

Also, I don't see how anyone can say that God's knowing is such-and-such: how would he know?

This is part and parcel of Scotus' whole univocity approach. Scotus insists that knowledge does not become not-knowledge just because it exists in God. The fact that wisdom and love in God are infinite and therefore coincide in a non-compositional way does not remove their wisdom-character and love-character. Take what wisdom is in itself, not specifying whether you mean created or uncreated wisdom, wisdom as a finite quality or as an infinite being. Either way what "wisdom" is is something specific, and it's not the same thing as "love". Now take "wisdom" and "love" and make them both infinite. As divine attributes they are not accidents or compositional elements, but are really identical with God. But it remains the case that ~(wisdom=love)! We can see that this is the case because they do not have identical domains: God's wisdom extends to more things than his love does. And God's wisdom is enough for God to know something, but not enough for that thing to exist, since God has to will something as well as know it if it is to exist.

And all this is "before" God thinks of them, or we do, understanding "before" in terms of logical, not temporal, priority. In other words he and we think of them as distinct because they are distinct, not vice versa. This is the essence of the formal distinction.

AT said...


Thanks for taking time to reply.

Are you saying that the formal distinction follows from Scotus' notion of univocity?

I am unable to understand how someone can say both God's knowledge is God and that there is something prior to God's knowledge; I guess you'd say - what he is to know when he knows. Are we back to the distinction between existence and essence?