Saturday, October 15, 2011

'The Books of the Platonists'

Book VII of the Confessions recounts how Augustine was leant certain books of the platonists i.e. of the Neoplatonists (such as Plotinus), and the impact they had on his search for the way to think of the immutability of God.

What the books of the Platonists were to provide Augustine with, among other things, was a way of thinking about God that would free it of physical implications, implications about time and space, and so of the need for physical imagery, as well as providing him with an epistemological discipline, the ascent of the mind through which he could be certain of this God’s existence.

The books say that before all times and above all times your only-begotten Son immutably abides eternal with you, and that souls ‘receive their fullness (John 1.16) to be blessed, and that they are renewed to be wise by participation in wisdom abiding in them.

Eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity: you are my God.

I was certain that you are infinite without being infinitely diffused through finite space. I was sure that you truly are, and are always the same; that you never become other or different in any part or by any movement or position, whereas all other things derive from you, as is proved by the fact that they exist.

Note how immutability and eternity now come into focus.

There is another thread to this, for early on in his transition from his Manichean sympathies, Augustine seems to have become concerned with the Trinitarian godhead, and particularly the relation of the Father to the Son. One problem seems to be, how can the Father be the generator of the Son (as according to Nicene Christology he is), and not change? Platonism was of immediate help to him on that issue. He believed that the platonic thinking provided him with an answer compatible with divine immutability. But as far as the Incarnation itself is concerned, he more than once says rather dismissively that the books made no reference to that.

Here we shall focus on the first of these benefits, the acquisition of a way of reading the Church’s language about God’s threefoldness. This reading is better understood not as an hermeneutic for Scripture, but as a proposal for a translation, the development or appropriation of a cognitively equivalent language, which expressed ‘in different words, and in a variety of ways’, such dogmas as the only-begottenness of the Son by the Father, and the Johannine idea that wisdom comes by participation in the Son. But yet his reading of the books was not exactly cognitively equivalent to Scripture, for he relies on them to expand upon the biblical account. For one thing that they state is that ‘before all times and above all times your only begotten Son immutably abides in you’, which is certainly not to be found in the Prologue to John’s Gospel, though Augustine may have thought that it was implied by it, or at least consistent with it: he does not say.

But he is happy to take this filling out of the meaning of Scripture (as I call it) from the Platonists, citing the precedent of Moses spoiling the Egyptians, and (what is more apt) Paul’s appropriation of Aratus and Epimenides the Cretan in his address to the philosophers of Athens. So it seems that what he received from these books, at least, was a way of thinking about God as ‘before’ and ’above’ all times and places, an atemporality and non-spatiality shared, of course, by his only-begotten Son. This is the ‘immaterial truth’ that the books of the Platonists taught him.

So one significant gift of the platonists was the grammar of timeless eternity and immutability which Augustine readily applied to God, and which took him where Aristotle’s Categories could not go. Of course it was not the only gift of the platonists, but it is the one that chiefly matters to us here. There was also the matter of the ascent of the mind to God, the experience of which provided Augustine with direct ‘evidence’, or at least confirmation, of the divine eternality as being an intrinsic part of the conceptuality of the Creator-creature distinction. The light that he experienced was ‘utterly different from all our kinds of light’. It superiority lay in the fact that this light was the light of the Creator. And so ‘Eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity: you are my God’.

There is an interval of discussion in the Confessions between the accounts of two ‘ascents’, to be found in Confessions VII. x (16). ‘I entered and with my soul’s eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than any mind ….’ and then in Confessions VII xvi 22. ‘’So in the flash of a trembling glance it attained to that which is. At that moment I saw your ‘invisible nature understood through the things that are made (Rom.1:20) But I did not possess the strength to keep my vision fixed.’ These are either two accounts of the same thing, or of two different phases of experience. What Augustine says in that interval is crucial to our understanding. He tells us that in his Manichean phase his soul created for itself ‘a god pervading all places in infinite space’. This god he now cheerfully abandoned because another conceptuality was at hand. God is spirit, immutable and eternal, supremely good, giving all else its being which is also good. Augustine thought that as such God is incapable of pervading all places in infinite space like a gas, or luminosity, but that he is omnipresent in a deeper, more spiritual, non-sensous way. He had found an intellectually satisfactory way of appropriating the Church’s teaching about divine immutability.

So one of the fruits of his reading some books of the platonists is that Augustine is able to begin to develop a grammar of God about whom such questions as ‘Where is he?’ and ‘How long has he existed?’ and ‘How large is he?” and ‘What was he doing before the Creation?’ make no sense.

Yet Augustine is not totally carried away by his reading of the books. Just as Aristotle’s Categories took him so far, to the level of the creaturely, and no further, so the books of the platonists also took him so far, to the Father and his only-begotten Son, and no further.

For he is clear that there is no equivalent translation of the Incarnation of the Son or of his offering upon the Cross into platonic conceptuality. Nevertheless, the books most certainly given him a grammar of God, or the beginnings of one, of an immutable God who Is ‘before all times and above all times’, a true Creator. ‘I was sure that you truly are, and are always the same; that you never become other or different in any part of by any movement or position, whereas all other things derive from you, as if provided by the fact that they exist’. Parts, movement, position – these are Aristotelian categories. And the immutability of the Word of God means that he is not merely ‘a man of excellent wisdom’, nor that he is incarnate in a mere body, but that since change is ascribed to the incarnate Son he must have a human nature, body and soul.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

'God Without Parts'




James E Dolezal


Dr James Dolezal’s treatment of divine simplicity, which provides a defence of this doctrine in perhaps its strongest form, is a first–rate piece of work. He shows himself to have a grasp not only of the primary and secondary intellectual sources, but also of the arguments of contemporary critics as well as of defenders of the doctrine, especially those in analytic-style philosophical theology, ‘analytic theology’ as it is coming to be called. He does not simply dust off the cobwebs of old ideas, and rehearse antiquated positions. Not content with mere exposition, able as this is, the author likes to argue, presenting robust defences of divine simplicity against some of its eminent detractors and modifiers – for example, Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Morris, and Eleonore Stump. He takes these on, utilizing some current arguments, of Brian Leftow, William Mann and others, but also offering arguments of his own. The result is the best at-length philosophical treatment of divine simplicity that I know.

God’s simplicity is a central element in the ‘grammar’ of classical Christian theism. The data regarding the essence and nature of God, as revealed in Scripture, have by and large an occasional and unsystematic character to them. But because Scripture, as God’s word, is self-consistent, the varied data must be self-consistent, and when properly appreciated, must also be seen to be. Or at the very least, it may be recognized that alleged inconsistency cannot be proven. The classical conceptual shape of Christian theism offers a template in terms of which that consistency may be appreciated. For it provides rules, drawn from the varied data of Scripture, in terms of which the varied language of Scripture about God, not only in his unity but also in his Trinitarian glory and in his actions in the economy of redemption, can be learned and used without falling into inconsistency or serious error. It is not so much an explanatory as a grammatical template.

So in thinking about divine simplicity as an account of divine unity we are not to think of it primarily as a description of that unity, much less as an explanation of it, but as offering rules for appreciating and employing the character of divine unity. This is a central part of the fuller grammar of Christian trinitarianism. It aims to bring together a way of thinking and speaking about divine unity, that God is one, and that the Lord our God is one Lord, that does justice to the manifold witness of Scripture to that unity, and to ways of handling its apparent references to divine complexity and disunity, in a way that considering each isolated datum in turn could never do. Fundamental to that grammar is a conviction about God, made evident throughout the Scriptures, that he is the creator of space and time and all that it contains, existing at a point beyond space and time and not therefore subject to it. God is not spread out in space, or in time, a creature among fellow-creatures. How then are we to think and speak of him?

Part of the answer to that question is that we are to think of God partly in negative terms, as we have just been doing: not in space, not in time. An account of divine unity must be consistent with such timelessness and spacelessness. But there is more. For in being the Creator, and not a creature, or creaturely, God does not depend for his existence on operations or forces working upon him. He is not fashioned, or the product of parts forming themselves into a unity in an arbitrary fashion. He is necessary, self-existing. This means, for example, that God is not composed of elements that are more ultimate, in a logical or metaphysical sense, than he himself is.

It is by attention to such considerations that the doctrine of simplicity has been developed, in order to safeguard that divine sovereignty and transcendence to which Scripture richly testifies. Divine simplicity is not the doctrine that God has no features, an infinite tabula rasa. Nevertheless he has no parts and so is not divisible.

But what of the Trinity? Christian theologians have routinely stated that the threefoldness of the Trinity, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each person being wholly divine, refers to distinctions in the godhead, not to divisions in it. All divisions involve distinctions, but not vice versa. This distinction between distinctions and divisions has been in service in Trinitarian thinking a long time; it can be found, for example, in Tertullian.

To suppose that the distinction between the Father and the Son (for example) is a division between them is to suppose that the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ denote different parts in God each of which is separable from the other. A triune Godhead that consists of a divisible threeness would thus be made up of three parts – Father, Son and Spirit – who together comprise it. The obvious problem with such a proposal is that it violates the biblical affirmation that God is one, which the doctrine of divine simplicity articulates. Another consequence of supposing a division between the persons is that Father, Son and Spirit is that each would each be part of God, and so not the whole God, and so not wholly divine.

God the Creator is one God, and not creaturely. Because God is timeless he is changeless, immutable. Not simply in the sense that he has chosen to be so, or covenanted this, proposals which offer a rather unstable account of God’s changelessness, and are probably incoherent. He is metaphysically changeless. Such changelessness in turn entails divine impassibility, an idea frequently misunderstood and derided. But impassibility is not to be confused, as it often is, with impassivity or with dispassion. Although it may seem paradoxical, the stress on impassibility is meant to safeguard the fullness of God’s character. He is eternally impassioned, unwaveringly good, not moody or fitful as he is buffeted by the changes of his life, some of them, perhaps, unexpected changes.

Another way of entering this territory, a way which is quite consistent with what we have been thinking about, is via the idea of God as the most perfect being. God is a being than which no greater can be conceived. This is not a piece of metaphysical speculation, but is clearly stated or implied in Scripture, as in Hebrews 6 13-14 which refers to God as one besides which there is none greater. For had there been a greater than God then in establishing his covenant God would have sworn by that greater. But he swears by himself and so establishes a covenant which is immutable and which for that reason is utterly trustworthy.

Of course there are other biblical data to support the wonderful verses of Hebrews in their assertion about God’s unsurpassable greatness. David refers to the greatness of God, and the fact that there is no God besides him (2 Sam. 7 22); Nehemiah refers to the great, the mighty God, (Neh. 9.32, also Jer.32.18, Titus 2.13)). Besides, the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods (Ps. 95.3); he is to be feared above all gods (Ps. 96.4. 77.13); he is greater than all gods (Ex.18.11) ; his greatness is unsearchable ( Ps. 145.3). It is hardly plausible to suppose that God’s kingship over other gods is a mere contingent matter of fact. Paul’s ‘golden chain’ (Rom. 8. 31-9) is mere rhetoric if is not supported by a view of God who necessarily transcends his creation. And so on.

It is not that these biblical writers suppose that there could be a greater than the God of Israel, and that one day there might be. The God who is the creator of the heavens and the earth is one than which no greater can be conceived. How could God be worshipful if he could have been greater than in fact he is? If there is a being greater than God then why is that being not God instead? So all the grammatical features of the doctrine of God that we have mentioned express metaphysically necessary truths.

James Dolezal’s favored way of approaching divine simplicity is through the distinction between act and potency. He offers a close and careful reading of Thomas Aquinas. A subject’s potency or potentiality expresses its liability to change and develop, or to be changed. So it is a sign of compositeness. Every creature in space and time has such potency. By contrast, a simple God does not develop by acting, much less by being acted upon. He does not develop at all. His actions express his perfection, they do not contribute to its attainment. I think that it is fair to say that it is in this area, that of God’s freely expressing his perfection in creation and in human redemption, that the sense of ineffability and incomprehension of the doctrine of God’s absoluteness is at its highest.

Noting the author’s close adherence to Thomas’s approach to divine simplicity, some may think that this book is a work of ‘Catholic’ theology, meaning by this an exclusively Roman Catholic theology. But this judgment would be seriously mistaken. Dr Dolezal is at pains to show that adherence to the doctrine, and an appreciation of both its strengths and of its profundities, is the property of the entire ‘catholic’ church. He draws the reader’s attention to Stephen Charnock, John Owen and other Reformed and Puritan theologians, to Reformed confessional statements, as well as to their present-day expositors, notably Richard Muller. He flags up the thought of a notable Dutch Reformed theologian who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, Herman Bavinck. The work deliberately reinforces the view that divine simplicity is the property of truly ‘catholic’ Christian theology.

It might be objected that if an argument for some fundamental feature of God’s existence, such as divine simplicity, concludes in emphasizing the ineffability and incomprehensibility of the life of the Creator, we ought to suspect its premises. Dr Dolezal touches on such matters in his fascinating dialogue with a contemporary evangelical philosophical theologian, Jay Richards, over the conflict, or apparent conflict, between divine simplicity and divine freedom to create worlds other than our world, or to refrain from creating any world at all. This is, in effect, a debate about a concept of God who is first and foremost anthropomorphic and anthropopathic, and on the other hand of a God who creates and upholds everything that exists in space and time, as their transcendent Creator and Lord, while working immanently within the creation.

It is God’s transcendent will, the expression of his simple nature, that generates in the most acute way the in creatures’ apprehension the sense of incomprehensibility and ineffability. This is hardly surprising. Indeed, it would be surprising if such bafflement were not felt. Yet its presence hardly amounts to a reason for denying or attenuating God’s absoluteness, central to which is his simplicity.

Such debates will be taken further, and without doubt Dr Dolezal’s work deserves to be an impressive and powerful stimulus to them.

Paul Helm

Teaching Fellow, Regent College, Vancouver