by Alvin Kimel


One thing for sure, there’s nothing simple about absolute divine simplicity! A few months ago I promised the readers of Pontifications to comment on Perry Robinson’s critique of the Western theological understanding of God. Now that Perry’s essay “Anglicans in Exile” has been published online, I cannot evade any longer the fulfillment of my promise. I am grateful to Perry for writing such a challenging and stimulating piece. It has forced me to reactivate little grey cells I had long thought dead, search out lost books in the blackhole of my basement, and spend many hours in a couple of seminary libraries.

If you have read his essay, you know that Perry believes that the Western theological tradition, beginning with Augustine, is fatally flawed and that this flaw constitutes a decisive reason why Anglican and Protestant Christians should become Eastern Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic. Perry identifies this theological flaw as the Western assertion of absolute divine simplicity:

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

A commitment to absolute simplicity implies that God is a being subsumable under human reason in the categories of being and that creation is necessary rather than free. As a consequence, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo goes out the window as well as the eternal generation of the Son and the Spirit. Human freedom, and in fact the freedom of every agent is obliterated. Even God is not free since he must create.

This is a serious charge. If Perry is right, Western Christianity is dogmatically committed to an understanding of deity that is essentially pagan. Philosophy has triumphed over revelation. Western Christians who seek to be in the Church of the Apostles should immediately convert to Orthodoxy, for there is no other serious ecclesial candidate. Only in Orthodoxy do we find an understanding of deity that avoids the deterministic bondage of absolute divine simplicity. The choice, says Perry, is not between Rome and Constantinople but between “Orthodoxy and a rejection of Christian theism”! What is Orthodoxy’s secret? It refuses to identify God with being. God exists beyond all being.

The Church’s theology is mystical not because it is rationally deficient but because first and foremost God is not a being as such. Aristotle’s categories of being (individual, time, quantity, quality, relation, etc.) cannot be predicated of God essentially. For the same reason, God cannot be essentially described as pure act or activity, since act and potency are ways of individuating being. The analogy of being is not applicable because God is no being at all. For the East, God as the Good is ‘on the other side of being’ or beyond being.

This assertion of divine transcendence and complexity, so famously articulated by Gregory Palamas, allows the Eastern theologian to evade the logical problems caused by the Augustinian/Thomistic assertion of divine simplicity: “God is not just his essence but more than his essence. God’s nature is logically wider than his essence. God’s activities, intentions, powers, plans, wisdoms, are just as much uncreated and deity as God’s essence is deity and uncreated.” The positing of an ontological distinction between God’s essence and energies, thus makes possible divine freedom and a proper understanding of creation.

Is Perry right?

Heck if I know! Clearly Perry thinks he has presented a “knock down” argument, but I am unconvinced. While I am happy to entertain a thesis that the traditional Western Christian understanding of deity is still in need of further reform in light of the gospel–the missionary proclamation of the gospel always involves syncretistic confrontation with cultural religion and philosophy–I deem it unlikely that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and John Duns Scotus really bungled these questions as badly as Perry suggests. Certainly Aquinas, for example, believed himself to be a faithful interpreter of the Greek Fathers. The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, who himself affirmed God as beyond all being, was particularly influential in St Thomas’s reflections, as were the writings of St. John of Damascus. For fifteen hundred years the greatest minds of the Western Church have affirmed both divine freedom and divine simplicity, yet apparently without discerning that the latter necessarily entails the denial of the former. They did not see the illogic of their position. This fact alone should give us definite pause. E. L. Mascall suggests that if Aquinas and Palamas had ever had the possibility to meet and talk they would have shared a great deal in common. “It would not have surpassed Thomas’s ingenuity,” continues Mascall, “to reconcile Gregory’s doctrine of the divine energies with his own conviction of the divine simplicity” (He Who Is [1966], p. xviii).

I am neither a philosopher nor a systematic theologian. I’m just a parish priest. And to make things worse, I’m an Anglican by training! Which is to say, I know diddly about scholastic philosophy. Anglicans avoid the technicalities of medieval theology like the plague. We may commemorate the feast day of St Thomas Aquinas, but we certainly do not read his Summa Theologica.

So I begin with a confession: Given my own eclectic Anglican training and the increasingly obvious limitations of my intellect, I am thoroughly intimidated by Perry’s piece. I lack the competence to judge the soundness of his argument. In fact, it’s worse than that. When confronted with sophisticated metaphysical arguments, and Perry’s essay certainly qualifies as a sophisticated metaphysical argument, my mind simply shuts down. The same thing happens to me when my son Aaron attempts to explain quantum mechanics to me.

My interest in systematic theology is, I confess, limited. I enjoy reading it, if it’s not too far over my head, but always my principle concern is “How well does it preach?”

Here is what I think I know, with relative degrees of confidence.

No matter what the scholastic logic of the matter may be, the Western Church emphatically affirms, and has always affirmed, that God freely made the world from out of nothing. This conviction underlies all Western reflection; it underlies all Eastern reflection. God might have chosen not to create the world. If he had not, his Triune glory would have been undiminished. God plus the world is not greater than God alone. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski describes this as the “Christian distinction.”

In Christian belief we understand the world as that which might not have been, and correlatively we understand God as capable of existence, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world had not been. We know there is a world, so we appreciate the world as in fact created, but we acknowledge that it is meaningful to say that God could have been all that there is. Such a “solitary” existence of God is counterfactual, but it is meaningful, whereas it would not be meaningful for the pagan sense of the divine…. Our understanding of God is that he would be “the same” in greatness and goodness whether he creates or does not create, and whether he creates or does not create depends only on his freedom. When God does create, there may be “more” but there is no “greater” or “better.” And the world must be understood appropriately, as that which might not have been. The world and everything in it is appreciated as a gift brought about by a generosity that has no parallel in what we experience in the world. The existence of the world now prompts our gratitude, whereas the being of the world prompts our wonder. (The God of Faith and Reason [1982], p. 19)

The assertion that God made the world from “out of nothing” is a distinctly Judeo-Christian assertion. Pagan philosophy did not and could not think this possibility. The creatio ex nihilo appears to have been ecumenical teaching since the second century and is implied in the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople: the eternal Son is begotten, not made. The Catholic Church dogmatically defined the doctrine at the First Vatican Council in 1870:

The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, creator and lord of heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding and every perfection.

Since he is one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, he must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in himself and from himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides himself which either exists or can be imagined.

This one true God, by his goodness and almighty power, not with the intention of increasing his happiness, nor indeed of obtaining happiness, but in order to manifest his perfection by the good things which he bestows on what he creates, by an absolutely free plan, together from the beginning of time brought into being from nothing the twofold created order, that is the spiritual and the bodily, the angelic and the earthly, and thereafter the human which is, in a way, common to both since it is composed of spirit and body.

We note in this definition the striking assertions of divine freedom, creatio ex nihilo, and divine simplicity. The council fathers evidently did not believe these assertions were incompatible with each other. In this definition divine simplicity functions as a traditional way for the Church to affirm the infinite transcendence of deity and the radical contingency of the world.

The dogma of God’s free creation of the world from out of nothing is so fundamental that it may rightly be said to structure all Christian reflection on God and creation. There is God and there are creatures–uncreated being and created being, infinite being and finite being. These two categories are exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

It is this difference between God and the world that constitutes God’s transcendence of the world. He is “other,” yet this otherness is not like the otherness that exists between creatures. Sokolowski explains further:

In the distinctions that occur normally within the setting of the world, each term distinguished is what it is precisely by not being that which it is distinguishable from. Its being is established partially by its otherness, and therefore its being depends on its distinction from others. But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself.

In Christian faith God is understood not only to have created the world, but to have permitted the distinction between himself and the world to occur. He is not established as God by the distinction (whereas pagan gods are established by being different than other things). No distinction made within the horizon of the world is like this, and therefore the act of creation cannot be understood in terms of any action or any relationship that exists in the world. The special sense of sameness in God “before” and “after” creation, and the special sense of otherness between God and the world, impose qualifications on whatever we are to say about God and the world, about creation out of nothing, about God’s way of being present and interior to things and yet beyond them….

The Christian distinction between God and the world is therefore a distinction that is, in principle, both most primary and yet capable of being obliterated, because one of the terms of the distinction, the world, does not have to be. To be God, God does not need to be distinguished from the world, because there does not need to be anything other than God alone. (pp. 32-33)

Every Christian doctrine is grounded on the absolute distinction between the transcendent Creator and that which he has made. How is it possible for God to become authentically human as Jesus of Nazareth without either compromising his divine nature or truncating human nature? Because God is not one of the natures in the world and therefore does not compete with other creaturely natures. How is it possible for God to act within the world to providentially guide the world to its fulfillment without violating the integrity and freedom of the creatures he has created? Because God is not a part of the world and therefore does not interact with creatures as a being within the world; he realizes his intentions precisely through the activities of every creature, including the free decisions and actions of human beings. Incarnation, providence, sacramental grace, theosis–all are possible, and for us thinkable, because God is God and not a being within the world.

Is this a peculiarly “Western” take on things? It doesn’t seem peculiarly Western to me, just Christian. All Christian theologians have sought to unfold an understanding of divinity grounded in the “Christian distinction.” Various philosophical vehicles have been and will continue to be employed by theologians to speak this distinction, with various degrees of success and adequacy. Always we find the distinction between transcendent deity and creatures to be operative and explicitly stated.

8 April 2005


Hence when Perry states that the Western “commitment to absolute simplicity implies that God is a being subsumable under human reason in the categories of being and that creation is necessary rather than free,” I have to register my strong dissent. “God is subsumable under human reason”? It seems to me that for the past two thousand years the theologians of the Church have, in various ways, been striving to say just the opposite! Aristotle could not have made any sense of the Christian assertion of the creatio ex nihilo. How can God make something when the making makes no difference to anything? Human reason did not lead the Church to confess God as the transcendent divine Creator; divine revelation did. Theological reflection, whether Western or Eastern, begins with this revealed mystery of the ineffable God who freely creates the world from nothing. The Church knows that God infinitely transcends the world. The Church knows that the world is not an emanation of the divine being. The Church knows that the world is radically contingent. Western theologians, following Augustine, may well identify deity with being, but this formulation is itself ruled by the deep grammar of the Christian distinction.

The great historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson, interprets St. Augustine’s identification of God and being as a philosophical breakthrough that enabled the development of a truly Christian metaphysics. By this identification, combined with the Christian affirmation of creatio ex nihilo, Augustine decisively departed from Plato and Plotinus. Gilson writes:

There is nothing above God in the Christian world of Augustine, and, since God is being, there is nothing above being. True enough, the God of Augustine is also the One and the Good, but He is, not because He is both good and one; rather, He is both good and one because He is He Who Is. (Being and Some Philosophers [1949])

Augustine’s dramatic reformulation is apparent when compared to his contemporary Marius Victorinus, who was a well-known neo-Platonist philosopher who converted to Christianity but whose philosophical reflection remained within the neo-Platonist structure. Gilson explains:

God himself, Victorinus says, is above all that which is and all that which is not. In a way, God is, because He is eternal, since God is above even being, it can also be said of Him that He is not. Thus, God is not, in as much as He is above being. If he is superior to being, He can produce it. The Christian God of Victorinus is therefore a non-being who gives birth to being…. Strictly speaking, God is a supreme non-being, cause of all being. (pp. 31-32)

One immediately notices the verbal similarities between Victorinus’s neo-Platonist way of speaking about God and that of Eastern Orthodox theologians such as St Gregory Palamas. But Augustine found, for reasons that are still unclear to me, that he could no longer continue to speak in this way.

I recently spoke to Fr Gregory Rocca, author of Speaking the Incomprehensible God, and asked him if the God of St Thomas Aquinas was subsumable under the categories of being. Absolutely not! he replied. For Thomas, God is ipsum esse subsistens, self-subsistent being. (Esse is the infinitive form of the verb “to be.”) This is an understanding achieved, Thomas believed, not by human reason alone but by divine revelation. As Moses learned on Mount Sinai, God’s proper name is “He Who Is” (Ex 3:13-14):

The essence of God is his esse. Moses was taught this sublime truth by the Lord, when Moses asked the Lord, “If the children of Israel ask me, What is his Name?, what shall I say to them? And the Lord replied: “I am Who am. Thus thou shalt say to the children of Israel: He who Is has sent me to you,” showing that his proper name is Who Is. But every name is intended to signify the nature or essence of a thing. Hence it remains that the divine esse is God’s essence or nature. (Contra Gentiles I.xxii)

Thomas is clear that God is not a being; he is being; yet when applied to God, even being must be apophatically qualified. Interpreters of Thomas are quite clear on this point. For St Thomas deity is most definitely not subsumable under the categories of human reason. He is a God who transcends finite being, composite being, creaturely being. Thomas takes the Augustinian formula “God is being” and significantly redefines it. For Thomas, God is the sheer act of existing, the doing of all existence. God is not a noun but a verb. “When St Augustine read the name of God,” Gilson writes, “he understood ‘I am he who never changes.’ St. Thomas reading the same words understood them to mean ‘I am the pure act-of-being'” (The Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas [1956], p. 93).

E. L. Mascall elaborates:

St. Thomas … sees God’s fundamental attribute as that of self-subsistent being. And in this he is not merely philosophizing in the abstract. His starting-point is the “metaphysic of Exodus,” the revelation of the name of God as “I am that I am.” Ego sum qui sum, ait sic dices filiis Israel, Qui est misit me ad vos. And the conception of God as ipsum esse subsistens, subsistent being itself, is fundamental to his whole discussion of divine nature. It draws into a unity all the other attributes and operations of God: simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, immutability, eternity, unity, his character as Prime Mover, as Uncaused Cause, as Sufficient Reason, as Perfect Pattern and as Final End of all things. It involves that, if God does exist, his existence is identical with his essence. It means that he is not merely the ens maximum, the greatest being that exists, but the maxime ens, that which completely is. (He Who Is [1966], p. 13)

Aquinas is emphatic in understanding the difference between uncreated being and created being. Again Gilson:

So long as we still imagine what God is, the object of our thought is not yet God. For God is above all the beings we know or imagine. He is even above being itself. To call God being (ens), even the supreme being (summum ens), is not to describe his essence, or that which he is, but only to designate him as the cause of all being…. The cause of being is above being. As we said, it is esse, the infinite esse, in which beings participate in a finite way. This is so true that it could almost do for a definition of being: ens dictur id quod finite participat esse; but of esse itself, there is no definition. We know of it only that “to be” is the very essence of God. (The Spirit of Thomism [1964], pp. 79, 81-82)

And lest anyone think that the above represents an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Angelic Doctor, I reference the post-modernist French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion, who provocatively refers to the God of Aquinas as “God without Being”:

Even when he thinks God as esse, Saint Thomas nevertheless does not chain God either to Being or to metaphysics.

He does not chain God to Being because the divine esse immeasurably surpasses (and hardly maintains an analogia with) the ens commune of creatures, which are characterized by the real distinction between esse and their essence, whereas God, and He alone absolutely merges essence with esse: God is expressed as esse, but this esse is expressed only of God, not of the being of metaphysics. In this sense, Being does not erect an idol before God, but saves his distance.

Saint Thomas doesn’t chain God to metaphysics either, since he explicitly stresses that ‘res divinae non tractantur a philosophis, nisi prout sun rerum omnium principia’: divine things do not belong to metaphysics as one of its objects; rather, they only intervene in metaphysics indirectly in the cpacity of principles for its objects, ‘non tanquam subjectum scientiae, sed tanquam, principia subjecti.’ Between metaphysics (with its domain, common Being) and God, the relation, even and especially for Saint Thomas, has to do not with inclusion but with subordination: God, as principle, subjugates the subjects of philosophy to himself. Consequently, since the subjects of philosophy belong to Being, we must go so far as to conclude that their cause, God, also causes Being itself: “Deus est causa universalis totius esse.’ But if God causes Being, wouldn’t we have to admit that for Saint Thomas himself, God can be expressed without Being? (God Without Being [1991], pp. xxiii-xxiv)

Given Aquinas’s construal of God as infinite act-of-being, we can readily understand why he insists that the divine being is simple. As sheer esse God is the actuality of existence and the totality of all perfections. The assertion of divine simpleness is thus a way of negatively distinguishing divinity from creatures; it is a way of stating God’s uniqueness. All creatures are composite in one way or another. Even angels are metaphysically composite: they need not have been; their essence is distinct from their existence. David C. Burrell describes the Thomistic assertion of divine simpleness as a “formal feature of divinity.” It is not an attribute of God but rather the manner in which various properties are predicated of God (Knowing the Unknowable God, [p. 46]). Burrell elaborates:

Aquinas’ elaboration of divine simpleness replaced a distinction which Avicenna had drawn across the field of being (what is) between that which is necessary in itself and that which is possible in itself (and made necessary–in another sense–by another). What is ‘necessary in itself’ is so because it exists ‘by its essence’ (bi-thatihi). Aware as he was of the many senses of the term ‘necessary’, Aquinas eschewed using that term as the primary one distinguishing God from all that is not God, preferring to articulate Avicenna’s distinction in terms borrowed from him as well: essence and existence (esse). What gives divinity the necessity peculiar to it is the formal fact that God’s nature is nothing other than its existence: to be divine is (simply) to-be. That is what simpleness means for Aquinas, at any rate, who uses it principally and essentially (primo et per se) of God alone (ST, Ia,3,7). (David C. Burrell, “Distinguishing God from the World,” in Language, Meaning and God, ed. Brian Davies [1987], pp. 78-79)

Absolute divine simplicity, therefore, must be interpreted in terms of its intent and function–the distinguishing of deity and the world. “The affirmation of God’s simpleness, then,” Burrell concludes, “is not an ordinary statement about God, so much as an assertion showing where ‘the distinction’ is to be drawn” (Unknowable God, p. 49).

Do Eastern Orthodox theologians really have substantive, church-dividing problems with this understanding of deity? Perhaps they have criticisms of it–so do many Catholic and Protestant theologians–but do they really believe that Augustine and Aquinas are speaking of a different God than the God worshipped and adored in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom? Is their disagreement at the level of theologoumenon or of dogma?

Given that Saint Thomas Aquinas is recognized as the most important of the medieval schoolmen and given his influence within Western theological reflection over the past eight hundred years, there are sound and compelling reasons to contest Perry’s claim that Western Christianity has subsumed deity into the metaphysics of the world. Aquinas’s starting point is the God of Moses, the God who is pure Act and the transcendent source of all that he has freely chosen to make and preserve. And it is precisely because God is transcendent that Aquinas interpreted the divine being as simple. God is simple, because he is not a creature; God is simple, because he is the one God.

But what about Perry’s argument that absolute divine simplicity logically entails the denial of divine freedom? Perry has formulated his argument as a hypothetical syllogism, to which Phil Blosser has responded in his article On Divine Simplicity. Perry and Daniel Jones have offered rejoinders on their website Divine Energies. I lack the competence to adjudicate the dispute, though as indicated in my first article, I am skeptical that Perry has identified a fatal flaw that cannot ultimately be resolved. Yet what if Perry is right? What if absolute divine simplicity logically entails the proposition that God created the world by metaphysical necessity? The proposition would be immediately recognized by the Church as a denial of the Christian God! Divine revelation controls intellectual speculation. The ineffable deity cannot be captured by human concepts and words. Our theological systems always fall short of the divine realities they seek to express. The systematic reflections of theologians–even theologians as great as Gregory Nyssen, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas–enjoy a limited authority and are always subject to the dogmas of the Church. If the scholastic understanding of God should ultimately prove to be incompatible with the gospel, so much the worse for the scholastic understanding of God. The theologians will then have to go back to their intellectual drawing boards and re-think their metaphysics. But the Church will continue to teach the apostolic and catholic faith. She will continue to proclaim the gospel of Christ Jesus. The faith of the Church is not constrained by the fallible theological systems of her theologians.

I suggest that Perry is taking St Augustine & Company far too seriously and far too logically. The great theologians know that the mysteries of which they dare to speak are mysteries that elude their intellectual grasp. They know that their speculations are provisional and thus always open to revision and correction in light of the deep knowledge of the Church. Was it not the Bishop of Hippo who concluded his De Trinitate with the words “O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Thine, may they acknowledge who are Thine; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by Thee and by those who are Thine”?

8 April 2005


The force of Perry Robinson’s argument ultimately depends on his claim that the Catholic Church is irreversibly committed to the scholastic construal of deity and absolute divine simplicity. At face value this would seem to be the case. I earlier cited the Vatican Definition in my first article, which explicitly states that God is “one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance.” This definition confirms the dogmatic teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215:

We firmly believe and openly confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immense, omnipotent, unchangeable, incomprehensible, and ineffable, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; three Persons indeed but one essense, substance, or nature absolutely simple; the Father (proceeding) from no one, but the Son from the Father only, and the Holy Ghost equally from both, always without beginning and end.

Ludwig Ott summarizes: “The 4th Lateran Council and the Vatican Council teach that God is an absolutely simple substance or nature (substantia seu natura simplex omnino). The expression simplex omnino asserts that with regard to any kind of composition, whether physical or metaphysical, is out of the question…. God is an absolutely simple spirit, that is, in God there is no composition of any kind, of substance or accidents, of essence and existence, of nature and person, of power and activity, of passivity and activity, of genus and specific difference” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th ed [1960], pp. 31-32). Case closed? Hardly.

The first thing to ask about a dogma is, What error was the Church seeking to exclude? What was the intent of the dogma? In what ways did the Church intend to norm theological discourse? The positive statements of a dogmatic teaching should first be interpreted as a defence against the condemned error and not necessarily as the only way to speak of the mystery being defended. It may well be that the positive statement is the only possible alternative to the condemned dogma–e.g., Jesus is divine and not a creature–but such is not always the case. Hence we must distinguish between the formal teaching of a dogma and that which is presupposed but not dogmatically affirmed. John Henry Newman particularly appreciated the protective function of dogma:

Doctrinal statements on these high subjects are negative rather than positive; intended to forbid speculations, which are sure to spring up in the human mind, and to anticipate its attempts at systematic views by showing the ultimate abyss at which all rightly conducted inquiries arrive, not to tell us anything definite and real, which we did not know before, or which is beyond the faith of the most unlearned.

Dogma, in other words, seeks to protect the mystery of God from excessive rationalization. It asserts the boundaries of speculation and directs our cogitations upon the deposit of faith. Dogma verbalizes the grammatical rules of Christian speech. Newman was thus skeptical of exhaustive systematic presentations of the Christian faith:

It may seem a contradiction in terms to call Revelation a Mystery; but is not the book of the Revelation of St. John as great a mystery from beginning to end as the most abstruse doctrine the mind ever imagined? yet it is even called a Revelation. How is this? The answer is simple. No revelation can be complete and systematic, from the weakness of the human intellect; so far as it is not such, it is mysterious. When nothing is revealed, nothing is known, and there is nothing to contemplate or marvel at; but when something is revealed, and only something, for all cannot be, there are forthwith difficulties and perplexities. A Revelation is religious doctrine viewed on its illuminated side; a Mystery is the selfsame doctrine viewed on the side unilluminated. Thus Religious Truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, with forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines, and isolated masses. Revelation, in this way of considering it, is not a revealed system, but consists of a number of detached and incomplete truths belonging to a vast system unrevealed, of doctrines and injunctions mysteriously connected together; that is, connected by unknown media, and bearing upon unknown portions of the system.

Of course, this was Newman speaking during his Anglican days, yet this dogmatic modesty has become characteristic of Catholicism over the past fifty years, as Catholic theologians and Magisterium have come to more deeply appreciate the historicity and eschatological openness of dogmatic proclamations (see, e.g., Mysterium Ecclesiae).

A magisterial document must be carefully analyzed to distinguish the dogmatic affirmation and the supporting statements. In his book The Survival of Dogma (1973), Avery Cardinal Dulles states: “In documents of the Church any skilled theologian must know how to distinguish between what the Church was intending to teach, and the statements introduced merely for the sake of clarification, persuasion, or edification” (p. 180). Not every assertion in a given magisterial document enjoys equal authority. Dulles commends the following hermeneutical principles of interpretation:

(1) In the interpretation of doctrinal statements, heed should be paid to variations in literary conventions.

(2) An antiquated world view, presupposed but not formally taught in an earlier doctrinal formulation, should not be imposed as binding doctrine.

(3) Technical terms should be interpreted in terms of the systematic framework presupposed by those who used them.

(4) In the interpretation of biblical and theological terms, cognizance should be taken of connotation as well as denotation.

(5) No doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.

(6) In Holy Scripture and in authoritative doctrinal statements, one should be alert for signs of social pathology and ideology.

In other words, dogmatic pronouncements need to be interpreted, which is precisely why Catholics believe that God continues to guide his Church by the Holy Spirit through a living magisterial voice.

I do not have available to me a historical discussion of the Fourth Lateran and First Vatican Councils. It appears that Lateran IV was responding to the Trinitarian speculations of Joachim of Fiore. Evidently the Lateran bishops believed that Joachim’s views threatened the divine unity. Hence its assertion of divine simplicity: The divine being is one; it cannot be divided into parts, physical or metaphysical. At this point of my ignorance, I do not see why the dogma need be made to say any more than this. With regard to Vatican I, Michael Schmaus suggests that the conciliar affirmation of creatio ex nihilo, with its attendant affirmation of divine simplicity, was composed to address a growing pantheism and materialism. The two conciliar definitions, therefore, appear to be quite compatible with ecumenical teaching on divine simplicity. Certainly the council fathers did not understand themselves as anathematizing the pre-scholastic views of St Basil, St Maximus, and St. John Damascene. As I pointed out in my preceding article, the fundamental purpose of the doctrine of divine simplicity is to distinguish deity from creatures. Perry himself acknowledges that the assertion of divine simplicity has been characteristic of Christian theology from theological day one. What he objects to, though, is its particular formulation within the framework of scholastic theology. But does the Lateran/Vatican dogma impose the specific formulation to which he objects? Was divine simplicity even an issue at the time of the two councils? As we have seen, the purpose of the simplicity doctine is to distinguish deity from creatures. It should be noted that Western theologians are also re-thinking what it means for God to be eternal and impassible. And as with divine simplicity, the test for all such reformulations must be faithfulness to the Christian distinction.

Contemporary Catholic philosophers and theologians certainly believe they enjoy a great deal of freedom on the question of divine simplicity. They do not believe they are enslaved to the views of St. Thomas, for example. Scholasticism ceased long ago to be the dominant theological approach within Catholicism. There is something odd about an outsider to Catholicism, which Perry and I both are, declaring what Catholics must dogmatically believe about divine simplicity when the Catholic Magisterium clearly allows a great deal of latitude on this point. Or to put it in another way, if the Catholic Church refrains from anathematizing the theology of Palamas–and as several people have already pointed out on this blog, Palamism is vigorously advanced by Byzantine Catholics–then that can only mean that the Lateran and Vatican dogmas are not properly interpreted as excluding the Palamite proposal. The following piece of wisdom from Vatican II seems particularly apt for our discussion:

In the study of revelation East and West have followed different methods, and have developed differently their understanding and confession of God’s truth. It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.

Here is the critical weakness of Perry’s argument: He reads Catholic dogma too woodenly, too narrowly, and dare I say, too dogmatically. Two points in particular need to be understood about Catholicism and dogma:

First, the Catholic doctrine of dogmatic infallibility is really quite modest. It does not assert that a particular dogmatic formulation is the best way to formulate a particular doctrine or the only way to formulate the doctrine. It only asserts that a genuine dogmatic formulation is infallible, i.e., without error, and thus does not irretrievably commit the Church to serious blunder. There is an important difference between saying that a proposition is true and saying that it is not false. Because a dogma is without error, the Church is entitled to command Christians to embrace the dogma, and Christians are entitled to believe that they may fully assent to this doctrine in the confidence that the dogma ultimately directs them to, and not away from, the truth of Christ. A dogma may be depended upon. It will not lead one ultimately astray. This does not mean that the dogma fully or even adequately states the mystery that the dogma seeks to express. It does not mean that the Church was wise to define the dogma at the time that it did. It does not even mean that it is not a bad dogma. It only means that, given the philosophical and theological options available at the time, given the theological understandings that the bishops then enjoyed, given the political necessities, the dogma was the least worst formulation that could be made. It may not be the best way of stating the mystery in human language; but it does not err; it does not positively express a falsehood.

Second, contemporary Catholic theologians are very much aware of the historical conditionedness of dogmatic formulations and of the need to reformulate dogma within different worldviews and philosophical conceptualities. Cardinal Dulles writes:

In view of the transcendence of the content of faith, one may properly hesitate to employ expressions such as “revealed doctrines,” although such expressions appear in some church documents (e.g., DS 3803, defining the Immaculate Conception). It must be recognized that the categories used in ecclesiastical definitions are human and that the definitions therefore fall short of adequately expressing the content of revelation itself. Dogmas must be seen as human formulations of the Word of God, formulations not undialectically identified with the revelation they transmit. Thus it is possible that one and the same faith may be expressed in formulas that stand in tension with one another and, indeed, that seem contradictorily opposed. Hence the fact that some seem to be contradicting a definition of faith does not necessarily mean that they have “made shipwrecks of the faith,” as the expression has it (cf. DS 2804). One must explore very carefully what they mean by their statements and see whether they are at variance with the mystery of revelation itself. (Avery Dulles, A Church to Believe In [1982], p. 143)

Or as Richard John Neuhaus puts it, “The Church’s teaching lives forward.”

A dogmatic statement is formulated within a particular historical context in response to a heretical interpretation of the catholic faith. The Church definitively responds with the theological, philosophical, and linguistic resources available to it at the time. Sometimes it responds brilliantly, as it did in the fourth century with the assertion of the homoousion. And sometimes it responds not so brilliantly. Some see the Tridentine definition on grace and justification in such a light. Dogmatic statements are thus always open to refinement in light of deeper appropriation of the revelation of Christ and the apostolic tradition. Moreover, as history moves on, as culture, language, and philosophical categories change, as scientific and historical knowledge expands, as new questions are put to the catholic faith, dogmas may also need to be reformulated. We must then seek to say the “same thing,” insofar as this is possible, in different words and concepts.

It is a fact of Western theology that most theologians have ceased to think deity through the categories of scholasticism. I do not offer judgment upon this; I simply register the fact. What does this mean for Perry’s argument, therefore? It’s hard to say, but I suspect that most Western theologians would refuse to debate Perry on the terms he has set. This is certainly true for the three Protestant theologians I know best–Thomas Torrance, Robert Jenson, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I imagine one could easily find three Catholic theologians to match them. Catherine LaCugna immediately comes to mind. In the last thirty years or so, we have witnessed a remarkable renewal in Western reflection on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Augustinian/Thomistic model of the Trinity no longer reigns supreme and no longer goes unchallenged. At a time when Catholic scholars are mining the theologies of the Eastern Fathers and engaging in creative reformulation of the Trinitarian dogma and the nature of the divine being, Perry’s argument against absolute divine simplicity seems almost quaint. By all means let us argue the matter, but I do not think many will judge this to be a church-dividing issue.

10 April 2005


Perry Robinson poses a dogmatic conflict between the scholastic understanding of divine simplicity and the Palamite understanding of divine complexity, i.e., an ontological distinction within the Godhead between his essence and his energies, and offers this conflict as a decisive reason for an Episcopalian to become Eastern Orthodox. But not only has the Catholic Church never dogmatically imposed a scholastic understanding of God upon the Church, it has never dogmatically rejected the Palamite understanding. The Western theologians at the Council of Florence, for example, may well have thought the Palamite understanding of God to be silly, nonsensical, and flat-out wrong; but Palamism was not judged to be church-dividing. This doctrinal condition continues to this day. One can be a full-fledged, card-carrying Catholic and espouse the Palamite distinction between the divine substance and the divine energies of God (see, e.g., George Maloney’s A Theology of “Uncreated Energies”). As a result, Thomists, Franciscans, Palamites, Rahnerians, and a host of other theological schools worship and pray together in the one communion of the Catholic Church. This fact alone conclusively refutes Perry’s contention that he has provided a knock-down argument on behalf of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Catholic Church simply refuses to dogmatically identify itself as Western. The Catholic Church is the Church of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure–and even Gregory Palamas.

Yet this does not mean that serious theological questions cannot be raised about Palamism. In fact, a vigorous debate about Palamism has been conducted by various theologians over the past century. Unfortunately, this debate is pretty much inaccessible to nonspecialists (moi included). A couple of observations based on my limited readings:

First, it is debatable whether Palamas in fact taught that the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies enjoys ontological status within the deity. At least one scholar, A. N. Williams, contends that this distinction for Palamas is merely notional (The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas [1999], pp. 137ff). Palamas, suggests Williams, was not intending to add to the received teaching of the doctrine of God but was seeking to explicate this teaching to clearly allow for that which the Church had always taught, viz., the deification of human beings in Christ through the Spirit. Palamas on several occasions reiterated that the distinction between essence and energies in no way compromises the simplicity of God. Williams also cites several statements by Palamas that seems to suggest that the distinction is conceptual rather than real. For example: “God’s energies in no way divide His nature into two parts–knowable and unknowable–but signify two different modes of the divine existence, in the essence and outside of the essence.” Williams acknowledges that hers is a minority position among Palamas interpreters, but it’s important to note that the question is open. I recently spoke to one Orthodox scholar on the telephone about Palamas precisely on this question. He stated that though Palamas was obviously a brilliant mystical theologian, he was not a rigorous and consistent philosophical thinker and therefore should probably not be held to exacting scholastic standards of logic.

Second, assuming that the majority interpretation is correct and that Palamas did in fact assert a real distinction in God between his essence and his energies, one can seriously question whether Palamas’s views represent an authentic development of the earlier tradition. Gregory may well have thought that he was only reiterating the views of the Fathers; but it is doubtful that either Athanasius or the Cappadocians conceived an ontological distinction between the essence and energies of God. Thus Anna Williams:

Orthodox writers attempting to establish the distinction’s patristic pedigree appeal to two sorts of evidence: reference to divine energy and Basil’s Letter 234. We did not, in the patristic survey, note usages of energeia because it does not emerge strongly from patristic accounts of deification, a point in favor of the Western view of the distinction. The term is not absent, however, from patristic discourse about divine activity; the Orthodox correctly point to its use early in the patristic period. The problem lies in the fact that these usages suggest little, if anything, more than that the Fathers speak of God’s activity, not only as action proper but as a power that is a divine attribute. Apart from Basil’s letter, there is nothing to suggest that this energy exists in some sort of symbiotic or contrastive relationship to divine essence. Use of energeia, therefore, does not in itself authenticate a patristic form of the essence-energies distinction. The exception, as we have noted, is Basil’s Letter 234. There, however, we find a mention so brief, so fleeting, and in a context so occasional, that it seems highly questionable to propose this text as the basis of a major doctrine. (p. 164)

This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that Gregory is guilty of theological innovation, if the ousia/energeia distinction is conceived as nominal or conceptual. However, Williams continues, “those who insist on an ontological distinction will encounter greater difficulty in showing its patristic pedigree” (p. 164). A great number of scholars would agree with this assessment, including, for example, Robert Wilken, with whom I spoke on the telephone on this matter a few months ago. Is the Palamite distinction truly to be found in the Cappadocians or is it being read back into their works?

It is appropriate at this point to note Thomas F. Torrance’s interpretation of St Athanasius’s understanding of the being and energies of God:

In contast, especially to the Aristotelian view of God who is characterised by an “activity of immobility” and who moves the world only as “the object of the world’s desire,” the Athanasian view of God was one in which activity and movement were regarded as intrinsic to his very being as God (enousios energeia). God is never without his activity (energeia), for his activity and his being are essentially and eternally one. The act of God is not one thing, and his being another, for they coinhere mutually and indivisibly in one another. Hence far from God being inactive in his inner being, it belongs to the essential and eternal nature of his being to move and energize and act…. Thus the Nicene theologians thought of Jesus Christ as one with God the Father in act as well as in being, for he incarnated the active presence of God himself in human history, and constituted in all he was and did the free outgoing movement of the divine being in condescension and love toward mankind.

God’s being is essentially dynamic, for his being and his activity inhere in one another. His being is his act-in-his-being and his act is his being-in-his-act. (Trinitarian Faith [1988], pp. 73-74, 131)

Or as Jeffrey Finch has recently stated in his dissertion Sanctity as Participation in the Divine Nature According to the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Considered in the Light of Palamism (2002), Athanasius believed that “God’s divinity is identical to His essence and, moreover, that it is communicable, accessible, and knowable through His essential operations, while remaining incomprehensible and infinitely transcendent” (p. 371).

Given Torrance’s appreciation of Athanasius’s vision of the coinherence of being and act in God, he is less than sympathetic with what he describes as the Cappadocian redefinition of ousia as a generic concept. This redefinition “meant that it would be difficult if not impossible for theology to move from the self-revelation of God in his evangelical acts to what he is inherently in himself. If God’s Word and act are not inherent in his being or ousia, as Athanasius insisted, then we cannot relate what God is toward us in his saving relation and activity to what he is in himself, or vice versa” (p. 246). It is this evangelical concern that God has truly communicated himself to humanity in Jesus Christ that leads Torrance to question the Basilean/Palamite distinction, a distinction, Torrance says, “which had the effect of restricting knowledge of God to his divine energies, and ruling out any real access to God in the intrinsic relations of his eternal triune being” (p. 336).

In her comparative evaluation of Cappadocian theology and Palamism, church historian Dorothea Wendebourg is even more harsh in her judgment of Palamas:

Here we have the fundamental difference between Palamas’s system and the classical patristic doctrine of the Trinity, a difference that means nothing less than the complete defeat of trinitarian theology. The distinction in God, which in the eyes of the fourth century allowed men to understand his action and revelation in the world as action and revelation of his innermost, essential being, according to Palamas is raised above any connection with the world and history, closed up in itself. What we have contact with is God himself but a secondary reality in his being. (“From the Cappadocian Fathers to Gregory Palamas: The Defeat of Trinitarian Theology,” Studia Patristica 14 [1982]: 196-197)

Two contemporary systematic theologians, both of whom have been profoundly influenced by the Cappadocians in their Trinitarian reflections, have offered harsh criticism of the Palamite development. Catherine LaCugna, for example, bluntly states that Gregory has misunderstood the Cappadocian Fathers:

The heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is the assertion that the ousia of God exists trihypostatically. The ontology set up by the Cappadocians should have prevented Gregory from postulating a superessential essence. For the Cappadocians, God’s ousia exists as Father, Son, Spirit. The three persons do not have a common ousia; they are the divine ousia…. Further, as Rowan Williams points out, the doctrine of the Trinity means the identification of ousia with energeia. The divine ousia, even though unknowable in itself, cannot be elevated beyond the divine persons. But in Gregory’s theology, since the divine hypostases belong to the supraessential, imparticipable essence of God, and since the energies, not the divine persons, enter into communion with the creature, Palamism widens the gap between theologia and oikonomia by postulating a divine realm comprised of essence and persons not directly accessible to the creature. Even though the energies are “enhypostasized”–the energies express what the persons are–the three divine persons are a step removed from the economy of salvation. (Catherine LaCugna, God For Us [1991], pp. 192-193)

Robert W. Jenson likewise argues that the Palamite distinction is not to be found in Gregory of Nyssa and that it undermines the whole point of the Trinitarian doctrine:

According to Gregory of Nyssa, when we speak of God we may think first of the three identities, each of whom is God. Then there is the life among them, the complex of their “energies,” which, according to Nyssa, is the proper referent of phrases such as “the one God.” And, finally, there is the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such, the character by exemplification of which someone is called God; in Gregory’s theology, this character is infinity. The divine ousia is not an infinite something or infinity as a something, but the infinity of the one God, that is, of the identities’ mutual life.

For the Cappdocians, these distinctions are flexible, and their use of them does not suggest that the ousia is a something other than the divine life. In Palamas, things are more bluntly sorted out: “There are then three in God: ousia, energy, and the triune hypostases….” Palamas posits the distinction to differentiate God as he can be participated in from God as he remains immune to this: “Since … according to his ousia God cannot be participated in at all, and since union according to hypostasis is reserved to the divine-human Word, it remains that others … united with God are united according to energy.”

In Palamas’s use, the ousia is not the deity of the identities and their mutual energies but has become “God himself,” the chief referent of discourse about “the one God.” This entity “cannot be participated in at all” because it “neither becomes nor suffers …”–theology has here concoted yet a new lump for the familiar old leaven to hide and work in. This entity is immune even to the life of the creature who is hypostatically one with the Son; also the events told by the gospel narrative do not touch it. Here is disaster: it is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself is a static essence. Ironically enough, Orthodoxy is driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine: God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his activities. (Systematic Theology [1997], I:152-153)

Has God in fact truly communicated himself to mankind in Jesus Christ and incorporated us through him into his Triune life? Torrance, Wendebourg, LaCugna, and Jenson are concerned that Palamas’s construal of the relationship between the divine ousia and divine energies divorces humanity from true knowledge and experience of God in his inner Trinitarian reality. This isn’t a matter, for them, of metaphysical speculation but of soteriology. Given that East and West are equally committed to our salvation and deification in Christ, is it not proper for us to question whether St Gregory’s speculations adequately express the divine mystery?

Finally, questions can be raised about the intelligibility and coherence of Palamas’s Trinitarian reflections. If the Western interpretation of deity has its problems, so does the Eastern interpretation. In his essay “The Philosophical Structures of Palamism” (Eastern Churches Review 9 [1977]: 27-44), Rowan Williams (yes, that Rowan Williams who did his doctoral thesis on Vladimir Lossky; yes, that Rowan Williams who now sits on the Episcopal chair in Canterbury), offers some incisive criticism of the Palamite system. After summarizing Palamas on the distinction between ousia and energeia, Williams asks, “Now what is wrong with all this? Most fundamentally, an enormous confusion in terminology, and a surprising naivete in what may be called philosophical imagination. At least two (probably more) models of ousia are being employed, without any sense of their dubious compatibility, or any attempt at saying what exactly this term is supposed to be doing in the argument” (p. 30). Williams then concludes:

If the Orthodox theologian can accept Palamism as a novel metaphysical experiment in Byzantine theology, rather than the crystallization of universally accepted beliefs going back to the Age of the Councils, he may, in the long run, be better able to appreciate its real value and interest in its historical setting. If Palamas is concerned to defend an excessively realist view of theosis, we must ask why, what was he determined to rule out; and this may lead us in turn to ask whether Western notions of the knowledge of God have not, indeed, been very excessively nominalist, extrinsic and conceptual, giving too small a place to what which is fundamental to the revelation of God in Jesus, his nature as self-gift, kenotic compassion and identification with the affliction of his world. This is a theological question of enormous contemporary (and perennial) importance; but it is not to be resolved by the resuscitation of a piece of dubious scholasticism. Let us be grateful to Palamas for witnessing to his own vision of God as self-sharing love; and let us at least do him the courtesy of not canonizing the confusions of its expression. (p. 44)

I am sure that a good Orthodox theologian can offer substantive rejoinders to all of the above (see, for example, David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West [2004]). I have presented the above arguments and citations, not to disprove the Byzantine understanding of God, but simply to demonstrate its controversiality. And it is because of this controversiality that Perry’s critique of absolute divine simplicity fails, and must fail, as a decisive consideration for conversion to Orthodoxy. These concerns were no doubt decisive for Perry personally; but how can they be decisive for the average Episcopalian? These are concerns that can only be addressed adequately by specialists, and for every authority cited, another authority can be invoked to support the opposing point of view.

The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle (Chesterton).

For what it’s worth, my tentative assessment is that the critics are probably right that Palamas’s formulations go far beyond the Cappadocians. It really looks to me that Gregory is reading the ontological distinction back into the Fathers. I am by no means unsympathetic with the intent of Gregory’s work, though I am less sympathetic with Lossky, Romanides and their fellow neo-Palamites who are polemically advancing the Palamite distinction to justify continued separation from the Catholic Church. Palamas is trying to assert the reality of our divinization in Christ to the Trinitarian life of God and demonstrate how it is possible for us to be incorporated into the divine life of the Holy Trinity without losing our creaturehood. But is the being/energies distinction, interpreted as a real, ontological distinction, necessary to express this soteriological concern? Irenaeus, Clement, Athanasius, Augustine, and Thomas did not think so. Hence I question the wisdom of Orthodoxy’s apparent dogmatization of this distinction. It appears to me that she has elevated a piece of philosophical speculation to a dogmatic level that cannot be justified. Palamism needs to remain in creative conversation, not only with Athanasius and the Cappadocians, but also with Augustine and Aquinas.

I am reminded of correspondence between J. H. Newman and a Miss Rowe. Miss Rowe had received a letter from a Mr. Huntingford, arguing for the catholicity of the Church of England on historical grounds. Rowe passed on this letter to Newman, who commented: “Mr. Huntingford goes into historical questions, I could go into them also–and I should just say the reverse to what he says–but how would you be the better? How would you be qualified to judge between us? Do you think historical knowledge [and perhaps we could also include here specialized theological and philosophical knowledge] is the way in which it is intended that the little ones of Christ are to learn the way of salvation? Surely He intended for the multitudes who were astray, an easier road to the Truth?

11 April 2005

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  1. […] Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I then put my thoughts down in a series of blog articles dedicated to Absolute Divine Simplicity and promptly forgot everything I had […]

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