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Simplicity of God


The divine attribute that excludes from God's being all composition, whether physical, metaphysical, accidental, or merely logical. The Catholic Church, whose tradition finds expression in the Scriptures, in the witness of the Fathers, in the liturgy, and in the exercise of her teaching prerogative, has ever maintained that the being of God is, in the deepest sense of the term, simple. This article explains the Church's teaching in two stages: the first is devoted to establishing the fact of God's simplicity, the second to exploring theologically its significant meaning. Procedure on this latter point relies largely upon philosophical considerations (appropriated in a ministerial function by theology) and involves determining the nature of simplicity, then arguing that God is intrinsically simple, and finally establishing the consequential truth that God cannot enter into the composition with the world.

Fact of Simplicity. Yahweh's revelation of Himself to the Israelites as "Who Is" focuses upon His oneness and His "otherness." The latter attribute is presented largely in terms of God's holiness (agios ), which renders Him inaccessible and separate from the world. In this it is strongly suggested that God is spirit and is incorporeal, though such concepts are not sufficiently clear to include explicitly the concept of simplicity. Indeed, the Old Testament abounds with corporeal metaphors employed for the most part to establish beyond doubt the concrete actuality of God. On the other hand, God's command to Moses prohibiting graven images of Himself (Ex 20.4) can readily be seen as expressive of His immateriality. The New Testament expressly speaks of God as a "spirit" (Jn 4.24; 2 Cor 3.17), who "has not flesh and bone" (Lk 24.39) and is thus "invisible" (Jn 5.38; 6.46). He is not located and worship of Him does not depend upon place (Jn 4.2024). Further, He is His own truth and life (Jn 14.6) by way of a real identity and does not merely possess these.

If the concept of simplicity is not explicitly stated, the Fathers of the Church remedy this. Origen speaks of God's "perfect simplicity," which "excludes all addition and all intrinsic diversity" (Periarch. 1.1.6); Athanasius calls it "absolute simplicity which excludes every quality and every kind of composition properly so called" (Epist. ad Afros episcopos 8, Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 26:1043); Gregory of Nyssa sees the divine nature as so one and simple in itself that man cannot conceive of it (Contra Eunom. 12.2, Patrologia Graeca 45:1069, 1077, 1104). Much of the concern of the Fathers is directed to showing how neither the Incarnation of the Word nor the real distinction of the divine Persons is in any wise injurious to God's simplicity.

The liturgy for the Mass of Trinity Sunday refers to the Trinity as "a simple Unity." In due time, the teaching authority of the Church gave express formulation to this attribute of God, especially in the Councils of Toledo (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 566), Rheims (Enchiridion symbolorum 745), Lateran IV (Enchiridion symbolorum 800), and Vatican Ithe last council condemning, in particular, various forms of pantheism as implying composition between God and the world (Enchiridion symbolorum 3001, 302324).

Notion of Simplicity. Everything confronting man in experience admits of composition of some kind; thus one's procedure in arriving at the notion of simplicity is necessarily negatory. The concept itself signifies a negation of composition: a simple thing is something that lacks parts or really distinct elements. Simplicity likewise implies indivisibility, since only composites admit of division.

There is truth to the observation that in the created order the complex is more perfect than the simple, as man is more perfect than a stone. This, however, is a simplicity of imperfection or of lack of being. The simplicity of God is rather a simplicity of perfection; it consists in being all perfections, not distinctly, but by way of real identity.

Arguments for God's Simplicity. The demonstration of God's simplicity is effected by the successive elimination of all forms of compositions: first, real composition, either substantial (physical or metaphysical) or accidental; and second, rational or logical composition.

Physical Simplicity. The most obvious composition is that proper to bodies and radicated in matter as necessarily subject to extension. Three characteristics are verifiable of all corporeal substance: mobility, quantitative divisibility, and (in terms of mere corporeity as such) inanimation. For, (1) no body as such can be the cause of its own motion, since what is only capable of motion must receive its motion extrinsically; (2) every body as extended must admit of the possibility of division; and (3) mere corporeity cannot be explanatory of life, else every body would necessarily be animate.

Each of these characteristics of body is, however, incompatible with the authentic concept of Godas unmoved mover, as totally actual, as pure perfection. God is not receptive of motion, not passive to division, not lifeless but living. These nominal definitions of God are not presupposed, moreover, but are arrived at by a true deductive process originating with external phenomena. They are conclusions to the classical "five ways" whereby Saint Thomas establishes God's existence (see god, proofs for the existence of). The human intellect then is logically constrained to deny body of God, to conceive Him as transcending the structure necessary to the very notion of body. The metaphors of Sacred Scripture must therefore be understood as metaphors, and not as implying that God is truly possessed of a body.

The foregoing argument does not merely remove from God material composition of parts in space; it implicitly precludes any notion of God as a form-matter composite (see matter and form). For a material element in God would still imply potency; it would merely participate in the perfection of the form, and God would not be a pure agent cause, since matter is operative only in virtue of its form.

Metaphysical Simplicity. The denial of matter in God leads readily to the removal of another form of compositionthat between nature, or essence, and individual. God is His own nature by a real identity and cannot be thought of as a subject who has a common nature in which others may possibly share in individually distinct ways. Any nature involved in matter (as man's) is thereby necessarily subject to individuating determinations so that the individual is something over and above, and thus distinct from, the nature it shares in common with many (see individuation). The immateriality of God means that His essence is individuated of itself, and not in virtue of a composition with really distinct singularizing elements. God does not possess His Godhead (as a man does his humanity), He is that Godhead.

Profounder still is the identification in God of essence and existence (see essence and existence). God's "being-ness" is not to be thought of as the emergence, or "standing out" (ex-sistentia ) of a prior essence. This would necessarily contract His being to that of the finite order and make it univocal with creaturely existence. There is always and necessarily a real distinction between the essence (that which is) and the existence (the act of existing) of a creature; indeed in this does its very creatureliness consist. But such a distinction itself implies that the existence in question is a caused one, that it is an ultimate perfecting of the nature to which it accrues, and that the nature realizes its own being by way of a participation in pure, unreceived Being. But nothing in God is causedindeed there are no causes prior to Himself; His totalness of being is such that it admits of no further perfecting; and as absolutely first Being He cannot participate any being prior to Himself. God is thus the very act of being itself in its absolute purity. This is His very essence; His name is "He Who Is."

Accidental Composition. Catholic faith ascribes to God perfections without numberintelligence, will, power, justice, mercy, operation, the whole array of divine attributes. Their inclusion in Him is real and authentic. Yet these perfections are not to be conceived as really distinct qualities that are accidentally added to the divine being, enriching God, as it were, from without. Every finite essence is receptive not only of the substantial perfection of existence but also of multiple accidental qualifications that enjoy existence in the essence as its various modifications. Yet these accidents are necessarily posterior (in nature, if not in time) to the essence they modify and are caused either by an extrinsic agent or by the intrinsic principles of the essence whence they emanate, the latter in the case of properties. To have such accidental modifications is in direct opposition to God's primacy of being and to His being the uncaused cause of all.

A more ultimate reason for this impossibility lies in the recognition of God as pure subsistent Being. [see ase ity (aseitas); subsistence.] Speaking precisely, no essence as such admits of additions to itself; the very supposition of such intrinsic addition would mean the destruction of the essence in question and the origin of a new essence. To add a unit to the number five is to eliminate the number five and substitute a new mathematical essence, that of the number six. Accidents, then, do not reside in, and belong to, the essence; they are modifications of the individuals who possess the essence. Baldness happens not to humanity but to certain individual males. But God is not a subject having his nature and thus capable of receiving further accidental qualifications. Rather He is His intelligence, His will, His mercy, etc. Accidental composition is as repugnant to Him as substantial composition.

It follows from this that God cannot bear in Himself any real relation to the world, for a real relation is an accidental being. He is not a being among beings, subject to the inevitable and limiting complexus of interrelationships and dependencies. This is not to deny that God is really Creator, Provider, etc., but only to deny that such real causality implies any real intrinsic accidental mutation of the divine transcendence.

Logical Composition. So total is the divine simplicity that the human mind cannot (without falsifying its object) impose upon that simplicity a composition entirely of its own making. And any placing of God in logical categories proper to rational thought amounts to just such a composing. As long as there is some foundation in God Himself for so doing, the mind can and indeed must employ distinctions not really found in God. To compose generic and specific elements, however, in fashioning the very concept of God has no such justification. For one thing, a genus must be prior to what it contains, but God's primacy of being (not so much a primacy in time as in excellence) means that nothing can be prior to Him, either really or in meaning. Also if God were to be considered as in a genus, this would have to be that of "being." But, as Aristotle observes, being cannot be a genus since the difference of a genus must lie outside it and outside being there is only nothingness. Even more cogent, perhaps, is the necessity of distinguishing the quiddity from the existence of whatever is contained within a genusa distinction nowise allowable in God. Each species has the same generic quiddity as every other species of the same genus, but obviously must have its own distinct act of being. This is only to say that logical composition is dependent upon prior metaphysical composition. The impossibilities here cannot be avoided by saying that God belongs to a genus reductivelyi.e., not as contained therein but as an external principle thereoffor in such a case the principle cannot extend beyond the genus it principles, and God is much more than any category of being that might be excogitated.

Since definitions are arrived at by establishing the generic elements and then discerning the specific difference, it follows that there can be no proper definition of God. This, in its turn, accounts for the impossibility of an a priori demonstration of God's existence.

Extrinsic Simplicity. It is further impossible for God to enter into composition with other things. He cannot be in any fashion the formal principle of the world; even less plausibly can He be its material principle. The decisive reason for this is that a cause cannot be confused with its effect. Could God truly be composed with the world either He would become His own effect or the world would become its own causeall of which is a denial of the notion of God as first cause. It must be noted well that this is no denial of the possibility of union between God and creature. The incarnation is precisely a union with a created humanity, indeed a substantial union. Accidental unions are numberless and varied, occasioned by every exercise of divine causality and creaturely mutation. Union is a relation to God as a totally extrinsic agent or term. Composition, by contrast, renders God an intrinsic part of somethingpotency or act, matter or form, substance or accident. God is present to and in the universe, but He is nowise a part of it.

The transcendental theism of Christianity, then, is at a far remove from pantheism of whatever kindeither that which sees God becoming the world, as does Eastern religion, especially hinduism, and classical pantheism extending from parmenides and heraclitus down to B. spinoza, or that which sees the world becoming God, as does the materialistic pantheism of E. Haeckel or the idealistic pantheism of G. W. F. hegel (see the condemnations of Vatican Council I, H. Denzinger Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 302325). Equally inimical to Catholic faith is the more prevalent panenthe ism of such moderns as C. S. peirce, A. N. whitehead,W. james, M. Buber, A. Schweitzer, and P. Weiss, which represents God as including the world in His own actuality (see C. Hartshorne and W. L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God, Chicago 1953).

Ultimately, the Christian position rests upon a concept of God as the pure act of being, transcending His creation.

See Also: god, articles on

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 3, Eng. ed. v.2, Existence and Nature of God, ed. and tr. t. mcder mott (New York 1964); C. gent. 1.1727, tr. a. c. pegis, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, book 1 (New York 1955). r. garri gou-lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature, tr. b. rose, 2 v. (St. Louis 193436) v.2. e. mangenot et al., Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 4:9481300. k. jÜssen, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 3:74546.

[w. j. hill]

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