Simplicity and Communicatio

The doctrine of divine simplicity is a necessary description of God’s infinity. It states that all attributes of the divine nature are coextensive with that nature and indeed, they are the nature. There is nothing between the attributes and the nature. There is nothing that separates them, for that something would need to be other than divine in order to maintain the distinction. Since this is unthinkable- that is, since all the divine attributes are infinite and omni- well, omni-everything- the confession of simplicity is a proper conclusion of the via negativa.

This doctrine is very useful because it helps keep our dogmatic speech orderly and consistent. It forbids any talk of disharmony among the divine attributes, and it forbids giving primacy to any one of the attributes. It should likewise be applied in other loci of systematics to continue to preserve consistency and harmony.

My roommate recently pointed out that divine simplicity is particularly effective as a critique against the position, often espoused by Lutherans, that in the person of Christ there is a communication of attributes. This position argues that the divine gives some of its qualities to the human, and the human gives some of its qualities to the divine. This has long been criticized by Calvinists as a confusion of the natures, even tending towards Eutychianism, and I think the charge basically sticks. To go further, though, divine simplicity forbids the giving of some attributes, but not others because again, all of the attributes are equal with the essence. Therefore, it is simply not possible to affirm the communication of omnipresence, but not the communication of infinity. Ubiquity cannot be communicated without also communicating eternality, and this would be nothing more than to make the created the Creator.

And so we see how Christology affects Theology and how Theology affects Christology.

This entry was posted in christology, doctrine of God by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

10 thoughts on “Simplicity and Communicatio

  1. The problem with the Lutheran presentation of the communicatio idiomatum in my opinion is that it is a deviation from the patristic notion. The problem is not the idea of a communicatio idiomatum, for the Fathers and the Reformed have always confessed this (see 2nd Helvetic on the person of Christ), but rather the way it is formulated by Lutheran dogmaticians. The communicatio originally simply meant that whatever is attributed to either nature could be attributed to the entire person of Christ, for the natures are inseparably united in one person. It was not originally meant to attribute omnipresence to the flesh of Christ, which would in fact be a communicatio naturarum: something neither the Scriptures nor the Fathers ever seem to suggest, and which in fact would seem to be in opposition to the Chalcedonian definition.

  2. Steve,
    I think you are conflating attributions with properties. Attributions are in reference to the way we speak and think about God, but they are not properties. Simplicity re: Augustine requires more than coextension but identity since the former is too weak to exclude a distinction in God. In any case, it is obvious that some things true about God are not in fact even co-extensive, for God knows this that he does not will and therefore the coextension claim, let alone the identity claim can’t even be made.
    Moreover, I can’t think why one would think that distinction requires separation. There are lots of kids of distinctions that do not imply separation. Christ’s two natures are genuinely distinct, but not separate for example. It is only by thinking that distinction requires negation and hence opposition that the idea that distinction would amount to something other than God between them gets off the ground. In this way your thinking about God is indebted to Platonism rather than revelation. ADS is therefore not obviously the conclusion of the via negativa. In fact, you have the explanatory order backwards since simplicity is the basis for the via negativa among Latin theologians, Rome or Protestants, so the latter can’t be a means to defend the former.
    As for our language, the issue is primarily metaphysical and not linguistic so whatever linguistic benefits the idea has, this is irrelevant to its scriptural and philosophical standing. As yet I have yet to see any biblical basis for the idea whatsoever. In any case, I deny ADS but I fully and consistently affirm that there is no opposition in the divine powers, which is a good reason to think that ADS is simply a cognitive misfire.
    As for the Lutherans, if you read Chemnitz he goes a long way in refuting your line of reasoning. Chemnitz employs the language of the Fathers as a communication of energies but not of essence and this was affirmed by Chalcedon and the Chalcedonian Fathers. The problem is that Calvinists employ a Platonic conception of essence with no distinction of energy so that talking about the conference of one thing from an essence to another implies a confusion of essence. Moreover, it is impossible to do justice to the biblical data of God sharing his own glory with humanity, primarily in the divinization of the physical body of Christ on your gloss, unless you wish to make the divine glory a created effect. To participate in the activities of God doesn’t imply becoming deity by essence.

    As for Jonathan’s comment, he is historically mistaken and I’d recommend taking a look at the citation from Richard Muller on the matter here

  3. Is there a difference between an attribute and an attribution?

    If I should call them properties rather than attributes that is fine. I’d always thought the Lutherans called their position the communication of attributes.

    As for not allowing distinctions, I am referring to “real” (thingish) distinctions. This is in Muller, as is the defense of simplicity as a result of the via negativa. I’d think that the particular things willed, possible and actual, would be somewhat different from simply the “will,” and I’m not at all sure how I’d like to speak of that. Obviously God has different types of willing, and to begin to think about Him knowing things that do not exist gets pretty incomprehensible very quickly, however, I do not see how you can avoid a complex God without a confession of simplicity.

    It is also not true to say that Calvinists lack a category for divine energies. We translate the word, of course, but we still have it. We call it works or operations. Neo-Palamites try to use the term “energy” as if it is some weird new option that can be without essence, but as you might guess, I think that’s all nonsense. The divine essence is hyper-ousia, and Its works are as well.

    Zanchi and Vermigli are capable Reformed writers who invoke the fathers, and I think the reality is that the Fathers can tend to go either way. The Reformed are going to be closer to Leo, whilst the Lutherans are going to be closer to Cyril. I still do not see why the human nature of Christ would gain some properties but not all properties, and so I stand with the Reformed.

    Calvinists also believe that the divine essence can commune with the human in such a way as that it neither destroys it nor subsumes it. It is of a qualitatively different sort of essence, of course, and divine infinity is a good way to defend this, but it can nonetheless commune with, even indwell the human.

  4. Steve,

    No, there isn’t a difference between an attribute and an attribution, but I wished to make clear that an attribute has to do with predication. People often confuse the notion of property with attribute.
    If you think of them as properties it won’t be fine since for ADS, God has no properties since properties would imply a real distinction, which means separable composition. (See Christopher Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God, Cornell) The Lutherans use the scholastic term attribution in general but more specifically they employ the Greek energia to be more specific.

    Again, the via negativa can’t be defended by simplicity, since the via negativa is the product of simplicity. Our words derived from composite objects fail to denote a fully simple object. Simplicity has to be defended on its own grounds. It isn’t in Scripture, so why believe it as a Protestant?

    In Scholasticism, there are distinctions that are real, mental, modal, and formal, which are then further subdivided into positive and negative, extrinsic and intrinsic, etc. For there to be a real distinction two things would have to be potentially separable. ADS excludes any real distinctions in God. All distinctions are on our side of predication and real ones are simply ruled out of court.

    There can’t be a difference in God between potentialities and actualities since they are identical with the divine essence and God is fully actual on the Roman and Protestant scholastic view. God is not composed of potentiality and actuality, lest he cease to be the first mover. Again, different modes of willing are distinctions we make, but are not distinctions in God.

    Complexity and composition aren’t necessarily the same things. It depends on what, if any metaphysical content is poured into such terms. Since I don’t think God is pure actuality, that is, self subsisting being since God is not ad intra, being, composition is not a problem at all since God would have to be being for composition to even be applicable as a category.

    For the Reformed, are God’s operations identical with the divine essence? If so, how does that square with ADS? If not, are they deity or something created? Is there a third option between creator and creature? If the former, how does that square with ADS? If the latter, why call them divine at all? Lots of people prior to Lossky used the term “energy” and Lossky doesn’t use it to denote something that is separable from the essence. In fact, he explicitly denies this in a number of places. Palamas did too. Of course so did Maximus, Cyril and Gregory of Nyssa. Of course so did Plotinus and Proclus. The idea that the energies are freestanding from an essence is a typical misreading inherited from piss poor scholastic misreadings motivated by a desire to reduce Eastern theologians to stupidity or just really bad scholarship regarding ancient philosophy-take your pick. Usually it is inherited from Catholics polemical works, either medieval or modern, such as the case with Bavink and Jugie. This is why Hart’s claim that the essence/energies distinction implies nominalism and voluntarism is simply stupid. Anyone who had even read the Enneads (not to mention Palamas’ Capita or Maximus’ Ambigua ) at least would know better.

    Of course, Calvinists, along with the Latin tradition by and large deny that God is hyper ousia because they affirm that God is pure actuality. You can’t deny every kind of being with respect to God and then turn around and say that God’s being is pure actuality or self subsisting being, following the Thomists as Turretin does for example. The divine energies can’t be hyper-ousia for the simple reason that to be actual, to be an activity is to BE. That is what being is. Esse = energia.
    Ursinus and Vermigli are capable in their context, but they invoke the Fathers read through a more Augustinian and Scholastic (Scotistic) lens, as does Zwingli for example. Bucer is more Thomistic, but all of them use Augustine as their dominant lens to read the rest of the Fathers. And Augustine doesn’t have the same view of God as Maximus does. So unless you can point to something that shows how their view is correct or better, citing them does no perceivable work.
    As for not seeing why the humanity of Christ doesn’t participate in some divine powers, I can’t see how a confession of ignorance is sufficient to ground a stand anywhere. It would be a sufficient to justify not taking a stand anywhere at the moment. In any case, Leo was judged to be in line with Cyril, even though Leo’s mode of expression is clearly weaker. In any case, the Leonine doctrine doesn’t deny the deification of the humanity of Christ (in fact he affirms it in other writings), which the Reformed seemed to do.

    You’d have to be very specific about what you mean by infinity for this proposal to even be suggestive. Generally participation is a term that denotes a causal relation. An effect participates in the cause because of the power of the cause is preserved in the effect. But since the Reformed, like Rome, deny that God is the formal cause of creatures, due to ADS, talk of participation at best amounts to producing a created effect which resembles its cause. Just think about the Reformed thinking on progressive sanctification. Is God’s actual righteousness the same as mine, or is the righteousness that I possess either in sanctification or justification a merited and hence created thing? This is why all the chatter about “Union with Christ” among the Reformed nowadays is fairly vacuous upon examination.

    God could only be a qualitatively different essence if God had qualities or properties, but ADS rules that out. Indwelling and communion isn’t sufficient for participation and hence deification in the patristic and arguably biblical sense. Any good Adoptionist, Apollinarian and Nestorian could affirm as much, as they did quite happily. I don’t know how an essence communes. I thought that was properly said of persons and the divine essence isn’t a person. Here, I am inviting you to think more deeply about the matter.

  5. Gee, Perry, thanks for asserting that I am historically mistaken. I appreciate it.

    The citation from Muller aside, I disagree with your assertion. First, my basic point had to do with what we find in the Fathers, and that we don’t see them postulating a communication of the attribute of omnipresence to the flesh of Christ, which is something Muller does not touch on. Second, I think the citation you provide labors under the presupposition that the Reformed tradition is historically monolithic on the point being discussed. I don’t think it is quite that simple. Perhaps Muller doesn’t either, but it’s tough to tell from a one paragraph citation.

  6. Steven,

    Re: “The Reformed are going to be closer to Leo, whilst the Lutherans are going to be closer to Cyril.”

    I think you are on to something here, but I’d put a different spin on it (probably due to the influence of Schaff and Nevin on my thinking). If we’re going to use patristic categories for the Reformed and Lutheran schools, I’d label the Reformed Antiochene and the Lutherans Alexandrian, with Leo’s Tome, The 449 Symbol of Union, and the Chalcedonian Definition representing the catholic synthesis between these two seemingly antithetical Christological trajectories. I don’t believe there is anything in these three documents which both the Reformed and Lutheran schools could not rightly confess (as the moderate within the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools did in the fifith century), and I therefore hold out much hope for an eventual union between confessional Lutherans and confessional Reformed (of course, I recognize that this would necessitate a revision of Concord, deleting the anathemas against the Reformed… call me naive, but I actually think it could happen!).

  7. Jonathan,

    Don’t take it personally. Are you insulted that someone would imply that you made a mistake? As to the first point, explicitly they do not attribute omnipresence, but they do speak of omniscience and other things being made ours in the eschaton on the basis of the deification of the humanity of Christ. And they do explicitly speak even more often of the divine energies being had by the humanity of Christ. The whole issue though is the relation between nature and grace.

    Second as for Muller, I’d be a rather strange thing to show that Muller was guilty of such a simple mistake. I quoted a paragraph since the entire entry was too long. You could consult the book since it is in print and cheap. It is quite surprising that the whole “we’re not monolithic” line gets tossed out rather too easily when someone actually scores a hit on the Reformed tradition. It borders on being ad hoc. Surely Muller is denoting the dominant portion of the Reformed tradition over a long period of time, which of itself is problematic, even if there are exceptions, which would prove the rule.

    As for the contrast between Alexandria and Antioch, that dichotomy is a false one and is been dying in academia for a while now. Cyril wrote against Aleandrians who where more literalists as well as Origenists for example. Secondly some of the most staunch monophysites like Severus were from Antioch. On the other hand John Chrysostom was in that sphere of influence and betrays no supposedly typical Antiochian thought forms. The entire supposed contrast between “schools” of Antioch and Alexandria is a construct of Harknack’s old Hellenization thesis. The Nestorians and the Monophysites fundamentally agree on the nature of a hypostasis as a concrete substance, they just take that agreement in two different directions.

  8. Perry,

    1. I’m not insulted. I think you give yourself too much credit. 😉

    2. I am aware of the recent academic challenge to the Antioch/Alexandria dichotomy, and was not wanting to draw such a stark contrast between all theologians of either region as you are assuming me to have made. Nevertheless, the terms may be used, even while remaining open to the charge of being a bit simplistic, to label divergent patristic Christological tendencies. I never said anything like “everyone who lived in Antioch thought this way, while everyone who lived in Alexandria thought this way.” I would have thought I’d get the benefit of the doubt to not have been implying such a thing, but I suppose I’d then be mistaken.

  9. Perry,

    Please excuse my sparse interactions. I’ve been out of pocket preaching and doing holiday stuff, plus I no longer have internet access in my apartment. As a poor seminarian, I was bumming from the neighbors (they ok’d it), and they have all moved out now. I just don’t have the time to read the lengthy comments and respond with anything of substance. If other readers want to jump in (Joel), then I welcome their input.

    I can say that I disagree with your basic concept of simplicity. For starters, you like to speak of Absolute Divine Simplicity. This is to distinguish it from a more basic sort which everyone ever has believed in. John Of Damascus includes simplicity right up front in his discussion of God, and one can find it in the Cappadocians and many more. Louis Ayres even includes divine simplicity in his three points concerning “Pro-Nicene” theology.

    So “Aboslute” Divine Simplicity is supposed to be different from the more basic kind. This is a problem because, as Muller explains in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, there is no such thing as “Absolute” Divine Simplicity. By the time you get to the 19th cent, you see Hodge and Dabney basically rejecting the identification of the attributes with each other. I tend to disagree with them on this, but they are no small fries in the American Reformed thought-world.

    Furthermore, I see you using simplicity to works backwards to the absence of all qualities. You say that God doesn’t have qualities. I think that this is wrong, and I’d use simplicity to go the other direction. All of the qualities are infinite and they permeate in every-which way imaginable so as to create an omni-everything (as I call it in my vulgar lay-tongue). Stephen Holmes has a good article on this titled “‘Something Much Too Plain to Say’: Towards a Defence of the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity” Neu Zeitschrift fuer Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie. (2001). Vol. 43 Number 1. pg. 139

    So we can distinguish among the attributes for our purposes, but we can never say when justice “stops” and love “begins” (or etc.). That’s what I obtain from the understanding.

    Furthermore, the via negativa is based on God’s incomprehensibility and the Creator/creature distinction. This is also why we use the analogy. We need to speak of God, yet we know that everything we say is analogous. We don’t speak of God normally and then invoke an analogy when needed, no anthropomorphisms (as commonly understood), but rather everything we say of God is analogous. This is also why simplicity is usually classified as a subset of the consideration of infinity.

    And I cannot understand what you mean by saying that the Reformed deny that God is hyperousia. They explicitly confess it, so I guess that you mean their commitments to God’s pure actuality is inconsistent. This is a claim that I’d have to think over, but it doesn’t immediately persuade me.

  10. Steve,

    Why do reject Hodge’s. Shedd’s and Dabney’s distinction within the attributes? They are following Turretin who distinguished the attributes “virtualiter” (immanent in GOD ad-intra), which Muller defines as “that of power” in his Dictionary. This agrees with Nyssa’s definition according to Radde-Gallwitz.

    Also, complexity doesn’t deny simplicity, as the doctrine goes against composition, not complexity.

    I know this is an old thread; but, have you rethought this topic since?

    Thank you,

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