The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

by Max Andrews

St-thomas-aquinasThe doctrine that God is absolutely simple derives from the metaphysical considerations that God is a being whose existence is self-explanatory, absolutely perfect, and pure actuality.  Prior to Thomas, the doctrine has its most influential formulations in Augustine and Anselm.[1]

According to Thomas, God is his essence and his existence.[2]  If the existence of a thing differs from its essence, this existence must be caused either by some exterior agent or by its essential properties.[3]  The latter seems to be impossible; for nothing, if caused to exist, can be the sufficient and efficient cause of its own existence.  Nothing can be self-caused and thus the latter option is insufficient. Therefore, if existence differs from essence then another being must cause existence.  This option is also an insufficient explanation for God’s essence and existence because another being cannot cause God because he is the first efficient cause—the uncaused cause.

There are three important claims Thomas commits to concerning the doctrine of divine simplicity.[4]

(1) It is impossible that God have any spatial or temporal parts that could be distinguished from one another as here rather than there or as now rather than then, and so God cannot be a physical entity.

(2) It is impossible that God have any accidental properties.

(3) All of God’s intrinsic properties must be essential to him, it must be acknowledge that whatever can be intrinsically attributed to God must in reality just be the unity that is his essence.

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The first claim, (1), removes God from having any space-time properties.[5]  God is completely timeless logically prior and posterior to the moment of creation.  From this timelessness it follows that God is absolutely immutable and eternal, which are all entailed from simplicity.[6]  The immutability that Thomas is advocating functions with respect to God’s intrinsic esse.  If God were to be able to change intrinsically, that would suggest that God’s goodness and omnipotence could change…


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