January 24, 2021

The Council

A modern day council!

by Jimmy Stephens


In this article, internet apologist Jonathyn criticizes the doctrine of simplicity. Specifically, he is out to refute a Thomist version of the doctrine, what he calls “Absolute Divine Simplicity.” By using the term absolute, I take it Jon means to capture the reduction Thomism makes of God’s attributes. We will simply refer to it as Thomist simplicity.

According to Aquinas, God is identical to His attributes. Therefore, all God’s attributes are in fact one, making His attributes identical to each other. For Aquinas, distinctions do not arise between God’s attributes except as the result of finite minds. Such distinctions are inescapable frailties of our thought, not real distinctions presiding in God’s very being. This Thomist simplicity is the target of Jon’s article.

The concern of this author is threefold. First, analysis to what extent Jon’s criticism succeeds. We will briefly survey his fourth objection and concede that Jon has successfully refuted Thomist simplicity. Second, exploration of the Essence-energy distinction. We will see that this Essence-energy distinction runs into the selfsame objections Jon raises against Thomist simplicity. Finally, we will show that Jonathyn has unwittingly provided the theological foundation for a Reformed evangelical doctrine of simplicity.

The reason for starting with and focusing on Jon’s fourth objection will become clear in a moment. Suffice it to say that Trinitarianism is the heart and soul of orthodox Christianity. Conflict with Trinitarian doctrine forms the crux of Jon’s fourth objection to Thomist simplicity. Jon’s other three objections, therefore, play a secondary role. We will see that the Trinity not only undermine’s the Essence-energy distinction, but also unlocks the key to a Biblical doctrine of simplicity.

Divorce from Distinctions

To understand Jonathyn’s critique we must make some observations about his use of terms. First, Jon defines Thomistic simplicity as follows: “there are no actual distinctions within God and. . .God’s attributes, relations, and actions are all identical to his absolutely simple essence/nature.” Jonathyn implicitly defines Thomist simplicity in the antecedent of this hypothetical: “If there are not true distinctions within God. . .” As stated above, Thomist simplicity rules out any real distinctions of or between God’s perfections.

Note that Jon says within God. This is important, because as Jon points out, the Thomist locates theological distinctions in mental finitude. Distinctions of God’s love, hate, power, life, and so forth, are nowhere to be found in God’s essence, His nature. Rather, on Thomism, they are “virtual” categories, distinctions only and merely in the human mind. Hence, there are no true distinctions within God, only distinctions within our mind.

Note that Jon says “there are not true distinctions.” One way to understand Jon’s use of “true” is to consider God’s absolute perspective on the matter. On Thomism, there obtains no distinction in the mind of God about Himself. It is God’s perspective that defines the truth of the matter, and yet, in God’s perspective, there is only one attribute, not many. Unfortunately, God must recognize Himself as replete with nuance if human distinctions are to have any hope at corresponding to God’s perspective. God’s self-knowledge is a precondition of true theology, leaving us scratching our heads as to how a God without distinctions to Himself ends up being a God of many distinctions to us.

From these observations, Jon’s Trinitarian critique lands. If no distinctions exist in God’s nature, God Himself recognizes no distinction in Himself, and our distinctions between God’s attributes belong only to our feeble minds failing to reconstruct God’s pure singularity as He Himself conceives it, then even Trinitarian distinctions prove improper. Thomism, if consistently followed, reduces the Trinity to a phantom of human consciousness. Jon is right on the money: Thomist simplicity entails modalism, at best, and at worst, Aristotelian deism. Thomist simplicity bears an eerie resemblance to the Thought Thinking Itself.

Jonathyn turns his refutation of Thomist simplicity into defense of Eastern Orthodoxy. Specifically, Jon proposes the Essence-energies distinction (hereafter, EE) as a resolution to his own objections. EE is intended to avoid apotheosis, eternal creation, and theological emptiness, what Jon calls “Speaking of God Tautologically.” EE is thus supposed to alleviate us of modalism, what Thomist simplicity logically entails.

Divorce from the Divine Nature

To broach Jonathyn’s EE defense, we need again carefully note his terminology. Jon defines EE as an ontological distinction between God’s “essence” and “operations, actions, and attributes of God which we can come to know God through and participate in without participating in the essence of God.” For those unfamiliar, the term “essence” refers to God’s divine nature, His identity. On EE, God’s “actions, attributes, and operations are truly distinct from his essence,” says Jon. This he exemplifies by saying that God’s “power, love, and knowledge are truly distinct as they are properties/energies and are not isomorphically identified with his essence.”

EE cuts God into an epistemic duality of divine nature on the one side and immanent outpourings into the created order on the other. We do not know or experience the divine nature. It remains ineffable. Rather, humans are only in touch with God’s energies, His “operations, actions, and attributes.” Presumably, by “attributes,” Jon refers to the covenant names of God as recorded in Scripture, and by extension, descriptions of God in human thought and language. One wonders how we know this EE distinction itself given it commits us to knowledge about God’s divine nature and apparently we only know His energies.

Suppose EE obtains. In that case, God might be Thomistically simple or not, but since all we have to consider are God’s energies, we cannot know either way. EE puts us in the strange predicament of saying we can be confidant God’s energies are not simple, but we cannot be confidant about what distinctions, if any, hold for God’s essence. After all, God’s divine nature is unknown, unknowable. Only God’s operations, activities, and descriptions in which we participate are known. One wonders how, therefore, EE does not leave the topic of simplicity steeped in mystery for the Eastern Orthodox.

This puts us in the bind of theological skepticism, as whoever God truly is can turn out to be wholly other than our mere knowledge of energies. Yet, this is only the beginning of our worries for EE.

Trinitarian Divorce

Let us turn to a striking parallel between Thomist simplicity and EE. Where Aquinas removed distinctions from God’s essence and located them elsewhere, Jon removes distinctions from God’s essence and locates them elsewhere. Just as there were no true distinctions within God on Thomism, there are still no true distinctions within God on EE. Rather, distinctions between God’s love, knowledge, and power remain divorced from God’s nature, and are relocated to a vaguely emanationist outworking in creation.

The parallel between Thomism and EE goes further. On Thomism, God’s self-conception and our concept of God contradict since God’s self-conception is reductively singular and ours brims with differentiation. On EE, God’s self-conception and our concept of God contradict since God’s essence is absent from our conception but essential to God’s. On EE, we are stranded on the island of energies, unable to access God’s identity, so that what God is really like hovers behind a mask. This bears an eerie resemblance to Plotinus, where the One is ineffable, yet somehow reasoned to on the basis of the ontological chain trailing down from it.

Now we come to the crux of the issue, the Tripersonality of God. Does Trinitarianism comport to Jonathyn’s EE framework? We should ask Jon whether Trinitarian doctrine applies to God’s energies, to His nature, or both. Let’s examine these horns.

First Horn: if the Trinity is only a description of God’s energies, then “one is forced to say that the three persons are merely expressions or modes of God, rather than actual distinct persons, lest” Jon violate his own rejection of an isomorphic identity between energy and essence. The Trinity cannot be God’s essence if it is only His energies. Since we are apparently trapped in God’s energies, who knows whether God is truly three Persons or not?

Second Horn: if the Trinity is God’s divine nature, then we know true distinctions in God’s divine nature, contra EE. Orthodox Trinitarianism ruins Jon’s EE distinction. For we know that God is essentially three divine Persons, not three accidental outflowings in creation.

Third horn: if the Trinity is both God’s essence and energies, then there occurs isomorphism between the two, contra EE. If God’s energies can contain or identify with His essence, whence the real distinction? On all three horns, Jon has to give up EE in order to sustain Biblical Trinitarianism and, what is most ironic, for the same reasons he proposed to undercut Thomist simplicity. The Trinity neither comports to the Aristotelian deism to which Thomism falters nor the Neoplatonic monism haunting Eastern Orthodoxy’s closet.

Divorced from Doxology

Furthermore, we should note that EE does not even prove solvent to Jon’s secondary objections. Consider Jon’s creational objection, that on Thomist simplicity, creation is lodged into God’s eternal life, leading us to pantheistic notions. Perhaps creation is not subsumed into God’s essence on EE as it is on Thomism. Instead, God’s creatorhood is removed from His essence. God is not a creator. Rather, the energies of God are, which energies Jon concedes have no isomorphic connection back to God’s essence. This is hugely problematic, since the Bible identifies Yahweh as Creator, Sustainer, Lord of the cosmos.

What about tautology? Perhaps EE does not lead us to empty tautologies, but it does reduce us to speech about emanations, not God Himself. EE thus removes our ability to effectively think or speak about God’s essence. In Jon’s own words: “if a view reduces us to not even being able to utter meaningful propositions about God, it should be abandoned and we as Christians should shift to a different paradigm in regards to who and what God is.” Were Jon consistent, his own critique of Thomism would motivate him to reject EE.

What about apotheosis? Here, Jon’s EE solution is orhopraxically dangerous. Scripture time and again reprimands idolatry, for God created us to worship Him exclusively (Ex 20:2-6; Deut 6:4-5, 13-14; Josh 23:7-8; Luke 4:5-8). Yahweh alone is worthy of worship (2 Kings 19:15, 19; Psalm 83:17-18; Eph 1:18-23; Phil 2:9-11; Rev 1:8). This truth has, since the beginning of the church, provided vital support for the deity of Christ, because if Jesus is worthy of worship, then He must be Yahweh. Unfortunately, Jon’s divorce of God’s attributes and operations from His essence, were it consistently followed, not only separates human ideas of God from their Divine Referent, but divorces entirely Christ’s deity from his humanity.

It is helpful to remember, God is His essence. The “essence” of God, nominally, is just the definition of God, His divine nature, usually set forth as a set of attributes based on His redemptive-historical names set forth in Scripture. Yet, according to the EE distinction, we do not worship God in His essence because we cannot, for God’s essence has been loosed from anything in human experience. We do not worship the Lord Jesus as the hypostasis of God and man, but rather, as the hypostasis of energy and man. If EE holds, the throne of worship seats aeons, mere emanations, the aftermath of God, not true God Himself, and so we are forever doomed to worship creations, not the Creator.

Please note, this is not to accuse Jonathyn of heresy. I am not critiquing Jon’s character, only his aberrant theology, one that logically entails mysticism, denial of the Trinity, and idolatry. Thankfully, many Eastern Orthodox folks live inconsistent with EE heresy and instead practice Biblical (i.e. protestant) views of theology. I applaud Jon’s borrowing of Reformed apologetic practices, for instance.

Divorce from Rome and the East

What all this goes to show is that Jonathyn’s objections are a little too effective. They not only sink Thomist simplicity, but they bury Jon’s Eastern Orthodox theology as well. This author agrees with Jon’s Trinitarian critique of Thomist simplicity. Now we must reject Jonathyn’s energies-Essence distinction on the same grounds and move on to a coherent, Biblical way of understanding God’s unity and complexity. Thankfully, Jon has already pointed us in the right direction.

How should we conceive of divine distinctions? Just how is God’s unity consistent with His multiplicity? Jon’s Trinitarian critique has helped us answer these questions by cleaving us from Roman and Eastern Orthodox heresy and name-dropping the doctrinal key. That key is the Trinity. For in the Trinity, we possess the notion that God’s unity and plurality are not only logically compatible, but they are mutually entailing.

We cannot miss the gravity of Trinitarian revelation, but that is a subject for another article. So far, we have ruled out two competitors against Reformed evangelicals. In my article on divine simplicity, I will seek to explore the richness of Trinitarian theology and let it lead us to a doctrine of God’s simplicity.

Further Suggestions:

How should we distinguish God’s Attributes?

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