Responding to some objections to simplicity

Edward Feser wrote a response to some objections to divine simplicity. I wanted to formulate some objections to Ed, but then Vincent Torley did a better job than my initial attempts. So now I can just jump straight to responding to Torley, as opposed to giving his objections myself only to have someone else offer a refutation in my combox. Of the eight objections, I only here respond to 2,3,4 and 6, but my response to #2 speaks to 1, and the other objections weren’t totally opposed to Feser’s idea of simplicity.

 …the Scholastic doctrine of parts does violence to ordinary language. In ordinary language, parts are things that can be combined with one another to make a whole. Thus Y is a part of Z if there is some X, such that X combined with Y makes Z. This makes perfect sense if we think of the constituents of water, say. But it makes no sense to speak of water (a substance) being combined with its liquidity (an essential accident), or its temperature (a non-essential accident)

The example is not true and proves the opposite.  Water is seen in combination with liquidity when it’s opposed to ice and steam. True, we don’t tend to use the abstract noun to indicate this (“liquidity”) but prefer to use an adjective (liquid water) or a prepositional phrase (water in a liquid state), but this is a fact about grammar, not ontology. We also have a cache of words to indicate water along with some accident, like “brackish”, “tea”, “humidity” etc.. And so either the Scholastic idea is not against ordinary language, or it is only against it so far as we consider the peculiar and contingent grammar of everyday language, as opposed to the way in which grammar can be used as a sign of something ontological.

[O]n the Thomist conception of God, God is utterly simple. I’m not so sure. Take God’s free and contingent decision to create the world. This decision is an action (it’s a choice), but it’s a contingent action. Therefore it cannot be identical with the necessary being of God. So there is a distinction between God’s Being and His free, contingent choices. (I believe St. Thomas tries to evade the problem by denying that there’s a real relation between God and creatures, but I don’t see how he can deny the reality of God’s action of creating the world.)

First, let me defend the reply that Torley states parenthetically. When St. Thomas denies that there is a real relation from God to the world, he means  that (1) God does not depend on the world to exist, and (2) all real relations depend on their correlatives to exist. Both premises, it seems to me, are evident from the terms, though Aristotle gives reasons for (2) in his account of relation in the Categories. Note, that Creation does have a real relation to God, indeed it might even be that relation (though STA denies this), but God cannot have a real relation to creatures. If relation is an accident, there is nothing odd about the relation A—>B being different than B—>A. This is not even peculiar to the God—>Creation relation: science has a real relation to the world though the world need not have any relation to science (it existed for billions of years without it) and “left/right” are real relations in animals, though not in inanimate objects.

The creation of the world does not actualize or bring to perfection some latent possibility or contingency in God, or (if we take the tack of process theology and say that it does) then there is no such thing as the being that STA calls God and pure act is impossible. If necessary existence is better or more perfect than contingent, then there is nothing odd in contingency arising from the purely necessary, and this is, I think, the heart of the matter. True, there is a sense in which contingency is relatively more perfect than necessity, namely the free action of finite creatures in comparison to physical necessity. But this does not establish that contingency is an absolute good that we have to impute to the divinity, but only that the necessity that characterizes the divinity has to transcend both physical necessity and the contingency of finite intellects and their consequent need to choose.

 St. Thomas insists in S.T. I q. 15, art. 2 that God has many ideas in His Mind. He insists that this doesn’t compromise God’s simplicity: God, in knowing Himself, knows the multifarious ways in which it can be participated in by creatures according to some degree of likeness. But that doesn’t help matters. Here’s why. Suppose God knows Himself as Pure Being.Suppose [God] knows what a cat is by grasping it as Pure Being, minus certain perfections (call them A). Suppose He knows what a dog is by grasping it as Pure Being, minus certain other perfections (call them B). Even if God doesn’t need to clutter up His Mind with the concepts of “cat” and “dog”, His Mind would still need to contain the concepts of A and B – otherwise He couldn’t distinguish between a cat and a dog. Thus God has simply replaced one form of multiplicity in His Mind with another.

St. Thomas took this question very seriously earlier in his career (see the Contra Gentiles), but by the time of ST, he seems to just think it involves a confusion between the thing known and the means of knowing. When one mode of knowing transcends another, it knows more things distinctly by a single concept. We can’t learn this by experience (we only have experience with our own intellects) but makes sense in relation to the sort of transcendent things we can understand. The hand, for example, is an instrument of all instruments, the friendship of virtue contains all the goods of the lower sorts of friendship, etc.  If the divine mode of knowing transcends all other modes of knowing, it makes sense that it can understand in a single concept what we can only understand using diverse, divided concepts.  Just as our imagination can have a unified sensation of something both white and sweet while the lower sense powers can only attain this by diverse powers, so too the divine intellect can understand both being and non-being by a single concept that our intellect must divide in the principle of contradiction.

God is in no way potential. If that’s right, then God must know our choices by determining them, as Garrigou-Lagrange argues, and as you have argued (likening God to the author of a book, in which the characters act freely, even though they are controlled by their author). The problem with this view is that it makes God the Author of all manner of things that cannot be worthily ascribed to a Deity – e.g. every bad or corny joke, every dirty joke, the details of every evil plot, as well as every argument (good or bad) for atheism. Surely that cannot be right.

Pure act can be invoked only to explain the actualities of things. Privations, failures to exist, or deviations from norms have to be explained in relation to something else.

Note that, even if privations have real effects, we don’t tend to view them as aspects of the things they affect: a broken engine is not a sort of engine, viz. we can’t say “rotary engine”, “two-stroke engine” and “broken engine” as a homogeneous list, and the last one is not properly a product of an engineer (except ironically). There’s no aspect of the divine art that lays out the reality of a murder for the same reason that there is no engineering manual that describes how to build a broken engine.

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12 Comments

  1. December 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    A related question, and one that might underlie the motivations to object to divine simplicity is “What is simplicity?” For example, some fathers speak of the soul as being simple (e.g. St. Gregory the Wonderworker: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf06.iii.iv.iv.vi.html ). Others, however, also say that “Deity alone … is the only simple and incorporeal nature” (see St. John Cassian, Conferences, 7.10: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/cassian/conferences.ii.viii.x.html ).

    It is entirely possible that the fathers are not consistent on this point, but the inconsistency seems to come from some flexibility regarding what qualifies as simple in the first place. I wonder how much of the debate today comes from a failure to establish a clear definition up front.

    • December 27, 2013 at 5:06 pm

      The heart of simplicity or non-composition is independent existence – the negation of causality outside of the self. Simplicity, in particular, raises this question at its most difficult, namely with respect to those things that are other than a thing even though they are intrinsically one with it.

      Now, to the extent that independence is characteristic of any being (Aristotle’s koris or “being separate”) then simplicity will characterize it too, and will characterize the animate more than the inanimate, animals more than plants, man more than animals, and the human soul over the human body. Just as any being is divided from others, this follows from its unity to itself, and so from what is koris or separate or simple. One can only make the debate so clear since the whole debate seems to be how far we can push this sort of independence, and so what being is at its limit. St. Thomas pushes it to the point of independence from any privation or potency, and a bit past this to include even what can fall under the logical complexity of genus and difference. This still leaves open the idea of pluralities that are not characterized by an act-potency relation, or are intrinsically structured to fall into the logical complexity that characterizes the things we can define. Plato gives some suggestion that he wants to push things further than this and deny that anything with an essence or nature can be simple, and the Neo-Platonists followed him on this.

      • December 27, 2013 at 7:53 pm

        I left a comment over at Dale Tuggy’s blog that is a propos to the question of what exactly the simple and complex is: Dale had said that the Thomist account of simplicity was false because God’ wisdom, mercy etc. were different aspects of God (italics were his). I told him that these aspects were either really different from God’s self (or divinity) or they weren’t: if so, then God depends on something other than himself in order to exist; if not, then Dale has a Thomist account of simplicity.

        The question, then, is whether there is anything in God that is not God. Put in a general way, a thing is simple to the extent that what is in it or intrinsically of it is the same as itself. For a mere inanimate body, it is practically defined by its non-simplicity, for it just is the totality of its parts, none of which is the whole. In the case of souls, this sort of complexity has to be denied, since the whole soul is entirely present wherever it is present (which is why each part of the body is alive). That said, the whole nature of the soul in non-human animate things is in relation to something other than itself, and so is in this sense it is complex and not simple. In human beings, the soul is not in relation to the body according to the whole of its being, but only as soul and not as intellective. At a higher stage of simplicity, the intellectual nature is the totality of the thing, thus making it more simple than the human soul, though the acts of this intellect, along with its virtues and perfections are other than itself (which is why it can fall into sin) and in the measure that this is possible, it is not simple but complex.

        And so at the apex of simplicity we remove all this composition, as as a consequence all possibility of sin. It follows that such a being is by definition the absolute normative rule, and that only an absolutely simple being can be.

      • December 28, 2013 at 7:07 pm

        “The heart of simplicity or non-composition is independent existence – the negation of causality outside of the self.”

        Is there any sense in which, then, simplicity thus defined is distinct from passionlessness? I think this relates to your second response as well.

        “St. Thomas pushes it to the point of independence from any privation or potency, and a bit past this to include even what can fall under the logical complexity of genus and difference.”

        It is my understanding (though I may be mistaken) that for Aq the divine energia are created. Orthodox opponents of this Thomist understanding tend to blame it on his understanding of divine simplicity, but the two do not seem incompatible to me as you have framed it. If simplicity is a matter of divinitas, then the Eastern distinction between essence and energia would be easily compatible: both are divine and therefore uncreated. Yet, even if it is a matter of essence (ousia), I still think it would fit inasmuch as the confession of the Church (e.g. Constantinople III) is that the energia are “natural” energies/operations. Thus (assuming that physis and ousia are being used synonymously at the council), the divine energia are not something in addition to the essence but the various operations of the divine, which is simple. I guess what I’m wondering, then, is whether these opponents are just misreading Aq on energia or, if not, if there is some other rationale for understanding the energia as created.

      • December 29, 2013 at 8:57 pm

        Brandon has argued many times that the essence/energies distinction is not an act/potency relation and so is no threat to simplicity at all. I think he’s right – as far as I can tell, the energies have to do with God as he relates to creatures. It’s a problem related to beatitude and not to God’s intrinsic nature absolutely.

  2. Simon James said,

    December 27, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    “left/right are real relations in animals, though not in inanimate objects.”

    That sentence has a left and right.
    The keyboard it was typed with has a left and right.
    The icon above my computer has a left and right.

  3. vjtorley said,

    December 28, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Hi James,

    I tried sending something to you a few hours ago, but that didn’t work, so I’ll try sending it via WordPress.com. Here goes.

    1. You argue that water IS seen in combination with liquidity when it’s not ice or steam. I wouldn’t call either of those water – I’d call them H2O. Water is liquid H2O, in my book. But if you prefer, let’s take a more general property of pure H2O: poor electrical conductivity. This is an essential accident of H2O. If it’s in combination with H2O, then H2O with this property must be greater than mere H2O, since A combined with B is always greater than B. But it isn’t, because H2O can never lack this property. Now, what about non-essential accidents, such as water’s temperature? Here’s my question. If water and its temperature are both parts of something greater, then what is that “something”? More generally, the whole idea of combining a substance with an accident strikes me as absurd, as they exist on different levels of reality, just as creatures and their Creator do. You can combine and “X” and a “Y”, but you cannot combine an “X” and an “of-X.” It would be like combining sets and their elements – only worse, since accidents aren’t “things” of any sort.

    2. Regardless of whether God’s relation to the world is real or not, God’s choice to create the world is certainly real. A choice is a mental act; hence you cannot have a non-real choice. Moreover, God’s choice to create the world is wholly contingent. God’s Being, however, is wholly necessary. Hence God’s choice to create the world is distinct from His essence. You say the decision to create the world doesn’t actualize Pure Act. If you mean it doesn’t give God any extra powers, then of course I agree. But if you mean it doesn’t constitute an exercise of God’s powers, then I disagree.

    3. You write that God’s mode of knowing “can understand in a single concept what we can only understand using diverse, divided concepts” and you add that He “knows more things distinctly by a single concept.” You seem to be suggesting that God knows all actual and possible creatures – and their actual and possible properties – by means of grasping a single master concept (call it M). That goes beyond Aquinas, who imputed multiple concepts to God. But let that pass. The real problem with the notion that God has a grand concept like M is that there’s no way of enumerating all actual and possible creatures, or even of ordering them (as we can do with real numbers). The situation is radically unlike the situation for natural numbers, which can be generated from just two things: zero and the successor relation S – e.g. 2 is the successor to the successor of zero. Actual and possible creatures, by contrast, don’t fall into any ordered sequence. So it seems God has to have a separate idea for each of them. However, I don’t think ideas are logically prior to God; they’re just rules of different sorts, so in the end they have to come from an Ultimate Rulemaker. Maybe the cosmos is one giant game.

    4. In response to my objecting to the idea that God is the Author of “every bad or corny joke, every dirty joke, the details of every evil plot, as well as every argument (good or bad) for atheism,” you suggest that God is the Author of their positive reality, but not of their privations. But that’s just the problem. I think most of us would be happy to say that God was the Author of the best lines of Mozart’s music, and we’d even be prepared to say that God put those lines into Mozart’s head. (Mozart himself would probably have agreed.) But who would want to say that God was the Author of Antonio Salieri’s music? Distinguishing between the positive aspects of Salieri’s work and the defects won’t do: the work is simply an ensemble of musical notes, and if God wrote all the notes, then God is the Author of both the good and the bad in Salieri’s work. I conclude that if some ensembles necessarily include bad features as well as good ones (as is the case for bad poems, bad jokes and poor musical compositions), then God cannot be their Author. Similarly, if God is the Author of the details of a murder plot, and the details are a specific sequence of steps, then once again the attempt to distinguish the positive and privative aspects won’t work: qua plot, the steps hang together well if the plot is a clever one, and the propositional content of the steps (which is positive) makes explicit reference to ways of killing a human being and then covering up the fact. What I’m suggesting is that some propositions cannot have God as their Author, since even their positive content (e.g. Tom shoots Harry; Tom buries Harry’s body in quicklime) is contrary to God’s will. As such, they are unworthy of a Deity.

    Anyway, I think I’ll stop there, James. Cheers.

    • December 28, 2013 at 12:42 pm

      1.) First, an entry-level response: substances and accidents are clearly together, so why object that they are combined? We certainly have words for wholes that are defined as substances with some accident: doctor is a man with a quality, state is a bunch of persons with an order of relation, threshold is a board with a certain location, pyramid is a bunch of rocks with a certain position, Caucasian is a person with a quality or history, etc. If all these things are wholes, then we can make sense of a whole being a substance with an accident.

      But a better response is to dispute your major premise: you can combine an X and Y but not X and non-X. This is true, but we can push it further: the X and Y need to have an act-potency relation, either of one thing to another or of both to some larger whole. This applies to the substance-accident binary in both ways. Substances are finite, categorical realities and as such are not entirely actualized of themselves, but at least partially by other things.

      The rest of your objections involve a refusal to accept the logic of the distinction between act, potency and privation. As I’m convinced of this distinction, I think this means you’re wrong, but I understand that someone might well take my modus ponens as a modus tollens. Let me flesh out that last claim with the relevant antecedent/consequent binaries:

      2a.) God is pure act, therefore he is identical with the exercise of his activity or operation. St. Thomas insists on this repeatedly, and, even though I recognize the conceptual problems with this, I realize that the only option is to scrap the real distinction between act and potency, and I’m not willing to do that. Despite clear conceptual difficulties, I also think it resolves more problems than it creates. Seen fro this angle, God is not some subject who created, but he just is the action of creation, not considered in its terminus ad quem, but in its terminus a quo.

      2b.) Act is prior to potency absolutely, therefore necessity is prior to contingency absolutely. There is no contingency without potency, while all necessity as such is determination to some this. True, there is a relative sense in which some contingencies are better than some necessary things (the choices of finite beings as compared to physical necessity) but it is a mistake to take this as establishing an absolute priority of contingency – which is exactly what one does if he posits some divine choice. If all you mean to do by this is deny that God moves by a blind or natural necessity, this is fine. But God transcends the choices of finite creatures too, which are always constrained and determined by realities and paradigms other than the individual one who chooses. Failure to recognize how divine necessity transcends both physical necessity and finite choice is at the heart of the Euthyphro problem, and so I take the act-potency distinction, along with the priority of necessity as a solution to the dilemma.

      2c.) Multiplication in number is from potency, therefore a purely actual mind does not have a numerical multiplicity of concepts. A purely actual mind has, by definition, distinct concepts (where “distinct” means “complete”) but not by multiple, finite concepts. Even for us, distinction does not always result in multiplication, but only distinction that presupposes homogeneity, and it is precisely this underlying homogeneity that turns a distinction into a multiplication in number.

      St. Thomas recognizes multiplication other than in number, and so far as God’s ideas are complete as opposed to being simply generic it makes sense to call them multiple and distinct. But this does not involve numerical multiplication. This is, to my mind, one of the most difficult concepts in natural theology to master, but one of the most important negations that we have to make. But the numerical multiplication of spirits – even of the human soul qua intellective – has to go. This does not mean that they are numerically one, but that neither numerical unity or multiplication is a limiting or essential category for the immaterial. The numerical multiplication of concepts, as a consequence, follows potential existence of the intellect – for those of us who know by a possibile intellect, we have as numerically many concepts as we have distinct concepts, but in the ascent of intellects the numerical multiplicity of concepts is no longer necessary for the distinction of concepts.

      3.) Unless you want to argue that some evil or sin consists formally in a positive act as opposed to a privation of the right order of the will, then I’ll stand by what I said. Sure, you can identify all sorts of positive things that can be involved in sin or evil materially and accidentally, and some material aspect will always be necessary for evil, or for any privation. To insist that sins exist, God is the author of what exists, therefore, etc. is the fallacy of the accident, unless, again, you want to argue that evils are formally actualities as opposed to privations.

      At any rate, my original argument was slightly different from a mere classical insistence that evil is privation, but rather the claim that no deformity of X is traced back to the art that makes X. This is a variant on the argument in Republic that no mistake or deviation is reduced to art.

      All this is great fun. Feel free to respond or not, but my priority is always writing new posts so I usually spend my finite blog time doing that.

      • vjtorley said,

        December 30, 2013 at 9:33 am

        Hi James,

        I’ll keep this brief. First, even though I can’t say I’m convinced, I think you’ve made a defensible case that substances can legitimately be said to be combined with non-essential accidents. But as for essential accidents, I’d still say it’s impossible to combine them with substances. By definition, A combined with B is greater than A or B. However, a man combined with rationality is nothing more than a man.

        Second, I agree that God is identical with the exercise of His characteristic (i.e. essential) activities or operations – e.g. His activities of knowing and loving Himself. However, the decision to create a world is a wholly contingent activity. Since God’s Being is wholly necessary, God cannot be identical with that contingent decision. That’s about as good as a philosophical demonstration ever gets, James. I don’t know how you can avoid drawing the conclusion that I do.

        Third, in response to your suggestion that God has distinct concepts but not multiple concepts: the only sense in which I can make sense of concepts A and B being distinct but not multiple is if they are both aspects of some greater concept – call it C. One can see how this would work for colors, but it doesn’t seem to work for concepts from different sensory modalities – e.g. “red” and “salty.” Leaving that aside, the real problem is that God’s concept of the cosmos cannot be seen as a mere aspect of God’s concept of Himself. At the very least, then, God must have two concepts.

        Fourth, in response to your Platonic argument that no deformity of X is traced back to the art that makes X: some artistic techniques, even when fully mastered, are only capable of generating inferior products – they may “get the job done,” but only in a workmanlike fashion. (Think of chess-playing techniques for beginners, or a student who writes an essay in a wooden, formulaic fashion.) In any case, I would argue that God is incapable of doing a bad job. As Aquinas says: I answer that, “As God is perfect in His works, He bestowed perfection on all of them according to their capacity: ‘God’s works are perfect’ (Deut. 32:4).” Hence God cannot create a mediocre joke or write a mediocre plot for a novel. Nor can God produce an argument against His own existence. Yet if Ed Feser is correct in saying God knows about all these things by determining them, then that is what He would have to do – which is absurd.

        Finally, your comments made me realize that I’ve inadvertently opened a can of worms regarding the definition of evil. In at least some cases, evil is not a privation (like lameness) but a mismatch (like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t fit together properly). In the latter case, I’d say the attempt to put together elements which don’t combine well cannot be attributed to God.

        I think I’ll let this be my last comment on this thread.

  4. Stephen H. Webb said,

    January 7, 2014 at 10:22 am

    My own rejection of divine simplicity is deeply rooted in Karl Barth. Here is a piece I wrote on Barth’s argument that God can be considered finite in his own way (or in certain respects).

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2014/01/karl-barths-finite-god

    My own attempt to think through the idea that God is beyond both the material and the immaterial is Christologically grounded. My book about these matters is Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter

    My current project is God and Other Bodies, so my thinking is still in process. My bottom line: I don’t see how you can begin with Plato’s idea of matter as basically nothing and believe that God became enfleshed (and that Christ is eternally fleshed in his glorified body, which is material in some way). To me, that’s where we need to start: rethinking matter, and thinking more consistently through the incarnation (and especially the ascension). For my thoughts on the material implications of the ascension, see this:

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/12/the-problem-of-place-in-douglas-farrows-ascension-theology

    Thanks

    • January 7, 2014 at 11:17 am

      Obviously, I can’t respond to all these links in a combox, and so this leaves only the comparatively narrow range of claims in the comment itself. In this context, I have some quibbles.

      I don’t see how you can begin with Plato’s idea of matter as basically nothing and believe that God became enfleshed

      I might very well be guilty of this, but you’d have to argue me into it since, as phrased, I deny it. I’m a conflicted but more or less consistent hylomorphist, and I’d see the above claim making a confusion of potency and privation. That Plato made this confusion is a very old critique, but I don’t see myself as making it, and I’m not even all that convinced that Plato himself made it.

      The “basically” in your claim gives you too much wiggle room – could we drop it? Or would this lead to a distortion of even Plato’s position? The theory of participation, for example, seems to be a way of advocating a non-illusory mode of existence of the material world. It was at least a first attempt to preserve some sort of reality to the material in the face of the dual objections of Heraclitus and Parmenides. If the “basically” just means that Plato admitted some reality to the material world, but just not enough, then this puts him ont eh same continuum of belief that we christians – and even all non materialists or idealists – are on (prior to Augustine, for example, it was very common to think that even the divine nature was some sort of matter -Tertullian seems to have thought this – and even today there is some dispute over the “spiritual matter” of angels and disembodied spirits)

      Similar problems of interpretation arise over your observation that we Christians now take Christ as “material in some way”. It seems to me that if we took all of the Platonic claims about the unreality of matter, including the most problematic claim that matter is sensible and the sensible is a shadow, it is not clear that the resurrected body falls under this critique. The recognition of the resurrected Christ, for example, does not seem to be something that people are able to do in virtue of sense powers alone.

      • Stephen H. Webb said,

        January 7, 2014 at 12:36 pm

        There are a range of interpretations of what Plato and company thought of matter, as I know you know. I try to sort through some of this issue in my book Jesus Christ, Eternal God. So the “basically” is there not to give me an out but to acknowledge that what Plato thought (and Plotinus) are open issues. Moreover, the question for me is not really what Plato thought but what theologians like Augustine thought Plato thought when they made the move to creation out of nothing and embraced an infinite God. Neither of these moves were present in the earliest Church Fathers and, I am convinced, are not present or even implied in the Bible. So we have to ask why Augustine, for example, rejected something like Tertullian’s material God, and the answer is, of course, complex. Augustine was embarrassed by his fellow travelling with the Manichaeans, who were definitely materialists. He also was embarrassed by his African roots; North African Christians, as has now been documented, were thoroughly anthropomorphic and materialist in their conception of the divine (Alexandrians excepted, of course!). Most importantly, he was battling against the Gnostics, with their weird theories of spiritual progression, and much of classical theism can and should be interpreted as motivated by over-reactions to the Gnostics. (Matter is something to them, not nothing, but it is something bad, except that it is also the means by which, through spiritual warfare, souls can reach something good.)
        But that is all psychological speculation, reasonable, but again, beside the point. The real question for me is how any metaphysics can account for the incarnation and ascension. Let’s bracket the ascension for a moment. Now, assume that there was no preexisting flesh, no person external to the divine, that the Logos “became.” No man was adopted by God; God became man. Now that “became” raises all sorts of questions for classical theism, but let’s not even go there.In the incarnation, God did not just identify with a human being, he became one, include that man’s flesh (matter). God revealed that this person, Jesus, is who he really is (in some way, of course). Now if you have a “basically” Platonist view of matter, you see it as a kind of empty space that holds or retains something, and so you can see the body of Jesus as being a kind of container of the divine.Indeed, for this view, the further you push matter’s nothingness the better, since you don’t want to attribute matter (or change!) to the divine. So God didn’t really change or become something other than God. That might seem like a coherent position, but it is very hard to reconcile with the doctrine of the exchange of attributes between the two “natures” as well as other problems like the cosmological implications of the ascension and so on (classical theists are committed to denying that there are cosmological implications to the ascension, but again that is another issue). So what did the Logos become? Well, even if the matter of Jesus was created out of nothing, it was still matter like our own matter, right? And by assuming that matter, he redeemed it, right? So he perfected matter (or, as the monophysites would prefer, he became in a way perfect matter, since the body he assumed was without sin, but that is again a related issue that we can bracket for now). Does matter how the potential to become perfect? Calvin argued no, of course: the material has no capacity for the divine. But Calvin wants to construct a very thick wall between material change and anything to do with God. Thus, any hint of divinization, any idea that nature is guided by the Spirit, that matter can convey the divine, is rejected by him as a form of magic, superstition, and idolatry. I’m afraid that too many classical theists read the tradition through his rather narrowly focused eyes.If matter is (potentially) a perfection of the divine, then matter is not dead and lifeless–it is not “nothing.” And if Jesus Christ the human being is divine, then the matter of Christ is not the empty receptacle of the divine. It is a place, or space, a set of physical relationships, that is quite compatible with God’s nature and is, in fact, “where” God is “today” (in heaven). Upon the physical perfection of matter lies the basic Christian claim of the hope of resurrection, and the basic Christian witness to the resurrection and ascension of Christ. And such perfectibility Plato and the Platonists just can’t explain.


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