What Is God?

D. Stephen Long

Question: What is God?

Answer: God is the perfectly, simple, Triune God.

This question and answer seem inappropriate. We cannot know God’s “whatness,” so why inquire after it? To answer it would be to “Master Divinity,” a ludicrous activity. Nonetheless, responding to this question is a necessary, albeit impossible, theological task. The “answer” has become problematic because numerous contemporary theologies find divine simplicity incoherent. (We will examine the calls to revise this answer in my third installment.)

To say that God is simple makes a number of important claims. At its heart it affirms that God is “to be.” God’s essence is God’s existence. What God is is identical to that God is. For every creature from tadpoles to stars, what it is is not equal to that it is. A single star does not identify all stars, and whether one particular tadpole exists would not call into question the essence of tadpoles. For God alone existence equals essence. God is not contained in a genus, not even the genus of being. God plus creatures is not greater than God alone. God is simple, then, because God is not composed of parts as creatures are. Nor can God’s “attributes” finally be distinguished from each other, even though their mode of appearance to us requires such distinctions.

Simplicity is not unique to Christianity and that causes some theologians consternation. It is found among the Greeks, and in Judaism and Islam. For Proclus, simplicity identified both the highest and lowest form of being. To prevent misunderstanding, Thomas Aquinas followed simplicity with perfection. God is not only simple, but God is also perfect – without any potentiality, needs, or inclination to evil. Other terms logically follow from simplicity – immutability, impassibility, infinity, timeless eternity, and unity. All of them primarily, although not exclusively, tell us what God is not. What is intriguing, and I think often overlooked, is how Aquinas, drawing on others, uses the perfectly, simple God to explain the Trinity. This “explanation” is not the logical solving of a puzzle but an attempt to speak well of a mystery.

After presenting the perfectly, simple God, Thomas asks, “Whether there is procession in God?” (ST I. 27.). Simplicity and its correlates now function as objections. How can there be processions if God is simple and therefore immutable and infinite? Processions imply movement, and movement assumes composition so simplicity appears to stand in the way of divine processions. Appearances can be deceiving and in this instance they are. An infinite being has no “outside” to which movement proceeds. A simple being has no potentiality that movement actualizes. Divine simplicity, however, does not rule out movement; it is a movement unlike any other form of motion we know. It is a perfectly simple motion from one Person to the others in which the unitary essence that is God is eternally given and received. It is procession. Thomas will even speak of an esse receptum, “received being,” among the Persons (ST I.27.2 2.). We have no essence behind the Persons and the Persons are not three individuals who gather in committee.

Divine simplicity has been turned to purposes Proclus would have found confusing. Far from creating a motionless, abstract, static being who cannot love, divine simplicity affirms the opposite. God is the infinity of an immutable procession, a pure act that is in itself real relations without actualizing a potential. This God then enters into relation with creation out of the divine goodness that freely creates, but creates consistent with God’s nature. For the perfectly simple God, there are then three relations.

1. God’s processions as real relations. One cannot be without the other.
2. God’s relation to creation which cannot be a real relation for God can be without creation.
3. Creation’s relation to God, which is a different kind of real relation for creation cannot be without God.

These three relations fit with three kinds of theology.

1. Speculative theology – God as God is in God’s self, the definitive answer to ‘What is God,’ which only God knows.
2. Practical theology (A) that knows God from what God has made, from God’s relation to creatures, which only God knows but is revealed to creatures.
3. Practical theology (B) that knows God from what God has made by beginning with creatures and examining our relation to God.

These three aspects of theology are aspects of a single science. Of course, we can only begin with practical theology B. The question is if modern theology has become content with it and abandoned the impossible but necessary task in mastering divinity – the speculative aspect.

Let me conclude with a qualification: Thomas should not be slavishly followed. There are many aspects of his thought that are outdated and should be rejected – his understanding of gender, predestination, his affirmation of the execution of heretics and lapsed Christians, and his politics. If his doctrine of God supported these or other outdated ideas, then it should be rejected or revised. I am yet to be convinced there is a correlation between them, but many theologians think I am wrong. We turn to them next.

Posted Nov 02, 2015

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