Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s brilliant work, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity (Oxford University Press, 2009) is on a level of erudition and philosophical sophistication so much beyond the average that it is likely to meet with an inadequate critical response within the theological community. It is a model of how to engage with patristic texts in a way that does justice to their intellectual subtlety. Schooled in modern philosophical analysis as well as in the philosophers of antiquity, R shows us how to think along with the Fathers in a fresh and lucid way.
Divine simplicity is a thesis that causes a lot of headaches in Christian theology. It has little or no biblical basis but derives mainly from Greek philosophy, in particular Plotinus. I am not persuaded by R’s assurances that it does not ‘impose an alien “philosophical” or “Platonic” mentality onto biblical idiom’ (172). Even if kept in its place, as a discreet adjunct to biblical idiom, it is, I suspect, only apparently inoffensive. Thomas Aquinas, following the force of metaphysical logic, placed simplicity at the very head of the divine attributes, as the very condition of conceiving them correctly. Whether such a theology, proceeding from metaphysical first principles, can ever rejoin the texture of biblical revelation is doubtful. Basil of Caesarea has a light and functional notion of divine simplicity, but that is because he did not need to bother with the metaphysical conundrums to which it gives rise. Eunomius forced these on his attention, and his and his brother Gregory’s replies show them struggling to suppress the problems and to cleave to biblical diction. They are not masters of the metaphysics of simplicity, fearlessly elaborated by later Christian thinkers. But they are instinctively aware of the distorting potential of this metaphysics, and their resistance to it is theologically instructive.
R does not fully address the tensions between the biblical and the metaphysical. Yet in championing Basil’s relaxed attitude, which remains close to biblical speech, over against what he dubs ‘the identity thesis,’ he is implicitly challenging one of the core principles of metaphysical theology. I recently heard an analytic philosopher of religion declare that theology consists basically in thinking through the metaphysical riddles about divine omniscience or omnipotence and human freedom, divine simplicity and the plurality of divine attributes and actions, etc. R stands with Basil against the march of logic that ends up in such scholastic narrowness.
The identity thesis means that all attributes of God are identical with his essence: God is his goodness, his wisdom, his power, etc. The sense of these expressions differs, but their reference is the same (to use Frege’s terms). Whether the differences in sense represent only diverse viewpoints of human reason or some real formal distinction within the divinity (as Scotus maintained) is one of the issues for debate. At least the outlines of the classical identity thesis can already be discerned in Origen (63-4) and Athanasius (69, 83-6). It could perhaps be argued that Eunomius produced a distorted radicalization of this, which the Cappadocians corrected, so that they might appear more as guardians of tradition than as ‘transforming’ the idea of divine simplicity. In Eunomius’ stark version of the identity thesis all divine names are synonymous, identical with one another in sense as well as reference. Tussling with this, Basil and Gregory had little time for a calm consideration of the identity thesis in its more moderate and acceptable sense. Perhaps they feared to elaborate it lest they might provide support for Eunomians.
The classical doctrine of simplicity obliges one ‘to deny that there is any composition in God’; hence his attributes are ‘not diverse in the way the properties of objects of our ordinary experience are diverse’ (1-2). Ordinary experience gives many instances of a single referent being apprehended under diverse senses. We can say that the morning star is the evening star, in that both terms refer to Venus. Can we say God’s wisdom is his goodness, in that both refer to the divine substance? Given the frail and analogical character of the attributes, such a conflation would create great confusion, even if at some ultimate level the attributes might be said to be identical. It seems to me that the distinction the Cappadocians make between the attributes and the essence could be handled in the same way: they refrain from identifying them because of the limits of human speech, whereas other theologians boldly state that to name the attributes is to name the essence. The Cappadocians are happy to say that God is good, wise, powerful, etc., yet remain chary of claiming to have thereby named or grasped the incomprehensible divine essence.
R tackles the identity thesis at its roots, putting in question the idea of Plato and Aristotle that ‘to know something meant to be able to explain it: to state what makes it the kind of thing it is, in other words, its essence’ (2-3), and the resultant expectation that ‘the attributes one predicates of God name God’s essence’ (3). The Cappadocians are seen as rejecting the epistemological priority of definition: ‘having reliable knowledge of something is not dependent on knowing its essence’ (3). There is a slight feel of a straw-man argument about this, since no orthodox Christian theologian claims to know the divine essence. For Aquinas our intellect cannot attain the divine simplicity itself, but apprehends and names the divine things according to its own mode, using abstract words in view of its simplicity and concrete ones in view of its subsistence (S. Th. I, q. 32, a. 2). Divine simplicity operates as a negative constraint on our language, for insofar as it refers to God it must always refer in recto or in obliquo to the simple divine essence, and this casts a chill on any florid or exuberant God-language.
The center of R’s study lies in the two chapters on Basil, which offer an expert anatomy of his discourse on divine attributes. ‘In contrast to Eunomius’ claim that we know but one property of God, which is identical with his essence, Basil maintains that knowledge of God has a rich complexity’ (113). Basil respects ‘common usage’ in his theology and applies terms to God unselfconsciously. ‘There being no direct correspondence between the linguistic and ontological spheres, no problem arises with holding that the same linguistic and logical principles hold in the case of both simples and the non-simple entities with which we are more familiar’ (116-17). But as the later development of theology shows, problems do arise. The pressure of metaphysical consistency has not yet eaten into the spontaneity of Basil’s language. While he does say we need to ‘purify’ certain concepts applied to God, such as Fatherhood, he is very far from measuring how far such purification must reach to satisfy the demand of metaphysical reason.
R holds that the Cappadocians found the ideal balance between an apophatic theology, in the line of Clement of Alexandria, which would say that our conceptions can yield no knowledge of God, and the Eunomian version of the identity thesis, which would say that anything we validly say about God must be taken to name his essence. Basil distinguishes sharply between intrinsic properties of God and mere conceptions (epinoiai) about God, which can be multiplied ad libitum and which concern our own thinking more than the objective nature of God. Only the multiplicity of the intrinsic properties could be seen as potentially impugning divine simplicity; it is needless to make a fuss about the mere conceptions. The intrinsic properties are connected with a category found in Plotinus and Porphyry – the notion of idiôma. Idiômata or propria are unlike accidents, for ‘they inhere in a subject necessarily, that is, by virtue of that subject’s nature’ (165). Thus, such attributes as wisdom, goodness, life, power are ‘concurrent with’ but not ‘identical to’ the divine nature (159). Later theology, ‘restricting what counts as a substantial predicate to definitional parts’ (165) had no room for such propria attending the divine essence.
Epinoetic predicates concern the energies, actions, or relationships of the Godhead, not God’s substance. ‘Such terms form only one class of theological concepts. Despite their agnosticism about defining what it is to be God, Basil and Gregory do predicate a number of terms of the divine substance. These terms refer to God’s intrinsic properties, goodness, light, power, wisdom, and so forth… They are not identical with God’s nature, but neither are they merely relative, extrinsic properties. Rather, they are propria of the divine nature’ (13-14), ‘properties co-extensive with and intrinsic to the divine essence, but not individually definitive of that essence’ (107).
One problem with this is that the distinction between propria and epinoiai is hard to define. To which class do such abstract notions as divine ingeneracy and simplicity belong? In which class do we place such concrete terms as ‘Creator,’ ‘Father’? The identity thesis also makes such a distinction: ‘God is identical with his existence, nature, and his real properties (though not his Cambridge properties’ (Barry Miller, quoted, p. 5). ‘Cambridge properties’ are merely external to the subject they are predicated of; e.g. ‘God is a topic of the Summa Theologica.’ Basil sees all negative attributes as epinoiai; immutability, incorruptibility, and of course the ‘ingenerateness’ (agennesia) fetishized by Eunomius are merely Cambridge properties. Basil treats simplicity as a negative predicate, meaning non-complex. But he makes eternity a positive predicate, though it could be construed as a negative one, non-temporality, and so treated as a mere epinoia. Likewise, to say that God is spirit could be merely negative, if spirit is defined as incorporeality. For Eunomius ingenerateness is a real property and so identical with the divine essence; for Basil and Gregory it is a ‘Cambridge property,’ reflecting a human cogitation about God. Later theology would treat it as a real property. Meanwhile, Cambridge properties could be interpreted as naming not God but the word ‘God.’
Basil mentions ‘Creator’ in one list of epinoiai that are ‘external to the substance’ of God (Contra Eunomium II, 29; quoted p. 161). In classical theology, to name God Creator or Redeemer is to name the divine essence; every effort is made to prevent God’s activity being something additional to his essence; which is why, in Thomism, God does not have a ‘real relation’ to creatures though creatures have a real relation to God. As with the distinction between positive and negative predicates, so the distinction between those appertaining to the divine nature and those appertaining to divine activities is also difficult to sustain. Can we make God’s wisdom a proprium while treating his providence as an epinoia, or can we make God’s love a proprium while treating his grace toward creatures as an epinoia?
In seeking to weave a seamless metaphysics from Basil’s utterances, R sometimes sounds quite rarefied: ‘What is required to save Basil from inconsistency is a clear distinction between substance and essence. One can speak of features as necessary to God, and thus as characterizing God’s substance, without claiming that these features define God’ (168). I am not even sure if Eunomius intended to define God, much less any orthodox metaphysical theologians. To say that God is his goodness is not to define God but to underline the limits of human language about God. However the rarefied distinction R desiderates in Basil is actually drawn by Gregory: ‘Gregory’s distinction between essence and substance allowed him to draw the distinction between common properties, which name the substance, and the essence, which is utterly unknowable’ (216). Here a metaphysical quagmire is looming, and it will demand all the acuity of the Scholastics to sort out the potential confusions.
After the question of the ultimate sustainability of Basil’s attitude to divine simplicity, which would merit a very thorough discussion, the second major question to be put to R is whether Gregory of Nyssa is really to be characterized as a doughty defender of his brother on this point, or whether he does not rather emend Basil’s theology, working in the direction of the classical identity thesis.
For Gregory, ‘the divine nature, taken on its own, whatever it is in its essence, transcends all comprehensive conceptualization (epinoias),’ but from God’s creative activity we gain ‘a notion (ennoia), not of the essence, but of the wisdom’ (On the Beatitudes, homily 6). Note that the signal difference here falls not between epinoia and ennoia but between the divine essence and both. Gregory does not hold that ‘God and goodness are the same thing’; that would be ‘the identity thesis, which Basil did so much to combat’ (196). ‘Gregory believes God is essentially good, not that goodness and the divine nature are identical’ (197). The two ideas are so close that it is unsurprising to find Gregory wobble at one point: ‘only in the text in the Life of Moses does he claim that God’s nature is goodness’ (197). Other texts, too, sound quite close to the identity thesis, as when Gregory argues of the Holy Spirit: ‘if the formula of his nature is simple, then he does not have goodness as something acquired, but, whatever he himself is, he is goodness, wisdom, power, sanctification, justice, eternity, incorruptibility’ (Adversus Macedonianos, quoted, 203). If God not merely has but is his attributes, are we far from the full-fledged identity thesis? Consider a statement such as the following: ‘Life and truth and justice and goodness and light and power – these the onlybegotten God both is and is said to be, under different apprehensions (epibolai), being simple, without parts or composition’ (Antirrheticus, ed. Müller, 136). Even stronger is the following: ‘The designation “good” does not lead one to think of one subject, while the designation “wise,” “powerful,” or “just” leads to another… All the names attributed to the divine nature have the same force as one another in the sense of the subject they indicate, but lead one to think of the same thing by meanings that differ’ (Ad Eustathium, quoted, 199). R admits that the distinction between the divine essence and the divine attributes may be ‘merely epistemological’ (199).
The attributes are not robustly identified with the essence in these texts; they are angles on it. Gregory’s way of naming God is scripturally anchored, and refers not to abstract attributes but to modes of God’s presence deployed in the biblical economy. Nonetheless, in Gregory’s discourse the logic of the identity of attributes and substance is tightening its grip. R thinks the attributes are ‘theological “data,” so to speak, that are not the product of conceptualization’ (178). Now, no doubt divine power and goodness are ‘given’ as phenomena in Scripture and creation, but still the formation of the concepts of divine power and divine goodness does demand an epinoetic act. To say that they are innate ennoiai rather than constructed epinoiai seems to me to put too much weight on a distinction between these two words. ‘From Gregory’s anthropological works, we have reason to believe that he thinks some notions of God (which are at the same time participated virtues in the human soul) are “innate”’ (178). The distinction if valid at all is hard to sustain. Another problem for R’s thesis is that the list of propria is open-ended. Moreover, it contains at least one negative item, ‘incorruptibility,’ which obliges R to draw on De Virginitate, and to argue that the apparently negative term denotes ‘some positive state of purity’ (185).
R corrects the view that the epinoiai name something robustly realistic about the divine nature, namely its activity as source of life or cause of all. Gregory (as quoted, 179) attributes all scientific and technical discoveries to epinoia. Even if theological epinoiai are secondary to the more immediate, innate ennoiai, they are not thereby lacking in a grasp on the real. What Gregory most insists on is that neither ennoiainor epinoiai can grasp the incomprehensible divine essence. But the trinitarian relations, which Gregory speaks of in terms of epinoiai, are robustly realistic. This prompts R to conclude that divine simplicity ‘was not fully and coherently integrated into Gregory’s own trinitarian theology’ (217). Here Gregory is forced to square simplicity and plurality in a way that he avoided in the case of the essence and attributes, and he proves unable to do so.
It seems to me that Gregory realized that Basil’s scriptural good sense did not suffice to ward off Eunomius’ logical questions or to make unnecessary a tighter account of the divine attributes, stressing their fundamentum in re and the identity of each attribute with the essence. Gregory and perhaps even Basil himself recognize from time to time that they are in agreement with Eunomius on this, an agreement that would have been easier to see if Eunomius had chosen to illustrate his view of theological language by an attribute other than the ambiguous agennēsia), which can mean ‘without a Father’ and ‘without a cause’ (agenētos with one n). In its trinitarian sense (agennētos) the term signifies that the Father is not generated; the status of this idea remained obscure for the Cappadocians. Aquinas places it, under the label of innascibilitas, not amid the two processions, the three persons, or the four relations, but amid the five ‘notions’ in God, alongside fatherhood, filiation, active and passive spiration (S. Th. I, q. 32, a. 3). It is not clear whether the many references to the limits of language in Gregory’s Contra Eunomium help to clarify these questions; perhaps the apophatic rhetoric is a distraction from the core of the trinitarian problematic, remaining tangential to the refutation of Arianism.
Gregory turns the tables on Eunomius by arguing that ingenerateness is precisely an epinoia, of the sort that Eunomius rejected as an imposition on divine simplicity. Thus, ‘it is Basil and Gregory, rather than Eunomius, who are the allies of the identity thesis, since they provide grounds for believing that distinctions between concepts we have of God do not necessarily map onto real distinctions in God’ (15). But if so, is R not setting up a straw man by linking the identity thesis so closely with Eunomius? Eunomius rejected epinoetical thought about God (100) and adherents of simplicity may tend to view even epinoetical conceptions as identical with the divine nature; but they do not necessarily do so. Does Aquinas make the ‘notion’ of the Father’s ingenerateness (innascibilitas) identical with the divine essence, as the divine relations are (in obliquo not in recto)? In any case, given the creative and poetic nature of our basic language about God, must there not be cut-off point in any attempt to regulate it according to a systematic map or regime?
It is clear that Andrew Radde-Gallwitz has opened up a Pandora’s box of fascinating questions about the basic logic of fourth century theology. Study of these is of immense import to contemporary theological questioning as well – not in the sense of helping us to sort out our ideas of divine simplicity once and for all, but rather in nudging us to more searching reassessment of this entire tradition of thought. The metaphysical thesis of divine simplicity set up a ferment in the Christian mind, and the tense wrestling between the biblical and metaphysical elements that has continued ever since might perhaps today yield to a new threshold, where a keener critical historical consciousness allows us to retrieve in a more integrated way the meaning of this long debate between Athens and Jerusalem.