Response to Ryan Mullins on divine simplicity

Ryan Mullins, whom I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at Los Angeles Theology Conference 2018, has written a post critiquing the doctrine of divine simplicity. Because I am a convinced proponent of the doctrine, I would like to offer a response to Mullins’s argument in what follows.

In essence, Mullins argues that the doctrine of divine simplicity is contradictory to commonly held Christian beliefs regarding divine freedom and the contingency of divine grace. This is because if one grants divine simplicity, one must assert the identity of God with His own necessary existence and His act, in the actual world, of giving grace. But if God is identical to His own existence as well as to His act of giving grace, then He could not exist without having so acted. This means that His act of giving grace is as necessary as His existence. But grace must be freely given, i.e. it must be possible for God not to give grace. This means that it must be possible for God to exist apart from His act of giving grace, and this entails that He cannot be identical to that act, which conclusion is contrary to the doctrine of divine simplicity.

His argument is spelled out in an extended syllogism as follows:

1) If God is free, then God can refrain from acting to give grace.
2) God is free.
3) Therefore, God can refrain from acting to give grace. 
4) If God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary, then God cannot refrain from acting to give grace. 
5) God can refrain from acting to give grace.
6) Thus, God’s act to give grace is not absolutely necessary. 
7) God’s existence is absolutely necessary.
8) Anything that is identical to God’s existence must be absolutely necessary. 
9) All of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one divine act. 
10) God’s act to give grace is identical to God’s one divine act. 
11) God’s one divine act is identical to God’s existence. 
12) Therefore, God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary. 
13) If God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary, then God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary. 
14) Therefore, God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary. 
15) Therefore, God cannot refrain from acting to give grace.  
16) Therefore, God is not free.

Mullins suggests that it is the insertion of premises specifically connected to the doctrine of divine simplicity (namely, premises 8-11) that leads to the contradiction, and therefore the proponent of divine simplicity must specify which premises in the argument he rejects.

I am inclined to think that the problem with the argument runs deeper than just an inappropriate premise or two. Rather, it seems to me that the problem of theological language in the light of divine simplicity has to be considered in greater detail.

Suppose that divine simplicity is true. This means that God is beyond all forms of composition, including the sorts of metaphysical composition implicit in univocal ascriptions of action to agents. An action is normally something that an agent performs and yet is distinguishable from the being of the agent, just as my being is one thing, and my action of typing this blog post is another thing: the action is a kind of modification of my being, apart from which it is still possible for me to exist. But theological language ascribing action to God cannot be understood in this sense, because God is not like me. I act in virtue of modifications of my being, or rather my acting consists in the diverse modification of my being, whereas God, if He can be said to “act” at all, must “do so” in such a way that His being is not modified in any way whatsoever.

For me to act is for my being to be modified in various ways: I gain an intention, I move my body in various ways, etc. God does not have a body and He does not change in any way whatsoever, per divine simplicity, so that divine action cannot be understood in this way. Rather, “action” is ascribed to God in the sense that He produces various effects. Thus, He gives grace because He produces the effect that some human beings receive grace, even though this “act” does not involve any change within Him. It is understood entirely with reference to the effect produced, and not on the basis of anything within the cause.

In other words, for me as a proponent of divine simplicity, theological language about divine action really consists in ascribing causal responsibility to God for certain effects; it is a rather anthropomorphizing way of saying that God effects a certain state of affairs. To say that God gives grace is to say that He causes some persons to receive grace, by which is presumably meant a change or modification of their being such that the deleterious effects of sin are undone and they are restored to wholeness.

Now, the doctrine of divine simplicity implies that there is really only one divine act, as Mullins notes, and that it is identical with God Himself. However, Christians also affirm that God produces certain effects contingently (such as the giving of grace or the creation of the world). Ryan will therefore rightly ask me how it is possible that God can remain perfectly self-identical while producing certain effects only contingently. How can God remain the same across all possible worlds, if I may use this kind of language, while at the same time producing His effects only contingently?

Mullins’s argument presupposes a certain principle of causality, which I will state as follows: a difference in effect presupposes a difference in the cause. In other words, if God produces a certain effect in this possible world which He does not produce in another possible world, this must be because there is something different in Him across possible worlds — e.g., in this possible world He has chosen to give grace and in the other, He has not. A difference in effect presupposes a modification in the being of the cause.

I think the proponent of divine simplicity who wishes to preserve the possibility of creaturely contingency must deny this principle. God is perfectly unchanged across all possible worlds, but in some He produces certain effects and in others He does not. There is no difference in God as cause, even though there is a difference in the effect. In this way, it is possible to preserve creaturely contingency while not compromising the doctrine of divine simplicity.

This means that there are at least two ways of understanding a phrase like “God’s act to give grace,” such as Mullins calls it in premise (4) and (10). It could be understood as referring to that by which God produces the effect of the reception of grace, namely Himself, or it could refer to the effect of the reception of grace which God produces insofar as it is produced by God, which is a state of affairs, a modification of the being of some human person. The former is necessary, since God exists necessarily, whereas the latter is contingent, because God only contingently causes human beings to receive grace. “God’s act of giving grace,” understood in the former sense, is identical to God Himself, but it is not identical to “God’s act of giving grace,” understood in the latter sense, which is an effect which God produces and to which God is not identical.

Let us therefore define two senses of the term “God’s act to give grace.” In the causal sense, this refers to God Himself, His being, i.e. that in virtue of which the effect of the reception of grace is produced. In the effectual sense, this refers to the state of affairs in which a human being receives grace insofar as it is produced by God, i.e. her being is modified in such a way as to undo the deleterious effects of sin insofar as this is caused by God. This disambiguation of senses helps to show how Mullins’s syllogism fails. God’s act of giving grace, understood in the effectual sense as referring to the state of affairs in which a human being receives grace from God, is free — i.e., God produces this effect contingently. But God’s act of giving grace, understood in the causal sense as referring to God’s being, which is that by virtue of which He produces the effect of the reception of grace in the actual world, is not “free,” because properly speaking the term does not refer to an act at all but only to God’s being, which is necessary. The freedom lies in the contingency of the production of the effect, not in the possibility of the cause to be otherwise.

Mullins’s syllogism succeeds only if the two senses are confused or remain ambiguous. In other words, his argument suffers from fatal equivocation. The proponent of divine simplicity can freely affirm or deny any of the essential premises depending on which sense of the relevant term describing God’s action is meant. For example, the proponent of divine simplicity can agree that “God’s one eternal act” is necessary if this is understood in the causal sense and yet deny that it is identical to “God’s act to give grace” if this latter term is understood in the effectual sense, since the cause is not identical to the effect and can exist without it.

For this reason, I think Mullins’s argument against divine simplicity does not succeed. The really important piece of my response is what I said earlier about a difference in effect not entailing a difference in the cause. If the conversation is to continue, I think that would be an idea worth pursuing in greater detail.

Advertisements