August 20, 2019

Mullins Trounces Feser on Divine Simplicity

Filed under: Philosophy — camcintosh @ 10:30 pm

Theopolis recently hosted an exchange on the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS), with the lead critique by Ryan Mullins and responses by Peter Leithart, Joe Lenow, and Ed Feser. Now, I was most interested in what Feser would say, being the staunch Thomist he is, because Mullins’ argument is unlike most I’ve seen against DDS.

I was surprised, then, to see Feser completely drop the ball by ignoring Mullins’ argument, instead repeating what he has said elsewhere in response to a completely different argument against DDS. In a final disappointing act, Feser has posted a lengthy, and rather unduly condescending and snarky reply to Mullins on his personal blog. The central nerve of Feser’s reply is the dubious claim that contemporary analytic philosophers use the term “property” so broadly that actions could be properties! Not a good look.

The doctrine of divine simplicity is philosophically and theologically ludicrous and has no place in any serious Christian doctrine of God. In point of historical fact, Aquinas unwittingly inherited his strong doctrine of simplicity from an Aristotelian tradition shaped by Muslim and Jewish apologists with explicitly anti-Trinitarian intent, which explains his departure from a more modest concept of divine unity found in his Christian predecessors like Augustine and Anselm.[1] Contemporary Christian philosophers like Feser, following Aquinas, are likewise unwitting heirs of that anti-Trinitarian tradition, and thereby display a perverse theological prioritization of simplicity over tri-unity, when the former should be understood in light of the latter rather than vice versa.

Screen Shot 2019-08-20 at 10.25.02 PM[1] R. M. Burnes, “The Divine Simplicity in St. Thomas,” Religious Studies 25/3 (1989), pp. 271-293. Burnes writes, “The ‘unbelievers’ against whose ‘ridicule’ [Aquinas] wished to protect the Christian cause by not trying to offer rational proof for the Trinity were undoubtedly the Muslim and Jewish philosophers, whose approach he so much admired and imitated. What he probably did not fully appreciate is that their arguments for the divine simplicity which he adopted, and which would have been the basis for their ‘ridicule’, had by no means emerged in a neutral context but had been forged as weapons in a battle against the doctrine of the Trinity… Ironically then, Thomas accepted as the deliverances of authentic natural reasoning a tradition which had been formed specifically to counter the Trinitarian theism in which he believed.” (p. 287)


  1. I think Mullin’s argument is essentially the one Katherin Rogers gives in her paper The Traditional Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

    Comment by Hugh Jidiette — August 21, 2019 @ 7:14 am | Reply

  2. Come on–surely ‘trounces’ is a bit over the top. And DDS is “philosophically and theologically ludicrous and has no place in any serious Christian doctrine of God”? I mean, a little respect for some of the best thinkers in the history of the church, right, whether or not you agree with the doctrine?

    And Feser’s condescension notwithstanding, surely he’s right that his response addresses Mullins’s premise (9) which would, if successful, take down the argument as a whole?

    Comment by dills — September 30, 2019 @ 5:26 am | Reply

  3. We can agree that Feser’s snark is disappointing, but at the end of the day I think he is right and Mullins is wrong. As a previous commenter mentioned, Feser does address Mullins’s premise 9 which claimed that “All of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one divine act.” This is incorrect, since some of God’s actions are not real, intrinsic properties, but so-called “Cambridge” properties. Or if one insists that all God’s actions are intrinsic, then that still allows for the possibility that the effects on the world are contingent.

    Comment by Michael Nelson — July 1, 2020 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

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