Friday, February 3, 2017

This simple picture helps explain "Divine Simplicity" and God's many "attributes".

This post is more of a theological reflection rather than an apologetics argument. Oftentimes I've heard people talk about how God is "both infinitely Merciful and infinitely Just," or some similar comparison, as if God somehow was able to hold together many conflicting "attributes" at the same time. I think the answer to these kinds of questions is to recognize that what we think of as God's "attributes" are only half the picture. Consider the following diagram:

This is a picture of White Light (sunlight), which is invisible to the human eye, but when this White Light hits a Glass Prism, the White Light reflects off it and result is the spectrum of the colors of the rainbow. (This is real science you can do at home.) 

The analogy to draw from this example is that God is similar to the White Light in that He is normally invisible to us, while the Prism is similar to Creation, and when God interacts with Creation we see Gods many beautiful attributes throughout nature and in divine revelation. The point being that the colors of the rainbow represent God's attributes, such as Justice, Mercy, etc, and these are truly distinct from Creation's point of view, but in reality these terms are only human terms to describe an ultimate reality (White Light) that is far beyond our mind's ability to grasp. This is one reason why Christian theologians throughout history have described God as "simple," not to suggest God is easy to understand, but rather to say that God isn't composed of many 'parts'. We cannot really fathom or understand God directly, but we can still understand Him 'indirectly' in a real and true manner.


Anil Wang said...

Knowing the science behind the spectrum, I have some reservations. In white light, all the colours are already present, it's just that we don't perceive them as such. So white light isn't any more simple than a spectrum.

I don't know what is a good illustration, but I've always thought that divine simplicity is the reason Justice vs Mercy, Truth vs Beauty vs Goodness, etc are not dichotomies or trichotomies but different facets of the same thing...sort of how light is both a wave and a particle. So there can never be any real conflict conflict between God's Justice versus God's Mercy as various doctrines of the atonement, and Cardinal Kasper insists, since Perfect Mercy is Perfect Justice; there is no conflict between being just or merciful or truthful on earth and being faithful to God. The reason we see a conflict is because we are imperfect and do not (or can not) act perfectly just or perfectly merciful. But the closer we are to Christ (as the saints are), the more clear this is.

Nick said...

I know what you mean but I think the analogy holds up as a simple analogy. Pushing any analogy too far leads to problems and there is no perfect analogy, but if you can find a better one I'm certainly always about learning and improving my apologetics writing.

Chent said...

Thank your for posting the analogy. It was useful.

Tracy Hummel said...

What do you think of the Palamite objection to Western "essentialist theism"? How would you defend Aquinas from the Orthodox objection that his theology of God leads either to the idea the we can never really know Him in this life or that everything is God (pantheism), making Aquinas' ideas the root cause of the Enlightenment and modern rationalism?

"Following Palamas’ distinction, we may view God as the Divine Essence-Energy Being radiating unceasingly His very Essence-Energy Being in all directions, embracing, and permeating all creation. Notwithstanding this omnipresence of God, we can only partake in His participable Energy, but not in His imparticipable Essence. Similarly, we might view God as the eternal imparticipable-participable ‘light’ (1Jn 1:5) radiating His very imparticipable-participable Being or ‘light’ to all creation. In His divine simplicity, God in His Essence is personally present in His Energy. Likewise, God in His imparticipable light is also personally present in His participable light. 99
The Distinction between God’s Essence and Energy
Without the Palamite distinction, we would tend to assume either one of the following choices: (a) that God is imparticipable Essence, or that God is personally present only in His very transcendent difficult-to-participate Essence (as in the traditional Western essentialist theism), with the result that no real unmediated personal union with God is really possible on earth; or (b) that God is all-participable Energy (or Light), which would result in pantheism, with its assumption that we are already Gods (or Divine Persons) since we can become one with all of God without any barrier, difficulty or distinction."
See also for an Eastern Catholic discussion, where many assert that Palamite theology is not a question of dogma but a different though complimentary way of expressing the same thing.
Also see which declares Palamism a pseudo-gnostic heresy.
All very confusing. What is your take? Thanks for the wonderful web site.

Nick said...


My general view is this: I'm not aware of any Ecumenical Councils speaking on the Essence/Energies distinction which some EO like to emphasize, so the issue is somewhat over-emphesized as far as I'm concerned. I'm not aware of the Bible emphesizing the distinction either, so again, I think certain EO are over-playing their hand when "opposing" Catholicism in this regard. I question whether the E/E distinction is even that well known among the EO or is it just something a miniority of vocal EO like to bring up.

In one of the biggest "responses" to the Catholic Church's claim to Infalliblity after the First Vatican Council, a group of EO Patriarchs issued a very harsh 15 page decree in 1848 against Papal Infallibility along with addressing other Catholic "heresies". Aside from Papal Infallibility, the EO Patriarchs brought up the Filioque, then went on to focus on less relevant things (e.g. married clergy, sprinkling in Baptism, unleavened bread). Missing from this Letter is any reference to Essence/Energy, which is astonishing if this is such a major issue.

I think the reason why the modern day EO Essence/Energies argument would never have been considered in the past is that it undermines two basic Christian Dogmas: the Hypostatic Union and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If it is impossible for God's Essence to in some way 'interact' with creation, then there's no way Christ's Divine and Human natures could 'unite' in His Person. Again, if it is impossible for God to interact apart from Energies, then how can God indwell within the soul of a Christian?

With that in mind, I think the safest approach is to say this: the Essence/Energies distinction is not heresy, and there are valid ways to understand it, but the modern EO use of it is not only unfair (since it hasn't been defined by Ecumenical Council), it is also theologically unsound (since it undermines Hypostatic Union and Indwelling).

Lastly, Catholicism does not reject the Essence/Energies distinction, as the Eastern Catholics freely embrace it, while the Western/Latin Catholics are simply expressing it in a different manner. Nothing is more frustrating that when the EO refuse to allow the Latin side from expressing the same reality using their own language. It's pretty embarrassing when Christians will go to such lengths to desperately turn something their "opponents" believe into a heresy. The recent semi-failed EO Council in Crete 2016 is a good indicator that the EO aren't as united as they think they are, so this is even less so when it comes to them actually *allegedly* condemning Catholicism.