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Why Care about the Theory of Divine Ideas? Part 1 of 2

Updated: Jun 21, 2019

Here is a sketch of some of the theological motivation for a theory of Divine Ideas. I also say something about what I take such a theory to be! In my next post, I will offer a similar sort of sketch of some of the distinctively philosophical motivation for a theory of Divine Ideas. If any of these reflections inspire any questions or concerns or enthusiasm, feel free to get in touch!

The theory of Divine Ideas is nearly as old as written theology itself. It's origins may be traced to Memphis, in ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, when some priest, perhaps in an outpouring of mystical love which was part of the genius of Egyptian religion, glorified the craftsman god, Ptah, by ascribing to Ptah’s heart and tongue—his thoughts and his speech—the creative origin of all else, even the other gods of the Egyptian pantheon. Not only the reality of creatures but their very intelligibility, their natures, essences—all the ways that things can be—spring from the thinking heart of the god.

A revival of the theory of Divine Ideas began when the Jewish philosopher, Philo, reading Platonists and the Septuagint in Ptolemaic Egypt, glorified God by ascribing to him a Logos, a rational plan of the created world, a plan more rational even than the plan of the city of Alexandria itself, drawn up by Alexander’s great architect, Dinocrates. Philo was the first to fuse Plato’s doctrine of the Forms with Jewish monotheism, and this merger would prove monumental to the history of the theory of Divine Ideas, and indeed all of western theology and philosophy.

As the Memphite and Philonic theologies suggest, the theory of Divine Ideas is first and foremost a theology of creation. It is a way of making sense of the world as the creation of a Person, a God who knows all, supremely wise, doing nothing by accident, making the world not out of need but out of the abundance of his good and loving nature.

The theory of Divine Ideas is also a theory of God’s knowledge of creatures, their natures, their powers, and the history they enact in God’s time at God’s timing. God knows his world not as we know it, by interacting with it and experiencing it, but instead by mapping it out, designing it. As St. Thomas Aquinas much later would put it, our thoughts are correct if they correspond to reality, but reality is correct insofar as it corresponds to God’s thoughts. God, peace be unto Protagoras, is the measure of all things.

Nearly all Christian versions of the theory of Divine Ideas are Trinitarian insofar as they associate God’s ideas in some way of other with God’s Word (Logos, Verbum), the second Person of the Trinity who is identified in the New Testament as the one through whom, in whom, and by whom all things were made,⁠1 the one who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together.⁠2 The safe bet is that the religious and philosophical sources of this Logos theology, especially in the Gospel of John, include Hellenistic material, partly but probably not exclusively filtered through the Old Testament and Apocrypha, including Greek and Aramaic translations or glosses of the Old Testament. But it does not appear to be particularly Platonic, especially as compared with Philo’s explicit doctrine that Plato’s Forms are Divine Ideas. The Platonization the New Testament Logos theology would occur later, and when St. Augustine made this Philonic identification he took it as an obvious and noncontroversial move for a philosophically inclined Christian to make. The theory of Divine Ideas was not always articulated in a clearly Trinitarian way, but St. Maximus the Confessor spoke the spirit if not the letter of all orthodox Christian Neoplatonists when he said that the Divine Ideas are many little logoi spoken by the one divine Logos.

In its emphasis on God as the sole source of all creaturely being and intelligibility, the theory of Divine Ideas should be of great interest to some contemporary philosophers and theologians interested in keeping “God above all” by preserving strong doctrines of divine sovereignty and aseity,⁠3 or what Brian Leftow has recently called ‘divine ultimacy’⁠4 God is sovereign to the extent that he has control over things, and God has aseity to the extent that things don’t have control over him. A doctrine such as the theory of Divine Ideas, which says that anything intelligible about creaturely ways of being is due to God’s thinking and nothing else that is not God, entails very strong doctrines of sovereignty and aseity: God is the ultimate origin of everything besides himself.

1 John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 11:2

2 Colossians 1:17

3 William Lane Craig, God Above All; Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature

4 Brian Leftow, God and Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

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