• Thomas M. Ward

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

Yesterday I shared some notes about why I think a theory of divine ideas is important for theology. Today I’m sharing some notes about why philosophers, especially metaphysicians and philosophers of religion, would be interested in it. There is still a lot of theology here, but hopefully it gives a sense of how a theory of divine ideas would do serious metaphysical work.


It’s easy to motivate the theory on distinctively philosophical grounds. Most importantly, a theory of Divine Ideas would offer elegant and economical alternatives to metaphysical theories which require abstract objects. It is difficult to figure out what an abstract object is supposed to be, but some typical things to say is that these objects are timeless, not located anywhere, and are not causally connected to anything: nothing caused them and they cause nothing. They are supposed to be required to explain certain features of knowledge and reality, such as the certainty of mathematical and logical truths, or the similarity in kind or quality exhibited by many natural things—the humanity of all humans, or the redness of all red things. Types of abstract object may include: properties, propositions, states of affairs, possible worlds, numbers, geometrical objects, and sets.


A theory of Divine Ideas does not need to appeal to such things because it locates things very similar to them in God’s mind, as ideas. So held in God’s thought, these alternatives to abstract objects have many features associated with abstract objects, with the important and theoretically advantageous difference that God’s thoughts are obviously able to be causally connected to things: to God, as the one who thinks them; to creatures, as the exemplars which God uses as his rational model of creation.


Monotheism is a spare and exacting doctrine. Can all these things really come from God and God alone? Some recent Christian philosophers, such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Peter Van Inwagen, have concluded that God cannot explain these things, and have turned to other eternal and uncausable beings. Some older thinkers, such as the Islamic philosopher and physician, Avicenna, have been coy about the existence of such things as abstract objects, but have argued on grounds similar to Wolterstorff’s and Van Inwagen’s, that the intelligibility of anything that can exist is not due to God but just to the natures of things. God’s power ranges over everything that is possible, but what is possible is, so to speak, settled by logic, prior to any thinking, willing, or creating on God’s part. You might say that, for Avicenna, intelligibility comes before being.


A similar view may be found in Alvin Plantinga, who developed a well-known argument for God’s existence based on the idea that certain features of God’s nature make it such that God exists in every possible world. God does not make a world to be a possible world, but he is to be found in all of them, including the actual world, and so he exists. The possible worlds there are are due to rules of logic and the existence of properties, propositions, and other abstract objects, none of which has anything to do with God.


Arguably, Plato himself, he of those horrible Forms, would have tried to derive as much intelligibility as he could from the Good. Yes, he has his doctrine of Forms, Forms for all kinds of things. But in Republic VI we learn that even the Forms depend for being what they are on the greatest Form of all, the Good. Yet insofar as modern readers find a doctrine of creation in Plato, it is taken to be found in a different book, the Timaeus, which features a Craftsman god who beholds the Forms and makes a world to be as much like these exemplars as possible. In this “likely story” of creation, it is not due to the Craftsman that there are the Forms there.


Now, I do not think that the Forms, either in Republic nor in Timaeus, are abstract objects in the modern sense. Certainly the Good is not an abstract object, since it is the cause of both the being and intelligibility of all Forms—whereas abstract objects are supposed to have no causal connections. Still, the creation doctrine of Plato’s Timaeus does have a deep affinity with those contemporary philosophical theologians who reject the Divine Ideas thesis that God is the source of all creaturely natures.


I think the derivation of all Forms from the Form of the good is a closer model of Christian creation than the Craftsman of the Timaeus. God is the source of both the being and the intelligibility of all things. If this is right, then God’s relationship to the facts about modality must be theorized in a way very different from Plantinga’s possible worlds. We lost a nifty argument for God’s existence but keep ahold of a God good enough to worship.


But the greatest challenge to this view is the old problem of the One and the Many. How, from a simple God, can a multitude of creaturely ways of being proceed?


Christian metaphysics, or at least the sort I’m interested, makes God the reason why Being is divided up in just the way it is. The Parmenidean problem is that if Being is as such singular, then there can only be the One: timeless, changeless, utterly simple. A standard and respectable solution is the Aristotelian dictum that being is said in many ways. On this view, Parmenides was simply wrong to assume that everything which exists is a being, if we mean exactly the same being for every being. The Aristotelian way out of Parmenidean collapse of the many to One is simply to assert the priority and unexplainability of the many.


Christian metaphysics, or at least the sort I’m interested in, cannot take on board this particular feature of Aristotelian philosophy. All proceeds from God. Everything other than God exists because of God. Everything merely possible is possible because of God.


Yet the classical conception of God makes him out to be rather like the Parmenidean One: timeless, changeless, utterly simple.


Pagan and Christian neoPlatonists undertook intensive mental and spiritual labor to glimpse how the Many could proceed from this undifferentiated point. The last of the pagan NeoPlatonists, Damascius, practically threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders, admitted that on NeoPlatonist grounds there should be nothing besides the One, and had nothing more to teach when Justinian shut down the Academy forever.


Christian neoPlatonists took a different tac, asserting simplicity but in practice packing in more primitive content to their idea of God, so that God himself is sufficiently rich, containing multitudes, to be the intelligible origin of all things.


The Christian doctrine of creation through the Logos surely aided this practical ascription of multiplicity in God, as surely as the Old Testament’s rich anthropomorphic, animal, elemental, and meteorological descriptions of God. The one God Yahweh who would contain in himself the powers and even names of the most important gods of neighboring pantheons, the God who can show himself in many ways and always show himself as he is—he is the one mighty enough to speak all names eternally in the heavenly court, and speak some of these names into being at the beginning of time.


For God to be truly above all, this primitive multiplicity must be contained in God. The doctrine of divine simplicity must be preserved. But if Christian theology is not to end as pagan theology ended, with aporia or fideism in the face of contradiction about the foundations of its metaphysics, then it must articulate a doctrine of divine simplicity which is, well, complex enough, in the sense that there is complexity in this simple God, to find all things in God.




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