Simplicity and God’s Abstract Names

One of the striking implications of divine simplicity is that we can refer to God with abstract “names”. That is, when we predicate something of God, that predication can be made absolutely if it pertains to any of God’s essential attribures. Anselm, for example, is not afraid to identify God with the abstract notion of justice itself. So he says in Monologion 16:

It would seem, then, that the supremely good substance is called ‘just’ by its participating in a quality (in this case, justice), rather than through itself. But this is contrary to the already ascertained truth. The supreme nature is what it is—good, great, existing—precisely through itself and nothing else. So then, it is just through justice and it is just through itself. And if so, then what is more necessarily and clearly the case than that the supreme nature is justice itself? . . . And so if you ask what is this supreme nature we are talking about?’, you may answer ‘justice.’ What could be truer?

Anselm frequently makes these sorts of moves in the Monologion. So he says
(1) Whatever is just is just through the form Justice
(2) God is whatever He is through Himself
(3) God is just

These three propositions seems to lead to the conclusion
(4) So God is Justice.

He further states, that “since the supreme nature is strictly said not to possess, but to be justice, when it is said to be just strictly it is intelligibly thought of as ‘being justice’ and not as ‘possessing justice.’” For Anselm then, God is more like justice than He is a just thing. God does not possess justice like creatures do. Rather He exists as justice itself. Anselm wouldn’t be unhappy, then, to abandon all talk of God as being ‘good,’ ‘wise,’ ‘just,’ and the like, and speak of God instead with abstract names like goodness, wisdom, and justice.

Aquinas, though with more temperate expression, is likewise willing to affirm that a simple God bears a certian resemblance to abstracta so much so that we can use abstract names when we speak of Him. He says in the Summa Ia 13.2:

Whereas names given to signify simple forms signify a thing not as subsisting, but as that whereby a thing is; as, for instance, whiteness signifies that whereby a thing is white. And as God is simple, and subsisting, we attribute to Him abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His substance and perfection.

That God can be spoken of with both concrete and abstract “names” suggests that, though He is a concrete being, there is a sense in which He is at least like an abstract entity such as an attribute. Leftow sums this up nicely: “For Thomas, ‘whiteness,’ an abstract name, signifies not something that exists independently, an Aristotelian substance, but an attribute, by having which a substance is white. Thomas insists that because He is simple, we at times must, e.g., call God not just good but goodness, giving Him an abstract ‘name’ appropriate to an attribute. Evidently, Thomas thinks that God’s simplicity renders Him significantly attribute-like.”

3 Responses to Simplicity and God’s Abstract Names

  1. Not that I really know anything about his writing, but I think Pseudo-Dyonisius (and those Eastern theologians after him) would be more qualified in what we can state about God. See his Divine Names. Since God is utterly transcendent and we can only approach him through mystery, kataphatic statements (positive statements–“God is…”) are ultimately limited. Whereas apophatic statements (negative–God is not…) better retain the mystery. Ultimately though all statements about God are limited in that they have similarity and dissimularity with actual reality.

    I think this is what I remember of his thought, but don’t hold me to it.

    Ben

    p.s. Props to Xav for his GRE writing score! Enjoy your trip.

  2. It turns out that his The Mystical Theology may have a better discussion of his theology concerning discussion of God.

  3. Sam says:

    If “God” is taken as a Milliam directly referential proper name, and functions along basically Kripkean means, then we can refer to God with the name “God” whether or not any specific qualities or attributes hold true of Him.

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