Ideas In God

And to me, how difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts, O God!  How vast are their sum total!  Psalm 139

      According to a long held tradition in Christianity, God’s knowledge extends as far as His bestowal of esse (being) and there exists in God, an idea of every being that He knows.  So in God, there are ideas of individuals, of accidents, of possibles, and even prior to their creation, each of these pre-existed eternally and simultaneously in the mind of God as divine ideas.

The doctrine of divine ideas has a long and rich history.  In some important ways it goes all the way back to antiquity.  Recall how Plato had developed his theory of Ideas or Forms, a realm of pure intelligibility, which stood in contrast to the sensible, changeable world.  Now Plato gives an account in the Timaeus of how the demiurge made the universe.  This being looked the realm of Ideas as the patternfor his creative work, and so fashioned the sensible world accordingly.  Early christians found the notion of eternal ideas or forms quite reasonable but it could not have been true that God looked to anything outside Himself in order to create.  Such a notion would be absurdity in excelsis.  Rather, they insisted, the ideas are to be thought of as existing in the mind of God as the very thoughts of God.  Even further still, Augustine and Pseudo-Dyonisius after him would insists that the ideas are not merely “in” the divine mind (like water is “in” a cup), but the ideas just are the divine mind. 

This is a dark saying.  In fact I find everything about this doctrine perplexing, yet I am still drawn to it.  I suppose my attraction is directly proportional to the utter strangeness of the doctrine (even Aquinas was willing to admit of some mystery to the teaching). Nevertheless, it seems the more I read, the less I understand.

4 Responses to Ideas In God

  1. Susan says:

    Thinking about this… While recognising that ideas would not exist “in” the divine mind (since that locates them spatially in a God who is not Himself spatially located) is an improvement, how do we handle an identity statement such as “divine ideas are the divine mind.” (thinking of Leibniz’ laws)? Is the divine mind only ideas? Don’t minds have more properties than merely ideas? Personality, emotion, logic, language, etc….

  2. Xavier says:

    Hi Susan, thanks for stopping by. I think we could say that ideas exist “in” the divine mind not in the spatial sense as you point out, but as in the way we speak of accidents inhering “in” a substance, or properties being “in” an individual. But even this is not what the early Christians had in mind (pardon the play on words). Early on, for example, the ideas are seen as the rationes rerum (the reasons of things)–God’s “thinkings”, or mental ordering of all creatures in their proper place (Aquinas will later see them as exemplars). These rationes are eternal and unchanging and are what (according to the early Christians) Plato called the ideas.

    Augustine, for example, says that what Plato meant by the intelligible realm was not that there was another world alongside the physical one. Rather, he says, this should be understood as the eternal and unchanging rationes by which God made the world.

    Now just how could God’s thinking be identical with God? You ask “Is the divine mind only ideas? Don’t minds have more properties than merely ideas?” These are two excellent questions that won’t try to answer yet. I actually plan on some follow up posts on this so I might be able to address them then. To anyone else, feel free to take a stab at it though.

  3. Susan says:

    I look forward to reading more of your posts on this!

  4. […] The guys at Summa have an interesting conversation going on about Ideas in God, and Dr. Groothuis encourages (yes, curmudgeons do encourage from time to time, don’t act so surprised) with a fine quote by G.K. Chesterson, who has inspired people to think about life in more ways than is commonly realized. […]

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