The Dilemma Between Divine Simplicity and Analogy Introduced §1

Once, I tried to compare and contrast Thomas F. Torrance’s and Thomas Aquinas’ respective and disparate views on the usage of ‘analogy’ in theological engagement. I did this in our (Myk Habets’ and my) edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; my personal chapter in that book is titled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either aquinasThrough Christ or Through Nature. I wasn’t altogether pleased with how that chapter came out, but it is what it is.

George Hunsinger in his new book Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Essays on Barth and Other Themes engages with the same issue I attempted to, but his comparison and contrast is between Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas; a similar endeavor to mine (I mean in regard to the traditions on analogy being compared). Throughout the rest of this post (which will probably run long) I am going to engage with Hunsinger’s comparative and constructive work here, which will involve engaging with the ostensible problem of Divine Simplicity and analogy respectively.

The Fourth Lateran Council serves as a jumping off point for Hunsinger in setting up this (his) discussion. We will enter into this with him at length (in other words I am going to be doing some extensive quotation work), and then we will follow it up with my own reflections in response to Hunsinger’s salient points on Barth and Aquinas in discussion. So Hunsinger:

A famous formula from the Fourth Lateran Council ran as follows:

For between Creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them. (Constitutions, ii)

Whatever this formula might mean, it is not necessarily in agreement with the view taken by Irenaeus. Although both would posit an analogy between the Creator and the creature, the Lateran formula, if taken strictly, seemed to construe their metaphysical difference as a matter of degree (“greater dissimilarity”), whereas Irenaeus, if taken strictly, appeared to adopt a more radical view. For him their difference would seem to be absolute, as set forth through a pattern of negation and eminence, not just a matter of degree. Uncreated light, being wholly other than created light, was placed in a class by itself: God was “unlike any light that we know.”

The idea of divine simplicity seemed to generate a quandary. Defining God as wholly other than any creatures seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse in theology. The idea of analogy, even as construed by the Fourth Lateran Council, seemed to posit that God and the creature were somehow metaphysically comparable. The dissimilarity between them, no matter how great, was finally a matter of degree. Divine simplicity, on the other hand, seemed to require a difference that was not merely relative but absolute. If so, it seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse about God. Language about God, on these terms, could only be equivocal and apophatic. Analogical views of theological language that affirm divine simplicity, or God’s radical difference from the world, need to deal with this dilemma.[1]

To sharpen this dilemma Hunsinger appeals to Denys Turner and Patristic Hippolytus; first to Turner:

There can be no good sense … in any … calculation of the greater and lesser degrees of “distance” which lie between Creator and creatures as contrasted with that between one creature and another; for it is not on some common scale of difference that these differences differ … as if to say: it is this kind or that, only infinitely so…. A term of comparison … presupposes a common scale…. For if God is not any kind of being, then his difference from creatures is not a difference of any kind, hence is not a difference of any size, hence is not incomparably greater, but, on the contrary, is, simply, incommensurable. “Greater” and “lesser” cannot come into it, logically speaking.[2]

Hunsinger then cites Hippolytus:

For comparisons can be instituted only between objects of like nature, and not between objects of unlike nature. But between God the Maker of all things and that which is made, between the infinite and the finite, between infinitude and finitude, there can be no kind of comparison, since these differ from each other not in mere comparison (or relatively), but absolutely in essence. And yet at the same time there has been effected a certain inexpressible and irrefragable union of the two into one substance [upostasin] which entirely passes the understanding of anything that is made. For the divine is just the same after the incarnation that it was before the incarnation; in its essence infinite, illimitable, impassible, incomparable, unchangeable, inconvertible, self-potent [autosXenes], and, in short, subsisting in essence alone the infinitely worthy good.[3]

If God is ‘simple’ and non-composite, if He just is and His predicates are just who He is fully and wholly in all that those are realized in Himself; if God is so unique and other in this regard, such that He is not open to creaturely comparison, then how can we ever speak of God in anything but equivocal ways? This is the dilemma that Hunsinger has introduced us to, and the dilemma that Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth understand and work through in their respective ways.

Since this is running long, and the comparison between Barth and Aquinas will run longer, I will divide this up into two separate posts. Hopefully you see and understand the dilemma that Divine simplicity and analogous language presents us with; if you do you will better appreciate the respective ways that both Barth and Aquinas end up engaging with this issue (no surprise I go with Barth … but Hunsinger doesn’t think Barth and Aquinas are as far apart as some think – stay tuned).

[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 61 kindle.

[2] Denys Turner cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 61-2.

[3] Hippolytus cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 62-3.

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