This post is a response to Feser’s recent article “The Neo-Classical Challenge to Classical Theism” (Philosophy Compass). The post is broken into two parts. The first part is written by Dr. Ryan Mullins and only reflects Mullins’s views. The second part is written by Joe Schmid and only reflects Schmid’s views. References can be found at the end of the post. Notes can be found at the end of each part.
Part One: Mullins Strikes Back
Author: Ryan Mullins
Edward Feser is at it again. You may remember Feser as the guy who says that if you deny divine simplicity, you are implicitly an atheist. Or you may remember Feser as the guy who attacked a premise in my argument that never existed. That’s right, he completely fabricated a premise in order to reject my argument. Well, Feser has a brand new article in Philosophy Compass called, “The Neo-Classical Challenge to Classical Theism.” For those of you who don’t know, Philosophy Compass provides short essays with the aim of helping readers get caught up on a current topic. Feser’s article aims to offer a short summary of the current literature on classical theism, and the challenges from contemporary neoclassical theists. Who is the main neoclassical theist that Feser focuses on? Yours truly! It is great to see Feser finally start to engage with my work instead of replacing Thomas Morris’ name with “Mullins.” In this short essay, I want to reply to a few points that Feser makes in his article. In particular, I want to focus on the historical precedence of non-classical models of God, and Feser’s continual assertion that I have mischaracterized classical theism.
Neoclassical Theism: Older Than You Think
It will be helpful to get clear on a few terms. In particular, we need to get clear on the difference between classical theism and neoclassical theism. Classical theism is a model of God that affirms divine simplicity, timelessness, immutability, and impassibility. Neoclassical theism rejects one or more of those four claims while also maintaining exhaustive foreknowledge. Despite what the name suggests, neoclassical theism is not that new. It is actually quite old. This is because there is a long history of denying divine simplicity, timelessness, and so on in the Western philosophical tradition. I will give two examples. One from the Jewish tradition, and the second from the Islamic tradition.
As is often pointed out by critics of classical theism, doctrines like simplicity and impassibility are anti-biblical in the sense that they contradict the explicit teachings of scripture. James A. Diamond says that philosophical notions like divine simplicity “actually requires a violent distortion of the original Jewish scriptures, imposing a notion of the Deity that is foreign both to the written text and its voluminous oral interpretive traditions.” Yoram Hazony says that simplicity and immutability contradict the meaning of the revealed the name YWHW in Exodus 3:14. You might be tempted to say that the Jewish biblical and rabbinic tradition are not engaged in philosophical reasoning, so this cannot count as part of the Western philosophical reflection on the nature of God. If you are tempted to say silly things like that, allow me to recommend Dru Johnson’s book, Biblical Philosophy.
Next, I want to consider Islamic philosophical theology. Quite early on, various Islamic philosophers and theologians saw problems with divine timelessness and simplicity. In the 9th Century a group called the Karrāmīs rejected timelessness because they saw the obvious conflict between timelessness and creation ex nihilo. As did 11th and 12th Century thinkers like Faḫr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī, Abū Barakāt al-Bagdādī, Abu al-Ma’ali al-Juwayni. (Feser says that if you notice this obvious problem you are engaged in question begging. How dare these people notice obvious problems!)
Next consider divine simplicity. The rejection of divine simplicity is actually quite prominent in Islamic thought. In the 12th Century, Shahrastani wrote a book called Book of Religious and Philosophical Sects in which he outlined three main groups: the Mu’tazila, the Compulsionists, and the Attributionists. The Mu’tazila affirmed divine simplicity and denied that God had any attributes, whereas the Attributionists denied divine simplicity and affirmed that God has distinct attributes. People like Avicenna fall into the minority camp by affirming divine simplicity. People like al-Ghazali fall into the majority camp by rejecting divine simplicity and affirming that God has distinct attributes. Rejecting divine simplicity is actually very popular within Islamic philosophical theology.
This could lead to one of two different conclusions. It might mean that the Jewish Scriptures and the majority of Muslims are implicitly affirming atheism because they deny divine simplicity. Alternatively, it might mean that neoclassical theism is a very old, and well-established position within the history of Western philosophical theology. I’ll let you decide which is the correct conclusion.
Misunderstanding Classical Theism or Explicitly Quoting Classical Theists?
You are probably familiar with a particular trope by now. Internet classical theists will respond to all objections by saying, “You have misunderstood Aquinas.” This is something that we joke about often. We have made so many memes making fun of this incredibly tired response to any and all objections. To be clear, there can be cases of misunderstanding the classical tradition, and it is a good thing to point those out when they arise. Yet the constant accusation of “You don’t understand Aquinas” from Feser and others is getting old.
In his article, Feser makes multiple assertions that I have made false claims about classical theism. My reply is quite simple. I did not make false claims about classical theism. Instead, I explicitly quote classical theists making various claims. Feser has conveniently overlooked the many citations that I offer in an attempt to make it look like I simply don’t understand what classical theism is. That is what I am getting tired of. I am getting tired of Feser and other internet classical theists just ignoring all of the direct quotes that I offer from actual classical theists in order to dismiss my arguments out of hand. If anyone has read my work, you will have noticed that I often over cite classical thinkers. This over citation is designed precisely to combat this Feser-style dismissal of my arguments. I’m not going to over cite here, but I will provide some of the citations that Feser conveniently skipped over.
First, Feser suggests that I rely on Katherin Rogers’ work too much for my understanding of divine simplicity and classical theism. Ignore the fact that I over cite all of your favourite dead people in my publications. I will admit that I have relied quite heavily on one of the greatest living classical theists for my own understanding of classical theism. Rogers is widely regarded as an excellent medieval scholar, and relying on her work is what responsible scholarship demands. I do have various disagreements with her understanding of various topics. For example, Rogers thinks that Anselm affirms an eternalist ontology of time. I disagree. In The End of the Timeless God, I offer an extended exegesis of the classical Christian tradition to argue that thinkers like Anselm affirmed a presentist ontology of time.
Feser seems to think it would be better if I focused on the work of Brian Davies, Eleonore Stump, Barry Miller, and others. I reply that I have engaged quite heavily with all of these thinkers other than Barry Miller. (I find Miller’s work to be less than clear, and to have a rather odd interpretation of various classical thinkers.) So I am not really sure what Feser’s point is with all of this. I can’t help but think that Feser is slowing poisoning the well against Rogers’ work in order to dismiss my objections to classical theism. I think this might be the case because Rogers is intellectually honest enough to admit that the modal collapse objection relies on premises explicitly endorsed by classical theists, and arrives at a valid and sound conclusion. Internet classical theists don’t like that Rogers openly accepts the modal collapse in multiple places. Internet classical theists also don’t like it when I point out that other classical theists like Hugh McCann accept the modal collapse, but let’s save that for another day.
On page 3 Feser says,
Several neo-classical theists have developed the charge that the notion of divine simplicity is incoherent. Mullins’ version of this objection (2013, 2021) is perhaps the most recent, and is representative of the approach. In a series of writings, Mullins has claimed that the doctrine of divine simplicity holds: that God has no properties at all (2013, p. 189; 2020, p. 17; 2021, pp. 88 and 93); that this entails that he does not have even extrinsic or relational properties, sometimes known as Cambridge properties (2013, p. 183; 2021, pp. 87–88 and 93); that we cannot make even conceptual distinctions between parts or aspects of God (2013, p. 185; 2021, p. 90); that God therefore cannot even be said to be Lord or Creator (2013, p. 200; 2020, p. 27); and that when God is said to be “pure act” without potentiality, what this means is that God is an act or action, in the sense of something a person does (2013, p. 201).
Let me make something clear before I proceed. I do not claim these things, I report them. I directly quote a bunch of classical theists saying all of this in my publications. I’m not pulling these notions out of thin air. Ok, now let us continue. Feser says (p. 3),
But the trouble with such objections, from the point of view of Thomistic classical theists, is that the claims Mullins makes about the doctrine of divine simplicity are false, or at best extremely misleading. The doctrine seems incoherent only because he is mischaracterizing it.
I find this odd. Notice that the doctrine only seems incoherent because I have mischaracterized it. I’ve seen this strategy before. I have constantly put up with Thomists claiming that the only reason one might disagree with the great and infallible Aquinas is because they have misunderstood Aquinas. Norman Geisler used to do this all the time, and things have not really changed much since then.
Ok, so all of my explicit quotes from classical theists are completely ignored by Feser, and now he is saying that I am making false claims. That is curious to say the least. What false claims am I making?
Here is the first false claim that I make. According to Feser, I claim that classical theism says that God does not have properties. Feser says that this is not an accurate portrayal of classical theism (p. 3). I find this really wild since I have repeatedly quoted Katherin Rogers explicitly saying that God does not have properties. In case you don’t believe me, let me provide the quote in full. Rogers writes, “The medieval view, spelled out most clearly by Aquinas, but certainly there in Anselm, is that, strictly speaking God neither has properties nor is He a property…however unified and exalted. God is simply act.” In fact, I have also cited other classical thinkers like Augustine and Henry Church making the same claim. The Reformed Thomist James Dolezal also says that the simple God does not have any properties. Even on page 4 of Feser’s article he quotes Brian Davies saying that God lacks properties and attributes. Also, don’t forget that Shahrastani describes divine simplicity as the view that God does not have attributes. But we shouldn’t let facts get in the way of a good Thomistic narrative, so let’s move on.
On page 3, Feser complains that I have not explained what I mean by properties. To be fair to Feser, he may have missed the part in my publications where I allow proponents of divine simplicity to explain this point themselves. It is in the same paragraph where I cite Rogers claiming that the simple God does not have any properties, so it would be easy to miss. As Jeffrey Brower and Michael Bergmann explain, the simple God does not possess any properties, forms, immanent universals, or tropes. Their claim is that God cannot have any exemplifiables of any sort. I honestly don’t know what Feser is going on about here. If Feser wants to disagree with all of those classical theists, he is free to do so. But don’t come to me saying that I have made false claims about classical theism when I have explicitly quoted classical theists making these claims.
Next, Feser considers the issue of Cambridge properties. In my publications I directly cite various classical theists explicitly saying that God does not undergo any extrinsic or relational changes, and that God does not have any accidental relational properties. Feser takes issue with this. Apparently I am once again making up stuff about classical theism. Granted, I give a long exegesis of Augustine, Boethius, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Jacob Arminius, and Paul Helm on this point in The End of the Timeless God. For example, I consider Augustine’s The Trinity Book V, where Augustine is really worried about God changing in terms of “relationship title” like lord and creator. Or consider Aquinas in SCG Book II.12-14, where Aquinas is worried about God changing relationally. There Aquinas says that the relations “are not really in Him, and yet are predicated of Him, it remains that they are ascribed to Him according only to our way of understanding.” In this section, Aquinas is clear that the relations cannot be accidents in God because God does not have any accidents. In light of this, it makes no sense for Feser to say that classical theists believe that God has accidental relational properties.
In my essay, “Classical Theism,” I also provide multiple citations from classical theists making this claim. For the sake of charity, one might think that Feser could have missed these citations in this essay. Hang on a second…let me get a screenshot of the page for you so that you can see how easy it is to miss all of this…here you go:
As you can clearly see from this page, it would be very easy to miss all of the citations in the main text from classical theists saying that God cannot undergo extrinsic changes. It’s not like the citations take up most of the page. Anyway, once again, we don’t want to let facts get in the way of a good Thomistic narrative, so let’s carry on.
On page 4, Feser makes it clear that Thomistic classical theists like himself, Stump, and Miller do think that God has Cambridge properties. Here is the thing. I know that Feser, Stump, and Miller love to play the magical card called “Cambridge properties” to solve all of their problems. Following the lead of Brian Leftow, I just don’t understand how this magical card solves anything. Further, I think that classical theists like Augustine, Boethius, Lombard, Aquinas, and Helm understand something that Feser does not. They understand that only temporal beings with temporal location are capable of undergoing Cambridge changes. This is because Cambridge changes demarcate a before and after in the life of the thing undergoing a mere relational change. A timeless God cannot have a before and after.
To be fair to Feser, Stump does say that God can have extrinsic accidental properties. Of course, Feser might have missed the part where Stump says that she is intentionally weakening the doctrine of divine simplicity when she makes this claim. It would be easy to miss since I only pointed this out in two different publications that Feser cites in his article. Perhaps Feser also missed the part where I explain that proponents of divine simplicity like Steven Duby and James Dolezal have openly criticized Stump on this point.
Ok, what else have I falsely claimed about classical theism? I said that conceptual distinctions do not apply to the simple God. You might wonder where I got this incredibly false claim… so, so false! Did I make it up in order to dismiss classical theism, or did I quote a bunch of classical theists explicitly endorsing this claim? You be the judge.
In my previous publications I have explained that the classical doctrine of divine simplicity says all that is in God is God. These identity claims leave no room for any distinctions in God. Anselm is clear on this point. He says that, “whatever is made up of parts is not absolutely one, but in a sense many and other than itself, and it can be broken up either actually or by the mind—all of which things are foreign to” God. Compare a similar statement made by Jacob Arminius in his 25 Public Disputations, Disputation IV.XI: “Simplicity is a pre-eminent mode of the Essence of God, by which he is void of all composition, and of component parts whether they belong to the senses or to the understanding.” What this means is that not even conceptual distinctions can apply to the simple God. As Anselm explains, “what either actually or conceptually has parts can be divided into parts, and this is altogether foreign to God.” (Incarnation of the Word VII). Avicenna concurs that even conceptual distinctions are foreign to the simple God.
Any distinction that we mere mortals might come up with in our minds cannot pick out any such distinction in God. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the denial that conceptual distinctions apply to God is not some irrelevant remark. It is actually crucial to medieval arguments from divine simplicity to divine timelessness. To be fair to Feser, he may have missed this discussion in my writings. I only bring them up all the time, so it would be easy to miss.
Alright, one more false claim from me. I said that God is an act. Well, that is not quite right. I quoted Rogers, Aquinas, and many others saying that all of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one act, and this one act is identical to God. But ignore the fact that I quote a bunch of classical theists explicitly saying all of that. According to Feser, it is mistaken to suppose that “pure act” means that God is identical to an act (p. 4). Well, ignore the fact that I never said that pure act means that God is identical to an act. All I did was quote a bunch of classical theists saying that God is identical to His act. When you ignore all of the things that classical theists explicitly say, I think you can see why Feser is right about this point. I think Feser is right to say the following (p. 4):
But what has been said suffices to show that neo-classical theists like Mullins have failed to engage, much less refute, the actual views of Thomist classical theists. In particular, having failed accurately to represent the content of the Thomist conception of divine simplicity, they have also failed to show that it is incoherent.
There is an important lesson to be learned from this. When I cite dozens of classical theists saying X, Y, and Z, you should not think that they believe any of that. Nor should you think that I am engaging with anything that they are saying. You should certainly not think that I am accurately representing their views. Instead, you can safely infer that I have misunderstood everything. From there, Feser can consider any objection I raise against classical theism, and say that my objections have no teeth because I have misrepresented classical theism. Again, ignore the fact that my publications go into detail about the ways that classical theists have historically responded to the objections that I am running. There is no need to worry about such trifling details like that. Feser is absolutely right that I am just wildly misrepresenting everyone, and he is right that merely uttering the words “Cambridge properties” makes all of the problems go away.
Alternatively, one might notice that I have been offering a criticism of classical theism. I have never been particularly interested in critiquing Thomism like Feser wants me to. Why? Because Aquinas’s disciples have created a million different schools of Thomism, and I have never been fussed about trying to sort through them all. This is mainly because these disciples start with an assumption that I cannot accept, and then interpret Aquinas accordingly. This is how disciples of Aquinas work. First, they start with the assumption that Aquinas cannot possibly be wrong about anything, and that he is never inconsistent with himself. Second, from this assumption, they will engage in all sorts of wild interpretative strategies to make Aquinas infallible. I just don’t have enough faith to be a fellow disciple.
Here is an example of this. On page 6, Feser says that the Thomist would respond to my modal collapse argument by saying that creator is one of God’s Cambridge properties. Yet for some reason I seem to recall my modal collapse argument resting on the claim that God’s act of creation is identical to God’s essence/existence. But maybe I am completely misrepresenting myself! Maybe I don’t understand Mullins!
Anyway, I also seem to recall Aquinas explicitly saying that God’s act of creation is intrinsic to God, and identical to God. In which case, that is the exact opposite of a Cambridge property which is an extrinsic relation that is outside of God. Aquinas says, “God does not act by an action that is outside Him, as though it went out from Him and terminated in a creature.” According to Aquinas, “The manifold actions ascribed to God, like intelligence, volition, the production of things, and the like, are not so many different things, since each of these actions in God is His very being, which is one and the same thing.” For some reason I thought Aquinas said that. But who knows? Maybe Aquinas never said any of that. Maybe Feser is right to say something that directly contradicts what Aquinas explicitly says. Perhaps that is what it means to be a Thomist. I’m not really sure.
 (Feser 2017, 195)
 For a full biblical discussion, see (Peckham 2021).
 (Diamond 2019, 45-46)
 (Hazony 2019, 11)
 (Hoover 2022, 94-95) (Kukkonen 2012, 540)
 (Renard 2014, 137ff)
 (Harvey 2021, 141)
 E.g. (Rogers, Classical Theism and the Multiverse 2020)
 (K. A. Rogers 2000, 27)
 (Augustine 1991, VII.10) (Rogers 1996, 166) Cf. (Church 1638, 23)
 (Dolezal 2011, 125)
 (Mullins, Classical Theism 2021, 88)
 (Bergmann and Brower 2006, 359-60)
 (Leftow 2009, 34)
 (Stump and Kretzmann, Absolute Simplicity 1985, 354, 369)
 (Mullins, Classical Theism 2021, 95-96) (Mullins, The End of the Timeless God 2016, 57)
 (Dolezal 2011, 198-199) (Duby 2016, 50-51)
 (Anselm 2008, 18)
 (Arminius 1986, 115)
 (McGinnis 2009, 64)
 (Mullins, Classical Theism 2021, 90)
 (Rogers 2000, 27-29) (Aquinas 1934, I.76 and I.82) Cf. (Aquinas 1934, I.16-22) (Levering 2017, 85) (Charnock 1864, 387) (Bonaventure 1963) (Dolezal 2011)
 (Aquinas 1934, II.31)
 (Aquinas 1934, II.10)
Part Two: Schmid’s Reflections
Author: Joe Schmid
I’ll offer some reflections on Feser’s article, beginning with the following passage:
In terms of expositing classical theistic and Thomistic views, there isn’t much to complain about here. My sole suggestion would be to include an analysis of what it is to be a part under classical theism. Typically, for classical theists, some x is a part of substance S just in case (i) x is some positive ontological item intrinsic to S and (ii) x is distinct from S. More simply (and applied to God), anything intrinsic to God is identical to God (Fakhri 2021). This understanding of parts accords well with how the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS) is traditionally articulated. As Augustine famously articulated it, God is what God has (Augustine, The City of God, XI, 10). Similarly with Anselm: addressing God, Anselm writes in his Proslogion that “you are whatever you are . . . you are the very life by which you live, the wisdom by which you are wise, the very goodness by which you are good” (2001, ch. 12). Also later in the Proslogion: “[Y]ou are what you are, since whatever you are in any way or at any time, you are wholly and always that” (ibid, ch. 22). Vallicella (2019) follows suit: “God is ontologically simple . . . there is nothing intrinsic to God that is distinct from God.” Other scholars in models of God are similarly explicit about this conception of parthood in relation to DDS. There are also straightforward paths from other traditional classical theistic commitments to this understanding of parthood, but we needn’t belabor that here.
While Feser’s purpose in the passage is (principally, if not entirely) expository, it’s still worth assessing some of the claims in the passage—or, at least, assessing them from my epistemic vantage point. One such claim is that a first cause must be purely actual, for if it had passive potency, it could be acted on and, consequently, would no longer be first in the relevant sense. But there are several problems with this, even granting the dubious metaphysical backdrop involving act and potency, ontological pluralism, and the like.
First, for all the reasoning here shows, the first cause could very well be an agent, God, with various passive potentials that could be actualized by God himself, i.e., by God’s exercise of agent-causal power. The various changes in creation would be explained by reference to God’s creating and sustaining activity, and God’s own passive potencies could be actualized by God qua agent cause. Agents actualize their own passive potentialities all the time—for instance, assuming agent-causal views in the metaphysics of action, I actualize my own passive potency to form intentions. (This doesn’t involve the passive potency itself pulling itself into actuality by its own bootstraps, of course.) God, here, is quite clearly a first cause, and yet he has passive potencies. So the absence of passive potencies doesn’t follow upon being a first cause. (At least, not for the reasons Feser here adumbrates.)
Second, even if (as Aquinas’s argument from change at best shows) the first cause is first in each per se chain of change, it doesn’t follow that it is first in every per accidens chain of change. And so nothing in the reasoning above rules out the first cause being first in every per se chain but nevertheless being actualized (and so non-first) in some per accidens chain. (This is perfectly compatible with the claim that per accidens chains presuppose more fundamental per se chains upon which the former depend. E.g. the first cause could actualize all the changes that creatures undergo which are located in per se chains, including the creaturely change that causally impacts the first cause in a per accidens manner (such that the first cause, upon receiving the relevant actuality, does not possess it wholly derivatively). For instance, the first cause could actualize all the per se changes involved in a creature saying a petitionary prayer to the first cause, and this petitionary prayer could then causally impact the first cause in a per accidens manner—say, by causally influencing the first cause to fulfill the petition. Here, all per se chains terminate in the first cause, and moreover all per accidens chains depend on more fundamental per se chains, and yet the first cause is still non-first in some per accidens chain.)
Third, and more generally, we can explain all changes (and all actualizations of potential) without any recourse to a purely actual being. Here are two entirely coherent scenarios in which this obtains – scenarios that proponents of the argument from change need to positively rule out for their argument to succeed:
- Suppose N is an essentially timeless, necessarily existent source of every object apart from itself. Suppose also that N has potencies for cross-world variance, i.e., variance in non-essential properties across worlds. Hence, N is not purely actual. Nevertheless, N can easily explain why there is any change. Perhaps N spontaneously, impersonally, and indeterministically causes our universe to begin to exist and thereby causes the first events and changes that unfold in reality. (We can suppose, further, that N is also a continuous sustainer and per se source of all change as time progresses.) Or perhaps N timelessly, intentionally, and freely wills the creation of the universe (including all the changes therein). In this case, N explains why there are any changes (at all, ever). Moreover, the explanation here doesn’t presuppose the prior reality of change, since something’s causing change does not require that thing itself to first (intrinsically) change (lest the classical theist admit that God changes in God’s creative act). Finally, suppose that N’s various non-essential features across worlds are (indeterministically) explained by more fundamental, essential, necessary features of N. Under this view, no actualization of potential goes unexplained, and yet there is no purely actual being.
- Suppose a version of neo-classical theism is true. Then, all changes in things other than God are explained in terms of God’s initial free choice to create in combination with God’s continuously performed free choice(s) to sustain objects and cause (perhaps via concurrence with creaturely causality) their changes. Moreover, suppose God changes in performing such choices. Such changes are not inexplicable; they are explained in terms of more fundamental features of God, e.g., God’s desires, reasons, beliefs, character, goodness, and the like, or perhaps in terms of God qua agent. Thus, under this view, no change or actualization of potential goes unexplained, and yet there is no purely actual being.
This leads us to the point about composition: “Whatever is composed of parts possesses passive potency insofar as its existence depends on the parts being combined.”
Second, consider the number two. The number two has various properties distinct from itself, such as the property of being even. But anything with various properties distinct from itself is a composite thing (by the lights of those who accept a broadly classical theistic understanding of parthood). So the number two is a composite thing. But the number two has no passive potencies. The various parts of the number two do not have the potential to be separated (since the number two, if such an entity exists, would be a necessarily existent entity—two wouldn’t just happen to exist in some worlds and not others). Moreover, all the intrinsic properties of the number two (e.g., being a number, being even, etc.) are essential to the number two, and none of them are causally actualized within the number two—in which case the number two has no inherent passive potencies. The number two, then, is both composite and devoid of passive potency. Passive potency therefore doesn’t follow upon composition.
Whether you think the number two exists is irrelevant, since I’m concerned here with in principle counterexamples. The dialectic is similar to the following. Suppose you say that what makes it the case that an entity enjoys moral worth is that the entity, in its normal course of development, is capable of interpersonal communication. I respond by pointing out that this account would entail, absurdly, that an intelligent, rational, sentient alien species with no communicative practices or abilities would lack moral worth. Clearly, it’s no use responding to my counterexample that there are no such aliens. The point is that (i) if there were such aliens, they would have moral worth, and yet (ii) according to your account of moral worth, they wouldn’t. And so your account fails.
One might think that the number two has a passive potency for existence that requires being actualized by something else—perhaps a necessary intellect, or perhaps by the number one together with the successor function. But, first, the focus on the number two is inessential; we need simply pick an abstract object lying at the bottom layer of some grounding hierarchy relating abstracta. This, of course, doesn’t rule out a necessary intellect that actualizes such an object; but the onus is not on me, in the present context, to positively show that this is false; the onus is on the one positively claiming that composition entails passive potency to show that any composite—including such an abstract object at the bottom level of the abstract grounding hierarchy—has passive potency. “But doesn’t Feser do precisely that in his Augustinian proof?”, you ask. “Well,” I respond, “for starters, he only argues that abstracta exist as divine ideas. This doesn’t entail that abstracta have passive potencies that are actualized by the necessary intellect. But even if Feser were correctly interpreted as attempting to establish this, Feser’s attempt is only that — an attempt. But as I explain in my forthcoming Springer book, his attempt fails. I also explain this in my lecture video here and, partly, in my post here.” But also: this move isn’t open to the classical theist. For under this theistic conceptualist view, the number two is intrinsic to God. Hence, if the number two has passive potency, then there is passive potency within God. But God, qua purely actual, is altogether devoid of passive potency within him.
Finally, as for Aquinas’s De Ente argument, I discuss this at length in my forthcoming book with Springer (focusing in particular on Kerr 2015; Kerr forthcoming; and Feser’s (2017) Thomistic proof), but for a preview of what I argue therein, see Sect. 7.12–7.14, as well as Sect. 7.10, of my “So you think you understand Existential Inertia?”.
Next let’s evaluate what Feser says here:
There are at least two problems with this argument for uniqueness. For starters, merely from the fact that God’s essence is not something that can be shared with anything else, it doesn’t follow that there cannot be more than one God. For all the argument shows, it could be that there are two Gods, each of which is identical to its own unshared essence and existence. We need not suppose that they share one and the same essence; they may simply have different divine essences. Perhaps one of them has a divine essence included in which is the essential attribute of being trinitarian, whereas the other has a divine essence included in which is the essential attribute of being unitarian, whereas a third has a divine essence included in which is the essential attribute of being binitarian. In this case, each God is identical to its own essence (and, we can suppose, its own existence), and yet there is no single essence that all the Gods share in common. Now, you might object that for each of them to be Gods, they must at least minimally all share some essential attribute, such as divinity or omnipotence. But why? Why not instead suppose that they each simply have their own (e.g.) trope of divinity or omnipotence? Or why not take a nominalist approach to Gods, such that there are no such things as divine properties that any such God possesses (and, a fortiori, no properties they could share in common)? Or perhaps each God only possesses omniscience, omnipotence, divinity, etc. analogously to the rest, such that we block the need for features that they share in common but nevertheless preserve a kind of common (albeit merely analogous) predication among them. To be sure, the Thomist may not accept any of these possibilities; but that’s utterly irrelevant. What matters is whether the Thomist’s argument for uniqueness has given us any reason to rule this out, to think it’s impossible.
Second, it’s not at all clear how a Trinitarian could run this sort of argument. For the argument (and its various inferential steps) seems structurally identical to the following argument, such that one cannot non-arbitrarily privilege the original argument without also accepting this parody argument:
Because the Father’s essence and existence are identical – because the Father just is his existence – his essence is not something that can be shared with anything else. So, the Father cannot share his essence with the Son. But per Trinitarianism, the Father shares his essence with the Son. Hence, Trinitarianism is false.
Finally, Feser cites his (2017, pp. 189–190) regarding the close connection between divine unity and divine simplicity. Therein, Feser makes the (patently unsupported) charge that “[i]f there were in God a distinction between genus and specific difference, or between his essence and his existence, then there could in principle be more than one God” (2017, p. 189). But, first, this claim is simply flatly asserted. Second—and more importantly—the claim is straightforwardly false. For there are other ways to secure God’s uniqueness wholly apart from DDS. Nearly all models of God affirm that God is perfect. In contemporary philosophy of religion, a perfect being is understood as a being that possesses all perfections essentially and lacks all imperfections essentially (Bernstein 2014). But here’s something that seems like an obvious perfection: being the source of every concrete thing apart from oneself (i.e., being that on which all other concreta depend for their existence). But this perfection entails uniqueness. For suppose that there could be two concrete beings, x and y, each of which enjoys this perfection. Then y would depend for its existence on x, and x would depend for its existence on y. But this is a vicious circle of dependence, which is impossible. Hence, there cannot be two concrete beings with this perfection. Hence, there can only be one perfect being in principle. (A perfect being is concrete, not abstract.) Hence, Feser’s claim is false.
Next up is Feser’s claim that “From his [God’s] immutability it follows that he is timeless, given that time presupposes change” (Forthcoming, p. 3).
But I don’t find this persuasive. Surely something might endure through time not because it intrinsically changes but instead because it changes in relation to other things that intrinsically change. Even if time is the measure of change, this only implies that the existence of time entails that there is some change or other; it does not imply that every entity that exists in time must intrinsically change. Temporal reality could be such that (i) objects O1, O2, . . . On exist in time, (ii) one of the aforementioned Oi is intrinsically unchangeable, and (iii) time nevertheless exists (and passes) in virtue of the changes in objects other than Oi (and to which, we can suppose, Oi relationally stands). And, crucially, Feser argues in his article that immutability is, indeed, compatible with extrinsic change. So Feser has failed to establish that immutability entails timelessness, since immutability is compatible with extrinsic change, and an entity can be temporal in virtue of extrinsically changing in relation to other things that intrinsically change. (E.g., a simple particle might be intrinsically changeless and yet nevertheless persist through time in virtue of standing in relations to other things that do intrinsically change.) Now, perhaps Feser will argue that being immutable is only compatible with extrinsically relational changes that don’t temporalize their subjects. Perhaps, but then he owes us an argument for this claim, as well as an account of what distinguishes extrinsic changes that don’t temporalize from those that do.
Feser goes on to note (p. 4) that some Thomists say God has properties. But other Thomists—including in one of articles Feser himself cites!—explicitly say otherwise. I’m referring in particular to Tomaszewski (2019), who says that “on DDS God doesn’t have any properties” (p. 281). I could go on a citation montage of other Thomists and classical theists who say the same thing in equally explicit terms, but I’ll spare your reading experience.
Feser also covers the topic of extrinsic change and its in/compatibility with timelessness. Of particular importance is the following footnote:
I’ve highlighted Feser’s response to something I’ve worried about re: divine timelessness. As it stands, I’m skeptical of Feser’s response here. Even if ‘currently’ modifies Feser’s action, the predication as a whole modifies God. And the predication goes from being true of God to being false of God. So God goes from being one way to being another way; so there’s succession in God’s life, a before and after. So God is temporal. Or so the argument goes.
Honestly, I want to reflect further on this sort of argument. Prima facie it seems plausible. To extrinsically change, it seems, is to transition or go from standing in relation R to not standing in relation R to something ad extra (or vice versa). But there simply seems to be no way to understand this from-to schema without temporality. If S undergoes absolutely no succession whatsoever (as is required by timelessness), then S doesn’t go from anything to anything; S possesses all S ever has in one single, timeless “now.”
Another way to think of this line of reasoning is that if S is timeless, then if F is truly possessed (or lacked) by S, then S is (or lacks) F simpliciter. (Where “is” is the tenseless sense thereof.) And since change requires going from having (or being) F to lacking F, it follows that any timeless entity—if that entity were to go from having F to lacking F (or vice versa)—would both have F and lack F simpliciter, which is absurd. Hence, nothing that is timeless can go from having F to lacking F, for any F (whether intrinsic or extrinsic).
Here’s another way to appreciate this line of reasoning. Suppose being made of such-and-such atoms is an intrinsic property. However, one thing can be made of a collection of atoms C and not made of C (e.g., one organism is made of a collection of atoms C but also made of a collection of atoms C*, where C and C* share no atoms in common). How can this be? Surely nothing can be both made of C and not made of C, for that’s a contradiction.
Philosophers have come to see that an object can be both made of C and not made of C so long as the object doesn’t satisfy both of these at one and the same time. Distinct times resolve the contradiction. How we unpack the possession of intrinsic properties at different times is another question, of course. For now, the recognition that distinct times are needed to avert the contradiction suffices.
But there is a parallel problem of temporary, incompatible extrinsic properties, for S cannot both stand and not stand in relation R. But if S extrinsically changes, then S truly stands in R and S also truly does not stand in R. To avoid contradiction, we need something that demarcates S’s standing in R from S’s not standing in R. And the only candidate seems to be distinct times at which S stands in R and S does not stand in R (respectively).
The only other option seems to be that S stands in R in some timeless respect while S does not stand in R in some other timeless respect. But this won’t do, since we’re talking about S’s standing in R simpliciter, not merely standing in R in one respect but not standing in R in another respect. That is, we’re talking about extrinsic change in the sense of going from standing in R simpliciter to not standing in R simpliciter (or vice versa). Otherwise, there simply wouldn’t be change; the thing would just timelessly and statically stand in such relations but merely in different respects. That ain’t change. Distinct times therefore seem to be the only way to resolve the problem—at least under a tensed view of time.
Here’s another way to appreciate these points and their intuitive ‘tug’. Extrinsic change—acquiring or losing a relational property borne to something ad extra—need not be accompanied by intrinsic change. A father, for instance, might become shorter than his son simply because his son has grown. But even in such cases, the subject of the extrinsically relational change is temporal, since the subject can only gain or lose the relational property if there are distinct moments m and m* of its life at which the relational property is had and then lacked (or vice versa). For instance, it is precisely because the father is temporal that the father can at one point be taller than his son and then, at a later point, be shorter than his son. The father couldn’t be both shorter and taller than his son at one and the same time (or one and the same timeless “now”).
Next up is what Feser says regarding God’s actions:
As I read Mullins, however, Mullins is not “supposing that to say that God is ‘pure act’ is to identify him with an action”. Instead, as I read Mullins, Mullins is simply pointing out that classical theists well-nigh uniformly identify God himself with God’s action(s):
- As Tomasewski (2019, p. 279) rightly points out, “DDS is directly committed only to (2), that is, to the identity of God and His act of creation.” And this is so because under DDS, God is identical to each of his acts or actions.
- Grant and Spencer (2015) note that “all God’s activities that are in Him just are God, while activities in creatures are accidents added to them.”
- And Aquinas himself! Aquinas states that “the multitude of actions which are attributed to God, such as understanding, willing, producing things, and the like are not diverse realities, since each of these actions in God is His very being, which is one and the same [reality].” (Summa Contra Gentiles II, ch. 10)
- And many, many more, but I’ll spare your reading experience.
Interestingly, in the above passage, Feser intimates that saying “God is a kind of action” is unintelligible (as indicated by his “(whatever that could mean)”). But as we’ve seen, this is an explicit commitment of Thomism and classical theism more generally. Perhaps, then, Feser is a newfound neo-classical theist, at least insofar as he appears to find this commitment of classical theism unintelligible.
Onward we march to the following:
But this is a mischaracterization of Tomaszewski (2019). Tomaszewski does not say that it is question-begging against the Thomist to say that God is identical to his act qua act of creation. In fact, Tomaszewski explicitly says that DDS is committed to the claim that God is identical to God’s act of creation: “DDS is directly committed only to (2), that is, to the identity of God and His act of creation” (p. 279). What Tomaszewski points out is that the classical theist is committed (and only committed) to denying that it is necessarily true that God is identical to God’s act of creation. Tomaszewski explicitly says that DDS is committed to God’s identity with God’s act of creation; it’s just that DDS must (to avoid modal collapse) hold that this claim is only contingently true. It is true in some worlds but not in others. And it’s contingently true because “God’s act of creation” only non-rigidly designates God. It doesn’t pick out God in every possible world in which God exists. It only picks him out in some worlds in which he exists. But it does, indeed, pick him out in the actual world, and so—as Tomaszewski again explicitly says is a commitment of DDS—it is actually true that God is identical to his act of creation. What Tomaszewski (2019, p. 279) says begs the question is only the claim that it is necessarily true that God is identical to God’s act of creation. That is claim (2*) in Tomaszewski’s article, and that is the claim that begs the question. But (2) does not beg the question; indeed, it’s a core commitment of DDS. ((2) is the claim that God is identical to God’s act of creation.)
The final bit of Feser’s paper I’ll comment on is the following:
This is strange. It’s strange that Feser says he’s addressing ‘the neo-classical challenge to classical theism’ when he only interacts with Mullins’ criticisms of classical theism. This myopic focus is a major defect, as I see it, in Feser’s article—the article is completely divorced, for instance, from contemporary scholarship on modal collapse arguments, which far outstrips Mullins’ contributions thereto. Why didn’t Feser engage the work on modal collapse arguments from Leftow (2015)? From Leftow (2009)? From Moreland and Craig (2003, p. 525)? From Nemes (2020)? From Fakhri (2021)? From Waldrop (2022)? From my IJPR article (“The fruitful death of modal collapse arguments”), which already developed two problems for the reply Feser defends in his article? From my Philosophia article (“From Modal Collapse to Providential Collapse”), which further develops those two problems? As I hope is evident, Feser’s treatment of modal collapse suffers from a drastic failure to engage with relevant scholarship on the matter.
There are also many challenges to classical theism that Mullins has published on that Feser doesn’t address. What of his argument from changing divine knowledge of tensed facts (Mullins 2016)? What of his co-authored aloneness argument against classical theism (Schmid and Mullins 2022)? What of his problem of arbitrary creation for impassibility (Mullins 2020b)? What of his extensive criticisms of impassibility from the nature of emotions (Mullins 2020a)? And so on. A mere nod to such arguments would be minimally expected from an article promising to address the neo-classical challenge to classical theism, especially given the article’s myopic focus on just the criticisms of Mullins.
As these last two paragraphs illustrate, a far more apropos title for Feser’s article would be “A Response to a Small Portion of Just Ryan Mullins’ Neo-Classical Challenges to Classical Theism”.
Anyway, that concludes my reflections on Feser’s article. Stay tuned for my forthcoming Springer book Existential Inertia and Classical Theistic Proofs (co-authored with Dr. Daniel Linford), which addresses all five of Feser’s (2017) arguments for classical theism as well as Aquinas’s De Ente argument (Kerr 2015; Kerr forthcoming) and every extant objection to existential inertia published in the literature (and on Feser’s blog).
 A positive ontological item is anything that exists.
 The formula “whatever is in God is God” is found either explicitly or implicitly in each of the following in connection to classical theism (or, in a few cases, in connection to central figures in the classical theistic tradition): Spencer (2017, p. 123), Brower (2009, p. 105), Stump (2013, p. 33), Grant (2012, p. 254), Grant and Spencer (2015, pp. 5–6), Dolezal (2011, p. xvii), O’Connor (1999, p. 410), Kerr (2019, p. 54), Leftow (2015, p. 48), Leftow (2009, p. 21), Sijuwade (Forthcoming), and Schmid (2022).
 For criticisms of one of Feser’s central arguments for the act-potency distinction, see my post here. For criticisms (based on Merricks 2019) of the ontological pluralist view underlying the Aristotelian distinction between act and potency, see Sect. 7.13 of my “So you think you understand Existential Inertia?”.
 In my forthcoming book with Springer entitled Existential Inertia and Classical Theistic Proofs (w/ Dr. Daniel Linford), I argue that the First Way fails for many reasons. If you want to read our chapter on it, here it is.
 In any world in which there are such concrete things, of course. (Note, also, that this perfection is an extrinsic property. But so are other perfections. Knowledge, for instance, is (partly) extrinsic, as is aseity/independence.)
 At least for the purposes of this post, I’ll understand change within the context of a tensed theory of time. The reason for this is that Feser is a presentist.
 Another option is to relativize or index S’s standing in R to times. Remember, though, that we’re talking about extrinsic change understood through the lens of a tensed view of time, which will involve objects gaining or losing relational properties as such—without such relational properties being indexed to times. (So, for instance, I’m not talking about an object simply timelessly and tenselessly being related to something else at t and being related to something else at t*. This isn’t change, since these are always and tenselessly true.)
 Perhaps Feser can attribute this mischaracterization to one of his sock puppets? That might also help explain Feser’s blatant, demonstrable, and repeated misrepresentation of my published work! (See this (Sect. 3) and this. See also Sect. 1 of the former for Feser’s laughable suggestion that I engaged in sock puppetry.)
Author of Part One: Dr. Ryan Mullins (Website)
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