Simplicity and Procession
October 21, 2020

Today, Christian thinkers suggest that certain versions of divine simplicity are at odds with Trinitarian doctrine. I'm one of them.

It's not a new thought. At the very beginning of his explicit discussion of the Trinity, Thomas Aquinas asks whether there are processions in God (ST I, 27, 1). It would seem not, partly because "everything which proceeds differs from that whence it proceeds. But in God there is no diversity; but supreme simplicity. Therefore in God there is no procession" (obj. 2). This not only states the objection, but gives us a marker for the kind of simplicity Thomas affirms: To be simple means "there is no diversity" in God.

Thomas's "sed contra" comes from John 8:42, where Jesus says "From God I proceeded." So there is procession in God. But what kind?

It's not a procession from cause to effect, because that would imply the procession is a creature of the source. That's Arianism, Patrick. Nor is the procession a cause "moving" the effect, or "impressing its own likeness on it." That's modalism, Patrick.

Both of those analogies assume a procession outward from God, and thus aren't actually talking about a procession within God. To grasp the internal procession, we need to move higher, from bodily to intellectual analogies. The procession within God is like the procession within the human mind:

since procession always supposes action, and as there is an outward procession corresponding to the act tending to external matter, so there must be an inward procession corresponding to the act remaining within the agent. This applies most conspicuously to the intellect, the action of which remains in the intelligent agent. For whenever we understand, by the very fact of understanding there proceeds something within us, which is a conception of the object understood, a conception issuing from our intellectual power and proceeding from our knowledge of that object. This conception is signified by the spoken word; and it is called the word of the heart signified by the word of the voice.

This is pretty cool, even if we have to discount the disparagement of bodily analogies. Understanding isn't a merely receptive process. There is a passive moment, but that passive knowing issues in a kind of motion, the production of a conception of the known object, an unspoken verbal production that Thomas calls "the word of the heart."

It's cool because it's a linguistic analogy, and it's cool because Thomas's whole argument depends on the reality of vestigiae Trinitatis. Of course intellectual "similitudes . . . fall short in the representation of divine objects." Yet there is a similitude in "intelligible emanation . . . of the intelligible word which proceeds from the speaker, yet remains in him."

Now, armed with this analogical defense of emanation within God, Thomas returns to reply to objection 2:

Whatever proceeds by way of outward procession is necessarily distinct from the source whence it proceeds, whereas, whatever proceeds within by an intelligible procession is not necessarily distinct; indeed, the more perfectly it proceeds, the more closely it is one with the source whence it proceeds. For it is clear that the more a thing is understood, the more closely is the intellectual conception joined and united to the intelligent agent; since the intellect by the very act of understanding is made one with the object understood. Thus, as the divine intelligence is the very supreme perfection of God . . . the divine Word is of necessity perfectly one with the source whence He proceeds, without any kind of diversity.

Does this answer the objection? It doesn't seem to. He needs his argument to take him to "no-diversity" simplicity, but throughout the reply he describes realities that are inherently diverse. He uses "diversity-unified" formulae throughout.

The more a thing is understood, he argues, "the more closely is the intellectual conception joined and united to the intelligent agent." "Join" and "unite" imply distinct realities; if something is one utter simple thing, it doesn't need to be joined and united to make it itself. The object and the intellect are "made one" by the act of understanding; if they're already one, they don't need to be "made one."

The analogy implies that the Word and Source are perfectly one, not as identical but as diverse Persons. His path of reasoning doesn't take him to his intended "no diversity" destination.

Thomas might reply that my objection illegitimately presses the analogy with the human intellectual. What happens in the human intellect is a defective reflection of what is true in God. In the human mind, intellectual agent and intellectual conception approach but never reach a perfect unity. In God, they are perfectly and utterly one.

But this reply overshoots. If Thomas breaks the analogy between processions in the human mind and processions within God, there is no longer any reason to think there are processions in God. (Even John 8 could be talking about the incarnation.) On the other hand, if he holds to the analogy, it's difficult for him to eliminate diversity. He either has to chuck the (very cool) argument from analogy, or he has to chuck his version of simplicity.

Is "no diversity" simplicity compatible with procession? Perhaps. But Thomas hasn't shown us how.

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