St. Basil on simplicity and a supposed conflation of attributes

St. Basil on simplicity and a supposed conflation of attributes 


Recent discussions on Divine Simplicity have brought to the fore a misunderstanding of what St. Basil of Caesarea intended in his defense of the doctrine. That discussion has been preceded by a long debate on what Aquinas meant concerning simplicity and the attributes of God. 


The worry by those who object [for example, William Craig, Alvin Plantinga, James White, Ryan Mullins, et al.] to Aquinas’ view of Divine Simplicity is that he “conflates” the attributes of God. To support this objection, recently White has brought a quote from Basil’s Letter 234 into the discussion. 


This quote was offered to show that Basil affirms that we should not “conflate” the attributes of God. However, this is not what Basil intended to communicate in Letter 234. The conflating of attributes is not the primary matter being discussed in Letter 234. Rather Basil deals with errors of the Eunomians univocally defining distinct attributes as well as asserting that God’s essence can be known by us. 


Reading the letter in its contexts will show what issues were being addressed by Basil. Likewise, reading Thomas in context reveals surprising commonality with Basil on the basic principles of divine simplicity. Letter 234 is difficult to understand without it being seen as an internal dialogue between Basil and his interlocutors. I have spaced the text below to facilitate a reading which makes it more obvious that various characters are speaking. 


The below excerpt is from the letter’s first section. I have divided it into two subsections, A and B. Though the video commentary referred to above used a different translation, the translation below is the standard one done by Blomfield Jackson in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8 which was edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Given the broader context of Basil’s critique of the Arians as seen in Letters 234, 235, 236 and Against Eunomius I refer in brackets to where “univocal” predication is intended by Basil.


Letter 234


To the same [Amphilochius, a bishop colleague], in answer to another question.

Do you worship what you know or what you do not know? 

If I [Basil] answer, 

“I worship what I know,” 

they [the Eunomians of the Arian sect] immediately reply, 

“What is the essence of the object of worship?” 

Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, 

they turn on me again and say, 

“So you worship you know not what.”

I answer 

“that the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence.”

The question is, therefore, only put [by the Arians] for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. 

[start of pull quote]

But God, he [Eunomius] says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as [univocally] knowable is of His essence. 


But the absurdities involved in this sophism [of the Arians] are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names [univocally] of one essence? And is there the same mutual force [univocally] in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we [univocally] declare His essence? 

[end of pull quote]

If they [the Arians] say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. 

If they [the Arians] say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. 

For they [the Arians] confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. 

The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.



The first item to note and probably the most important one is that in the first paragraph from subsection B we hear Basil critiquing the Arians who affirmed both simplicity AND a distinction of attributes ad intra the divine being. This, obviously, Basil sees as a plain contradiction and he calls this view a “sophism” and one full of “absurdities.”


Taking each of Basil’s rhetorical questions one by one we see that his answer would be, “No.”

“When all these high attributes have been enumerated [by the Arians], are they all names [univocally] of one essence?”


“And is there the same mutual force [univocally] in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence?” 



“In mentioning any one of these do we [univocally] declare His essence?”



So you see, the pull quote was actually being used by Basil to make the case against univocal predication of God as if he possesses diverse attributes and instead to make the case for the unknowable simple and infinite essence of God. 


When Eunomius says God is ἁπλοῦς haplous, “one fold,” [simplex in the Latin translation of Letter 234] he did so on the one hand to guard his position that only the Father is God, yet on the other Eunomius contradicted himself by stating that the Father’s attributes are distinct in him and univocally known by us. 


When Basil asks concerning “the same mutual force,” ἰσοδυναμεῖ isodunamei, he intends by this the outworkings of God – which we can see – are diverse, but the one essence – which we cannot see – is not diverse. As Paul has said in Romans 1:20, there is in God one power, αὐτοῦ δύναμις autou dunamis and one divine nature, καὶ θειότης kai theiotes, not many essences as attributes and not diverse functions of existence ad intra to the ousia of God. 


The broader context of Basil’s statement is pertinent as to kinds of knowing, as he said above, he states succinctly in Letter 235. There is, Basil believes, a difference in the kind of knowing that is to know God is and to know about God and to know how we come to know these truths and traits about God. Basil gives us a sense difference between sufficient knowledge and incomprehensible knowledge:


Letter 235

“It is not that I do not know in the same way in which I do know; but I know in one way and am ignorant in one way. I know him according to his form and other properties; but I am ignorant of his essence.”


There is knowing that God exists. There is knowing the traits of the God who exists. There is knowing how this knowledge comes to us and there is knowing how we systematically inform ourselves as we bring this knowledge together. In all these kinds of knowing we cannot, Basil is certain, know the essence of God. Why? Because God is simple. Therefore, to suppose there are particularized attributes within the simple being of God relocates our idea of God into the created (composed) realm of existence.


Though we cannot know – know as by first-hand knowledge – the one and simple essence of God can indeed know that God is without a composition of attributes or propria. In his study Andrew Radde-Gallwitz shows in Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity how for Basil the “properties [are] co-extensive with and intrinsic to the divine essence, but not individually definitive of that essence. They are neither accidents nor essential complements nor synonyms, and yet they do render knowledge of the divine substance, albeit incomplete knowledge” (p107).


In his defense of the Trinity, especially as to essence of Father and Son being “consubstantial” Basil continues to press for the simplicity and non-composition of the triune God:

“For surely the ways of indicating his proprium [feature or property] will not violate the account of simplicity. Otherwise, all the things said about God will indicate to us that God is composite. (Against Eunomius, 2.29)


The Father, Son and Spirit do not each posses the divine attributes proportionally, but entirely and without distinction. The divine attributes do not operate or work differently or by degrees in each Person (see Adonis Vidu, The Same God Who Works All Things). In other words, there are not separate divine attributes in the triune God for if there were, then the Persons would be separable and only united by association, rather than in oneness of being. 


Several key questions that present themselves in this particular discussion of divine simplicity:

Q: Can we know the essence, ousia, of God?

A: No, not directly, ie., not univocally or synonymously to ourselves. We can know God’s revelations of himself, but since God is infinite, theologians have long held to the Incomprehensibility of God. 

Q: Are then the attributes of God’s being, ousia, knowable?

A: Yes, but only from his effects and his works as generally or specially revealed or through Christ.

Q: Can we speak of the attributes of God synonymously [univocally] of man and God?

A: No, for God who is infinite is not a man who is finite. 

Q: Are the attributes of God distinct in God?

A: No, for if they were distinct in him they would be distinct from him (or separable even within him). But, since God is simple he has no propria (nothing proper, including properties or attributes) to himself which is not *fully* himself.

Q: Are the attributes in God synonymous?

A: We suppose that they are because his being is infinite and in God there is not but one infinity which is his infinity of Being, ousia

Q: Then, may we still speak of the attributes of God with their several distinctions and descriptions though he is perfectly simple?

A: Yes, for these various attributes are human expressions semantically determined for our learning. The mind of man is created for categorization and analysis and thus endeavors to take his intellect into a deeper appreciation of God by the use of the beauty of particular and fitting words. Yet, on the other hand, the heart of man is so made as to desire passing outside the edges of detailed descriptions into the wonder of who God is in himself where our words fail to encompass him. When the mind reaches its limit the heart begins to worship.


As a follow up to this analysis I’m pondering a comparison between Basil and Aquinas on univocal predication.