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Against James White on Divine Simplicity

Note: This is the third in a series of articles on Divine Simplicity. The first can be found here: 15 Arguments for Divine Simplicity. The second can be found here: Biblical Arguments for Divine Simplicity.


In this last article on the topic of Divine Simplicity, we will be correcting some misunderstanding that James White has expressed on this topic. The central error is one of definition. The way in which White has defined the Thomistic view of Divine simplicity is that we affirm that the attributes of God are synonymous, i.e., that there is no distinction made between them.

He has describes this variously, “the claim that God’s wrath is God’s mercy, or that God’s justice is God’s omniscience, etc.” [1] He goes on to say that it comes from a metaphysic (which he, ironically, claims is “Medieval”) that posits that “if you can distinguish things in the mind, they are separable in reality.” [2] b.n., any student of medieval theology will rightly realize that this claim is laughable, for, there is a difference between a rational and real distinction per St. Thomas himself.

Further, he goes on to express the same explanation, “As Aquinas evidently takes this…you cannot discuss the attributes of God in a way that would make them different to one another because that then implies parts which denies the simplicity of God. So, God’s omniscience is His omnipresence and His imminence.” [3]

These quotes suffice, each time, over the past months, he has described the Thomistic view of Divine simplicity in the same way. He labels such with the boogeyman term “Absolute Divine Simplicity.” Even after being corrected time and time again, by many Thomists (myself included), he has continued with this shameful strawman.

This article seeks, not to convince of the position, but to clarify what the Thomistic (including Reformed) tradition actually is saying on this matter. I pray that James White will stop this misrepresentation and realize, if he truly affirms what he says he does, that St. Thomas’ view is reconcilable with his own on the matter.

From Thomas

In sum, St. Thomas does not teach that God’s attributes are each other. The attributes of God are our intellectual conceptions of His being as is related to created perfections and the effects of His operations. The attributes are His being, but they are not each other. As Thomas summarizes, “although names predicated of God signify the same thing, they are not synonymous, because they do not convey the same meaning.”

To understand this, we must understand the doctrine of the naming of the attributes in St. Thomas and to the Catholic tradition (For a helpful article see: How to speak about God). In brief, we name the various attributes of God based on created effects of His operations and created perfections which participate in the Divine perfections. Thus, the Thomist rightly insists that the attributes are not synonymous, because they reveal something different about the Simple Divinity through different created effects.

Our intellects, not capable of understanding simplicity in a positive manner, name based on those created perfections in which they present to us. The attributes are really the perfection of God flowing to creation, and we understand and reason from effect to cause in pieces. It is because attributes are understood through the medium of our finite intellect that diversifying happens.

This is clear throughout St. Thomas writings, and I will quote liberally.

First, from Prima Pars, Q. 13, A. 4. In the sed contra, he proves that the names of God are not synonymous because, “All synonyms united with each other are redundant.” This, ironically, is the exact issue that James White takes with the Thomistic view.

In the respondeo, he argues from the nature of Divine naming. For,

“the idea signified by the name is the conception in the intellect of the thing signified by the name. But our intellect, since it knows God from creatures, in order to understand God, forms conceptions proportional to the perfections flowing from God to creatures, which perfections pre-exist in God unitedly and simply, whereas in creatures they are received and divided and multiplied. As therefore, to the different perfections of creatures, there corresponds one simple principle represented by different perfections of creatures in a various and manifold manner, so also to the various and multiplied conceptions of our intellect, there corresponds one altogether simple principle, according to these conceptions, imperfectly understood. Therefore although the names applied to God signify one thing, still because they signify that under many and different aspects, they are not synonymous.”

In the responses to the objections he clarifies his view on the matter. To the first, the reason for the diversification is because our “term[s] only signif[y] the thing through the medium of the intellectual conception.”

To the second objection, our terms for God “corresponds to…one simple reality represented by them in a manifold and imperfect manner.” Again, this is not due to any imperfection in God, but because of our finitude, the attributes come to us “in a manifold and imperfect manner” whereas in God they are one.

In his response to the third objection, he provides the most succinct presentation of his view on the manner,

“the perfect unity of God requires that what are manifold and divided in others should exist in Him simply and unitedly. Thus it comes about that He is one in reality, and yet multiple in idea, because our intellect apprehends Him in a manifold manner, as things represent Him.”

Again, the attributes are not synonymous because of our apprehension of Him.

He treats this question against in Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 1.35,

"For just as various things are by their various forms like one simple thing (which is God), so our intellect is somewhat like him by its various conceptions, insofar as it is led to know him by the various perfections of creatures. Therefore, our understanding is neither false nor vain in conceiving many things about one thing; because that simple divine being is such that certain things can be likened to him according to their manifold forms...And, according to its various conceptions, our intellect devises various names which it applies to God. Therefore, since they are not applied with the same meaning, it is clear that they are not synonymous, although they signify a thing absolutely one: for the name does not have the same meaning, since it denotes the concept of the intellect prior to the thing understood."

While the attributes of God have the same reference, the one simple essence of God, they are manifold because our intellect proceeds from effects to cause in naming them.

Again, he treats this same question in De Potentia, Q.7, A.6, in which he goes into the most detail in his entire corpus. First, he answers that this primarily has to do with St. Thomas’ view of what our naming of Divine attributes are,

"given that they signify the divine essence, as we have proved, the question would seem to present considerable difficulty, since then we have all these terms with one simple signification, namely, the divine essence. But, it must be observed that the signification of a term does not refer to the thing immediately, but through the medium of the mind, because words are the tokens of the soul’s impressions, and the conceptions of the mind are images of things, according to the Philosopher."

Further, he argues that these terms are not synonymous, not by any division in the Divine essence, but because attributes are notions of the mind. In sum, “He is one in reality and many things logically.” He goes onto explain,

"Now, these various aspects, which are in our mind, cannot be such that nothing corresponds to them on the part of the thing, since the things which these aspects regard are ascribed to God by the mind. Therefore, if there were nothing in God, either in himself or in his effect, corresponding to these points of view, the intellect would be in error in attributing them to him, and all propositions expressive of such attributions would be false, which is inadmissible. Now, there are certain aspects to which nothing corresponds in the thing understood, but the things thus conceived, the mind does not attribute to things as they are in themselves, but only as they are understood: for example, the aspect of genus or species and other intellectual ‘intentions’; since in the things themselves that are outside the mind, there is nothing that is a likeness of the notion of genus or species. And yet, the intellect is not in error, for the things reflected by these notions, namely genus and species, are not attributed by the intellect to things as existing outside the mind, but only as existing therein. Because just as the intellect understands things existing outside the mind, so does it, by reflecting on itself, understand that it understands them; therefore, just as the intellect has a conception or notion to which the thing as existing outside the mind corresponds, so has it a conception or notion to which the thing corresponds as understood: for instance, to the notion or conception of a man, there corresponds the thing outside the mind, while nothing but the thing as understood corresponds to the notion or conception of the genus or species. But, it is impossible that such be the meaning of these expressions that are applied to God, for in that case, the intellect would not attribute them to him as he is in himself, but as he is understood, and this is plainly false; for when we say "God is good", the sense would be that we think him to be so, but that he is not so in reality."

He explains what we mean by our names of the attributes,

"We must say, then, that all these many and diverse notions correspond to something in God of which they are likenesses. For, it is plain that one form can have but one specific likeness proportionate to it, while there can be many imperfect likenesses, each one of which falls short of a perfect representation of the form. Since, then, as we have proved above, the ideas we conceive of the perfections, we observe in creatures that there are imperfect and improportionate likenesses of the divine essence, nothing prevents the same one essence from corresponding to all these ideas, as being imperfectly represented thereby. So that all these conceptions are in the mind as their subject, but in God, as the foundation of their truth. For, the idea that the intellect has of a thing is not true unless that thing corresponds to the idea by its likeness to it. Accordingly, the cause of difference or multiplicity in these expressions is on the part of the intellect, which is unable to compass the vision of that divine essence in itself, but sees it through many faulty likenesses thereof, which are reflected by creatures as by a mirror. Therefore, if it saw that very essence, it would not need to use many terms, nor would it need many conceptions."

It is important to note that while the reference of these terms are the same, it is “under different aspects.”

Other Thomists

Pohle describes the distinction made between the attributes of God as “a virtual distinction between them.” In Thomistic metaphysics, a virtual distinction is a distinction made in the mind with some object in reality, which is not separable.

Further, Petrus Van Mastricht writes,

“His essence does not differ from his personality except in our reason or conception, which can think of one thing only while it is not thinking of another thing. For God’s personality is nothing other than the subsistence of his essence, and his subsistence is nothing other than the actual existence of his substance, which without doubt does not differ from the God who himself exists.”

Again, we see that a distinction is being made.


In conclusion, as we have seen, the question before us is not “whether there are distinctions in the Godhead,” all agree to this, even the Thomists, but “what kind of distinctions are there in the Godhead?” Formal? Virtual? Real? White must answer this question too.

[1] From a Facebook comment, that can be found here.

[2] Ibid.

[3] From this highlight clip

[4] Joseph Pohle and Arthur Preuss, God: His Knowability, Essence, and Attributes, A Dogmatic Treatise, Dogmatic Theology (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1911), 200.

[5] Petrus van Mastricht, Faith in the Triune God, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester and Michael T. Spangler, vol. 2, Theoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 146.

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