Symposium Introduction

Stephen Long is not the type of theologian that enjoys sitting still. In fact, he is not the type of theologian that enjoys sitting at all—except, of course, on a bicycle saddle. His intellectual curiosities travel in several directions at once, and his academic energies let him follow each bearing he finds. And he does his wayfaring in print. If one stepped back and asked, “What is D. Stephen Long’s project?” multiple answers could be accepted. His work has ranged from theological ethics and moral theology, to theology and economics, political theology, theological epistemology, theology and culture, theological interpretation of Scripture, and the theologies of Barth and Balthasar—and these are just the topics of his books. In the arc of Long’s career, The Perfectly Simple Triune God seems like a strange “next book.” What truck does the speculative theology of the Summa theologiae have with contemporary moral, ethical, and political challenges?

One could be forgiven for concluding that The Perfectly Simple Triune God is the fruit of one of Long’s side interests, a speculative sabbatical from his more familiar labors. But that would be a mistake. The Perfectly Simple Triune God is both the culmination of several strands of Long’s previous work, and a hermeneutical lens through which one can see the inner unity of his entire project. It is Long’s notion of God, his affirmation of that notion, and his vocation of giving voice to what he affirms that guides his approach to ethics, economics, politics, philosophy, and ecumenism. The perfectly simple triune God is—to borrow a phrase from Josef Pieper—the “hidden element” in the sweep of D. Stephen Long’s theology. With the present volume at last in print, what was hidden is now visible. What was private is now public.

Neither the title (The Perfectly Simple Triune God), nor the subtitle (Aquinas and His Legacy) explicitly evince the book’s organizing question: Is there a Protestant doctrine of God? The obvious answer is “yes.” There is a Protestant doctrine of God if there are Protestants, and they have doctrines of God. But there are Protestants (e.g., D. Stephen Long), and they have doctrines of God. Therefore, there is a Protestant doctrine of God. Q.E.D. But a simple “yes” fails to grasp the importance of the question. Is there (or was there) a Protestant understanding of God distinct or opposed to a Catholic one? Is the doctrine of God, in fact, church dividing? Long demonstrates that like so many identity markers propped up to distinguish Protestants from Catholics over past five centuries, the doctrine of God was not a central dispute of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, or any other theological movement until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Long’s task is to retrieve what he calls the “traditional answer” to the doctrine of God (as expounded by Thomas Aquinas), track its reception among the Reformers, and analyze the modern attempts to overturn the traditional answer.

The implications of Long’s retrieval of St. Thomas reinforce and extend major features of his previous work. Some of these extensions are obvious. For instance, readers of Saving Karl Barth (Fortress, 2014) will recognize Long’s unique concern for ecumenism in his exposition of the Reformers’ reception of Aquinas, showing that while considerable disagreements existed between Protestants and Catholics (most notably around grace and justification), both camps were united in their belief in the perfectly simple triune God. This historical reconstruction calls into question that common assumption in modern theology that between Protestants and Catholics there is a fundamental disagreement about divine life, and the relationship between creation and the Triune God.

Other extensions are less obvious. Long’s under-read text Speaking of God (Eerdmans, 2009) treats of the complex philosophical and theological matrix undergirding all attempts at divine predication. Long’s interpretation of five ways, the interplay of aseity and human knowledge in divine names, and the speculative bridge between simplicity and triunity pick up strands of Speaking of God’s argument, give them a new context, and extend their significance. These and other extensions do more than simply indicate the Thomistic shape of Long’s antecedent theological explorations. They aid him in his attempt to listen and speak to contemporary challenges to the traditional answer. Process theology, open theism, Anabaptist theology, feminist, liberationist, Barthian, radical, analytic—most of the significant attempts to elaborate a revisionary doctrine of God—all invite Long’s interventions. And rather than dismissing such revisions through triumphal repristination, Long labors to listen to their philosophical, ethical, political, social, and, yes, theological objections, while demonstrating the untapped potential of the traditional answer for meeting exactly these concerns.

Over the coming weeks, a panel of scholars will discuss The Perfectly Simple Triune God together with its author. In the hope of not giving everything away, I will offer only a meager summary of the forthcoming essays. Erin Kidd kicks off the symposium by providing a concise summary of the text, and provoking reflection on the dramatic, biblical, and liberative challenges that remain to be addressed. Rodney Howsare challenges Long’s understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy, especially with respect to divine causality. Frederick Bauerschmidt brings a Thomist acumen to bear on Long’s understanding of speculative and practical theology. Jennifer Sanders pushes Long on his account of Thomas’s psychological analogy, arguing that it, rather than divine simplicity, is what illuminates Thomas’s Trinitarian theology. And Thomas McCall concludes the symposium with a full-throated response to Long’s critique of analytic theology. As we begin this conversation, I wish to express my gratitude to D. Stephen Long, and each of the respondents for their thorough, critical, charitable, and punctual work in preparation for this symposium. May the conversation that follows continue to shed light on the important issues that follow upon one’s affirmation or denial of the perfectly simple triune God.

Erin Kidd


Commentary on The Perfectly Simple Triune God

In The Perfectly Simple Triune God, D. Stephen Long offers a broad and sweeping defense of the doctrine of divine simplicity—what he refers to as Christianity’s “traditional answer” to the question of God—against its critics. In part 1 of this book, Long provides an introduction of divine simplicity in the work of Thomas, offering careful and nuanced exegesis of how the doctrine of God develops in the Summa and how Thomas himself is making use of his sources. In part 2, Long skips ahead to the Reformation to show that even during this time of upheaval, the doctrine of divine simplicity was recognized by the majority of the reformers to be an integral part of the Christian message. Part 3 consists of chapters each on the criticism of divine simplicity from the perspective of process theism, open theism, analytic theology, political and liberation theologies, and varied critiques of metaphysics of substance, before Long concludes by identifying the work of Kathryn Tanner, Katherine Sonderegger, and Sarah Coakley as creatively interpreting the doctrine of divine simplicity for today.

The result is a panoramic view of the doctrine of simplicity from its biblical sources, through Thomas, and on to today. Long moves comfortably through centuries of Christian thought, leading the reader through complicated arguments always with a nod to what is at stake for the Christian life. Of particular note is Long’s exegesis of Thomas, which provides a clear and persuasive presentation of the doctrine itself and the way in which Thomas develops it. As Long defines it, “simplicity is another way of saying ‘God is’ where God’s essence or quid does not differ from God’s existence” (21). God does not have parts; God is not a member of a category; one cannot attribute predicates of God. From this idea of simplicity, Thomas’ understanding of God’s “perfection, immutability, infinity, eternity, [and] unity” (21) all follow.

As Long explains, this doctrine has particular implications for understanding the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Creation. Within Trinitarian thought, the doctrine of divine simplicity protects against the idea that the divine essence is separate from or prior to the Trinitarian relationships: “Trinitarian agency does not operate with an essence working behind or before the persons; as we saw above, there is no such space or time, no temporal differentiation in divinis” (53). And while Christians must proclaim the identity between the immanent and economic Trinity, simplicity prevents a misreading of this doctrine as creation having an effect on God’s own divine life (54–55). Further, divine simplicity entails on the one hand that what happens in the incarnation is an expression of God’s freedom—which it could not be if God already had a real relationship to creation (55)—and also that in the incarnation the second person does not change into some “tertium quid” (56). Finally, in its declaration that God does not exist in real relation to creation, the doctrine of simplicity entails that God is not in competition with it: “By real, he [Thomas] means sharing in a common essence or something ontologically necessary for something else. If he stated that God has real relations to creation, then he would either divinize creation or mythologize God by turning God into a creature” (57). In other words, God is not a part of the world, nor is the world an essential part of God.

Holy Fire

Central to Long’s defense of the doctrine of simplicity is that it preserves, rather than departs from, the biblical claim that God is love. While it may seem counterintuitive, the fact that the God-world relationships is not a real relationship, and that therefore the two are not in competition, is what secures the possibility of God’s real love for the world: “real relations imply ontological similarity and dependence,” in which “one could act only at the expense of the other” (57). Thus a doctrine of creation ex nihilo, where both God’s creation and love for the world are seen to emanate from God’s own self love, “is the only way to maintain a nonviolent ontology in which something other than strife and agonism forms the fundament of being. With creation ex nihilo, no such violent fundament exists” (59). Far from an “abstract, static God who cannot love” (61), the doctrine of simplicity thus provides us with a God who loves us precisely because God is not dependent or affected by us.

Long speaks powerfully of this understanding of the love of God in his chapter on open theism. Contra those who see God described as a temporal being in the scriptures, Long urges us to see God as their author (214). In addition to being described as a character in the scriptures—one who Moses or Abraham argue with, for instance—God is also present as a “simple, eternal perfection” speaking through the veils of the material world and of scripture itself (216). Tracing theophanies throughout scripture, Long demonstrates that God’s communication is often accompanied by a blinding light (214–15). The frequent pairing of words like “light” and “overshadow” with the exercise of divine agency points to “a blazing light that descends upon something—a bush, a mountain, the skin of Moses’ face, and the tabernacle, and finally manifested through Jesus—that is a condition for divine communication” (216). Thus in addition to seeing God as a character with whom Moses and Abraham argue, God as author appears in “divine invisibility manifest in the blazing fire of theophany” (217). This understanding of God in a non-competitive relationship with the world is therefore biblically warranted and not merely an imposition of metaphysical principles upon the narrative.

It is this understanding of God’s love as holy fire that Long offers in response to many of the criticisms he examines in part 3 of the book. They see the doctrine of divine simplicity as offering a static and aloof God who does not love and is not concerned with human affairs; a God who is responsible, either through action or negligence, for evil in the world; a God who as the great sovereign justifies other sovereignties and so secures the quest for power—particularly white, male, colonial power. These criticisms, per Long, miss the fact that divine simplicity entails that God is not a thing like other things—thus God’s freedom does not compete with human beings; God is not a cause like other causes; and divine transcendence and immanence are not opposed.

Theodicies & Theophanies

This book offers a careful and provocative defense of divine simplicity against many of its critics from the twentieth and twenty-first century. But the structure of this text—from its broad approach, to a chapter each spent on each of these critiques—leaves little attention to advancing the doctrine of divine simplicity for today. In many ways it reads like a preamble or clearing for a revitalized understanding of the doctrine of God. Long even suggests that it could serve as such for Sonderegger’s work (378). Thus I would like to take the opportunity of this symposium to ask him to speak more constructively about the perfectly simple Triune God, particularly with respect to the problems of evil and injustice that haunt much of the book.

In his chapter on process theology, Long faults it for treating God as a cause like other causes. Process theology sees the traditional answer as inadequate because it either directly or indirectly posits God as the cause of evil. Long’s explanation of the doctrine of divine simplicity shows how this criticism does not stand: “God is not the cause of evil. God is not a ‘cause’ at all in the sense process theology sets forth, turning God into an actual entity among other entities, entangling God in a Greek cosmology of an eternal creation. But God is culpable for evil and thus can be called on to remedy it. God can be argued with; Moses can stand in the breach” (192). Long does not attempt to solve the problem of evil here, indeed he argues Christian theology should not attempt to “make evil intelligible” (392). For his purposes he needs only to show that the move process theologians make in jettisoning the traditional doctrine is not necessary. But I wonder how we resolve the tension of God being both simple and one with whom we can argue. In what way can God be called upon to remedy a situation if God does not act upon the world as a cause? Does God intervene in the world, and if so, how? In other words, for what can we pray and hope?

These questions become crucial as we think through how divine simplicity might answer what Long refers to as “the cultural and political questions” being raised by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial theologies. In the chapter dedicated to them, Long defends the doctrine of divine impassibility against those who would answer the world’s suffering by having God suffer with us. While divine simplicity prevents God from suffering as we suffer, Long cites Herbert McCabe approvingly in saying that “far from making God indifferent to our suffering, God is more intimate to it than we are to ourselves” (301). Long closes the chapter by lifting up theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie James Jennings as thinkers who hold both concern for the oppressed and divine impassibility in a paradoxical tension (302–4).

In the book’s conclusion Long admits that “the traditional answer has not adequately addressed the questions raised by liberation and/or postcolonial theology” and raises concern that it do so without reducing the doctrine of God to God’s relationship to us and so make God an “instrumental good” (386). As Long quotes Gutierrez, “God is always more than our experience of him” (387). This excess corrects any theology that reduces God to its relationship to creation: “God is not there to secure our politics, our nation, our future, our knowledge, our religion, our economy, our family, our souls, or our way of life. God is not a foundation for anything, for there is nothing that can be built on an infinite, perfectly simple God. God is there to be enjoyed, to become enraptured with, to take us out of ourselves (ekstasis) and into that which is other than us solely because God is beautiful perfection, good, wise, and holy” (388).

It is this relationship between who God is and who God is for us that I am interested in. Surely the former exceeds the latter in the holy fire of the burning bush. Moses must take off his shoes and face bewilderment at the God whose name is “I am.” God is not just a character like any other character but also the text’s author. But this appearance is framed by a narrative. It plays a particular role in the salvation of the Hebrew slaves out of Exodus. God does not appear to Moses in order to be enjoyed, but to tell him to go back to Egypt and face the Pharaoh. Between the burning bush and the pillar of fire is a dramatic story of political liberation. How do these two things—divine transcendence and human liberation—relate? Do we see the holy fire of the transcendent God in the liberation of people as well as in the bush and the pillar?

  • D. Stephen Long

    D. Stephen Long


    Response to Erin Kidd

    Having now read all five responses to The Perfectly Simple Triune God (PSTG) I must first express my gratitude to each of the respondents for their careful engagement with my work. As readers will discover, each offers thoughtful analyses and critical reflections, raising different but overlapping concerns based on their specific areas of interest. It was my decision to respond first to Erin Kidd’s review because she provides a succinct overview of the book laying out so well the main argument that if readers have not had the opportunity to read it they can be assured that her summary is nearly flawless. I see what I wrote in her review. That is a remarkable achievement because many reviews often criticize the author for the book he or she should have written, one that usually lines up with the reviewer’s body of work, rather than the work that was written. (I have written a few of those reviews myself as more than one author has informed me.) Charitable, concise and accurate in its description, Kidd’s review goes to the core in what matters most and in what remains undone.

    What Matters Most

    Kidd begins her review noting that although I first interpret Thomas the interpretation is followed by the sources that lead to his teaching on God (chap. 2) and how the Reformers received his teaching (chap. 3). What matters most is that my argument is not to defend Thomas, but to argue that there is a coherent, stable, Christian teaching on the doctrine of God that emerges from Scripture, is found among the church fathers, is passed on through Augustine and Dionysius, concisely summarized for beginners in Thomas, and received favorably by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformers. This “traditional answer” is first questioned from the eighteenth century on—with the important exception of the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian Biddle and the Socinians.

    I recognize that arguing that there is a coherent, traditional teaching on the doctrine of God will not be universally applauded. There are differences between Augustine and Dionysius; Thomas, Scotus, and Ockham; Owen and Arminius. My argument is that the differences are not to be found in the answer, but in the questions to which the answer was put. I think this should be noncontroversial. One will search in vain for rejections of divine simplicity and its entailments among these authors. Likewise, none are afflicted with cognitive dissonance in correlating simplicity, Trinity and the confession that God is love as are so many modern theologians. The controversial claim, as we shall see in Jennifer Sanders’s question to me, is my claim that the “primary” purpose for simplicity in Thomas’s teaching is to answer the question how do we best speak of the Triune mystery. Its primary purpose is not to speak of God’s relationship to creation, but the truth about God in se, what Thomas refers to as “speculative theology.” Only when simplicity first functions “in divinis” as an aid to set forth the Triune processions can it then be used to describe the God-creation relation.

    It is the perfectly simple Triune God who relates to creation, not the simple, omnipotent, omniscient God. That matters, as Kidd notes, for a proper understanding of creation. It hinders doctrines of predestination that would posit an absolute decree prior to creation or redemption promulgated by a deity who may be simple but need not be Triune. Thomas states at ST I 32.1 ad 3 that knowledge of God is necessary for us to think well about creation and salvation. First, we think well about the perfectly, simple Triune God and then we can do the same with respect to creation and redemption. I find this important dogmatically even if, as I suggest, Thomas himself did not always attend to its significance. Arminius becomes important for the story because he construes the relationship between the perfectly, simple Triune God and creation as a communication of goodness that avoids making God the author of damnation.

    Kidd also notes the central place of theophany in my apology for the perfectly, simple Triune God. Many of the criticisms of the traditional answer are that it depends on a putative Greek “substance metaphysics” against the more dynamic Jewish and Christian Scripture, and thus it distorts the biblical teaching on God. I learned from Janet Soskice to think about theophany and transfiguration as the way God “appears” in Scripture, revealing to us that God is both apart from, and mediated through, material reality. I had much of this work completed before Katherine Sonderegger’s first volume of her Systematic Theology appeared, but her reflections on “Holy Fire” helped me formulate how “metaphysics” and Scripture work in tandem, maintaining the centrality of divine love.

    What Remains to Be Done

    Kidd raises an important question about my use of divine theophany and its correlation to Scripture. I defend a “speculative” theology whereby the doctrine of God serves no interest because God is an end in God’s self and not a means to something else. God is to be enjoyed not used. Bauerschmidt raises a question about my use of the term “speculative” that I will deal with later. Although it differs from Bauerschmidt’s, Kidd raises a concern about it as well. She writes, “God does not appear to Moses in order to be enjoyed, but to tell him to go back to Egypt and face the Pharaoh. Between the burning bush and the pillar of fire is a dramatic story of political liberation. How do these two things—divine transcendence and human liberation—relate? Do we see the holy fire of the transcendent God in the liberation of people as well as in the bush and the pillar?” Her question made me wonder whether I had neglected the drama in setting forth the drama’s Author? PSTG is a work in “speculative theology,” attending to who and what God is without focusing on what God has done / is doing for us. The so-called Melanchthonian epistemology that we cannot speak of God without speaking of God pro nobis is neither Melanchthon nor a dominant Protestant approach to God and I attempted to be vigilant in rejecting it. We can and must speak of God in God’s self as if God were not first and foremost Creator and Redeemer of us. This speculative theology allows us to see that the God who speaks through the angel of the Lord in the burning bush, goes before Israel in the pillar of fire, and illuminates Christ in the transfiguration is the same God without beginning or end. If we did not know who or what God is, we could not make these identifications. Only when God is this God can the dramatic narrative unfold without the narrative becoming greater than God, reducing God to one actor in the story among others. The problem, of course, a problem Thomas named so well, is that even though theology is primarily a speculative discipline attending to God without attending to human or God’s operations, human creatures are “the works of God” (see ST Ia 4). How then can the results of operations (we creatures) conceive God as if they were not? The answer is we cannot; we cannot act as if we have God’s own viewpoint, as if we conceive God apart from practical theology, from God’s operations. Speculative without practical theology is closed to us. But we can abstract from our location and ask what are the conditions that make it possible. This metaphysical and theological question has been unduly neglected and scorned in contemporary theology. It does not require a theological division of labor between reason and faith, but it welcomes all who have asked this question and tries to attend to their answers, including philosophers. Those answers, however, can only be sufficient when they also attend to the dramatic narrative Kidd calls to our attention. The speculative and practical are not an either-or. The God who liberates can liberate because what God is, is more than just a god for us.

    Kidd then asks a related question, “But I wonder how we resolve the tension of God being both simple and one with whom we can argue. In what way can God be called upon to remedy a situation if God does not act upon the world as a cause? Does God intervene in the world, and if so, how? In other words, for what can we pray and hope?” This too is an important question, and one that is raised by others. Howsare, Bauerschmidt and Sanders also ask why I critique God as cause and I’ll address that more fully in future installments. Suffice it for now to say this: on the one hand, God is the “cause” of all that is if we use the term, like all terms about God, analogically. On the other, “cause” can assume God is an actual entity among others, as Whitehead put it, and thus causality renders God intelligible rather than vice versa (see PSTG, 185). “Causality” creates all kinds of problems downstream from Thomas that I don’t think can be ignored. Here I follow Victor Preller, David Burrell, Rowan Williams, Herbert McCabe, David Bentley Hart and Katherine Sonderegger in finding “causality” too weak to set forth God’s intimate relation with creation (see PSTG, 60, 217, 301). God does not intervene in creation as an external cause forcing events to be other than what they would be by their own movement. God is less “cause” of all that is and more its donating source, constantly giving being to all that is out of God’s Triune fecundity. Perhaps “cause” can convey this, but the argument for God as “First Cause” does not seem to me to be as successful in doing so, which is why I prefer Thomas’s language that God is “semper eis esse dando,” a description related to God’s eternity. As the one always giving being to creatures, God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. The desire to argue with, pray to, and hope in God is born out of that intimacy. Do those arguments, prayers and hopes change God, cause God to move from being less loving to more loving, less engaged to more engaged, from being indifferent to being liberator? If so, then our arguments, prayers and hopes perfect God rather than us, and I find that theologically untenable. Even these arguments, prayers and hopes, like the language and concepts used to express them, are God’s creaturely gifts to us; so perhaps the best way to conceive them is as participations in the Spirit’s promptings in our life.

    As Kidd notes, I tried to give examples where I think the traditional answer and concern for liberative practice meet. I do not want this work to be read as a reactionary Thomist movement against progressive developments in theology. Unnuanced narratives of historical decline or progress overlook important details of our historical existence. Not every detail of modern theology is a progressive advance; some of it—like the overused critique of substance metaphysics—reflects a loss, a decline based on unnecessary forgetting or options taken that I find mistaken, but not every detail of modern theology expresses decline. Thomas did not get everything right, not only by our standards but even by those of his own time. He had better courses of action available to him that he did not take (see PSTG, 276–77 for an example.) The contribution I hope this work will make is to retrieve the traditional answer and show how it can incorporate the advances found in theologies that have directed our attention to neglected dimensions of theology.

Jen Sanders


Faith, Reason, and the Psychological Analogy for the Trinity in the Summa theologiae

Stephen Long’s latest book, The Perfectly Simple Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy is a valuable contribution to scholarly efforts to overcome the standard contemporary interpretation of Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of God while also revising Thomas’s theology where necessary. I am grateful for the opportunity to converse about Thomas with Dr. Long and unite our resources to engage in the important work of bringing Thomas’s contributions to bear upon contemporary issues.

Long’s exposition of Thomas’s synthesis of the traditional answer to the question, “Who is God?” focuses on the integrity of Thomas’s answer in the first forty-three questions of the Summa theologiae, namely, “God is the perfectly simple Triune God” (p. xx). Stating Thomas’s answer this way discloses that dividing these questions of the Summa into “two treatises”—de deo uno and de deo trino—is historically foreign to the text itself (pp. xxi, 4), and also overlooks the continuity and interrelationship of Thomas’s consideration “de deo.”1 Long’s work stands out not only because it challenges these standard (mis)readings of Thomas, but also for its broad yet erudite engagement with contemporary theological schools of thought that critique the traditional answer, particularly with regard to its relevance, intelligibility, or its connectedness to scripture. Especially insightful is Long’s attentiveness to the relationship between a question and an answer, and the relevance of this relationship for assessing the intelligibility of the traditional answer. As he writes, “Like all answers [the traditional] answer makes good sense within the context of some questions and less so in the context of others” (p. xx). Long insists that when interpreting Thomas’s first forty-three questions, we ought to do so in the context of the question, “How do we speak well of the mystery of the Holy Trinity?” Only in that context does Thomas’s affirmation of the perfectly simple Triune God maintain its full significance and meaningfulness. If the question changes to, for example, “What can be known of God by nature and reason, and what by faith and grace?” and we still respond in terms of the perfectly simple (known by reason) Triune God (known by faith), we lose the integrity of the traditional answer.

With Long, I agree that separating Questions 2–26 from Questions 27–43 misinterprets Thomas’s doctrine of God. I also agree with his position that the perfectly simple Triune God should continue to be affirmed today (p. xiv). In what follows, I would like to engage in a conversation with Long in which my intention is to express agreement with his position while also raising two questions about his interpretation of the relationship between Thomas’s understanding of divine simplicity and his trinitarian theology in order to further contribute to advancing Thomas’s theology in the twenty-first century.2 The underlying theme of my two concerns is methodological. Coming to terms with Thomas’s theological method is central to interpreting his theology, and especially to what Thomas is doing in the Summa theologiae. My first concern is Long’s assessment of the relationship of faith and reason in Thomas’s work and how it functions in his mature doctrine of God (see chapter 1). My second concern is Long’s repeated thesis that divine simplicity is what renders the Trinity intelligible (e.g., pp. 22–23, 32–33, 46, 92, 99, 119, 162), which he claims would then make sense of Thomas’s organization of the first forty-three questions.

Faith and Reason

In the opening prologue to the Summa, Thomas explains that he has organized sacra doctrina according to the ordo disciplinae. He does so because his goal is to help students understand. For example, in one of his Quodlibetales, Thomas explains that the theological teacher must help his “hearers understand how what is said is true. Otherwise, if a teacher settles a question simply by an appeal to authorities, the students will have their certainty that the facts are indeed as stated, but they will acquire no knowledge or understanding, and they will go away with empty.”3 Notice that understanding is concerned with intelligibility while reliance on authorities is concerned with certainty. Such understanding gives rise to concepts (rationes)like simplicity and perfection—according to which the student can (analogically) consider and name God. Thus, we see Thomas help the student develop a true concept of the true God in Questions 3–11, and come to terms with the limits of their knowledge and how to name God in Questions 12–13.4

The conclusions of Questions 2–26 are ones that human reason can know apart from revelation—that is, they correspond to a knowledge of God that is natural to human beings on account of the natural likeness of their intellect to God.5 The reason we say such knowledge is natural is because it is proportionate to the human mode of knowing.6 However, while the knowledge, itself, is natural, it does not follow that in this life, we arrive at knowledge of God apart from grace.7 Why? Because concretely, as Lonergan explains, natural knowledge of God is not attained without moral judgments and existential decisions, neither of which occur concretely without God’s grace.8 Further, Thomas is not concerned with conclusions, i.e., with certainty. Rather, because he is motivated by faith seeking understanding, Thomas is concerned to help his students understand so they may form a true concept of the true God as simple, infinite, understanding, and loving. Beginning with developing a concept of God is a pedagogically expedient place to start for a beginner on the way to the triune God. Thomas is also concerned to teach his students the possibilities and limits of human knowing, and so it is an important exercise to (a) differentiate what can be known naturally and what can only be known by the supernatural light of faith, and (b) to understand that even when human intelligence is enlightened by faith, we cannot provide necessary reasons for revealed truths because the reason for these divine mysteries is the divine essence, which in this life is unknown.9

The first point is this: Thomas’s consideration of things that can be known of God naturally before engaging things that we can only know by faith is in no way a value judgment upon naturally versus supernaturally known truths. We can comfortably recognize that Questions 2–26 do develop a concept of God that philosophers could also develop because human reason is proportionate to such knowledge, and that Thomas is clear about the difference between natural and supernatural knowledge of God (see 5). Yet, we need not also conclude that these questions are a separate treatise on the one God or that Thomas privileges the divine essence (i.e., the one God) or natural knowledge over the divine persons or supernatural knowledge because of a methodological distinction between natural and supernatural knowledge. The first series of questions works out in detail the concept of God that will help students appreciate and engage the problem for understanding raised by the belief that this perfectly simple God is Triune. In other words, the student needs to work out a clear and rigorous answer to the question, What do we mean by “God”? in order to understand the questions motivating the Trinitarian questions of the Summa. In this way, the two sets of questions are mutually dependent and the first set flows organically into the second. Thomas’s organizational decision in Questions 2–43 and throughout the remainder of the Summa is primarily based on a pedagogical judgment about how to help beginners seek an ever-deepening and synthetic understanding of their faith. Furthermore, as we proceed to Questions 27–43, we can also recognize that Thomas continues to seek only understanding—not certain knowledge—because the sole sufficient and necessary reason for the Trinity is the divine essence, which in this life remains unknown.10 In other words, he does not seek a necessary reason for the Trinity—he does not seek to prove the Trinity—which is in part why he came to reject the analogy of the self-diffusiveness of the Good for the Trinity—it explained too much.11 Now, reason is operating still as reason, but enlightened by faith, and it knows a truth it otherwise could not. Thus, it seeks an analogy to understand how what is believed—that this perfectly simple God is a Trinity—can be true. This leads to my second concern.

The Triune God

Again, my second concern is Long’s repeated thesis that divine simplicity is what renders the Trinity intelligible, which would then make sense of Thomas’s organization of the first forty-three questions (e.g., pp. 22–23, 46, 92, 99, 119, 162). I agree that there is a relationship between divine simplicity and trinitarian theology, and that correctly understanding this relationship illuminates the unity of Thomas’s doctrine of God. However, I take issue with the idea that divine simplicity makes the Trinity intelligible. Instead, I maintain that coming to terms with divine simplicity helps one grasp the fundamental trinitarian problem for understanding, i.e., how can the perfectly simple God be triune? Thomas certainly affirms divine simplicity, but what illuminates the mystery of the Trinity for Thomas is the psychological analogy, not simplicity. Simplicity along with the other attributes Thomas works out in the initial questions specify the fundamental problem and set the parameters for the Trinitarian discussion—rules, so to speak, that cannot be violated when attempting to understand the Trinity. The fundamental problem is fixing the meaning of what everyone calls “God,” which occurs during the demonstrations in Question 2.12 On the basis of this fixed meaning, Thomas then deduces God’s attributes, which further determine the meaning of “God,” the meaning which governs the Trinitarian questions and the shape they take.

This point raises what I believe is a methodological difference between the way Long reads these questions and the way I came to read them under the influence of Bernard Lonergan.13 While I admire the serious engagement Long undertakes with a variety of contemporary challenges to the traditional answer, I find that Long does not sufficiently explain the traditional answer. Long does acknowledge that in the objections to Article 1 of the first trinitarian question, Question 27, “the very terms [Thomas] used to identify God stand in the way of affirming divine processions” (44–45). He also rightly argues that in these questions, “Thomas’s earlier terms norm trinitarian language to avoid speaking poorly of God” (47). However, where Thomas’s goal is to help his “hearers understand how what is said is true,”14 I find that on multiple occasions, Long’s explanation remains on the level of theological grammar. That is, rather than explain how the God that is perfectly simple can be Triune, Long repeats the trinitarian doctrine, e.g., because God is perfectly simple, belief in the Trinity is not belief in three Gods. The question remains, why? Again, I believe our difference is methodological. Recall Thomas’s distinction in the Quodlibet between giving authorities and giving reasons. Authorities settle matters of belief whereas reasons “confirm an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results.”15 That is, reasons present a hypothetical, analogical, but fruitful understanding of the truths held in faith, which help the student understand how what is believed is true, i.e., by seeking the possible intelligibility of these truths. I do not find that Long makes this differentiation, and I think his retrieval of Thomas’s traditional answer falls short in addressing contemporary concerns because of this lack, as many of those concerns challenge the intelligibility of Thomas’s theology.

Ultimately, Thomas’s decision to handle the questions on the divine being and operations prior to the distinction of persons is pedagogical. Unless the student has clarified the meaning of “God,” she cannot come to terms with the fundamental trinitarian problem. Neither can she understand why an analogy for the two processions (rather than, e.g., the three persons) is the key to the problem nor grasp the significance of opposed relations of origin for personal identity in God.16 Thus, just as Thomas indicated in the opening prologue that he would proceed according to the order of teaching and learning, so in the prologue to the trinitarian questions, he restates this intention as his reason for beginning with the processions—in the orderly development of our concepts, the processions ground the relations, and the relations ground the persons. Thus, contrary to Rahner’s assessment (see 310–13 and 319–30), Thomas does not privilege the processions over the missions (nor does he privilege the essence over the persons). Rather, he is simply proceeding as a wise pedagogue, attempting to hand on the material to beginners.

Briefly, it is the hypothesis of what Thomas came to call “intellectual emanations” (“emanationes intelligibiles”) of word and love that provides an analogy for the divine processions, which in turn illuminates in a limited way how there can be three persons yet one perfectly simple God. For example, with respect to the first procession, as in us an inner word proceeds because of and in accord with an act of understanding known to be the sufficient ground for speaking, so in God the divine Word proceeds because of and in accord with the divine act of Understanding known to be the sufficient ground for Speaking.17 In the Trinitarian analogy the Father is the one speaking (dicens). Dicere (to speak) denotes intelligere’s (the act of understanding’s) specific ordination to the verbum (word) as the ground and origin of the verbum.18 Thomas’s distinction between these two aspects of intelligere (understanding and speaking) is significant because the Father is really identical with the divine essence, which is really identical with the divine act of understanding19 (as are all the divine persons), and at the same time he is really distinct from the divine Word. The Son is the Word spoken, which denotes the relation of dependence of the verbum on intelligere dicens (the act of understanding speaking), and also that the Son is really distinct from the Father. At the same time, the Word is also really identical with the divine essence and thus, the divine act of understanding.20 (This identity is something divine simplicity helps us understand, and so here perhaps is an instance in which Long’s thesis and my approach overlap.) Thomas states the analogy concisely in the question on the imago Dei in which he emphasizes the importance of the dynamic state of actually knowing and loving something in the intellectual emanations of word and love:

[EXT]Now the Divine Persons are distinct from each other by reason of the procession of the Word from the Speaker, and the procession of Love connecting Both. But in our soul word “cannot exist without actual thought,” as Augustine says (De Trin. xiv, 7). Therefore, first and chiefly, the image of the Trinity is to be found in the acts of the soul, that is, inasmuch as from the knowledge which we possess, by actual thought we form an inner word; and thence break forth into love.21

Ultimately, it is Thomas’s hypothesis of intellectual emanations (which he learned from Augustine and advanced) that makes Thomas’s Trinitarian theology relevant to the cultural and political concerns Long outlines. I share Long’s concern for relating Thomas’s achievement to contemporary problems. However, I feel that a more thorough penetration of that achievement with respect to Trinitarian theology will make its contemporary relevance all the more compelling. The reason the intellectual emanations of word and love at the heart of the psychological analogy are relevant is because they illuminate the “conversational” structure of human subjectivity, divine intersubjectivity, and the divine missions. Like the Triune God (Speaking, Word, Listening), we are constituted in conversation. Christian conversion can then be understood as a conversation between our Spirit-enlightened questions and the divine meanings and values incarnate in Christ’s life.22 It is by this conversion-as-conversation that the Christian community resists the world’s urge to reduce the socio-political conversation to questions of self-interest or power. Instead, Christianity keeps in focus the practical socio-political question about the best way to live together. It elevates the conversation by focusing on the life of conversion that pursues freedom and justice through radical self-honesty within the context of love and forgiveness.23 Finally, Christianity speaks in the new language it learns by listening to the Word with ears given it by the Spirit. Beginning with Question 43 and unfolding throughout the remainder of the Summa theologiae, Thomas’s work provides a model for understanding how the missions of the Word and the Spirit are coordinated to inaugurate a new divine-human interpersonal situation as well as new interpersonal situation among humanity.

  1. Thomas enumerates his reasons for proceeding in this fashion and outlines the structure of the Summa theologiae in progressive detail through the prologues to sets of questions.

  2. Thomas’s achievements do of course stand in need of transposition into our contemporary context. With Long, I agree that upholding Thomas’s achievement must be pursued as a conversation, and not as a nostalgic repetition.

  3. Questiones quodlibetales, 4, q. 9, a. 3 (emphasis added), as quoted and translated in Bernard Lonergan, The Triune God: Systematics, CWL 12 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 8–9.

  4. For a helpful explanation of these Questions in relation to understanding, concepts, and names, see Rudi te Velde, Aquinas on God: The “Divine Science” of the Summa Theologiae (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), 95–122. Te Velde builds on David Burrell’s work to reinterpret Thomas’s doctrine of God as “grammar of God talk” (96).

  5. For a helpful explanation of the natural likeness of the human intellect to God and its perfection in grace and glory within the context of deification, see Daria Spezzano, The Glory of God’s Grace: Deification according to St. Thomas Aquinas (Naples: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2015), 30–40.

  6. Of this proportion, Thomas writes, “We can speak of a proportion between the creature and God inasmuch as it is related to him as effect to cause, as potency to act: and according to this the created intellect can be proportioned to knowing God” (ST Ia, q. 12, a. 1 ad 4). Further, as Thomas explains later in this question, it is on account of a fundamental proportion of rational creatures to God by virtue of their participation in the uncreated light that human beings are capable of knowing God (ST Ia, q. 12, a. 2; a. 11 ad 3; a. 12).

  7. See ST Ia, q. 1, a. 1.

  8. Bernard Lonergan, “Natural Knowledge of God,” in A Second Collection: Papers by Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J., edited by William F. J. Ryan, SJ, and Bernard J. Tyrell, SJ (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 117–34 at 133.

  9. See ST Ia, q. 12, a. 11.

  10. See ST Ia, q. 32 sc.

  11. See Ibid., a. 1, ad. 2.

  12. See ST Ia, q. 2, a. 3c.

  13. For example, see Lonergan, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, CWL 1, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000); Lonergan, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, CWL 2, edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); and Lonergan, The Triune God: Systematics, CWL 12.

  14. Questiones quodlibetales, 4, q. 9, a. 3. See above, p. 3.

  15. ST Ia, q. 32, a. 1 ad 2. See p. 3 for quote from the Quodlibetales. Following Lonergan, we can now conceive of the methodological differentiation Thomas calls for as the difference between what we might call doctrinal theology and systematic theology. Doctrines settle matters of fact; systematics attempts to understand how what is true can be so. See Lonergan, The Triune God: Systematics, CWL 12, 7–77, esp. 67–77. See also Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 127–33, esp. 132; 295–353, esp. 335–40 and 344–50.

  16. See Jeremy Wilkins, “Method, Order, and Analogy in Trinitarian Theology: Karl Rahner’s Critique of the ‘Psychological’ Approach,” Thomis 74 (2010): 563–92 at 574.

  17. See ST Ia, q. 27, a. 1: “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.”

  18. For example, see Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 4, a. 2 ad 4; De potentia, q. 9, a. 9 ad 8. For more on the distinction the operation of the intellect as both intelligere and dicere, see ST Ia, q. 34, a. 1 ad. 2–3, esp. ad 3. Cf. Lonergan, Verbum, CWL 2, 136; 148–50; 198–99. Lonergan explains how the precision of Trinitarian theology led Thomas to distinguish exactly between two aspects of the operation of the intellect: “When that operation is meant in the sense of act, it is termed intelligere; but when by operation is meant that one act is grounding another, it is termed dicere” (136). Intelligere is the act of understanding—what we can recognize as an insight or an “aha! moment” when we finally understand something. We are moved to such an act of understanding by phantasms (see ST Ia, q. 84, a. 7). Dicere is the act of understanding, but insofar as that act speaks a word about what one has understood. While both the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) are God, and so also each is the infinite and substantial act of understanding, only the Father is understanding as uttering the Word; only the Son is understanding as the uttered Word. In Trinitarian terminology, intelligere designates an essential act in God, and therefore Father, Son, and Spirit are equally said to be intelligere. Dicere, however, designates a notional act, and as such belongs to the Father because from him the Son proceeds. For essential and notional acts, see ST Ia, qq. 39 and 41.

  19. See ST Ia, q. 14, a. 4.

  20. See ST Ia, q. 34, a. 2, ad. 4: “To be intelligent belongs to the Son, in the same way as it belongs to Him to be God, since to understand is said of God essentially, as stated above. Now the Son is God begotten, and not God begetting; and hence He is intelligent, not as producing a Word, but as the Word proceeding; forasmuch as in God the Word proceeding does not differ really from the divine intellect, but is distinguished from the principle of the Word only by relation” (emphasis added). It is important to remember that this is only an analogy, and we must attend to the difference between how we think about God and what we know by faith to be true of God. For example, God is one infinite act, yet in us, the inner word that proceeds is actually distinct from the act of understanding grounding it. For example, see Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 4, c. 11, §5.

  21. ST Ia, q. 93, a. 7c.

  22. See Frederick G. Lawrence, “The Human Good and Christian Conversation,” in Communication and Lonergan: Common Ground for Forging the New Age, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1993), 248–68 at 264.

  23. See Frederick G. Lawrence, “Lonergan’s Foundations for Constitutive Communications,” Lonergan Workshop Journal 10 (1993): 229–77 at 252–55.

  • D. Stephen Long

    D. Stephen Long


    Response to Jennifer Sanders

    Jennifer Sanders read my work with care and set forth with utter clarity where she thinks it is right and where it is wrong. We agree, as she notes, that the “traditional answer” can and should be defended and its importance for contemporary theology advanced. We agree that dividing questions 2–26 of the Summa Theologiae from 27–43 misinterprets the “traditional answer,” making its defense more difficult and losing its contemporary significance. We agree that advancing that answer requires “transposition into our contemporary context.” Within these broad agreements, however, she takes up the task I invited in the preface (see xiii) by presenting reasons for our theological disagreements, and offering necessary corrections. Theological work is not a competition, but a collaborative exercise where our mistakes, developments and possible advances must be on public display so we can be held accountable to the “object” to which we seek to be faithful. We are always in the midst of a conversation; no final word can be said.

    Our disagreement is less the “what” of that “object” and more the “how.” We agree that theology should explicate the perfectly, simple Triune God, and although she does not enter into the more disputatious parts of my work that challenge modern theologians who depart from the “what” I sense we would agree that these departures have proven less than beneficial. Our disagreement is “how”; how do we best lead students to arrive at the knowledge of God? This disagreement has an important ethical and political dimension. For Sanders, Thomas’s “how” is found in his psychological analogy. It is how she transposes, via Lonergan, Thomas’s Trinitarian thought into a contemporary “‘conversational’ structure of human subjectivity, divine intersubjectivity and the divine missions.” Her transposition has potential to address those theologies that reject the traditional answer, many of whom assert that it creates an abstract deity incapable of relationship. Her contemporary transposition of Thomas via Lonergan presents a theology as capable as any of those theologies of a relational, communicative ethics and politics. Here too we find common cause. Nonetheless, I am not yet convinced I should correct my tepid dismissal of the psychological analogy.

    Let me remind readers what I stated about it: “Discussion of divine operations in terms of ‘knowledge, will, and power’ is risky. These are, after all, human acts that assume potentiality, imperfection, finitude, and temporality. Had we not first been shown how to speak of God’s essence, we might even think Thomas is doing nothing more than giving a ‘psychological analogy’ from creaturely agency to divine agency” (PSTG, 34). Although Thomas uses natural, human operations of knowledge and will as analogies for the divine processions, I am less confident than Sanders (1) that Thomas moves from these natural, human operations to the Triune processions or (2) that we should make such a move. Perhaps she could convince me that I am wrong on (1). If she did, it would most likely not convince me about (2). It would mean I am not a Thomist, or at least, not a very good one. The latter would not trouble me because Thomas did not invent the “traditional answer,” but received it and passed it along and some of what he passed along should be forgotten.

    I referred to Thomas’s argument for the psychological analogy (ST Ia 19.1) at PSTG 35. Thomas begins with three objections against God having a will; each objection shows how our natural will cannot be easily applied to God because of what Thomas already established, God’s perfect simplicity. Our will has an end, God has no end. Our will is a desire for what is not possessed; God is perfect, lacking nothing. Our will is a moved power; God is the unmoved mover. It is important to emphasize that Thomas does not reject the appropriateness of these three descriptions of the human will. His argument assumes that if God has a will, it cannot be like ours in these senses. He then asserts, without much nuance, that will follows upon intellect per Aristotle and if God has an intellect, then God has a will. By itself, this argument leaves more than a little to be desired. It is, I suggested, too “sparse” to be useful, but it also is not intended to be a self-standing argument (PSTG 35). It only works if we assume what Thomas has already established, God is simple so anything that we say about the analogy from Aristotle’s argument about the natural will following upon the intellect to attributing will to God must observe all the qualifications simplicity established. Otherwise, we would not have an analogy but univocal natural attributions to divinity. Only if simplicity first renders these operations intelligible will we be able to use the analogy.

    Sanders most likely does not disagree with anything that I wrote in the previous paragraph; I could be restating rather than refuting her defense of the psychological analogy, but I think there is a subtle yet significant difference that speaks to her second concern—my “repeated thesis that divine simplicity is what renders the Trinity intelligible.” She agrees that “there is a relationship between divine simplicity and trinitarian theology, and that correctly understanding this relationship illuminates the unity of Thomas’s doctrine of God,” but she thinks I say too much when I say that “divine simplicity renders the Trinity intelligible.” I have misplaced what “illumines” the Triune mystery. It is not simplicity but the psychological analogy. Here too we agree in part, and disagree in another. I agree that if I led readers to the conclusion that simplicity renders Trinity intelligible, then I overstated my case. As I read back over the passages she cited, I see how what I wrote could have been read as such. I wrote: “Simplicity primarily renders Trinity intelligible” (PSTG 22).

    “Simplicity allows theologians to posit real distinctions in God without losing God’s unity or dividing God into three parts” (PSTG 23).

    “Only if God is perfectly simple is it intelligible to posit processions ‘in’ God without mixing error with the use of such a term” (PSTG 46).

    “Only if God is perfectly simple can this Triune predication work” (PSTG 99).

    If these or other statements suggest that simplicity renders the Trinity intelligible, then I welcome her correction. I would prefer to say that the Trinity renders the Trinity intelligible, and in so doing assists us in recognizing how God is simple, something philosophers also knew but without knowing its significance. My point is that Thomas’s use of simplicity primarily, not only, serves the purpose of helping us conceive Trinity. That God is one, also a revealed teaching, is intrinsic to Trinity, not its precondition. Simplicity assists us in conceiving of and naming divine processions without abandoning the basic confession Thomas cites in ST I.11.3 and ST I.39.3: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.”

    I disagree that the “psychological analogy” illumines the Trinitarian mystery. Thomas’s argument works the other way. The Trinity illumines our psychology, and only then can we speak of a psychological analogy; it is at best a derivative concept. Our disagreement is on the extent to which the human person is naturally proportioned to God so that pure reason, reason devoid of faith and revelation, can know God. Sanders appears to think this is necessary for the “how” Thomas teaches. She writes, “The conclusions of Questions 2–26 are ones that human reason can know apart from revelation—that is, they correspond to a knowledge of God that is natural to human beings on account of the natural likeness of their intellect to God. The reason we say such knowledge is natural is because it is proportionate to the human mode of knowing.” If she is correct about this, then unless I misunderstand her point it would seem to entail a doctrine of pure nature and an account of reason that entails the kinds of dualisms I sought to overcome by refusing to divide Thomas’s treatise on the doctrine of God in terms of the neoscholastic distinctions between what can be known by nature and what by revelation.

    I think our difference is found in how one relates Thomas to two Aristotelian maxims that Laurence Feingold identifies as essential for understanding Thomas. The two Aristotelian axioms are these: “a natural passive potency in a genus never expends beyond the active power of that genus” and “natural desire is never in vain” (Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God according to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters, 129–30). If our naming of God must observe these axioms, then we have a serious difficulty knowing God because the knower, per Aristotle, must be proportioned to the known and a natural desire for such cannot be in vain. If we know that the beatific vision is our true end, then our natural desire for God must in some sense be proportioned to that end if we are to attain that end, but that is impossible. Once we conceive that God has no real relation with creation, this problem becomes exacerbated. If God has no real relation with creation, how can there be a natural proportion between God and creatures? The problem does not exist in process theology for God, as an actual entity among other entities, is proportioned to the creature through “causal influence,” which is so central to process metaphysics (see PSTG, 185). Thomas cannot affirm that kind of proportion.

    When Thomas addresses this problem—the natural knower proportioned to the supernatural God (ST I.12.1 ad 4)—he does so through setting up the problem by referring to a traditional Christian teaching: “it seems that no created intellect can see God in his essence.” Everything Thomas has received from the tradition through Chrysostom and Dionysius and that he has argued to this point would agree. But then there are these pesky Aristotelian maxims that the knower must be proportioned to the known and no natural desire is vain. I find him less insistent on observing the Aristotelian maxims than on the traditional teaching. Because God is our beatitude, we must in some sense see God as creatures, not in this life, but in the beatific vision. Here is where he affirms a creaturely proportion between our knowledge and the Known. He identifies two senses of proportion, one that would be “a fixed relation of one quantity to another” and a second that is “any relation of one thing to another.” He rejects the first, and affirms the second. The “any relation” between two things is found in effect to cause or act to potency, and by these he merges the traditional teaching with the Aristotelian maxims. But once again the argument is sparse. What kind of cause? What kind of act? Are these natural causes and acts as is found in so much neoscholastic thought? Or are these acts of grace that enable our nature to see what could not otherwise be seen? Sanders, like Feingold and Vatican I, seems to find them natural causes and acts and thus we can know by a pure reason that God is, tracing effects back to a first cause or potentiality back to pure act. I think that reads quite a bit into Thomas’s sparse argument and distracts us from what matters most, not that God is, but who God is.

    Another important difference between us is our transpositions; mine take a Barthian and Wittgensteinian shape (even though I do so to critique Luther-Hegel-Barth trajectories in Protestant theology), hers take a Lonerganian shape. Hers focuses on “method.” I am less interested in method, in fact I fear that preoccupation with method, especially one that identifies sharp divisions between nature and grace, or reason and faith, prevents us from hearing Thomas well. If Thomas has a “method,” it would be more like what Pierre Hadot has shown us in Philosophy as a Way of Life; method is “met’—odos,” following along a way. Perhaps the best place to begin understanding Thomas is to make a pilgrimage, for then, it seems to me, what he is doing becomes clearer. I attempted to capture this “way” in the structure to the first part, “Exposition,” by setting forth the Summa Theologiae as a journey. Like every journey, the first few steps become more and more significant once the end comes in sight. One starts out on the way looking into the distance observing “sketches of landscapes” that gain contour through “long and involved journeyings” (to cite Wittgenstein). Thomas should be read as a guide who takes what came before him, the perfectly, simple Triune God, and passes it on to us. In so doing, the teaching develops and sometimes wrong turns are taken. Given these different transpositions, I would not differentiate “grammar” and truth.

    • Ryan Hemmer

      Ryan Hemmer


      More Lonerganian Thomist/Barthian Thomist Dialectic

      As both a theologian who works in Trinitarian theology influenced by Thomas and Lonergan, and as a past pupil of D. Stephen Long, I wish to offer a few additional remarks in service of a Lonerganian Thomist/ Barthian Thomist dialectic. And in the process, I will probably re-litigate publicly debates I’ve had with Dr. Long in the classroom. I ask for his forbearance.

      Since Jennifer Sanders has expertly elucidated the broad outlines of the psychological analogy, I want to use her remarks as a pivot to another issue that lurks beneath her disagreements with Dr. Long. As PSTG shows, divine simplicity is the key notion for divine predication. It denotes in a single term ways of understanding and speaking adequate to knowledge of God, and rules out the countless more ways in which we imagine we are speaking of God, but are, in fact, only speaking of idols. As Thomas himself states, knowledge of divine simplicity and other truths about God, while *possible* for a human being and so proportionate to human reason, will only be accomplished among a small few, after a long time, and mixed with many errors (ST I. q. 1, a. 1). In this sense, knowledge of the differential calculus has always been humanly *possible*, but only very recently did it become probable and then actual.

      For the vast majority of us, odds are that divine revelation and catechetical instruction will be the means by which knowledge of divine truths will come to be possessed. However, it does not follow that all those truths are disproportionate to reason simply because reason only very rarely and with much difficulty reaches up to them. On the contrary, the possibility of natural knowledge of divine truth is abstracted from the concrete actuality of such knowledge. But even those who come to knowledge of divine simplicity through the mediation of grace and the teaching function of the Church still come to a knowledge that is proportionate to reason. Grace, in other words, can bring about natural effects. It perfects as well as elevates. This affirmation does not of necessity lead into a two-tiered, neo-scholastic framework. It is simply to advert to the distinction between the abstractness of metaphysical analysis and the concreteness of creation, fall, and redemption. The Baroque mistake is not that it insisted on this distinction, but that it lost the abstractness of analysis, and treated of grace and nature as concretely separated. It assumed, in other words, that because natural rational knowledge of divine truth is possible, it is therefore probable. But, as Thomas himself insists, it is not.

      But this via media between Barth and neo-scholasticism is not pertinent to the psychological analogy as such, and so framing the analogy by the nature/grace problematic proves a red herring. The central issue at stake in the psychological analogy is not discovery of truth—either about God or the human person—but rather the intellectual harmonization of truths antecedently affirmed. Whether one comes to affirm divine simplicity by way of metaphysical analysis or by way of revelation, the subsequent affirmation (as reflected in the Nicene Creed) of procession in God is the occasion for the question, “how can there be procession in a simple God?” And so as Sanders has shown, it is this question (and not the question of how three can be one) that the psychological analogy most properly answers. But the only reason the question arises in the first place is because the inquirer has already affirmed both divine simplicity, and the divine processions, and grasped the difficulty that follows upon those affirmations. Apparent contradictions between truths affirmed in the order of existence yield the questions that drive the speculative science of theology. Therein, the theologian employs the techniques of analogy to labor toward an imperfect but fruitful understanding of truth. To use a different vocabulary, the psychological analogy is systematic theology, not dogmatic theology.

      The problem Thomas resolves is the apparent fact that in the natural order all processes move from potency to act, while a perfectly simple God has no potency. In order to fulfill the conditions established by the doctrines (that God is pure act and in him there is procession), Thomas needs a natural, created instance of an autonomous, spiritual, act-from-act procession. As Sanders so thoroughly explains, the procession of the inner world from the logically and causally prior act of understanding fulfills these conditions. Thus, it is apt as an analogy because it a structure of relations proportionate to human knowledge that is isomorphic with the structure of relations disproportionate to human knowledge, but revealed in Christ and professed in the Church. In Thomas’s terms, it images God by “likeness in species,” (ST I, q. 93, a. 6). Without natural analogies to imperfectly explain the intelligibility of the nexus between doctrines, all the theologian can do is restate the doctrines he or she already affirms, prematurely invoke divine unknowablity, and so take flight from speculative understanding. Though this is not necessarily a threat to anyone’s orthodoxy (since the dogmas are still affirmed to be true), it might invite the thinking Christian’s 10,000 benign difficulties to coalesce into a malignant doubt.

      I wonder if between Long and Sanders is a distinction of goals, and manners of pursuing them. Long’s retrieval of the traditional answer to the doctrine of God is couched in the context of contemporary (mostly) Protestant rejections of that doctrine. And so, for him, the question of the perfectly simply triune God is one of judgment, of truth, of affirmation or denial. Thus, his suspicion regarding the psychological analogy is likewise a suspicion that rationalism rather than faith has become the organizing criterion for knowledge of God. Even if theologians can avoid such rationalism (or anthropocentrism), are these risks worth the meager reward? Long’s answer is no. But Sanders’ answer is not yes. She is asking a different question. For Sanders, the doctrinal affirmations of simplicity and procession are not up for debate. They are not established by argument. We are not compelled to believe them because we have a psychological analogy. Rather, because the doctrines are affirmed through faith, the human unrestricted desire to know (which Lonergan considered identical with the natural desire for God) wants to understand—and understand systematically—what is the intelligible relationship between them. Sanders’ analysis of the psychological analogy (or Thomas’ for that matter) is not likely to convince a process theologian, an analytic theologian, an open theist, or anyone else who denies the doctrine of divine simplicity. It isn’t supposed to. Yet to distinguish between Long’s defense of the doctrines and Sanders’ elaboration of the systematic relation between them is not to separate doctrines and systematics. It is only to clarify the theological methods proper to each.

    • D. Stephen Long

      D. Stephen Long


      “I’d rather have Jesus than silver, gold, or even nature”

      Jen Sanders knows Thomas well. I will need to consider her arguments for some time before I can make a more reasoned response. Let it suffice for now to say why I think our conversation and disagreement matter. Forgive me if my Methodist piety is showing.

      I’m still not as clear as I hope to be on our disagreement. She takes issue with my statement that “Thomas uses natural, human operations of knowledge and will as analogies for the divine processions.” I don’t yet see why this needs correction for much of what follows in her response seems to me to restate what I wrote. Here is my argument a bit more fully laid out.
      (1) Knowledge and will are natural, human operations.
      (2) Thomas uses them do begin to discuss processions.
      I think these two points are undeniable. They are true. I agree that they need nuance, and I made the point that when analogized to God, the processions must be immanent and not transitive. Yes, of course. Simplicity is what Thomas uses to block claims that something like human sensitivity, affections, and of course potentiality, could be used for the analogy.
      (3) This human analogy could be problematic.
      I should say more about why I think this could be problematic. Karl Barth expressed concern that what Aquinas found in his theology was another version of anthropology. He feared that in the end, theology always concludes with us speaking about ourselves. Given most modern theology, this seems to me implicitly and explicitly correct. Barth was vigilant against this; too much so as I have argued elsewhere, denying any movement (supposedly) from humanity to God. Barth allowed for such a movement, as I read him, in CD IV. (But arguing about Barth with barthians is almost as exasperating as arguing about Thomas with Thomists.)

      In fact, I think we agree more than she acknowledges. When Sanders states “What the foregoing amounts to is that not every element of knowledge and will are relevant to trinitarian theology,” I agree wholeheatedly and thought I made that argument as well.

      Here is where we do disagree: Sanders states:

      “The psychological analogy properly located in Question 27 and other questions that follow (including Question 93 on the image of God), not in Question 19. (Though as I mentioned, Questions 14 and 19 do help prepare the student, according to the ordo disciplinae, for the trinitarian questions by beginning the exploration of immanent operations, and comparing them to transitive operations)”

      That they help the student prepare for it is no problem for me. Yes, as noted above, the Word that is spoken in knowledge and the love and gift present in will, shorn of other aspects of natural operations, could help the student understand more fully. To do so, the student will need to understand how central simplicity is for the Triune processions, but that is not our main disagreement. It is this: what the student will need to understand most importantly, since no one would think or ever has thought – even the brainiest philosopher – that God is triune by reflecting solely on knowledge and will, is Jesus. What Barth missed, and what I find missing in the Thomism that thought its purpose was to rail against modernity and Protestantism since the 19th century, and that Thomas’s most important contribution was the defense of reason and nature against their putative detractors, is the central role of Jesus. If you can get to the Triune God from a psychological analogy and never need to mention Jesus then two things should be noted. First, it forgets the first clause in the ST “Since, according to the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 (“As unto little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat”) . . .” and the all-important statement in the prologue to question two: “with Christ, who insofar as He is a man, is our way of going to God” Second, to argue to the Trinity from the psychological analogy only speaks to those who already know the Trinity. It makes, at most, a very modest contribution to theology.
      Jen Sanders has made me rethink the role of the psychological analogy and why or if I should dismiss it. I am grateful. Before I sign on, however, I need to know how Jesus is incorporated within it – or if it somehow incorporates Jesus within it. I’m certain she can incorporate Christology into the psychological analogy, and I do not find her to be one of those exasperating Thomist interloctuors. If it is the former, then fine. If it is the latter, then I would get to that place I sometimes find myself in conversation with the exasperating Thomists (excepting the nouvelle théologie) – fine, you can have nature, we’ll take Jesus.

Rodney Howsare


God’s Simplicity and Tri-unity in the Light of Being as Gift

Since I think it goes without saying that this is a very fine book, and since the basic thesis of the book is one with which I am, on the whole, in agreement, I will proceed immediately to a few questions and concerns. If I seem, in what follows, to seize upon a couple of small issues that aren’t really the main point of the book, it’s precisely because I don’t have a bone to pick with the vast majority of what is argued therein. I apologize in advance, then, if these seem overly tangential.

First, I wonder if the emphasis in the first chapter on the many errors of reason in its attempt to know God through philosophy alone does not distort the overall tone of Thomas’s thought. It must be recalled that this question only has to be asked because there were people at the time who found Aristotle to be so, well, right about everything, including God, that revealed theology seemed to be superfluous. Thomas could have argued, with the “radical Augustinians” of his day, that Aristotle was not only not sufficient but even unnecessary given the fact of revelation. If we keep this context in mind, Thomas’s first question is not intended so much to call philosophy into question or even to make it a subspecies of theology, as it is to say that philosophy is not sufficient. What philosophy can do in certain cases, e.g., when it is taken up by persons like Aristotle who have the smarts, leisure and virtue to pursue it as it should be pursued, is not called into question by Thomas. Not only do many of the things that Thomas says about God, including the “five ways,” come from Aristotle with little change, Thomas wrote painstakingly attentive and large commentaries on several of Aristotle’s works, and even wrote an entire treatise defending Aristotle’s notion that the universe could very well be eternal without, for all of that, being uncaused.

I often got the impression from the first chapter of the book that philosophy needs to be hobbled in order to make room for theology, or even that reason was so frail that it couldn’t judge philosophical claims on philosophical grounds. But I don’t think this does justice to Thomas, and it may be the reason that Long finds it relatively easy to distance Thomas from Vatican I. For Thomas, what we’ve come to call “natural theology” is not first a question of reason’s relative merits or demerits. Philosophy, which includes “first philosophy” and thereby theology, arises because the finite world does not account for itself. It is unnecessary, contingent, in a state of becoming or potentiality, etc., and yet it exists and can be known. For Aristotle, the realm of potency evokes the realm of Pure Act, for potency wouldn’t exist if there were only potency. Thomas, it seems to me, accepts all of this.

If I were to state the foregoing more positively, I would say that the realm of potency is something like a moving picture of the realm of Act because Act precedes potency and accounts for it. Pure Act can be known, of course imperfectly and under various limitations, through the world of potency, that is, the world of matter and change. Philosophy, in such a view, is not first an activity of a thinker. Indeed, for Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas philosophy doesn’t begin in thinking, as it does for almost all modern and even postmodern philosophers, but in wonder. Philosophy’s first act is an act of humility/receptivity. The philosopher is first struck by Being’s appearance in beings (as Balthasar says, “Being appears, and Being appears.”) and only then begins to reflect on this. Even the philosopher’s thinking, then, is more an act of contemplation or ascesis: a refusal to get stuck on the surface of things and an effort to encounter, in that which is changing, that which is unchanging.

The reason, it seems to me, that the early and medieval Christians so easily incorporated this approach into theirs had to do with their own decisions, in following Christ, to exchange “the cares of this world” for “the pearl of great price.” In this, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were seen as kindred spirits, something like proto-monastics, even if ultimately it was Christianity that was the true philosophy. Philosophy, in short, was not first a method or a grammar for clarifying thinking; it was first a way of life, a natural way of “setting one’s mind on things above,” which found its fulfillment in Christ, the philosopher par excellence.

The second, and related, question I have regards Long’s understanding of causality and, by implication, the five ways. On at least two occasions in the book Long refers to David Bentley Hart’s concerns about speaking of God as efficient cause. This builds on my first question, insofar as speaking of God as cause of the world didn’t just affect the way the ancients thought about “God,” but also the way they thought about the world. When I discuss the five ways with my undergraduates I find that the thing that most perplexes them is the fact that Thomas begins, not with God, but with the ordinary world of change. Thomas sees the world of matter and change, the world that has long since been turned over to modern science, as intrinsically related to God. We often mistakenly think that modern science maintained efficient, but abandoned formal and final causality. But as D. C. Schindler has recently shown, neither Galileo nor Hume successfully avoided talking about all three, nor did they get efficient causality right. Aristotle’s favorite example of efficient causality is not, as in Hume, one billiard ball hitting and moving another; it is, rather, a parent causing a child. When we think of efficient cause in this fashion it becomes not only impossible to separate it from formal and final causality, it also becomes impossible to reduce it to mechanistic motion or force. The efficient cause gives a share of its being to that which it causes; it doesn’t set it into motion. To speak of God as efficient cause of the universe, then, is simply a way of accounting for the universe’s being (which it doesn’t give to itself) and its order (which it also doesn’t give to itself). “A cause is that from whose being another being follows,” says Thomas (De principiis naturae). Far from being a threat, therefore, to human freedom, speaking of God as efficient cause actually supports Long’s view that God’s freedom is not in competition with ours, but is, rather, the very thing that causes and therefore secures it.

It’s not so much that Long denies anything of what I’ve said to this point. Indeed, I suspect he might agree with some or even most of it. It’s just that not making these things explicit gives the book a certain tune that doesn’t always fit with its words. I also think there is a danger of diminishing the important role of philosophy, as understood above, in our various dialogues with modernity/postmodernity. Something happens in Descartes and his progeny that marks a break with, and not a development of, the medieval synthesis which cannot simply be bypassed in theology’s engagement with disciplines like science, social “science,” gender theory, politics, and the like. These disciplines are neither philosophically nor theologically neutral.

I think that the foregoing concerns may be relevant to Long’s recommendations for going forward. His goal is to hold onto Thomas’s perfectly simple, triune God—in the face of all manner of recent rejections—but to do so in a way that addresses the legitimate concerns of these rejections. In this he holds up three contemporary theologians—Kathryn Tanner, Katherine Sonderegger, and Sarah Coakley—who, in various ways, defend both God’s simplicity and God’s tri-unity, all the while showing why, in fact, this is the only way properly to address the legitimate concerns of the naysayers in the second part of the book. With much of what he says here I am in agreement. It is with Coakley’s approach, whose influence can be felt throughout the book, that the above questions might come to bear. In God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay On the Trinity, Coakley argues in favor of a theologie totale, which avoids the pitfalls of three other approaches: a traditionalist approach that avoids serious engagement with modernity/postmodernity by hiding behind ecclesial authority and posing traditionalist critiques of modernity (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, et al.); an orthodoxy combined with postmodernism which call for a forceful theological critique of modernity, but which also seems to exempt itself from serious engagement with the legitimate concerns of the Enlightenment and questions of justice (John Milbank); and classical Liberation/Feminist theologies, which reduce theology to experience and to various political programs established extra-theologically.

It is Coakley’s critique of the first two movements above—and the point here is not of course that they are above criticism—that gets to the root of my concerns. In both ressourcement Catholicism and Radical Orthodoxy we see an attempt to reclaim the world of nature/creation as gift, which in part means reclaiming the philosophical approach of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas, although not without development. Seeing creation as gift, a move which is affirmed forcefully in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, cuts against the grain of the Enlightenment’s “two waves”: the “conservative” wave that denies teleology in order to give the subject mastery over nature, and the “liberal” wave that denies the intrinsic meaning of human nature in order to liberate the self from the burdens of its body. I wonder, and this is a question not a charge, if Coakley’s mystical/contemplative turn doesn’t have the effect of bypassing this much-needed critique?

  • D. Stephen Long

    D. Stephen Long


    Response to Rodney Howsare

    Rodney Howsare raises three important questions about The Perfectly Simple Triune God (PSTG). Does it capture the right tone between theology and philosophy in general and in Thomas in specifics? Does the abandonment of arguments for causality concede too much, giving away less an argument for the existence of God and more a proper understanding of the relation between God and creation? Does the affirmation and use of Sara Coakley’s théologie totale overlook the much-needed critique of Enlightenment trends by the “traditionalists” and radical orthodox against which she positions her theology? All three are important questions, but I will focus on the first and make brief mentions of the second and third because the first question sets the conditions for the others. We agree on his third question so brevity will suffice in handling it.

    Capturing the Right Tone between Philosophy and Theology

    Let me parse the first question Howsare puts to me into two distinct but related parts. First is the specific interpretation of Thomas. Howsare does not so much question my interpretation as ask if I hit the right note in placing philosophy in Thomas’s theology. I take it this question comes from a friendly critic who agrees with my overall concern not to divide Thomas’s treatises between (1) what metaphysical reason alone could do in the de deo uno and (2) what faith contributes in the de deo trino. I find sympathies with what I am doing here and his Hans Urs von Balthasar and Protestantism; in it he notes that Thomas was “more optimistic than Luther” with respect to what philosophical theology could accomplish, yet “he would have been quite perplexed by the later Scholastic notions of ‘pure reason’ and ‘pure nature’” (77). This makes his question to me all the more significant; it arises from a sympathetic reader. He reminds us that the tone Thomas struck toward Aristotle was prudent. He rejected the radical Augustinians, who in his day (and in ours), had little place for philosophy, and he rejected the strict Aristotelians, who in his day (and in ours) gave insufficient place to sacred doctrine.

    The Relation between Philosophy and Theology in General

    This leads to the second part of his question, the relationship between philosophy and theology in general, asking if I have argued, explicitly or implicitly, that philosophy “needs to be hobbled in order to make room for theology, or even that reason was so frail that it couldn’t judge philosophical claims on philosophical grounds.” I addressed his general question at length in a previous work, Speaking of God: Theology, Language and Truth (SOG). There is no reason he should have knowledge of that book; few people, if any, have read it, and for good reason. Its thesis is complicated, and often confusing. The culpability for this confusion, however, is not all mine. I started the research for it by taking courses in philosophical theories of truth at Northwestern University and what I discovered is that philosophers are confused about what truth is. Trying to defend a philosophical account of truth in cooperation with theology is, well, complicated.

    SOG began with two quotations from Barth and Balthasar that guided me throughout: Barth’s, “the great temptation and danger consists in this, that the theologian will actually become what he seems to be—a philosopher,” and Balthasar’s, “without philosophy there can be no theology.” I suggested both could be true given the circumstances, and attempted to delineate when each would be. I tell readers this not to defend myself as if I were saying, “Well, I answered that question in another book, read it,” but because trying to get the right tone in the relationship between philosophy and theology has preoccupied me for some time, and I think it is an exceedingly difficult task. Sometimes we reduce theology to philosophy and need to hear a word from Barth. Sometimes we disregard philosophy to theology’s detriment and need a word from Balthasar. Howsare is an astute reader to identify striking the right tone as a central question and then ask if I got it right. What would the right tone be?

    I think that Howsare and I agree on the tone that we desire to strike in setting forth the relationship between theology and philosophy. I agree that philosophy is not just really smart people sitting around thinking, but that it, or at least metaphysics, begins as Aristotle stated in his Metaphysics from wonder. I agree philosophy has a necessary role to play in theology, and that as he puts it so well, “Thomas’s first question is not intended so much to call philosophy into question or even to make it a subspecies of theology, as it is to say that philosophy is not sufficient.” If I might indulge my readers’ forbearance, let me quote from SOG as to the tone I attempted to adopt:

    The inevitable failure of philosophy to render truth fully comprehensible is not in the end its failure, but its promise. It is an opening for something unmanageable, the reception of truth as a gift more so than an accomplishment. This gift does not diminish philosophy; it strengthens it. It does not reduce philosophy to theology, nor divide them into equivocal disciplines that must then be correlated or placed in a dialectical relation. The “excess” found in theology’s exorbitant claims completes philosophy and makes it necessary. The paradigm for their relationship is the incarnation.

    My sense is that Howsare would agree with this, but could still ask, “Yes, but did you lose sight of this in PSTG?” And if I did, perhaps the reason is the first part of PSTG might be too reactive, too worried about the resurgence of neoscholasticism and a doctrine of pure nature that diminishes the place of the divine economy by forcing it into the strictures of a zealous Aristotelianism.

    If we differ, I think it is that I blur the lines between theology and philosophy more than he finds warranted. To judge if this is the case, we could ask, “What does philosophy do?” First, I think we agree, it cannot do everything. We both learn from Thomas that when it comes to speaking of God we need a discipline “beyond philosophy” (ST I.1). Second, philosophy assists theology by “manifesting sacred doctrine’s truths about God” (PSTG, 34). It also removes obstacles to thought so that faith can flourish. What it does not do, and cannot do, is lead one to the perfectly, simple Triune God without the help of God’s self-communication. Philosophy points in a direction, but it cannot arrive at the destination. Philosophy will always be limited in seeking knowledge of God, and I notice how many times I speak of philosophy’s “limitation” in the first chapter (PSTG, 12, 18, 20, 42). Philosophy and theology are both part of a journey to our true end; the former sees from a distance what the latter sees from illumination; the illumination can be more blinding than the blurred vision from distance, so both are necessary, overlapping and not easily distinguished.

    If I overemphasized philosophy’s insufficiency, it is because I tend to think some counter Reformation and modern Thomists, Catholic and otherwise, overemphasize its sufficiency. For example, I don’t know how to square these two statements, the first from Thomas and the second from the dogmatic constitution at Vatican I, Dei Filius.

    • In addition, it was necessary for man to be instructed by divine revelation even with respect to those things about God that can be discovered by human reason. For the truth about God that is discovered by reason would come to man only from a few, and after a long time, and mixed in with many errors. (ST1)
    • The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things; “for the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” [Rom1:20] . . . (Dei Filius)

    If the “can be” of the second said “should be,” then I would find it a better interpretation of Romans 1:20 and less contradictory with the first quote, but the certitude of the “can be” compared with the more modest claims from Thomas has always struck me as if not contradictory at least so radically different that inasmuch as it seeks to be in harmony with Thomas, it strikes a discordant note. I wonder if it arises from an unnecessary anti-Protestant posture—we Catholics have reason, those Protestants are fideists. If so, it overlooks too much evidence and no longer serves truth.

    Final Brief Thoughts on the Other Critiques

    Let me quickly and inadequately address the next two questions. Perhaps the critique of causality is a symptom of the different tones in relating theology to philosophy? I don’t have a stake in thinking that I must come up with an argument for God’s existence from causality so criticisms like Preller’s and Hart’s are not off-putting to me. Finally, I agree with Howsare that Coakley’s théologie totale does not need to bypass the two critiques she dismisses early in her work. Both the “conservative” and the “liberal” Enlightenment trajectories lose the notion of the body, treating it as a mere datum or fact upon which we can impose “values,” underwriting a technological view of human nature that is deeply troubling and ecologically disastrous. I think Coakley would agree so I don’t see the need to distance her work from other theologies that could be an ally.

Frederick Bauerschmidt


Debt Service

Something Steve Long said to me at Duke University in the early 1990s changed how I thought, not only about the Trinity, but about doctrine in general. I don’t now remember what had preceded or what followed in the conversation, but he said simply, “The doctrine of the Trinity is important not because it is useful, but because it is true.” In the midst of graduate studies, propelled by the conviction that our generation had discovered this neglected doctrine anew and eager to apply it to all sorts of pressing issues of the day—from creating an ontology of peace to rethinking gender to offering an alternative to liberal or conservative social ethics—Steve’s remark, probably said at the cafeteria at Duke Hospital (where the cheapest lunch on campus could be had), brought all of this to a screeching halt for me. His statement was tantamount to heresy to us who were so eager to prove the utility of the doctrine of the Trinity. It used that uncomfortable, unfashionable word “true” and had about it the putrid whiff of metaphysics, whose cadaver we thought long-buried. But once he said it, it was for me undeniable and there was no going back. In what follows, everything I say about Steve’s The Perfectly Simple Triune God should be read as the words of a debtor trying to make payment on his debt.

In writing this book, Steve has now put all of us in his debt. Not only has he offered an account of what he describes as the “traditional answer” to the question “who is God?” but he has saved some of us (for others it is, alas, too late) from having to read a lot of other books by summarizing the positions of a wide array of critics of this traditional answer. Steve, being a Methodist and therefore nice by nature, is generous to these critics, taking seriously their criticisms and seeking to honor and address their valid concerns. I am not sure that I, being a Catholic and therefore inquisitorial by nature, could have mustered such generosity. But Steve’s readers and, I hope, the critics of the “traditional answer” he engages, will benefit from his generosity. This is not to say that I am without questions and criticisms regarding Steve’s generous book and I hope it will not seem churlish and ungrateful to air some of these.

Speculative and Practical

Throughout the book, Steve deploys a distinction between “speculative” and “practical” theology, terms he draws from Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I q. 1 a. 4. As Steve describes it, “Sacred doctrine as a speculative science concerns God’s self-knowledge. Sacred doctrine as a practical science concerns God’s work. The former focuses on God in God’s self. The latter on God’s relations to creatures” (9). He further subdivides practical theology into “Practical theology 1,” which deals with God’s relationship to creatures, and “Practical theology 2,” which deals with creatures’ relationship to God. At least as I read Thomas, however, he does not really make the distinction Steve is making here. In particular, Thomas does not identify the “speculative” dimension of theology or, as he calls it, sacra doctrina with God’s knowledge of himself in se nor does he identify the “practical” dimension of theology with God’s works. Rather, for Thomas theology is “speculative” when it is concerned with God who, as true, is the object of human knowing, and is “practical” when it is concerned with God who, as good, is the object of human action. True, Thomas does mention in this article God’s knowledge of himself and of his works, but this is simply to make the point that a single scientia can have two objects; that is, just as God can know himself and his works with one simple act of knowledge, so sacra doctrina also knows God under the aspect of the true and under the aspect of the good within the same scientia.

In pointing this out, I hope (though who of us ever knows his or her own true motives?) I am not simply engaging in the Thomist one-upmanship that inevitably raises its head whenever someone says anything about Thomas. It seems to me that in his use of the terms “speculative” and “practical” Steve is ceding ground unnecessarily to critics of the “traditional answer” by presenting a form of speculative knowledge of God that is in fact unattainable by human reason (God’s own self-knowledge), which then must somehow be accessed by a form of practical knowledge (“Practical theology 1”). Steve surely agrees with Thomas that no creature can ever possess God’s own self-knowledge, not least because “the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower” (Summa theologiae I q. 14 a. 1 ad 3). So this speculative theology that Steve posits—God’s self-knowledge—is really not theology at all, not a human discourse about God, but only a kind of Ding an sich that plays a regulative role in theology. In this sense, Steve’s speculative-practical distinction remains within the strictures of post-Kantian thought, such that all human thinking and speaking of God is really within the realm of practical theology. This is clearly contrary to what Steve intends. He writes, “Theology attends to God as God is in himself and not only God as God is related to creatures” (31). In other words, he wants to assert the point that was implicit in what he said to me all those years ago: the doctrine of the Trinity says something true about God, not simply about how God relates to us. But the way he sets up the speculative-practical distinction ends up reinforcing precisely the problem he wishes to escape and does not fully alleviate the anxiety that speculative theology is somehow trespassing on God’s territory.

For Thomas, all knowledge of God had by human beings in this life is based on God’s effects in creatures, whether of nature or of grace (see Summa theologiae I q. 1 a. 7 ad 1).1 This is no less true of speculative knowledge than it is of practical knowledge. In other words, for Thomas the speculative-practical distinction has nothing to do with the distinction between knowledge of God and knowledge of God’s works; rather it has to do with God as the object of the intellect and God as the object of the will. Thomas’s point is not that theology reaches beyond God’s effects to attain God himself, but rather that theology is both an intellectual and affective discipline. Yet while our theological knowledge is restricted to what can be known from God’s effects (whether of nature or of grace), this does not for Thomas turn God into an unknown Ding an sich about which we can only speculate. For God’s effects are analogically related to God as cause, such that we do not simply know the effects but actually know the cause, albeit imperfectly. So Thomas, like Steve, claims that our theology is actually about God and not simply about our experience of God’s effects, but he does so without setting up the problematic separation between God in se and God pro nobis, which the theologian must then strain to reunite.

God as Predestining Cause

I am similarly puzzled by Steve’s uneasy conscience over the category of “cause” with regard to God. One of Steve’s reasons for asserting our access to God’s self-knowledge is that without this, he claims, we can only know God as cause of his effect and not in himself, as “the donating source of being” (212). The language of causality, however, so saturates Thomas’s theology that I do not understand how one can work in this idiom without employing it. Indeed, Thomas modifies the understanding of God as cause found in Aristotle by giving it even wider scope, to include both efficient and exemplary causality as well as final causality. Thomas certainly sees God as “the donating source of being,” writing that, “it is necessary that esse be the proper effect of the first and most universal cause, which is God” (Summa theologiae I q. 45 a. 5; cf. De potentia q. 3 a. 4). But while Thomas sees God as the only donating source of being, he does not think that esse is the only effect of God. As indicated by the fourth way he gives in the Summa of demonstrating God’s existence, God guides the cosmos to its end not only in the way that a goal orients our action, but also in the way that an archer directs an arrow. This is not to say that God acts as a puppet-master, pulling the strings of creatures. But it does mean that God causes free creatures to act freely and that no free human act is self-originating. In part I think Steve’s argument remains haunted by a certain modern impoverishment of the notion of causality, such that the claim that “God causes x,” where = the act of a creature, necessarily implies that x is an unfree action on the part of the creature. I feel confident that Steve would reject this implication, yet he remains troubled by divine causality.

The real source of Steve’s trouble seems to be the idea that God predestines some to glory and others to reprobation. Indeed, he seems so troubled over this issue that his interpretive skills seem temporarily suspended. In particular, he seems to misconstrue Thomas’s remarks concerning how divine simplicity is related to the possibility of damnation. It is simply not true that Thomas holds, as Steve characterizes it, “that divine simplicity requires a hierarchy of multiplicity including the damnation of God’s creatures” (39).

First, it is not the simplicity of God that demands a hierarchy of beings, but rather the non-simplicity of creatures. That is to say, if God is to create a finite cosmos that reflects the infinite divine glory as perfectly as possible, then there must be multiplicity in that cosmos: a world consisting of multiple instantiations of all 118 (and counting) elements on the periodic table is more perfect than a world consisting of a single hydrogen atom. But such a world of diversity brings with it, as something permitted by God for the sake of the greater good of multiplicity, elements of loss, destruction, and evil. A world of lions and lambs is a better, richer world than a world just of lambs. But a world of lions and lambs is, given the nature of lions, going to result in some dead lambs. This, however, is not an entailment of uncreated simplicity but of created multiplicity.

Second, Thomas does not claim that this multiplicity requires that we hold that some rational creatures be damned; it is rather, he would say, Scripture that requires this. We may think him wrong in holding that this is in fact what Scripture teaches (Balthasar goes to some effort to make this case), but what is clear is that he does not present the hierarchy of created goods as necessarily entailing the reprobation of some creatures. Rather, he thinks the evil of the damnation of some is simply a fact of the scriptural world no less than the evil of the destruction of lambs by lions is a fact of the natural world. Thomas invokes hierarchically ordered multiplicity as a post facto account of why what he sees as a fact of Scripture can be conveniens (fitting), given what we believe about God as the cause of goodness. If it is the case that some are called to glory and others not, then clearly the will of God is the cause/reason (Aristotle’s aitia) of this, and the goodness of the gradations found in creation give us some dim insight into how this act of divine willing might be compatible with the good God wills for creation as a whole.

Third, Steve briefly makes common cause with the critics to say that Thomas violates the principle of divine simplicity in positing a distinction between God’s antecedent will and consequent will in the attempt to acquit God of willing the evil of reprobation (40). But Thomas clearly does not mean by this that God has two distinct wills; rather, God wills some things absolutely (antecedently) and other things as taking into account the total context (consequently). This no more involves God having two wills than does the case of a surgeon who wills as a matter of principle to preserve an organ, but upon it becoming diseased wills that it should be removed.

If Thomas is wrong about God’s reprobation of sinners, it is not a failure of his doctrine of God, but of his scriptural hermeneutics. And whether or not sinners are reprobated, it is not because God’s simplicity either requires or forbids this; it is because God does or doesn’t will it, and this will is revealed in Scripture. This should, I think, come as good news to Steve and others who hold to the traditional answer to the question “Who is God?” and yet wish also to hold onto a hope of universal salvation. Because it means that we do not need to resort to such strategies as Open or Process Theism in order to acquit God from the charge of predestining some to damnation. Rather, we must wrestle with the Scriptures as we seek to reread and reconcile those passages that speak of a universal hope for salvation with those that speak of God’s reprobation of sinners.

The Elusive God and the Translucent World

Because I find the traditional answer to the question “Who is God?” that Steve exposits and defends so deeply resonant with my own beliefs, I make this final inquiry as much to myself as to Steve. A persistent feature of the critics of the traditional answer is their tendency to treat God as one more item in the universe, albeit often a more powerful or more loving or more durable item. This can be seen in the subjection of both God and creatures to a universal process of becoming by Process Theists, and in the limitations placed on divine immutability and impassibility by Open Theists, and in the insistence on the univocal use of terms for both God and creatures by some analytic philosophers of religion, and in the rejection of the logic of “mixed relations” (i.e., the asymmetry of logical and real relations between God and the world) by almost all of the critics. In these and other ways, God and creatures are subjected to a common regime, making God a fellow-citizen with us of a larger cosmological republic.

Against such divine subjection, Steve holds to the difficult and elusive God implied by the traditional answer. This is a God of whom we can speak truly, knowing that our words apply to him, but without knowing how our words apply to him, except to know that the perfections that we name apply more truly to God than they do to creature. This is a God who non est in genera—who not only does not share a common genus with creatures, but who is contained in no genus whatsoever. This is the God who is unchanged by my prayers, unmoved by my struggles, unworried about my fate. This is the God whom the critics identify as cold, unloving, incredible, and difficult to reconcile with the picture of God found in Scripture.

In all honestly, there is a part of me that wishes that I believed in the God who was a fellow-citizen of the cosmos. The God who struggles with becoming, who suffers with creation, to whom we can refer like any other thing seems a much more vivid God, a God who stands out in bold relief against the backdrop of the cosmos. And I must ask myself if the God of the traditional answer, the perfectly simple triune God, is not simply a manifestation of my own attenuated faith. The God who suffers and changes and worries and repents seems not only more “biblical,” but also in a general sense more real, more of a fully-fleshed-out character in the world’s story. Do I resort to metaphysical attributes such as eternity and impassibility and eternity—categories that I do not need to understand because they are not understandable—as a way of evading God?

I will freely admit to a lack of belief. I find the idea of a God who suffers and changes and worries and repents quite literally incredible. Or rather, I think belief in such a being would not be belief in God, but in a god, analogous to belief in alien life forms somewhere in the universe. Not that I am against belief in gods or aliens. After all, I believe in angels as part of the depositum fidei, and they are not really all that different from gods or aliens. But belief in God is something different. It is different from believing that there are gods on Mount Olympus or aliens on TRAPPIST 4 or a place in Illinois called Peoria. All of these are things that I believe, but God is one in whom I believe, one about whom there is no “fact” of existence that might be falsified, one who is not so much a character in the story of the cosmos as the invisible author of that story.2 For Thomas, the demonstration of this God’s existence has a necessary indirectness that plays on a speculative surplus of the world that presents itself to us with such solidity, making the solid world translucent by revealing its radical contingency. For the traditional answer to the question “Who is God?” really amounts to the answer “no one”—no solid image but only a light that shines through the world grown translucent to its source, a light that is glimpsed fleetingly in a moment of speculative insight, or that sears us and leaves us sightless in the darkness of faith.

Of course, this is not all that is involved in the traditional answer to the question “Who is God?” The other, equally traditional way to answer the question is “Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” in whose sacred humanity God truly (and not merely analogically or metaphorically) suffers and changes and worries and repents, in whom God becomes a fellow citizen of the cosmos. Though Steve hints at this aspect of the answer, I suspect that he has more to say, perhaps in a future book that will put us further in his debt.

  1. The case is different in the patria, when we will know God by the uncreated light of glory, though even then our knowledge will be non-comprehensive in scope and thus non-identical with God’s self-knowledge (see Summa theologiae I q. 12 a. 7).

  2. I recently toyed with the metaphor of God as author of the world’s story in “God as Author: Thinking Through a Metaphor,” Modern Theology 31/4 (2015) 573–85.

  • D. Stephen Long

    D. Stephen Long


    Response to Fritz Bauerschmidt

    Fritz Bauerschmidt has been my mentor in all things Thomistic since graduate school. What I learned from Fritz is how not to read Thomas. He is not an analytic philosopher who gives us a series of propositions that can be pulled out of their theological context and ordered into distinct theses, setting some propositions on the side of philosophy and others on the side of theology. I also learned from him how to read Thomas. For Thomas, the “intellectual” (faith and reason) and the “evangelical” (following Christ) “intertwine” (see Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason and Following Christ, 22). Fritz taught me to pay attention to question one of the prima pars with great care before moving on, and not to isolate one article from the others. Inasmuch as I misunderstand Thomas, and he thinks I have at several crucial points, I could credit him with my mistakes.

    Fritz raises three criticisms of my reading of Thomas. The first concerns the way I distinguish speculative and practical theology; the second is my unease with causality; and the third is how I relate divine simplicity, creaturely multiplicity and reprobation. As I noted in the previous response to Erin Kidd, I see PSTG as an exercise in speculative theology, an exercise that attends to the truth of who God is in God’s self without focusing on the modern dominance of practical theology in which all we can know is who God is for us. It is why I concluded the book the way I did, “Only a God can save us, but it must be a God who is more than the god who is nothing but the god who saves us.” Fritz questions if I have interpreted the distinction between speculative and practical theology correctly. I rely on Thomas’s definition of “practical” based on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. A practical science, he suggests, has as its end “an operation.” An operation is an activity in which something is made. It could be techne that does not affect the agent making it, or phronesis which does, producing virtue. Speculative science is not primarily about an operation; it is not about an action but about being, about what something is. Fritz thinks this is not quite correct. He states,

    At least as I read Thomas, however, he does not really make the distinction Steve is making here. In particular, Thomas does not identify the “speculative” dimension of theology or, as he calls it, sacra doctrina with God’s knowledge of himself in se nor does he identify the “practical” dimension of theology with God’s works. Rather, for Thomas theology is “speculative” when it is concerned with God who, as true, is the object of human knowing, and is “practical” when it is concerned with God who, as good, is the object of human action.

    I don’t think our interpretations are as opposed as he suggests. Let me explain by first setting forth how and why I arrived at the distinction I did, and second showing how his distinction between the true and the good restates my reading.

    The How and Why of Speculative Theology

    It would be worth tracing when the term “speculative” became a pejorative term designating abstract, irrelevant, or useless knowledge, but it holds little appeal to much modern theology; practical theology has dominated our imagination for some time. Perhaps the demise of speculative theology and ascendancy of the practical originates with Kant’s critiques of speculative arguments for God in the first critique and his defense of the moral proof for God in the second? Perhaps, in a historical irony, the dominance of the practical emerges from Hegel’s speculative system? It seems to me, however, that this emphasis on the practical at the expense of the speculative has been mistaken; it is a major reason why modern theologians abandoned the perfectly, simple Triune God and focused on identifying who God is by attending to who God is for us rather than who or what God is in God’s self. I thought I was pushing against these trends, Fritz fears I may have cordoned knowledge of God off into an unrepresentable sublime à la Kant and thus conceded too much to the critics of the traditional answer. It was a surprise to me, but I see why he offered this critique.

    As I read Thomas, he presents us with a difficulty in our knowledge of God that does, in the beginning, resonate with Kant. Because knowledge of God “exceeds the comprehension of reason,” Thomas argues, if we are to have such knowledge we need a science beyond philosophy (ST I.1.1). Philosophy alone does not suffice to provide knowledge of an object that exceeds human reason. To this point, he and Kant would agree. They have a similar starting point. But Thomas is no fideist. He does not rest content with critiquing reason to make room for faith. He proceeds to argue that there is another science, “sacred doctrine,” that can provide what philosophy alone cannot. But what makes it a science? His answer to that question overlaps philosophy and theology. Science arises either from “first principles that are known per se” from the “natural light of the intellect,” or from “first principles known by the light of a higher science.” Thomas is explicit that sacred doctrine cannot be a science from the first, but only from the second option. If it were from the first, philosophy would suffice. We could know who and what God is from nature with certainty. We need something else, a “higher science.” The “higher science” that provides the necessary “first principles” is God’s self-knowledge and the vision of the beatified. The necessary first principles “are only known by God and the blessed in heaven” (ST I.1.2). If I neglected something in my interpretation, it would be the roles of the beatified in the knowledge of God, but I think Fritz and I would agree that sacred doctrine is a science because its first principles are present in God’s self-knowledge—if there is a God, God knows who God is and that God is—and the beatified who look upon God would know it as well. Although we do not have access to these principles through nature itself, these first principles are communicated to us and it is from the communication of these higher principles, aided by philosophy, that we can know and speak about God. Sacred doctrine is “beyond” not “against” philosophy.

    Thomas then poses the question if sacred doctrine is a single science. He must pose this question because the communications of the higher principles will be creatures; yet a single science only has one object. Sacred doctrine has two—God and creatures. This poses no problem, he argues, because it does not deal with them “on an equal basis.” He states, “It deals with God principally and with creatures insofar as they are related to God as their origin or their end. Hence, the unity of the science is not obstructed” (ST I.1.3). Now we are ready for the all-important fourth article in which he distinguishes speculative and practical theology.

    Thomas asks if sacred doctrine is a practical science, and begins by suggesting it is because as Aristotle stated in the Metaphysics, “the end of a practical science is an operation.” God is the end for which human creatures exist, so sacred doctrine would seem to be a practical discipline. As noted above, a practical discipline is an activity that could be a techne or phronesis. Thomas explicitly refers to this distinction in his sed contra to article 4: “Every practical science is about things that can be done by man. For instance, moral science is about the acts of men, and the science of building is about buildings. But sacred doctrine is principally about God, and it is men who are rather the works of God.” The “rather” in that sentence is intriguing. God is not an object human creatures make for themselves, they are the works God makes. Sacred doctrine is concerned with both God and creatures, but it does so under a single “formal characteristic”—“their being knowable by the divine light.” Thomas then correlates speculative and practical philosophical sciences with sacred doctrine by stating, “Hence, even though some of the philosophical sciences are speculative and others are practical, sacred doctrine includes both types within itself—just as it is by the same knowledge that God knows both Himself and the things that He does.” Has he not correlated speculative science with what God knows of himself and practical with God’s operations? Such a correlation fits well Aristotle’s distinction between speculative and practical sciences. Moreover, when Thomas comes to the end of his discussion of who God is in question eleven and begins assessing how we know God (human operations) in question twelve, he makes this startling claim: “Since in what has gone before we have investigated how it stands with God in Himself, we must now investigate how it stands with Him in our cognition, i.e., how God is known by creatures.” Thomas tells us that the first eleven questions investigated “how it stands with God in Himself.” It is this speculative task that I think much of modern theology abandons, and it does so by focusing on the practical. We cannot know who God is but we can know how God functions for us.

    God as the True and Good Object of Human Knowledge and Action

    Fritz suggests that the speculative is our knowledge of God as true, and the practical is our knowledge of God as good. I think this restates my position. For what differentiates the former from the latter other than who God is (being) from how God is our source and end? These will be related, but speculative theology focuses on the first and practical theology on the latter, differentiating them is not easy but nonetheless important. The difficulty that Thomas points us to is this: (1) Philosophy alone does not suffice for knowledge of God. (2) Sacred doctrine is a science beyond philosophy that has no principles sufficient in themselves in the natural comprehension of human reason. (3) Sacred doctrine depends on “higher principles” known only to God and the blessed. But (4) because of (1) and (2) we have no access to (3) apart from divine communication of those principles to creatures. Therefore (5) those divine communications will be creatures, human and divine operations, that push in the direction of making sacred doctrine primarily if not exclusively practical. For it is true that we who are the result of God’s operations cannot know God apart from those operations; without them we would not be. How, then, can sacred doctrine be, as Thomas states, “more speculative than practical” because its primary concern is “with divine things” rather than “human acts” (ST I.4 resp). Our knowledge of God can only be a human act based on a divine act, the acts of creation and redemption. Both are operations, and the definition of a practical science is that it has as its end an operation. How then can it be primarily speculative? Thomas resolves this aporia not by relinquishing God as the true object of sacred doctrine and adopting God and creation as its only object, but by arguing that it is from the practical that we can know the speculative. Our speculative knowledge of God would be to know divine things, to know God as God is in himself. Our practical knowledge of God would be to know God as our source and end. God as the “highest cause” is a “determination” that both philosophy and sacred doctrine make, but if we are to go beyond philosophy then it requires what “God alone knows about Himself and which has been communicated to others by revelation” (ST I.1.6).

    Causality, Causality

    If the above is an adequate interpretation of the aporia Thomas sets forth and addresses, then it would not differ from Fritz’s use of speculative and practical, but it would relativize the role of causality. Yes, the philosophers knew in part God was the highest cause, but they could not know the significance of it apart from God’s self-communication (see ST I.1.6). For this reason, if philosophers find the causal arguments unpersuasive, we should not be alarmed or judge them to be irrational. Of course, as many philosophers have suggested, the argument from God as first cause is a strange argument.

    (1) Everything has a cause.

    (2) But we cannot trace everything back to a cause without assuming an infinite regression, which seems unreasonable.

    (3) Thus everything has a cause except one thing and that one thing that does not have a cause is what we call God.

    But if (3) is correct then (1) is incorrect, and (2) remains subject to philosophical and scientific critique. A strict Thomist might respond, but this is not what we mean by “causality.” To which the answer for those of us less enamored with it, or concerned with the trouble it caused in the tradition, is: Precisely.

    Damning the Reprobates

    Finally, Fritz thinks I misinterpreted Thomas on reprobation. I hope so. One of the surprising results of my research was to discover that it was their Thomistic training that led some Reformed theologians to posit strict teachings on predestination and reprobation. The troubling passage is ST I.23.5 rep. obj. 3. Creaturely multiplicity results from God’s “goodness, which is one and simple in itself.” Simple, divine goodness requires multiple forms of instantiation, some higher, others lower, including some that are predestined for glory and others reprobate. The former represents God’s goodness in “the mode of mercy” and the latter in the “mode of judgment.” It is something God “permits,” but it is also something God “wills,” which is the only “explanation” for it. One positive reason for modern revisions to the perfectly, simple Triune God is that it can be construed to make God the author of evil, especially by damning the majority of God’s creatures by divine will. Here I agree with the revisionists. If the traditional answer required that teaching, then it should be rethought. Just as Thomas was wrong that heretics should be executed, an error all churches now recognize, so he, or those who received his teaching on predestination and reprobation, are wrong to argue that somehow the “completion” of creation requires reprobation. Scripture itself, as Fritz reminds us by referring to Balthasar’s more nuanced teaching, does not require such a teaching.

Thomas McCall


Comments on Steve Long’s The Perfectly Simple Triune God

The Perfectly Simple Triune God is an impressive, wide-ranging, insightful, and stimulating book. For some time, I’ve wanted someone to write such a book. More specifically, I’ve wanted Steve Long to write such a book! I’m now happy to see it in print and even happier to benefit from it, and I’m honored to respond to it. I think that, in general, Long is on the side of the angels (as well, of course, as on the side of the angelic doctor). I find much that cheers me in his exposition of Aquinas, and I find much to cheer in his sharp criticisms of process theology and in his critical appreciation of various movements in “political” and “contextual” theology. But rather than merely offering amens and alleluias, in what follows I shall point out areas that need further clarification, defense, or correction. In Long’s eloquent defense of being a “generalist,” he very humbly says: “I invite correction” (xiii). As one who is overall in sympathy with his project, I offer just a little of that correction here. I also ask him to further address some issues that continue to present stumbling blocks to critics both sympathetic and hostile.

Some Historical-Theological Concerns

I begin with some concerns about the theological history that is told (or assumed).1 In general, my biggest concern has to do with the tendency to over-generalize about the doctrine of divine simplicity. Long correctly notes at the outset (3n1, cf. 227) that “simplicity is not a single teaching,” but the vast majority of the work proceeds as if there is only one thing called “the traditional Christian answer” (e.g., xi, xix, xxv, xxvi, 119, 175, 225–26, 227). Long would be entirely right to claim that some version or another of the doctrine is all over the Christian tradition, for it is nearly ubiquitous and can easily be seen in patristic, medieval, and (early) modern theology (both Greek and Latin, and Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant). But it is not safe to assume (as I interpret Long) that all such affirmations of the doctrine are committed to the same formulation of it, and it is unhelpful and indeed potentially misleading to ignore the differences between various formulations of the doctrine. While there is significant concord, there are also important differences within the Christian tradition.

More specifically, Long’s approach not only tends to refer to “the traditional” Christian doctrine but also to conflate it with Thomas Aquinas’s articulation and defense of the doctrine of simplicity. But Long has not demonstrated that Aquinas’s doctrine is the standard bearer for the tradition. Nor has he shown that, say, either patristic theology (in whole or even in part) is committed to Aquinas’s formulation, nor further has he shown that the Protestant confessions to which he (quite helpfully) points are beholden to it. Long simply refers to Aquinas as “the great synthesizer” (3), and while this is true in some sense(s), in point of fact it is also true that not everyone agreed with Aquinas on the doctrine. As an example, we see how this impacts Long’s work of historical description when we come to his treatment of Arminius. Long is right to point out that Arminius held to the doctrine of simplicity, and he is also right to insist that the doctrine of simplicity was important in Arminius’s departure from other Reformed views on predestination. But the tendency toward over-generalization is seen in Long’s claim that “Arminius may be the most Thomist of the Reformers” (165). This may be true in some senses, but it clearly isn’t the case with respect to the doctrine of divine simplicity. For (as I have argued elsewhere) while Arminius clearly holds to the doctrine of simplicity, he just as clearly holds to a decidedly Scotist (rather than Thomist) account of it.2

A Few Conceptual Clarifications

Long also exhibits a few unfortunate misunderstandings of some contemporary discussions in analytic theology. Again, there is a tendency to over-generalize. For instance, he says that “the analytic method finds real difficulties with Thomas Aquinas’s resolution to the problem of divine knowledge and will” (198). But this is overstated and simply mistaken—the analytic method doesn’t do so, and some analytic theologians actually rally to a defense of Aquinas. Beyond the over-generalizations, however, on some important points Long says things that seem to me to be questionable or, in a few instances, simply mistaken. For instance, he claims that analytic theologians often try to “disenchant the world” by making God “nonmysterious” and that analytic theology “only works with a strong doctrine of univocity” (271), and he claims further that this understanding of theology views “apophasis, like analogy, [as] a threat to the theological task” (272). But on the contrary, many analytic theologians deny that they either want to or could make God nonmysterious, and some even deploy rigorous analytic defenses of apophaticism.3

More substantively, Long’s discussion of the metaphysics of freedom could be improved. He describes “compatibilism” as the view that “something being willed or determined by God (or nature) does not rule out human freedom” (198). But this is simply too broad a brush for the higher-resolution detail required here. For this definition could cover decidedly indeterminist and libertarian doctrines, too (e.g., Molinism, Ockhamism, and—at least arguably—some forms of Thomism), while compatibilism, on the other hand, is the view that freedom and determinism (not freedom and foreknowledge or freedom and providence or freedom and the divine will) are compatible. Meanwhile, Long seems to restrict “libertarianism” to one version of it and ignores “virtue libertarianism” (which is, ironically enough, likely close to Aquinas’s own understanding).4 He further claims that “divine libertarianism requires a rejection of classical theism”—but surely this would have been a surprise to such classical theists as Thomas Aquinas (who, as we shall see, insisted upon the reality and importance of divine freedom between options). Moreover, he labels the concern for divine and human freedom a “modern” problem (207). But not only is this of dubious relevance, it is easy to produce counterexamples—surely Augustine isn’t a “modern” theologian, yet he pays much attention to the issue and even defends a “libertarian” view late in his anti-Pelagian career.5 Beyond this, Long seems to think that concurrence and secondary causality are inconsistent with libertarianism. Such missteps are both unnecessary and unfortunate, for they detract from Long’s primary concern (which is, completely commendably, to show how the doctrine of simplicity relates to concerns about freedom), and they muddy the waters.

The “Perfectly Simply Triune God”?

The title of this book teases with the relation of the doctrine of simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity. And Long’s exposition of Aquinas is intriguing and insightful in this respect. But I am surprised that there isn’t more about the doctrine of the Trinity in the more elenctic sections. More specifically, I am surprised that there is not more about the incompatibility—either alleged or real—of the doctrines. So, at the risk of being pedantic, I shall spell out one such charge with which he might have dealt. Long states unequivocally that “the Father is the essence” and “the Son is the essence” (e.g., 53). Surely, on Thomistic grounds, the is here is not the is of mere predication. So is it the is of identity? If so, then we immediately encounter this problem. Consider:

(1) The Father is not identical to the Son.

(1) is basic to Christian orthodoxy. But taking the is as the is of identity clearly gives us both

(2) The Father is identical to the divine essence; and

(3) The Son is identical to the divine essence.

But given the fact that identity is both transitive and symmetrical, this yields

(4) The Father is identical to the Son.

The challenge should be obvious. It is not a problem for other accounts of simplicity (at least not so obviously), but it surely appears to be a challenge for Long’s Thomist account (at least on an interpretation of it that is not implausible).6

It will not suffice merely to charge the worry with the importation of univocity into the doctrine, for nothing here depends on univocal understandings of personhood (nor does it assume that the divine persons are “modern individuals”). The problem seems obvious enough, and surely would be serious enough, that there must be some better way of understanding the crucial claims. Beyond this, Long claims that the doctrines are mutually entailing, but this seems plainly false. For while it might not be possible to have Aquinas’s doctrine of the Trinity without his doctrine of simplicity, this wouldn’t mean that one couldn’t have his doctrine of simplicity without his doctrine of the Trinity. Issues of mutual entailment aside, however, it would be good if Long could do more to show the contemporary critics that Thomas’s doctrine of simplicity is consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Divine Simplicity and Divine Action

Long makes the striking claim that to “make God a character in a story is to misread Scripture,” and he concludes that “a better way is to speak and think of God not as a character in a story but as its Author” (214). Setting aside the concern that he employs a false dilemma here, such a claim strikes me as very unfortunate. It gives ammunition to the critics of the doctrine and might serve to confirm their suspicions about it. It also appears unmotivated, and at any rate raises other worries.7

One of those worries has to do with the doctrine of creation, and especially with the affirmation of a robust doctrine of divine freedom along with the doctrine of divine simplicity.8 Here is one way to understand the worry. If we take a possible world to be a maximally consistent state of affairs, and if we understand God to exist necessarily (that is, in all possible worlds), and if we take A to stand for God’s action of creating this possible world, then we are faced with an argument such as the following:9

(5) If God is simple, then there is no liberty of alternatives for God.

(6) If there is no liberty of alternatives for God, then God is not free to refrain from A.

(7) Therefore, if God is simple, then God is not free to refrain from A (from 5, 6).

(8) If God is not able to refrain from A, then it is not possible that this possible world not be actualized.

(9) Therefore, if God is simple, then it is not possible that this world not be actualized (from 7, 8).

(10) God is simple.

(11) Therefore, it is not possible that this possible world not be actualized (from 9, 10).

(12) If it is not possible that this possible world not be actualized, then this possible world is necessary.

(13) Therefore, this possible world is both possible and necessary (from 11, 12).

But (13) just is modal collapse—it is nothing short of fatalism.

Unfortunately, it seems that Long might find (5) acceptable (e.g., 169); he consistently criticizes “libertarian freedom” (e.g., 169–70, 206–7). But this is unfortunate for at least two reasons. The first reason is that Thomas Aquinas himself is sure that God has liberty of choice between genuine alternatives: “We must simply say that God can do other things than he has done.”10 As Stump says, “It is abundantly clear that Aquinas takes God to be possessed of choice or liberum arbitrium . . . it is also clear that for Aquinas, liberum arbitrium is the power of choosing among alternative possibilities . . . In particular, Aquinas holds that God was free to create or not to create.”11 The second reason is that the conclusion of this argument is odious both philosophically (modal collapse) and theologically (fatalism)—and Long himself recognizes this (e.g, 240, 244). So it seems to me that Long should want to find some way to deny (5) (without, of course, resorting to a denial of the doctrine of simplicity). Long very helpfully includes discussion of recent work by analytic theologians (e.g., Alexander Pruss, Jeffrey E. Brower, and Eleonore Stump) in defense of simplicity, but he does not finally decide in favor of any of their strategies. Nor does he show that the strategies finally work—even very sympathetic interpreters (such as Brian Leftow) continue to worry that (5) might be implied by the doctrine itself (e.g., the claim that God’s existence is identical with God’s essence).12 So while his work is helpful, there is yet more to be done.

Other concerns come with the doctrine of the incarnation. If God isn’t “a character in a story,” then it is hard indeed to know what to do with the traditional Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Moreover, it isn’t obvious how Thomas’s doctrine of divine simplicity coheres with his compositionalist Christology. It may be that Thomist Christology has the resources to address such concerns, but Long needs to say more about this (more than the page or so it gets, e.g., 55–56).


We should now be in a position to see how the historical worries with which I began actually matter for a constructive theology of divine simplicity. For even if the criticisms (with respect to the Trinity and divine action) turn out to be insuperable for Aquinas’s version of the doctrine of simplicity, that would not mean that the doctrine itself were flawed. It would only mean that more work remains. Or perhaps Long’s stellar efforts will show that Aquinas’s doctrine escapes these criticisms. If so, however, again more work remains—this much, if nothing else, should be plain. Accordingly, Steve Long’s long book needs to be a little longer. Despite such qualms and criticisms, however, I remain very grateful for this book. It is insightful and forceful, and I’ve learned much from it.13 I’m sure that I will return to it often, and I will continue to learn from Steve Long’s excellent work.

  1. I focus here on the most important matters. There are other, more minor, concerns too. For instance, in what must be a mere “slip of the pen,” not only John Wesley but also Martin Luther and Philipp Melancthon are listed as “Reformed” theologians, e.g., xxv, 165.

  2. E.g., Disp. pub. IV.11. See the discussion in Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 50–55.

  3. See the discussion in Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 25–26.

  4. Cf. Kevin Timpe, Free Will: Sourcehood and Its Alternatives, 2nd ed. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), and Free Will in Philosophical Theology (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

  5. E.g., De Spiritu et Lettera (PL 44:238), where Augustine makes it clear that prevenient grace does not necessitate one response rather than another. Jesse Couenhoven concludes that it is only the very late Augustine who endorses compatibilism, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  6. See Thomas H. McCall, “Trinity Doctrine, Plain and Simple,” in Advancing Trinitarian Theology, edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2014), 42–59.

  7. It is unmotivated because it may be possible to reject such a claim and still hold to the doctrine of divine simplicity. See Eleonore Stump, The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016).

  8. It is unfortunate that Long does not interact with the work of Ryan Mullins on this issue (it is also unfortunate that Long does not avail himself of the voluminous analytic work on divine freedom more generally). See especially Ryan Mullins, “Simply Impossible: A Case Against Divine Simplicity,” Journal of Reformed Theology (2013).

  9. In what follows, I make no presupposition about the ontological status of possible worlds.

  10. ST 1a.25.5-6, cf. ST 1a.19.10.

  11. Eleonore Stump, Aquinas, 116.

  12. E.g., Brian Leftow, “Aquinas, Divine Simplicity, and Divine Freedom,” in Metaphysics and God: Essays in Honor of Eleonore Stump, edited by Kevin Timpe (New York: Routledge, 2009), 21–38. Paul Helm concludes that Stump’s strategy amounts to a “considerable modification of Aquinas’s view, for it can maintain only that God is simple within a world (rather than across worlds), Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 181.

  13. Thanks to Joel Chopp and Fellipe do Vale for their very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

  • D. Stephen Long

    D. Stephen Long


    Response to Thomas McCall

    I no longer know what to think about the use of analytic philosophy in theology. In a previous work, Speaking of God, I suggested that a theologian’s response to it depends on what she or he thinks about the linguistic turn. Following Charles Taylor’s distinctions, I then suggested that the “designative-instrumental” version of that turn render theological claims arational in advance while the “expressive-constitutive” could serve to manifest theological claims well. I still stand by that conviction. However, in doing the research for this work I read more analytic philosophers on the doctrine of God than I had for that earlier work in which I primarily read them on the philosophy of truth. I was astonished how some of the leading analytic philosophers used their method for revisions to the traditional doctrine of God that were as radical as process or open theism. It was unclear what they were describing was the same object that the tradition described before the use of this method.

    Let me be clear that I qualify the above statement, as I also tried to do in chapter 6, with “some” analytic philosophers. Not every analytic philosopher/theologian seems as committed to revision as those I noted in chapter 6, but the ones discussed are by no means marginal figures, and they are the ones who have taken on the task of using this method to address and revise the doctrine of God. Thomas McCall is an exception to this rule as his important work Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters shows. It is a compelling defense of the “traditional answer.” Given his own work, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology, he is surely correct to challenge my claim that analytic philosophy is too often a secular discipline that seeks to resolve dilemmas by rendering them non-mysterious through stipulative definitions. I think that does describe much of analytic philosophy and it is one reason why the revised doctrine of God looks so much like a really big creature in some of those revisions. Perhaps I made it easier on myself by focusing on those revisions, but as he noted I also looked at a new generation of analytic philosophers/theologians who are not as dismissive of the traditional teaching on God. For this reason, I would accept much of his criticism as a summons for me to gain more precision in what I think about analytic philosophy. Should I follow David Bentley Hart and deny its “consanguinity” with theology or Fergus Kerr and use it to be more precise and logically rigorous in setting forth arguments?

    I doubt that I will develop a style of logical rigor to the satisfaction of analytic philosophers, who will find theologians like me similar to continental philosophers, humorously defined by Stanley Rosen as indulging in “speculative metaphysics or cultural hermeneutics, or, alternatively, depending on one’s sympathies, in wool-gathering and bathos.” However, if some analytic philosophers/theologians continue to make the large claims for their method that I noted in that chapter, then it seems that the onus is on them to show us the fruits of their labor. To this point I find it uncontroversial to say that they have little agreement among themselves as to which attributes should be singled out for revision, what the doctrine of God should be post-analytic philosophy, and how it relates to the tradition prior to the analytic method. Until the analytic method achieves the success some of its more ardent defenders suggest it can, it will be one more discipline in which its proponents speak primarily with each other.

    I am grateful for McCall’s work because he calls into question the “triumphalism” found in some quarters of analytic Christian theology, reminds its practitioners of the importance of mystery, and orders it toward the “glory of God” rather than merely the solving of dilemmas. Using his more modest and minimal analytic method he puts the following questions to me. First, he asks if I have read too much continuity with respect to the interpretation of simplicity in the Christian tradition. I attempted to answer this question in my first response to Erin Kidd. It is not so much the doctrine of God that differs among theologians prior to the eighteenth century, but the questions to which it is put. That is a large claim that exceeds the evidence put forward for it; for I have not read every theologian prior to the eighteenth century. I’m sure there are exceptions so I should qualify it to say that there is coherent and dominant tradition that puts together these four claims: (1) God is simple, which means at least the following: God is “to be”; God’s essence is God’s existence; God is not composed of parts; and creaturely distinctions such as act/potency, form/matter, genus/difference, substance/accidents cannot be attributed to God. (2) It follows logically from simplicity that God is perfect, eternal, impassible, infinite and one; for to deny any of these will require at some level attribution of the creaturely distinctions simplicity rules out. (3) The perfectly simple God is triune. Rather than causing difficulties in expressing trinity, simplicity assists it and in turn trinity helps us see how God is and is not simple. (4). None of this conflicts with the claim that God is love or free. All I need for my argument to work is to show that these four claims are present in Scripture and pervasive throughout the tradition prior to the eighteenth century (with the exception of teachings that were ruled as heretical, and with Biddle and the Socinians). I do not need to defend Thomas as a unique thinker or set him against Lombard, Scotus, or Calvin on these four points. If their work, or others, contradicts these four points then my argument would need to be nuanced. The “traditional answer” would still stand, but I would have overstated its pervasiveness.

    Second, these four points do not require me to provide a metaphysics of freedom or weigh in on the distinction between the intellectualist versus the voluntarist conceptions of God. Nor do I feel compelled to discuss diverse accounts of analogy and/or univocity and their role in modern theology. Only insofar as those discussions bear on the four points above would they be relevant to my argument in this work. I am willing to entertain objections to the thesis that there is a “traditional answer” that becomes increasingly criticized after the eighteenth century and not before, but I did not find much evidence for those objections in the research for this work. What I would like to know from Tom is if he thinks Scotus fundamentally challenges any of the four points above?

    Third, I concede that I may very well misunderstand contemporary analytic philosophy. I should have limited my statements and criticisms in chapter 6 to the philosophers under consideration and not tarred the entire method with their conclusions. I did attempt to show the diversity among analytic philosophers/theologians on whether, or how, the traditional teaching should be revised. However, I am not convinced I need to present theology in terms of the predications Tom presents toward the conclusion of his analysis. I think his thirteen propositions show a difference in theological style between us and I would need to adopt his style, with its assumptions about how theological language works in order to address them to his satisfaction. Let me explain why I want to avoid that.

    He begins with (1) the Father is not identical with the Son and from there proceeds to draw the conclusion that without attending more careful to the “is” of predication or identity my position might conclude with the contradictory (4) “The Father is identical with the Son” since both are identical with the essence [his (2) and (3)]. It seems to me that this shows some of the limitations in presenting the Trinity through analytical propositions rather than narrative construal for of course (1) and (4) both must be said if we are to present the doctrine of Trinity in speech. The Son says that he is “one” with the Father and in his actions and words conveys difference from the Father so we are bound to express both the unity and difference within our theological language. That he is one in essence and distinct in person appears to be contradictory only if these propositions must be definitions in which the terms, especially the verbs, are designative. If they are expressive then it seems to me noncontradictory to say the following:

    1. The Father is the essence. The Son is the essence. The Spirit is the essence.
    2. The Father, Son and Spirit is the essence.
    3. The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit.
    4. God has one essence and three persons.

    I am not designating quantities that can be indicated but expressing a mystery as best as it can be expressed in language. In so doing, these four points do not constitute a dilemma to be solved but rules of grammar that express a truth, and if we seek to be consistent in the truth of God received from Scripture and tradition the rules will need to be obeyed. We do not bend the rules to satisfy our logic. We obey the rules and reconceive logic when applied to Trinity.

    Fourth, I do not understand why I would have to accept Tom’s fifth point: “(5) If God is simple, then there is no liberty of alternatives for God.” The question for me would not be if God has liberty of alternative but which alternatives God might have liberty for? Here we must remember that simplicity must be coupled with perfection. Is God at liberty to choose between good and evil? The perfectly, simple Triune God cannot choose evil. Would this mean God is unfree? Only if we have a libertarian version of freedom that always requires choice between opposing options. Is God at liberty to be other than Triune? Or is God at liberty to be or not to be? I am confident Tom would agree that God does not choose among these alternatives. Within God’s perfectly, simple Triunity God can set before us multiple ways in which we can participate in God’s goodness, and this is how I would read the passage from Thomas that he cites: “we must simply say that God can do other things than he has done.” Yes, but I don’t see how that provides warrant for “liberty of choice between genuine alternatives” unless more detail is first given for what is meant by “genuine.” Once that detail is given, then I think we might agree, but I would disagree with libertarians like William Hasker who argues that the beatified are unfree if they lose the power to choose sin. Freedom is not always the power to choose between alternatives; it is also the power to be turned toward what is good such that evil no longer holds us. To have to choose between good and evil at every moment because both are equal possibilities is to lack freedom.

    Finally, Tom and I agree with his concluding comment: “So while his work is helpful, there is yet more to be done.” Always . . . And I am grateful for his contributions working from a very different philosophical and theological style than my own. We are, after all, seeking to do the same work—setting forth what we have come to know of God in speech for the purpose of acknowledging God in theory and practice as our beginning and end. It is a joyful activity in which even our differences and errors can contribute to sacred wisdom.

    • Thomas McCall

      Thomas McCall


      Rejoinder to Professor Long

      I did not intend to mount a defense — “full-throated,” half-throated, or otherwise — of analytic theology, and in this context I have little interest in a general discussion of analytic philosophy and its relation to theology. I am, however, keenly interested in the theological issues at stake, and I am sorry if my approach (with the occasional use of some tools drawn from the “analytic method”) somehow distracted us from those issues.

      Let us return to a theological issue that seems to me to be of central importance. In my essay, I noted that the doctrine of the Trinity insists that the Father is not identical to the Son (my proposition (1)). I also noted that — given the transitivity of identity — what Long says about the Trinity and simplicity yields the conclusion that the Father is identical to the Son (my proposition (4)). I did not present this as a fatal objection, but I laid it out as a real concern and concluded that the “challenge should be obvious.” Well, apparently not — Long says that my work here “shows some of the limitations in presenting the Trinity through analytic propositions rather than narrative construal,” and he then says that “of course both (1) and (4) must be said if we are to present the doctrine of the Trinity in speech.”

      Long’s response both surprises and disappoints me. I am surprised that he would appeal to the superiority of “narrative construal” in a text devoted to Aquinas and Thomism, and I’m a bit disappointed that he would pit them against one another. For I don’t think that they should be set in opposition (see Matthew Levering’s fine work Scripture and Metaphysics on this point), and at any rate Thomas never exactly struck me style-wise as the sort of theologian who strongly favors “narrative construal” over propositions. I am surprised — indeed, very surprised — to see Long affirm that the Father and the Son are identical, and I am rather disappointed that he does not either avail himself of Thomas’s way of dealing with this worry (while seeking to explain and defend it) or look for a better way forward.

      The difficulties seem so obvious to me that I can only assume that we aren’t fully understanding one another. I’ll also assume that the lack of understanding is my fault. So, with apologies, let me try to spell this out. Here is why we cannot say that the Father and Son are identical. If any two entities are genuinely identical, then they have all their properties in common; if they are identical, then any property possessed by one must also be had by the other. So if the Father and Son are identical, then they have all their properties in common. But then not only the Son but also the Father would have the property filatio, and not only the Father but also the Son would have the property paternitas. I know of no theologian (at least in the mainstream Latin tradition) who would countenance such a conclusion; the insistence on the irreducibility of the “relations of opposition” and the “personal properties” renders this impossible, and at any rate it would seem pointless to reject Sabellianism if the personal properties were confused or shared. Numerical sameness, yes (for the Latin tradition); identity, no.

      Is the situation any better if we say that the divine persons are identical but then also add that they are not identical? No, not at all, for now we have simply gained what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. When considering the relation of the persons to the essence, Thomas considers the objection that “simultaneous affirmation and negation of the same things in the same respect cannot be true.” The dilemma is obvious to Thomas: person and person are distinct, but person and essence are not distinct. He addresses it head-on, and he thinks that he has an adequate response to it. Whether that response finally is adequate is a matter for further reflection (more on this in a moment), but for present purposes note what Thomas does not do: he does not deny the law of non-contradiction. Nor should we be willing to do so (especially not in theology that works to retrieve his theology).

      So we shouldn’t say that the divine persons are identical to one another. But — to return to my initial worry — does Thomas’s doctrine of simplicity imply that they are identical? As Thomas himself states the objection: “It would seem that the divine relations are not really distinguished from one another. For things which are identified withe the same, are identified with each other. But every relation in God is really the same as the divine essence. Therefore the relations are not really distinguished from each other” (ST QQ 28.3). Clearly, Thomas is aware of the worry; given the transitivity of identity, if two relations (in this case, subsistent relations, i.e., persons) are really identical with the divine essence, then they would be identical to one another. Thomas admits that Aristotle makes a good case here with respect to entities that are both really and logically identical, but he denies that this holds when there is logical non-identity, and he insists that because the subsistent relations are relations of opposition they are not identical.

      So he sees the worry, and he takes it seriously. But what are we to make of his response? It is not clear that it is successful. Thomas makes two points unambiguous: he wants to insist that the divine essence is not really distinct from the divine person(s), and he is equally insistent that the persons are really distinct from one another. But from there matters are not quite as clear, for he works to avoid the problematic entailment by appeal to what can only be (for his account) a conceptual distinction. As he puts it, “as essence and person in God differ in our way of thinking, it follows that something can be denied of the one and affirmed of the other…” (ST QQ 39.1). But does this work? Can a merely conceptual distinction — something that is only “in our way of thinking” — serve to block the troubling inference? Can a merely conceptual distinction secure a real distinction within God’s own life? It is hard to be optimistic here. Or is something else going on here? Surely it would be good to know more before we sign on to Long’s Thomist proposal.

      Once again, the historical dimensions of my initial response are relevant here. Other theologians of the tradition have not been convinced that Thomas’s account is successful — but they have not abandoned the doctrine of divine simplicity. John Duns Scotus, for example, is convinced that are merely conceptual distinction cannot do the required work; he proposes a formal distinction between the divine essence and the persons. So even if Thomas’s account of Trinity and simplicity needs modification or simply is not salvageable, there may be other ways forward.

      I look forward to further work from Professor Long on these and other matters, and I remain deeply grateful to him.