Lesson: taunting other bloggers who are (a) more creative, (b) have a far-reaching audience, and (c) have read more philosophy than I’ve forgotten is never a good idea. Especially when the original conversation happened when everyone was far too tired. Especially when the taunt depends upon a topic that one is eminently unqualified to speak about.

Like “universals.”

Joe Carter turned his evangelicaloutpost cannon on me for the conversation that we had at GodBlogCon about universals. After running the infinite regress argument against Plato’s notion of the forms, Joe proceeds to argue that the notion of necessary and universal properties (forms) is not compatible with Christian theism. Such a position, Joe claims, assails the independance and supremacy of God.

A little backdrop: I argued the position less out of a committment to Platonic forms and more from an intense desire to protect the notion of properties, something Joe seemed to deny (in that conversation). In other words, I argued that greeness is something that is had by green properties–it is a mind and object independant property that can be instantiated in various objects. The conversation took this to forms, which is natural, but not necessary. Contrary to this, Joe argued for a Dooyeweerd like “modes” analysis of objects. I am still not sure what he means by this, but that’s another discussion.

The claim that the forms are incompatible with Christian theism is, I think, the stronger and more interesting claim. Joe tosses the gloves aside and starts swinging with this:

This leads to the question, “Where is God amidst all these Forms?” Plato had no difficulty in answering this conundrum: he simply posited that the God (the demiurgos) had an existence that was co-equal to these Forms. Christians, in contrast, believe that nothing can be self-existent other than God Himself. Biblical Christianity, of course, rejects such metaphysical pluralism so Platonic Christians are forced to circumvent this difficulty by adopting a modified Platonism. They claim that while the Forms do not have aseity (existence in themselves) they do exist necessarily (i.e., they cannot not exist). What this means is that God’s existence is only causally prior to but not temporally prior to their existence…

The problem with this view, as philosopher J.P. Moreland points out,* is that since these entities exist necessarily, they are independent of the divine will. God is not free to not create such beings. Under this view, God could not have existed alone and had no other choice but to create these Forms. This appears to me to be inconsistent with the orthodox Christian understanding of God, particularly in relation to his creation.

The idea that “God’s existence is causally prior, but not temporally prior” to the forms is not a problem for Christian theism. After all, that seems to be the relationship between the Father and the Son, where the Son is begotten of the Father, but there was not a time when the Son was not.
I’m still working through the second issue, but right now I fail to see how the claim that an independantly existing necessary reality impugnes the self-sufficiency of God. What if the Being of God is such that it overflows into other realities? In other words, it is an attribute of the largesse and creative goodness of God that entails the forms existence, not an attribute of His neediness or poverty. On this account, God is no more “free” to not create these things than He is “free” to not follow the laws of logic. The claim depends entirely upon what we mean by “God’s existence”–I often think that it is not so barren or reduced as we tend to think of it.

Additionally, the existence of the Forms independant of God does not at all entail the creation of the real world in matter. While the Forms have some sort of being–after all, they exist–they are not “created” in the sense that this world is created, just as the Son is not “begotten” as human children are “begotten” (I do not use the analogy to put the Forms on the same level as Jesus, but merely to point out the difficulty of the language). The attribute “Creator” is given to God because of His unique ability to bring being out of non-being, which he does in the creation of this world. The existence of Forms neither enhances nor limits that power.

No doubt this won’t solve every problem. But it may save the Forms from the charge that they are inconsistent with Christian theism.

Update: I changed the sentence that was causing confusion (see comment 5) because it contained a silly error. Namely, I wasn’t thinking and used “antecedent” when I shouldn’t have. Poor form, really. I will save other comments for another post.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. […] In that vein, I propose lunch on Thursday, November 16th at a location to be determined as a time for bloggers who want to get together to chat and connect.  Joe Carter mentioned he was interested, and I am sure we can get Roger Overton to come along.  With those two guys in the room, who wouldn’t want to come?  (I promise not to bother Joe with rants about universals.)  Nothing formal, just doing what bloggers do best.  In addition to lots of little meetings, it seems fun to get together all at once. I’m obviously in a very small corner of the Christian blogosphere, so if you are interested, do me a favor and pass the word along.   Also, if more experienced attendees of ETS think another time better, than I will submit to their wiser and more considered judgement.  I don’t know if eating in the Hotel would be best, or if going out to lunch is a better idea (I’m open to both), so if anyone has any thoughts about that, they would be much appreciated. […]


  2. “The idea that something could be causally antecedent to God but not temporally antecedent is not a problem for Christian theism. After all, that seems to be the relationship between the Father and the Son, where the Son is begotten of the Father, but there was not a time when the Son was not.”

    I think you’re right to use the example of the Father-Son relation. But the main distinction isn’t between causal and temporal antecedence. The main distinction to make is about the kind of causal relation between the Father and, say, the Son.

    If we remember our Thomas, we know that the way in which the Son “proceeds” from the Father is not to be understood through thinking about how bodies emanate through one another, but “Rather it is to be understood by way of an intelligible emanation, for example, of the intelligible word which proceeds from the speaker, yet remains in him. In that sense the Catholic Faith understands procession as existing in God.”

    So it seems what you need to say is that the Son proceeds from the Father in the way which is analogous to intelligible emanation. In the passage from the ST linked to above (I hope the link works) Thomas does not refer to the Father as the cause of the Son because this leads to a faulty conception of the relation between them. Though he doesn’t clearly state there why “emanate” is better than “cause,” I think it’s because using the term “cause” is apt to lead to confusion (and heresy). I suppose one could use the term “cause” to explain the relation between Father and Son as long as one is clear that the relation in question is neither what Arius nor Sabellius thought it to be.

    So much for clearing up potential confusion. Now why not say that Platonic forms emanate from God in the same way, though not as persons? Thomas thinks it is because there are only two kinds of actions that remain within the agent: intellect and will. So the actions of the Father are his intellect (the Son) and his will (the Spirit). Perhaps there are ways for a Platonist to get around this; perhaps not.

    Two things on this: (1) We should keep in mind that the forms of the “Republic” and “Phaedo” are not Plato’s last word on forms; (2) there may not be more than one form, though it looks as if there are.


  3. Or you might say that what Plato thought of as separately existing eternal immutable Forms are actually Ideas in the mind of God. The thesis that God has Ideas stems from considerations of divine omniscience; if God knows everything that is possible to know, including Himself, then in knowing Himself he also knows every possible way in which He can be imitated. The divine Ideas are the myriad ways in which the divine essence can be imitated. When God creates (efficiently causes being other than divine being) he selects a few of his ideas as exemplars for created things.

    This theory has the nice advantage of positing an ontologically robust account of natural kinds, without the ontologically “bloated” account of Platonic forms. Furthermore, the Ideas are necessary only inasmuch as the divine essence itself is necessary. In fact, once you accept that God has thoughts which have content, it seems hard to get around the thesis that God creates according to some pre-existing exemplars or patterns of how things can be. And “how things can be”, that is, what is possible, seems to be determined solely by the divine nature.

    Now an interesting question would be, is it within God’s power to create something that didn’t have a divine idea as its exemplar? U Rochester grad student Trent Dougherty specuates that it might be consistent with the divine essence to have a random function, such that some of what God creates is “by chance”. If so, then maybe God could create something without an exemplar. But a defender of the Ideas thesis might just respond that the outputs of a random function would still be susceptible of an account, ratio, or logos (that is, they wouldn’t themselves be random), in which case we’d be back in the realm if divine imitability.


  4. Hmm, it sounds like you are envisioning the forms as co-eternal with the Godhead in the same way that the persons of the Trinity are co-eternal (when you say Christian theism has no problem with Forms being logically but not temporally antecedent to/with God). The fact that you cite the example of the Son’s being begotten eternally of the Father bears this out. The forms should not be seen as “part” of God, since orthodoxy generally holds God has no “parts” (contra some process theologies). So, I think you would have to argue that what Plato called the “forms” are a natural part of the life of the Triune Godhead, and therefore not distinct from God himself (such as we might say of “love”), or you should agree with Joe that were these forms in fact distinct from/other than God, they would compete with him for God-ness, since they too are said to be necessary rather than contingent.
    Another way to say all of that is to point to the Nicene Christological debate: are the “forms” creatures? Or are they creator? If creatures, then they are contingent (on having been created by God, even if “before the foundations of the world”). If Creator, then we are talking about polytheism, or they share existence and nature in the one God (and are not then distinct from him).


  5. One other thing: You say, “The idea that something could be causally antecedent to God but not temporally antecedent is not a problem for Christian theism.”

    I think it would be a problem for Christian theism if there is something causally antecedent to God because then God’s existence would depend upon something prior to him.

    But I don’t think you mean that, since you switch from using the term “God” to using “Father” and “Son.” Two options: (1) the idea that something could be causally antecedent to the Father is not a problem for Christian theism; or (2) the idea that something could be causally antecedent to the Son is not a problem for Christian theism. (1) seems false. (2) seems acceptable, if by “cause” you mean what Thomas means by “emanate.”


  6. Forgive me if this is terribly amatuerish (I’m only vaguely familiar with this stuff), but wouldn’t there necessarily be a form for God as well, such that it would be ontologically prior to God? And isn’t that a problem for Christians, in that God would now be subject to something – sort of like Euthyphro’s Dilemma (i.e. if something is outside of God and in a sense ruling over Him, then he can’t be said to be omnipotent and can’t be truly free)?

    The most compelling way of saving forms for me is to combine Burglar’s comment that there is really only one form, even though it looks like there are many with the idea that forms with Peregrine Ward’s comment that forms are not eternally coexisting separate from God. This leaves us with God is the Form of everything else, which is the Orthodox teaching that He is the creator of everything and unchanging. This doesn’t leave you with universals floating all around and co-equal to God, but rather one fixed and immovable Universal – God Himself.


  7. Does the divine essence have a form?

    Brant is right to point out that if God instantiates a form like Mr. Ed instantiates the form of the horse, then there are big problems for the Christian idea of God. As he points out, this thesis would posit something explanatorily prior to God, and this would lead to two difficult questions: what made God’s form and in what is the form instantiated? On this view, God would be a composite of form and something else; in other words, he would not be simple. Now, simplicity isn’t popular anymore, but the traditional reason for accepting it was concern that if God were complex, then some account must be given of how the “parts” came together. Necessarily, this couldn’t have been God; so something creates God; therefore God isn’t God (so long as you posit a complex God, you can run this to infinity).

    (One might take the route that God’s complexity is just primitive; no account of their conjunction needs be given, because that’s just how God is, always has been, and always will be; I think this view has some merit, but not with respect to the problem at hand, to which I now return.)

    What Aquinas and theologians of like mind have argued is that God’s essence/form is identical with God’s existence. Put less awkwardly, the essence of God is to exist. Anything other than God is a composite of form and existence; this distinction was meant to safeguard the contingency of created beings on the one hand (if the essence of humanity was to exist, then humanity or at least humans would necessarily exist), and the necessity of God on the other (since God’s essence is to exist, he is necessarily existing…go God!).

    With respect to Brant’s question, we could say that God doesn’t have a form; God is a form; God is identical with the divine essence, which is to exist. There is no distinction between essence and existence, or essence and matter, in God.

    This issue becomes sticky really fast when you consider the plurality of divine persons. A goal of the trinitarian theorist is to avoid a theory that has three things “instantiating” a fourth thing, the divine essence. This would make the divine essence a separately existing form, and then we’re back to the old problems. Instead, we want to be able to make intelligible the claim that three really distinct persons BOTH SHARE AND ARE IDENTICAL WITH numerically one divine essence. The essence isn’t a fourth, “one-over-many” principle of divinity. But all of our created analogues exhibit this complexity. So the divine case is unique. Duns Scotus thought he figured it out, but I haven’t been able to track his reasoning (I haven’t spent enough time with it). Most people who get this far end up shrugging the shoulders and saying, well, it’s gotta be this way; the contrary gets us into too many problems; but this is a unique case.

    As for Brant’s interesting suggestion that there is really only one Form, God Himself: this is another way of stating my Divine Ideas thesis, so long as you take divine simplicity seriously. Any divine idea is identical with the divine essence, so all of the divine ideas, and indeed the divine essence, are numerically one. But there is obviously some kind of distinction (something less than numerical distinction) between a) the divine ideas and b) between the divine ideas the divine essence. There have been several kinds of distinctions proposed to fit this bill, and not without some metaphysical success.


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