Defending Ed Feser from Joe the Sock Puppet


A while back, Edward Feser was asked when he would respond to the published criticisms of Joe Schmid. Feser replied that Joe is a sock account, with the implication that he did not need to respond to Joe. Well, you know what. I completely agree with Feser. Consider Joe Schmid’s recent blog post. Joe critiques several claims from Feser’s new essay, “What is Classical Theism?” in the new edited volume Classical Theism: New Essays on the Metaphysics of God. Joe foolishly attempts to argue that Feser is defending divine simplicity with obviously false assertions. One of Feser’s main contentions is that divine simplicity is what makes God unique and ultimate in reality. According to Feser, if you deny divine simplicity, you land in polytheism. (p. 16) Joe takes aim at this claim, and offers several extended arguments to bolster his case. The Finns have a word for what Joe is engaged in—sisu. It is a kind of grit and pessimistic determination that one demonstrates whilst attempting to accomplish a task that one knows one will fail. If anything is obvious, it is that Joe Schmid will fail to demonstrate that Feser is making obviously false assertions. In this blog post, I want to show that Feser does not make any obviously false assertions related to divine ultimacy, and other such claims. Let’s get started.

According to Feser, “Classical theism, I propose, can to a first approximation best be understood as the thesis that God is to be conceived of first and foremost as the ultimate reality in the order of being, and the ultimate explanation of things in the order of discovery.” (p. 10)

I think this is a pretty good definition of classical theism. It certainly captures something unique about classical theism that no other model of God does. I can’t think of any non-classical thinker that would affirm that God is the ultimate explanation of things. Well, ok, maybe the panentheist Benedikt Göcke repeatedly says that all models of God start with the basic claim that God is perfect, and the single, ultimate foundation of reality. But he is a panentheist who is not a process theist, so his opinion doesn’t count. Nor do the opinions of other panentheists who are not process theists, like Mark Johnston. Johnston starts with this basic claim about God, plus some Aristotelian metaphysics, in order to arrive at a panentheistic model of God, so clearly he must be confused. Obviously Aristotelian metaphysics cannot lead to anything other than Thomism. So thus far, Feser’s claim seems pretty secure.

Feser goes on to say that this starting point for classical theism can lead to two different methods for thinking about God: perfect being theology, and first-cause theology. According to Feser, these methods lead to the conclusion that God is timeless, simple, immutable, and impassible. (p. 10-11) Now I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you might be thinking that there are philosophers and theologians who affirm perfect being theology and first-cause theology, and they somehow do not arrive at classical theism. For example, consider Jonathan Kvanvig’s recent book, Depicting Deity. Kvanvig considers three different meta-theological methods he refers to as perfect being theology, creator theology, and worship worthy theology. Kvanvig explicitly argues that these methods lead to a neoclassical model of God. Why? Because he thinks that you have to add dubious Thomistic metaphysics onto these meta-theological methods in order to arrive at classical theism. Well, obviously something has gone wrong with Kvanvig’s thinking here. This is so for at least two reasons. First, there is nothing dubious about Thomistic metaphysics. As Norman Geisler has taught us so well, only people who don’t understand Aquinas disagree with Aquinas.

Feser gives us the second reason for thinking that Kvanvig has gone awry in his thinking. Feser admits that non-classical theists do say that God is ultimate in reality, but classical theism does something utterly unique with divine ultimacy that no other model of God does. According to Feser, “The notion of God’s ultimacy has a regulative status in classical theism that it does not have in nonclassical forms of theism. It puts strict constraints on what else we can say about God, and on how we ought to interpret the other things we say about him.” (p. 11)

You see, where Kvanvig went wrong is that Kvanvig does not take God’s ultimacy to be regulative for thinking about God. Nor do any other non-classical theists think that divine ultimacy places constrains on how we should think about God. I think this assertion from Feser has the ring of truth to it. Personally, I can’t think of anyone who rejects classical theism who thinks that things like divine ultimacy, aseity, self-sufficiency, or divine foundationalism place constraints on how we should reason about God. As should be clear, when Kvanvig argues from creator theology to neoclassical theism, he is not starting with the assumption that God is the ultimate source of reality. It’s not like Kvanvig explicitly affirms sourcehood as unique to the concept of God in the method of creator theology. When Alvin Plantinga engages in perfect being theology, and says that we should take aseity as a starting assumption, he didn’t mean this to be regulative. Timothy O’Connor definitely does not offer extensive reflections on divine ultimacy in his work on theism and modality, and the cosmological argument where he defends the claim that God is the ultimate source of reality. William Lane Craig did not write two books defending divine ultimacy, nor did Brian Leftow write an incredibly long treatise on the topic. Einar Duenger Bohn and Benedikt Göcke have never pointed out that all models of God start with divine foundationalism as regulative for thinking about God. Paul Gould did not edit a 5 Views debate book where God’s aseity is taken to be regulative by all of the contributors. Thomas Morris never wrote extensively on the topic, and never taught that perfect being theology and creator theology are constraints on our thinking about God. And to be sure William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland certainly did not echo Morris’ claims in their Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. In fact, William Hasker and I have never debated the exact nature of aseity in the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion where we both take aseity to be regulative for how we should think about the Trinity. That debate did not happen because “The notion of God’s ultimacy has a regulative status in classical theism that it does not have in nonclassical forms of theism.” I think you are starting to see why Joe is just plain mistaken to say that Feser is engaging in obviously false assertions.

Now, again, I know what you are thinking. “Ryan, it sure sounds like all of those people are starting with the assumption that God is ultimate in reality. It also really sounds like TJ Mawson, Yujin Nagasawa, Andrei Buckarref, Anastasia Scrutton, John Peckham, Richard Rice, and others are taking God’s ultimacy to be foundational for thinking about God. What am I missing here?” Don’t worry, you are certainly missing something. Feser offers the following, complete definition of classical theism on page 12.

Classical theism: the thesis that God is to be conceived of first and foremost as the ultimate reality in the order of being and the ultimate explanation of things in the order of discovery; that when followed out consistently this entails that the divine attributes must include simplicity, immutability, impassibility, atemporality, complete knowledge of the future, and causal involvement in everything that exists or occurs; and that as corollaries we ought to affirm the doctrines of divine conservation and concurrence.

Notice several important things about this definition. First, focus on the statement “when followed out consistently.” I gather that the idea is this. People like Kvanvig, Morris, Craig, and whoever else are not taking divine ultimacy to be regulative because they have not consistently followed the logic to divine simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and atemporality. I know it really looks like Brian Leftow is taking divine ultimacy to be regulative for thinking about God. On page 3 of God and Necessity, Leftow says that God is ultimate in reality. Leftow then goes on for 551 pages to develop the implications for divine ultimacy. But you see, Leftow rejects divine simplicity. He does not consistently follow the logic of divine ultimacy to its obvious conclusion in divine simplicity. Thus, Leftow is not taking divine ultimacy to be regulative for his thinking about God.

Now focus on another part of Feser’s definition of classical theism—the affirmation of concurrence. This is an interesting claim since the doctrine of concurrence is something that develops later in the middle ages as an attempt to avoid occasionalism. The recent book Philosophical Essays on Divine Causation edited by Gregory Ganssle contains essays on the various controversies over the doctrine in the late middle ages and after the Reformation. What is striking to know is that various classical thinkers rejected the doctrine, all while still affirming timelessness, immutability, simplicity, and impassibility. Scotus and Molina even try to revise the doctrine of concurrence. One might get the impression that the Thomistic understanding of things is not what defines classical theism, but that is clearly a wild leap to make. We don’t want to start making Joe Schmid-level blunders in our thinking.

Of course, you might be thinking something like this. “Wait a minute. I thought a bunch of contemporary Calvinists who reject classical theism also affirm divine concurrence. You know, all of those Calvinists that James Dolezal critiques in his book, All That is In God.” Ok, yes, it is true that contemporary Calvinists affirm concurrence, and that quite a few of them reject classical theism. There are Calvinists like Bruce Ware, John Frame, and John Feinberg. Also, all of those William Lane Craig Molinist wannabes affirm concurrence too. But look, I think the notion that concurrence is unique to classical theism stands vindicated. Source: dude, trust me.

You might think that I have done enough to show that Joe Schmid is dead wrong to say that Feser has made a bunch of obviously false assertions, but let me defend Feser a bit more. I have already mentioned Feser’s claim that if you reject divine simplicity, then you land yourself in polytheism. I think that is clearly true when one considers Islamic thinkers like al-Maturidi (8th Century) and al-Ghazali (11th Century). Both reject divine simplicity and affirm the attributionist view that God actually has distinct attributes. When you look at their theology, their rampant polytheism could not be more apparent. Consider the creed that al-Ghazali wrote. He says, “God is the witness who makes known to [His chosen people] that in His essence He is one, without partner, alone, and without any like, enduring without opposite, unique and without equal.” (Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader, edited by John Renard, p. 109) Look at that statement clearly. Yes, it looks like al-Ghazali is saying that God is unique, without equal, and one, but that just cannot be right since he rejects divine simplicity. He is clearly falling victim to polytheism. After all, it’s not like al-Ghazali wrote an extensive refutation of the notion that distinct divine attributes count as parts, nor did he refute the claim that God somehow magically needs something to compose Him and His attributes. No, of course he did not do that!

Ok. One final thing for this post. On page 19 of Feser’s essay, he considers “Neo-Theist Rivals” to classical theism. Feser takes the term neo-theism from Norman Geisler. For Geisler, this term refers to all of those modern models of God that have arisen in recent times in reaction to classical theism. Neo-theism encapsulates all of those contemporary thinkers who are dangerously revising the doctrine of God, and making God in their own image. Feser takes this to be an apt description of those contemporary thinkers who create an anthropomorphic deity by claiming that God is “a person.” Again, I think that this has the ring of truth to it. Only contemporary revisionists would dare say that God is “a person.”

When the panentheist Rāmānuja says that God is “the Supreme Person,” he is clearly engaging in some kind of modern revision to the doctrine of God. It becomes even more clear that he is engaged in anthropomorphic revisionism when he denies divine simplicity, and affirms that God is ultimate in reality. Or consider the dangerous, modern anthropomorphic revisionism of St Augustine. According to Augustine, “It is not one thing for God to be and another to be a person, but entirely the same thing.” (The Trinity 7.6.11) Can you believe the audacity of this neo-theist who is saying that God is a person? As Feser makes clear, no classical theist would say that God is a person. (p. 21) I guess this is why Peter Lombard is not a classical theist. In The Sentences Book I, the Lombard says, “for God it is the same to be a person as to be, just as it is the same for him to be as to be God.” (XXV.1.2)

Overall, the new-fangled revisionism of these thinkers is wild. When the majority of philosophers during the Scientific revolution rejected the unintelligible notions of the schoolmen, you can see that they were engaged in some modern revisionism with the doctrine of God. When Isaac Newton and Samuel Clarke say that timelessness and pure actuality are unintelligible, unbiblical, and unscientific, the careful reader will notice the influence of 20th Century revisionism on their thinking. When Thomas Aquinas’ teacher, Peter of Ireland, rejects immutability and impassibility, you can tell that he is clearly reacting to the Thomistic doctrine of God that everyone has always affirmed. The 9th Century group called the Karrāmīs embraced divine temporality because it conflicts with creation ex nihilo. As did 12th Century thinkers like Faḫr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī and Abū Barakāt al-Bagdādī. The influence of modern revisionism from William Lane Craig on these thinkers is remarkable.

Really, when you think about it, the dirty revisionism of modern theology has a fairly impressive influence on the past. Consider the God of Aristotle. Aristotle’s God is not the efficient cause of the universe, and does not know any contingent truths. Aristotle’s God knows only Himself and nothing else. Now, as all of you know, everyone throughout all of history has affirmed this doctrine of God except for those modern revisionists. No one even thought to question Aristotle’s conception of God. Well, except for all of those people who thought that God is the efficient cause of the universe, and that God not only knows the contingent truths about the world, but God also cares deeply about the world. Consider, once again, that neo-theist St. Augustine. He writes, “We have nothing to do, in this work, with those who hold that the divine mind does not create, and has no interest in this world.” (City of God, XII.25)

So there you have it. A defence of Feser’s work from the petulant sock puppet known as Joe Schmid.

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