Proclus (c.412–485) once offered an argument that Christians took to stand against the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo based on the eternity of the world and God's perfection.[1] John Philoponus (c.490–570) objected to this on various grounds. Part of this discussion can shed light on contemporary issues in philosophical theology on divine perfection and creation. First I will examine Proclus' dilemma and John Philoponus' response. I will argue that Philoponus' fails to rebut Proclus' dilemma. The problem is that presentism is incompatible with divine simplicity, timelessness, and a strong doctrine of immutability. From there I will look at how this discussion bears on contemporary understandings of divine perfection and creation, and argue that there are at least two possible ways contemporary philosophical theologians can try to get around the dilemma. One option is to adopt four-dimensional eternalism and maintain the traditional account of the divine perfections. I argue that this option suffers from difficulties that are not compatible with Christian belief. The other option is to keep presentism and modify the divine perfections. I argue that this option is possible and preferable since our understanding of the divine perfections must be modified in light of divine revelation and the incarnation.

A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma

  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes

Before laying out the argument, there are two assumptions that Proclus and Philoponus hold about time. First, they both seem to hold to a relational view of time where time is change or movement. If you have a change you have a time. This will become clear when God's immutability comes under discussion. Second, they both seem to hold to presentism: the view that only the present moment of time exists. The past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist. The only things that exist are what exist at the present.[2] With these two assumptions we can begin Proclus' dilemma.

Proclus' argument goes a little something like this.[3] Assume that God is simple. God lacks physical and metaphysical composition. God's wisdom, power, goodness, thoughts, will, and so forth are all identical to each other and identical to God. Further, God is purely actual; He contains no potentiality. Divine simplicity is part of a package that includes a strong doctrine of immutability and timelessness. Sometimes these attributes are even held to be mutually entailing. As immutable, God undergoes no intrinsic or extrinsic change. He has no accidental properties.[4] As timeless, God exists without beginning, without end, and without succession or moments in His life. A timeless God lacks temporal extension and location.[5]

Assume further that the act of creation is brought about by the thoughts and will of God. God's thoughts are what directly bring creation into existence. Since God's thoughts are identical to God Himself, and since God is eternal, God's thoughts are eternal (without beginning, without end, and without succession). As such, creation must also be eternal (not timeless, but without beginning and without end). God is always thinking the thoughts that bring creation into existence.

Christians will not like this conclusion since they typically hold that God freely created the universe ex nihilo at some point in the finite past. As Philoponus explains, God always possesses the principles and Forms of creation within Himself. God is actual and perfect for He always has the capacity to create, ‘but God brings each thing into existence and gives it being when he so wishes … and he so wishes at the time when coming into existence is good for the things to come into existence.’[6]

Proclus does not see this as a viable option for a perfect God. In order to make his conclusion stick he offers what appears to him to be the only alternative account for God and creation. It is an account that classical Christians will find unsatisfactory. One could say that God does not always create or produce the universe. Instead God comes to produce the universe. But, argues Proclus, God would then not be purely actual for He goes from a state of not creating to creating. He has some potential that becomes actual. Hence, we have destroyed divine simplicity. Further, God is undergoing change in this act. He brings new moments into existence. As such, God is not immutable nor is He timeless. A God who undergoes change, and is not purely actual is not perfect.

As Philoponus examines this argument he looks at one further line of attack that strengthens the dilemma. It would seem that if God does not eternally will creation into existence, He must will that some objects exist and then not exist. Say that God wills Socrates to exist and then no longer wills that Socrates exist. Socrates comes into existence then ceases to exist. It would seem that we have three moments in the life of God: existing without Socrates, existing with Socrates, and then again existing without Socrates. God's life is undergoing constant alteration through this process of willing things into existence and no longer willing them in existence. Also, God's will is divided in this process for He wills one thing and then another. As such, God cannot be timeless, immutable, or simple, and such a being is not perfect.

The dilemma seems to be this. Either God is perfect (simple, immutable, and timeless) and creation is eternal, or creation is not eternal and God is not perfect.

Philoponus Against Proclus

  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes

Philoponus offers several arguments against Proclus' critique of Christian belief. Many of them depend on offering a proper interpretation of Plato and Aristotle's philosophy and science since Proclus and Philoponus are both working within these philosophical traditions. For instance, Philoponus' first line of attack is to argue that the world cannot be infinite in the past since, following Aristotle, it is impossible to traverse the infinite. Since Proclus is an Aristotelian, Philoponus thinks that Proclus must accept this.[7]

Another line of reasoning is to turn Proclus' argument on himself. Grant Proclus the claim that the cosmos is without beginning or end, that it is infinite in the past and the future. Since the present is the only moment that exists, God is only sustaining the present moment in existence. God is not the actual creator of the future since the future does not yet exist. God is only the actual creator of the present moment. So even on Proclus' account of God and creation it is the case that God is not purely actual and thus not perfect since He has not created the future yet.[8] However, Philoponus' main argument is that this understanding of pure act and perfection is mistaken as we shall see in the next argument.

A third line of reasoning is to argue that the world is a pattern of the Forms, but that the Forms can exist without the world. God possesses the Forms, and it is possible for them to ‘pre-exist all created things. And so, even if the Forms and patterns of things are certain ideas and principles of the creator, in accordance with which he has brought the world into existence, it is certainly not necessary that the world itself should coexist from everlasting with God's knowledge about the world.’[9] To quote Philoponus at length, he says

But just because he brings all things into existence by thought alone and always possesses the concepts and principles of all things in exactly the same way, it is not therefore at once necessary that things should have coexisted with the thoughts of God from everlasting … For God does not bring his creations into existence willy-nilly by a necessity, for which reason it is not at all necessary that whatever is thought by God should [automatically] exist simultaneously with the thought. For it is agreed that God knows even future things that have not yet come to pass … even future time is already present through foreknowledge to the creator of time himself.[10]

One might wonder how this is possible. How could an eternal action not create an eternal effect? Following Proclus one might argue as follows. ‘If the creator is the creator of something, either he will always be an actual creator, or sometimes [only] a potential one [and] not always be creating.’[11]

From here Philoponus sets out to defend God's perfection in light of His temporal creation. His defense starts with a careful examination of potential and actual in Aristotle, and then argues that Proclus' use of ‘potential’ and ‘actual’ are ambiguous. With a proper understanding of these terms, Proclus' argument fails to go through. Philoponus distinguishes two types of potential and two types of actual. The first sense of potential is what one might call ‘natural fitness’ like when a child is naturally gifted at grammar. The child has the potential to become a great grammarian and make her parents proud. The second sense of potential is capacity. This is when the child has developed all of the skills of grammar and possesses all of the grammatical theorems in her mind. This second potentiality is the first sense of actuality. The child actually possesses the attributes to be considered a grammarian. But say that she is not currently practicing grammar. Perhaps she is asleep and not dreaming about grammatical theorems. She has the capacity to practice grammar since she is a grammarian, but she is not actively participating in that fast-paced cutthroat discipline. As such she is not actual in the second sense of actual which involves actively using her capacities.[12]

For Philoponus, God is actual in the first sense of actual. As such, God is not a potential creator since He possesses all of the attributes for being the creator. Proclus is assuming the second sense of actual in his argument. Philoponus thinks that this assumption is fallacious, so Proclus' argument fails.[13]

Does this distinction really help Philoponus? Grant that God is actual in the first sense: God has the capacity to create. It would seem that for God to actively use His capacities to create would involve Him undergoing some kind of change. He would go from a state of not actualizing His capacity to create, to a state of actively creating. Both Proclus and Philoponus think that a perfect God cannot change. Couldn't Proclus just reassert the point that the Christian God cannot be perfect?

Philoponus thinks not. To move from a capacity to an activity ‘is instantaneous. The end of not producing and the beginning of producing occur at the same instant … Therefore no time elapses between not producing and producing and, [more] generally, between [the mere possession of] any capacity and the activity [that flows] from the capacity.’ Since change involves time, and there is no change in activating a capacity, there is no time involved in God creating.[14] God can create and remain changeless and timeless.

Are you confused? If so, it should be understood that Philoponus' argument here depends on time being continuous. Time is continuous if and only if it is dense: between any two instants of time, there is a third instant of time. This is to be contrasted with discrete time where there are no instants, but instead time is composed of temporal atoms or periods of a shortest interval that cannot be further divided.[15] Philoponus argues that there is no third instant between God's not producing and producing. They are the same instant.[16] Typically thinkers who hold that time is continuous or dense also hold that change is dense. This commitment to the density of change rules out the possibility of discrete changes like the passage from existence to non-existence.[17] This seems to be what Philoponus is articulating. His argument looks as follows.

Producing and not producing are contradictories. If there were a third instant between these two contradictories you would have a time when a contradiction obtained. Since contradictions cannot obtain, there is no third intermediate instant between these two contradictory instants.[18] Therefore no time has elapsed between not producing and producing. Activity out of a capacity involves no change and thus no time.

Several quick comments on this argument are in order before moving on. First, say that ∼p obtains at time t1 and p obtains at t2. Further say that time is continuous so that there is an instant between t1 and t2, namely t1.5. If it is truly between these two contradictory instants, then it would not be the occurrence of a contradiction. Second, I do not find it obvious that discrete changes cannot take place. It seems to me that the best example of a discrete change is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, but I digress. The crucial issue is whether or not an activity out of a capacity involves a change.

It is not clear to me that an activity out of a capacity involves no change or time. Philoponus thinks that this principle applies to God and everything else, so perhaps he can provide a concrete example from everyday life to make things clear. One of his examples is that of a builder and a building. Say that the builder has the perfect capacity to build. He is an actual builder. When the builder decides to build a house out of timber and stone his mind undergoes no change whatsoever, but his body and the building materials do. Somehow the movement and change befall the builder's body and the materials, but not the builder's mind. Philoponus takes this to be an actual example of the principle he has in mind: ‘someone who possesses a perfected capacity and then acts [in accordances with it] has not become different in any respect from his [former] self.’[19] As such, Philoponus thinks he can employ this principle to explain God's creative activity of objects that exist at one time and not at another. He explains as follows. God

everlastingly possesses the concepts and principles of things, through which indeed he is a creator, in exactly the same way, and does not become different in any respect whether he produces or does not produce. For, speaking generally, it is not even proper to say that capacity and activity are different [things] in the case of God; the two are one and the same thing and difference arises in the sphere of that which shares [in them].[20]

In other words, God's activity of creation does not change Him but changes everything else. God's creative activity brings things into existence that did not previously exist. God actively sustains certain things in existence, like Socrates, and then ceases to sustain them in existence. Though it appears that this would involve God in a continual process of change, and hence God would be temporal, somehow God is not changed at all.

I must confess that I find this utterly baffling. It seems quite clear to me that the builder who decides to start building does in fact undergo change. It also seems to me that a God who is not creating and then creates does undergo a change. He is not standing in a causal relation to anything, and then He is standing in a causal relation to creation. Activity out of a capacity involves change and time, for it at least creates a before and after in the life of the agent. As J.R. Lucas explains, ‘[t]ime is the passage from possibility through actuality to unalterable necessity. The present is the unique and essential link between the possible and the unalterably necessary.’[21] ‘To be an agent is to be crystallizing potentiality into actuality, thereby making it unalterable thereafter. No unalterability, no agency.’[22] To put this in Philoponus' terminology, for an agent to go from first sense actual to second sense actual is a temporal change. As such, Philoponus has failed to rebut Proclus' dilemma.

But ignore this for the moment. It seems to me that Philoponus' rejoinder to Proclus fails for another reason. Note what he says in the last sentence from the quote above. ‘For, speaking generally, it is not even proper to say that capacity and activity are different [things] in the case of God; the two are one and the same thing.’ Philoponus is demonstrating a commitment to divine simplicity: there is no composition in God. The distinction between first and second actuality does not apply to God since God is simple. It is a conceptual distinction that exists in our minds only and does not apply to the simple God.[23] This commitment to simplicity undercuts one of Philoponus' rejoinders to Proclus. Recall earlier that Philoponus rejected Proclus' argument because Proclus failed to make this distinction about first and second actuality. Proclus was assuming that God must be actual in the second sense, but Philoponus pointed out that God was actual in the first sense so Proclus' argument does not go through. Yet, if God is simple, there is no meaningful distinction between first and second actuality in God. Philoponus has not defeated Proclus' argument. The dilemma still stands.

Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma

  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes

Despite Philoponus' failure to fully rebut Proclus, I believe that there are other options open to the Christian. She can hold that God is perfect and that creation is not eternal. However, she must modify her understanding of creation, divine perfection, or both. I do not see this modification as a problem for Christian belief. One must always modify her position in light of new evidence. For instance, contemporary science claims that the universe is finite in the past. So, contrary to Proclus, the universe is not infinite in the past, and it is reasonable to modify our understanding of creation. Further, it seems reasonable to me that a revelation from God would be grounds for modifying our intuitions about what it takes to be a perfect being. We can modify our understanding of divine perfection in light of a revelation from God through prophets or through the incarnation. I wish to outline two possible approaches for Christian philosophical theologians to take. It is not obvious to me that these two options exhaust all of the possibilities open to Christians. I merely offer them as two possible options to avoid the dilemma.

Option One: Modify Creation

  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes

Katherin Rogers holds that God is simple, immutable, and timeless. God is perfect in the sense that Proclus and Philoponus seem to hold. How might someone like Rogers deal with Proclus' dilemma? She could modify the first horn of the dilemma in such a way that it would be acceptable to Christian doctrine. In order to maintain the traditional account of divine perfection Rogers modifies the traditional understanding of creation. Instead of holding to a presentist theory of time, she argues that four-dimensional eternalism must be true. All moments of time are on an ontological par in that the past, present, and future all exist.[24] Her account looks as follows.

In saying that God is simple Rogers understands this claim to be that God is pure act. She takes the standard sovereignty-aseity move in order to get to the claim that God is a simple being who is not composed of parts, nor is God dependent upon anything for His existence or essential nature. God is identical to His nature and each divine attribute is identical to each other and God.[25] In response to contemporary criticisms of divine simplicity a la Plantinga she says ‘strictly speaking God neither has properties nor is He a property … God is simply act.’[26] There are no potentialities in God for God is eternally doing all that He is. God is His existence as well as ‘His act of knowing and doing and being perfectly good’ because ‘these are all one act.’[27] Further, one ought not to ‘hypothesize any unity underlying the diversity in God because there is no diversity. There is just the one, perfect act which is God.’[28]

Since God is pure act, and whatever He does He does in one single eternal act, God is unchanging. Thus God is immutable and timeless.[29] It ‘is only by postulating divine [atemporal] eternity that God's immutability can be preserved, and with it His simplicity. If God does first one thing and then another He cannot be simple because His essence must stay the same over time, and thus be something other than the part that does the changing.’[30]

To flesh out her account of eternality it will be helpful to look at her account of omniscience and creation. She takes the traditional claims about all moments of time existing in eternity for God differently than Philoponus. On her account this claim does not amount to God knowing propositions or abstract states of affairs. ‘The things and events themselves exist in divine eternity.’[31] This is because God's eternity acts as a fifth dimension in which the four-dimensional space-time world exists. ‘Time is a fourth dimension containing all of space, and divine eternity is a sort of fifth dimension containing all of time and space’[32] The notion of a fifth dimension sounds a bit odd, but what Rogers is trying to express is that ‘all of time is equally present to God's eternity since it is God's eternal activity which causes it all to be.’[33] ‘God is the source of each temporal instant. He is not contained in any of the temporal instants, but is directly, causally, and cognitively related to each and every one of them equally.’[34]

She explains that this is a form of theistic idealism. ‘All of space is within God's omnipresence in that it is all immediately cognitively and causally present to and absolutely dependent upon God.’[35] ‘Whatever has creaturely existence in any way at all is kept in being in all its aspects from moment to moment by the power of God. God is simple and His power is His thought. For a creature to be, then, is to be thought by God. There is nothing more to a creature than what God is thinking.’[36]

All things depend for their existence on God. Since God is simple and immutable all of His actions take place timelessly at once. The divine choice to create, along with simplicity, immutability, and timelessness entail that ‘the created world is always present to God's eternity. There is no point before creation at which God exists alone and then a later point at which He exists with creation.’[37] On her account if ‘God eternally wills to create this world, then necessarily He eternally wills to create this world … There was never a point at which He chose to create rather than not. From eternity He chooses to create.’[38] For a simple God ‘being’ and ‘act’ are identical. Thus, ‘[g]iven God's nature He could not do other than He does … God does not have literal options, but since He exists a se this is no limitation on Him.’[39] It is the case that there ‘are other imaginable worlds, but the actual world, from God's perspective in eternity, and allowing for the input of free creaturely choice, is the only really possible world.’[40]

One might wonder how someone like Rogers can modify the first horn of the dilemma in a satisfactory way. For Proclus, an eternal act of God entails that creation must be eternal as well. Creation must be infinite in the past and future. A four-dimensionalist like Rogers could respond as follows. When looking at the four-dimensional spacetime manifold one must consider it from two perspectives. From one perspective we can see that the universe is temporally bounded in that it has a finite past, and that moments of time are chronologically ordered in earlier than, simultaneous with, and later than relations. Also, objects persist through time by having temporal parts that exist at each moment of time. Yet, from an atemporal perspective there just is the spacetime manifold with all of its various temporal parts. The temporal parts do not persist through time, but are eternally existent at the times at which they exist.

This position may have other difficulties that do not arise from Proclus' dilemma. For instance, Rogers admits that her account of simplicity has an odd entailment. It ‘means that we are forced to conclude that creatures do have some effect on God's very essence. This seems shocking since a major motivation for insisting on simplicity is the absolute aseity of God. And now we have apparently arrived at the conclusion that He is dependent on creatures!’[41] Why is this the case? Rogers specifically has in mind the libertarian freedom of created human persons.[42] Which possible world is actualized is in part dependent on human acts. Ultimately which possible world is actual is dependent upon God's one act which is identical to God. Part of that act includes the acts of human persons, so in this sense God is dependent on creatures. This may not be that terrible of an entailment if God desires to create human persons with free will.

There is a deeper worry that I see. God is essentially the Creator: the doctrine of divine simplicity entails that God ‘must’ create.[43] Since God is pure act, and all He does is done in one timeless act, He never becomes the Creator for He is eternally the Creator. If ‘Creator’ is an essential – not a contingent – divine attribute, God must create something in order to be who He is. On the type of perfect being theology that Rogers is working with there are no value-neutral potentialities or changes. All change is for the better or worse. If it is possible for God to create, He must create. Otherwise He would not be pure act and would ‘not possess perfection as a necessity of His nature.’[44] Since God is necessarily perfect, He must necessarily create. For Rogers, if God did not create, He would not be God.[45] So God is dependent upon creation simpliciter in order to be who He is. That is not compatible with God's aseity.

Someone like Philoponus will see this as an unwelcome consequence of divine perfection. For Philoponus, a perfect God can exist without creation. He thinks it would be impious to say that God's perfections depend upon creation in anyway. Philoponus takes it as a general principle that things are perfect in themselves because of the powers that they necessarily possess, and not by external relations things stand in. Fire is ‘complete in its own being’ even if nothing is around to participate in its heat. The sun would be perfect even if nothing else existed. The same is true of God who is ‘always a creator by virtue of his perfect possession of creative principles … For everything in existence is characterised not by the activities that proceed from it but by its essential powers.’ On Rogers's account God must create this world in order to be perfect.[46] Otherwise God would not be pure act, immutable, simple, or timeless. Philoponus thinks otherwise. ‘For if God cannot be perfect unless created things also exist, then his products will be perfective of the producer himself. Such, then is the situation if perfection has come to God not from his own substance but from outside.’[47]

This difficulty may not be untenable for Rogers. For instance, I doubt she would accept Philoponus' claim that capacity is actuality. Also, Rogers attempts to get out of this entailment, and admits that her account needs more work. She notes several options, one of which is to distinguish between necessary and contingent attributes in God. I take it that ‘being the Creator’ would be a contingent attribute. However, like Philoponus, she recognizes that a commitment to divine simplicity means that there is no ‘real’ distinction between God's necessary and contingent attributes. These distinctions are only apparent from our human vantage point, and do not actually apply to God.[48] As was the case with Philoponus, these distinctions are of no help since they fail to apply to God.

There is another objection that Rogers's account might face. One could complain that she has destroyed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. On her account there is a very real sense in which creation is coeternal with God. God never exists without creation. God eternally exists with the four-dimensional spacetime manifold. John of Damascus will not like this one bit. ‘For it is not natural that that which is brought into existence out of nothing should be co-eternal with what is without beginning and everlasting.’[49] For John of Damascus, creation out of nothing entails that God has not always existed with the universe. There is a state of affairs in which God exists alone. William Lane Craig notes that adopting four-dimensional eternalism completely destroys the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This ‘emasculated doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not do justice to the biblical data, which give us clearly to understand that God and the universe do not timelessly co-exist, but that the actual world includes a state of affairs which is God's existing alone without the universe.’[50] It might seem, then, that Rogers's modification of creation is not satisfactory after all.

Option Two: Modify Perfection

  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes

The previous option modified creation by holding to four-dimensional eternalism. This second option will hold the traditional notion of creation which has a presentist ontology of time: only the present moment of time exists, or all that exists presently exists.[51] What will be modified is the concept of divine perfection. To begin, this option holds that God is temporal. To say that God is eternal is simply to say that God exists without beginning and without end. Divine temporality denies that God exists without succession since God does have moments in His life. There once was a time when God did exist alone without creation, and then at some point God created the universe. God causally sustains each moment of creation in existence when that moment is present, and He ceases to sustain that moment when it sloughs off into the non-existent past. Thus, God is constantly undergoing change and is temporal as the second horn of the dilemma states. Further, such a God cannot be simple as Proclus and Philoponus thought. Yet, this position argues that change and temporality are by no means contrary to perfection, and that the type of complexity God has is not a defect.

Much like Philoponus held, one can say that God possesses all of the principles and Forms of creation. What is often called the Augustinian move posits that all of the Forms exist within the mind of God. The basic framework for reality such as properties, propositions, states of affairs, and other abstracta necessarily and eternally exist in the mind of God.[52] God, on this account, is actual in the first sense and second sense of actual. In regards to creation God has the perfect capacity to be the creator. In the act of creation He activates this capacity and undergoes a change, but not a qualitative change. He certainly goes from a state of not creating to a state of creating, but He by no means becomes less perfect or more perfect.[53] As Philoponus held, ‘someone who possesses a perfected capacity and then acts [in accordances with it] has not become different in any respect from his [former] self.’ God goes from first sense actual to second sense actual in the act of creation, and remains just as perfect as He was before. Not all change is for the better or worse.

God is also actual and perfect in that He has all of the necessary and essential properties for being divine. He is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and so forth. Yet, notice that some of these attributes are capacities. Keith Ward explains omnipotence in these terms. ‘If it is a perfection – a good thing – to be creative, that entails change. Omnipotence, taken in any straightforward sense, entails the ability to do things, and thus the possession of capacities which may be actualized, but can only be so by active change.’[54] The same seems to be true of other essential divine attributes too.

Consider omniscience. God knows all truths. One could construe this in a way that God knows all true propositions about the past, present and future. One may ask what serves as the truthmakers for past and future propositions given presentism. Space does not allow for a detailed discussion. The short answer is that the presentist can reject any truthmaker theory that is incompatible with presentism and divine foreknowledge.[55] Before God creates the universe He knows all possible worlds that He could create by having a perfect knowledge of Himself and His capacities.[56] Yet once God creates, a new set of facts come into existence for Him to know. God comes to have an intimate knowledge of the concrete particulars that He has created. Prior to creation God possesses an exhaustive knowledge de dicto, and as creation unfolds He comes to possesses knowledge de re.

What about some of the other divine perfections? The doctrine of divine simplicity is quite controversial these days. While several contemporaries are working on defending a traditional understanding of divine simplicity, it seems to me that divine unity is all we need.[57] The first thing to note is that divine unity is not an attribute, property, or perfection. It is a mode of existence. To say that God is a unity is to express the way God exists. On this account God is not composed of properties that are more fundamental than He is.[58] In other words, God is not dependent upon Platonic forms for His essential properties because there are no Platonic forms that exist separate from God. God is not dependent upon anything in regards to His essential properties only, for these are the only properties that God necessarily has. Each essential property is had by God to an infinite degree.[59] All of God's essential properties are united together in the divine nature such that they cannot come apart.[60] Further, the essential properties, or perfections, of God are extramentally distinct from one another. Omniscience is not the same property as omnipotence. Yet, God's omniscience cannot be found separated from God's omnipotence.[61] One further claim for divine unity is that all of God's essential attributes are mutually entailing.[62]

Since this account only applies to the essential attributes of God, God can have accidental properties. For instance, God can have relational properties. He can also have certain intrinsic properties that are derivative from His essential perfections. The tradition wished to say that God was not essentially the creator of the world. God being the creator was an accidental, or non-essential, property that applied to creatures only and not to God.[63] This is false on divine unity. God exercises His omnipotence, perfect freedom, and grace in the act of creation thus taking on the intrinsic and accidental property of being the Creator of the world.[64]

What about temporal parts? One aspect of the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity is that God exists as a whole. God has no temporal parts. On presentism there is no such thing as temporal parts. All objects exist as a whole as they endure through time.[65] Yet, the life of the endurant object can be conceptually divided into temporal parts such as before and after. Conceptual distinctions are odious to divine simplicity. Divine unity has no problems with conceptual distinctions. At the very least, divine unity can say that God lacks temporal parts because there simply is no such thing as temporal parts.[66] God will gain and lose various non-essential properties as He endures through time, but He will not have any temporal parts.[67] God will exist without beginning and without end, but He will have moments in His life. Yet these moments are not proper parts of God.

Divine unity seems to me to have a better fit with Christian theology than simplicity. This is because Christians cannot deny all metaphysical complexity of God for Christians believe that God is triune. The claim that God is three persons and one essence involves real metaphysical distinctions within God. Any Christian account of divine simplicity must account for this, and if it cannot it should be abandoned. On an account of divine unity one can say that the three persons are distinct centers of consciousness who are necessarily internally related to one another such that it is impossible that they exist apart from each other.[68] In other words, God is necessarily and essentially triune.[69]

In regards to divine immutability, it seems best to offer a weak account. This account is perfectly compatible with scripture. I think anything stronger than the version I will offer would verge on being incompatible with scripture.

Immutability is not a property, attribute, or perfection. It is that mode of existence that describes a being of maximal excellence and perfection. To say that God is immutable is to say that He is necessarily unchanging in regards to His essential properties.[70] From this one can say that God is unchanging in His moral character, and derivative from His moral character one can speak of God's covenant faithfulness. This seems to be what the Bible is describing when it says that God is immutable. Indeed, any Christian account of immutability will need to be able to handle a God who freely enters into covenantal relationships with creatures.

An immutable God, on this construal, cannot change His essential properties because God necessarily has His essential properties. He can have accidental and contingent properties, but this in no way entails that God is imperfect.[71] God is necessarily perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent, and free. When an immutable God decides to do something, perhaps issue a decree, He sticks with His decision. Such a God would not need to second guess His decision, nor will His plans become frustrated such that He would need to change His mind and find an alternative. God is not like man that He should change His mind (Num. 23:19). Since God is perfectly free He did not have to issue the decree that He did, but being immutable, He will stick with His decree. When an immutable God freely initiates a covenant with His creatures He will be faithful to that covenant even when His covenantal partners are not (Mal. 3:6). This is because God's covenant faithfulness is derivative from His perfect goodness. God is so perfectly and immutably good that He cannot even be tempted to sin (Jas 1). A God this good will always keep His promises.

From these considerations one can start to see how God might be immutable, but still change in certain respects. For instance, God stands in a relationship of wrath with sinners. Yet, God has also promised to forgive those who seek forgiveness. God is just, and His wrath towards sinners expresses this. Yet, God is faithful to His promises. For God to change His attitudes toward repent sinners would not compromise His immutability. It would simply demonstrate His immutable faithfulness to His decrees and promises, which is derivative from His necessary goodness.

To sum up, this second option modifies the second horn of the dilemma by assuming that God is temporal, but that change in God in no way renders Him less than perfect. One might object that we cannot toy around with the divine perfections and cook them to fit our every whim. I would agree, but it is the case that our intuitions about divine perfection are defeasible. Part of the method of perfect being theology is to derive perfections from creatures since we assume that God is the source of all perfections and human persons are made in the image of God. As Thomas Aquinas explains, ‘We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures.’[72] As we reflect on possible perfections found in creatures our intuitions will vary. Further, a Christian perfect being theology is not a purely a priori endeavor.[73] Our intuitions ought to be modified in light of divine revelation. Scripture has no problems talking about God entering into time, changing in certain respects, and creating a world ex nihilo. If our perfect being intuitions conflict with this portrait we ought to consider revising our intuitions. This second option is one possible revision that rebuts Proclus' dilemma.

Concluding Remarks

  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes

I have argued that John Philoponus fails to defeat Proclus' dilemma, but that the contemporary philosophical theologian has other avenues open to her. I have offered two possible options, and leave the door open for others as well. It seems to me that one will have to revise her understanding of creation or divine perfection in order to defeat Proclus' dilemma. I have noted the difficulties for revising creation, and argued that there is an acceptable way for the Christian to revise the divine perfections. If there is a way to defeat the dilemma without abandoning a presentist ontology and without revising the divine perfections, I cannot tell what it is, but I am open to suggestions.


  1. Top of page
  2. A Proclus' Inspired Dilemma
  3. Philoponus Against Proclus
  4. Contemporary Christian Approaches to the Dilemma
  5. Option One: Modify Creation
  6. Option Two: Modify Perfection
  7. Concluding Remarks
  8. Notes
  • 1
    Dirk Baltzly contends that Proclus' work on the eternity of the world was not intended as an attack on Christian theology. See Baltzly , ‘Proclus’, in Graham Oppy and Nick Trakakis (eds) The History of Western Philosophy of Religion Volume 1: Ancient Philosophy of Religion (Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2009), 265. However, Proclus' Platonic Theology was an attempt to justify pagan thought which was being threatened by the rise of Christianity. See Christoph Helmig and Carlos Steel , ‘Proclus’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <>.
  • 2
    There are several clear statements on presentism in Philoponus' treatise against Proclus. For instance, ‘all things have their existence in the present.’ John Philoponus , Against Proclus On the Eternity of the World 12–18, translated by James Wilberding (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 2006), 79. This is in the midst of a discussion where Philoponus is arguing that God must have knowledge of the present. God ‘will not even know whether He Himself exists, if He does not know the present. For He too, exists.’
  • 3
    John Philoponus , Against Proclus On the Eternity of the World 1–5, translated by Michael Share (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 2004), 42, 50, and 64. As Philoponus portrays Proclus' argument, there are actually a few different subtleties. The second horn of the dilemma isn't simply that God is not perfect. Proclus goes on to argue that this less than perfect god must have been created by an actual perfect God. Within Aristotlian thought, immutability and necessity are seen as equivalent, as are contingency and mutability. The assumption, then, is that if the Christian God suffers any change, He must be contingent. For those of us living after John Duns Scotus it is hard to see how necessity and immutability are equivalent.
  • 4
    Augustine makes similar claims about divine simplicity throughout The Trinity VI. Also, Lombard, Sentences I, Dist. VIII.3. ‘The same substance alone is properly and truly simple in which there is no diversity or change or multiplicity of parts, or accidents, or of any other forms.’ Lombard is explicitly following several Christian theologians: Augustine, Hilary of Pointers, Boethius, and Jerome.
  • 5
    John Philoponus , Against Proclus On the Eternity of the World 12–18, 65.
  • 6
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 64.
  • 7
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 1941.
  • 8
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 6978.
  • 9
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 42.
  • 10
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 63. Bracketed words are inserted by the translator Michael Share.
  • 11
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 42. Bracketed words are inserted by the translator.
  • 12
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 4446.
  • 13
    Bonaventure makes a similar move in his In Il Sent. d.1, a.1,q.2. Aquinas makes a different move to this objection in Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate QII.14. Instead of drawing the distinction in actuality, Aquinas says that the divine act of knowing is perfect in itself and is distinct from the act of willing. Only the willing brings things into existence. His move then becomes very similar to Philoponus. But he then goes on to note that since God is simple, there is no real distinction between God's knowing and willing. Further, he even says that God's thoughts bring things into existence. As I shall discuss shortly, this commitment to simplicity undermines the rejoinder.
  • 14
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 54. Bracketed words are inserted by the translator.
  • 15
    Quentin Smith and L. Nathan Oaklander , Time, Change and Freedom: An Introduction to Metaphysics (London: Routledge, 1995), 21.
  • 16
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 54.
  • 17
    Robin Le Poidevin , Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 114115.
  • 18
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 54.
  • 19
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 62. Bracketed words are inserted by the translator.
  • 20
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 62. Bracketed words are inserted by the translator.
  • 21
    J.R. Lucas , The Future: An Essay on God, Temporality and Truth (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1989), 8.
  • 22
    Lucas , The Future, 213.
  • 23
    Anselm concurs that conceptual distinctions are foreign to the simple God. See Incarnation of the Word VII.
  • 24
    Though, strictly speaking, on four-dimensional eternalism there is no such thing as past, present and future since all moments of time exist.
  • 25
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 2426.
  • 26
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 27.
  • 27
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 29.
  • 28
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 30.
  • 29
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 32.
  • 30
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 5556.
  • 31
    Rogers , ‘Anselmian Eternalism: The Presence of a Timeless God’, Faith and Philosophy 24 (January 2007), 7. She makes it very clear that God's omniscience is not based on propositions or divine intentions.
  • 32
    Rogers , ‘Anselmian Eternalism’, 6.
  • 33
    Rogers , ‘Anselmian Eternalism’, 2.
  • 34
    Rogers , ‘Anselmian Eternalism’, 8.
  • 35
    Rogers , ‘Anselmian Eternalism’, 9.
  • 36
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 109.
  • 37
    Rogers , ‘Anselm on Eternity as the Fifth Dimension’, Saint Anselm Journal 3 (2006), 3.
  • 38
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 33.
  • 39
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 3435.
  • 40
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology, 36.
  • 41
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology , 37.
  • 42
    Rogers , The Anselmian Approach to God and Creation (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), 48.
  • 43
    Rogers , The Ansemlian Approach, 48.
  • 44
    Rogers , ‘Anselmian Eternalism’, 10.
  • 45
    Rogers , The Anselmian Approach, 4548.
  • 46
    Rogers , The Anselmian Approach, 48.
  • 47
    Philoponus , Against Proclus 1–5, 6668. Bonaventure concurs in Il Sent. d.1, a.1,q.2. See also Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles I.86. Of course, these thinkers are also committed to divine simplicity and pure act, so it may suffer an inconsistency.
  • 48
    Rogers , Perfect Being Theology , 3138.
  • 49
    John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I.7.
  • 50
    William Lane Craig , God, Time, and Eternity: The Coherence of Theism II (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), 254.
  • 51
    For a contemporary defense of presentism see Craig Bourne , A Future for Presentism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • 52
    Thomas Morris , Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), chapter 9. Walter Schultz , ‘Toward a Realist Modal Structuralism’, Philosophia Christi 12 (2010).
  • 53
    T.F. Torrance , The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 207209.
  • 54
    Keith Ward , Rational Theology and the Creativity of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, 1982), 161.
  • 55
    See Trenton Merricks , Truth and Ontology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Thomas Crisp Presentism and the Grounding Objection’, Nous 41 (2007): 118137. Bradley Monton and Brian Kierland Presentism and the Objection From Being-Supervenience’, Australian Journal of Philosophy 85 (3): 485497.
  • 56
    Schultz , ‘Toward a Realist Modal Structuralism’, 112115.
  • 57
    For one contemporary defense of the traditional account see Jeffrey Brower Making Sense of Divine Simplicity’, in Faith and Philosophy 25 (2008): 330. Thomas Morris argues that divine simplicity is unnecessary in order to account for the divine nature. See Anselmian Explorations, ch 6. As I understand it, if one is an essentialist, she has no need of divine simplicity.
  • 58
    Jay Wesley Richards , The Untamed God: A Philosophical Exploration of Divine Perfection, Simplicity and Immutability (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 217.
  • 59
    One could follow John Duns Scotus and take infinity to be an upper limit, or follow Aquinas and take it to be unsurpassable.
  • 60
    Timothy O'Connor , Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 132.
  • 61
    Richard Cross , Duns Scotus on God (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), ch 6. Also, Frederic Copleston A History of Philosophy Volume II: Medieval Philosophy from Augustine to Duns Scotus (New York: Double Day, 1993), 508510.
  • 62
    Richard Swinburne , ‘How the Divine Properties Fit Together: Reply to Gwiazda’, in Religious Studies 45 (2009): 495498.
  • 63
    Peter Lombard , Sentences Book I, Distinction XXX.1.1. ‘For there are some things which are said of God in time and which are fitting for him in time without any change on his part. These are said relatively, according to an accident which does not befall God, but which befalls creatures, such as creator, lord, refuge, giver or granted, and suchlike.’ See also Augustine The Trinity V. Thomas Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles II.12–14.
  • 64
    Torrance , The Christian God , 208.
  • 65
    In fact it seems to me that the perfection of endurance is one of the perfections Anselm finds in creatures and then predicates of God in the Monologiun. For more on this see Robert Pasnau On Existing All at Once’, in eds. Christian Tapp and Edmund Runggaldier God, Eternity, and Time (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2011).
  • 66
    Temporal parts as understood on a four-dimensionalist ontology. This is where objects persist through time by having parts that exist at those times. On presentism, objects endure through time by being wholly present at each moment of their existence.
  • 67
    Brian Leftow suggests that divine simplicity can say this too in his ‘The Roots of Eternity’, Religious Studies 24 (1989), 197. What Leftow has neglected is that even conceptual distinctions are odious on the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity.
  • 68
    For more on this see Keith Yandell , ‘An Essay in Particularist Philosophy of Religion: A Metaphysical Structure for the Doctrine of the Trinity’, in Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea (eds) These Three are One: Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Doctrine of the Trinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • 69
    Some might object to the claim that the divine persons are ‘three centers of consciousness’ on the grounds that this is anachronistic. There are at least two possible responses to this. First, so what? Our concept of ‘person’ has developed precisely because of the divine revelation that God is triune. Second, the anachronism is far from obvious. The notion that a person is a rational substance/thinking thing, with free will can be found in John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, and Boethius, to name but a few. There are two obvious differences between human persons and divine persons that I can see, but none of these is in regards to being a center of consciousness. First, the divine persons are one in will, they always act together ad extra. Human persons can and often do will differently. Second, divine persons necessarily exist in a perichoretic relation to one another such that they cannot exist apart from each other. Human persons clearly can and do exist separated from each other. Perhaps human persons only flourish when they exist in community, but a human person does not fail to be a human when they exist apart from a community or when loved ones die. For a different defense of the claim that the three persons are three centers of consciousness see Thomas McCall , Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CO., 2010), 236241.
  • 70
    Thomas Morris , Anselmian Explorations, 85ff. John Feinberg No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001), 264275.
  • 71
    Richards , The Untamed God, 200201.
  • 72
    Aquinas , Summa Theologiea , I.Q13.2.
  • 73
    Brian Leftow , ‘Why Perfect Being Theology?International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 69 (2011), 103118.