A Plethora of Prima Facie Problems for Classical Theism


As the title suggests, this post is not some decisive refutation of classical theism. Definitely not. Classical theism is a formidable, fruitful, and deeply intellectually respectable research program. Rather, it is a short post presenting a number of prima facie (i.e. at first glance; upon first inspection; seems or appears true on the face of it) problems for classical theism.

A quick note: This post will primarily contain syllogisms. As such, I will not (for the most part) provide (extensive) justification for premises. That is for another time.

I am going to repeat this. I am not aiming to provide justification for each of the premises. So, yes — there will be premises on here that are not justified in the dialectical context of this post. That is something I am doing in other publications I am working on (or have finished).

What is classical theism?


God is (i) purely actual, (ii) absolutely simple, (iii) such that his essence and existence are identical, (iv) unconditioned, (v) necessarily existent, (vi) morally perfect, (vii) omniscient and omnipotent, (viii) timeless, (ix) the creator and sustainer of every concrete object apart from himself in a single, all-encompassing act.

Moreover, all of God’s non-Cambridge properties/attributes/features are identical (not only to each other, but to God himself).

Problem 1: Absolute simplicity and Theistic Conceptualism

Definition: Absolute Divine Simplicity (ADS) means that God is utterly non-composite. He lacks any and all parts, be they metaphysical (such as substance/attributes, non-identical properties, essence/existence, genus/specific difference, and so on) or physical.

(1) For any proposition P, P is identical to God’s thought (that P). (Theistic Conceptualism as applied to propositions)

Another way to put this is that for any universal form or pattern F, F is identical to God’s conceptual thought (about F).

(2) Necessarily, if x and y are identical, then whatever is true of x is true of y.

(3) The proposition P*, <there are dogs>, is about dogs.

(4) The proposition P**, <there are quarks>, is not about dogs.

(5) So, P* and P** are not identical. (From (2), (3), and (4))

(6) So, God’s thoughts are not identical. (From (5) and (1))

(7) If God’s thoughts are not identical, then God is not absolutely simple.

(8) So, under divine conceptualism, God is not absolutely simple. (From (6) and (7))

Note that the argument does not claim that “a variability in the things God knows is a variability in God himself”. Rather, it’s specifically aimed at divine conceptualism as applied to propositions, according to which propositions are utterly identical to divine thoughts. It does not concern God’s knowledge of variability; it has to do with the ontological status of propositions (which can be true or false and hence known or not known).

The point, then, seems to remain (and again, I’m not saying it’s decisive; it’s a prima facie problem): if indeed propositions are identical to divine thoughts, then divine simplicity is false. For there’s more than one proposition. So, if propositions are identical to God’s thoughts, there is more than one divine thought. And that’s not allowed under ADS. On the flip side, if there is only one divine thought, and propositions are identical to God’s thought, then there is only one proposition. But that ain’t true.

Regarding this argument, I have been recommended:

  • Michelle Panchuk’s “The simplicity of divine ideas”
  • Gregory Doolan, “Aquinas on the Divine Ideas as Exemplar Causes”

In due time, I’ll get to such works — and I look forward to doing so! At present, though, I’m focusing on other projects…

Problem 2: Absolute simplicity and Trinitarianism

Definitions: X and Y are distinct means X and Y are not identical. Trinitarianism means there are three persons in one God.


(1) The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are either distinct or not.

(2) If they are not distinct, then they are identical.

(3) If they are identical, then there are not three persons in one God but rather one person – in which case, Christianity (according to which Trinitarianism is essential) is false.

(4) If they are distinct, then they possess distinct attributes – in which case, God is not absolutely simple.

(5) So, either Christianity is false, or ADS is false.

Why believe (4)? There are a few ways to see this.

First, if the Divine persons did not possess any distinct attributes, then the fact that they are distinct becomes inexplicable (as there is no difference in features to ground their non-identity). Indeed, this is exactly the premise by which Feser infers the necessary uniqueness of a being which is (i) pure act, (ii) non-composite, (iii) subsistent existence itself, and so on. Without a principle of individuation (i.e. some feature one has that the other lacks), there is nothing that explains or accounts for why there are more than one — and so (reasons Feser) there could only be one.

Second, if the three Divine persons are distinct, then (e.g.) the Father has the attribute ‘being the Father’ which is not identical to the attribute ‘being the Son’ (if the attributes were so identical, the Father and Son would not be distinct after all).

Problem 3: Absolute simplicity and Christ

According to Christianity, Jesus is fully and truly God, but also fully and truly man. In other words, Christ has two natures: the divine nature and human nature.

Now, whatever else a part is, (Thomistic) Classical theists seem unanimously to agree on the Parthood Thesis:

Parthood Thesis (PT): x is a part of y if [(i) x is not identical to y, and (ii) x is not extrinsic to y]

In other words, x is a part of y if x is intrinsic to y but not itself identical to y. PT’s stipulation of intrinsicality rules out Cambridge and other relational properties, and the proposed (sufficient) condition also captures why Thomists say God is identical to his properties (and why his properties are all identical as well). I leave open whether the ‘if’ should instead be ‘iff’.

Now, here is the difficulty:

It seems reasonably clear that Christ’s divine nature meets conditions (i) and (ii) with respect to Christ himself. Why?

Well, Christ himself is not completely and utterly identical to the divine nature. After all, Christ is truly human, whereas the divine nature is not human. Christ had weight, height, extension, temporal and spatial location, corporeality, and so on, but the divine nature is utterly devoid of any such physical, spatial, limited, and temporal properties. So, Christ is not utterly and completely identical to the divine nature.

But the divine nature is also not merely extrinsic to Christ; Christ is divine in virtue of who he is, in and of himself, intrinsically. The nature exists or inheres in Christ. It’s not a mere Cambridge relation in which Christ stands. He is truly God himself made incarnate.

The problem then manifests itself: the divine nature is (i) not identical to Christ, but (ii) not extrinsic to Christ. So, the divine nature is a (metaphysical) part of Christ. (This doesn’t mean or entail Christ is only partly divine; all it entails is that, qua both truly and fully divine and human, his divinity is not the sole element/aspect/feature/part/attribute of his substance).

But this is flatly incompatible with classical theism on many accounts.

First, under ADS, God is identical to God’s nature. It follows, then, that God is a part of Jesus. But God cannot be part of anything; he is precisely that which is absolutely simple, independent, self-sufficient, not admitting of any parts or composing anything else. God does not effect composition with anything apart from himself.

Second, (Thomistic) classical theists hold that anything which is composite requires a sustaining, concurrent efficient cause, which is ultimately God. But that means that Christ — with at least two parts, a divine nature and a human nature — requires a sustaining cause. But under ADS, God is identical to the divine nature. So, God is a part of Christ. But then a composite being (Christ) is such that it has a proper part (God) which is the composite being’s efficient causal sustainer in existence. But no proper part can efficiently causally sustain its whole in being. This amounts to self-causation, since if q brings w into existence, q brings w’s parts into existence qua parts of w. q itself therefore cannot be a part of w, for if it were, it would bring itself into existence.

Third, under Thomism, parts exists merely virtually rather than actually. They therefore exist as a kind of potency. Hence, the divine nature (and hence God) is a kind of potency — at least in respect of its parthood in Christ. But this is not possible for a purely actual being.

The center of Christianity — Christ himself, God made man — seems to militate against (Thomistic) classical theism.


Problem 4: Presentism and Pure Act

Definition: By ‘times’, I mean temporal states of reality that either did occur, are occurring, or will occur.

(1) If some times are not actual, then for some x, the proposition <x is actual> genuinely changes in truth value.

(2) God knows all true (knowable) propositions.

(3) If <x is actual> genuinely changes in truth value, and if God knows all true (knowable) propositions, then God’s knowledge changes.

(4) If God’s knowledge changes, then God isn’t purely actual.

(5) So, if some times are not actual, then God isn’t purely actual.

(6) So, if God is purely actual, then all times are actual.

(7) If (6) is true, then God’s being purely actual entails eternalism.

(8) So, God’s being purely actual entails eternalism.

Why believe (4)? Here are some very short reasons that knowledge cannot be merely extrinsic or relational (along the lines of a Cambridge relation). In essence, knowledge essentially involves intrinsic features (awareness, beliefs, desires, propositional attitudes, justification, mental states).

So, changes in knowledge are not mere Cambridge or relational changes. Feser himself agrees: “If God existed within time, he… would constantly be acquiring new pieces of knowledge… [But] this would involve change” (2017, p. 200). Here, Feser accepts that acquiring new pieces of knowledge involves change (and since God cannot change, he infers that God cannot acquire new pieces of knowledge. But one person’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens).

Problem 5: Knowledge of contingents and Pure Act

(1) There is some true proposition P describing the world such that ~P could have been true.

(2) Necessarily, God knows every true proposition.

(3) So, God knows P but could have known ~P. (1,2)

(4) If subject S could have different knowledge, then some intrinsic feature of S could have been different.

(5) So, some intrinsic feature of God could have been different. (4,5)

(6) If God is purely actual, then no intrinsic feature of God could have been different.

(7) So, God is not purely actual. (6,7)

Why believe (4)? See the section above for a very, very brief justification.

Problem 6: Difference Principle

Difference Principle (DP): A difference in the effect presupposes a difference in the total cause (such that the difference in the total cause accounts for the difference in the effect).

Why believe DP? Here are very brief reasons:

  • Universal experience
  • Intuition
  • Abduction
  • A Bayesian argument
  • Principle of Relevant Differences
  • PSR
  • Grounds rationality and reliability of induction

Here is the argument (once again, very brief):

(1) If classical theism is true, then DP is not true.

(2) DP is true.

(3) So, classical theism is false.

For an elaboration, check this post out. Also note that I am working on a paper that develops, formalizes, and extensively justifies this argument (okay, a much more complex version of this argument). This paper also allays various criticisms of the principle (such as the criticism that it presupposes causation is a necessitating relation).

Problem 7: Existential inertia


Existential Inertia Thesis (EIT): Necessarily, concrete objects (i) persist in existence (once in existence) without requiring a continuously concurrent sustaining cause of their existence and (ii) cease to exist only if caused to do so.

Existential Expiration Thesis (EET): Necessarily, (non-God) concrete objects will cease to exist (by means of instantaneous annihilation) in the absence of causally sustaining factors.

Theistic Sustenance Thesis (TST): Necessarily, (i) EET is true, and (ii) a necessary condition for (non-God) concrete objects to avoid existential expiration at t is God’s causal sustenance ex nihilo.

Here is the argument:

(1) If classical theism is true, then both TST is true and EIT is false.

(2) We don’t have adequate reason for thinking both TST is true and EIT is false.

(3) So, we don’t have adequate reason for thinking classical theism is true.

Once again, my thoughts on existential inertia are developed extensively elsewhere. For a video, check here.

Allow me to clarify the argument in this section thanks to some feedback from Samuel Watkinson. The possession of ‘adequate reasons’ is relative to (i.e. depends on or is contextually linked to) one’s own position on the epistemic landscape. So, technically, I mean that from my position on the epistemic landscape — having analyzed the major arguments in the literature (Feser, Audi, Beaudoin, Kvanvig & McCann) and on other platforms — I do not have sufficient reason, warrant, or justification for denying EIT and accepting TST.

Problem 8: Presentism and causal sustenance

“A final issue that is directly relevant is whether or not God’s presence makes Him subject to change and time. Lombard considers the following objection. “Every day, creatures are made which do not exist before, and God is in them, but he was not in them before; it follows that he is where he was not before, and so he seems to be mutable.” This argument has some serious teeth.

Aquinas and his contemporaries have a standard reply to this type of objection that goes as follows. God’s will never changes. Given God’s self-sufficiency, God always wills His own good. Given divine simplicity, God’s good is Himself. Whether or not God wills that something other than Himself exist, He always wills His good, Himself, as the final end (Summa Contra Gentiles II.31).

This is a woefully unhelpful reply. God could eternally will that some thing x come to exist at time t1, but God cannot eternally act at t1 because that time does not always exist. God cannot act at non-existent times, nor is God eternally sustaining yet-to-exist future times. So one can easily grant the Thomist the claim that God’s eternal will never changes, but this does nothing to assuage the problem. God still has to wait to sustain future moments of time, and God still has to wait to perform certain actions until those future moments become present. This is not something that a timeless God can do. A timeless God cannot wait to perform actions. A timeless God cannot wait to be present to, and sustain, yet-to-exist moments of time. This would involve God changing from one moment to the next. The difficulty becomes even worse when one recalls that, given divine simplicity, God’s will is identical to His act. So the idea of eternally willing to bring about something at a particular time seems impossible since that time is not co-eternal with God’s one, simple, timeless act.”

Mullins, The End of The Timeless God

Problem 9: Identity and Potency

Definition: God having a creative act (else: an act of creation) just means God exercises his causal power to create (i.e. bring something into being).

(1) If God is free, then God can create or not create.

(2) If God can create or not create, then God can be such that he has a creative act or he does not have a creative act.

(3) But if God has a creative act, God is identical to his act of creation.

(4) If God does not have a creative act, then he cannot be identical to his act of creation (for he wouldn’t have an act of creation with which to be identical!).

(5) So, if God is free, then God can be such that (i) he is identical to his act of creation, or (ii) he is not identical to his act of creation.

(6) If x can be such that (i) x is identical to y, or (ii) x is not identical to y, then x has (intrinsic) potencies.

(7) So, if God is free, God has (intrinsic) potencies.

(8) So, it cannot be the case that God is both free and purely actual.

(9) If classical theism is true, then God is both free and purely actual.

(10) So, classical theism is false.

The primary warrant for (6) is that identity conditions of x are intrinsic to x. They have to do with what x is in itself, not with things apart from or extrinsic to x.


Problem 10: Freedom and Potency

Alternate Possibilities Condition (APC): A necessary condition for S’s being free is that S could have acted otherwise.

I will simply assume APC’s truth (though I find it highly plausible and defensible).

Consider that if A is free, then (given APC) A could have been otherwise. Indeed, Feser affirms that “God could have created either one [of two possibilities, one of which is not actual]” (2017, p. 225: emphasis added). Hence, if God created x as opposed to y, such that x and y are genuine (but incompatible) possibilities, God could have been otherwise insofar as he could have had the feature ‘being the creator of y’ instead of ‘being the creator of x’. But it seems relatively straightforward that possibly being otherwise entails some sort of potency, in which case the purely actual being cannot be otherwise (for then it would not be purely actual). Hence, it cannot be free. So, nothing can be both free and purely actual. So, classical theism is false.

Objection: ‘Possibly being otherwise’ would only require active potencies (i.e. causal powers or capacities), which the purely actual being has.

Response: First, active potencies are not potencies but are, strictly speaking, actualities (Feser (2014), p. 43). So, an appeal to active potencies to satisfy APC amounts to a denial that possibly being otherwise entails potency. Second, even granting this objection, APC doesn’t seem to be satisfied after all, since the causal power or capacity itself will be wholly and purely actual, with no potential to be otherwise. Moreover, any activation of the causal power will be fully, purely, and already actual (lest we admit potencies within the purely actual being). Hence, any activation of the causal power – being devoid of potency – has no potential to be otherwise. If we appeal to a higher order active potency to preserve the first-order possibility of being otherwise (while avoiding genuine potency), the same problem will re-arise in a vicious regress.

Problem 11: Begotten not made

The Nicene creed affirms that Christ is ‘begotten not made.’ It’s not immediately clear what ‘begotten’ means, but I gather a number of these meanings from a number of theologians.

Jesus (J) is begotten from F (the Father) provided that J satisfies one or more of the following:

(i) J is eternally generated from F

(ii) J eternally proceeds from F

(iii) J eternally has its source in F

(iv) J is eternally dependent upon F

(v) J is ontologically posterior to F

However we understand ‘begotten’, it seems quite clear that J’s being begotten by F entails that (i) J and F are distinct, (ii) at least one of J or F is not identical to God simpliciter, and (iii) J and F are intrinsic to God.

It should be relatively clear how an absolutely simple being G cannot be such that there is something intrinsic to G that is not identical to G, and this is especially compounded given that this intrinsic thing stands in some relation of ontological posteriority to something distinct from itself.

Here, then, is the argument:

(1) If Christianity is true, Christ is begotten of the Father.

(2) If Christ is begotten of the Father, then ADS is false.

(3) So, Christianity entails the falsehood of ADS.


Problem 12: Simplicity, Christ, and accidents

“Of course, a particular problem for the divine timeless research program arises here. It would seem that the Son is only contingently related to His humanity. If He were necessarily related to His humanity, His humanity would not be contingent. This means that the Son’s human nature is accidental to Him.

(Blount, “On the Incarnation of a Timeless God,” 243. The traditional “language is intended to emphasize the fact that, while the Son possesses a human nature, such a nature is accidental to him (and, perhaps, that he has it voluntarily).” In Summa Theologiae III, Q2, Aquinas denies that the humanity is accidental to Christ. He offers several nuanced distinctions in an attempt to make this work. I find this baffling.)

But, recall from Chapter 3, that accidental properties are repugnant to divine simplicity. The Son, being simple, cannot have accidental properties. The communicatio idiomatum entails that the Son has accidental properties. So divine simplicity is incompatible with the communicatio idiomatum.

There might be a way to get around this. Perhaps one could say that only the divine nature is simple, and not the Son. Of course, that would seem to destroy the doctrine of divine simplicity since a simple God has no metaphysical diversity or complexity at all. A multiplicity of persons in God is diverse and complex, despite the protests of defenders of divine simplicity.

(James E. Dolezal, “Trinity, Simplicity and the Status of God’s Personal Relations,” International Journal of Systematic Theology (2014). Dolezal says that there are no real distinctions in the simple God, yet the three divine persons are really distinct. Further, the three really distinct persons just are God. This is prima facie incoherent. Three distinct persons in God is not compatible with the claim that God has no distinctions. Dolezal tries to hide behind the doctrine of analogy as well as the claim that the divine persons just are subsisting relations. This fails to be compatible with divine simplicity for the following reasons. (1) A multiplicity of distinct relations in God is still to introduce distinction into a God who supposedly lacks all metaphysical distinctions. Dolezal tries to escape this problem by stating that the divine relations are identical to the essence of God, but this is to give up the claim that there are three distinct persons. If F is identical to G, and S is identical to G, then F is identical to S. (2) The subsistent relations are all identical to the one simple divine act, which in turn is identical to the essence of God. So the relations end up being identical to each other. Each divine person just is identical to an act of procession, and all of God’s acts are identical to each other such that there is only one simple act. A simple God is identical to His act. So, again, Dolezal has given up any distinction between the persons. (3) A person cannot be a relation. A person is a thing that stands in relations. The Thomistic notion of divine persons as subsisting relations is a category mistake that needs to be put to rest. Hiding behind the doctrine of analogy and the doctrine of divine ineffability or incomprehensibility does nothing to remove the category mistake.)

Further, it would seem to call into question whether or not the Son is divine since classical theology is committed to the claim that to be divine is to be simple. Another possible way to get out of this is to deny the communicatio idiomatum, but then one would be left with an inadequate Christology. One might deny that the Son has His humanity accidentally, and insist that the Son has it necessarily. Apart from being prima facie implausible, this would seem to lead to immanent subordinationism and not economic subordinationism for the Son would not be homoousios with the Father and Holy Spirit. Divine simplicity, it would seem, is incompatible with the Incarnation.

. . .

[T]o avoid this… one can give up the doctrine of embodiment. Maybe she will go medieval and say that the Son is not really related to His humanity. If she does this she will have given up any adequate notion of the incarnation. Embodiment is what distinguishes the Son’s humanity from everyone else’s humanity. If we abandon embodiment there is no legitimate sense in which we can say that the Son assumes humanity, nor any way for us to distinguish the relationship between the Son and His humanity from the Son and our humanity (i.e. how are we not incarnated by the Son as well?).”

Mullins, The End of The Timeless God

Problem 13: Distinction between knowledge and creative activity

(1) Knowledge involves a non-causal relation to propositions.

(2) Creating does not involve a non-causal relation.

(3) Necessarily, if x and y are identical, then whatever is true of x is true of y.

(4) So, knowledge is not identical to creating.

(5) If knowledge is not identical to creating, then God’s knowledge is not identical to God’s creative act.

(6) If God’s knowledge is not identical to God’s creative act, then ADS is false.

(7) So, ADS is false.

The classical theist will likely object to (1) and affirm that God’s knowledge is non-propositional. Instead, God knows things by knowing his own essence.

But this cannot be correct. For God’s essence is utterly unchanging from world to world. But there are contingently true things that can be known, i.e. there are bits of knowledge in some worlds that are not bits of knowledge in other worlds. Because bits of knowledge change from world to world, but God’s essence is utterly unchanging from world to world, God’s knowing God’s essence is categorically insufficient for God’s knowing all bits of knowledge. So, God’s knowing his essence cannot be the whole story to God’s knowledge.

It also cannot be correct for necessary truths. For such necessary truths are either intrinsic to God, identical to God, or extrinsic to God. But if they are intrinsic to God, then because not all such truths are identical to one another, God has a multiplicity of intrinsic features, which is incompatible with ADS. Similarly, they cannot be identical to God, for then God would be identical to multiple distinct things/truths, which violates the law of non-contradiction. And if they are extrinsic to God, then the argument resurfaces, for then God will simply stand in a non-causal relation of knowledge to such necessary truths.

More can be said, but this is supposed to be an overview. Once again, a fuller treatment is both required and deserved, but that is (intentionally) beyond the scope of this post.


I am aware of usual responses from classical theists. Here are some they are likely to employ against (a number of) such arguments:

  • Appeal to analogical predication when it comes to God
  • Appeal to Cambridge or extrinsically relational properties/changes
  • Appeal to the mysteriousness of God
  • And so on

I am not suggesting that these are ‘fallacies’ in my use of the words ‘appeal to’. I simply mean classical theists are likely to adduce or make reference to (one or more of) such tenets of their research program.

A final note. The discussion isn’t over. These aren’t knock-down proofs. If anything, they are invitations to deeper thought and consideration. It would take tens of thousands of words to properly flesh out these ‘problems’. That’s why I am writing selected papers on specific topics in here (for instance, my paper on existential inertia is ~13k words; a second paper I’m working on with respect to existential inertia will be ~10k words; a paper I’m working on with respect to the DP will be ~10k words; and so on).

Author: Joe

Email: NaturalisticallyInclined@gmail.com


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  6. It’s almost as if classical theism is striving for a god which is maximally counter-intuitive.

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  8. I especially like your problem #8. Although the classical theists attempt to address it in their rejoinder, I find their response inadequate (or more accurately, incomprehensible!). They say that “God’s action existed from all eternity, whereas its effect was not present from eternity, but existed at that time when, from all eternity, He ordained it.” I don’t know how to even begin to make sense of this! If God’s act existed from all eternity, and if the act is sufficient to produce the effect, then the effect must exist from all eternity as well. What am I missing here?

    • Andrea Cusumano

      If you can think now within yourself, “in 10 days i’m going to gift a rose to my fiancé”, and that does not happen right now, how is it incomprehensible that God, from all eternity, ordained all effects at their specific times?

  9. Because the theists say that ‘God’s action existed from all eternity’ (as I quoted earlier above). To use your example, it’s not that you (as God) are going to give a rose in 10 days to your fiance. It’s that you (as God) have already acted (from all eternity) to give the rose. How then could the act (having existed for all eternity) be delayed such that it occurs in 10 days rather than now?

    Incidentally, classical theists claim that God is timeless. So the entire notion of time (e.g., 10 days from now) cannot be coherently applied to God.

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