According to Thomism, God's essence must be identical with his attributes, lest God has real attributes he is dependent upon for his being and "compose" his essence, compromising God's aseity and his oneness. This would mean that God has no real attributes. God's attributes would be merely mind-dependent virtual distinctions that describe the one essence.

But why should we assume that if God's attributes are real they need to "compose" God or mean that God is dependent upon them for his being? An attribute is simply a quality or feature of something. God's goodness, holiness, love, etc, can be real because they are really ways of describing God. But why should we think that because these attributes are real they are somehow real entities which compose him and by which God is dependent, rather than simply real ways of describing him? Further reading on this would be helpful.

  • This is one of those moments in theology I'm torn over. The wannabe novelist in me loves the description of ultimate unity; the abstract skeptic in me wonders if, "God is absolutely simple because He would otherwise not be a se," or worse, "God is a se because He is absolutely simple," are assertions that violate both simplicity and aseity. Aug 7, 2022 at 4:17
  • How are "mind-dependent virtual distinctions that describe the one essence" different from "real ways of describing him" other than in verbal emphasis? They are not "real entities" either way on your proposal, "mind-dependent" does not mean unreal, and "ways of describing" are perspective-dependent by their plain meaning. So what is left of the distinction between "virtual" (or "formal", as Duns Scotus would put it) and "real" (which he would apply if they were "real entities")?
    – Conifold
    Aug 7, 2022 at 5:01
  • Thomism has undergone a major revival in theological circles, but it is very much at odds with contemporary philosophy. Thomism is "analytic", in that the nature of God is derived from reason alone, and is a priori. But Kant narrowed the realm of a priori dramatically with The Critique of Pure Reason, and subsequent adoption of pluralism in both math and logic removes what little room he left for a priori. In theological terms, per contemporary philosophy God's nature is contingent. One discovers it from observation, not reasoning. Trinity, salvation, commandments, all are contingent.
    – Dcleve
    Aug 8, 2022 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


What you seem to be running into here is the change in philosophy from the schoolmen to the moderns. In the course of that transition, several philosophical concepts were replaced with other concepts using the same name. For example, definitions used to be viewed as a part of understanding the thing defined. It revealed a truth about the thing defined. A definition could be wrong in the sense that it did not properly bring out the essence of the thing. In modern philosophy, by contrast, a definition is just a matter of language. It is a stipulation of how you intend to use a particular word. It can't really be right or wrong, only conventional or unconventional (or it can fail to pick out anything, but that's a whole topic of its own).

Similarly, it used to be that a thing was in some sense constituted of its properties. An object was viewed as a bit of formless matter that properties glommed onto, creating a form and producing a composite object. An object was an aggregate of matter and form. But an aggregate can be disaggregated, which was not viewed as a proper attribute of God, so God had to be a sort of object that was not an aggregate, could not be disaggregated.

In modern philosophy, a property is just the sort of thing you are thinking of, a description of how a thing is perceived, and not an integral part of the composition of an object. Another way to say it is this: in modern philosophy, a property is generally viewed as a sort of mutual feature of the observed and observer rather than a feature of the observed alone. Of course there is a lot more to say about this, and materialism arguably requires some sort of essentialism at some level of reality, but in general, properties are not viewed as constitutive.

So, the arguments about the simplicity of God don't really makes sense when you are using the modern notion properties. You have to understand their arguments in their terms. Here is a SEP article that tries to explain their arguments.

  • Are you saying that I am confusing the modern concept of properties with the medieval concept of attributes?
    – Bob
    Aug 7, 2022 at 8:00
  • 1
    I wouldn't call it confusion. You are using the modern notion of properties while trying to understand arguments by people who had a different notion of properties. Aug 7, 2022 at 8:12

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