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God ‘Is that He Is.’ But What Does That Mean?

The answer revolves around 'essence' and 'existence.'

Defenders of divine simplicity often say that God is existence itself, and that God’s essence and existence are the same. What does this mean? Let’s break it down.

When we talk about the essence of God, we mean what God is. So God’s essence being equal to existence is just another way of saying that God is existence itself.

This topic has the ability to go down a massive rabbit hole that would be too long for article form, and I am in the process of finishing up a book on it. For now, I wanted to go over three things that defenders of divine simplicity are really saying when we say God’s essence and existence are equal:

  1. God plus creation is not greater than God.

This makes sense when you think about it. If God is infinitely great, then adding to him would not be greater. We probably wouldn’t want to think of God’s act of creating as something he needed to do to make the world greater, either. Humans do not make the world more great; we just participate in the greatness of God.

  1. God necessarily exists.

This one needs some explaining. Because God exists necessarily, sometimes Christians use this language to mean just that. Confusing, I know. Theologians have a habit of making things more complicated than they need to be.

  1. God creates from himself.

When God creates, he uses his knowledge and power to create. Defenders of divine simplicity will also say that God’s power and knowledge are intrinsic and necessary to God, so we can conclude by saying power and knowledge (God) created the universe.

To make this essence/existence thing make more sense, let’s look at an example of a thing where its essence is different from its existence. If I asked you to describe a woolly mammoth, you would likely talk about how it had tusks and fur and whatnot. That would be the woolly mammoth’s essence. Then say I asked you where they are living today. Of course, this is an illegitimate question. Woolly mammoths no longer exist. Although we can talk about what this thing was, it no longer is. This is a clear example of what a thing is being different from that it is. Because God can never not exist, we say that what God is that he is.

Let’s imagine another example. Say I have the pleasure of meeting the current pope. Say when I come home, people ask what he’s like. In response, I say, “He exists.” They would probably look at me as though I’m crazy. Why? Because what Pope Francis is like (what his essence is) is different from the fact that he exists.

We can also talk about problems that we would run into if essence and existence were different in God. For one, if there is a possibility that God stops existing, we would have a problem. This is a real possibility if essence and existence are not equal in God. We can also speak about the issues relating to creation. If essence and existence are different in God, it’s possible that creation made the world more great. This is an issue because it presupposes that God is not great enough on his own.

These problems are important to consider, but there is one key issue with saying that God’s essence and existence are different. If God’s existence is not the same as his essence, it either comes from his essence or is because of something outside himself. Obviously, God cannot exist because of something outside himself. He also cannot come from his own essence because that would mean he causes his own existence. (See John Lamont, “Aquinas on Divine Simplicity” in The Monist, 80.4 [1997]: 530.) God cannot cause himself to exist. This conclusion must be avoided at all costs.

It’s worth noting, also, that essence and existence can be the same in only one thing. Why? First, let’s remember what essence means. Essentially, God’s essence is what God is. So if we were to talk about Parker Manning’s essence, we would be talking about what Parker Manning is. Another way we can think about this is that my essence is how someone would describe me to someone else.

Now that we understand that, why can’t we have two things where their essence (how you would describe them) is equal to existence? If there were two things where essence and existence were the same, they would still have some sort of properties that would differentiate them. In that case, their essence (what they are) would just be how you would describe them, which would not be equal to existence itself. Going back to the Pope Francis example from earlier—it would not make sense for me to describe Pope Francis by saying, “He exists”.

Aquinas explains it as such: “In every simple thing, its being and that which it is are the same. For if the one were not the other, simplicity would be removed. . . . Hence, in God, being good is not anything distinct from him; he is his goodness” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 38).

In summary, if, for instance, we had a situation where two things’ essence were equal to existence itself, we would have composition or accidents to distinguish the two. If something has composition, its essence is that of the composition and not existence itself. For instance, if someone were to describe me, he would likely say things like “Catholic male with dark hair.” In this scenario, my essence (the words you use to describe me) is made up of composition and is not equal to existence itself.

But not so with God—and that makes all the difference.

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