Divine Simplicity

When we affirm God is simple, the immediate objection that comes to mind is “God’s not simple! He’s extremely complicated!” And that’s very true. But that’s not the sense or concept of simplicity we mean to express. Simplicity is the confession that God has no parts; he lacks any sort of composition of divisible attributes.

Everything we have encountered in our lives is a composite being — everything from sand to stars, from plants to animals, from fire to our fellow humans. Water, sunshine, feelings, and mathematics — all of these things have some sort of minimal composite existence: forms with particulars, multiple contingent and necessary attributes, even at a minimum the coming together of existence and essence. Every created thing which we’ve seen, touched, or heard about has parts. But not God.

The one true and living God is a single simple Substance or Essence.

Understanding divine simplicity is the point at which everything else we learn about the one true God suddenly makes perfect sense. And yet we suddenly realize how far more wondrously strange the being of the eternal and absolute God is than we’d ever thought or considered previously.

Here is divine simplicity in a nutshell: There is nothing that is not God which makes God to be God. Everything else is just the outworking of that thesis. To put it another way, all of God is all of God.

Simplicity is a double denial of sorts. God is not composed of parts that are each less than God which sum up to God. And God does not depend on something other than himself to unify those parts. God is his own sufficient explanation. Everything about him is ‘everywhere’ present in him. And everything about him ‘contains’ everything about him. Once again, all of God is all of God.

Simplicity also means God doesn’t have attributes the way we normally think about a thing having attributes. And this is the absence of attributes in a double sense.

Firstly, God doesn’t have or possess attributes. God isn’t a minimal essential core being with additional incidental qualities or properties added to him or modifying him. God is his attributes. God’s whole being is identical and coterminous with his various traits. In other words, it doesn’t mean the same thing to say that “God is righteous” as it does when we say that “Dave is righteous”. In this example, Dave has or possesses the attribute of righteousness while God is the attribute of righteousness. And in instances where we would ordinary describe God as “having” a specific part as we’d know and experience it (e.g. “God has a mind, a will, and emotions like we do.”), in truth God is identical with that part we’ve named and attributed to him (e.g. unlike us, God is his mind, and is his will, and is his emotions).

Secondly, God’s attributes are not actually separable from each other in the way which we usually talk about them. As God is identical with his attributes, so also his attributes are identical with one another. His glory is his righteousness is his love is his wisdom is his holiness is his goodness is his beauty is his truthfulness is his strength, ad infinitum. And it’s as if all of God’s attributes are qualities of all of his other attributes. God’s will is glorious, and his glory is willful. His righteousness is true, and his truth is righteous. His holiness is loving, and his love is holy. Still once more, all of God is all of God.

To attempt a limited illustration, our very existence as finite and composite creatures is like a prism to white light. When God interacts with us, our way of existing refracts his simplicity, and he appears to us as a multicolored spectrum of attributes. This is an example of what appears to be the case to us; it’s not to say that God’s Essence is truly like white light, which is all of the colors blended together, because God’s qualities are not blended or merged. Ultimately, as always, divine simplicity is incomprehensible.

There is no particular passage in the Holy Scriptures that emphatically communicates divine simplicity. Nonetheless, theologians have sensed it lurking immediately behind or within such instances as God’s declaration to Moses: “I am who I am.”

There are detractors who would claim that divine simplicity is a needless doctrine and purely philosophical speculation. Yet divine simplicity seems so cleanly and intuitively necessary to all that we affirm about God. It succinctly explains God’s absoluteness, his eternality, his immutability, his self-sufficiency, and more. Affirming the simplicity of God is truly a matter of the good and necessary consequence of confessing everything else we affirm about the one true and living God.

All of God is all of God. God is God indeed. Amen.

Additional Resources:

For further insight into divine simplicity, read God Without Parts by James Dolezal or watch this five-part lecture series by Dr. Dolezal which he delivered to the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastor’s Conference in 2015:

Advertisements