The Simplicity of God

He is Not Simplistic

When we talk about the simplicity of God, we do not mean to say that God is simplistic in the sense that there is nothing about Him which we do not understand.  This indeed would fly in the face of inherent limitations we have as creatures, because it implies that God is not ultimately incomprehensible.  But the Scriptures are clear; that which we know about God “we know in part,” only as those who “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:9, 12).  

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him!  But the thunder of his power who can understand? (Job 26:14)

Moreover, even after we are glorified and the limitations of sin are removed from us, God will forever remain beyond our ability to comprehend, since of course (contrary to Eastern theology) the perfection of humanity is not the deification of humanity.  As creatures, regardless of how perfect we may be, we should not suppose that we can ever “find out the Almighty unto perfection” (Job 11:7)!

So then, what does it mean when the Belgic Confession says that God is simple?  In the most basic terms possible, the simplicity of God supplies the reason for why God is one in such a way that there could never be another – almost as an apologetic buttress for His unity.  Notice how the wording of the Confession ties these two concepts together.  “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God” (Art. 1).  With this connection in mind (unity and simplicity) I want to take the rest of this installment to consider some of the implications of God’s simplicity, so that we can understand what it means, and what it does not mean.  

God’s Simplicity; What it Means

In Reformed theology the simplicity of God means that the Godhead is indivisible in either direction.  First, God is not the result of composition, as if the explanation for His existence can be found somewhere back of His own Godhead.  Second, the Godhead cannot be subject to any degree of disintegration.  This second fact is a necessary consequence of the first, and yet both are critical for us to affirm.  In the first proposition we deny the possibility of  derivation, while in the second we deny the possibility of division.  This means that confessing in God’s simplicity eliminates errors concerning the doctrine of His Primacy “There was no God before me”  as well as the doctrine of the Trinity “neither shall there be after me” (Isa. 43:10).  On both accounts God Himself declares, I am the first and I am the last, and beside me there is no God” (Isa. 44:6).

Furthermore, the doctrine of divine simplicity denies both physical and metaphysical composition in God.  Customarily this teaching is expressed by saying that God does not merely have His attributes, but that God is His attributes.  That’s why Scripture speaks about “His great love wherewith He loved us” (Eph. 2:4), while at the same time declaring that “God is love” itself (1 Jn. 4:8).  As a result, we can only conclude that God alone is the sufficient reason for Himself, because it proves that God does not participate in some higher abstract concept of love.  

Berkhof writes,

It is commonly said in theology that God’s attributes are God Himself, as He has revealed Himself to us.  The Scholastics stressed the fact that God is all that He has.  He has life, light, wisdom, love, and righteousness, and it may be said on the basis of Scripture that He is light, life, wisdom, love and righteousness.1  

Even more succinctly we might say,

God is not wise in virtue of wisdom; God is wise in virtue of Himself.2

God’s Simplicity; What it Does Not Mean

When we affirm that God is not the result of composition however, we do not have to do so on the basis of medieval philosophy or Thomistic metaphysics.  Likewise, although the emphasis of divine simplicity began with Augustine, we should be careful to note that one of the contexts in which he asserted it (viz. De Trinitate) was a polemical work aimed specifically against Arianism.  In other words, the purpose of Augustine’s argument was to deny any division in the Godhead but not necessarily any distinctions in the Godhead – else he necessarily proved too much!3  

Regardless of what Augustine actually meant, the best of Reformed theologians have nonetheless warned us about the dangers of wandering into extreme views of God’s simplicity.  There is a form of this teaching which claims that God’s attributes, in addition to being indivisible, are actually indistinguishable.  God, they say, is not only identical with His attributes, but His attributes are identical with each other.  

Continuing with Berkhof we read,  

Some of them even went so far as to say that each attribute is identical with every other attribute, and that there are no logical distinctions in God.  This is a very dangerous extreme.  While it may be said that there is an interpenetration of the attributes of God, and that they form a harmonious whole, we are moving in the direction of Pantheism, when we rule out all distinctions in God, and say that His self-existence is His infinity, His knowing is His willing, His love is His righteousness, and vice versa.4

In Volume I of his Systematic Theology, Geerhardus Vos likewise alerts us to the dangers of the extreme view.  

In classic question and answer format, Vos writes,

May we also say that God’s attributes are not distinguished from one another?  This is extremely risky.  We may be content to say that all God’s attributes are related most closely to each other and penetrate each other in the most intimate way. However, this is in no way to say that they are to be identified with each other.  Also in God, for example, love and righteousness are not the same, although they function together perfectly in complete harmony.5

To reiterate their common points, we see that Vos and Berkhof both denounce any view of simplicity which seeks to collapse the attributes of God as being extreme, risky, and even dangerous.  The reason they do so is that such a view has no logical stopping point before total Pantheism.  In addition to this, Vos goes on to show that the problems associated with an extreme view are not only metaphysical, but by necessity epistemological.  

We may not let everything intermingle in a pantheistic way because that would be the end of our objective knowledge of God.6

In much the same way, Charles Hodge expressed his own concerns in epistemological terms.  Unlike Vos however, Hodge states and restates his concerns at every possible opportunity throughout his entire treatment of  The Nature and Attributes of God.  

If in God eternity is identical with knowledge, knowledge with power, power with ubiquity, and ubiquity with holiness, we are using words without meaning when we attribute any perfection to God … This doctrine renders all knowledge of God impossible.  If will and power are identical, then those words lose for us their meaning.  We cannot know what God is, if this doctrine be true; and if we know not what He is, we cannot rationally worship, love, or trust Him … It makes little difference whether we expressly deny a given perfection to God, or whether we so determine it as to make it mean nothing distinctive … The doctrine in question, therefore, is essentially pantheistic.7

In case there is any doubt as to the accuracy of Hodge’s reasoning, or to the legitimacy of his epistemological concerns, it may help us to hear from a man who was specially known for his epistemology, and whose ability to reason was second to few; namely, Gordon Clark.  

Like these other theologians Clark held to the doctrine of divine simplicity, and on occasion he affirmed it with great enthusiasm, calling it that “honorable view that all the attributes of God are identical in God.”8  Whatever Clark’s final view on the matter, it’s pretty clear that his earlier critiques of the extreme view were so devastating that they have never been successfully answered by any theologian – including himself.      

It has been asked, Do the several attributes have different definitions when applied to God, as they have when applied to men?  Wisdom and power, righteousness and love do not mean the same thing in human affairs, but is there a real difference between them in the case of God?  Or, are the attributes merely human ways of apprehending the manifestations of God’s activity?

If the attributes are merely subjective, and perhaps arbitrary human representations, and the distinctions do not exist in God, then it would seem that knowledge of them would not constitute knowledge of God.  Words ought to have definite meanings; and when righteousness, power, and love are made synonyms, they convey no definite thought. Such seems to be the result of removing objective or real distinctions from God’s being … For Christians, however, the doctrine of the Trinity precludes a simplicity that would reduce God to an Eleatic or Neoplatonic One.9

God’s Simplicity; Why its Practical

Notwithstanding the problems associated with the extreme view, the biblical doctrine of divine simplicity is important to confess for at least two reasons.  First, it helps to avoid the error of exalting one of God’s attributes over the others.  While many in our day are quite happy to affirm the love of God, not so many are willing to affirm His holiness, His justice, or His wrath.  Biblically speaking however, God’s simplicity does not allow for this because it not only affirms that God is love, it affirms that He is equally, and at the same time, all His other attributes as well.  In other words, the simplicity of God removes all man-made tensions within the divine Being.

Secondly, we must confess God’s simplicity because of its implications for the doctrine of the Trinity.  To be sure, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons within the Godhead, which means that each of them must possess some unique, personal property that individuates them from the other two.  But in terms of the Being of God, there is only one undivided substance – the entirety of which, each Person must possess to be God.  The doctrine of divine simplicity therefore shuts the door on all sorts of trinitarian heresies, including tri-theism, and the essential subordination of the Son.  It’s no wonder then, that the author of the Belgic Confession (Guido De Bres) was not content to define God only in terms of His unity and apart from the true simplicity of His Being.


Endnotes:

  1.  Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, pg 45
  2.  James Dolezal, The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity, Christ the Center, ep 185
  3.  Some of the difficulty with interpreting Augustine is that he wrote in Latin, and his discussion of simplicity is in terms of identitas, from the word idem.  While this can of course mean “identity” in the English sense of the word, it can also be understood as “sameness” which has a wider range of meaning, not exuding quantitative ideas such as, “same amount.”   
  4.  Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, pg 45
  5.  Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, pg 5
  6.  Ibid.
  7.  Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Pt. I, Ch. V, pg 372 – 442
  8.  Gordon Clark, The Atonement, 1988, pg 64
  9.  Gordon Clark,  Thales to Dewey, 2000, pgs 170-171

 

 

 

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