This post, written by Pastor Hartley, was originally published at Place For Truth.
It is an ironic point not lost on many theologians that the doctrine of divine simplicity is not so simple.
To study the doctrine you must be prepared to welcome an expansion of your theological vocabulary. Every time I read or listen to something on simplicity I frequently pause and consult a theological dictionary. I recommend Richard A. Muller’s, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, which I will make use of below. Its entries are brief where fitting and full where necessary.
We should not, of course, be intimidated by any theological exercise which involves new vocabulary. Learning a “new language” is fundamental to being a Christian. Even the newest convert venturing into protestant orthodoxy has already discovered that an entirely new yet ancient apparatus of terms awaits them, a share of their inheritance in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
So what is divine simplicity and why does it matter?
Divine simplicity states that God is “without parts.” This very wording is found in Article 1 of the Thirty-Nine Articles (1572) where we find three crucial withouts: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions….” Article 1 of The Belgic Confession (1561) puts it another way: “We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God….”
To say God is “without parts” or “simple” is to say God is without composition. The essence of God is not a cocktail of attributes – one part justice, two parts wisdom, three parts love. In his definition of simplicity Muller says: “Thus, God is not the sum of the divine attributes; the attributes are understood to be identical with and inseparable from the essentia Dei.”
No one attribute of God is more the essence of God than another attribute. You can not camp out on just one of God's attributes to the neglect of the others. Yes, his attributes are related to us creatures with differentiation, but as it concerns God’s essence, his attributes can no more be separated from one another than they can be separated from God himself. As Augustine said, God is what he has (City of God, Book XI.10).
It would be false then to say part of God is loving and part of God is just and part of God is wise. It would be true to say God in his essence is love. God in his essence is just. God in his essence is wise. These are not just things God has. These are things he is. Thus, God’s justice is never exercised apart from his love and goodness and so on. All his attributes are indistinguishable from each other in his essence for his attributes and essence are identical.
Another insight from divine simplicity is to see God is not composed of attributes which have their own existence apart from God. Touched on above, this now deserves special mention. God’s attributes are not themselves more basic elements existing independent of God. They are not infinite qualities in their own right which were superadded to God’s essence. If this were so, then an impersonal wisdom or love would be deemed eternal and not God. He would be just another composite creature.
Unlike man, God is non-composite and thus there is nothing outside of God needed to explain God. As scripture says: God is love, God is light, God is goodness. He does not just have the biggest portion of the love, light and goodness that's out there. In his essence God is these things infinitely not compositely. Thus, to understand love, we study God. To understand justice, we study God. Dr. James Dolezal, author of God Without Parts (Pickwick Publications, 2011) says: “What God is, is entirely non-correlative. He is the absolute sufficient explanation of himself.”
It is enormously helpful to the soul to grasp the implications of God being “the absolute sufficient explanation of himself,” for this aspect of divine simplicity is a guardian against a certain species of idolatry.
Think how easily tempted man is to set his heart on something we deem correlative to God, like love or justice. We like to think these things are just out there, in the universe, apart from God yet added to God, thus transcending God. So we try to slip “behind” God and adore some attribute or ideal without it being exclusively mediated through the God who is. We regard God merely as a sign of sorts to this one attribute that really interests us.
It is part of our rebellious nature to seek a love or a justice that transcends God. We would then be free to tell it what it is, does, gives and demands. Divine simplicity reminds us that sublime attributes we might wish to find apart from God do not really exist apart from God. If we will come to know more of love and justice, we must come to know God.
As Bavinck said: “God’s simplicity is the end result of ascribing to God all the perfections of creatures to the ultimate divine degree. By describing God as ‘utterly simple essence’ we state that he is the perfect and infinite fullness of being, an ‘unbounded ocean of being.’”
Christ the Center, a podcast of Reformed Forum, discussed the doctrine of divine simplicity. This discussion was hosted by Rev. Camden Bucey, pastor of Hope OPC in Grayslake, IL. Click HERE to listen to this podcast.