The Simplicity of God – extract from ‘God, Humanity and Christ’ Seminary module

 

The following is an extract from our Seminary Course module ‘God, Humanity and Christ’.


No truth about God checks our tendency to conceive God in our own image more than God’s simplicity.

This doctrine is the engine in the car of a healthy theology. Without simplicity, it is impossible to affirm fully or coherently all the Bible teaches about God … The simplicity of God is the most fundamental doctrinal grammar of divinity. It makes claims about God that are profound, counter-intuitive, difficult to articulate – and essential to a biblical vision of God’s perfection.

God’s simplicity is not so much an attribute of God as an attribute of his attributes. It is the recognition that God is not made up of parts. It is not that love, wisdom, power and holiness are combined together in the being of God. His attributes are not characteristics that he could or could not have. Instead they are identical to his essence. Still less does God have competing characteristics. He is not partly loving and partly holy in a way that requires him to balance the two. James Dolezal says:

The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that (1) God is identical with his existence and his essence and (2) that each of his attributes is ontologically identical with his existence and with every other one of his attributes. There is nothing in God that is not God.

Augustine says:

Those things which are essentially and truly divine are called simple, because in them quality and substance are identical, and because they are divine, or wise, or blessed in themselves, and without extraneous supplement.

The seventeenth-century Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock says:

God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts of whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.

What Charnock is saying is this.

If I make a cake, I do so by combining flour, eggs, sugar and milk. So a cake is not ‘first in nature’. It requires ingredients. But flour requires its own ingredients: sun and water acting on corn before being harvested and milled. Everything in our temporal experience is made by combining other elements (being ‘compounded’).

But God is not compounded. He is not a mix of wisdom, love, justice and power. He was not constructed by combining wisdom, love, justice and power. That would imply wisdom, love, justice and power in some way exist before or apart from him. Augustine says God is not like a cup full of liquid that could (theoretically at least) be empty. He is not a container full of love, wisdom or power. He is love, wisdom and power. So God is not a mixture of other things. He simply is. He is, in Charnock’s words, ‘his own essence and existence’ and that essence and existence is one.

 

 
Tom Olyott