Divine Simplicity (Part I)

"God without Parts"

Introduction

We come to the final incommunicable attribute of God in our little series, “The Attributes of God.” We have covered (1) aseity, God’s self-existent, self-sufficient life in himself; (2) immutability, God’s unchangeable nature; (3) impassability, God’s ability to not be overwhelmed or thwarted in his ways; and (4) infinitude, God’s eternality and omnipresence. We come now to the incommunicable attribute of divine simplicity (see Part II).

Before moving on to expound divine simplicity, we wish to consider the order of the incommunicable attributes. As said in an earlier article, there is a logical order and flow of the incommunicable attributes: aseity implies immutability; immutability implies impassibility, and so on and so forth. Does this mean that there is an essential ordering or ranking of the incommunicable attributes? Put more significantly, can we say there is ontological priority in God? Such questions are daunting when considering how the incommunicable attributes relate to one another. Nevertheless, there is a simple answer: there is no qualitative order or priority in the incommunicable attributes. How can we answer so bluntly? The attribute of simplicity gives us such rationale. This particular article will focus on what divine simplicity is, and then the final article in this series, coming next week, will consider some implications of divine simplicity.

Thesis

A theological summary will guide all that follows: Divine simplicity is the incommunicable attribute of God that shows he is one being who is undivided and indivisible. Consequently, he is without parts. There is no composition in God. He is thus distinct from creatures. Further, because he is simple, there is no ontological (i.e., natural) ranking, priority, or ordering of the incommunicable attributes. Rather, all of God’s attributes are coherent with one another.

Simplicity

Simplicity simply means “one” or undivided and indivisible. It refers to God’s life as one, wherein there are no parts in God. Hence, God is not one who is composed.[1] He is “pure essence without accidents.”[2] He is one who is infinite spirit.[3] Thus, simplicity is the exact opposite of being composed of differing parts—that is, being compounded. In other words, there is no division in God. So, “God’s life is one, single and coherent.”[4] Restated in another way: all that God is, he fully is. There is nothing added to him, nor is he made up of multiple things. He is who he is and is so indivisibly.

Consequently, there is a sense that God’s perfections are not separate from one another. Everything in God is unified. He is all of who he is and what he is. God’s attributes, then, are not divided or at odds and pulling in different ways. Thus, there is no priority or ranking of the attributes of God. If God is simple, then “we cannot rank God’s attributes or make one more essential to God than another.”[5] One of God’s attributes does not determine who God is, for God is “simultaneously everything that all of his attributes reveal.”[6] God’s life is not a composition of his essence, existence, and those things that describe how he is as if they are added to him; rather, his existence is how he is. You can hear the divine repetition here: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exod 3:14).

Due to all of this, one cannot rank or consider one attribute greater than another, for God’s life is one, single, coherent life. However, this is not to say that the divine attributes are identical or synonymous. Aquinas clearly rejects such a notion.[7] Aseity is not impassibility or vice versa, immutability is not aseity and vice versa, and so on. “These are distinct attributes.”[8]

We seem then to come to a conundrum: God’s life is one—there can be no division between God and his attributes (or between the attributes)—yet God’s attributes are not identical or the same. How can this be? The question we should rather be asking is this: What are our words really referring to when we speak of the divine perfections? And thus, how do we speak of God’s attributes not being divided—and, therefore, being unified—and yet speak of them as not being synonymous?

In speaking of the divine perfections (incommunicable attributes), we really are referring to “the same single divine reality.”[9] Said differently, when we speak of God’s incommunicable attributes, we are speaking about his one, divine life. This means that from our vantage point “we perceive the single and simple perfection of God from a variety of angles or perspectives, and give it differing names to reflect those differing perspectives.”[10]  On this point, Bavinck offers helpful insights:

“God is so abundantly rich that we can gain some idea of his richness only by the availability of many names. Every name refers to the same full divine being, but each time from a particular angle, the angle from which it reveals itself to us in his works. God is therefore simple in his multiplicity and manifold in his simplicity (Augustine). Hence, every qualification, every name, used with reference to God, so far from being a negation, is an enrichment of our knowledge of his being.”[11]

When we speak of God’s perfections, we speak of them in referring to his single being in different descriptions drawn from what he has revealed. God is as a beautiful, multifaceted jewel—analogically speaking of course—being one and yet manifesting distinct attributes. Further explaining the analogy, a jewel, given it has no impurities, really is one rock that has many facets that refract light. When light hits it, from one angle you may say the jewel looks yellow; from another, blue; from yet another, green; yet, the jewel is still one. Thus, the one jewel reveals many beauties even within its singular entity. With this in mind, we ought not consider God’s attributes ever in opposition to one another or set them at odds against each other. There is no division in God.

From this, we cannot speak of the incommunicable attributes as things we can essentially order with priority. Rather, when we speak of these, we refer to real realities of God’s one being; therefore, we do not rank these attributes because they are never at odds or able to rule out one another. When we speak of them in such an ordered way, we necessarily speak from a human vantage point (wherein attributes logically flow forth from each other). That is, one attribute implies another, and, due to the doctrine of simplicity, there is a mutual relationship: one cannot be without the other. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, God is one who is purely simple. There is no composition in God and therefore, there are no parts in God. He is indivisible in his essence. Necessarily, then, God is one who is distinct from creatures. Whereas God is simple (i.e., uncomposed), creatures are from the dust and composed with different parts. Humans are composed of body and soul. Yet, unlike creatures who are from the dust and receive the breath of life from God (and are thus composed by him), “God is spirit” (John 4:24).

There are many implications from the doctrine of divine simplicity. Some of which include: (1) God has no deeper, ontological layers or realities, or put positively, all that God is, he fully is; (2) there is only one divine essence and thus only one God; (3) God’s will is one; (4) God’s external works are undivided; and finally (5), God’s communicable (analogically shared) attributes in his relations towards creatures are never at odds. The next article—the final one of this series—will explore and expound these implications next week.

(See Part II.)



[1] As one who is a se, God must be simple. For further argumentation, see Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:191.

[2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:174.

[3] Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 74.

[4] Holmes, “A Simple Salvation? Soteriology and the Perfections of God,” 38.

[5] Horton, The Christian Faith, 228.

[6] Horton, The Christian Faith, 228.

[7] Aquinas, ST, 1a.13.4.

[8] Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 75.

[9] Holmes, “A Simple Salvation? Soteriology and the Perfections of God,” 38.

[10] Ibid., 38.

[11] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:177.