The Trinity: Divine Simplicity, A Guard Against Ethereal Idols

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 terminology is part 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 perfect justice, two parts perfect wisdom, three parts perfect 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 is more the essence of God than another. Yes, they 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 he has. These are things he is. Thus, God’s justice is never exercised apart from his love and goodness and so on.

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. 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.” This truth of divine simplicity is a strong guardian against a 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.  

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.’” 

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley