The Trinity: Divine Simplicity & the Trinity

I have a question for you.  Can existence be separated from attributes?  Perhaps a definition or two is in order.  My guess is that you know what it means to exist.  But what is an attribute?  An attribute is a quality, feature, or characteristic about a person or thing.  So, for example, think of a fire engine.  What is a key feature or characteristic of fire truck?  Well, how about red?  Fire engines are red.  We even hear the expression "fire engine red."  Or a person might be kind and considerate.  That is a key feature or attribute of an individual.  Okay, now let's get back to the question.  Can existence be separated from attributes? 

The answer is, yes. 

A fire engine is still a fire engine even if it's not red.  Maggie may cease to be kind but she cannot stop being Maggie.  So, yes, it seems that existence and attributes may be separated. Now, there is a reason why I ask this question.  If this is true, what does that mean for God?  Let me put it this way.  Does this mean that God chose to be the kind of God that He is having the attributes He Has?  In other words, did God exist as a blank slate and so choose attributes like love and holiness and goodness for Himself?  And if this is the case, could He have chosen an entirely different set of attributes?  This raises another question.  If God chose His attributes, does that mean that He could change now and be a different sort of God?

These are important pastoral questions.  And believe it or not, the doctrine of God's simplicity helps to settle not only the question but troubled hearts.  So, let's start with a simple question.  What does the simplicity of God mean?  Listen to the way in which Herman Bavinck describes it.  He says, "On the whole" the teaching of Christian theology "has been that God is "simple," that is, sublimely free from all composition, and that therefore one cannot make any real distinction between his being and his attributes."[1]  Bavinck goes on to say, "Each attribute is identical with God's being: he is what he possesses." 

Now, do you see what is bring said?  To say that God simple simply means that God's being cannot be separated from his attributes, which means that God is different from us!  Whereas, our existence and attributes may be separated God cannot be separated in that way.  God is what He possesses.  Or we could put it the way that James Dolezal puts it in his book, God without Parts, there is nothing in God that is not God.[2]  Bavinck fleshes this out a bit by saying, "In God to be is the same as to be wise, which is the same as to be good, which is the same as to be powerful….Whatever God is, he is that completely and simultaneously."[3]  God is what He is. 

You may say, "Okay, I understand existence and attributes with regard to God.  But I have a question, "What does that mean for the Trinity?"  Think about it, if you have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, aren't these persons different from one another?  If so, how can a triune God be simple? 

Well, the first thing we ought to keep in mind is that the doctrine of simplicity is not inconsistent with the doctrine of the trinity.  But how can it not be?  Well, we need to remember that God's divine being is not composed of three persons.  Rather, the tri-unity of God is an attribute of God's essence.  In this sense, tri-unity belongs to His simplicity.  Tri-unity is an attribute of God like goodness is an attribute and therefore, to be triune is for God to be what He is.   

But this raises a second issue.  How should we think about the relationship between the persons of the trinity?  Well, the first thing to remember is that this relationship is as God has revealed it.  The personal property of the Father is unbegotteness, the personal property of the Son is begotteness, and the personal property of the Spirit is proceeding.  These are simply Biblical designations.  They are what God has revealed about His tri-unity.  Moreover, we can say that although the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father.  The Father is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father.  The same could be said of the Son's relationship to the Father and Spirit and the Spirit's relationship to the Father and Son.  This relationship to one another does not add anything to the essence they share because it is what they are.  They are one God in three persons. 

There are many practical implications of this doctrine but due to space I will simply list them.  First, simplicity maintains the Creator creature distinction.  God is different from us!  Second, God is unchanging.  He will not be a different sort of God tomorrow.  And third, this means that the promise of salvation is unchanging.  It is that simple.

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 118.

[2] James Dolezal, God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness (Eugene, Wipf & Stock, 2011), 1.

[3] Bavinck, 118.


Jeffrey Stivason