The Trinity: Why the Church Should Believe in God's Simplicity
Why does my church - the mourning widow, the lustful high-school jock, the overworked dad, or the tired homeschooling mom - need to relish in the doctrine of God’s Simplicity? Why do I as a pastor have a duty to ground my people in this seemingly obscure doctrine? Before I answer I want to briefly highlight how historic Protestants have always seen this doctrine as a doctrine “for the people.”
As Dr. Dolezal pointed out in this weeks podcast, several older Protestant confessions give expression to God’s Simplicity. In fact he says elsewhere that “it should be noted that in Reformed hands the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity did not remain the special preserve of academicians, but was passed on to common churchmen in the form of ecclesiastical confessions.” In other words, this isn’t an ivory tower, metaphysical discussion reserved for PhD students at Westminster Seminary. This doctrine, I think, is good for every Christian to consider and hold on to and carefully discuss over evening supper.
At its foundation, the doctrine of God’s simplicity is holding together and giving strength to the truth that God is God in His entirety. God is God because He is entirely and eternally self-existing and therefore everything about God is entirely and eternally self-existing. Thus when we think of His attributes, we can not say, God is made up of love, power, justice, and mercy. No, because God is simple he is entirely love, entirely power, entirely justice, and so on.
The simple (as opposed to complex) nature of God helps us to see how God’s love is not separated from God’s justice, nor His strength from His wisdom. As W.G.T. Shedd argues, “the essence is in each attribute and the attributes in the essence. We must not conceive of the essence as existing by itself, and prior to the attributes, and of the attributes as an addition to it.”
Now you may be objecting and thinking, “I thought you said this was a truth that could help everyone in my congregation? You’re getting awfully academic here.” Consider though how this truth has already been a part of your church’s worship when you sing the words, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes... To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small; In all life Thou livest, the true life of all; We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.”
Here is a confession of God’s simplicity in that in Him - and all His attributes - is found true life. He is pure immortal being; uncreated existence. His aseity, His invisibility, His immortality, are all grounded in the truth that He has been who He is in himself absolutely. And though every other creature needs a creator to make him exist, God does not. Though every other creature has the potential to change, wither and perish - God does not. “But naught changeth Thee.” It is His simplicity that undergirds this truth.
What does this do for your church? What does this do for the average laymen and church member? In the interest of space and time, here is just one application.
Defining Love and other attributes
In a world where confusion abounds on the nature of love, the doctrine of God’s Simplicity helps us understand love with more depth, especially as we consider the nature of God. In other words, if a common understanding of love today says, “love is blind and therefore accepts everyone and everything”, Divine Simplicity can bring a helpful corrective.
Because God is love (1 John 4:8), and therefore all of God is entirely love, we know that love finds its very definition, its very truthfulness, in who God is. In other words, there is not this abstract thing out there called love, separated form God and which (somehow) makes up a part of God. In fact, because God is simple and not made up of different categories, everything that He is has always been and therefore love must find its very definition in the being and essence of God. This is why the attribute of love must be connected with God’s truth, with His justice, His grace and mercy, and so on. In God, love and judgment go together as much as love and mercy. Simply put, our understanding of love must have some grounding in who God is simply.
Now we’ve got to be careful here. There is not a one to one correlation between God’s attributes and ours. We are not simple and unlike God our attributes and characteristics come and go, change and grow. But nonetheless, our understanding of what real love is, of what true justice, goodness, truth, or mercy is, must first be grounded in the God who not only has all these attributes but is entirely within Himself each of these attributes. God is simple.
To the teenager struggling with same sex attraction and trying to figure out what love is, contrary to the recently popular but nonsensical definition that “love is love is love is love”, Divine Simplicity helps that teenager center his or her thinking about love on God - all of God. It helps the mourning widow see God’s wisdom and timing as still a part of His love and goodness. Or the abusive father to consider our Heavenly Father’s discipline as completely bound up in His love and gentleness.
Here is a God worthy of our worship, altogether unlike us and yet altogether to be the focus our our praise. Indeed, as Bavinck himself states, “God is uniquely his own, having nothing above him. Accordingly, he is completely identical with the attributes of wisdom, grace, and love, and and so on. He is absolutely perfect, the One than whom nothing higher can be thought.”
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 James Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness. pg. 8, footnote 19.
 W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology I, 134. The Puritan Francis Cheynell helpfully articulates the truth that in or weak understanding God’s attributes must be seen in some distinction from each other when in actuality God is simple and one. “But it is as clear that God graciously condescends to our weakness, because we know that the Divine Nature is single and infinite, and therefore does contain in it all Actual Perfection eminently, and all possible Perfection both singly and actually, because all true and pure Perfection is most formally included in the Nature and Essence of God; and therefore this eminent distinction grounded on the phrase of Scripture, and upon visible objects and effects, gives us no ground at all to conceive that the Divine Nature is not one single infinite perfection, because the Scripture speaks distinctly of God and of his several attributes, only to teach us to apprehend the impartible perfection of God by degrees rather than parts, because we cannot apprehend it altogether.” Francis Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, (1650) 122-123. This does not mean that within God His love is his wrath, or His justice is his mercy, but rather that God who in his essence is mercy itself, does punish in wrath. “But it is very improper and absurd to say that God does forgive by his punitive justice, because God who speaks definitely of his own attributes in his word, that he might help our weak understanding, will not give us leave to speak so confusedly of his glorious attributes, as to puzzle the understanding of our weak brethren.” Cheynell, 125-126.
 How could it? Hence John Owen who argued that “if God were of any causes, internal or external, any principles antecedent or superior to him, he could not be so absolutely first and independent.” John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol 12 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965) 72.
 Spoken by Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer of the musical Hamilton, upon his winning a Tony award.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, 176.
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