Why I Love the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

I believe in the doctrine of divine simplicity. The doctrine of divine simplicity is the understanding of God confessed with unanimity by the Christian Church until the 19th Century, where it began to be attacked by some streams of evangelicalism which – while claiming adherence to traditional Protestant doctrine – depart from the Reformers, who didn’t dare challenge the biblical reality of a God who is not composed of parts. But those of us who aren’t in the business of reinventing God confess Him as described in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith:

The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of Himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, and withal most just and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty[1]

1689 LBC 2.1

A series of attributes are ascribed to God, yet He is still said to be without parts; this is the doctrine of divine simplicity. In God, all of His attributes – His goodness, His mercy, His truth, His wisdom – are one without distinction, and this is why He is said to be “simple.” The absolute unity of God is emphasized by the daily recited Shema, which says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4), and His independent self-existence is testified by the Divine Name itself, whereby He declares, “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). He must be without parts, because that which is composed of parts is dependent upon those parts. If, for example, He was a combination of goodness and mercy, and these were something else than simply Him as He is, then they would exist independently of Him, and He, in fact, would be dependent upon them to be who He is. But this is contrary to the One who made all things, “and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). There is none “who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again” (Romans 11:35); there is nothing that He is not the cause of, nothing that He is dependent upon.  

But I do not merely believe that the doctrine of divine simplicity is true, as if it were a bare fact of His nature only held because of its logical soundness. I love the doctrine, and its truth is precious to me. I love the doctrine for many reasons – its elegance, its purity, the absolute stability it gives to all the promises of God – but above all I love it because it exalts my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Because of the absolute otherness it acknowledges the Divine Nature to have, it utterly removes the ability of humans to reach Him on their own; it defies the ability of man to construct a tower of Babel to meet Him, and truly gives Him the honor of being the One “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). The truth of divine simplicity undermines all efforts men take to comprehend God, burning every bridge a pagan, a philosopher, or a mystic may attempt to construct, leaving only one path for man to meet God – the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6), and the truth of divine simplicity resounds its agreement.

How does the doctrine do this? It does it by way of implication, in that it’s impossible for the divine attributes to be one without distinction unless they’re completely different from the attributes we experience under the same name. When we say, “God is love,” we do not mean that He is love as we experience it here. When we say, “God is wise,” we do not mean He is wise in the same way some would say Socrates is wise. The same goes for the rest of the attributes we ascribe to God. God’s wisdom is transcendent wisdom, and His love is transcendent love; we only call His attributes by the same names because there’s an analogical relationship between His attributes and ours. But what exactly do we mean by “analogical relationship?” When assigning an attribute to God, there are three ways we can do this, which we’ll define briefly:

  • Univocally – that is, with “one voice.” If we say God is good in a univocal fashion, we mean that His goodness is the same goodness we are familiar with.
  • Equivocally – when we mean completely different things by the same word, such as when we call both a style of music and a stone, “rock.” If we speak of God equivocally, the attributes we describe Him with have no connection to the attributes we know about.
  • Analogically – If we speak of God analogically, we confess that the attributes predicated of Him are not the same as the attributes we experience, but that there is nevertheless an analogy between them. This is much like how we would call both a wealthy man and a flavorful food, “rich.” They are rich in different ways, but there is an analogy in that – in both cases – “rich” signifies a kind of abundance that they possess.

We’ve already confessed to speaking about God analogically. But, depending on what we’re talking about, there’s a sense in which the attributes are both equivocally and analogically predicated of God. We say we speak of God analogically, because there’s a similarity that exists between our goodness and His goodness in their effects alone, but not in their substances. As far as the source and true nature of His goodness goes, it’s utterly equivocal, and divine simplicity demands that it is. Why? Because God has no parts, no divisions, and all of His attributes are precisely identical with one another. In truth, He has – or, more accurately, is – only one Attribute; He is His self-existence – what theologians call His aseity – and everything that is said about Him is encompassed by His aseity, which is utterly different from anything we can possibly imagine. Therefore, none of His attributes – His goodness, His wisdom, His mercy – can exist in creation as they exist in Him, because nothing in creation possesses His aseity, and the attributes we predicate of Him are simply identical to His aseity, which cannot be imagined as existing in any way outside of Him. God’s aseity is something that puts Him in a fundamentally different category from all of His creatures, none of which are self-existent. To quote Thomas Aquinas:

Now the mode of being of things is manifold. For some things have being only in this one individual matter; as all bodies. But others are subsisting natures, not residing in matter at all, which, however, are not their own existence, but receive it; and these are the incorporeal beings, called angels. But to God alone does it belong to be His own subsistent being[2]

Summa Theologiae 1.12.4

God’s mode of existence separates Him from everything in creation – even the angels – and since all of His attributes are identical to His mode of existence, they cannot exist in creation in any respect. If they did exist in creation, or if there were any real similarity in substance between His attributes and ours, it would imply there are parts of God that aren’t simply identical with His aseity and can exist in things that are not self-existent. Similarity demands that things actually have something in common – something that they both share – and this cannot be with God and His creatures unless He has parts that can be imagined to exist outside of Him, so that a creature could share part of His goodness without also sharing His mode of existing. But there is no part of Him that is not just His mode of existing, so this is impossible. In this sense, then, we are speaking purely equivocally whenever we describe God.

But, as was previously said, there’s room for analogical predication when speaking of God, and this is why it’s not meaningless to assign Him attributes such as love, mercy, and goodness. While there’s no commonality between God’s substance and our own, His utterly dissimilar nature is still capable of producing similar effects when acting through creation, and these effects correspond to love, mercy, and the others as we know them. As such, it’s fitting that these are predicated of Him. While the manner in which God acts in the world is completely different from how we act, the results of His action correspond to the results of our acts of love, mercy, and even wrath. In fact, His actions reflect One who is perfect in love, perfect in wisdom, and perfect in holiness, even though He far exceeds all these things. Some may be disturbed by this doctrine, because – not being able to grasp the true nature of His Love, His Mercy, His Wisdom, etc. – all they hear is that He doesn’t love, reason, or act like we do, and so they picture that He’s like other things that don’t love, reason, or act. But the only things we can comprehend that aren’t like us are beneath us, such as inanimate objects, and this is the only reason we have this problem. If we could see Him as He is, we would not be the least bit disturbed by His dissimilarity, and would realize that our version of love, reasoning, and action puts us much closer to the behavior of inanimate objects compared to Him and His Love, His Reason, and His Act.

But if all this still feels like little consolation to the reader, and if the God we’ve presented seems too distant, too impersonal, too foreign, the believer can rejoice in this: God loves you in exactly the same way you do through the human nature of Christ Jesus. In what is the greatest miracle of all the great works of God, the unknowable, incomprehensible God became man and dwelt among us. He bridged the infinite gap between us to reveal Himself to us in a way we could understand, who is the One we could never understand even through the efforts of the most brilliant minds among us. But He did more than just reveal Himself, He demonstrated His immense love for us by dying on the Cross for our sins, taking the guilt of our trespasses on Himself, so that in Him we could have full pardon for every wrong we’ve ever committed. We, who “were sometimes far off” (Ephesians 2:13), have been brought nigh and reconciled to that great unknowable God through His Blood, so that through Him we could know the One we were never able to grasp, and live with Him in the fulness of our Lord’s joy for all eternity! What wonderful news! What unspeakable, inexpressible, perfect and sublime Truth! Amazing Love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me! We could never reach Him, but He was able to reach down to us, sparing no cost – even death on a Cross – to save His Church. Do not exclude yourself from this great ransom, sinner; you have no hope of knowing God, no hope of escaping the great wrath due to you for transgressing against the infinitely holy and absolutely transcendent God if you neglect so great a salvation. Jesus is your only hope – without Him you are doomed to wallow on in ignorance and sin until the day comes that you are judged for all of your wrongs. No man knows the Father except “the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Divine simplicity demands that the Son is the only way to the Father. This is why the doctrine should be cherished; the better we understand the transcendence of the Father, the better we can appreciate the immanence of the Son.

[1] 1689 LBC 2.1

[2] Summa Theologiae 1.12.4

Published by Andrew Warrick

One of the millions of sinners redeemed by the finished work of the only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Who requires nothing but our faith in Him for us to receive the full forgiveness of all our sins -- past, present, and future. I'm a Reformed Baptist layman living in Northern Virginia. My beliefs are summarized by the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which can be found here: https://www.the1689confession.com/

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