By Travis Campbell
Many people are aware of the adage that the most important thing about a person is what he or she thinks of God, for it is upon such thoughts that one’s life will turn. And, while Reasons to Believe (RTB) has repeatedly explored the pragmatic nature of God’s existence throughout its thirty-plus years of ministry, little has been written on the practical application of the attributes of God in a person’s life. To fill that hole, I invite you to reflect with me on the all-important doctrine of divine simplicity. Our brief study is divided into two parts. Here in part one, we will expound upon the doctrine of simplicity and offer biblical support in its favor. In part two, we will offer two more arguments for simplicity and then look at a few practical applications of the doctrine.
What Is Divine Simplicity?
The doctrine of divine simplicity is not the belief that God is easy to understand. Nor is it the exhortation for Christians to follow the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) principle. Nor is it the insight that God often speaks in simple terms throughout Scripture. Rather, the doctrine of divine simplicity is the firm belief, held by the vast majority of Christian theologians through the ages (though it is hotly debated among Christians today), that God is not composed of parts (as in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) or passions or even physical features. God is pure spirit (John 4:24), and thus has no physical parts.
God is never tossed to and fro by the triumphs and tragedies in creation; so he has no passions. It is even improper to say that God has anything—rather, he literally is whatever he “has.” God does not have power, he is power. God does not have knowledge, he is knowledge. God does not have goodness, he is the good. And it is not as though God’s goodness is located in the Milky Way Galaxy, while his power is over at the Andromeda Galaxy. No, the power, knowledge, goodness, and eternity of God (and more besides) subsist within his essence wholly, solely, and in such a unified manner that God is not only a unity of number (he is the only God there is), but he is a unity of simplicity: God is knowledgably powerful, morally perfect in his knowledge, and powerfully good. There is, then, no real distinction between God’s essence (what God is) and existence (that God is). The reason theologians speak of his power, knowledge, and goodness as distinct properties is due to human finitude. In reality, God is absolutely one in his essence.
Biblical Arguments for Simplicity
Christian thinkers have traditionally marshaled three kinds of arguments in favor of the divine simplicity: biblical, theological, and philosophical (we’ll explore the last two in part two of this series). Biblically, it seems contrary to the intent of the Scriptures to say that the attributes of God are parts of him.
Some people might benefit from the pincushion analogy where God’s attributes are sometimes compared to a cushion and the various pins sticking in it. Each pin represents a property or attribute of God, whose essence is represented by the cushion. So conceived, it would mean that a part of God can be abstracted from who he is. For example, just as it is possible to pull a pin from its cushion without destroying either the pin or the nature of the cushion, it is possible mentally, if not actually, to abstract God’s knowledge from his essence in such a way that God can still be God and have no knowledge.
Biblically speaking, this seems counterintuitive. For example, speaking of the Gentile world, the apostle Paul says they have “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible1 God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Romans 1:23, NASB). This means that it is impossible to corrupt God’s nature by any outside physical or spiritual force. It seems consistent with the spirit (if not the letter) of this passage to insist that God cannot be corrupted by anything—whether it be an outside physical force or even God himself mentally abstracting his knowledge from his goodness. Nineteenth-century theologian Robert Dabney said that “We must repudiate the gross idea that they [i.e., the divine attributes] are parts of his substance, or members attached to it; for then he would be susceptible of division, and so of destruction.”2
Scripture says God literally is every one of his attributes: God is holy (Leviticus 19:2), God is truth (John 14:6), God is light (1 John 1:5), God is life (John 1:4; 14:6), God is the logic or the word (John 1:1), God is love (1 John 4:16), God is his act of existing (“I am that I am”–– Exodus 3:14). These passages all seem to indicate that God does not have anything, but literally is whatever he “has.”
Thus, Christians have at least some biblical reasons to think the doctrine of divine simplicity is true. In the next post, we will discuss two more arguments for the doctrine, and then explore a few practical applications of this wonderful, soul-comforting truth.