Many Christians are unfamiliar with the doctrine of divine simplicity. You won’t find many discussions of it in popular books, sermons, Bible studies, or small groups. I even asked several seminary students if they knew what the doctrine was and most said they’d never heard of it. So what is divine simplicity? And why does it matter?
1. The Bible and Divine Simplicity
Divine simplicity is the doctrine that God is not made up of parts. This means that God does not depend upon anything that is not God in order to be God. He is not composed of light, holiness, love, or any other attribute. Rather, God simply is light (1 John 1:5), holiness (Isaiah 6:3), love (1 John 4:8), and so on. Several passages of Scripture (along with their implications) help us to formulate this doctrine:
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14).
It is God’s essence to be. There is no potentiality in God; He is pure actuality. God is not waiting to become something He is not. He simply is.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25).
God is utterly independent of His creation. He does not depend upon anything outside Himself in order to be who He is. God is His own existence.
“Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do?” (Job 11:7-8).
Finite beings cannot comprehend the infinity of God. He has no limit. This also means God cannot be composed of parts because all parts must be something less than the whole, without which the whole would not be what it is. All parts, therefore, are finite and thus cannot be added together to form an infinite being. Since God possess the quality of infinity, He cannot be composed of finite parts.
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
All things exist according to the will of God (cf. Ephesians 1:11). There can be no thing back of God (or even in God) which causes Him exist. If God were composed of parts, those parts would necessarily be more ultimate than God. If there was any thing more ultimate than God, it could not be said that all things are “from God and through God and to God.” Therefore, God is simple.
2. God without Parts
Created things are made up of parts. Our existence (being) is different than our essence (nature). That we exist tells us little about what we are or what kinds of properties (attributes) we have. For example, I exist, and my essence is a particular instantiation of humanity. My dog Bruce also exists, but his essence is a particular instantiation of caninity. This shows that in created things, existence is different than essence.
Furthermore, I am 5’10” and have brown hair. These are some of my physical attributes. But these attributes don’t make me who I am (i.e., they are not my essence) because there once was a time when I was not 5’10” and did not have brown hair. But even though I had slightly different attributes, I was still the same in my essence. In created things, essence, existence, and attributes are all distinct properties. As composite beings, humans are made up of our essence, existence, and attributes.
But this is not the case in God. God is not made up of his essence, existence, and attributes. He is not a composite being. There are no parts in God which constitute his being God. You cannot add together God’s essence, existence, and attributes and then get God. God is not made up of parts.
3. All That Is in God Is God
Rather, God simply is His essence, existence, and attributes. This means we cannot pit the attributes of God against each other. Many today think the love of God is at odds with the holiness and justice of God. But God is simple, which means He simply is His love and His holiness. These attributes are not opposed in God; they are actually identical in God.
Here we see the difficulty of this doctrine. The complex human mind literally cannot comprehend the sheer simplicity of God. We can confess that God’s essence, existence, and attributes are identical in God, but we cannot fully comprehend this. As Christians we do not seek to eradicate all the mysteries in God. The purpose of theology is not to solve theological mystery; it is to name the mystery for what it is and then to ensure that we do not speak or think falsely of God as we worship Him.
4. The Incomprehensibility of God
Ironically, divine simplicity isn’t a simple doctrine at all.
But this need not deter our confession that God is simple. While we cannot comprehend the pure simplicity of God due to the inherent complexity of human thought and language, we can nevertheless confess that “all that is in God simply is God.” The human mind is pushed to its limits to think of God rightly, but it is here, at the doctrine of divine simplicity, when we must hold our hands up in awe and say, “Though I can apprehend You as You have revealed Yourself to me, I cannot comprehend You as You are in Yourself.”
5. Majesty, Awe, Wonder, Worship
What does this mean for the Christian life? Here are four reasons why the doctrine of divine simplicity matters:
1) First, our language about God never adequately describes God as He is in Himself. We can speak of God faithfully and truthfully, and the purpose of theology is to help us speak of God rightly. But we should never think that our finite language (or even our finite minds, for that matter!) can comprehend the fullness and perfection of the purely simple God.
2) It follows, then, that we are humbled before the majestic and simple God. We might be like God in every possible way for a creature to be like God, but God is not like us. And this is good news. God is not merely a bigger, better being among many beings. God is completely distinct and set apart from all created things. God asks this rhetorical question to the people of Israel: “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5). Indeed, “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” (Psalm 113:5-6).
3) Since God is simple, we are compelled to worship Him. In fact, Psalm 113 starts this way: “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore!” (vv. 1-2). We are to praise God for who He is, namely, the simple God who is not composed of parts. When Moses encountered the simple God, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). The pure, sheer simplicity of God stuns the human mind. We cannot comprehend Him as He is. In awe of God’s supreme simplicity, we worship.
4) Finally, and perhaps my favorite implication of divine simplicity, Christians can be totally assured of our salvation in Christ because God is simple. As James Dolezal puts it, “the simplicity of God is a practical doctrine. It means that God cannot go to pieces on you.” Since God does not depend upon anything that is not God in order to be God, we can be perfectly assured that all of God’s promises for us will indeed come to pass. God does not rely on anything in order to be God. There is nothing back of God which makes Him to be God. God’s covenant love for His people cannot be thwarted. Listen to Hebrews 6:17-20:
“So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things (namely, God’s simple nature and God’s unchangeable purpose) in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.”
Words inevitably fail. But the purely simple God never fails. Let us praise Him forever and ever.
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below.