Divine Simplicity in Evangelical Theology

(The following is a paper I wrote in seminary, lightly edited for formatting.)

1.  Introduction

The doctrine of divine simplicity is “the teaching that God is not composed of parts but rather is identical with his own essence, existence, and attributes, each of which is identical with the whole being of the triune God considered under some aspect.”[1]  Simplicity has long been confessed in the church catholic[2] and is usually employed as a mutually-reinforcing doctrine alongside God’s aseity, immutability, eternity, and even the Trinity, among others.[3]  This essay examines the current place of the doctrine of divine simplicity in contemporary evangelical theology by considering the respective articulations of James Dolezal, Millard Erickson, and Clark Pinnock.  Two theological implications for evangelicalism will be drawn at the end.

It is necessary to defend the choices of Dolezal, Erickson, and Pinnock as representatives of evangelical theology.  Dolezal serves as Assistant Professor of Theology at Cairn University.  His most recent work is All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism.  Erickson has served as professor of theology at a variety of evangelical institutions, including Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Western Seminary, and Bethel Seminary.  His published works include Christian Theology and Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism.  The late Pinnock served on the theological faculty of such institutions as New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Regent College.  His published works include Most Moved Mover and Flame of Love.  Each of these theologians is (or was, in the case of Pinnock) also a professing evangelical.  Their positions held, published work, and the fact that they each claim to be evangelical satisfies the necessary criterion for including them in a study of evangelical theology.

2.  James Dolezal: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity

James Dolezal seeks to reclaim the doctrine of divine simplicity for evangelical theology.  As a Reformed Baptist, Dolezal confesses that God is “without body, parts, or passions.”[4]  Thus, it is no surprise that Dolezal thinks it problematic that many evangelical theologians advocate for a God who does, in fact, have parts.  He says, “such a conception of God must not go unchallenged if we are to be true to Holy Scripture and to the faithful explication of Scripture’s meaning as it has been handed down to us in the various conciliar statements and Reformed confessions.”[5]  Dolezal’s book All That Is in God, then, challenges the idea of a composite God and argues for the classical understanding of a God without parts.

There are several biblical and theological motivations behind Dolezal’s attempt to reclaim the doctrine of divine simplicity.  He employs the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, and infinity, as well as the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, in order to argue for God’s simplicity.  Of aseity, Dolezal says, “if God is a se (of Himself), then it follows that He does not derive any aspect of Himself—existence, essence, attributes, activity—from another.”[6]  He then explicitly connects this to the doctrine of simplicity by saying, “if God possesses His existence, essence, or attributes as so many determinations of being—which they would be if they were in Him as distinct parts or constituents—then in fact He is indebted to that which is not God for the fullness of His being.”[7]  Dolezal then connects God’s aseity to his immutability.  He says, “if there is nothing in God’s existence or life that is given to Him by the creature, and if He is not the cause of Himself because He is pure being, then it follows that He cannot undergo change.”[8]  For Dolezal, aseity and immutability stand together as reinforcements for the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Dolezal also argues that God’s infinity as well as the doctrine of creation entail divine simplicity.  Regarding divine infinity, “whatever is perfectly infinite in being cannot be built up from that which is finite in being.”[9]  Since all parts are something less than the whole, it follows that each part must be finite.  The reason finite parts cannot be added together to create an infinite whole is because by definition infinity is not subject to enumeration.  A whole which is composed of finite parts must necessarily be finite since it is subject to enumeration (i.e., you can count up its constituent parts).  Thus, if God is infinite, he must also be simple.  Creatio ex nihilo supports this idea as well.  Dolezal argues, “since God is the first being from whom all other being flows, it follows that He must not derive His own being from constituent parts or elements within Himself.”[10]  If God gives being to all which exists apart from himself, he must necessarily be simple.  There is no thing outside of God upon which God relies in order to be or to act, since God is the all-sufficient source of all creation.  A necessary implication of Paul’s statement that all things are from God and through God and to God (cf. Romans 11:36) is that God is simple.  If God were not simple, then all things might be from, through, and to some other more ultimate or fundamental reality.  Thus, the doctrine of creation leads to a confession of God’s simplicity.

Perhaps the most important implication of this discussion is that what one says about God’s being in one area of thought necessarily applies, at least in some fashion, to all other areas of their thought.  This may not be surprising to many, but there is an intrinsically systematic character to the theological task.  When Dolezal seeks to argue for the doctrine of divine simplicity on the basis of a host of other doctrines related to the doctrine of God, this merely demonstrates one instance of the interrelation between all doctrines.  And what the doctrine of divine simplicity protects is that when one speaks of the other doctrines in theology proper, one is not speaking about attributes which are constituent parts in God upon which God relies in order to be God; rather, divine simplicity holds that whatever is in God simply is God.  God’s simplicity, aseity, immutability, and infinity do not refer to parts of God which are actually distinct from one another, but rather to the absolute fullness and perfection of the divine being.[11]

3.  Millard Erickson: Reformulating Divine Simplicity

Millard Erickson, by contrast, seeks to reformulate the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Erickson is not beholden to a particular confessional subscription of God’s simplicity, and therefore one would expect that if Erickson did in fact argue for the validity of the doctrine, he would argue for it directly from the pages of Scripture.  Or perhaps it would be possible that he argues for divine simplicity in a similar way to Dolezal in that the doctrine of God forms one complete whole, each of the doctrines therein mutually reinforcing the others.  Yet what one does find in Erickson is an effort to reformulate the doctrine.

The first thing to be said of Erickson’s reformulation of divine simplicity is that he finds little explicit warrant for the doctrine in Scripture.  What this means is that Erickson is hesitant to affirm the doctrine in its classical form since it does not come directly from the pages of Scripture. Thus, it is no surprise that he says, “it appears that simplicity, in its classical formulation, is at best a problematic attribute, and perhaps not an attribute at all.”[12]  Elsewhere, he says that “God is richly complex, and these conceptions [of love, holiness, and power] are merely attempts to grasp different objective aspects or facets of his being.”[13]  With this in mind, one might expect Erickson to reject divine simplicity altogether.

Yet there are some places in Erickson’s writing which indicates that he does not, in fact, reject the doctrine.  For example, he says, “the values that theologians and philosophers sought to preserve [in confessing divine simplicity] need to be maintained: God is a unitary, not a composite being.”[14]  Then, like Dolezal, Erickson continues by pointing out the interrelatedness of divine simplicity and the various other attributes of God: “there is no fundamental tension among the attributes, and they are ultimately aspects of the one divine nature; God is not dependent for his existence on any independently existing attributes or universals.”[15]  It seems that for Erickson, the divine nature possesses a fundamental unity since it is not composed of parts.  Moreover, God’s aseity necessarily entails his simplicity, though perhaps this simplicity is to be understood differently than it is presented in its classical form.

How, then, does Erickson understand divine simplicity?  It seems that Erickson is committed to the doctrine insofar as it upholds and is supported by what he deems to be important values which come from other attributes of God.  But since the doctrine of divine simplicity does not come explicitly from Scripture, and since the classical form entails conclusions which might be “strange,”[16] as Erickson puts it, he reformulates it in order to preserve the main benefits of the doctrine as well as to safeguard against contradiction or complete mystery.  This reformulation contains a rejection of the strongest sense of divine simplicity in favor of a more biblically-grounded sense of simplicity which still upholds God’s independence and unity.

4.  Clark Pinnock: Rejecting Divine Simplicity

As an open theist, Clark Pinnock rejected the doctrine of divine simplicity.  The classical understanding of God’s substantial unity and non-composite essence is necessarily excluded if one believes, as open theists do, that God is both mutable and temporal, as opposed to immutable and eternal.  A mutable God must be composed of parts since any change in God requires that God takes on new actualities of being in addition to that which he already is.  This new part in God cannot be identical to God’s essence since it is something acquired in addition to God’s essence.  Moreover, a temporal God cannot be simple in his essence since temporality requires mutability: “all temporal succession involves change from one state of being to another.”[17]

There are at least three other biblical and theological reasons for Pinnock’s rejection of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  First, Pinnock claimed that “traditional theology has been biased in the direction of transcendence as a result of undue philosophical influences.”[18]  The influence of Greek thought led the classical Christian theologians to a variety of unfortunate conclusions about the nature and essence of God, one of which was the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Pinnock continued, “Greek thinking located the ultimate and the perfect in the realm of the immutable and absolutely transcendent.  This led early theologians (given that the biblical God is also transcendent) to experiment with equating the God of revelation with the Greek ideal of deity.”[19]  For Pinnock, this equation fails to take into account the full testimony of Scripture, especially that of God’s immanence and relationality.  An overemphasis on the transcendence of God leads to an understanding in which God is distant and uninvolved with his creatures.  The result of Greek thought in this area, as Pinnock noted, is that “the God of promise who acts in history tended to be replaced by a metaphysical statement about abstract being.”[20]       

Second, Pinnock conceived of God as the dynamic God who is involved in give-and-take relationships with his creatures.  Only this kind of God, claimed Pinnock, can have relevance for the Christian life.  The absolutely transcendent God of Greek philosophy, then, is rejected in favor of the radically immanent God who genuinely relates to his creatures.  Pinnock said, “today it is easier to invite people to find fulfillment in a dynamic, personal God than it would be to ask them to find it in a deity who is immutable and self-enclosed.  Modern thinking has more room for a God who is personal (even tripersonal) than it does for a God as absolute substance,”[21] which is one of the entailments of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Third, Pinnock also favored a God whose unity is social rather than substantial.  He said, “given the fact that the Father and the Son are persons and that the Spirit is spoken of in personal terms in the Scriptures, it is appropriate to speak of God as a community of persons rather than as modes of being.”[22]  What Pinnock meant is that God’s unity is not located in his essence (the claim of the doctrine of divine simplicity), but rather is located in the communal relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the claim of social Trinitarianism).  A social Trinitarian understanding of God, Pinnock argued, “enables us to break with substantialist assumptions about God being a ‘thing’ and puts the idea of three relationally interconnected persons in its place.  The Trinity points to a relational ontology in which God is more like a dynamic event than a simple substance and is essentially relational, ecstatic and alive.”[23]  Social Trinitarianism emphasizes the idea that God is one in community rather than one in substance and thereby rejects the doctrine of divine simplicity.

To conclude this section, Pinnock rejects the doctrine of divine simplicity both explicitly and implicitly.  Pinnock’s desire to conceive of God as genuinely related to his creatures in a give-and-take fashion drives this rejection.  For him, only a temporal, mutable, dynamic God can relate to and interact with his creation.  Rejecting some of what he considers to be unbiblical theological residue from Greek philosophy, Pinnock posits an understanding of God in which God is not an aloof monarch, but one in which he is genuinely engaged with and affected by his creatures.  Yet this genuinely-engaged God must be composed of parts if he is temporal and mutable.  Thus, in conceiving of God as being subject to both time and change, Pinnock rejects the classical doctrine of divine simplicity.

5.  Conclusion: Theological Implications for Evangelicalism

Given the preceding discussion, there are at least two important theological implications to be drawn for evangelical theology.  The first has to do with the theological relationship between contemporary evangelicalism and its Protestant forebears.  Douglas Sweeney argues that evangelicalism is “a movement of orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth-century twist,” by which he means that contemporary evangelicals adhere to “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.”[24]  Thus, evangelicals derive their doctrine primarily from the Protestant Reformers.

But evangelicals turn aside from the formal theological commitments of the Protestant Reformers to the extent that they reject the doctrine of divine simplicity.  All three branches of the Magisterial Reformation produced confessions of faith which include a formal acceptance of divine simplicity.  The Lutherans confessed that “there is one divine essence which is called and is God, eternal, without body, indivisible [without part].”[25]  The Reformed confessed that “we all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God.”[26]  And the Anglicans confessed that “there is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions.”[27]  Thus, evangelicals fail to adhere to the Protestant tradition, and even to the historic evangelical tradition, to the extent that they reject the doctrine of divine simplicity.

There is a second implication to be considered.  Because there is no clearly defined and universal theological standard to which contemporary evangelicals look to derive their doctrine, there is room for dissenting theological opinions within the broad framework of evangelicalism.  The current study is an example of this.  Each of the three theologians are (or were, in the case of Pinnock) professing evangelicals.  Yet their conceptions of God differ radically.  Dolezal seeks to reclaim the doctrine of divine simplicity, Erickson seeks to reformulate the classical understanding of God’s simplicity, and Pinnock sought to reject that understanding altogether.

The point here is not that one of these theologians is more correct in his articulation of divine simplicity than the others, for an evaluation of that sort would go beyond the scope of the current paper.  The point, rather, is to demonstrate that evangelicalism is an incredibly diverse movement theologically.  Three different theologians who conceive of the being of God in three radically different ways can each theologize underneath the umbrella of evangelicalism and be in good standing therein.  The concept of identity is an important aspect of the current conversation surrounding evangelicalism.  But given the evidence cited above, it would be difficult to make a case that the evangelical identity is rooted primarily in a unified doctrine of God.  For all the unity in evangelicalism in other areas, the theological diversity of the movement, seen especially in its various permissible conceptions of the doctrine of God, obscures the identity of evangelicalism as a whole.

The doctrine of divine simplicity historically functioned as “the indispensable centerpiece in the ‘grammar’ regulating theology proper.  It was presumed as a baseline that none dared transgress.”[28]  Yet certain theologians within contemporary evangelicalism have tried diligently to dispose of the doctrine, transgressing beyond the historic bounds of the Christian faith.  To be sure, theologians like James Dolezal have sought to reclaim the doctrine for evangelical theology.  But it seems that for every attempt to reclaim the doctrine, there is another attempt to either reformulate or reject it altogether.  Thus, it is no surprise that Millard Erickson and Clark Pinnock reformulate and reject the doctrine, respectively.  This issue is not only important theologically, but also for evangelical identity.  Though one’s position on the doctrine of divine simplicity does not help to identify what it means to be an evangelical, the fact that there is such dissention over the doctrine amongst evangelical theologians demonstrates that evangelicalism is a theologically diverse movement.

[1] Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2016), 2.

[2] Thomas C. Oden cites favorably from Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and John Wesley in his discussion of divine simplicity.  See his Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992), 42.

[3] Steven Duby claims that God’s simplicity “is a divine attribute rooted in Holy Scripture’s portrayal of God in his singularity, aseity, immutability, infinity and work of creatio ex nihilo.” Divine Simplicity, 2.  James E. Dolezal argues that “the underlying and inviolable conviction” behind the doctrine of divine simplicity “is that God does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not in any way caused to be.” All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 1.

[4] The Second London Confession of Faith, 2.1.  See James T. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2008-2014), 4:535.

[5] James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God, 8.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 48.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] A related implication is the inherent insufficiency of all human speech with reference to God.  James Dolezal argues this succinctly: “Scripture teaches that God is incomprehensible in His being, and thus it would seem that we have good biblical reasons not to expect human language to capture His being in some one-to-one isomorphic fashion,” All That Is in God, 69.  He goes on to argue that this does not render human speech about God completely meaningless, nor does it make God fundamentally unknowable since “God packages the disclosure of His infinite being under the form of that which is finite in order that His finite creatures may draw near to Him,” 70.

[12] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 269.

[13] Ibid., 237.

[14] Ibid., 269.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God, 83.  Dolezal continues, “successive duration, or time, is the measure of a thing’s movement from state of being A to a different state of being B,” 83-84.  Thus, a temporal understanding of God requires that God is complex in his essence since he takes on new actualities of being when he moves from state of being A to that different state of being B.  John S. Feinberg illuminates the conversation this way: “A temporal being would undergo temporal succession, so there would be different temporal parts to its existence.  An atemporal being would have no temporal parts, which fits the idea of divine simplicity,” in No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 326.

[18] Clark H. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology” in Clark Pinnock, et al., eds. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 106.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 107.

[22] Ibid., 108.  In a citation, Pinnock stated, “the social analogy of the Trinity is gaining ground; see Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Lousville, KY: Westminster/Knox, 1993); Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1991), chap. 5; Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), chap. 5; and Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1981).” The Openness of God, 192.

[23] The Openness of God, 108, emphasis added.  Pinnock continued, “God exists as diverse persons united in a communion of love and freedom.  God is the perfection of love and communion, the very antithesis of self-sufficiency.”  Pinnock’s apparent rejection of the doctrine of divine aseity in the preceding quote provides another point of evidence for his rejection of divine simplicity, since a self-sufficient God must be essentially simple.  If God exists of himself, “then it follows that He does not derive any aspect of Himself—existence, essence, attributes, activity—from another,” James Dolezal, All That Is in God, 45.  If this is the case, then there can be no parts in God which make God to be God, no constituent components in God upon which God relies in order to be who he is.  God’s “God-ness” is sufficient for God to be God.  Thus, existence is not a part of God different than his essence or attributes; rather, God is his own existence.  In this way, divine aseity and divine simplicity are shown to be mutually reinforcing doctrines.  So when Pinnock rejects divine aseity, he in turn rejects divine simplicity as well.

[24] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 24.

[25] Augsburg Confession, Part I, Article I in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 3:7.

[26] Belgic Confession, Article I in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:383.

[27] The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Article I in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 3:487.

[28] James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God, 38-39.

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