John Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

(The following is Chapter Four of my Master’s thesis, lightly edited for formatting.)

Chapter 4

John Frame’s Doctrine of Divine Simplicity



Having demonstrated that the Reformed orthodox doctrine of divine simplicity functions within a larger framework of the doctrine of God which consists of the mutually-reinforcing doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassibility, and eternity, and having also explored the broader framework of John Frame’s doctrine of God, the thesis turns now to consider Frame’s specific articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity, especially as that doctrine relates to the doctrine of the Trinity.  This chapter begins by exploring Frame’s explicit statements regarding the doctrine of divine simplicity.  It then moves to examine James Dolezal’s and Timothy Miller’s respective engagements with Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity.  Finally, this chapter considers Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity in light of his articulation of the Trinity, with particular emphasis on the issue of whether God has three wills, and what that means for the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Divine Simplicity

Throughout his corpus, Frame makes several explicit references to the doctrine of divine simplicity.  For example, in Theology in Three Perspectives, just one sentence after saying, “we should understand that God, too, is a vastly complex being in which each of his attributes bears a perspectival relationship to all the rest,”[1] Frame argues, “God’s attributes, the qualities by which Scripture describes God, are not ‘parts’ of him.  Rather, God is ‘simple,’ meaning that he has no parts.”[2]  Later, Frame says, “not only are God’s attributes inseparable from him, but they are also inseparable from one another.  His love is eternal; his mercy is just; his grace is all-powerful . . .  So each attribute is a characterization of God as a whole and, therefore, of all the other attributes as well.”[3]  And then later, Frame goes on to argue, “since God’s love is infinite, eternal, unchangeable, wise, just, and so on, God’s love is God.  It can be nothing less than God since only God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable . . .  I infer that each attribute presents a perspective on all the other attributes and on God’s whole nature.”[4]  This final phrase provides the key for understanding how Frame conceives of God’s simplicity.  Strictly speaking, for Frame, God is not made up of parts, but this does not mean that all God’s attributes are identical with each other.  Even though God’s love can be nothing less than God, God’s love is nevertheless not essentially identical to God’s holiness or wisdom or justice.  Rather, God’s love provides humans with one perspective on God’s self, a perspective from which they can come to learn much more about the other attributes of God, and indeed God himself.

In his Apologetics, Frame argues,

God’s attributes are not abstract qualities that God happens to exemplify.  They are, rather, identical to God himself.  That concept is sometimes called the doctrine of divine simplicity.  For example, God’s goodness is not a standard above him, to which he conforms.  Rather, his goodness is everything he is and does.  It is God himself who serves as the standard of goodness for himself and for the world.  He is, therefore, his own goodness.  But he is also his own being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, and truth.  These attributes, therefore, are concrete, not abstract, personal, not impersonal.  Each describes the whole nature of God.  So to talk of God’s attributes is simply to talk about God himself, from various perspectives.[5]

This is Frame’s strongest prima facie endorsement of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  In arguing for God’s absoluteness and aseity, Frame employs the doctrine of God’s simplicity as a safeguard.  If God is truly self-existent, it must be the case that he is simple, for if he were made up of parts then there would be some standard above him upon which he would rely in order to be.  This means that all of God’s attributes must be identical with God’s essence, for if they were abstract qualities above God and in which God participates, then these qualities, rather than God himself, would be absolute.  But if some of God’s attributes were something less than identical to God’s own self, then these properties would be accidental to God, meaning both that God must be made of parts and that God is not self-sufficient (for he relies upon something other than himself in order to be who he is).  The conclusion to be taken from this particular reference to the doctrine of divine simplicity is that for Frame there is a strong connection between the doctrines of divine aseity and divine simplicity.  Each serves as a safeguard and mutual reinforcement of the other.  Or, to put it in Frame’s words, “to talk of God’s attributes is simply to talk about God himself, from various perspectives.”[6]

Frame argues for the doctrine of divine simplicity in a similar way elsewhere, saying,

[Cornelius] Van Til also relates God’s attribute of unity to his self-contained fullness [that is, to the doctrine of divine aseity].  Theologians traditionally distinguish God’s unity of singularity (that there is only one God) from his unity of simplicity (that he is not made up of parts or aspects that are intelligible in themselves, apart from the divine being as a whole).  To Van Til, the one implies the other: ‘We have in the case of God absolute numerical identity, and therefore, internal qualitative sufficiency.’[7]  If there is only one God, then there is nothing ‘in’ him that is independent of him.  God’s goodness for example, is not something in his mind to which he brings himself into conformity.  If it were, that goodness, an abstract quality, would be a second deity coordinate with God himself.  Thus, denial of God’s unity of simplicity violates God’s unity of singularity.[8]

Frame’s argument here, drawing on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, is that the doctrine of divine simplicity serves as a mutually-reinforcing doctrine alongside not only the doctrine of divine aseity, but also alongside the basic Christian confession of God’s singularity, that is, the confession that there is only one God (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4).  Since there is only one who is God, this must mean that this God is simple.  For if he were composed of parts, it would not be possible to say that “God is one,” which is the very claim of God’s unity of singularity.  This is the case because if God were composed of parts, he would necessarily because composed of more than one attribute or quality.  And if God were composed of more than one attribute or quality, then he cannot be essentially “one.”  Thus, for Frame, Van Til’s argument for divine simplicity because of divine singularity, and vice versa, means that each doctrine serves as a mutual reinforcement for the other.  If one doctrine stands, so too does the other; if one falls, so goes the other.

Yet for all of his positive references to the doctrine of divine simplicity, Frame elsewhere questions its coherence with the biblical data. For example, on one hand Frame summarizes the argument of Thomas Aquinas:

There cannot be such parts in God, for several reasons.  First, there can be nothing in him that is less, or less noble, than himself.  Second, nothing in him can be removed from him, for nothing in him can not be.  Third, the fact that he has many attributes is not something caused, for he is the first cause.  Fourth, in God there can be no process of potentiality becoming actuality, because he is pure act, with no passive potentiality.[9]

These were some of the standard arguments of the Reformed orthodox regarding the doctrine of divine simplicity, and Frame accepts them as coherent.  But then he argues,

note that these arguments do not rule out all complexity within the divine nature.  Imagine a distinguishable aspect of God’s nature (such as an attribute or a person of the Trinity) that is no less noble than himself, that cannot be removed from him, that necessarily belongs to him apart from any causal process, that is not the result of a movement from potentiality to actuality.  It would not be inconsistent with the doctrine of simplicity for God to have many such aspects. Indeed, since simplicity in this sense does not rule out all multiplicity, it might be less confusing to use the term necessary existence rather than simplicity.[10]

One sees again Frame’s argument that the attributes of God are identical with the essence of God, but they are not essentially identical with each other.  The attributes of God are “no less noble than himself” and necessary to his essence, yet they are “distinguishable,” not only in the human mind or by way of predication, but also genuinely in the essence of God.  He continues, “this is not to say that God’s attributes are synonymous.  They all refer to his essence, but they describe different aspects of it.  God really is good and just and omniscient.  The multiple attributes refer to genuine complexities in his essence.”[11]  Thus, when the Bible speaks of God as being good and just and omniscient, these qualities genuinely refer to God’s essence, but they must be distinguished from one another.  Frame conceives of this by arguing that there are genuine complexities in the essence of God, and those complexities are the different attributes of God.

And concerning the Trinity, Frame argues that Thomas’ “analysis of the Trinity in terms of subsistent relationships,” an analysis in which Thomas seeks to safeguard his doctrine of divine simplicity, “plays down the distinctions between the Trinitarian persons.”[12]  Frame continues,

Thomists argue that their view of simplicity is consistent with the Trinity, because simplicity pertains not to the three persons, but to the divine nature that they all share.  However, I do not believe that we can make such a neat separation between nature and persons.  Certainly the persons are just as essential to God’s being as any attribute.  It is not evident to me why triunity should not be considered an attribute of God along with the others.  Certainly it is true to say that God’s being is triune.[13]

What this means, for Frame, is that Christians should be careful to safeguard both God’s simplicity and his complexity.  Although there are “genuine complexities” in God’s essence, “it is important to see the unity within this complexity.  And to see it, we should remind ourselves that our covenant Lord is a person.”[14]  Thus, God’s attributes are not abstract qualities outside of him and in which he participates in order to be who he is.  Rather, God’s attributes, like his goodness, are identical with his essence.  This means that God is his own goodness.  But that very goodness should be genuinely distinguished from his love, holiness, justice, and so on, precisely because they are not identical with each other.  Each attribute might be identical with God himself, but they are not identical to each other.  In an attempt to summarize this difficult conception, Frame says, “since there are many attributes that characterize God’s essence, they are not separate from one another.”[15]  The attributes, since they are individually identical with God’s essence, all stand or fall together, but they still must be distinguished from one another since they are genuinely and essentially distinct within the essence of God.

James Dolezal and Timothy Miller on Divine Simplicity

It appears from Frame’s writings that Frame’s relationship to the Reformed orthodox in the area of the doctrine of divine simplicity is ambiguous.  On the surface Frame speaks of God as if he were simple, and in places he argues for an understanding of divine simplicity which closely resembles the Reformed orthodox understanding.  But Frame elsewhere argues that there are genuine complexities in God, and these genuine complexities are best seen in that God’s attributes are essentially distinct from one another.  This idea, that the attributes of God are essentially distinct from one another, was something which the Reformed orthodox were careful to guard against.  As James Dolezal puts it, “the traditional DDS [doctrine of divine simplicity] also holds that all of God’s attributes are really identical in him.  If God were a complex of really distinct attributes or properties then those various attributes would be more basic than the Godhead itself in explaining or accounting for what God is.”[16]  Or as Bavinck says, “by describing God as ‘utterly simple essence,’ we state that he is the perfect and infinite fullness of being, an ‘unbounded ocean of being.’”[17]  The reason that God is “utterly simple essence,” and the reason therefore that there cannot be any essential complexity in God is because God is the perfect and infinite fullness of being.  If there were genuine complexities in God’s essence, if the attributes of God were essentially distinct from one another, it could not be rightly said of God that he is essentially infinite, since that which is infinite cannot be composed of parts.

Bavinck also addresses the claim that the doctrine of divine simplicity is incompatible with the Trinity.  He argues,

“the term ‘simple’ is not used here as an antonym of ‘twofold’ or ‘threefold’ but of ‘composite.’  Now, the divine being is not composed of three persons, nor is each person composed of the being and personal attributes of that person, but the one uncompounded (simple) being exists in three persons.  Every person or personal attribute is not distinguishable in respect of essence but only in respect of reason.  Every personal attribute is indeed a ‘real relation’ but adds nothing real to the essence.[18]

The basic point of this passage is encapsulated by the words “every person or personal attribute is not distinguishable in respect of essence but only in respect of reason.”  That is, there are no absolute or essential distinctions in God which pertain either to the persons in God or the attributes of God.  The Father cannot be absolutely distinguished from the Son, nor can the Son be distinguished absolutely from the Spirit.  The love of God cannot be absolutely distinguished from the holiness of God.  This is what Bavinck means when he says “every person or personal attribute is not distinguishable in respect of essence.”  In the essence of God, there are no complexities.  For Bavinck, neither the persons in God nor the attributes of God constitute any complexity in God whatsoever.  Rather, they are to be distinguished only in respect of reason.  That is, the persons in and attributes of God are only distinguished when finite, complex creatures predicate of them.  And this predication will be necessarily complex, since complex creatures can only predicate in complex terms.  Yet from this it does not follow that God’s essence is genuinely complex.  That creatures can only speak of God in complex terms does not mean that God himself is complex.  Dolezal argues the point in this way: God “does not possess [his attributes] as really distinct properties.  The mode of human signification does not match the mode of God’s subsistence.  Indeed, in God each perfection is really identical with all the others inasmuch as each is identical with the Godhead and God cannot be really distinct from himself.”[19]

This line of thinking is not unique to Bavinck in the Reformed tradition.  While Bavinck lived a century before Frame, and therefore could not interact with Frame, James Dolezal has recently criticized Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity directly.  Arguing against Frame’s articulation, James Dolezal points out that Frame “is concerned to avoid the odd claim that the attributes of God are all synonymous.  Yet the only way he can conceive of doing this is to assume that the nonsynonymous complexity of terms in our language directly maps out a corresponding complexity of being in the divine essence.”[20]  In other words, according to Dolezal, Frame has adopted a univocal view of human language.  This means that human language, in order for it to be legitimately true, must apply to its referent in a one-to-one way regardless of the nature of the referent.  For example, when someone says that God is love and holiness and light, the implication is that each of these attributes, though they may refer to the totality of God’s being, are essentially distinct from one another such that each individual attribute cannot be said to be identical with any one of the other attributes.  Thus, “when Frame says that God is His essence, he means that God is identical to the summative set of really distinct properties which collectively comprise His essence.”[21]  That is, the attributes of God are genuinely distinct in God such that God is essentially complex.  Each attribute should be genuinely distinguished from the others, which means that the attributes added together must constitute the being of God.  This means that in order for God to identical to his essence, God must be identical, not to any one of his attributes, but to the totality of attributes which make God to be who he is.  This is why Frame concludes that there are genuine complexities in God, a claim which does not cohere with the Reformed orthodox conception of divine simplicity.  There can be no genuine complexities in God because, as Dolezal argues

to be considered most absolute with respect to all the various perfections predicated of him it is necessary that one regard those perfections as identical with God himself.  Identity is the watchword of the strong account of divine simplicity and is crucial to the orthodox articulation of divine absoluteness.  Often this identity is expressed in the claim that all that is in God is God.[22]

While Dolezal takes a generally negative view of Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity, Timothy E. Miller takes a generally positive stance toward Frame’s articulation.  For example, Miller says,

Frame maintains that while God is simple, he is also complex.  Complexity, Frame maintains, is not the opposite of simplicity.  Rather, it is a recognition that within God’s simple being there are true distinctions, which align with the way that he has revealed himself to creatures.  These distinctions are analogous to the distinctions found within the persons of the Trinity.  Ultimately, the reason Frame believes in the real distinction of attributes is because God reveals himself that way, and Frame believes that God as Lord is not impeded by human language in revealing himself.[23]

There are several points to be made in connection with this quote.  First, Miller, one of Frame’s sympathetic interpreters, points out that Frame understands God to be both simple and complex.  This demonstrates that the present thesis has rightly understood Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity.  Again, the reason that Frame calls God both simple and complex is because God’s attributes are individually identical to God’s essence, but not to the other attributes.  God is simple by virtue of the fact that his attributes are not something distinct from his own essence, and he is complex by virtue of the fact that his attributes are genuinely distinct from one another.

Second, Miller argues that Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity is rooted in God’s self-revelation to humans.  Miller’s criticism of the strong account of divine simplicity (as it was promoted by Thomas Aquinas and the Reformed orthodox and then recently defended by James Dolezal) is that, in Miller’s view, Thomas allowed his philosophical conception of God’s simplicity to override God’s clear revelation of himself.  Miller says,

This is an aspect of Aquinas’s larger problem, which is shown clearly in Dolezal’s work.  Namely, the most significant critique of Aquinas’s strong simplicity account of the Trinity is that biblical references are essentially non-existent in either Dolezal’s major account of simplicity or his more specific account of the relation of simplicity and Trinitarianism.  While we do not seek simple text-proofs, it is central when speaking of God to reference what he has said concerning himself.[24]

What this shows is that Miller views the classical Reformed statement of divine simplicity as a problem not only because of what it maintains, but because of the method used to articulate it.  This is unsurprising given the fact that Miller’s primary area of work and expertise is in theological method.  For him, God’s self-revelation, not human rationality, is the ultimate standard to which human theologizing is accountable.  Miller’s basic point here is that Aquinas, the Reformed orthodox, and Dolezal each come to the doctrine of divine simplicity not ultimately by way of what Scripture genuinely teaches, but by philosophical speculation.  Because of this, Miller rejects their conclusions and reformulates the doctrine of divine simplicity in a way which he considers more biblical.  This move is an echo of Frame’s position when he says, “it seems to me, therefore, that there is a legitimate biblical motive in the doctrine of divine simplicity.  We may be surprised to find that it is not an abstract, obscure, philosophical motive, but a very practical one.  Those emerging from the murky waters of scholastic speculation may be surprised to find that the doctrine of simplicity is really fairly simple.”[25]

Third, Miller claims that Frame’s articulation of divine simplicity safeguards human predication regarding the divine essence.  If it were in fact the case that God is simple according to the strong account put forth by Aquinas and the Reformed orthodox, Miller argues, then humans could not really know or speak of God as he is in himself.  In Miller’s own words, drawing on the thought of Charles Hodge, “the classical account of simplicity had the potential to destroy man’s knowledge of God.”[26]  The reason for this is that “when Scripture presents God as having different attributes, they are real distinctions, which truly describe God.”[27]  Or in Frame’s words, “God’s essence is not some dark, unrevealed entity behind God’s revealed character.  Rather, God’s revelation tells us his essence.  It tells us what he really and truly is.”[28]  The point to be made here is that, for Frame, when Scripture speaks of God, it speaks of him truly.  So when Scripture speaks of God as being light, life, holy, and love, each of these is genuinely true of God, which means that there must be some level of complexity in God’s essence (since light, life, holiness, and love are not identical with one another).  A strong account of divine simplicity would eliminate all the complexity of God’s essence and by extension call into question the truthfulness of Scripture’s affirmation of God’s multiplicity of attributes.  But Frame’s articulation, which holds that God is both simple and complex, allows for the identity of God’s attributes with God’s essence (simplicity) while it distinguishes the attributes from one another (complexity).

It will be helpful at this point to consider Frame’s doctrine of divine incomprehensibility, since that doctrine plays an important role in any discussion of divine simplicity.  As James Dolezal points out, “classical Christian theism insists upon the absolute incomprehensibility of God throughout its entire formulation.”[29]  In the words of Frame, “God is incomprehensible even in his revelation.  When God reveals himself to us, he does not thereby decrease his incomprehensibility.”[30]  What this means, for Frame, is that the infinite God cannot be known exhaustively by finite creatures.  God cannot be totally comprehended by human beings, even as he clearly and truly reveals himself to them.  But then Frame argues in a somewhat different way: “We should not adopt a mental picture or model of God in which his real identity or essence is hidden in darkness, while his revealed nature is a kind of periphery around that darkness.”[31]  The reason we shouldn’t do this is because “in that picture, the darkness conceals what God really and truly is; his revealed nature is something less than his real being.  On the contrary: God’s names and revealed attributes tell us what he truly is, at the heart of his being.”[32]

The implication of Frame’s point here is that when God reveals himself, he does so exhaustively: “there is nothing more fundamental about him that could call his revealed nature into question.”[33]  But as James Henley Thornwell argued, “[God’s] infinite perfections are veiled under finite symbols.  It is only the shadow of them that falls upon the human understanding.”[34]  Recall Psalm 145:3: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.”  The fact that God’s greatness is unsearchable suggests that Frame’s articulation of incomprehensibility, motivated largely by an emphasis on the truthfulness of God’s revelation and of the truthfulness of human knowledge concerning God’s revelation of himself, is deficient at this particular point.  The Reformed orthodox, on the other hand, held that God reveals himself truly, though never as he is in himself (i.e., exhaustively).  Thus Dolezal says,

the Reformed scholastics held that in God’s effects the perfection of His undivided essence is shown forth in a vast array of creaturely perfections.  Accordingly, what is a simple unity in God is presented to the human knower under the form of creaturely multiplicity.  But this refraction of His simple glory into so many beams of finite perfection does not mean these multifarious beams speak no truth about His simple nature.  They just do not speak that truth under the incomprehensible simple form of that nature.[35]

The point here is that God’s revelation of himself is not exhaustive, but rather that it is accommodated to the finite capacities of human beings.  Therefore, human beings should not expect to be able to comprehend God’s simplicity since humans are complex beings (and therefore can only comprehend things by using complex forms).  Or, as Dolezal summarizes it, “if we are to faithfully preserve the infinite and unsurpassable glory of God’s being, we will have to recover the older commitment to divine simplicity and the incomprehensibility of God and forsake the misguided path of thinking that our thought or language adequately computes the mysterious manner of God’s existence.”[36]  But it is precisely this concept of the mysterious manner of God’s existence which Frame implicitly eliminates by saying “we should not adopt a mental picture or model of God in which his real identity or essence is hidden in darkness.”  And it is this particular point which leads Frame to conclude that God is both simple and complex.

Divine Complexity and Triunity

The chapter turns now to consider Frame’s doctrine of the Trinity.  To frame the significance of the matter, Dolezal argues: “The fact is that if simplicity and its unique requirements are denied, any number of compositional models of divine unity might adequately explain how the one God subsists as three distinct persons.  And it is not apparent that a compositional model of divine unity must necessarily be monotheistic rather than tritheistic.”[37]  One of the most important reasons for upholding a robust doctrine of divine simplicity is, in Dolezal’s mind, that it functions to ensure that any subsequent articulation of the Trinity must necessarily remain monotheistic.  To deny the doctrine of divine simplicity in its strongest form is to open the door to a wide variety of possible compositional models which aim at communicating how exactly the being of God is conceived, many of which are not monotheistic in character.  In other words, the doctrine of divine simplicity safeguards the absoluteness oneness of God’s essence (Deuteronomy 6:4) over against tritheistic compositional models.

After considering the biblical teaching of monotheism at length, Frame turns to argue in this way: “Alongside monotheism is another biblical theme, which stresses that God is not a mere oneness.  He is not like the One of Plotinus, who lacks any complexity at all.”[38]  He continues, “the very greatness of God, the richness of his inner life, entails some kind of plurality in him.”[39]  So, for Frame, on the one hand there is the biblical teaching of monotheism, and on the other there is the biblical teaching of the real complexity of the essence of God.  It is important to note that Frame does not here argue that the complexity of God’s essence is something related to any articulation of the Trinity; rather, for him, the conception of complexity in God is necessary because of the fullness and richness of God’s life.  That is to say, as this thesis has demonstrated, Frame argues that God is simultaneously simple and complex.  But how precisely does this formulation relate to Frame’s articulation of the Trinity?

First, the present discussion needs to be seen against the backdrop of recent developments in theology proper.  As Scott Swain has recently argued, “following widespread rejection of classical Christian metaphysics of God’s simple perfection, theologians sought to conceptualize God’s triune nature via categories of personal subjectivity and history.”[40]  That is, since the doctrine of divine simplicity was conceived within a framework of Aristotelian metaphysics, when that metaphysical framework was jettisoned, so too was the doctrine of divine simplicity.  The effect of this meant that theologians needed to restructure how they thought of God’s triunity in light of different metaphysical frameworks, including but not limited to, as Swain mentions here, personal subjectivity and history.

This is an important consideration for the present thesis given the fact that Frame is not particularly enamored with the Reformed orthodox theological method which employed an Aristotelian metaphysic.  Thus, in some ways it is not at all a surprise that Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity is fundamentally different than the Reformed orthodox doctrine of simplicity.  Frame’s rejection of the theological framework provided by Aristotelian metaphysics means that he must employ a different framework in order to articulate a doctrine of divine simplicity.  This different framework, which Frame argues is provided ultimately by Scripture alone, renders Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity fundamentally different than the Reformed orthodox articulation of the same doctrine.

Moreover, it is no surprise that Frame finds Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the Trinity to be inadequate since Frame argues that Thomas favors God’s simplicity over his triunity.  In fact, Frame goes so far as to say that “Aquinas’ view [was] that the three persons are distinct only notionally, only in our minds.  That position is, in my view, indistinguishable from Sabellianism.”[41]  But this points out an inadvertent misunderstanding on Frame’s part because, as Robert Letham argues, “however, Aquinas is as concerned with the errors of Sabellius as he is with those of Arius, and he insists that the persons of the Trinity are distinct in a real sense . . .  Frame’s suggestion, following Cornelius Plantinga, that Aquinas regards the persons merely as notions in our own minds, is not true to the evidence.”[42]  The point to be gleaned here is that Frame’s rejection of the theological framework provided by Aristotelian metaphysics leads to his reformulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  It simply is not possible to formulate the doctrine of divine simplicity in a way which coheres with the Reformed orthodox articulation without using the same theological framework that the Reformed employed as they formulated the doctrine.

Second, it is necessary at this point to return to Frame’s doctrine of divine eternity, for this, too, impacts Frame’s articulation of the Trinity.  Recall Frame’s argument that God has two existences: one transcendent and atemporal, and one immanent and temporal.  According to God’s immanent and temporal existence, God undergoes temporal succession and thus should not be seen as eternal in the classical sense.  Thus, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit should be conceived of as temporal and therefore as capable of undergoing temporal succession and change.  In Frame’s own words, “in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we see again how the eternal God entered time.  In Christ, God entered, not a world that is otherwise strange to him, but a world in which he had been dwelling all along.”[43]  Leaving aside for a moment the rather strange claim that God entered into a world in which he was already dwelling, notice here that Frame’s understanding of the two existences of God drastically impacts his doctrine of God’s eternity.  For him, God is both eternal and temporal, neither one contradicting or contravening the other.  Thus, the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, should be conceived of as having two existences, as being both eternal and temporal.

Third, social trinitarianism, as especially advocated by Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, and *Cornelius Plantinga, due to its popularity in contemporary literature in trinitarian theology, deserves a brief consideration at this point.  A God whose unity is conceived of primarily in terms of community rather than substance or essence must be of necessity complex rather than simple.  That is to say, social trinitarianism posits an understanding of God which necessarily rejects the classical articulation of divine simplicity.  In support of this position, Frame argues, “the great strength of social Trinitarianism is . . . its harmony with the portrayal of transactions between the divine persons in the Scriptures.  The New Testament, especially the gospel of John, presents the Trinity, not as three aspects of a single mind, but as three real persons, conversing, loving, sending, and so on.”[44]  The point is that the content of Scripture appears to support social trinitarianism because it presents genuine interactions between the persons of God.  Because of this, the burden of proof falls on the classical trinitarian, that is, those who follow Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity, to account for the real distinctions among the persons of the Godhead as presented in Scripture.

But Frame later argues, “the weakness of the social model, however, is the difficulty of finding adequate unity among the persons to justify a confession of monotheism.”[45]  In other words, social trinitarianism, according to Frame, does not have to be necessarily monotheistic.  There appears to be a dearth of reasons to explain why the three persons in community are not simply three autonomous beings.  The primary reason for this is that social trinitarianism necessarily rejects a doctrine of divine simplicity, which originally functioned to maintain and uphold the monotheism of the Christian confession of the Trinity.  As James Dolezal argues, “without divine simplicity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit potentially could be understood either as three parts of God—in which case each person would ontologically precede the being of God and each would lack something of the fullness of divinity—or as three discrete beings or gods who collectively make up a social unit we call God.”[46]  It is no surprise, then, given the aforementioned problems of both the psychological and social models of the Trinity, that Frame remains agnostic regarding these particular models.  He says that while both models contain some important biblical truth, “we should not expect, certainly in this life, to reduce this mysterious biblical teaching to the confines of a single model.”[47]


This chapter has considered at length John Frame’s specific articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  Drawing on Frame’s own words, it has shown that Frame conceives of God as both simple and complex.  The various attributes of God, while they may be identical to God’s essence (the claim of divine simplicity), are nevertheless genuinely and essentially distinct from one another.  This leads to Frame’s conclusion that God is both simple and complex.  This chapter also considered James Dolezal’s criticisms of Frame’s articulation of simplicity, set against, as they were, Frame’s articulation of divine eternity.  It also considered and examined Timothy Miller’s endorsement of Frame’s doctrine of divine simplicity, before finally exploring in detail Frame’s doctrine of the Trinity in relation to divine simplicity.  The conclusion that should be made after these considerations is that Frame’s articulation of the doctrine of divine simplicity does not, in fact, cohere with the Reformed orthodox articulation of that doctrine.  This is the case because Frame reformulates the doctrines of divine immutability and eternity in a way which fundamentally, albeit implicitly, denies the doctrine of divine simplicity.  The thesis now turns to consider the implications of this study as well as potential paths for further research.

[1] John M. Frame, Theology in Three Dimensions (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2017), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John M. Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2015), 265.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2007), 215.

[8] John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1995), 55-56.

[9] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 226.

[10] Ibid., 227.

[11] Ibid., 229.

[12] Ibid., 228.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 229.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dolezal, God without Parts, 125.

[17] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:176.

[18] Ibid., 2:177.

[19] Dolezal, God without Parts, 125.

[20] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 72.

[21] Ibid., 73-74.

[22] Dolezal, God without Parts, 125.

[23] Timothy E. Miller, The Triune God of Unity in Diversity: An Analysis of Perspectivalism, the Trinitarian Theological Method of John Frame and Vern Poythress (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2017), 152.

[24] Ibid., 138.

[25] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 230.

[26] Miller, The Triune God of Unity in Diversity, 151.

[27] Ibid., 152.

[28] Frame, Systematic Theology, 431.

[29] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 38.

[30] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 202.

[31] Ibid., 205.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, B.M. Palmer, ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 1:118.

[35] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 76.

[36] Ibid., 78.

[37] Ibid., 105.

[38] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 631.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Scott R. Swain, “Divine Trinity,” in Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, eds., Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 79.

[41] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 702.

[42] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2004), 235-236.

[43] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 559.

[44] Ibid., 725.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 105.

[47] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 726.

Thanks for reading.  Have a comment or question?  Leave it below.

1 Comment

  1. thank you for clearly articulating the material in question, God’s given you a gift of synthesizing complex ideas into a simple framework – pun intended.


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