Divine Simplicity in Reformed Orthodoxy

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

Chapter 2

Divine Simplicity in Reformed Orthodoxy

 

Introduction

This chapter presents an overview of the Reformed orthodox expression of divine simplicity.  The basic argument is that the Reformed orthodox situated divine simplicity within a broader framework of the doctrine of God which included the doctrines of divine perfection, aseity, immutability, infinity, and the Trinity.  Each of these attributes serves to safeguard and mutually reinforce the others.  Thus, a treatment of divine simplicity cannot be adequately undertaken without reference to these other doctrines.  The chapter begins by providing both a negative and a positive definition of divine simplicity, drawing on the accounts of divine simplicity in various Reformed confessions such as the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession and from an array of Reformed theologians, including Francis Turretin, John Owen, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck.  Because the Reformed orthodox conceived of the doctrine of divine simplicity within a larger framework of mutually reinforcing doctrines, the chapter also seeks to demonstrate the relationship of divine simplicity to the doctrines of divine perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, infinity, the Trinity, and creation ex nihilo.  A brief note on the characteristics of divine simplicity in Reformed orthodoxy concludes the chapter.

Divine Simplicity in Reformed Orthodoxy

The doctrine of divine simplicity, negatively stated, claims that God is not a composite being.  As Westminster Confession 2.1 states, God is “without body, parts, or passions.”[1]  To say that God is without parts is to say that God’s fundamental essence is not composed of anything that is less than God.  There is nothing more fundamental than God which makes God to be God.  He does not rely upon anything other than his own simple being in order to be what he is.  If God were composed of parts, he would necessarily rely on those parts to be as he is.  But divine simplicity stipulates that God is not made up of parts and therefore does not rely upon anything outside himself to be.  In summary, Louis Berkhof argues, “when we speak of the simplicity of God, we use the term to describe the state or quality of being simple, the condition of being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness.”[2]

Positively stated, the doctrine of divine simplicity claims that “all that is in God is God.”[3]  Article I of the Belgic Confession of Faith states 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.”[4]  John Calvin writes that “when we profess to believe in one God, under the name God is understood a single, simple essence.”[5]  The simplicity of God means not only that God is not composed of parts; it means also that God is one in his essence.  Herman Bavinck argues that simplicity “automatically flows from the idea of God and is necessarily implied in the other attributes.”[6]  He continues, “if God is composed of parts . . . then his perfection, oneness, independence, and immutability cannot be maintained.”[7]  Bavinck’s appeal to these incommunicable attributes in support of divine simplicity is especially telling.  Divine simplicity is not an attribute which God possesses apart from or in distinction to the other attributes; rather, for Bavinck, the doctrine of divine simplicity safeguards God’s perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and infinity.  Each of these attributes implies and mutually reinforces the others, thus demonstrating the importance of divine simplicity.  Joel Beeke and Mark Jones conclude, “indeed, all other divine attributes depend upon [divine simplicity].”[8]

If God is not a composite being, if he is not made up of parts, it follows, then, that the essence of God is not divided among his various attributes; the essence of God is simple.  This means that the existence and essence of God, as James Dolezal argues, “cannot be constituent components in Him, each supplying what the other lacks.”[9]  He continues, “God must be identical with his existence and essence, and they must be identical with each other.  It is His essence to be.”[10]  The identity of his existence and essence applies therefore to God’s attributes.  For example, consider the wisdom of God.  Wisdom is not something that God possesses in addition to his own essence.  The wisdom of God is simply God.  As John Owen says, “The attributes of God, which alone seem to be distinct things in the essence of God, are all of them essentially the same with one another, and every one the same with the essence of God itself.”[11]  This is necessarily the case because God’s simplicity entails that since God “is not dependent on component parts that are ontologically more basic than the fullness of His being, then all [the] things we say about Him would have to be identical in Him.”[12]

Historically, orthodox Christians have overwhelmingly confessed the simplicity of God.  Richard Muller says, strikingly, “from Irenaeus to the era of Protestant orthodoxy, the fundamental assumption was merely that God, as ultimate Spirit is not a compounded or composite being.”[13]  He continues, “the concept of divine simplicity was held by virtually all of the orthodox theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[14]  Francis Turretin posits, “The orthodox have constantly taught that the essence of God is perfectly simple and free from all composition.”[15]  Thomas Oden, surveying the history of theology in the church, draws favorably from Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Athanasius (c. 296-373), Hilary (c. 310-367), Basil (c. 330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395), Ambrose (c. 340-397), Augustine (354-430), Anselm (1033-1109), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and John Wesley (1703-1791), among others, in a discussion of divine simplicity.[16]  Thus, as James Dolezal notes, “throughout most of church history, divine simplicity served as the indispensable centerpiece in the ‘grammar’ regulating theology proper.  It was presumed as a baseline that none dared transgress.”[17]  This baseline functions to uphold and reinforce several incommunicable attributes of God, including perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and infinity.

Divine Simplicity and Perfection

Several theological implications flow from and mutually reinforce the conviction that God is simple.  First, the simplicity of God implies and safeguards the doctrine of divine perfection.  “Divine perfection” here should be distinguished from “divine perfections,” which, as Muller notes, is a term which was used by many of the Reformed orthodox “as an alternative to ‘attributes.’”[18]  Rather, the doctrine of divine perfection signifies the idea that “God is absolutely and simply perfect, because he hath all things which are to be desired for the chiefest felicity.  He is perfect first, in the highest degree of perfection, simply without any respect or comparison; secondly he is perfect in all kinds . . . that is, Perfect and Pure without the least mixture of the contrary.”[19]

Following Muller, there are basically four arguments from Scripture which support divine perfection.[20]  First, “God is perfect essentially.”[21]  In Matthew 5:48, Jesus tells his audience, “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The reason that Jesus uses the Father as his example here is because the Father is absolutely and essentially perfect.  His exhortation to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” would lose its value if the Father was not perfect in his being.  Moreover, in Genesis 17:1, God appears to Abram and says, “I am God Almighty.”  “God Almighty,” here, is the divine name El Shaddai which means “the All-Sufficient One.”[22]    God reveals this as his name to Abram as the grounds of the covenant God makes with Abram.  The reason Abram can be confident in God and God’s covenant is because God is the All-Sufficient One, the one who “bountifully supplies all things.”[23]  The sufficiency of God’s being in himself points to his perfection.

Second, “God is perfect in that ‘nothing is wanting to him; he hath no need of any other thing outside of himself.’”[24]  This follows from God’s self-sufficiency.  Paul makes the point explicitly in Acts 17:24-25: “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.”  The self-sufficient God who created all things does not need anything, which inevitably leads to the confession of divine perfection.  As Westminster Confession 2.2 states, God “is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made.”[25]

Third, “God is perfect ‘originally’ as the absolutely ‘first’ or ‘prior’ being, the first and the last, the beginning and end of all things.”[26]  God says of himself in Revelation 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  Jesus then applies this to himself when he says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13).  God is perfect in that he is the fountain from which all other being flows.[27]  This implies also that God is the direct cause of all perfections in his creatures.  James 1:17 says that “every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” and 1 Corinthians 4:7 asks rhetorically, “What do you have that you did not receive?”   God, out of the perfection of his own intrinsic being, supplies to his creatures “life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

Fourth, God is perfect in the sense that all of his works are perfect.[28]  Deuteronomy 32:4 makes this point explicitly: “The Rock, his work is perfect.”  Psalm 19:7 says that “the law of the LORD is perfect.”  That the works of God are perfect follows from the confession that God is perfect.  The reason that all of God’s works are perfect is because God himself is perfect.  This is seen in Psalm 145:17: “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.”  It is not merely the case that all of God’s works are righteous; the Lord himself is righteous as he accomplishes all his work.  In summary form, Westminster Confession 2.2 says that God “is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands.”[29]

Divine perfection mutually reinforces divine simplicity in that perfection requires that God is absolutely perfect in regard to his essence, which is the very idea that simplicity safeguards when it confesses that God is not composed of parts.  If God were imperfect in some way, that would imply that he would necessarily rely upon parts or constituents more basic to himself in order to be or to act.  But since God is simple, he is neither composed of parts nor relies upon anything more fundamental than himself to be who he is.  This means that the sheer simplicity of God’s being is perfect.  Furthermore, since simplicity entails that “all that is in God is God,” perfection and simplicity are identical in God.  When one speaks of the perfection and simplicity of God, one does not speak of these attributes as if they were either more fundamental than God or as if they were parts which constitute the very being of God.  Rather, when one speaks of the perfection and simplicity of God, one speaks of the God who is perfect and simple.  Since all of God’s attributes simply are God, “we worship the personal God who is simultaneously the being that his attributes indicate.”[30]

Divine Simplicity and Aseity

Next, the simplicity of God entails that God exists a se.  As Westminster Confession 2.2 says, “God hath all life . . . in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient.”[31]  Aseity is the idea that God exists self-sufficiently.  God does not require or depend upon anything other than himself to be who he is.  The biblical support for this idea is robust.  That God is self-sufficient is clearly seen in Acts 17:24-25: “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.”  Paul’s point is that humans cannot serve God in the sense of giving to God what God might previously lack since God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).  In this way, God is completely independent of the creature in that God does not rely upon the creature for his being or action.  The reason that no one can put God in their debt or give to God a gift such that God owes them is because all things are from God and through God and to God (cf. Romans 11:35-36).  Moreover, God is not merely independent concerning his being or action; God is also independent concerning his thoughts.  This is the clear implication of Romans 11:34 which asks the rhetorical question, “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”  As Westminster Confession 2.2 states, God’s “knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature.”[32]  This means that God does not derive any aspect of his knowledge from creation or anything outside of God’s own self. Rather, God’s knowledge, as Psalm 147:5 says, is “beyond measure.”  Or as Charnock notes, “God hath an infinite knowledge and understanding.”[33]  Knowledge which is “beyond measure” or “infinite” cannot by definition depend upon anything outside itself, for then it would be measurable to the extent upon which it depends on externals to be what it is.

Divine aseity features heavily throughout Scripture when God is compared to false idols.  Jeremiah 10:10-11 says, “the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King . . .  ‘The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”  John 5:26 declares that “the Father has life in himself.”  And 1 Thessalonians 1:9 refers to God as “the living and true God.”  Taken together, these texts strongly imply that God exists a se, that he depends upon nothing outside himself for his life.  As Charnock argues, God “hath life by his essence, not by participation.  He is a sun to give light and life to all creatures, but receives not light or life from anything; and therefore he hath an unlimited life, not a drop of life but a fountain.”[34]

John Feinberg says that there are basically two different ways to interpret the idea of divine aseity.  First, “the ground of God’s being is within himself; he is self-existent.”[35]  This means that God is not caused to be by anything in creation, nor even is God self-caused. Of this, Bavinck says, “It is evident from the word ‘aseity,’ God is exclusively from himself, not in the sense of being self-caused but being from eternity to eternity who he is, being not becoming.”[36]  Self-existence cannot mean self-causation because a cause is a determination of being.  A cause makes something to be what it is.  But since God is perfect and a se, he exists absolutely as actus purus, pure act.[37]  This means that God cannot be caused to be in any sense whatsoever, including self-causation.  As Charnock argues, “If he had given beginning to himself, then he was once nothing; there was a time when he was not; if he was not, how could he be the Cause of himself?  It is impossible for any to give a beginning and being to itself.”[38]

Feinberg says the second way to interpret aseity is to say that “there are not properties independent of God upon which he depends in order to have the constitutional attributes he possesses.”[39]  While Feinberg speaks here of divine aseity, this is the exact claim of divine simplicity.  God is not composed of parts, and God’s essence cannot be divided into constituent components which added together make God to be who he is.  In turn, since all that is in God is God, God exists self-sufficiently.  Of this relationship, Feinberg says,

God depends on nothing for his own existence.  However, if attributes such as love, justice, eternity, etc., are conceived as universals independent of any being, and God’s love, justice, etc. as just instances of those universals, then God apparently depends on these attributes (universals) for his own nature.  If that is so, however, it seems that divine aseity must be rejected.  In order to safeguard divine aseity, many theologians have opted for divine simplicity . . .  By opting for divine simplicity, theologians saw a way to maintain the basic intuition behind aseity that God depends on nothing but himself for his own existence.[40]

What this means is that divine aseity requires and is required by divine simplicity.  That God does not rely upon anything more fundamental than himself in order to be or to act is the identical claim of both aseity and simplicity.

Furthermore, divine perfection requires both divine aseity and divine simplicity.  This is the view of William Mann who says, “The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS) maintains that God has no ‘parts’ or components whatsoever . . .  The DDS in turn is motivated by the consideration that God is a perfect being, and that qua perfect, he must be independent from all other things for his being the being he is.”[41]  Perfection, aseity, and simplicity each essentially argue and entail the same thing in God.  That is to say, without perfection, God could not be a se or simple.  Without aseity, God could not be perfect or simple.  Without simplicity, God could not be perfect or a se.  This should be expected since divine simplicity claims that “God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself.”[42]  This means that perfection, aseity, and simplicity are not distinct attributes in God; rather, God’s perfection, aseity, and simplicity are simply God.  Feinberg, in summary, notes that one compelling way to argue for divine simplicity is to argue “that a most perfect being could not depend on anything else for its existence, i.e., it must be a se.  But for God to be self-dependent, he cannot rely on abstract properties in order to have a nature.  The way to ensure that this does not happen is to argue that God is simple.”[43]

Divine Simplicity and Immutability

The Reformed orthodox conception of God’s simplicity, perfection, and aseity necessarily requires the corresponding idea of God’s immutability.  Divine immutability is the idea that God is not subject to change.  Benedict Pictet, nephew of Francis Turretin, argues, “from the simplicity of God follows his immutability, which denotes nothing else than such a state of the divine essence and attributes, as is not subject to any variability.  We argue this immutability . . . since whatever possesses all perfection, such is incapable of mutation.”[44]  Pictet places immutability alongside simplicity and perfection as mutually reinforcing.  Since God is simple, he is not subject to any change.  Since God is perfect, he cannot change.  Immutability safeguards both simplicity and perfection, and as Richard Muller notes, “the Protestant orthodox rooted their conception in the traditional notion of a God who does not mutate or is not ‘moved’ from potency to actuality.”[45]

There are a number of biblical passages upon which the Reformed orthodox drew to formulate the conception of divine immutability.  Numbers 23:19 says that “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.”  The contrast here functions to demonstrate that what constitutes man is that he changes his mind; what constitutes God is that he does not change his mind.  Malachi 3:6 says, “I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”  The constant waywardness of the children of Jacob is contrasted here with the immutability of God.  In fact, God’s unchanging nature is the very reason why the children of Jacob are not consumed.  James 1:17 says that God is “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  There is no variation in God, nor is there substantial change.  Psalm 102:26-27 says, “[the earth and the heavens] will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment.  You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.”  The contrast here is between the Creator and his creation.  The creation will pass away and wear out, but the Creator remains the same and his years have no end.  This points to the essential immutability of God.

It is evident, then, that divine immutability flows from and mutually reinforces divine perfection and divine aseity.  Berkhof argues that “the immutability of God is a necessary concomitant of his aseity.  It is that perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises.”[46]  In other words, God’s immutability is not merely an implication of aseity; immutability is the perfection of God by which God does not change.  Berkhof continues, “reason teaches us that no change is possible in God, since a change is either for better or for worse.  But in God, as the absolute Perfection, improvement and deterioration are both equally impossible.”[47]  Herman Bavinck also links together aseity and immutability: “A natural implication of God’s aseity is his immutability.”[48]  Bavinck goes so far as to say, “if God were not immutable, he would not be God.”[49]  He argues this way because, in his mind, “the difference between the Creator and the creature hinges on the contrast between being and becoming.  All that is creaturely is in process of becoming.  It is changeable . . .  [God] does not change in his being, knowing, or willing.  He eternally remains who he is.”[50]  Since God is actus purus, pure act, he is absolute being, never becoming.  And for Bavinck, this is precisely the issue which distinguishes the Creator from the creature.

The connection between divine simplicity and divine immutability is seen in that if something was added to or subtracted from God’s essence, then God would no longer be simple.  Since God possess absolute unity of essence, nothing can be added to God which could make God to be God, nor could anything be taken from God such that God undergoes change from one essential state of being to another.  Simplicity entails that the absolute fullness of God’s essence cannot be divided into constituent parts, and immutability safeguards this idea by arguing that God’s simple essence cannot undergo change in any respect.  Gilles Emery argues, “a change requires the acquisition of something new, the introducing of something that was not there before.”[51]  If God were mutable and therefore somehow changed, he would acquire something which he did not have before.  This new thing, be it an essential or relational change, would be added to God, which means that God’s essence would no longer be simple.  If God changes by taking upon himself essential or relational attributes which did not always constitute his nature, then his essence is no longer simple to the extent that he takes on those new attributes.  Therefore, to the extent that one modifies immutability, one must also correspondingly modify simplicity.  And if one modifies simplicity, one must correspondingly modify perfection and aseity as well.

Divine Simplicity and Impassibility

Divine impassibility is technically a subcategory of divine immutability, but it warrants a place in a discussion of the Reformed orthodox conception of divine simplicity.  Impassibility is the idea that God cannot be acted upon from within or without and therefore is not subject to changing sensations or feelings which come upon him or are caused in him by himself or by another being.  The Westminster Confession states in 2.2 that God is “without . . . passions.”[52]  A passion, in this context, is “the property of a subject which, through an action exerted by an exterior agent, receives a determinate quality and, in the reception, is altered by it.”[53]  Among the Reformed orthodox, “the denial of passiones to God . . . has primarily to do with the assumption that finite creatures do not alter the divine being or add new properties to it.”[54]  Creation generally and human creatures specifically, since by definition they receive their existence from the perfect, immutable God who exists a se, cannot determine the divine being in any sense.  This is what it means for God to be impassible.

Thus, there is an intimate relationship between the doctrine of divine perfection and the doctrine of divine impassibility.  Since

God is all that he is, in and of himself, he cannot undergo experiences or be acted upon by external objects.  Within creation (i.e., time and space), God is at all times accomplishing his singular and immutable decree, unobstructed and unimpeded.  He cannot suffer.  He cannot change.  He cannot be added to.  He cannot diminish.  For that reason he cannot have passions or affections properly predicated of him, which by definition include the ideas of sensory experience, change, temporality, and passivity.[55]

The reason that God cannot “be acted upon by external objects” or have “affections properly predicated of him” is because he is the perfect, immutable God who exists a se.  Because God alone has all life in himself, everything apart from God which exists must passively receive its being from God.  Nothing outside of God can affect him or make him to be because God gives existence to all else which exists.  Furthermore, if something external to God was capable of affecting him such that he experienced a change of some kind, God could no longer be said to be immutable by definition.  But God’s perfection must also be rejected if this is the case, for divine perfection means that God, in the fullness of his perfect being which lacks nothing, is incapable of changing for either the better or the worse.

Because divine impassibility is a subcategory of divine immutability, it follows that divine perfection, aseity, and immutability also mutually imply and reinforce divine impassibility.  Richard Muller says that “the perfection of God can be argued logically from the other attributes as well as scripturally.”[56]  He adds, “we understand God to be perfect in that all such imperfections as contingency, dependence, limitation, composition, alteration, and multiplication are absent from God: he is necessary independent, unlimited, simple, unchangeable, and one.”[57]  Muller links God’s perfection and his simplicity to his unchangeableness or immutability.  And impassibility is also necessarily implied by divine perfection, for God is neither dependent upon anything for nor subject to alteration in his being.  Since God is perfect and incapable of being changed, he is therefore incapable of being acted upon either from within or without.  God is without passions.

One of the implications of this is that “love in God is not a passion or affection, but an unchanging perfection.”[58]  The reason that God does not have passions is because passions pertain to an internal quality which receives its determination from an external agent.  But the God who is love (cf. 1 John 4:8) does not receive this quality as if he depended on something outside himself for his being.  He simply is love.  God is not tossed to and fro by the fickle waves of creation, at one moment being the God who is love and the next being changed into something else.  God, completely perfect, fully self-existent, essentially immutable, and devoid of passions, simply is who he is.  As Stephen Charnock says, “all that we consider in God is unchangeable; for his essence and his properties are the same, and, therefore, what is necessarily belonging to the essence of God, belongs also to every perfection of the nature of God; none of them can receive any addition or diminution.”[59]

Charnock thus demonstrates the connection between divine impassibility and divine simplicity.  He says that God’s essence and properties are the same in God, and that none of them can receive addition or suffer diminution.  The former claim is that of simplicity: the latter, that of immutability, the doctrine underneath which impassibility falls.  This further reinforces the claim of this chapter that the Reformed orthodox situated divine simplicity within a broader framework of the doctrine of God which included the doctrines of divine perfection, aseity, immutability, and impassibility.  To conceive of one is, for the Reformed, to imply them all, and simplicity makes this conception explicit.  All of the attributes of God are simply God.

Divine simplicity means that it is God himself who is identical with his perfection, aseity, immutability, and impassibility.  These attributes are not parts which compose God, but rather they are each identical with one another and with God’s essence.  The alternative is to say that perfection is a constituent component in God’s being which is essentially separate from aseity, immutability, and impassibility as if these were divided in or amongst the being of God.  But the doctrine of divine simplicity means that when the Reformed orthodox spoke of God’s perfection, aseity, immutability, and impassibility, they were speaking simply of God, not of some lesser parts of God which constitute his being.

Given the interrelationship between all these doctrines, Richard Muller asserts, “the objection that [divine simplicity] might not be easily rooted in the text of Scripture (or, once understood, that it should fail to be an integral part of Christian teaching), was never taken particularly seriously by the orthodox tradition.”[60]  To reject or modify the doctrine of divine simplicity necessarily entails a correlative rejection or modification of divine perfection, aseity, immutability, and impassibility as well.  Moreover, “the alternative to the doctrine of divine simplicity is so bizarre as to be neither amenable to any exegetical result nor acceptable to reason.  It belongs to the very nature of composite things that they come into being and perish—and Scripture certainly indicates that God cannot either be made or destroyed!”[61]

Divine Simplicity and Infinity

The Reformed orthodox also conceived of the doctrine of divine infinity in light of the doctrine of divine simplicity and its necessary implications.  For them, divine infinity follows from and mutually reinforces the confession that God is simple, perfect, self-existent, immutable, and impassible.  Westminster Confession 2.2 states “there is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible.”[62]  Divine infinity is listed before simplicity, impassibility, and immutability, but it upholds the perfection and being of God.  Edward Leigh defines divine infinity as

whatsoever thing hath not an end of its perfection and virtue, that is truly and absolutely infinite.  Infiniteness is to be without bounds, to be unmeasurable, to exceed reason or capacity; it is opposed to Finite, which is to bound or limit, to define, to end, or conclude.  Infiniteness is such a property in God, that he is not limited to any time, place, or particular nature and being; or it is that whereby God is free altogether from all limitation of time, place, or degrees.[63] 

Notice the intimate connection between divine perfection and the subsequent attributes which are ascribed to God.  For Leigh, divine infinity is the unlimited perfection of God which never comes to an end.  Or, as James Dolezal argues, “infinity is also founded upon the understanding of God’s perfection as that to which no higher degree of perfection can be added.”[64]  Moreover, the fact that God’s unlimited perfection never ends also implies the doctrine of immutability, for the perfection of a mutable God could conceivably come to an end.  But as Stephen Charnock writes, “the essence of God, with all the perfections of his nature, are pronounced the same, without any variation from eternity to eternity.”[65]  Thus, divine perfection, immutability, and infinity each mutually reinforce the other.

Richard Muller says that “the Reformed orthodox identify a series of biblical approaches to the concept of divine infinity: God is infinite affirmatively and negatively (Psalm 145:3) in himself, and comparatively (Job 11:8; Isaiah 40:12, 15; Daniel 4:34) in relation to creatures.”[66]  In himself, God’s infinity means that he is essentially absolute.  First Kings 8:27 declares, “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God.”  The reason that the being of God cannot be contained in any sense, as this verse testifies, is because God is essentially and infinitely absolute.  And this absoluteness implies both immutability and eternity, for that which is absolute is not subject to change and must possess the fullness of life perfectly.  As Herman Bavinck says, “[God] does not change in his being, knowing, or willing.  He eternally remains who he is.  Every change is foreign to God.  In him there is no change in time, for he is eternal . . . nor in essence, for he is pure being.”[67]  For Bavinck, “pure being,” or absoluteness of being, is intimately related to both immutability and eternity.  He then explicitly equates immutability and eternity: “when applied to time, God’s immutability is called eternity.”[68]  Thus, for Bavinck, divine immutability and eternity simply are the same thing in God.  The fact that God is not subject to change in any respect, the claim of immutability, is called divine eternity when applied to the concept of time.

Boethius posits the most famous definition of divine eternity: “the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of boundless life.”[69]  The Reformed orthodox consistently held that God exists eternally, by which they meant, among other things, that God does not undergo temporal succession.  In no way can God be considered to exist temporally, although he can and does act as the eternal God within the created, temporal order.  The reason this is the case is because God possess all of his life perfectly and wholly; no part of God’s life comes into his possession or is able to slip away from him.  This is what it means to exist perfectly, a se, and eternally. Speaking of the various ways in which the orthodox have conceived of the doctrine of divine infinity, Bavinck argues, “if one means that God cannot be confined by time, his infinity coincides with his eternity . . .  But infinity can also be construed in the sense that God is unlimited in his virtues, that in him every virtue is present in an absolute degree.  In that case infinity amounts to perfection.”[70]  Thus infinity, eternity, absoluteness, and perfection are also mutually reinforcing attributes of God.  Indeed, if the doctrine of divine simplicity is true, as the Reformed orthodox confessed it to be, all of these attributes are identical in God.  To wit, these attributes simply are God.

Because all that is in God is God, divine infinity is not a part of God upon which God relies in order to be God.  Divine infinity is not a standalone attribute in God, contributing in its own way to the being of God apart from or perhaps in opposition to other attributes in God.  Rather, infinity is identical with all of God’s attributes and also with his essence.  This means that one can speak of infinity as either one amongst the many attributes of God which are nevertheless identical with God or “as a way of describing all of the divine attributes.”[71]  Conceived in this way, “all of the divine properties or perfections are also infinite, above all measure and degree.”[72]  What all of this means is that divine infinity applies to all of the attributes of God.  And since the doctrine of divine simplicity holds that all of the attributes of God are identical with the existence and essence of God, divine infinity is therefore identical with the existence and essence of God.  Each of these doctrines, simplicity, perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and infinity, are one in God.  When the Reformed orthodox spoke of God’s infinite perfection, they were referring to the eternal and immutable God who exists a se in his unchanging and simple perfection.

Divine Simplicity and the Trinity

Finally, it is necessary to consider how the Reformed orthodox related the doctrines of divine simplicity and the Trinity.  To put the matter starkly, “there was and is no need for the doctrine of the Trinity if God is not simple.”[73]  Since the doctrine of the Trinity posits that “in [the] one Divine Being there are three Persons of individual subsistences, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and that the “whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons,”[74] the doctrine of divine simplicity ensures that the doctrine of the Trinity remains monotheistic in its conception.  That is, the doctrine of divine simplicity functions to uphold the oneness of God, even as he subsists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As James Dolezal argues, “without a sufficiently strong doctrine of simplicity, it becomes unclear why the three persons are not three gods (or three parts of the essence that are themselves less than wholly divine) and why the divine unity is not merely a moral and communal unity.”[75]  Dolezal, following the Reformed orthodox, continues, “it is only because God is simple that all the data concerning the three distinct persons of the Godhead cannot possibly be reimagined in a tritheistic direction.”[76]  Indeed, as Richard Muller notes, “it is also the case that, from the time of the fathers onward, divine simplicity was understood as a support of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[77]

Divine simplicity holds that God is not divisible or composed of parts, but it does not entail that there are no distinctions whatsoever in God.  The Reformed orthodox were careful to say that the distinctions in God relative to the personal subsistences of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not parts of God which as an aggregate constitute the entirety of his divinity, nor are they three individual gods whose unity consists solely in community.  John Owen puts the matter like this: “a divine person is nothing but the divine essence . . . subsisting in an especial manner.”[78]  This means that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not distinct beings called God.  Contra contemporary expressions of social trinitarianism which conceive of God as united not in being or substance but in community, classical trinitarianism and Reformed orthodox trinitarianism conceive of God as three distinct subsistences of the one united substance of God.  Thus, for the Reformed orthodox, there are real distinctions in God.  The important thing to note in this discussion is that, for the Reformed orthodox, “the real distinction is not between the persons and the divine essence, but only among the persons themselves.”[79]  There is a real distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, even as each possess the fullness of divinity.

The Athanasian Creed provided the church catholic with an ecumenical confession concerning the triunity of God.  It reads: “the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.  For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son and another of the Holy Spirit.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.”  That is, God is undivided in substance (the claim of divine simplicity) and in his united substance subsists distinctly as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the claim of the Trinity).  The Reformed orthodox sought to express the relationship between the doctrine of divine simplicity and the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that was faithful to the Athanasian Creed.  A brief survey of the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Westminster Confession will suffice to demonstrate this claim.

Article 8 of the Belgic Confession states, “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct, according to their incommunicable properties . . .  Nevertheless God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have each his personality distinguished by their properties.”[80]  The confession that God “is one single essence” and not “divided into three” is the claim of the doctrine of divine simplicity, and the confession that there “are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct” in the one single essence of God is the claim of the Trinity.  Thus, in the Belgic Confession, God’s simplicity and triunity function together as mutually reinforcing.

Chapter III of the Second Helvetic Confession says,

We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature . . .  We nevertheless believe and teach that the same infinite, one, and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit . . . so joined together that they are but one God; and the divine essence is common to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[81]

God is “one in essence” and “indivisible” yet also “distinguished into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  But even this distinction is framed in light of the fact that “the divine essence is common to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  Again, one finds that the Reformed orthodox conception of the Trinity included the mutually reinforcing doctrine of divine simplicity.  Far from the doctrine of divine simplicity being a manifest contradiction to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Reformed actually employed both together, one supporting the other.

Finally, a trio of Reformed confessions from the British Isles conceive of the doctrine of divine simplicity and the Trinity in the same article of faith.  Westminster Confession 2.2 states, “in the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance.”[82]  Article I of the First Scots Confession of Faith says God is one “in substance, and [is] distinct in [three persons], the Father, the [Son], and the [Holy Ghost].”[83]  And Article I of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England says, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions . . .  And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance.”[84]  Each of these confessions holds that God is one in essence and distinct as three Persons.  Thus, this clearly demonstrates that the Reformed orthodox employed the doctrine of divine simplicity alongside the Trinity in order to safeguard the monotheism of the Christian faith.

Conclusion

This chapter has demonstrated the place given to the doctrine of divine simplicity by the Reformed orthodox.  Simplicity is conceived within a larger framework of the doctrine of God.  The doctrines of divine perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and infinity each serve to safeguard the doctrine of divine simplicity and are indeed mutually reinforced by it.  Recall the words of Richard Muller: “the concept of divine simplicity was held by virtually all of the orthodox theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[85]  To the extent that one rejects or modifies divine simplicity, one must also reject or modify God’s perfection, aseity, immutability, impassibility, and infinity in a corresponding manner.  With this preliminary discussion of the Reformed orthodox conception of divine simplicity in place, John Frame’s conception of divine simplicity, and its relationship to the Reformed orthodox conception, can now be explored.


[1] Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprint 1983), 3:606.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 1979), 62.

[3] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 41.

[4] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:383.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 1.13.20.

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, John Bolt, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 2:176.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2012), 62.

[9] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 41.

[10] Ibid.

[11] John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, in William Goold, ed. The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 12:72.

[12] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 42.

[13] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 3:276.

[14] Ibid., 3:275.

[15] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., George Musgrave Giger, trans. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 1:III.7.1

[16] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992), 42.

[17] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 38-39.

[18] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:321.

[19] Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity, II.vi.  Cited in Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:320.

[20] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:321-323.

[21] Ibid., 3:321.

[22] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:140.  Cf. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:268, 3:321.

[23] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:140.

[24] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:322.  Muller cites Leigh, Treatise, II.vi, 49.

[25] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:607.

[26] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:322.

[27] Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 2.2, in Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:607.

[28] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:322.

[29] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:607.

[30] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 229.

[31] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:607.

[32] Ibid., 3:606.

[33] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 1:408.

[34] Ibid., 1:288.

[35] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 239.

[36] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:152.

[37] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 15.

[38] Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:282.

[39] Feinberg, No One Like Him, 240.

[40] Ibid., 326.

[41] William E. Mann, “Simplicity and Immutability in God,” in Thomas V. Morris, ed., Concept of God (Oxford University Press, 1987), 255.

[42] Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:333.

[43] Feinberg, No One Like Him, 327.

[44] Benedict Pictet, Theologia Christiana (London: Forgotten Books, 2010), II.xii.3.

[45] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:310.

[46] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 58.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:153.

[49] Ibid., 2:154.

[50] Ibid., 2:156.

[51] Gilles Emery, “The Immutability of the God of Love and the Problem of Language Concerning the ‘Suffering of God,’” in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, ed. James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 61.

[52] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:606.

[53] Edouard Wéber, “Passio, Passivitas,” in Encyclopédie philosophique universelle, II/2, p. 1871.  Cited in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:310.

[54] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:310-311.

[55] Michael T. Renihan, James M. Renihan, and Samuel Renihan, “Historical Theology Survey of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility,” in Ronald S. Baines, et al., Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical, and Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015), 238.

[56] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:321.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Samuel Renihan, God without Passions: A Primer (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015), 45.

[59] Stephen Charnock, The Works of the Late Learned Divine Stephen Charnock, Vol. I. (London: Printed for Ben. Griffin, 1684).  Cited in Samuel Renihan, ed. God without Passions: A Reader (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015), 143-144.

[60] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:276.

[61] Ibid.  Muller cites Wyttenbach, Tentamen theologiae dogmaticae, III, §227.

[62] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:606.

[63] Leigh, Treatise, II.iv.

[64] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 87.

[65] Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:316.

[66] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:327.  Muller cites “Leigh, Treatise, II.iv, correcting the citation of Daniel from 4:32; cf. Turretin, Inst. theol. elencticae, III.viii.5.”

[67] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:156.

[68] Ibid., 2:159.

[69] Boethius, Philosophiae Consolationis, V,6 [10-11], in The Theological Tractates/The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand, and S.J. Tester (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973).  Cited in Dolezal, All That Is in God, 82.

[70] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:160.

[71] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:326.

[72] Ibid., 3:329.

[73] Scott R. Swain, “Divine Trinity,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 102.

[74] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 87-88.  Berkhof also says, “there is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence” and the unity of God is “based upon such passages as Deut. 6:4; Jas. 2:19, on the self-existence and immutability of God, and on the fact that He is identified with His perfections as when He is called life, light truth, righteousness, and so on,” Systematic Theology, 87.

[75] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 106.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:276.

[78] John Owen, A Brief Vindication and Declaration of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in William Goold, ed. The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 2:407.

[79] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 119.

[80] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3:389.

[81] Ibid., 3:835.

[82] Ibid., 3:607-608.

[83] Ibid., 3:439.

[84] Ibid., 3:487-488.

[85] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3:275.


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