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Why Divine Simplicity Matters

by James Dolezal • December 30, 2013 •

It is a commonplace among many Christians that nothing that is not God accounts for God. He is not built up out of anything less than or prior to himself. Indeed, God’s being is not the consequent of any activity or reality that precedes him in any way. He gives to all, but receives from none (Acts 17:25-25; Rom. 11:35-36). It is these convictions concerning God’s perfect self-sufficiency and fullness of being that underlie the doctrine of divine simplicity, even if those adhering to these truths have never heard of divine simplicity.

In earlier generations simplicity was regarded as an indispensable aspect of an orthodox doctrine of God. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists all confessed that God is “without parts” and the Belgic Confession even made divine simplicity its opening affirmation: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God.” Nowadays, we hear very little about God’s simplicity. Many seminaries either don’t teach it or mention it only in order to disparage it as a needlessly abstruse and nonsensical doctrine. Even more rarely is it mentioned in church or explained to the congregants. This makes it difficult to believe and confess, to say the least. The unspoken assumption tends to be that nothing is lost by leaving aside this ancient doctrine. But is divine simplicity really so insignificant? Does it really matter?

In order to appreciate why divine simplicity matters we should first identify its basic claims. In short, the doctrine teaches that all that is in God is God. God is not built up of parts that are more basic than his divinity. Thus, God is not only loving, wise, good, and just, for example—but he is also love, wisdom, goodness, and justice. He is identical with each of this attributes. If this were not the case then God’s being would depend on something other than himself. Furthermore, God’s essence is identical with his existence; that is, he does not receive his existence from another, but exists in and through his own nature. It is his nature to exist. Older theologians expressed this conviction by insisting that God is being, not becoming. If God were composed of parts or if he possessed his existence in distinction from his essence, then he would depend for his essence and existence on something or someone other than himself. Something would be before God. Also, he would be mutable. The Presbyterian theologian Stephen Charnock captures these concerns of divine simplicity quite well:

God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.[1]

Undoubtedly, divine simplicity is a difficult doctrine to explain. And though we may describe the doctrine, we cannot adequately comprehend the reality of it in a way that corresponds one-to-one to God’s manner of being. All our talk and thinking about God’s simplicity is necessarily complex since we are by nature composite and complex beings and thinkers. Nevertheless, the basic concern of simplicity is not too difficult to appreciate: Nothing that is not God can account for the being of God, and so all that is in God must be God. Simplicity is merely a formal way of preserving this conviction with respect to our talk about God’s attributes and existence. So what is the importance of this doctrine? Let us consider one of the leading practical implications.

Divine simplicity spotlights the Creator-creature distinction by showing the absolute self-sufficiency of God and the corresponding all-dependency of creatures. If all that is in God is God then he is not caused or explained by another. This truth is indispensable for establishing the Christian’s confidence in him. To drive home this point, consider the implications of saying that God is composed of parts: God would be dependent upon those parts and upon some composer of those parts in order to possess the nature and existence that he does. Our trust in God would then have to look to some source of being back of him. Such an account of God’s existence and essence would inevitably undermine our trust in him by pointing us to a reality more fundamental than himself.

This truth can be a great source of comfort to Christ’s flock and of warning to the unbeliever. The Puritan theologian Edward Leigh writes, “This may minister comfort to God’s people; God’s attributes are not mutable accidents, but his very Essence: His Love and Mercy are like himself, Infinite, Immutable, and Eternal.”[2] And again: "Here is a matter of joy and comfort to the good; Mercy and Love are God’s Essence . . . and of Fear and Terror to the wicked, because God’s Anger and Justice are his Essence, and he is Unchangeable.”[3] How can the Christian know that God’s love and mercy will not change or be nullified? One answer is that God is identical with his attributes. He could no more fail to love than he could fail to be! His nature is as sure as his existence. How can the unbeliever be sure that God will administer justice to all? Because the justice of God is identical with his very being and so can no more fail than God could cease to be God. If all that in God is God then none of his attributes can change, diminish, or disappear. How opposite this is to all composite beings who possess their attributes as mutable and accidental qualities. How much greater the Christian’s confidence can be in a self-sufficient and simple God than in one who depends upon another for the reality of his being! God’s simplicity bolsters our confidence in his love, justice, and all else that he is.

Can divine simplicity be taught in the Church? Yes! While the doctrine certainly bears a technical treatment and can hold its own in philosophical-theological discussion, it can also be conveyed in less scholastic terms to God’s people. This may be as simple as reminding the congregation that God is not only loving, but he is the love by which he loves; not only powerful, but the power by which he is powerful; not only wise, but the wisdom by which he is wise; not only good, but the goodness by which he is good. God is the original and the source of all these virtues and does not possess them by dependence upon another. This is only a beginning, but it is a way to help restore belief in God’s simplicity to the hearts and minds of his people.  

[1] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 2 vols. (1853; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), I: 333.

[2] Edward Leigh, A Systeme or Body of Divinity (London: William Lee, 1662), 161.

[3] Leigh, Systeme, 167.


James Dolezal (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves part-time as a professor in the Cairn University School of Divinity.  He is ordained as a Reformed Baptist and is the author of God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness. James is happily married to Courtney and they have two children, a son, Judah, and daughter, Havah.


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