Divine Simplicity
A Dogmatic Account
Steven J. Duby
Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016.

While I was at theological college I was puzzled by a reference I once came across to God being ‘simple’. It was not clear to me what this meant or why it might be important. I asked my theology lecturer who explained it with words to the effect that ‘God is God all the way through’, which was intriguing, although not an entire resolution of all my ignorance on the matter. My curiosity about divine simplicity lay idle for some time after that. I did come to realise that as an Anglican clergyman I was committed to the doctrine of God’s simplicity via Article 1 of the 39 Articles which teaches that God is ‘without parts’, which is to say he is simple. But what that meant and why it was believed was still not clear to me. It was not obvious to me that God would be simple. As one God in three persons he might be imagined to be rather complex. As the creator of creatures diverse and intricate, you might imagine he would be diverse and intricate himself. Certainly Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion assumed that, ‘A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right’ (p149). If we think of God as complex, diverse and intricate, it does seem to confirm what Dawkins suggests: that the question arises, ‘What explains that complexity?’

David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, gave me an appreciation of the meaning of, and reason for the claim that God is simple, a claim that Christians from Clement of Alexandria to Karl Barth have accepted, explained and defended one way or another (see pp 128-142 of Hart’s book). The simplicity of God is one of those deductions that follows from believing that God is truly the creator of all things, who does not draw his being from any separately existing or logically prior thing. If God were to have parts which together were to make him who he is, then the union of those parts would require some explanation, which would be an account of what causes God to be God, which is impossible if God is truly the creator, from whom are all things (Rom 11:36). Hence God is without parts; that is, simple.

Another way to express the simplicity of God is to say God is what he has. We creatures may have certain attributes–– we possess some goodness, some power, some wisdom. But we are not these attributes that we have. We may corrupt the goodness we possess and lose some of it, or we may grow in power or deepen in wisdom, because we are finite, dependent creatures who have some share in goodness, power and wisdom, which we receive or participate in. But God is not finite, nor dependent, and therefore he does not obtain goodness, or participate in a goodness that has any kind of existence prior to him, or independent of him. (If he did, he would not be the one from whom are all things.) God is not merely good (even perfectly good), he is his goodness; the goodness from which all goodness derives. He is not merely (utterly) powerful, he is his power; the power from which all power is given. He is not merely wise, he is his wisdom; the wisdom which enlightens everyone wise. God is what he has. God is God all the way through; there is nothing in God that is not God. He is simple in this way: in him ‘quality and substance are one and the same’ (Augustine, City of God XI.10).

I am slow to get to the actual book review part of this book review in case, dear reader, you would hesitate if asked, ‘What is divine simplicity anyway?’ But you may be chapter and verse on all this, and well aware that there is quite a discussion of the doctrine of God’s simplicity going on in the circles of theology and philosophical theology, thanks, on the one hand, to certain misgivings about the classic scholastic expositions of God’s simplicity (e.g. by Thomas Aquinas) on the part of theologians like Barth, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Torrrance, Jenson and Gunton. On the other hand, Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Woltersdorff, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland and Thomas Morris question the coherence of the doctrine and regard it as incompatible with a biblical understanding of God.

Many have sprung to the defence of divine simplicity either in its classic form, or via some modification of the doctrine. Steven Duby’s Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account defends the classic account of God’s simplicity. He uses the resources of Protestant scholastics and metaphysicians such as Zanchi, Polanus, Owen, Turretin, van Mastricht, Alsted and Maccovius, but Duby seeks to ground the doctrine in the teaching of Scripture as a first priority.

His book is in five chapters. Chapter One is an historical survey of the doctrine in Christian thought, becoming detailed in the modern period, and especially outlining the contemporary situation of ‘theological misgivings’ (p34), and ‘analytical criticisms and defences’ (p42). Chapter Two provides an orientation to Duby’s own project, with his account of the proper relationships between biblical exegesis, metaphysics and dogmatics. He distances himself from an approach he detects in some Christian analytic philosophers, which Duby sees as detached from the control of biblical exegesis, overconfident in human reason in the things of God, mistakenly insisting on univocity in theological description, and a kind of Platonic ontology. Duby wants to begin with Scripture and draw on the resources of a Thomistic, Reformed metaphysics, which he feels is a better handmaiden to Christian theology than the contemporary analytic alternatives. He then gives a nine-page exposition of the doctrine of God’s simplicity in those metaphysical terms, which will be familiar if you have read Aquinas’ account of simplicity in his Summa Theologiae (Q3).

Chapters Three and Four of the book seek to make ‘An Exegetical-Dogmatic Case for Divine Simplicity’ in two parts, drawing the doctrine firstly from the scriptural teaching about God’s absolute singularity, and free and independent life (aseity) in chapter three, and then secondly, from God’s immutability, infinity and his creation ex nihilo in chapter four. These subsections each begin with ‘biblical teaching’ and proceed dogmatically ‘towards simplicity’.

Chapter Five seeks to meet three major areas of criticism of the classic doctrine of God’s simplicity. These are: firstly, that it is incompatible with the plurality of God’s attributes. (The criticism runs like this: if God is what he has, then God’s wisdom is God’s power is God’s love is God. So then there would be no real distinction between any of God’s attributes and God himself, if he is simple.) Secondly, God’s simplicity is incompatible with the freedom of God. (The criticism goes like this: one of the ways God is understood to be simple is that he is actus purus, pure actuality, with no potentiality in him. It is important that God is seen to be actus purus, without potentiality, because if he had any potentiality, he would be open to change, which is incompatible with his immutability, and his aseity. But if God cannot be touched at any point by potentiality, then surely he cannot in any sense have been only potentially the creator of all things, which means he must necessarily be the creator of all things, which is to say, God was not free not to make the world, or indeed to do or not do anything he actually does.) The last objection is that God’s simplicity is incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity. (This objection to simplicity goes like this: simplicity rules out real distinctions in God; you cannot analyse God into distinct parts in any way. But surely, goes the objection, the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit must represent some distinctions in the Godhead. For if they did not, how could we avoid saying that the Father is the Son is the Spirit?)

Duby’s project is large in scope––he deploys Thomistic metaphysics against contemporary philosophical theology in analytic mode and against the suspicion of old metaphysics found in recent systematic theology. The objections he grapples with are difficult, and hence his book is dense, and is perhaps not the place to start if you are new to divine simplicity. But Duby’s book is a considered, thorough, informed and committed contribution to the debate at a high level, firmly in favour of the classical theism in Thomistic mode, as re-articulated by the seventeenth-century Reformed divines. It seems to me that this discussion is important if we are really to consider what it means for God to be God––that is, the one from whom are all things, the creator of the heavens and the earth. Does God––infinite, holy, almighty––just happen to be? Uncaused, but with an inexplicable compounding of parts, or qualities, or potentialities that bequeath to him his character and abilities? Or, does God exist in a way consonant with his being the source of all things: uncaused and uncompounded: single and indivisible, entirely and boundlessly and eternally actual, light without darkness, life without death, knowledge without ignorance, love without reservation; and one whose light is life, whose life is knowledge, whose knowledge is love?

It seems to me that one of the things our culture has lost is its sense of God. ‘God is dead’ means God is dead to us, we haven’t much of a compelling notion of him. Our cultural imagination of God as the one from whom and through whom and to whom are all things; who does not exist within a space of possibilities as one inhabitant of that space, but is the one upon whom all possibility depends is, I suggest, at a low ebb. Christians have for centuries sought to honour God as the creator by distinguishing the creature, which exists in a composite and derived manner, from God, who exists simply, i.e. in a manner that does not admit any composition, derivation or divisibility. Perhaps we would be richer, and better prepared to face the thin view of God our current culture possesses, if we meditated a little on the simplicity of God.

Ben Underwood, WA