Divine Simplicity

Surely God is complicated. How else could he be both one and three? Or create and uphold the swirling, manifold world we inhabit? Or be both just and loving towards us? Ben Underwood investigates.

‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions’
(Article 1 of The 39 Articles.)

I had a good grounding at theological college in Biblical studies, Biblical languages, Biblical theology and some areas of doctrine—atonement and justification for example. But you can’t cover everything, and one of the areas in which I did not manage to get much under my belt was in the doctrine of God. In recent years I have become interested in theology proper, the quest to think about what it is for God to be God, which includes trying to talk about the being and attributes of God. It has been a perennial conviction of Christian theology that one of the unique characterisations of God is that he is simple. But the student of theology quickly discovers that divine simplicity is in many ways counter-intuitive and not easy to grasp. And yet thinking about it has repaid the effort for me, as a way into reflecting on how God is not like his creatures, but transcends them, and why he can be depended upon.

Getting a feel for the meaning of God’s simplicity

God has no parts

Simplicity is a positive term, but the concept is often conveniently stated negatively. One negative characterisation of simplicity is incompositeness. To say that God is simple means that he is without parts of any kind, whether concrete or abstract. God cannot be thought of containing anything that has its own essence or substance that is different from the essence or substance of God. No prior process produced God, and God is not the union of any things that are different to everything that he is.

God is undivided and indivisible

Another negative characterisation of God’s simplicity is to say that he is undivided and indivisible. There is no way that God can have any divisions in his being. Whatever might be in God, and whatever distinctions we might wish to make as we consider who God is, these distinctions cannot divide God into one thing and another, different thing. This means that everything that God is in himself is inseparable from everything else God is. God’s mercy is never without his justice (and vice versa), nor is the Father ever without the Son and the Spirit (and severally). Lastly, God is uncompounded and uncompoundable, which is to say that he cannot enter into composition with anything that he is not. His divinity cannot be mingled, combined or amalgamated to produce a composite thing in which God’s being is a part or factor.

God is always and everywhere all that he is

Put positively, simplicity means that God is always and everywhere wholly and only all that he is. His being, character, action is always entire, integral and perfected: never partial, never divided, never diluted, never imperfect. Here are some quotations to give you a feel for what some prominent theologians have said in defining God as simple:

‘He is simple, non-composite, not made up of different members, altogether like and equal to himself, because he is wholly intellect, wholly spirit, wholly mind, wholly thought, wholly reason, wholly hearing, wholly seeing, wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good’
(Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.13.3-4)

‘God is in no way composite. Rather, he is entirely simple’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 3.7)

‘God cannot enter into composition with anything in any way’  (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 3.8)

‘The essence of God is simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself, without portion or derivation, but in integral perfection’. (Calvin, Institutes, 1.XIII.2)

‘…in all He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself. At no time or place is He composed out of what is distinct from himself. At no time or place, then, is He divided or divisible.’ (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 445)

“God is simple without the least possibility of either internal or external composition.’  (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 447)

So as an initial statement of the simplicity of God we say that he is one undivided and indivisible wholeness, he is not composed of distinct parts of any kind, and any way of talking about God that entails that he is composed of distinct parts, or is, or could be, the product of, or participant in, any kind of process of composition cannot be true.

Everything in God is God

An extension of this positive characterisation of the simplicity of God to introduce is to say that God’s simplicity means that everything in God is God—so that if there is divine goodness in God, it is not a part of God, but God’s goodness is the whole of God without remainder. God is his goodness, and God’s goodness is his whole divine being. You cannot discover some part of God which is not wholly and utterly his goodness. Further, if God has goodness, his goodness is not a sharing or exemplification of an abstract virtue of goodness that exists apart from and somehow beyond God’s being, but that the divine goodness that God has is nothing but his entire divine being. This way of expressing the simplicity of God may also be put thus: that God is what he has.

‘the nature of the Trinity is called simple […] because it is not something different from what it has’ (Augustine, City of God, XI.10)

This leads to a counter-intuitive, not to say paradoxical, characteristic of divine simplicity, sometimes called the identity thesis, namely that all God’s essential attributes are each identical with the whole being of God, and that in God these attributes are identical with one another. For if, as Irenaeus puts it, God is ‘wholly intellect, wholly spirit, wholly mind, wholly thought, wholly reason, wholly hearing, wholly seeing, wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good’, then God’s intellect and God’s spiritual nature, his seeing and his being the whole source of all goodness coincide with his entire being and therefore, presumably, with one another. God’s simplicity means self-identicality: that while we may speak about God’s mercy and distinguish it from his righteousness, God’s simplicity is that he is identical with all the attributes of his being, and these attributes are all identical with one another, so that in the being of God, his mercy is identical with his righteousness and with the whole being of God. As Irenaeus says, ‘He is […] altogether like and equal to himself’. Here are some further expressions of this conviction:

‘But we indeed use many different words concerning God, in order to bring out that he is great, good, wise, blessed true, and whatever else he may be called that is not unworthy of him. But his greatness is the same as his wisdom, for he is great not by bulk, but by power. Similarly, his goodness is the same as his wisdom and greatness; and his truth is the same as all these qualities. And in him it is not one thing to be blessed, and another thing to be great, or to be wise, or to be true, or to be good, or in a word to be himself.’ (Augustine, The Trinity, VI.7.)

‘for God to be is the same as to be strong, or to be just or to be wise, and to be whatever else you may say of that simple multiplicity, or that multiple simplicity, whereby his substance is signified.’  (Augustine, The Trinity, VI.4.)

‘God, who, as I have said, is not composed of matter and form, is identical with his own divinity, his own life, and with whatever else is similarly predicated of him’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 3.3)

‘Our doctrine therefore means that every individual perfection in God is nothing but God Himself and therefore nothing but every other divine perfection. It means equally strictly on the other hand that God Himself is nothing other than each one of His perfections in its individuality, and that each individual perfection is identical with every other and with the fulness of them all.’  (Karl Barth, CD II.2 p. 333).

Why would we believe that God is simple in this way?

Simplicity is not a biblical term, and the Bible does not say directly that God is without parts. We might feel that this doctrine is a dangerous philosophical imposition upon our theology, a humanly conceived notion about God, and not a divinely revealed one. Here are a couple of reasons why Christians might think it right to believe that God is simple: 

God is one

‘ Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ Deut 6:4

‘…for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’ 1 Cor 8:6

That God is one means that he is unique—there is no one like him, and there is no other God beside him, he alone is the Most High. But that God is one means also that there is a fundamental unity to his being, an integrity and coherence that means he is not and cannot be divided, or conflicted by rival elements of his nature, or at risk of coming apart. God’s simplicity is then an exposition of God’s unity. The simpler something is, the fewer divisions and distinctions it has, the more it is truly one thing. If God is truly and really one, absolutely one, he will be simple, indeed he will be absolutely simple.

 God is the creator of all things

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Genesis 1:1

‘For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.’ Romans 11:36

If God is the one through whom all things come, then there is nothing prior to God in any way. If God had distinct parts, these parts could not have come from him. They would be things that are not God, yet which did not come from God. If God is the creator of all that is not himself, there are and can be no such things. Therefore God is without parts, he is simple, and not the product of a process of composition by participation in prior possibilities, or union of distinct parts. He does not acquire or exemplify something independent of himself to become what he is.

What does a careful doctrine of divine simplicity have to take into account?

The basic drive of the idea of God’s simplicity is to unify, simplify and remove anything that might entail division, composition or separable parts in the being of God. In this way, simplicity is like a theological force of gravity—it seeks to pull everything about God’s being together and make it one indivisible, partless thing, a divine singularity. This connects well with the thought that God is immutable, impassible, eternal and absolute. It does not cohere so obviously with the idea that there may be distinctions to be made as we talk about the being of God, such as that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or that he is wise and loving, righteous and patient, or that his works are free and diverse and that his dealings with his creatures are various, or that ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14). These Christian convictions introduce a different drive into the doctrine of God—the drive to distinguish and account for the multiplicity that seems necessary to understand the God of the Bible. Trinitarian distinctions must be made, for the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit (and severally); distinctions must be made to account for the various qualities attributed to God in Scripture; distinctions must be made so as to understand God’s will to create thus and not so, to judge thus and not so, to save thus and not so.

This drive to make such distinctions, to include difference and plurality in our doctrine of God, presses out, countering the collapse, under the gravity of unqualified simplicity, of God’s being into a kind of black hole, where even the things that Scripture says about God’s many and various attributes and works lie on our side of a kind of theological event horizon, but what lies beyond the event horizon, what God is in himself, in the ultimate simplicity of the divine singularity, this is unknown and unknowable, utterly disconnected even from the ways Scripture speaks of God.

We can illustrate the consciousness that multiplicity does have its place in our understanding of God, and that God’s simple oneness does not preclude manifoldness via some further quotations:

‘for God to be is the same as to be strong, or to be just or to be wise, and to be whatever else you may say of that simple multiplicity, or that multiple simplicity, whereby his substance is signified.’  (Augustine, The Trinity, VI.4. Italics mine.)

‘He is one in an unchanging and transcendent way. He is not one part of a plurality not yet a total of parts. Indeed his oneness is not of this kind at all, for he does not share in unity, nor have it for his possession. Rather, he is one in a manner completely different from all this. He transcends the unity which is in beings. He is indivisible multiplicity, the unfilled overfullness which produces, perfects, and preserves all unity and all multiplicity.’ (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, II.11. Italics mine.)

‘The essence of God is simple and undivided, and he contains all in himself, without portion or derivation, but in integral perfection’.  (Calvin, Institutes, 1.XIII.2. Italics mine.)

‘we have Dionysius saying that, “God pre-contains in one all existing things” […] the perfections of everything exist in God.’ (Aquinas, ST 1a 4.2).

‘Things that are diverse and opposite in themselves pre-exist as one in God without detriment to his simplicity’  (Aquinas, ST 1a 4.2).

God’s simplicity should not be understood as a bare, elemental featurelessness, but as the name of the way God’s being transcendently includes, unifies and integrates all that it means for him to be the glorious God of many perfections and diverse works, yet without any tension, division or complexity.

To come this far by no means makes plain and readily understood what God’s simplicity really is. God’s simplicity is not simple, that is, it is not comprehensible to us. How God’s wisdom and his power can be the same in him; how ‘things diverse and opposite can pre-exist in God without detriment to his simplicity’—these are not necessarily things we can imagine. But thinking about what it must mean for God to be one, for God to be the creator, we come to believe that these counter-intuitive things follow nonetheless.

What comfort and what challenge is the doctrine of God’s simplicity?

We might wonder if to believe that God is simple has any consequence for living, or whether it is sheer theological frippery. Let me offer one comfort and one challenge that seems to me to flow from the conviction of God’s simplicity.

God’s simplicity is his trustworthiness

One of the most-repeated truths about God we read in the Bible is that he is trustworthy and true, he is faithful, he can be relied upon. And I suggest that God’s simplicity and God’s trustworthiness are really two sides of the same coin (here following Karl Barth as he writes in CD II.1 pp. 458ff). For if God were a union of parts, if he were divided or divisible, then there would be separate elements in God that would need to be integrated—elements which would then moderate one another—for God to be who he is. If, for example, his righteousness is not in the end inseparable from and identical to his love, but if at some level they are separable things, attributes of God put together or interacting, they might be in some tension with one another. Then God is not one, not wholly aligned on every level in himself in all that he is. Then things could possibly shift in God: be rebalanced and redistributed, rearticulated and restructured, reconfiguring the way his love and righteousness exist within him and therefore towards us. Then he may come to speak a different word to us, and that shifting in God will mean he is not the Rock who is the same yesterday and today and forever, and may not be relied on as such. But if God is understood as simple, and his love and righteousness (for example) are not competing and different aspects of his being, but are in the end inseparably and wholly contained in one another, and coincident, individually and together, with the whole being of God, then God will of course express his love and righteousness as the single, whole movement which is his entire being, and thus he will be faithful, constant, trustworthy.

God’s simplicity calls for our simplicity

The perfection of God’s wholly-integrated, single, constant, uncomplicated nature is something divine, something holy, which is to be praised and, to the degree that we may, in the Spirit’s power, emulate his holiness, to be imitated. The Greek word haplotes (meaningsimplicity, purity of motive, integrity, sincerity) is commended to believers as a quality that should characterise our devotion to Christ and our dealings with one another (e.g. 2 Cor 11:3 and 1:12). While as creatures we will always be composite in our beings, we can strive in our hearts and wills for simplicity, for straightforwardness, integrity, purity, constancy and trustworthiness; and we can seek to avoid duplicity, contradiction, contrariness and caprice as unworthy of those who belong to God.

Further reading

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart has a section on divine simplicity in its wider concern with the doctrine of God.

James E. Dolezal has written two books, first, God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness which focusses on divine simplicity, and followed up by All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, which critiques modern evangelicalism from within over the nature of God.

Two recent, quality monographs on simplicity are Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account by Jordan P. Barrett and Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account by Steven J. Duby.