Why Get All Worked Up About Divine Simplicity? An Introduction to the Importance of the Doctrine

God is not only “one” numerically, He is also one of a kind; He is the only God and He is not an individual member of a class of like beings: He is unitas singularitatis.

Many have rejected this doctrine on the bases that it is too speculative, too philosophical, and lacks chapter and verse in the Bible. Many have also rejected it because of its wide range of theological consequences—heretics just plain hate it. But since it does appear weird and highly speculative, why get all worked up about it? Why go to the mat for such a doctrine, or die on the Simplicity hill when there are so many “more important” doctrines? Should the church ever be embroiled in debate over such “speculations?” I mean, is this really a “Gospel issue?” Most emphatically, yes. 

 

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4)

God is not only “one” numerically, He is also one of a kind; He is the only God and He is not an individual member of a class of like beings: He is unitas singularitatis. And not only is God one in number and kind, He is also one in Simplicity; He is unitas simplicitatis. The latter sense of God’s one-ness is what theologians commonly refer to as the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. Stated briefly, the doctrine acknowledges the Biblical truth that God is not composed of parts.

All created beings (so everything not God) are composed of parts. For example, an individual human is composed of many parts, like mind, will, rationality, arms, legs, heart, etc. All of these together make up what we call an individual “human,” a composition of physical/spiritual parts. Many have also suggested that since a human (or anything else) endures through time, we can rightly speak of past parts, present parts, and future parts, all composing the persisting individual human in time. And last, we may even speak of a human as composed of parts metaphysically. For example, an individual human is composed of a collection of essential properties (substance) and inessential properties (accidents). To demonstrate this distinction, just think of any given human. If you theoretically remove his arms, you still have a human in mind. How about if you remove his legs or his face? You still have a human. Now what if you remove his will? Or maybe even his mind or his reason? Theoretically, would you then still have what we call “a human” in mind? I think not. The former class of properties, those which could be removed, are the inessential (accidental) properties. The latter, which if removed would render the being no longer what it is, are called essential (substantial) properties. This is yet another way in which creatures are composed of parts, they are metaphysically composed of substance and accident.

The doctrine of Divine Simplicity declares that none of this is so with God. He is not a physical composition, a temporal composition, nor even a metaphysical composition. He is not a grand collection of properties, an infinite collection of time slices, nor is He a composition of substance and accidents. To speak quite oddly (but truly), He simply is Himself is-ing as He is; that is, He is Simple.

Many have rejected this doctrine on the bases that it is too speculative, too philosophical, and lacks chapter and verse in the Bible. Many have also rejected it because of its wide range of theological consequences—heretics just plain hate it. But since it does appear weird and highly speculative, why get all worked up about it? Why go to the mat for such a doctrine, or die on the Simplicity hill when there are so many “more important” doctrines? Should the church ever be embroiled in debate over such “speculations?” I mean, is this really a “Gospel issue?”

Most emphatically, yes. Let’s briefly look at a few reasons why.

(1) The coherence of Biblical descriptions of God depends on Divine Simplicity

The Scripture uses many adjectives to describe God. It speaks of the veracity of God, the vivifying life of God, the light of God, the wisdom of God, the love of God, etc. But the Scripture also makes substantive statements about God with these identical terms, e.g., that He Himself is Truth, is Life, is Light, is Wisdom, and is Love.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (Jn. 14:6)

God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 Jn. 1:5)

Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:24)

God is love. (1 Jn. 4:8)

How can God be Love? Is not love an attribute or perfection of God? Is not light simply a property of God? How can He be said to be those things which are also His attributes and properties? And more, how can He be substantively Love and substantively Light since these are two substantially different things? Because of Divine Simplicity. God is not composed of parts. God does not have a core substance around which a host of attributes are collected. Therefore, when you know the love of God, you know God. When you know the truth of God, you know God, though never comprehensively. In fact, because God is incomprehensible, it is only because of Divine Simplicity that we know Him at all. When we come to know His properties, we come to know Him, because He is not composed partially of accidents and partially of substance such that He is shrouded in accidents.

(2) The “Omni” properties of God depend on Divine Simplicity

It is also possible to show that every perfection of God in the “Omni” class depends on the truth of Divine Simplicity, but we will look only at an easy one, the Omnipresence of God. We read in the Scripture:

“Am I a God near at hand,” says the Lord,
“And not a God afar off?
Can anyone hide himself in secret places,
So I shall not see him?” says the Lord;
“Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord (Jer. 23:24)

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