When theologians speak of God as simple, they intend a different meaning from the more everyday use of the term, and it can escape those who have not studied the doctrine of God in-depth. When we confess that God is simple, we are making a metaphysical statement—that is, a statement about the nature of God’s being. We deny that he is a composite being. He is not made up of this and that. There is nothing prior to or lesser than God out of which God is constructed.
Thanks for returning to this journey through theology proper. Today we consider the doctrine of God’s simplicity. To the uninitiated, it may seem odd or even demeaning to describe God as simple. After all, we typically use the term to indicate something that is easy to understand or do, or alternatively people who are not too quick on the uptake, e.g., “They’re simple folk.” In general, our use of the word simple indicates a lack of majesty, importance, difficulty, or intelligence. Perhaps this is why when I once asked my family, “Did you know God is simple?” they were either confused or openly objected.
Have no fear! I hope by the end of this article you will be able to understand and appreciate God’s simplicity, which is an historically important doctrine of the Church. Divine simplicity is the common confession of most Catholics and Protestants, medievals and moderns. While there have certainly been variations in how people understand the term and theologians who have rejected it, the principle of divine simplicity is embedded in the Reformation era confessions, and as such, it is important for us to explore.
What Do We Mean by Simplicity?
When theologians speak of God as simple, they intend a different meaning from the more everyday use of the term, and it can escape those who have not studied the doctrine of God in-depth. When we confess that God is simple, we are making a metaphysical statement—that is, a statement about the nature of God’s being. We deny that he is a composite being. He is not made up of this and that. There is nothing prior to or lesser than God out of which God is constructed. Consider the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
“God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them.” (WCF 2.2)
The basic reason we confess that God is not a composite being is to stress the complete independence of God. See for instance this quote from the Puritan writer John Owen.
“Is he in dependence upon any thing without him? Is it not a most eminent contradiction to speak of God in dependence on any other thing? Must not that thing either be God or be reduced to some other without and besides him, who is God, as the causes of all our affections are? ‘God is in one mind, and who can turn him? what his soul desireth, that he doeth,’ Job 23:13.”
This fact of God’s absolute existential independence is what theologians refer to as God’s aseity. (“self-existence”, coming from Latin a se) In his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Richard A. Muller notes that simplicity does not require aseity, but aseity does require simplicity, for “to be self-existent or from one’s self should imply simplicity, given that a self-existent being, namely, one not originate from previously existing things, would not be a composite…” In other words, a composite thing is created by bringing two previously existing things together, but if God is the original and first existence, then he could not have been composed of more than one thing.
Therefore, these two descriptions of God work hand-in-hand. It is because he has his existence from himself and nothing else that he must be simple, for no one constructed God, and he relies on nothing outside of himself to be what he is. Scripture confirms this principle for us in the very first verse when it says, “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1) There is nothing prior to God. Before all existence, he exists. We are composite beings, but he is not: he is the one who composes and brings into existence, creating things from things. “In the beginning God created…” (Genesis 1:1)
Simplicity is Necessary for Immutability
God’s simplicity also links directly with his immutability: in fact, they necessitate one another. Philosophers in the tradition of Aristotle have often distinguished between the substance of a thing and its accidents. That language may be confusing, but what it means is this: the substance of a thing is what makes it what it is, or what is necessary for it to exist as the type of thing it is. For example, the substance of me as a human being includes the fact that I have a body and a soul, because those things are necessary aspects of my humanity. I cannot possibly be human without a body and a soul: they are essential to human existence. Even after we die, our bodies will eventually be resurrected.
The accidents of a thing, on the other hand, can be added or subtracted. They are not necessary to a thing’s basic existence, but they modify or change it. Again using myself as an example, I have brown hair, but recently my hair has become a bit more blonde. (I will claim this happened naturally as the result of sun exposure, but you can guess the truth.) Nevertheless, the fact that I once had brown hair and now have slightly less brown hair is accidental to my existence as a human. Even if I were to lose all my hair tomorrow (Perish the thought! I’m not a seminary professor!), it would not change my substance. It is only accidental to my humanity. I am still human, through and through, regardless of how much hair I have or what color it is.
If you understand this distinction between substance and accidents, perhaps you can see why theologians in the Reformed tradition have always insisted that God has no accidents. Accidents are changeable and transitory by nature. For God to have accidents as part of his being would mean that his being changes or mutates: he exists in a certain way one day, and in another way the next. But we confess that God is immutable—that is, incapable of change or mutation in his being. The actions of God are certainly different in various situations, but he himself is no different.
- “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’” (Exodus 3:14)
- “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Micah 3:6)
- “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17)
Simplicity also links in with other of God’s attributes, such as his infinity and eternity, but let this be enough by way of a basic introduction to the concept. Let us move on to consider the phrase that best summarizes God’s simplicity in the Reformed confessions: “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, with out body, parts, or passions…” (WCF 2.1) Our understanding of God’s simplicity can be built upon those three principles: he is without body, parts, or passions.
That the eternal God does not have a physical body has been the confession of all orthodox Christians throughout history. Though scripture uses anthropomorphic language to describe God, referring to him as if he had a body, this should be understood as a kind of analogy to aid human understanding. (Consult my previous article, “What Kind of Knowledge Can We Have about God?”) Jesus told the Samaritan woman that “God is spirit”. (John 4:24) Not that God has a spirit, but he is spirit, meaning he is not an embodied being.
This makes sense from the perspective of divine simplicity, for if God possessed both a body and soul like us, or perhaps a body in addition to his spiritual essence, then he would be a composite being: he would be made up of more than one thing. (Stay tuned for a later article on relations that will explain why the fact that God is Triune does not mean that he is a composite being.) Perhaps it seems a point of little contention now, given that all orthodox Christian denominations confess that God does not have a body, but this was a matter of greater contention in the early days when Christianity was competing with Greek and Roman mythologies for influence, among other things. Those religions believed that the gods had real bodies: they were composite beings. Christianity’s claim that God was spirit stood in stark contrast to popular notions of divinity.