Is God Simple?

This confession of God’s simplicity represents the common opinion of reformed theology as well as earlier Christian theology.

Divine simplicity as well as its attendant teachings (immutability, impassibility, timelessness) no longer enjoy a consensus. Instead, a number of theologians now deny, ignorte, or redefine simplicity. Certainly, the principle of Sola Scriptura allows even the most central teaching of Christianity to undergo scrutiny. Yet I am persuaded that divine simplicity enjoyed such universal consensus because it is biblical, true, and coherent. God is simple.

 

The first article of the Belgic Confession (1561) affirms, “We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God.” This confession of God’s simplicity represents the common opinion of reformed theology as well as earlier Christian theology.

But divine simplicity as well as its attendant teachings (immutability, impassibility, timelessness) no longer enjoy such a consensus. Instead, a number of theologians now deny, ignorte, or redefine simplicity. Certainly, the principle of Sola Scriptura allows even the most central teaching of Christianity to undergo scrutiny. Yet I am persuaded that divine simplicity enjoyed such universal consensus because it is biblical, true, and coherent. God is simple.

To deny, ignore, or redefine this doctrine entails not only theological incoherency but also various other inconsisties when it comes to certain attendant doctrines—immutability, impassibility, infinity, triune relations, and monotheism.

The Biblical Argument Against Simplicity

The two main arguments against simplicity are: (1) the Bible does not teach it, and (2) the doctrine is incoherent.

The first argument follows the biblicist impulse of the Socianians, Remonstrants, and Arians. The idea is that if a word does not appear in the Bible, then it cannot represent a biblical doctrine.

But since every English word does not appear in the Bible, no word we use appears in the Bible in a 1-to-1 way. Further, words like conversion, the Bible, literal interpretation, historical-grammatical hermeneutics and so on do not appear in the Bible. But these words represent ideas which may appear in Scripture or help us to think through scriptural interpretation.

To give an historical example, the Arians criticized the pro-Nicenes for using the word homoousia because they felt it was unbiblical; but the pro-Nicenes responded that the word represented biblical teaching. The Socianians did the same thing when it came to simplicity. Both actually wanted to remove the foundations from Christian theology so that they could deny Christ’s divine nature.

Evangelical theologians do not want to do that. They, however, pick up the biblicist impulse and affirm: “There is no verse that explicitly teaches that God is simple” (Feinberg 2001: 327). Actually, there are many verses that do. But Christian dogma in any case does not rely on single Bible verses but on the canonical witness to the living God. Were it to rely on a Bible verse citation to make an argument, then it would become an incoherent and inconsistent system.

Theology attests to God who truly exists. It argues from the basis of the whole Bible. It then considers the numerous premises of God across Scripture before making conclusions that represent the whole scope of biblical teaching. Bad theology picks a topic, defines the topic, and lists Bible verses underneath it as if that could prove a doctrine. This method fits confessions because of their representative nature. But do note that Zacharias Ursinus wrote a nearly 700 page theological explanation of his Hiedelberg Catechism!

The Incoherency Argument Against Simplicity

The second argument corresponds to the second requirement of true theology, namely, that it represents a reasonable and coherent explanation of truth. Hence, in the modern era, philosophers of religion lead the church against simplicity.

The most compelling argument against simplicity is that it makes God identical to his properties. In this sense, each property is identical to each other (thus not truly different) and God is identical to a property (thus God is a property). But God has differing properties and cannot be a mere property. Therefore, the argument goes, simplicity is not true.

But this argument fails to notice how God’s other attributes provide a fuller explanation of simplicity. In particular, God’s infinite perfection entails that he has one perfect nature which we see refracted according to our finite limitations into the various attributes. Hence, we affirm God’s unicity—his oneness to all that he is.

Second, this argument seems to assume that God would be a property like human love or human knowledge. But that is not the case. God’s Wisdom and Love are subsisting persons in God (the Logos and Spirit), for example. Further, divine properties in a simple and single perfect being differ from our experience of properties since God is supersubstantial—beyond all being. We must consequently affirm that we cannot speak univocally but analogically about God. And besides, that God is identical to his single perfection (which we see according to finite capacities as various attributes) is precisely the claim that simplicity makes.

In the end, we cannot explain an infinite being with finite capacities. God is that which goes beyond finity and into infinity—beyond all being. We must affirm the goodness of apophaticism, that is, we know what God is not; but we can only know what God is (kataphaticism) by analogical reasoning.

The Biblical Argument for Simplicity

The argument for simplicity works like this. The Bible reveals metaphors about God as well as key actions of God that entail his simple nature. Divine simplicity means God has no parts, passions, or possibility. In every modality possible to conceive of, God remains simple. What the Bible reveals about God requires certain conclusions about his nature. These conclusions follow from theological reasoning.

Biblical metaphors for God like “God is light” or “is a consuming fire” or has “no form” (1 John 1:5; Deut 4:24; Deut 4:12) imply a pure nature. To be all light means to admit “no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) nor “variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

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