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

Simple Water

“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 kind, or better, one without kind; He is the only God and He is not an individual member of a class of like beings, for there is no such class: He is unitas singularitatis. And not only is God one in number, admitting no kind or genus, 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)

As well as,

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me. (Ps. 139:8-10)

God fills Heaven and Earth. He is in Heaven, in Hell, on Saturn, in your house, and in your heart. Wherever there is a there there, He is there. But according to Psalm 139, He is everywhere, not a part of Him, or a piece of Him. It is not as though God is very large such that He has something like a foot in Hell, His head in Heaven, and hand on Saturn. The whole of Him is present in each and every square millimeter of all that is. How can this be, but for Divine Simplicity? Wherever He is, He is entirely present. When the Psalmist says, “If I ascend into heaven, You are there,” he means God Himself is there, not a part of Him. But simultaneously, if he was making his bed in Hell, God Himself would be there. This is because God is not composed of parts, but is wholly present in every point of His Creation, not distributed throughout the Universe.

(3) The Eternity of God depends on Divine Simplicity

Much like the Omnipresence of God speaks of His Simplicity with reference to space, so His eternality speaks of His presence throughout all time and eternity. We read,

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8)

Does the Bible teach that God was in the past, is right now in the present, and will be in the future, but not yet? No. Or does the Bible teach that there is a part of Him extending backward in time, a part of Him in our moment in time, with the rest of Him stretched forward through time? Again, no. God is now, and always has been wholly present at the beginning, the middle, and the end of history. He is the beginning and the end. This can be so because God is simple. He is wholly present in each tense at every moment.

(4) The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity depends on Divine Simplicity

We read in the Athanasian Creed,

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; And yet they are not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say: There are three Gods or three Lords.

Each Person is fully God, yet that does not mean that there are the same number of gods as there are Persons, for though each Person is fully God, there is only one God. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, but when all taken together, there is not an increase of God, or more God, or greater fullness, or anything of the sort. Further, the doctrine of Perichoresis, or Circumincession, is fundamental to a proper understanding of the Trinity. Each Person of the Trinity fully indwells the other Person, both individually and collectively. Thus, we read in the Scripture passages such as the following:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

The Word was “with God” and the Word simultaneously “was God.” Further,

Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me[.] (Jn. 14:11)

How can the Word, the Son of God both be with God and also God Himself? How can God the Father be in the Son, yet the Son simultaneously in the Father? How, except that He is Simple. There is not a part of God in the Father, a part of God in the Son, and a part of God in the Holy Spirit. The whole of God is in each, and each are in each other, and all are together the one God.

(5) The Incarnation depends on Divine Simplicity

That God became man and was united in one Person with human nature also requires the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. Again, when God became incarnate, there was not a part of the Son of God in Heaven and a part of the Son of God in flesh, though God fills both Heaven and Earth. The Son of God was fully in Heaven, fully on Earth, fully on Saturn, and yet fully in the flesh of His humanity.

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. (Col. 2:9)

This is essential to the Gospel. It cannot be that part of God was in Christ and part elsewhere, and it cannot be that God was wholly present in only one or the other, for,

God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself[.] (2 Cor. 5:19)

Not a part of God was in Christ, but God was in Christ. And His presence was not removed from the rest of Heaven and Earth to do so. And this continues to be true even now, even after our Lord’s ascension into Heaven. We read in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q 47: Is not then Christ with us even unto the end of the world, as He has promised?

A: Christ is true Man and true God: according to His human nature, He is now not on earth; but according to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit, He is at no time absent from us.

(6) The Immutability of God depends on Divine Simplicity

The doctrine of the Immutability of God and the doctrine of Divine Simplicity are intimately related. God declares,

I am the Lord, I do not change. (Mal. 3:6)

“I am the Lord.” It is because He is God, because He is YHWY, that He does not change. He declares His name to be, “I Am that I Am” (Ex. 3:14), therefore there is in Him “no shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). Now if God were composed of parts, He would be, by definition, subject to change. To be composed of parts is to be subject to rearrangement, increase and diminution, and all either for better or for worse—impossible for a perfect being. But if God is Simple, then there is, by definition, no possibility of change—no potential rearrangement, no increase or diminution, no for better or for worse. God is already perfect.

Now it may be argued that God is subject to change, but simply chooses not to change. But that would then make Immutability an accidental or inessential property of God, and thereby a denial of His metaphysical Simplicity. And more than even this, if God is properly subject to change (whether He ever decides to or not), this would necessarily imply that He is composed of parts! For what would change be in that which is physically/spiritually, temporally, and metaphysically Simple? There can be no rearrangement, increase or diminution, or coming and going of properties in one who is Simple as we have described above. All change presumes composition. Hence, a denial of Immutability is by extension a denial of Divine Simplicity and all that we have discussed above.

But because God is in fact Simple, we can go on to complete the wonderfully comforting passage from Malachi:

“For I am the Lord, I do not change;
Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.”

For the Scripture declares in assurance of our great Hope,

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb. 13:8)


To conclude: though the doctrine of Divine Simplicity does seem very speculative—even esoteric and unimportant—on its face; and though the doctrine may appear to be more a province of philosophy rather than chapter and verse, we nevertheless see that it is not only a true Biblical doctrine, but is also essential for rightly understanding the Biblical descriptions of God, the “Omni” perfections of God, the Eternality of God, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the Immutability of God. I think it is therefore justifiable to say that the coherence of the Gospel itself depends in large part on the truth of Divine Simplicity.

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

  1. Jeremy Horneck December 7, 2017 / 3:10 pm

    I agree with terevos. Your best work.


  2. Angela Werner December 12, 2017 / 6:45 pm

    Thank you for this very clear and concise essay on the importance of the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. Have you been following the series, I Am That I Am on the Heidelcast? It is very complimentary to your work here.


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