Divine Simplicity

By guest blogger, Dr. Jeffrey Waddington.
Dr. Waddington has been a close friend and mentor to Pastor Angelo Valle over the last few years. We appreciate his insight on one of the most important features of theology, God Himself.

Perhaps you have not heard of the doctrine of divine simplicity. Or maybe you have heard of it and, you find it confusing. The doctrine of divine simplicity is a bedrock to our proper biblical understanding of who God is. In this brief post, I want to offer six reasons why we should believe in the doctrine. But before I do that, I want to offer a concise definition of divine simplicity.

The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that God is not made up of parts. I would go further and say He is not made up of more basic parts. God is not a collection of ingredients. The Triune God of Scripture is not something that can be put together or taken apart. Two analogies taken from the world of construction and the culinary arts might help shed light on this truth.

Consider your typical brick wall. The wall is one thing, a certain thing. But a brick wall is made up of more basic or primitive elements. A bricklayer builds a wall from the ground up using individual bricks and mortar. A wall is constituted by the necessary ingredients of bricks and mortar.

Additionally, my wife makes a terrific Johnny Cake (cornbread). Johnny Cake is a specific kind of food. In other words, it is one kind of thing. However, as I watch my wife make her Johnny Cake, I notice that it is made up of prior ingredients such as cornmeal, butter, salt, sugar, etc. These various ingredients pre-exist Johnny Cake and contribute to making other kinds of food. The same with bricks and mortar. All of this is to say that God is not collocation of previously existing parts.

The doctrine of divine simplicity, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is formulated by the bringing of several biblical texts together. For instance, the doctrine of divine simplicity grows out of the affirmation that God is a spirit and therefore has no body with its flesh, blood, and bones (See Deuteronomy 4:15-16; John 4:24; and Luke 24:39). Flesh, blood, and bones are fragile and can be broken, wounded, and lost. Apart from the incarnation of the Son of God, God is “without body, parts, or passions” (see the Westminster Confession of Faith chapters 2, 5, and 8; the Larger Catechism Q&A 7, 10, and 12; and the Shorter Catechism Q&A 4). Even with the incarnation, the divine nature of the person of the Son is united to a human nature. The divine nature retains its character as spiritual and therefore simple. It is, after all, a hypostatic union, not an amalgamation or conglomeration.

Now let me offer six reasons why we should believe this essential doctrine:

  1. If God is not simple, then He is made up of more basic or primitive parts which can be gained or lost. To put it more bluntly, God could disintegrate into a heap of nothing. God does not change. Things may fall apart, but God does not.
  2. If God is not simple, then He is not independent. Historically, theologians refer to God as a se, which means that He is of or from Himself. He does not depend upon prior ingredients like bricks and mortar, or eggs and cornmeal.
  3. If God is not simple, then he is not all-powerful or omnipotent. He could grow more powerful or grow weaker. God would not be our rock or strong tower into which we run for refuge.
  4. If God is not simple, then He is not everywhere present. He is not omnipresent. He could be here or there, but He would not be equally present here and there and everywhere. Paul told the Athenians that God was not far from anyone. The psalmist noted that there was nowhere where he could hide from the presence of God. The truth is we live coram Deo, before the face of God.
  5. If God is not simple, then He is timebound like all his creatures. He would not be eternal. To be timebound is to be limited by the constraint of time. The Scriptures reveal that God is, in fact, eternal and not bound by temporal constraints. God knows the end from the beginning.
  6. If God is not simple, then he could not know all things and their relations exhaustively. He would not be omniscient. That is, God would come to learn things as we do. He could also forget things, as well.

These are not the only reasons why Bible-believing Reformed Christians (really all Christians) should hold the doctrine of simplicity with rock-solid conviction. They might not even be the most important reasons. But they are weighty reasons and ought to be persuasive on their own. If God is not simple, he and the whole biblical faith disintegrates.

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