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The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity: A Pastor’s Appreciation

D. Scott Meadows[1]

The very first of Charles Spurgeon’s 3,561 published sermons is entitled “The Immutability of God,” with the text Malachi 3:6, “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (KJV). Spurgeon begins by extolling a Christian’s study of “the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father,” calling this “the highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God.” Since I first read his comments about three decades ago, they have stuck with me:

There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, “Behold I am wise.” But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with the solemn exclamation, “I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.” No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God.

But while the subject humbles the mind it also expands it.... Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity. (emphasis Spurgeon’s)[2]

Lately, I trust that my own soul has been humbled and expanded in the sacred investigation, with much help from a recent book by Dr. James Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness.[3] Now I wonder how and why its subject matter is so generally absent or grossly truncated in theological education today. By the standard of historical theology, it has occupied a large and important place in the biblical and orthodox doctrine of theology proper. At the very least, I know this book has significantly addressed the deficiency in my own study. Even with twenty-five years of experience in pastoral ministry, I have read little and heard little discussion among colleagues on the specific topic of divine simplicity. Of course I was not wholly unaware of our adherence as Reformed, confessional ministers and churches to the concept—that God is “without body, parts, or passions”[4]—but my investigation, especially of God “without parts,” had been slender. The subject is so lofty and some aspects so new to me that I can only hope at this point to introduce it to others, while directing them to sound and substantial treatments like Dr. Dolezal’s worthy book.

I had thought to present a book review, but in my consultation with the author, I have come to believe that a straightforward introduction to the topic of divine simplicity seems better for this occasion. Alexander H. Pierce, who teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote a worthy summary and review, concluding,

Paul Helm gets it right when he says in the foreword of the book, ‘The result is the best full-length philosophical treatment of divine simplicity that I know’ (p. xi). Anyone interested in bringing historically and philosophically informed consideration of DDS together with its contemporary critiques should read this book, for although it is written for the academically disposed, it has to be to provide a capable rejoinder to the legion of contemporary DDS skeptics.[5]

My modest ambition in this presentation is to answer briefly two basic questions: 1) What is the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS)? 2) Why is the DDS important?

What Is the DDS?

The DDS is largely framed as a denial of composition in God in any sense whatsoever, though it has “numerous positive implications for one’s understanding of God’s existence and essence.”[6] Tersely, God is without parts. With more specificity, the DDS denies that he is physically, logically, or metaphysically composite. Non-composition ... must characterize God inasmuch as every composite is a dependent thing that cannot account for its own existence or essence and stands in need of some composer outside itself.... Furthermore, composition signifies the capacity of a thing to change or even be annihilated. If God is to be understood as “most absolute” all such composition must be denied of him.[7]

Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the DDS (exposition and defense) is particularly important on account of its fullness and its influence upon Protestant scholastic theology at the heart of the Reformed doctrinal tradition. The classical theism of Roman Catholicism and Reformed theology are not at odds here. To those acquainted with the modern academic debate, it may seem peculiar in our current theological milieu that the DDS has not been particularly controversial in historical Christian thought. Some objections raised today are novel. The critics are generally philosophers claiming incoherence of the DDS and evangelicals claiming inconsistency of the DDS with the Christian view of God.[8]

Classically, the DDS rests upon a discussion of “parts” with some relation of “act” and “passive potency” in a thing.[9] “A part is anything in a subject that is less than the whole and without which the subject would be different than it is.”

‘Act’ is that in virtue of which a thing is,” and a thing may be as an act of existence, or according to forms or properties by which a thing exists in one way or another.” An “act” as a “part” of something refers to “that in virtue of which existence and/or change is brought about.”

‘Passive potency’ is the capacity of a thing to receive act or to be in a certain way. It is that principle in virtue of which a thing is able to receive existence and to be changed while in existence.”

In this sense, all creatures are compositions, even immaterial spirits like angels and the souls of men. The DDS asserts that this reality pertaining to creatures forms the basis of a necessary and important distinction from the Creator who must necessarily be completely devoid of “passive potency.” Nothing could possibly be more basic and fundamental than the divine nature itself. God is wholly uncaused and unchanging. The ground of his being is in himself (this is known as his “aseity”). Puritan John Owen states it well:

Now, if God were of any causes, internal or external, any principles antecedent or superior to him, he could not be so absolutely first and independent. Were he composed of parts, or accidents, manner of being, he could not be first; all of these are before that which is of them, and therefore his essence is absolutely simple.[10]

“Absolutely simple”—a strong affirmation by such a champion of the Reformed faith should be noted well. Aquinas was pithier when he wrote,

Every composite ... is subsequent to its components. The first being, therefore, which is God, has no components.[11]

These observations lead to the conclusion in the classical Christian tradition that God is “pure act” (actus purus) and is “subsistent being itself” (ipsum esse subsistens). “This does not mean that he is abstract, static, or lifeless, but that he is so infinitely full of actuality that he could not be moved to some additional actuality. God is being, not becoming” (emphasis Dolezal’s).

Aquinas denies six varieties of act/potency in God. These are a traditional part of the elaboration of the DDS.

God Cannot Be Composed of Bodily Parts

We know this from explicit biblical teaching (e.g., John 4:24; Luke 24:39; 1 Tim. 1:17—other apparently contradictory passages are figurative accommodation language called “anthropomorphisms”), and also from reason. “If God had a body he would require a unifying principle of actuality to preserve the unity of his body,” and a needy God is an ontological impossibility.

God Cannot Be Composed of Matter and Form

Concrete material subjects are composed of “matter” (the principle of passive potency in a thing) and “form” (the principle that enables matter to exist as this or that particular thing). Thus concrete materials require constituents more basic than the subject itself in order to exist as they do. These components only apply to material things and so are wholly irrelevant to God who is pure spirit.

God Cannot Be Composed of Supposit and Nature

A “supposit” is a particular existing thing, while “nature” is the “whatness” of that thing. For example, a particular man and humanity are not precisely identical. “Socrates is a man (a supposit), but Socrates is not humanity (a nature).” The relevant correlative is God and his divinity, but in his case these are necessarily the same. “He just is the divinity by which he is God. To be divine and to be this God are one [and] the same.”

God Cannot Be Composed of Genus and Species

Whereas genus is a classification, and species is a subset within a genus, this is impossible for God. He is not one particular type of divinity, differentiated in some way from other divine beings. He is sui generis, in a class by himself, absolutely unique and distinct from his creation as a whole and all his particular creatures. As Herman Bavinck wrote:

For precisely because God is pure being—the absolute, perfect, unique, and simple being—we cannot give a definition to him. There is no genus to which he belongs as a member, and there are no specific marks of distinction whereby we can distinguish him from other beings in this genus.[12]

God Cannot Be Composed of Substance and Accident

An “accident” is a quality that inheres in a substance and causes it to be or exist in some way that it does not in virtue of itself. This composite trait makes the object with it capable of and liable to change. Further, accidents depend on the substance in which they inhere for their very existence. Such a dependence is utterly foreign to the biblical revelation of God, and therefore composition in this way is impossible.

God Cannot Be Composed of Essence and Existence

Perhaps the most difficult conceptually, this distinction is very important to grasp. Creatures are universally composed of the metaphysical qualities of essence (essentia, what a thing is) and existence (esse, that it is). These “are prior to the complete actuality of the thing (ens) possessing them.” By definition in an ex nihilo creation, a creature’s existence is not essential to it, being necessarily dependent upon another for its very existence. Its existence is derived, not inherent. But we know that God’s being is absolutely necessary and infinite because his essence is identical with his existence.

Divine Attributes

The DDS has important implications for how we understand the divine attributes as well. Briefly, it asserts that there is no real distinction between God’s essence and his attributes. When we distinguish divine attributes, we are merely describing the simple divine essence. God is good in virtue of God, not goodness; he is wise in virtue of God, not wisdom, etc. These attributes are not so many really distinct parts in God, but God is all these things in virtue of his own nature as God.

Some have objected that this collapses all divine attributes into each other, so that no distinction is rationally possible. This objection confuses the existential reality of God as he is in himself with the revelation of God to his creatures. In order that we might know him truly but not comprehensively, he uses analogical language related to the multifaceted creation in great condescension to our limited perception and understanding. As George Joyce wrote:

Our minds can form no single conception to express that all-embracing unity of God’s being: our only resource is to form partial concepts, each of which exhibits some aspect of Divine fullness.... The attributes ... are not distinct determinations in God, as are justice and mercy in man: the distinction is the work of the mind. But it is grounded on the reality, because the fullness of the Divine being contains all that is involved in these terms.[13]

In short, “God is simple; our thoughts and language about him are not.” The DDS affirms that our language about God is analogical, not univocal. His being is incomprehensible, ineffable, and inexpressible in words, except by analogy.

Why Is the DDS Important?

For me personally, the mere explication of the DDS is quite obviously profound, momentous, and laden with great implications for the Christian faith and our relationship with God. But I will offer three of the more significant arguments for our shared appreciation. The DDS is important:

For Understanding Theology Proper in our Reformed Confessional Heritage

The form of sound words concerning God which arise from Scripture through diligent observation, reverent meditation, and holy consultation has been abundantly evident in our Reformed confessional heritage. The WCF and the 1689 LBCF, for example, stand in the mainstream of prior Christian thought, which is 1) evident in the inscripturated and preserved revelation God gave Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles with their associates by divine inspiration, along with 2) the writings of the post-apostolic fathers in the early centuries of church history, and also in 3) the extant literature of the greatest theologians from centuries just preceding the Protestant Reformation. The Reformed confessions exhibit the same spirit and promote the same general understanding and vocabulary of their predecessors, while they make progress in articulating the doctrines more fully, formally, and systematically. For example, one familiar with the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) readily detects their formulaic statements enfolded in the later Reformed confessions, and yet the same essential insights are admirably extended further.

At this point and with these things in mind, I recommend a careful review of chapter 2 in the WCF and/or the 1689 LBCF, entitled, “Of God, and the Holy Trinity,” along with the biblical texts cited in it. I now appreciate its content more than ever.

Modern students of these historic documents are sometimes grossly impoverished by their ignorance of the theological and philosophical context in which they were produced. This general observation applies specifically in the realm of theology proper. “Without body, parts, or passions” (WCF 2.1; 1689 LBCF 2.1) cannot be clearly understood or appreciated in a vacuum, nor many other elements of the confessional doctrine of God as articulated in the second chapter of the aforementioned confessions of faith. The sound rule of biblical interpretation that takes into account the original sense of words and expressions applies to the interpretation of all documents, including these confessions. Expounding the confessional substance without a knowledge of historical theology is bound to produce error. Furthermore, attempts to pervert the sense of such phrases in keeping with modern ideas while claiming confessional subscription are ill-founded and implicitly unethical, despite the best of intentions.

More to the point, the theology proper of Reformed confessions both assume and propagate ideas wholly consistent with the DDS. This has substantiating evidence in the works of great confessional sympathizers, including Stephen Charnock and John Owen. One may plausibly reject the classical position, but he ought to admit he also rejects the confessional language that grew out of and implies this position.

Therefore, growth in our familiarity with classical theism will enhance our grasp of what our confessions mean by what they say, and foster a more intelligent and ethical subscription to the truths they formally state in their language tested by Scripture and consensus, if indeed we are in agreement with our Reformed forefathers.

For Safeguarding All Aspects of the Biblical Revelation of Our Exalted God

Some may object to classical Christian theism on the ground that it is more philosophical than exegetical. Even mentioning “substance” and “accidents,” along with many other terms in the specialized technical vocabulary the DDS requires for articulation, arouses suspicion in many, if not outright rejection. Colossians 2:8 has been misinterpreted to mean that rational observations by Aristotle, for example, have no place in sacred reflection and doctrinal formulation.

But the same prejudice necessarily militates against the doctrine of the Trinity, as it has come to be expressed by Christians generally over two millennia. You may search your Bible in vain for “hypostases,” “essence,” and “person” in the technical and philosophical senses of the orthodox formulations. That in itself is no sound argument against them, as generally acknowledged by Christians today. That the philosophical language associated with the DDS may be more complex and less familiar to us is no greater argument against its fidelity to Scripture truth. In my opinion, this only testifies of our need to recover the knowledge of our rich theological heritage.

Such language has been usefully pressed into the service of grasping and appreciating the biblical revelation of God himself. There is no passage or even brief collection of Scripture texts which adequately convey the whole divine witness in its holy pages to the reality of our triune God. The stock philosophical language used in trinitarian theology came about “by good and necessary consequence;” it was “deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6). The 1689 LCBF statement on this is similar, recognizing that doctrinal truth “is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture” (1.6). Adherents to the DDS believe the same thing about it as the doctrine of the Trinity. Both are truly and rationally deduced from Scripture and necessarily contained in it.

An illustration may be helpful. Consider a numerical series: 1, 3, __, __, 9, 11, 13, __, 17. It is a fact to state that the numbers 5, 7, and 15 are just as legitimate a part of this series as 1, 3, 9, 11, 13, and 17, though the former numbers are not explicitly stated and the latter are. Whatever doctrine is justifiably deduced from and truly contained in Holy Scripture is just as true and authoritative as that which it states explicitly.

Classical Christian theism exists partly because it seems the only way to understand and account for the plainly-stated biblical teaching about God. Assertions of his unity (Deut. 6:4), infinity (Ps. 147:5), immutability (Mal. 3:6), eternality, immortality, and invisibility (1 Tim. 1:17), cohere rationally with the DDS, and it is hard to see any alternative system of thought exhibiting comparable consistency with the testimony of God’s Word. To quote Dr. Dolezal:

It appears that those doctrines that are traditionally understood to establish an absolute Creator-creature distinction are dependent upon the DDS for their strength of absoluteness. It is God’s simplicity that promotes these doctrines of aseity, unity, infinity, immutability, and eternity to their status as genuinely incommunicable divine attributes. In this way the theological function of the DDS can be understood as that by which God is rightly regarded as most absolute.[14]

For Worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth

Our Lord Jesus Christ characterized the kind of worship sought by God the Father as that which is “in spirit and in truth,” and such is our moral obligation (John 4:23–24). A sound knowledge of God as he has revealed himself actually to be is essential to worship he accepts. It is impossible to worship the true and living God with grossly incorrect notions of his being, as the golden calf episode illustrates (Exod. 32:4).

Whereas the First Commandment requires our worship of God alone (Exod. 20:3), the Second Commandment prohibits worshiping him under any visible form (Exod. 20:4–6). We infer from this that the possibility of false worship is not limited to visible misrepresentations; it includes doctrinal as well. The Mormon god who began as a man in their teaching is a false god. It is likewise with the creaturely false Christ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose full deity they deny.

Yet doctrinal perfection in the realm of theology proper is not a requirement of true worship that God accepts graciously through Christ. Who among us does not need more study and sustained contemplation upon God’s self-disclosure so that our thoughts may be refined toward the existential reality?

I assert that God is pleased by our holy yearning to know him better, and by our studious pursuit of him as he really is. Furthermore, as we grow by his grace in our apprehension of the divine being, our souls are awakened and stirred to greater reverence and awe, which characterizes pure worship. And this, in turn, promotes our progress in sanctification of heart and life that makes us more fit to glorify God as his faithful servants.

My concluding contention is that as the classical DDS has been a catalyst to true and purer worship for many centuries, so a revival of interest and appreciation today will tend to the same great end. Not only is the mind improved, humbled, and enlarged by means of these profound insights, but we draw nearer the grandeur and glory of the experience Jesus promised: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). May our Lord and Savior grant us this for the sake of his own glory. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] Presentation by D. Scott Meadows, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed) of Exeter, NH, for the Granite State Reformed Ministers Fellowship, meeting in Manchester, NH, on December 18, 2014.

[2] Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons (1856; repr., Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications), 1:1.

[3] James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011). Dr. Dolezal (Ph.D., Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary; M.Div. from the Master’s Seminary; M.A., B.A. from the Master’s College) teaches church history, trinitarian theology, and philosophy in the School of Divinity at Cairn University of Langhorne, PA.

[4] E.g., The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 2.1; The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1677/1689 (1689 LBCF) 2.1

[5] Alexander H. Pierce, The Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, 32.1 (Autumn 2014): 104–106.

[6] Dolezal, 31.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dolezal, 11: philosopher-critics include Richard Gale, Christopher Hughes, Thomas Morris, and Alvin Platinga, while evangelical critics include Ronald Nash, John Feinberg, J. P. Moreland, and William Lane Craig (11–29).

[9] I am also greatly indebted to unpublished lecture notes of Dr. Dolezal (“THE 311 Lecture Notes 5: Divine Simplicity”), which are the source of quotations and most ideas in this section of my paper not specifically attributed.

[10] John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, in Works (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966), 12:72.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, 1.18, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles1.htm#18.

[12] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 121.

[13] George Hayward Joyce, Principles of Natural Theology (London: Longmans Green, 1923), 260–61.

[14] Dolezal, 92.

D. Scott Meadows is a Reformed Baptist pastor serving as the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed), in Exeter, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2015.

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