Divine Simplicity: Why It Matters

Throughout the history of the church, it has been common for theologians to argue that God is “simple,” not in the sense that he is easy to understand, but in the sense that he is not a composite being made up of distinct elements or parts. For modern people, this line of thought may seem utterly obtuse and irrelevant. But we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the wisdom of our forefathers in the faith. There were actually good reasons for raising this question and formulating this historic doctrine of divine simplicity.

I’ll give one reason here. Think about the alternative: what if God were not simple? What if he were composed of distinct elements? I don’t mean this in the physical sense, since we know God is not a physical being. But what if God were a composite of distinct attributes? In other words, what if we imagined God as being a particular individual being who happens to exemplify the attributes of goodness, righteousness, love, wisdom, etc.? If that were the case, then we would have to conclude that his attributes are actually categories that transcend him. We would have to say that God is good, for example, because “goodness” is an objective standard outside of him to which he happens to measure up. And if this were the case, we would end up with a doctrine of God as a glorified version of ourselves. He may differ from us in degree (being higher up the scale of “goodness” than we are), but he would not really differ from us in kind.

Now think of the whole issue from the perspective of divine simplicity: God is not composed of goodness, righteousness, wisdom, etc. All of these divine attributes are simply different perspectives on God himself. God is identical to his goodness, because he himself is the standard of all that is good. “Goodness” is not an abstract category that transcends God, and to which he measures up. Goodness is simply identical with God himself. It is who God is, and all creatures that exhibit any degree of goodness do so only by conforming to God’s character and will. The doctrine of divine simplicity, therefore, provides us a way of conceiving of how God is different from us, rather than being merely a larger version of us. Because of the doctrine of simplicity, we are able to understand better how God himself is the absolute reference point for everything else, and so we have the categories to express the absolute lordship of God over all things. And that means divine simplicity is a very important issue.

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