Biblical Theology

Divine Simplicity in Scripture

Divine simplicity, from a classical take, is that doctrine which rejects the notion that God is composed. Simplicity is the antonym, as Herman Bavinck put it, of composition. He says, “the term ‘simple’ is not used here as an antonym of ‘twofold’ or ‘threefold’ but of ‘composite (Reformed Dogmatics, 2.4, p. 177).'”

Those of you who find yourselves perplexed by this debate are probably wondering what the Bible has to say about simplicity. Others, who may be familiar with what I’m about to write, will probably find this article redundant. Still, I thought it may be helpful to point out Scriptural support for the Classical doctrine of divine simplicity.

Dr. James Dolezal, in All That is in God, discusses some of these passages, but I thought it may be helpful to blast them out on the blogosphere in light of recent claims. There are those who have inaccurately claimed that this doctrine is founded on nothing but Aristotelian and Thomistic thought (you know who you are).

I want to point out why I think this is patently false.

Adjectives and Substantives

Some have expressed the desire to emphasize language in Scripture which appears to indicate some change in God. For example, in 1 Samuel 15:35, God is said to regret making Saul king. Another instance would be God’s apparent fluid interaction with his creation in verses like Exodus 2:24, 25: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

Another objection to simplicity comes from the correct observation that numerous adjectives are ascribed to God. God is said to be loving, just, kind, gracious, etc. (Ps. 17:7; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 145:17; Ex. 33:19). This has led some to believe that God possesses a plethora of distinct attributes, each separate from the other, and each playing its part in making God who He is.

Lest we fail to consider Scripture as a whole, we must recognize that not only does Scripture describe God with adjectival language, but it also makes use of substantives. Bavinck writes:

The oneness of God does not only consist in a unity of singularity, however, but also in a unity of simplicity. The fact of the matter is that Scripture, to denote the fullness of the life of God, uses not only adjectives but also substantives: it tells us not only that God is truthful, righteous, living, illuminating, loving, and wise, but also that he is the truth, righteousness, life, light, love, and wisdom (Jer. 10:10; 23:6; John 1:4-5, 9; 14:6; 1 Cor. 1:30; 1 John 1:5; 4:8)(p. 173).

God is not only living, but He is life. There is no abstract “life” which is more basic than who God is. There is no pale full of infinite life-ness from which God draws His life because He is life, and this is true for His other attributes as well. As Christians, we cannot afford to emphasize some verses to the neglect of others.

Drawing a Conclusion

Scripture reveals God not only as having certain attributes, but that His attributes are completely identified with His very essence. In other words, God is love, God is light, and God is just, etc. If we take this language as only colloquial and not literal, then we must conclude that love, justice, mercy, grace and any other attribute are attributes which belong to God but are not, each themselves, God Himself.

If we say, with the personalists, that God is part love, part just, part merciful, etc., we would deny the infinity of God. Parts, segments, properties, if they be real, entail finiteness. In other words, if God’s love is just a particular attribute God has, then His love cannot be infinite, unless of course someone wanted to claim there are properties which are not God that are eternally infinite with God. But then that would make love infinite and God infinite, and the idea of two distinct infinite entities is incoherent for obvious reasons.

If God’s love is infinite, we must confess that God is love.

This is the type of interpretational reasoning which leads us to draw necessary conclusions. Scripture gives us truth (A) and truth (B), and the work of the systematician is to draw a conclusion from those two. An example of this John 1:1-3. Scripture tells the reader that the Word was in the beginning, that the Word was with God, and that the Word was God. In other parts of Scripture, we see Jesus (the Word) praying to God the Father. Even still, God is one, as revealed in Deuteronomy 6:4. Thus, the theologian concludes that the Son is God and that the Father is God, but that the Son is not the Father, and that the Father is not the Son, yet there is only one God.

As theologians thought about this deep biblical truth, they articulated certain ways in which the church could talk about it. Terms like “Trinity,” “substance (divine essence),” and “subsistence (person or relation)” were then coined.

Job, Eliphaz, and Elihu

We can draw similar conclusions from the book of Job. At the very beginning of ch. 22, Job’s friend, Eliphaz, asks a few rhetorical questions. He asks:

Then Eliphaz the Temanite responded, “Can a vigorous man be of use to God, or a wise man be useful to himself? Is there any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous, or profit if you make your ways perfect? (vv. 1-3)

The implication here is that God does not receive anything from His creatures. God doesn’t receive any profit (i.e. Job’s fantastic perfect ways). God does not receive pleasure if Job acts righteously before Him. God is not passibly moved to pleasure in Job’s good deeds, nor does God profit, or receive, something in virtue of Job’s obedience. There have been some objections to this particular use of ch. 22. Some have claimed that this passage was not intended to communicate a divine ontological truth. But why? Why should anyone believe that is the case? In light of this passage, would it be proper to admit that God receives something? Anything? Eliphaz must be communicating something about God to Job.

Elihu goes on to ask a similar set of rhetorical questions. He asks:

If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against Him? And if your transgressions are many, what do you do to Him? If you are righteous, what do you give to Him, or what does He receive from you hand? Your wickedness is for a man like yourself, and your righteousness is for a son of man (Job 35:6-8).

The point Eliphaz was making in ch. 22 has become that much clearer in ch. 35 with Elihu’s rhetoric. What does Job give God? Nothing. In addition, the changing of Job’s actions, and the effects thereof (good or bad), happen to creatures! They add no perfections to God. God does not receive anything from Job’s actions which make God something other than what He was before. God does not become “God who just experienced Job’s actions,” or “God who is happy (or mad) because of what Job did.” If this were the case, God would have added to Himself the quality of happiness or a new experience to Himself.

This is not who God is.

In case it be argued that both Eliphaz and Elihu’s words are incorrect, God Himself confirms their points. He says, “Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the heaven is Mine (41:11).” No one gives anything to God such that God should owe a debt to His creation. Indeed, no one can give anything to God because, not only is all creation His, but He’s the absolute perfection of all His attributes, in need of no addition to Himself. The term “gives” (קָדַם)(“has given,” “gone before,” etc.) carries with it the notion of getting one over on God so that God has something to make up. This cannot happen to Yahweh. Nothing can be added to Him, nor taken away. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 21:6).

Conclusion

The doctrine of divine simplicity does indeed stand on a biblical foundation. While the opponents of the position may not like the passages used, it is a false charge to accuse someone like Dr. Dolezal of casting away Scripture in favor of a pagan philosophy. We must be able to admit the handiness of certain categories used by pagan thinkers like Aristotle, and Roman Catholics like Thomas Aquinas, while at the same time grounding our doctrinal beliefs in Scripture rather than a philosophical system.

While I admit this article should not be the premier go-to source for biblical support of divine simplicity (there’s much more to be said), I must say that there is rich Scriptural truth behind this age old doctrine.

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