Please don’t forget to check out the video or podcast episodes based on this article. Also, make sure you read the prior article on divine incomprehensibility before moving forward!

We have covered divine incomprehensibility and now we’re off to divine simplicity!

Sometimes the words we use in theology are not identical to how we use them in an everyday context. “Simple,” for example, often indicates that something is easy to understand. In classical Christian theism, however, the simplicity means something quite different. We should always keep this in mind when we talk about God: when we talk theologically, our terms must be communicated well. That means that sometimes confusing terms like simplicity need to be properly defined.

Essence & Existence

Simplicity really starts by asking, “Is God’s essence and existence one and the same?”

If we were to answer in the negative, what would that mean? It would mean, first of all, that God is composed and would therefore depend upon the aggregate whole (in this case, His essence and existence) to be who He is. Second, God would not exist in virtue of His very essence. In other words, God would not be necessary being, since to be necessary being would entail the identification of essence and existence.

Here’s an example: Humans do not exist necessarily, they exist contingently. Existence is not entailed in the human essence. We can think of human-ness apart from the existence of any particular human. Bob, for example, does not exist by virtue of his human essence, he exists by virtue of being actualized by something prior to himself (i.e. his parents). Bob does not have to exist for the human essence to exist. So, Bob’s essence and existence are really distinct even though Bob himself could not exist from his essence.

We should not think of essence and existence––being really distinct––as separable. Bob does not exist apart from his essence. In fact, Bob cannot exist apart from his essence. Rather, a human’s essence and existence are distinct because there is a real distinction between Bob and his essence. All humans share Bob’s essence––a human essence (having a rational mind, a body, etc). But they do not share in Bob’s existence (Bob, who was born in 1981, who has brown hair, who is the son of Carla and Jim, etc, etc, etc). There is only one Bob in existence.

The above is called the uniqueness argument for the real distinction between essence and existence.

Contrary to creatures, God is not a Being of whom we can imagine essence apart from existence. To be God is just to be––God is necessary Being. Therefore, God’s essence and existence are one and the same.

Actuality & Potentiality

There is actual being and potential being, and then there is non-being. Actual being cannot arise out of non-being since if there were something in non-being that would actualize non-being, it would no longer be non-being. Therefore, actual being cannot arise out of non-being. Actual being must rise out of potential being. But, potential being must be actualized by that which is already actual (potency can’t actualize itself, because it is not actual by definition). Thus, everything that exists is either actual being or potential being.

If God were not simple, He would be a mixture of actuality and potentiality.

Now, if God were a mixture of anything God would be composed and therefore dependent upon His parts. This also applies to act and potency. If God is a mixture of both, He’s made up of parts and is therefore dependent. Moreover, if God was a mixture of act and potency, what would actualize His potency? God would be dependent on a prior actualizer (remember, potency must be actualized, by a prior actualized thing). And even more so, if God was a mixture of act and potency, He would then be mutable, not immutable. Thus, God cannot be a mixture of act and potency, but must be pure act.

Humans are mixtures of actuality and potentiality. For example, Josh is actual, and right now, Josh typing on a keyboard is actual. But Josh potentially is not typing on a keyboard. Josh is actual (typing) and potential (not typing). Here is another way of putting it: Josh is actual in sitting down, but Josh has the potential to stand up. And one more: Josh is actual in actual existence, but potentially does not actually exist.

What Is Divine Simplicity?

When we say God is not composed, we are also saying that God is simple. By simple I mean that God is not composed of parts. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith states:

1. The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
1 Corinthians 8:46Deuteronomy 6:4Jeremiah 10:10Isaiah 48:12Exodus 3:14John 4:241 Timothy 1:17Deuteronomy 4:1516Malachi 3:61 Kings 8:27Jeremiah 23:23Psalms 90:2Genesis 17:1Isaiah 6:3Psalms 115:3Isaiah 46:10Proverbs 16:4Romans 11:36Exodus 34:67Hebrews 11:6Nehemiah 9:3233Psalms 5:56Exodus 34:7Nahum 1:23 )

God is not composed. That is to say, God is not made up of that which is more basic than Himself. He does not depend on things that are lesser than He is in order to be who He is. As strange as this may sound, it’s pretty basic. Let’s use a kitchen table as our example. A standard kitchen table is made up of a top and four legs. Those parts are made up of other parts such as wood, nails, and glue. A table, therefore, depends on its top, its legs, and its building materials in order to be actual. A carpenter actualized this kitchen table. The Sommer family dinner table could not exist if it weren’t for each individual part that makes it to be what it is.

Now, the kitchen table also possesses potency. Though it may actually be new, it’s potentially old; though it may have four legs, it potentially only has three; and though it may be sturdy, it’s potentially weak.

Humans are the same. Most basically, we are composed of body and spirit (or body, spirit, soul for you trichotomists out there). Our bodies are composed of various physiological materials to be what it is. We are who we are in virtue of our parts. I may be actually tall, but I’m potentially taller; I may not have a broken leg, but I potentially do, and so on.

All of created reality is this way. There is no contingent thing that does not depend on other things to be what they are (i.e. prior actual things which in turn actualize their potential).

God is not like this. He is not made up of anything in order to be who He is.


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