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The Attributes of God: Divine Simplicity

What is God?

Thinking about God is a wonderful and sometimes challenging task for Christians. I recently asked a group of Christians the question, what is God? I received a variety of answers. Some mentioned his attributes; like omnipotence, holiness, and love. Others referenced his relationship to us as a Father, Friend, and Lord. And a few talked about him as creator and savior. In many ways, the group did a great job. And what they said was true. God is Holy, a friend, and the creator. But are these answers getting to the heart of who God is? Are they telling us what God is in his nature, essence, and being? These are the issues I want to consider when answering the question, what is God?

Defining Divine Simplicity

When answering the question, what is God? Many theologians in the Classic and Reformed tradition have employed the category of simplicity, that is to say, God is simple. Simplicity is not a popular way that many Christians talk about God because when they hear it they likely think of him being plain or easily understood. However, this is not what most theologians mean when discussing the doctrine of simplicity. If anything, they are saying the opposite of him being plain or easily understood. Because of the confusion, some theologians have interposed the term unity for simplicity. I think both terms are helpful and related, but I will use the term simplicity when explaining what God is, and then talk about the relationship between simplicity and unity.

The doctrine of simplicity teaches that God is not composed of parts or complex. Instead, he is absolutely and eternally composed of all of his attributes. The attributes of God are characteristic of God himself, and not aspects of God.

All that is in God is God is the common phrase used to characterize God's simplicity. That is to say, all the attributes of God are who he is. For example, when saying that God is loving, I am saying that he is all loving in his essence. When saying that God is eternal, I am saying that he is absolutely eternal in his being. And I could continue to say the same thing about God in relation to all of his attributes. Therefore, God is composed of all his attributes, which make up all that he is–not in part, but in the totality of his being. God is absolutely just, holy, eternal, loving, omnipotent, and more. This is who/what God is, and this is what it means for God to be simple.

Three Implications of Divine Simplicity

  1. Essential and Accidental Properties: Since God’s fullness consists of all his attributes, a distinction can be made between his essential properties and accidental properties. Essential properties are properties that an object necessarily possesses, while accidental properties are properties that an object has but could lack. In reference to God, his essential properties consist of his attributes. God is not God if he is not all that is in him–and all that is in him are his attributes. In contrast to the essential properties are his accidental properties, which include him being creator, sustainer, savior, and more. These properties are not necessary to God being God. Instead, they are outcomes of his divine nature. Because God is omnipotent, he chooses to create and sustain the world; because he is just, he chooses to punish man for their sins; because God is gracious, he chooses to forgive man of their sins. The accidental properties flow from and display the essential properties, but they are not necessary for existence. Therefore, when we talk about what God is, it is appropriate to distinguish his attributes from his acts and works. For God is essentially omnipotent, just, and gracious; while he is accidentally creator, sustainer, and savior. He has not always been the creator, sustainer, and savior. He has for all eternity been omnipotent, just, and gracious. All God’s attributes are essential properties to him and they are the clearest display of what he is.

  2. The Unity of God: Divine simplicity helps us to see the unity or oneness of God. God’s attributes are not to be divided into parts or aspects of his deity. Instead, the divine nature of God is his attributes. “Each [attribute] is essential to him, and therefore his essence includes all of them. God cannot be god without his goodness, his wisdom, and his eternity.” In his attributes, God is one. Therefore, the doctrine of simplicity recognizes how God can be recognized as one being in his divine attributes. As the puritan, Stephen Charnock, says, “Where there is the greatest unity, there must be the greatest simplicity; but God is one. As he is free from any change, so he is void of any multitude”. God is not a complexity of attributes dividing him into separate pieces. God is all of his attributes in he essence and unity–making him one.

  3. The Triunity of God: The oneness of God discovered in the doctrine of simplicity also grants us a category for understanding the triunity of the trinitarian Godhead. Each person in the trinity shares in divine nature, which is composed of God’s attributes. The Father, Son, and Spirit are equally and eternally sharing in the attributes of God–making the three persons composed of God’s eternal nature. To modify the phrase all that is in is God, we could say, all that is in the Father is God, all that is in the Son is God, or all that is the Spirit is God. In reference to God’s attributes: all that can be said about the Father, can be said about the Son; all that can be said about the Son, can be said about the Spirit; and vice versa. The simplicity of God unites the diversity of God in the attributes of God. Therefore, we can competently say, each member of trinity is wholly and absolutely God because of divine simplicity.

Divine Simplicity In The Scriptures

At this point, the criticism could be made, “but where is the Bible?” And I would agree, where is the Bible? All this theological pie in the sky is useless if the Bible is silent. But the Bible is not silent, it speaks plainly to God being composed of his attributes. In John 4, when Jesus is discussing true worship, he says to the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit” (4:24). In his letter, John tells us that “God is light” (1 Jn. 1:5), and he goes on to say, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). But the text that most plainly displays simplicity is God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Notice, God does not appear in a material form or physical parts. Instead, he reveals who he is by his attributes. These attributes are who God is. “They are characteristic of God himself and therefore characteristic of all of God.” The Bible reveals many more attributes of God. Therefore, it is appropriate to say, every attribute of God revealed in the scriptures is who he is. As the Bible reveals more of God’s attributes to us, it is as if a window is being opened to see who God is in his nature and being.

Responding to Divine Simplicity:

How then should we respond to God being simple? This question is often left out when thinking about divine simplicity, but I believe someone’s response to doctrine demonstrates an understanding of doctrine. Therefore, how should we live if we believe all that is in God is God?

Worship. The appropriate response to God’s simplicity is worship. This is what David did in Psalm 63. When he was writing, David was geographically distant from the temple but this did not keep him from meditating upon the LORD in his sanctuary, he says, “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary” (63:2). This is astonishing. David says that he has seen God, and it appears as though he is about to tell us about God’s physical form. But David does not do this. Instead, he writes about who God actually is, his attributes. He pours out his praise saying, “beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” David worships God for who he is in his power, glory, and steadfast love. He knows God dwells in the temple as spirit in all of his attributes and he worships him as such. It is then God’s divine simplicity that David remembers while separated from the temple, and it brings him to worship. In the same manner, when we grasp that God is all that is in him–glory, power, love, and more–we will be brought to worship. And as we see him in all of his fullness, as David did, I believe we will worship him with greater joy, sincerity, and wonder. Therefore, may we grow in knowledge and love of God’s simplicity and respond with worship.

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