The Simplicity of God

Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4 ESV

The book of Proverbs presents only two pathways for living: wisdom or folly. Since every person must ultimately choose to traverse down one of the roads, two types of people are also presented: the wise and the fools. However, interestingly Proverbs also adds a third category, the simple. Although the simple are often associated with fools, they are still distinct. Tremper Longman notes that the simple often do foolish things but, unlike the fool, are still teachable. They are not given wholly over to folly and may still indeed become wise. In a sense, we are all simple, either doing foolish deeds but striving toward wisdom, or walking ever further down the path of folly until our destruction is complete.

In a slightly jarring twist, God is also simple, although in an altogether different sense than we are. Our simplicity as described by Proverbs is rather like ignorance or immaturity. God, however, is simple in the sense that He is not a composite of parts, and this simplicity is tightly bound to His aseity, which is fitting since these are perhaps the two most overlooked of God’s attributes. Let us, therefore, take a few moments to consider the simplicity of God.

DIVINE SIMPLICITY

Francis Turretin defines God’s simplicity as being the “attribute by which the divine nature is conceived by us not only as free from all composition and division, but also as incapable of composition and divisibility.”[1] God is simple because He is not composed of various parts. His attributes, as we have already said, are not pieces of God or qualities that He possesses; they are “perspectives on his whole being.”[2] Omniscience, therefore, is not a segment of God, while patience is another. Instead, He is both omniscience and patience.

For this reason, we use nouns to describe God’s attributes. God certainly is patient, which is an adjective, but God is patient only because He is patience (a noun). In other words, we do not compare God to some abstract concept called patience, and if He meets its criteria or conforms to its conception, then He is aptly described as being patient. Rather, patience is not a quality that exists apart from God Himself. He is patience, and patience, therefore, is defined according to who God is. And we are patient only when we imperfectly image the patience of God. Furthermore, patience is certainly not an aspect of our very being, since we can also easily act impatiently. This is because we are not simple as God is simple. We are constantly shifting composites, ebbing and flowing like the tides. He, however, “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). His simplicity, thus, is also logically connected to His immutability.

This is true for each of His attributes. We segment them in order to understand something about them, but they are not divided in reality. Each attribute must be seen as a lens for viewing the whole of who God is.

But, you may interject, where does the Bible say that God is simple? How can we know that simplicity is truly an attribute of God? Searching the Scriptures for a blatant declaration that God is simple will yield zero results; instead, divine simplicity is in many ways a logical necessity given how God has revealed Himself to be in the Scriptures. Even so, we will consider a verse of Scripture that, I believe, indicates the simplicity of God.

Anselm makes the argument for divine simplicity, saying:

A composite requires, for its existence, its components and owes its being what it is to them. It is what it is through them. They, however, are not what they are through it. A composite, therefore, just is not supreme. If, then, the supreme nature is a composite of many goods, what belongs to a composite necessarily belongs to it also.[3]

In other words, a composite being cannot be the supreme being because its being would be contingent upon its various pieces. For example, we have blood flowing through our veins, but we are not organisms of blood. Blood is not identical to our being, even though our physical life is contingent upon it. Likewise, we are not love; we can only become more or less loving. Even if we refuse to be loving, we must instead act another way, perhaps in either apathy or hatred. But the target only moves; it does not vanish entirely. Both blood and love (or apathy or hatred) stand as parts, one concrete and the other abstract, that we are reliant upon. Our imperfect possession of these pieces proves that we are contingent beings, that we are not self-existent nor self-sufficient.

God, however, is a se. He is self-existent and self-sufficient; therefore, He cannot be dependent upon qualities that are whole in and of themselves. If He merely possessed love, then love is supreme rather than God. Yet God is supreme; therefore, He also cannot be a composite being. He must be a simple being, who is His attributes rather than possessing them.

This also impacts how we traditionally divide God’s attributes in communicable and incommunicable. In reality, all of God’s attributes are incommunicable. We certainly can image God to some degree because we were made in His likeness. Yet omnipotence is typically listed as an incommunicable attribute while grace is considered a communicable one. Are we not, however, certainly capable of some level of strength? We are by no means omnipotent, but we do possess varying amounts of potency. I would argue that God’s grace is similar. We must image God in displaying grace to others, even as He has given grace to us. Yet our grace will forever be as far from being equal to God’s grace as our strength is equal to His almightiness.

THE UNITY OF GOD

Now that we have glimpsed the overview of divine simplicity, let us turn our attention to a verse of Scripture that affirms this attribute. Deuteronomy 6:4 states, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.”

This verse, known as the Shema, is the central confession of Judaism, often being prayed in the morning and evening or as the last words of the dying. It confesses the singularity and solitariness of God. He alone is God, and there is none like Him.

Yet His unity, I believe, does more than simply describe the monotheistic nature of reality. Instead, God’s oneness is also a glimpse at His simplicity. We are composed of many parts and even of other organisms (consider the microbiome within our digestive system that plays an integral role in digestion). Yet God is truly, singularly one. He is perfectly and utterly unified in Himself. He is one, and He is simple.

Now let us also consider the beauty of how this attribute meets us. Within this verse, God provides another description of Himself: the LORD your God. He not only calls Himself one; He also identifies Himself with us. He attaches Himself onto us, calling Himself our God. The only non-contingent Being has graciously committed Himself to us. Mark Jones describes the glorious reality when this covenantal commitment meets God’s simplicity at the cross:

If God is for us, all of God, not a part of God, is for us. The infinite, eternal, unchangeable God who is goodness and wisdom himself is on our side (Rom. 8:31). So in the death of Christ, we see the simplicity of God revealed in the sense that all his attributes gloriously harmonize. We possess not a verse here or there but rather a glorious picture of God’s simple undivided essence in the way he orchestrates the whole of our redemption, especially at the cross.[4]

God’s vast love for us, especially seen in the substitutionary death of Jesus for our sins, is a wholistic act of God. Because He has rescued us, redeemed us, adopted us, and united us to Himself, we need not fear that He still holds onto a piece of His justice and wrath toward us, however miniscule it may be. No, with the consequences of our sin fully taken by Christ upon the cross, we are now raised up with Christ by faith so that we belong exclusively and entirely to Him. But even as He has taken possession of us as His people, He also has freely given Himself to us. Although we cannot comprehend the entirety of God, we can by faith in Christ rest securely knowing that He is entirely for us.

Given this wondrously good news, consider anew the command that began Deuteronomy 6:4, hear. If the singularly simple and supreme Creator has truly united Himself to you through the sacrifice of His own Son, should it not be our highest delight to listen when He speaks? Indeed, His Word should be our delight and meditation both day and night (Psalm 1:2). What other voice could ever be more preeminent to us? How can anything be more significant than hearing from and knowing more the God who is wholly and undividedly for us?

Hear, therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • What is divine simplicity?
  • How is God’s simplicity connected to His aseity?
  • How does God’s oneness also imply His simplicity?
  • How is His simplicity displayed in the cross of Christ? What does it mean for us?

[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing Company, copyright James T. Dennison 1992), 191.

[2] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 388.

[3] Anselm, The Major Works (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 30.

[4] Jones, Mark (2017-06-20). God Is (Kindle Locations 565-568). Crossway. Kindle Edition. 

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