The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that God is “without parts” (WCF 2.1), i.e., that there is no real distinction between God’s being (that he is) and essence (what he is), or between God’s being (that he is) and the various attributes we use to describe his essence (he is this and this and this).
There are good philosophical arguments for the doctrine of divine simplicity (e.g., All composite entities require a composer. As first cause, God lacks a composer. Therefore, God is not a composite entity.). I leave these arguments aside for the time being because I want to address another question, specifically, whether there are also good theological arguments for this doctrine. What ultimately makes an argument for divine simplicity a good theological argument is that it is biblical. Sound theological reasoning follows from sound biblical reasoning. Steve Duby and Jordan Barrett have recently published excellent books showing that there are indeed sound biblical arguments for the doctrine of divine simplicity. To these, I want to add another argument, rooted in the so-called “analogy of Scripture.”
“Analogy” was one of many techniques that ancient grammarians used to discover the rules of a given language by attending to excellent uses of that language. The discovery of such rules not only made one a more fluent reader of texts in a given language. Discovering the underlying logic of a given language also helped one become a more eloquent speaker of that language. Analogy, among a host of other techniques, was therefore a tool of both hermeneutical and rhetorical significance.
Given the primarily inductive nature of the ancient grammarian’s work, testing whether or not one had correctly summarized the underlying grammatical logic of a given language required comparing a rule derived from one particular text against other particular texts. The more examples one could find of a rule in use, the more confident one could be regarding the validity of the rule. “Analogy,” then, was about comparing one specific text to other specific texts with the aim of confirming or correcting a rule derived through the inductive study of language in use. Successfully reconstructing the internal logic of a given language by this technique equipped one with a kind of “rule of thumb” for interpretation and communication (for more on this topic, see Mark Randall James, Learning the Language of Scripture).
What does this have to do with divine simplicity? Because it is God’s Word written, Holy Scripture is the source and norm for sound theology. Our theology, our “discourse concerning God,” is judged fitting or unfitting to the degree that it faithfully represents divine discourse in Holy Scripture. The question for the doctrine of divine simplicity, therefore, is: Does the denial of composition in God conform to or contradict the logic of divine discourse in Holy Scripture?
It might seem that the doctrine of divine simplicity contradicts the logic of biblical discourse. For example, Psalm 145:3 lays down a clear rule for God-honoring speech: “Great is the Lord, and abundantly to be praised.” Here the indicative–the Lord is great, entails an imperative–the Lord is to be praised in an abundant manner. The psalm goes on to indicate exactly what such “abundance” entails. Psalm 145 is an acrostic poem that fulfills its own rule by extolling God through a wide array of divine attributes, by praising God “from A to Z.” Psalm 145 extols the Lord’s greatness, majesty, goodness, righteousness, power, kingship, eternity, faithfulness, kindness, and holiness. According to Psalm 145, it takes many names to praise the Lord “according to his excellent greatness” (Ps 150:2).
With respect to the question at hand: Does Psalm 145’s invitation to and example of ascribing many different names to God (a linguistic reality) suggest that there are many different things in God (an ontological reality)? If so, the doctrine of divine simplicity would seem to be an unfitting application of biblical teaching, a contradiction of the underlying logic of biblical discourse.
The analogy of Scripture can help us here. As a technique for discovering and testing the underlying logic of biblical discourse, the analogy of Scripture invites us to compare our initial conclusion regarding the logic of Psalm 145 (i.e., “many words, therefore, many things”) against other scriptural texts. As we will see, these other scriptural texts do not, in fact, confirm our initial conclusion. This, in turn, leads us to revisit our initial conclusion, to revise our understanding of Psalm 145’s underlying logic, and, in so doing, to acquire a better grasp of biblical discourse concerning God, one that confirms and deepens our understanding of the doctrine of divine simplicity.
A first step in applying the analogy of Scripture is to consider explicit affirmations of divine simplicity. One such affirmation appears in James 1:5, where God is described as one who gives “simply” (ἁπλῶς), i.e., with “unmixed” motives. As David Gibson argues, simplicity, divine and human, is a central theme of the book of James. James’ affirmation of God’s simple goodness is closely related to his affirmation of God’s unchangeable goodness. In contrast to the double-ness and instability of doubting human beings (Jas 1:8), God is a simple and unchangeable giver of good gifts, unsusceptible to being moved by temptation or to moving someone to temptation (Jas 1:5, 13, 17-18). Consequently, we acquire wholeness, undividedness, as we learn to trust God’s undivided, unchanging goodness through trial (Jas 1:2-4).
A second step in applying the analogy of Scripture is to consider the implicit affirmation of divine simplicity in 1 John 1:5: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Strangely enough, in this case, John’s implicit affirmation of divine simplicity more directly conveys the underlying logic of divine simplicity than Scripture’s explicit affirmation of the doctrine in James 1:5. 1 John 1:5 affirms two things about God’s relationship to light, both of which preclude a partitive or composite understanding of that relationship. According to 1 John 1:5, (1) God is identical with light; and (2) God is nothing but light. God cannot be distinguished from light, as if light were a nonessential attribute, because he is light. Nor can God’s light be distinguished from other parts of God (e.g., his being, wisdom, goodness, power, etc.) because he is nothing but light, pure light. According to 1 John 1:5, God is essentially and exclusively light.
Psalm 92:15 confirms the logic of divine simplicity on display in 1 John 1:5. According to Psalm 92:15, under the Lord’s blessing, the righteous flourish in declaring that “the Lord is upright” and that “there is no unrighteousness in him.” Corresponding closely to what we see in 1 John 1:5, Psalm 92:15 affirms that God is essentially righteous in a manner that excludes all unrighteousness. Whether Scripture is speaking about divine light or about divine righteousness, both attributes appear to operate according to a similar logic of divine simplicity. Based on these two examples, we may suggest the following rule for God-befitting speech: To say that God is x is to say that God is essentially x (i.e., x is not accidental to what God is) and that God is exhaustively x (i.e., x is not a part of what God is).
Comparing Psalm 145:3 with James 1:5, 1 John 1:5, and Psalm 92:15–“two or three witnesses” via the analogy of Scripture–therefore suggests that our initial conclusion regarding Psalm 145:3 was incorrect. The call to ascribe many different names to God does not imply that there are many different things in God, many different parts of God. God is not divided (Deut 6:4). How, then, might we revise Psalm 145:3’s rule regarding God-befitting discourse? Psalm 145:3, read in light of the analogy of Scripture, suggests that it takes an abundance of names (a linguistic reality) to praise an absolutely simple God (an ontological reality).
Closer analysis of Psalm 145:3 proves to be consistent with the preceding conclusion. Not only does this verse claim that the Lord is great. Not only does it call us to use an abundance of names in praising the Lord’s greatness. Psalm 145:3 also indicates what it is about divine greatness that requires us to use an abundance of names: “his greatness is unsearchable.”
“Greatness” is a name of dignity. It indicates that the Lord is high rather than low, that he transcends all things as their creator and king, that he is the supreme reward of his covenant people (cf. Gen 15:1; Pss 113; 145:1; Heb 11:6). According to Psalm 145:3, it is not simply the Lord’s greatness but the Lord’s transcendent, unsearchable greatness that provides the reason why many different names must be used in extolling him. According to Psalm 145:3, it takes many names to praise the greatness of the Lord because he is “exalted above all blessing and praise” (Neh 9:5). In other words, because none of the names our creaturely languages provide can possibly capture the Lord’s transcendent greatness, we must employ a multitude of creaturely names to praise him; and, even then, our praise falls short of his “excellent greatness” (Ps 150:2). When we further consider that the Lord’s name “YHWH,” the name which Psalm 145:3 praises, is one (Deut 6:4; Zech 14:9), we arrive at a conclusion quite consistent with our argument above: The transcendent oneness of the Lord’s name, a oneness that transcends all creaturely blessing and praise, requires us to praise him through an abundance of creaturely names. Truly “his greatness is unsearchable.”
Much more could and should be said about the nature of divine simplicity and about why it takes an abundance of creaturely names to praise an absolutely simple God. But that will have to wait for another occasion.
Postscript for the stunned reader
I received quite a bit of pushback on the above post. Therefore, in an effort to shed a little further light on my thinking, here are a few additional comments.
- Though not universal, divine simplicity is widely affirmed in the broader NT context by Greco-Roman and Jewish thinkers. Therefore, it is not necessarily anachronistic to see an affirmation of divine simplicity in the NT (i.e., the doctrine of divine simplicity wasn’t invented in the fourth century).
- Regarding James 1:5: Richard Bauckham convinced me long ago that James is a sophisticated Hellenistic Jew. Therefore, when the presence of a term (“simple”) accords with broader themes and arguments in James’ letter, I don’t treat it as irrelevant but as a sign of the deep structure of his thought and argument.
- Regarding Psalm 92:15: I sincerely understand why some would see this reference as a stretch! But, by analogy, consider what Paul does with Psalm 106:20 in Romans 1:23 and surrounding context: he “amplifies” it with a number of “Greek” attributes: “immortal” (vs. mortal), “invisible” (vs. visible), “divine nature,” etc. Though the link between Psalm 92:15 and 1 John 1:5 may not be evident on a first reading, I suggest that 1 John 1:5 may be a similar, if more distant, “amplification” of Psalm 92:15’s way of affirming and denying something about God. To unpack the claim more fully: Though Psalm 92:15 affirms only a modest view of simplicity, i.e., that God is righteous with no admixture of unrighteousness, that affirmation is already a strange locution. For example, in affirming that human beings are spiritual creatures, we’d never suggest that they’re exclusively spiritual (i.e., bodiless) creatures. Much less would we, in attributing righteousness to human beings, suggest that they’re exclusively righteous creatures (i.e., with no admixture of unrighteousness, etc.). How, then, does 1 John 1:5 “amplify” Psalm 92:15’s modest view of simplicity? John amplifies the psalmist’s pattern by predicating light of God. It’s that addition that suggests a stronger view of simplicity to me. Light, in biblical and extrabiblical contexts, often connotes purity and simplicity, often in association with God’s emphatic holiness (he is “holy, holy, holy”). That specific connotation is thus what motivates me to gloss 1 John 1:5 as a statement about God’s absolute simplicity: God is light and nothing but light, God is essentially x and exhaustively x.