Divine Simplicity: The Simplicity of God

The simplicity of God is a basic doctrine about the nature or essence of God.

The word “simple” can be used in several ways in the English language. If we say a person is “simple” or “simple-minded,” it is pejorative. As an insult it lowers them in comparison to other human beings. However, if we speak of a ‘simple machine,’ we are not speaking of a machine’s value but its composition. A lever is an example of a simple machine. There is no complex connection of parts and gears that make it work but a lever can be a very powerful useful machine. It is along these lines that theologians speak of the “simplicity” of God.

The simplicity of God is a basic doctrine about the nature or essence of God. Simply put, the simplicity of God means that God is not composed of parts. He is one God and this oneness and unity extend through His entire essence. When we say that God is simple, we do not mean it in a way that would contradict His majesty, eternality, omniscience, omnipresence or any other such attributes that are found in God alone. We simple mean that God is not a being made up of parts. The being of God is not based upon a collection of things whether material or immaterial.

The Biblical doctrine of simplicity is related to another Biblical doctrine: the doctrine of the aseity of God. The ‘aseity’ of God describes that God—as the living God—does not derive His life from anything or anyone. He is dependent upon nothing and no one for His existence. Jesus describes this truth in John 5:26 “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” God the Father has life in himself and the Son has life in Himself even though there is a mutual relationship of Father and Son (“he [the Father] has granted the Son…”).

Consider how different this is from every other living thing. Every living thing that exists has derived its life from something. Creatures have parents. Biological parents impart life through means. Creatures are dependent upon food and energy sources to sustain life. Probing a little deeper, your body is composed of cells. Your body is extremely complex and your life is dependent upon all these cells. Your cells are dependent upon DNA; DNA is dependent upon the construction of chemicals; chemicals are dependent upon molecules like hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, etc.; molecules are dependent upon the constructions of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and even those are composed of things on a quantum level. We are quite complex indeed. One might be tempted to think that since God is more majestic, glorious, and infinite that He is ever more “complex”.[1] But precisely the opposite.

The doctrine of the simplicity of God flows from the Biblical truth that God is spirit. John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In the sense that we cannot put it in a lab and break it down, we do not know what a spirit is. It does mean that God is non-corporeal.

There are several reasons that the doctrine of the simplicity of God is important for how we think of God:

(1) The doctrine of the simplicity of God guards how we think of the attributes, character traits, and even the names of God. When we read the Scriptures we find a multitude of attributes to who God is. Theologians generally break them down into incommunicable attributes (things that man cannot have, like omniscience and omnipresence) and communicable attributes (things man can have like love, grace, wrath, etc.). As we read Scripture, God has many wondrous attributes. Yet, we are not to think of His attributes as like ingredients of a cake: put them all together and that is how God is composed. The attributes flow from His essence. They describe who He is but they are not “parts” of Him like gears in an engine. For example God’s love and holiness are not composite parts of Him but rather He has these attributes in infinite perfection.

Similarly, in Scripture God often reveals Himself through various names that help us understand who He is. The temptation for us would be to think that these names compose some kind of complex picture of who God is—that when we put them together then we have God. The names and attributes do help us understand God even with our limited capacity. We are seeing what God is like but we are not seeing parts or “sides” to Him. It brings new meaning to what Scripture means when it says “God is one”. There is a unity to His essence—unlike say the Baals in Old Testament times who could be fragmented out into different towns and regions with slightly varying names.

Again, the simplicity of God connects itself to the Biblical descriptions that “God is one” and that God is the “I AM WHO I AM.” Michael Horton writes, “God’s simplicity in no way limits the diversity in his works, but stipulates that in all of God’s activity he is self-consistent. In every act, God is the being he is and will ever be.”[2] We should quickly point out that clearly in Biblical language and orthodox thinking, God can indeed be described by His attributes. These are real attributes that manifest themselves in God’s self-revelation often in distinct ways or at distinct moments of time. Rather, what we are saying is we do not look at these attributes independently and project them back into God as compositions that “make God who He is”. The attributes flow from His being in its infinite perfection.

(2) The simplicity of God protects the supremacy of God. The supremacy of God means that God is high and majestic over all things. It also means that all things depend upon God. All life “lives and moves and has its being in Him”. All creation is sustained by the Word of His power. What sustains God? Nothing. If God was composed of parts, He would be in some way dependent upon these parts for His existence.

Most of us would never say that God has parts, like our DNA, but we do sometimes treat His attributes as if they were parts to Him. The Bible says that “God is love”. But as C.S. Lewis rightly points out many people act as if love is God.[3] In this way, people make love more basic then God. They use preconceived notions of love to define God. In a very real way, people are jettisoning the Biblical God when they judge Him to be unconforming to what love “is” or what he “must” be like if He is love. Suddenly God has a part to Him, something that is more basic or fundamental than the simple eternal being or essence of God. The person might not consciously think “God has parts and love is one them” but rejecting the simplicity of God leads a person down a path that robs God of His glory.

(3) The doctrine of the simplicity of God guards our worship of God. There is a great danger in the human heart to over emphasize one attribute of God at the expense of others. This is often the case in the way people contrast God’s love with God’s holiness. We amplify what we like and ignore what we do not like. We slide down a slope to making God in our own image. Even more, we are tempted to pit God’s attributes against each other. In our minds, God can become self-conflicted—as if He struggles with how to show or balance love with holiness and wrath against sin. God’s simplicity negates such thinking.[4] We are exalting the supremacy of God for who He is. The attributes of God that we see in Scripture and creation are not things that make God who He is but things that flow from the God who is who He is. God’s simplicity assure of that God is dependent upon nothing, His essence is undivided, and His perfections are infinite and complete.

[1] We should not confuse simple & complex with comprehensible & incomprehensible. God is still beyond our ability to fully understand and comprehend. God is infinite and we in our finite understanding can never fully understand God. God is so far above us what we are able to understand about God only comes because God steps down and reveals Himself to us. The Biblical truth is that God is both simple [i.e. without parts] and incomprehensible apart from His revelation to us. The theological terms simple & complex not descriptors of our ability or inability to understand God. We point this out so that the reader does not confuse the categories.

[2] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011) 228-9.

[3] C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001) 174.

[4] Horton, Christian Faith, 229.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Place for Truth on December 25, 2014. Used with permission.

Tim Bertolet

Tim Bertolet serves with ABWE as Director of Instructional Design and Theological Education. He’s served in pastoral ministry for sixteen years and knows the life of an MK firsthand. With a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, and degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Lancaster Bible College, he specializes in Bible and theology and is passionate about applying it to life and ministry. Tim’s also an adjunct professor, research fellow with BibleMesh, and a published author. Tim lives in York, Pa. with his wife and kids. He enjoys reading, writing, science fiction, and gardening roses.