Problem #1: The Loss of Divine Simplicity
Many people have too small a view of God, atheists, agnostics, and theists alike. Divine simplicity is the doctrine of God often missing in modern discourse, its absence causing many errors.
Historically, divine simplicity was a centerpiece of Christian theology and shaped every aspect of how theologians approached ideas about God. Divine simplicity helped finite minds to even begin to grasp how big the gap is between the creator and us His creatures. Unfortunately, this doctrine of God is now largely overlooked.
In this post, I will explore some of the errors, both secular and theological, that arise from the rejection of divine simplicity. But first, I will demonstrate why classical theists hold this as such a core teaching in the first place.
What Divine Simplicity Is
Simplicity does not mean easy to understand, this concept certainly is not! Rather, divine simplicity is the idea that God is not composed of parts – metaphysical or physical parts.
Classical theists think that God is a singular entity that exists outside of space and time and that He creates and sustains everything that exists at every moment (prime mover). 1
The Historic Position
Divine simplicity has been the teaching of almost all classical monotheistic traditions. While this doesn’t prove the doctrine, it should at least show why it deserves serious consideration as some of the brightest minds in theology have all held to it.
…the doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church, affirmed at the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican Council, and the denial of which amounts to heresy. 2
It was also affirmed by the majority of the reformers and is even included in the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. 3
Why is Divine Simplicity Necessary?
Divine simplicity is a form of negative theology (Via Negativa). Rather than being able to “positively” say what God is, negative theology asserts what God cannot be to help give us a better picture of what God is.
These negations are necessary conclusions that derive from logical arguments. Here, I will present summaries of 3 typical negations that give us the reasons why divine simplicity is a necessary picture of who God is. 4
- God cannot have parts: the principle of one over many.
- God cannot have an essence distinct from His existence.
- God cannot have any accidents or contain any potencies.
God Has No Parts – Principle of the One Over the Many
First is the idea that God does not have any parts. Classical theism teaches that anything that has parts needs an explanation for why its parts exist and why they exist in the exact configuration that they do.5 This is sometimes called the principle of the one over the many.
It is worth noting that when the Bible speaks of God having body parts, such as hands, this is anthropomorphic speech that most theologians take as a metaphor. 6
Everything we see in nature is made of parts. There is always a more fundamental reason for what brought those parts together. For instance, a car consists of different parts that were manufactured before they were assembled into a car. The parts of the car, such as a belt, are made up of constituent materials: elastic polymers (kinds of molecules), which are made up of atoms, which are made up of subatomic particles, and so on. Each part, itself has causes and explanations of why it exists and why it has the properties it has.
The same holds true for natural things. Humans, animals, plants, and even inanimate natural objects are all explained by their constituent parts and the causes that brought them together.
To apply this concept to God, there would need to be another entity that would explain why God has the parts that He has and not others. Only some kind of being that does not have any parts could truly be the ultimate explanation for everything that exists.
A Typical Objection
A typical objection is that just because some part of a whole has certain properties, in this case, contingent existence, it doesn’t mean that the whole does. This is termed the fallacy of composition.
The objection then goes that just because the things around us that are made of parts need causes and explanations it doesn’t mean the universe as a whole does. Maybe it has just always existed.
The problem here is there are different types of properties and some properties of parts most certainly do scale to the whole.
If each stone in a certain collection of stones weighs less than an ounce, it doesn’t follow that the entire collection weighs less than an ounce. Similarly, if each individual thing in a series is contingent, then (so it is claimed) it doesn’t follow that the series as a whole is contingent. But as we saw in the previous chapter, this argument is a bad one. Not every inference from part to whole commits a fallacy of composition. Whether such a fallacy is committed depends on what sort of feature of the parts we are reasoning about. Where weight is concerned, we can’t validly reason from what is true of the parts to what is true of the whole. But where color (for example) is concerned, we can validly reason from the parts to the whole. If each Lego block in a pile of Lego blocks is red, then any object we make out of those blocks will also be red.
Now, contingency is, in the sense that is relevant to the present issue, more like color then it is like weight. Take any contingent thing—a stone, a Lego block, a tree, a human being, whatever. A collection of three stones is obviously no less contingent than a single stone is, and a collection of three hundred or three million stones is obviously no less contingent than the collection of three stones. Indeed, the collections are if anything more obviously contingent than the individual stone is. The individual stone is contingent on things like the laws of physics continuing to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. But the collection is dependent both on all of its component stones being gathered together in just the way they are and on each individual stone in the collection existing insofar as the laws of physics continue to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. The collection is thus doubly contingent. It is quite silly to pretend, then, that when we get to the collection of all the stones there are, or all the contingent things there are, we might somehow suddenly have something that is not contingent. 7
— Edward Feser
On classical theism, these principles most certainly do scale to the whole. Furthermore, God is not an exception to these arguments, rather, he is the conclusion of them (see my posts here for more on this).
God is Not Composed of an Essence Distinct From His Existence
The next key aspect of divine simplicity is the idea that God is not composed of an essence that is distinct from His existence. God’s essence simply is to exist.
Classical theists believe that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence (quid est, what the thing is) and its existence (quod est, that the thing is/exists). For example, take three people: Abraham Lincoln, the current president of the US, and Harry Potter. Each of these people has an essence, something that makes them who/what they are and not anything else. Not all of them have existence, though. Abraham Lincoln had it at one time, the current US president has it now, and Harry Potter never will because Harry Potter is a fictional character – he doesn’t exist.
Classical theists believe that all things that exist do so because something else that exists was a cause of its coming into being. Something else imparts existence to it.
There cannot be an infinite chain of things that impart existence to other things, for then there would be no ground for existence to actually come from. This isn’t just talking about going back in a linear series tracing causes back in time. Rather, this argument is that there cannot be an infinite regress of things imparting existence in a vertical sense, right here and right now. There needs to be something that imparts existence to everything that currently exists. This thing itself must exist necessarily. 8
An illustration would be that you couldn’t have an infinitely long train that is moving. There would need to be something that is pushing or pulling the train into its motion for it to be moving at all.
Likewise, there can’t be an infinite chain of things with essences distinct from their existence. There needs to be something whose essence is existence to impart existence to the whole series. This is God. He doesn’t depend on something external to Him for His essence to exist, rather His essence is to exist.
This necessary being would have to be non-composite for if it had any parts its parts would need an explanation for why they have existence. A being whose essence is to exists also implies a singular entity, and thus we arrive again at divine simplicity. 9
Actus Purus: God is Not Composed of Act and Potency
The final aspect of divine simplicity that we will look at is the idea that in God there cannot be any potencies, He must be pure actuality.
In classical theism, things that exist are said to be “in act” or actuality. Things that do not currently exist but could, are said to be “in potential” or are potencies of the object. The process of moving from potency to act is really just a metaphysical way to describe how change occurs.
Imagine, for example, a hot cup of coffee sitting on a table. This cup of coffee is now in act. This coffee also has the potential to be cold, though. Over time, the heat energy from the coffee will transfer to the air around it and the coffee’s potential to become cool will be actualized by the process of heat transfer.
Potencies are a real part of nature and are necessary for change to occur. Potency is the set of possible properties that a substance has. This cup of coffee does not have potential to turn into a horse. It does have the potential to be hot, or cold, or spilled, or in a cup, etc.
Many people likely haven’t thought of change in these categories of act and potency before, but it is pretty intuitive once they realize what is meant by it. It really matches our common-sense intuitions about how the world works.
Like the essence/existence distinction above, everything that is in act needs to be actualized by something else that is already actual. This is true in the vertical sense about everything that is here right now. This cannot go on to infinity. As such, there needs to be something that is pure act that imparts actuality to everything that exists or there wouldn’t be anything that exists.
Once again, this necessary pure act being cannot have parts, because if it did, it would contain potencies that need explanations for why they are actual. Instead, only a non-composite being, whose essence is not distinct from existence and contains no potencies could be the ground of everything. 10
To be God is to be “to be”
Another way to explicate this doctrine is to appeal to the Act/potency distinction. For Thomas, the first reality whether construed as unmoved mover, uncaused cause, or necessary being, must be characterized as actus purus, pure energy or actuality. But essence functions as a principle of potency, since it delimits the actus essendi, the act of being, somewhat in the manner that matter sets a limit to form. Thus my humanity determines that I am a very particular type of being relating to my existence as potency to act. Therefore, in the actus purus of God, there can be no principle that delimits the divine act of to be. Or, to state the same thing there can be no distinction between essence and existence in God. As David Borel, the theologian and philosopher from Notre Dame put it, to be God is to be “to be”. In regard to any creature from an archangel to a stone, no such formula could possibly be applied. 11
–Bishop Robert Barron
Why this Matters
This is such an important teaching for many reasons, but there are two key reasons that come to mind.
First, whether one is aware of it or not, to deny divine simplicity is to implicitly deny that God even exists. If there is not a necessary being that has no parts – a being whose essence is simply to exist as a purely actual being that imparts existence and actuality to everything we see – then there is no ultimate/necessary being. Anything that we would call God that has parts would, in fact, have a cause of its parts and not be the ultimate explanation after all. The only other option would be that all contingent things would just simply exist as a brute fact, but this violates the Principle of Sufficient Reason and is truly an absurd proposition (read why in past posts here).
The second main implication of divine simplicity is that all of God’s attributes, goodness, love, justice, etc., are all just reflections of God’s single unified nature. These attributes of our existence only exist because they flow from God’s very essence. The denial of this aspect of divine simplicity will spill over into our next two areas missing from classical theism, each of which we will deal with in the next posts in the series.
Now, we will examine how misunderstanding divine simplicity gives rise to many unfounded objections to the idea of God’s existence. We will also review some of the theological errors within modern Christian thought which result in unnecessary division among Christians that are based on misunderstandings of this key doctrine.
Errors in Secular Thought
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
This is a familiar saying by many modern atheists. The problem here is this commits the fallacy of equivocation. It is a category error of the highest degree. None of the gods that we all do reject in fact are meant to be the same type of explanation as explained by the classical theistic conception of God. The big difference is divine simplicity.
These other ideas of gods are really just super-powerful beings. Zeus, Thor, Vishnu, etc., are just beings with god-like attributes. They all are different species belonging to a genus of super-powerful being, and thus would need explanations of their existence.
On the other hand, divine simplicity states that God is wholly unique. God doesn’t belong to any genus. God is a purely actual being that has no parts, whose essence is existence. Only God exists necessarily and then gives all contingent beings their existence. If these other gods did exist, even their existence too could only ultimately be explained by a being that matches the ideas of divine simplicity, a necessary being without parts.
Another common misconception of God arises from the Euthyphro dilemma. “Does God command this particular action because it is morally right, or is it morally right because God commands it?” One horn of the dilemma puts some standard above God that He is subject to, which would mean He isn’t really God. The other horn makes God’s commands of morality seem arbitrary to God’s whims so that morality isn’t objective after all, it is relative to God’s will. This horn would seem to lead to the absurd idea that God could will something to be good that all humans seem to agree is bad (such as torturing people for fun or murder) and we would be morally obligated to do so.
The mistake here again is seeing God as just the greatest being among many instead of the view of classical theism and divine simplicity. Divine simplicity shows us that God is His attributes. He is goodness. He cannot fail to be so. As such, He doesn’t have to live up to a standard, He is the standard. There is no external law that God is bound to, God is the law. There is no dilemma, then. Goodness is a reflection of who God is.
Atheists misconception of the Christian God is a strawman that classical theists reject too. Most objections against the existence of God do not even approach the strongest arguments put forth by classical theism. Instead, modern objections usually attack an anthropomorphic vision of God that Christians simply do not hold too, making God out to be an angry and vengeful super-human in the sky.
Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.
There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. 12 –Sam Harris
In short, most modern objections to the existence of God make a grand error of equivocation.
Errors in the Church
The topics in this area could take up many books, let alone blog posts. I will give a couple summaries of two of the common theological errors that I am aware that arise from rejecting divine simplicity.
God’s Law vs God’s Gospel?
First, in rejecting divine simplicity, some modern Lutheran theologians have denied that God’s eternal law is a reflection of His very nature. In doing so, they end up pitting aspects of God against himself.13 Specifically, Lutheran Theologian Gerhard Forde taught that God’s love and wrath contradict each other.
There are several other implications of Forde’s system which differentiate it from classical Lutheran thought. The doctrine of God is profoundly impacted through Forde’s redefinition of law. In the scholastic tradition, the general tenets of a Thomistic view of divinity are affirmed, such as God’s immutability, consistency, and simplicity. Forde prefers not to utilize such static categories, but instead defines God himself in terms of his act in Christ. This is especially clear in his view of the cross, wherein God’s own being is constituted by his decision to be a God of grace through the atonement. The manner in which Forde describes the law and the gospel also promotes a God who contradicts himself with these two words. The confessional Lutheran tradition contends that, though mystery exists in terms of the relationship between God’s love and wrath, these elements of the divine being are not essentially inconsistent with one another. 14
Classical theists would object to the idea that there is any contradiction in God. His attributes are really just a reflection of His single nature. He is perfectly consistent with His natures of love and justice.
Unfortunately, ideas like Forde’s lead some to the view that God’s law is a negative thing in our life. It is not, sin is. It also leads some to the belief that the law is no longer necessary to follow as we are freed from it when we are justified in Christ. This is also a grave error, as the Bible teaches over and again the necessity of doing God’s will.
John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but it is the doers of the Law who will be declared righteous.
James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. 26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Following God’s law doesn’t save us from our sins – only faith in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross does that – but we still should follow God’s law as this is how God wants us to live.
Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The law is simply a reflection of the order inherent in God’s creation and within God Himself. As shown above, the rejection of divine simplicity can have serious consequences on how we view God’s nature and how we do theology.
Theistic Personalism vs Divine Simplicity
Finally, some popular modern Christian philosophers reject divine simplicity in favor of what Brian Davies has termed theistic personalism. Theistic personalists see God as the greatest possible being, but do not rule out that God may have different metaphysical “parts”. 15
David Bently Hart points out theistic personalism leads to a view of God as the most powerful being among other beings. Hart even coined the term to describe this view as mono-polytheists, as it makes the Christian God out to be the only real God out the possible pantheon of gods that man has described in various religions throughout history. 16
The problem here is that theistic personalism seems to view God as one kind of person among all other kinds of persons. It seems to make God out to be some anthropomorphic type of Superman. Divine simplicity, rather, leads to the conclusion that God does not belong to any genus, He is wholly other than creation. God is the ground of all being.
Theistic personalism, then, leads right back to a view of God that the Atheists above objected to, objections which do not apply to classical theism. It also, unfortunately, causes some prominent modern Christain philosophers to deny other very traditional doctrines of God, such that God is immutable (does not change) and God is outside of time.
It is very challenging to cover such an in-depth and abstract philosophical topic in a single blog post. The above is definitely meant to just be the briefest of summaries.
It is hopefully at least clear that divine simplicity is integral to the traditional view of God in Christianity. It is based on reason and reflected in many places in the Bible.
It is also hopefully clear that many people who reject God today reject a misconception of who Christians believe God is. Also, the rejection of divine simplicity leads to many theological errors and unnecessary divisions in the church.
Next up on our list of missing elements of classical theism in the modern world is a look at teleology.
Exodus 3:14 (ESV)
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
- See Edward Feser’s excellent and concise explanation of divine simplicity in this blog post on classical theism. ↩︎
- Feser, Edward. Classical Theism. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/09/classical-theism.html 09/2010 ↩︎
- Augsburg Confession Article I: Of God. 1. Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; 2. that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and 3. yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “person” 4. they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself. 5. They condemn all heresies which have sprung up against this article, as the Manichaeans, who assumed two principles, one Good and the other Evil: also the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all such. 6. They condemn also the Samosatenes, old and new, who, contending that there is but one Person, sophistically and impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Ghost are not distinct Persons, but that “Word” signifies a spoken word, and “Spirit” signifies motion created in things. ↩︎
- In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas actually gives 8 reasons which can be read here. ↩︎
- “For anything which is in any way composed of parts would be metaphysically less fundamental than those parts themselves and would depend on some external principle to account for the parts being combined in the way they are. In that case, either the external principle itself (or perhaps some yet further principle) would have to be simple, and thus ultimate, and thus the truly divine reality, or there is no simple or non-composite first principle, and thus no metaphysically ultimate reality, and thus nothing strictly divine. In short, to deny divine simplicity is, for the classical theist, implicitly to deny the existence of God.” Feser, Edward. Classical Theism. edwardfeser.blogspot.com. 09/2010 ↩︎
- There are so many examples of this kind of speech in the Bible. Here is one: Isaiah 66:2 “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word. ↩︎
- Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 327 ↩︎
- “To say that God is simple is to say that in him there’s no distinction between his essence and his existence, between what he is, quid est and that he is. For Thomas Aquinas, this divine simplicity follows clearly from God’s status as the uncaused cause of the being of the created world. Part of Thomas’s metaphysical program of a thing’s existence is a function either of its own essence or of the influence of some extrinsic cause. Either it explains itself or has to be explained through appeal to some agent beyond itself. Now everything in our immediate experience is marked by a real distinction between essence and existence for we can contemplate their natures apart from their acts of existence. In regard to all such things, therefore, we are logically compelled to seek a cause of their being. Precisely because there could be no infinite regress of caused causes in a series subordinated per se and not merely for accidents, there must exist finally a reality whose existence is a function not of an extrinsic agency but of its own essence or nature. This simple reality whose very quid est is “to be” and grounds the “to be” of every creature is what the great tradition has meant by the word God.” Bishop Barron on Divine Simplicity: Symposium with William Lane Craig Feb. 2018. 10:45 – 12:04 minutes. ↩︎
- “Nor could it be something with an essence distinct from its existence since in that case, it would require a cause which imparts existence to its essence, and thus once again not really be necessary. So, a necessary being in the strictest sense has to be one which is purely actual, absolutely simple or noncomposite and something which just is subsistent existence itself.” Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 338 ↩︎
- “Now, the One must be the cause of all things other than itself, for since it is unique, anything other than itself is composite, and we have already seen that anything that is composite must ultimately depend for its existence on the One. I have also argued that the One is itself uncaused, simple or noncomposite, unique, immutable, eternal, immaterial, and a mind or intellect. That much would already justify us in calling the One “God”. But much more can be said. The One also has to be regarded as purely actual rather than a mixture of actuality and potentiality. Obviously, it has to be at least partially actual, for the reasons set out in the previous chapter—namely, that nothing that is merely potential can do anything, and the One is doing something insofar as it is the cause of all things other than itself. But if it was less then purely actual, then it would be partially potential. In that case, it would have parts—an actual part and a potential part—and it has no parts. So, again, it must be purely actual.” Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God Mobi (Kindle Locations 1178-1182). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
- This quote is from a talk given by Bishop Robert Barron at a symposium on Divine Simplicity with William Lane Craig. January 13, 2018. Link to talks. ↩︎
- Harris, Sam. There is no God and you know it. https://samharris.org/there-is-no-god-and-you-know-it/ ↩︎
- “One of the primary problems that arise in modern theology is that the rejection of the doctrine of divine simplicity often leads to a God who contradicts himself. In his attempt to distinguish law from gospel, Oswald Bayer argues that God contradicts himself. (Bayer, Theology, 23).” Cooper, Jordan (2017). Lex Aeterna: A Defense of the Orthodox Lutheran Doctrine of God’s Law and Critique of Gerhard Forde. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. loc. loc. 105 ↩︎
- Cooper, Jordan (2017). Lex Aeterna: A Defense of the Orthodox Lutheran Doctrine of God’s Law and Critique of Gerhard Forde. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. loc. loc. 294 ↩︎
- “The difference between classical theism and theistic personalism shows up in their respective attitudes toward some of the traditional divine attributes. Classical theists insist that God is absolutely simple or without parts; theistic personalists tend to reject the doctrine of divine simplicity. Classical theists also insist that God is immutable, impassible, and eternal in the sense of outside time altogether, while theistic personalists tend to reject these claims as well. These differences also affect how the two views interpret claims about God’s omniscience, will, goodness, and sovereignty, with theistic personalists tending to interpret these in a more anthropomorphic way.” Feser, Edward. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/04/craig-on-theistic-personalism.html ↩︎
- “Many Anglophone theistic philosophers …, reared as they have been in a post-Fregean intellectual environment, have effectively broken with classical theistic tradition, adopting a style of thinking that the Dominican philosopher Brian Davies calls theistic personalism. I prefer to call it monopolytheism myself (or perhaps “mono-poly-theism”), since it seems to me to involve a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggests that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings. For philosophers who think in this way, practically all the traditional metaphysical attempts to understand God as the source of all reality become impenetrable.” Hart, David Bently. The Experience of God, pp. 127-128 ↩︎