The Simplicity of God

May 27, 2016

If you’re an evangelical Christian, chances are you won’t be too surprised by the famous first article of the 1561 Belgic Confession:

We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God—eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good.

This is pretty standard for what Christians think of when they think of “divine attributes”—that is, those descriptions that fill in the blank when we compose sentences of the form “God is ____.”

For the careful readers among us, however, there is at least one of these attributes that might seem strange. In fact, we being contemporary evangelicals could be forgiven for failing to realize that this strange attribute even counts as a divine attribute at all. This attribute, which is explicitly affirmed in nearly every historical confession of the Christian traditions we normally call “orthodox,” is God’s simplicity.

Strange, isn’t it? What could it mean to say that God is simple? Isn’t God anything but? It’s strange to our contemporary ears, but when we affirm with the Belgic Confession that God is one “simple and spiritual Being,” historically (and I think truly) we are affirming nothing less than what Reformed theologian James Dolezal calls “the grammar of Christian orthodoxy.” In other words, when we affirm God’s simplicity, we’re not just adding “one more” (strange) attribute to God’s already impressive résumé; rather, we’re actually giving voice to the very form that all other attributes take in God. But what could this mean? In fact, what could it mean to say that God is “simple,” to begin with? I’ll take these questions in turn.

First, in order to understand what it could mean for God’s simplicity to be the “grammar” or “form” of all the other names or attributes we ascribe to him, we might consider the way in which the sixty-four squares comprising a chess board is related to the rules of chess. How might we reply, for example, if someone were to suggest that we follow all the rules of chess, but without a board? The answer, of course, would have to be something along the lines of “whatever your proposed game is, it’s not chess.”

When we understand why it’s impossible to play chess without a chess board, we get a sense of what it means for God’s simplicity to be the “form” or “grammar” of all his other attributes; for chess pieces as chess pieces only “move” by virtue of the coordinates established by those sixty-four squares. In fact, without the chess board, “chess pieces” are just cute little figurines! So the analogy goes like this: (1) as a chess board is to the rules of chess, so is (2) God’s simplicity to his wisdom, goodness, etc. For Christians drawing up these traditional confessions, at least, we might say that simplicity is the common reference point that all God’s attributes assume.

“Okay,” we might think, “but what does God’s simplicity actually mean?” The short answer is that the doctrine of simplicity tells us that there is no composition, parts or division in God’s essence or “whatness.” Unlike human beings, for example, in God there is no real distinction (1) between matter and spirit (because God is pure spirit); (2) between the parts of his “definition” (because God cannot be defined); or (3) between individuality and kind (because God just is his own kind, as it were).

But this might sound like philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Why is simplicity important enough to be included in confessions as diverse as the Belgic Confession, 39 Articles and the Roman Catholic Catechism (to cite just a few examples)? Perhaps the best way into this question is to remind ourselves of an old riddle that goes back to that great philosopher of Athens, Socrates. In the famous Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates poses what philosophers today call the “Euthyphro dilemma”: roughly, the question of whether (1) something is good because God wills it; or rather that (2) something is willed by God because it is already good.  

If we examine this question closely, we can see why it is, in fact, a dilemma. If we say that something is good (giving to the poor, for example) simply because God wills it, then we reach the odd conclusion that God could just as well have willed the opposite. By contrast, if we say that God wills something because it is good already, then we reach the equally odd conclusion that God is somehow subject to or subservient to some prior notion of goodness that exists beyond him.

One of the ways of understanding the primary motivation of the doctrine of simplicity is that it is able to consistently reject both of these undesirable results. As nearly every Christian tradition affirms, it is not (1) that God just happens to will some things to be good and others evil, or (2) that God is subservient to some sort of standard beyond himself. Instead, God just is goodness, full stop. Goodness is so intimate to God, we might say, that it is in fact identical with his very being. After all, we don’t just say that God loves; we say that God is love itself (1 John 4:8). We understand the motivation behind the doctrine of simplicity when we understand that Socrates’ “Euthyphro dilemma” is not limited to goodness, but extends to all other divine attributes, including existence, power and truth (John 14:6).

The upshot of this strange affirmation in the Belgic Confession, then, is actually an invitation into a beautiful mystery of faith. Flickers and echoes of our Creator illuminate and resound in and through his precious creation, calling us to respond with our manifold gifts and powers in the confidence of his saving grace. We can’t quite comprehend the fullness of what it means to say that God is identical with truth and goodness itself, since we comprehend only what is proportionate to our finite, limited and divided intellects. What the doctrine of simplicity helps us to remember, however, is that our hope lies in the One whose beginning and end involves no interval; for the “Love that moves the stars” always already was, is and will be.

About the Author
  • Joshua Harris is a PhD candidate in the conjoint program in Philosophy with the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto) and the VU University Amsterdam. His dissertation is (tentatively) titled 'One' and 'Many' as Transcendental Notions in Thomas Aquinas; some of his work is available online here.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.