On Divine Simplicity and Malformed Arguments

Reformed theology, as properly expressed, considers the doctrine of God’s unity not as the classical formulation used by Aquinas and the Scholastics, but as a unity of being; in which all attributes of God are distinct in their display, necessarily interrelated but not identical to each other, despite being differentiated expressions of God’s singular, essential nature. The Scholastics (following the lead of earlier writers) may be summed up as follows: “It is commonly said in theology that God’s attributes are God himself, as he has revealed himself to us… It was further asserted by the Scholastics that the whole essence of God is identical with each one of the attributes, so that God’s knowing is God, God’s willing is God, and so on. Some of them even went so far as to say that each attribute is identical with every other attribute, and that there are no logical distinctions in God.” (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 45)

This conception, however, is not that of the consistently Reformed position. I will give you Berkhof, Bavinck, and the inestimable Dr. Gill.

“Naturally, we should guard against separating the divine essence and the divine attributes or perfections, and also against a false conception of the relation in which they stand to each other. The attributes are real determinations of the Divine Being or, in other words, qualities that inhere in the Being of God. Shedd speaks of them as “an analytical and’ closer description of the essence.”
In a sense they are identical, so that it can be said that God’s perfections are God Himself as He has revealed Himself to us. It is possible to go even farther and say with Shedd, “The whole essence is in each attribute, and the attribute in the essence.” And because of the close relation in which the two stand to each other, it can be said that knowledge of the attributes carries with it knowledge of the Divine Essence. It would be a mistake to conceive of the essence of God as existing by itself and prior to the attributes, and of the attributes as additive and accidental characteristics of the Divine Being. They are essential qualities of God, which inhere in His very Being and are co-existent with it. These qualities cannot be altered without altering the essential Being of God. And since they are essential qualities, each one of them reveals to us some aspect of the Being of God.” – Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 45-46

Simplicity is not in conflict with the doctrine of the Trinity, for the term “simple” is not used as an antonym of “twofold” or “threefold,” but of “compound.” Hence, this simplicity does not conflict with the doctrine of the Trinity, for the divine being is not composed of three persons, neither is each person composed of God’s being plus the personal property; but the one and only uncompounded (simple) being exists in three persons; every person or personal property is distinct from God’s being not “in the object” but “in reason”; every personal property is indeed a “real relation,” but does not add “something real” to the “essence.” The personal properties “do not compose but only distinguish.” – Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. William Hendricksen, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 172.

“God being a Spirit, we learn that he is a simple and uncompounded Being, and does not consist of parts, as a body does; his spirituality involves his simplicity: some indeed consider this as an attribute of God; and his spirituality also: and, indeed, every attribute of God, is God himself, is his nature, and are only so many ways of considering it, or are so many displays of it. However, it is certain God is not composed of parts, in any sense; not in a physical sense, of essential parts, as matter and form, of which bodies consist: nor of integral parts, as soul and body, of which men consist: nor in a “metaphysical” sense, as of essence and existence, of act and power: nor in a “logical” sense, as of kind and difference, substance and accident; all which would argue imperfection, weakness, and mutability. If God was composed of parts he would not be “eternal”, and absolutely the first Being, since the composing parts would, at least, co-exist with him; besides, the composing parts, in our conception of them, would be prior to the compositum; as the body and soul of man, of which he is composed, are prior to his being a man: and, beside, there must be a composer, who puts the parts together, and therefore must be before what is composed of them: all which is inconsistent with the eternity of God: nor would he be “infinite” and “immense”; for either these parts are finite, or infinite; if finite, they can never compose an infinite Being; and if infinite, there must be more infinities than one, which implies a contradiction: nor would he be “independent”; for what is composed of parts, depends upon those parts, and the union of them, by which it is preserved: nor would he be “immutable”, unalterable, and immortal; since what consists of parts, and depends upon the union of them, is liable to alteration, and to be resolved into those parts again, and so be dissolved and come to destruction. In short, he would not be the most perfect of Beings; for as the more spiritual a being is, the more perfect it is; and so it is, the more simple and uncompounded it is: as even all things in nature are more noble, and more pure, the more free they are from composition and mixture.

Nor is the simplicity of God to be disproved by the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead; for though there are three distinct persons, there is but one nature and essence common to them all, and which is not parted and divided among them, but is jointly and equally possessed by them; nor do these persons really differ from the divine nature and essence, nor from one another, but by their distinct modes of subsisting; so that they only distinguish and modify, but do neither divide nor compose the divine nature: nor is it to be disproved by the decrees of God; the decrees of God are within himself, and, as it is commonly said, whatever is in God, is God, and so are no other than God himself, as to the act of decreeing, though not with respect to the things decreed; and though they are many and various, as to the objects of them, yet not in God, who, by one eternal act, in his infinite mind, has decreed every thing that has been, is, or shall be; and is what Plato means by en kai polla, “one” and “many” in God; one, as to his essence; many, as to the ideas and decrees in it, which many are one: nor is it to be disproved by the attributes of God; for they are no other than God himself, and neither differ from one another, but with respect to their objects, and effect, and in our manner of conception of them; nor from the nature and essence of God; they are himself, and his nature; he is not only eternal, wise, good, loving, &c. but he is eternity itself, wisdom itself, goodness itself, love itself, &c. and these are not parts of his nature, but displays of the same undivided nature, and are different considerations of it, in which we view it; our minds being so weak as not to be able to conceive of God at once and together, and in the gross, but one thing after another, and the same in different lights, that we may better understand it: these several things, called attributes, which are one in God, are predicated of him, and ascribed to him distinctly, for helps to our finite understandings, and for the relief of our minds; and that we, with more facility and ease, might conceive of the nature of God, and take in more of him, as we can by parcels and piecemeals, than in the whole; and so, as a learned Jew observes, all those attributes are only intellectual notions; by which are conceived the perfections that are in the essence of God, but in reality are nothing but his essence; and which attributes will be next considered.” – John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book 1, Chapter 4, Sec. 3

What Divine Simplicity entails, for someone engaging in theology or arguing contrary to it, is that their formulation must address all of God’s attributes, or at least argue against a conception of God consistent with all of His attributes, even if they are not specifically addressed. If they do not do so accurately, they are guilty of arguing for or against an incomplete picture of God. This is not something new, but long recognized in theology. What is unfortunate is that believers so often fail to object to these malformed arguments from the grounds of proper theology – which should be the basis of our philosophy.
rksig


9 Comments

Mitchell LeBlanc

Of course, there are critiques of Divine Simplicity.

Plantinga in his 1980 publication, argues against the notion that God is identifiable with his properties by stating that if this is so, then God IS a property and cannot thereby be a Person. In this regard, Divine Simplicity is at clear odds with Christian theism.

Further, there are critiques based on property collapse. If all of God’s properties are identifiable with himself, then both mercy and justice are identifiable as God. But if this is true, then both mercy and justice are the same thing. This seems absurd, as they are opposites.

The attempt to save the Trinity from Divine Simplicity that you’ve presented seems unclear to me. Even if one were to grant that we should consider the essence between them as unifying, Divine Simplicity forces a collapse that is still inconsistent with the Trinity. How is it the case that the Holy Spirit = God, Jesus = God, Father = God but, for example, the Father =/= Jesus? This seems outright incoherent.

“Nor is the simplicity of God to be disproved by the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead; for though there are three distinct persons, there is but one nature and essence common to them all, and which is not parted and divided among them, but is jointly and equally possessed by them; nor do these persons really differ from the divine nature and essence, nor from one another, but by their distinct modes of subsisting; so that they only distinguish and modify, but do neither divide nor compose the divine nature”

I am unsure as to how the matter of distinct persons sharing an essence dispels the problem here. The author states that they differ only in their ‘distinct modes of subsisting’, but this does not address the question as to how there can be internal distinctions within God in the first place! Is the distinction merely a metaphorical one based on the different roles of God?

If we take this statement on what it says, that the three distinct persons of the Trinity do not compose (or divide) God’s nature, are we to assume that they possess God’s nature as a property (i.e “being God”)? But if this is true, what do each of the members of the Trinity ‘add’ to the property “being God” that allows them to be personal rather than abstracta (as per Plantinga’s critique). Surely, even the thought of them adding anything to God is absurd, so how does one resolve this problem.

I fear that I may be misunderstanding Gill’s, and Bavinck’s points. Perhaps you can explain them in a bit more depth.

Thanks!

RazorsKiss

Of course, there are critiques of Divine Simplicity.

As the above quotes are – the Scholastic conception of it. They are, on the other hand, giving a positive presentation of the Reformed doctrine of it.

Plantinga in his 1980 publication, argues against the notion that God is identifiable with his properties by stating that if this is so, then God IS a property and cannot thereby be a Person. In this regard, Divine Simplicity is at clear odds with Christian theism.

That is precisely the view of the Scholastics – which is what Bavinck, Berkhof, and Gill are united in NOT advocating, but correcting. Platinga, additionally, is not Reformed, despite the apellate “Reformed epistemology” with which they are often identified. It is not based on Reformed theology, as he is molinistic, as well as holding to a libertarian position, as you’ve previously noted, so his position is not relevant to the issue, although he does critique it in a similar fashion, he does so from different criteria.

Further, there are critiques based on property collapse. If all of God’s properties are identifiable with himself, then both mercy and justice are identifiable as God. But if this is true, then both mercy and justice are the same thing. This seems absurd, as they are opposites.

That is why, again, Berkhof specifically mentions this. The doctrine, as presented by the Scholastics, lacks merit Biblically and is incoherent logically. As presented by the theologians above, it both has Biblical merit and is logically coherent – if you can wrap your brain around it. The incomparable Dr. Gill is a very, very smart cookie, especially.

The attempt to save the Trinity from Divine Simplicity that you’ve presented seems unclear to me. Even if one were to grant that we should consider the essence between them as unifying, Divine Simplicity forces a collapse that is still inconsistent with the Trinity. How is it the case that the Holy Spirit = God, Jesus = God, Father = God but, for example, the Father =/= Jesus? This seems outright incoherent.

I think you misunderstood the intent of this post. First, it was to present what the Reformed position is on Divine Simplicity. Bavinck, Berkhof, and Gill should be adequate testimony on that score, as they are almost universally considered excellent theologians by Reformed folk, and thereby representative. The only one I’d wish to add would be Turretin, but I don’t have access to him. I might rectify that soon. Second, it was to demonstrate that an argument which fails to recognize the simplicity/unity of God fails to be accurate, and thus fails.

As for your accusation of incoherency, I recommend to you a study of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, so as to forestall further confusion. A good introduction would be “The Forgotten Trinity”, by Dr. White. An investment of time with the systematics quoted would also be rather worthwhile, as well. As Paul said, concerning the Resurrection in Acts – “these things were not done in a corner”. Neither has discussion on the nature of the Trinity been. There have been reams of works done on this doctrine, and your questions seem to be rather introductory in nature.

While I’m sure the negation of this doctrine might seem to you as necessary from your own considerations, it is not remotely as trivial an idea as you seem to regard it as.

“Nor is the simplicity of God to be disproved by the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead; for though there are three distinct persons, there is but one nature and essence common to them all, and which is not parted and divided among them, but is jointly and equally possessed by them; nor do these persons really differ from the divine nature and essence, nor from one another, but by their distinct modes of subsisting; so that they only distinguish and modify, but do neither divide nor compose the divine nature”

I am unsure as to how the matter of distinct persons sharing an essence dispels the problem here. The author states that they differ only in their ‘distinct modes of subsisting’, but this does not address the question as to how there can be internal distinctions within God in the first place! Is the distinction merely a metaphorical one based on the different roles of God?

I’m curious as to why you think that this constitutes a problem. Did they not teach you the fundamentals of this doctrine in your previous religious training? Your questions don’t seem to indicate a deep level of understanding on this topic. I don’t mean to be rude, in any fashion here – I’m merely giving you my impressions. When I teach my children in the doctrine of the Trinity, I make these distinctions – that in the one being, nature, essence of God – there are three distinctly co-equal and co-eternal persons of God. There are distinctions in personality. There are not distinctions in being. For instance – the attributes, qualities, or properties of “personality” are trinus, while the qualities, etc. of being are unitas.

If we take this statement on what it says, that the three distinct persons of the Trinity do not compose (or divide) God’s nature, are we to assume that they possess God’s nature as a property (i.e “being God”)? But if this is true, what do each of the members of the Trinity ‘add’ to the property “being God” that allows them to be personal rather than abstracta (as per Plantinga’s critique). Surely, even the thought of them adding anything to God is absurd, so how does one resolve this problem.

The persons of God are trinas in that they have different properties of personality. They are unitas in that they share, are unified, are one in the same being, which has the property, quality, attribute of “being Trinitarian”. Again, I encourage you to invest some time in study of the historic doctrine, and the explanations thereof – which are anything but simplistic. Gill has an entire chapter expressly concerning this topic in his “A Body of Doctrinal Divinity”, which I quoted earlier.

I fear that I may be misunderstanding Gill’s, and Bavinck’s points. Perhaps you can explain them in a bit more depth.

Gill and Bavinck are distinguishing themselves from the Scholastics – for almost identical reasons that I would distinguish myself from the Scholastics. The problem is well-expressed in the words of Tertullian; “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? … Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” For the Scholastics, philosophy was intertwined with theology, and to a great extent governed it. To the Reformers, theology governs philosophy. In the answer of Dr. Greg Bahnsen, in the addendum to “Always Ready” – “Jerusalem (is) the capital of Athens.” For the Scholastics, he and most theologically consistent Reformers would say, “Jerusalem (is) integrated with Athens.” This is unacceptable to Reformed theology, which says that God is not to be thought of in any manner but a Biblical one, per His revelation. While I appreciate your seeming willingness to learn, it does seem as if you may want to study the subject more carefully and in more depth.

In any case, the primary thrust of this post was to outline where I think most atheological objections fail at accurately representing their target. In the comment section of my prior post, that was something you requested. I am working on another such answer; but as you said, since it contradicts practically all of modern philosophy since Leibnitz, it must necessarily be a properly formed argument – such things take time 🙂 This, however, is a good example of *why* I say what I say when you say things such as “could God be deceiving you”, for instance. If I believe, for instance (as I do), that God ordains possibility, since He ordains all things whatsoever that come to pass in His sovereignty – if I also believe that God is true – if I believe that God is eternal (etc, etc) – the collective weight and interplay of these definitional attributes of God are more than sufficient to defeat the argument – since God is what He is, He cannot be what He is not. Therefore, since all these things are revealed – your objection is asking something which is absolutely impossible. We don’t believe in multiplicitous possible worlds – therefore, only the actual state of affairs is possible. In this state of affairs, it is impossible for God to lie.

Do you see the problem? God has so defined Himself as to be truly transcendent. As such, objections, unless somehow shown to be in accordance with what is revelationally true concerning God, (by what standard, however, as asked of you in the other comment thread) will fail by virtue of not representing the God that is being objected to.

How you would possibly object adequately to a God who possessing the entirety of the attributes Scripture reveals Him to have, I cannot begin to suggest – but that is the problem that God being simple poses to the atheist. Which may, or may not be, why you immediately objected to it. However, I don’t know how it would be successfully argued that God is not simple, as defined by the three theologians above. Therefore, it seems you are presented with an exceedingly thorny problem.

Nocterro

“We don’t believe in multiplicitous possible worlds – therefore, only the actual state of affairs is possible.”

You’re seriously saying that, for example, a world in which I chose to drink a Pepsi instead of the Mountain Dew I just drank is an IMPOSSIBLE world?

RazorsKiss

“Impossible by what standard?” would be a better question.

Mitchell LeBlanc

I think this doctrine is rather misnamed in the reformed view, it should perhaps be called “Divine Unity” as “Divine Simplicity” carries a lot of baggage.

So long as it’s not being proposed that “God is identical with each of his attributes and thoughts”, I agree that my presented objections have no weight. My interest, as you queried about, comes because I’m presently working on a paper for submission to a few philosophy journals, of which DDS is a component. Your post was the prime opportunity for me to survey the ‘reformed version’ of “DDS” and to find out where it differs.

The claims you made about a lack of education on my part are perhaps misinformed, simply because I am attempting to survey your position (by which I might be required to ask very elementary questions) does not mean I’m not educated on the topics. In fact, (and this is a personal observation), the manner in which most Calvinists address any non-Calvinists seems to be consistently patronizing. I see no reason why one can’t stick to the subject matter, rather than commenting on their ‘opponent’ (at least in the manner in which you have here).

In response to your bit about rejecting “possible worlds”, and thus, modal logic. It’s simply incoherent to do so, it is as incoherent as rejecting propositional logic. I think what you are trying to articulate is that you advocate what is known as “modal collapse”, but this is not the same as rejecting possible world semantics. In fact, it would be contradictory for you to state that possible world semantics are all invalid, without assuming some modal function. Even more interesting, you’ve used a modal proposition in first sentence of this paper:

” ..in which all attributes of God are distinct in their display, *necessarily* interrelated but not identical to each other…”

As for the *actual* point of this post, I understand it is different from the issues I explored, but I do have a question I feel is directly related.

Do you agree that if there is a being, G, who possesses attributes X, Y, Z and it can be shown that attribute X is inconsistent with fact P that if Y or Z does not change that P contradicts X, then it is not necessary to contradict Y and Z to show that G is inconsistent?

Cheers!

RazorsKiss

I think this doctrine is rather misnamed in the reformed view, it should perhaps be called “Divine Unity” as “Divine Simplicity” carries a lot of baggage.

I actually thought about that, but decided not to, so as to stay in line with what the folks I quoted called it. In all honesty, I think it’s simply an expression of the oneness of God – and I do agree with you.

So long as it’s not being proposed that “God is identical with each of his attributes and thoughts”, I agree that my presented objections have no weight. My interest, as you queried about, comes because I’m presently working on a paper for submission to a few philosophy journals, of which DDS is a component. Your post was the prime opportunity for me to survey the ‘reformed version’ of “DDS” and to find out where it differs.

Cool. I do think the reformed version avoids the pitfalls of the “traditional” version.

The claims you made about a lack of education on my part are perhaps misinformed, simply because I am attempting to survey your position (by which I might be required to ask very elementary questions) does not mean I’m not educated on the topics. In fact, (and this is a personal observation), the manner in which most Calvinists address any non-Calvinists seems to be consistently patronizing. I see no reason why one can’t stick to the subject matter, rather than commenting on their ‘opponent’ (at least in the manner in which you have here).

I guess I misunderstood your question. I wasn’t intending to be patronizing.

In response to your bit about rejecting “possible worlds”, and thus, modal logic. It’s simply incoherent to do so, it is as incoherent as rejecting propositional logic. I think what you are trying to articulate is that you advocate what is known as “modal collapse”, but this is not the same as rejecting possible world semantics. In fact, it would be contradictory for you to state that possible world semantics are all invalid, without assuming some modal function. Even more interesting, you’ve used a modal proposition in first sentence of this paper: ” ..in which all attributes of God are distinct in their display, *necessarily* interrelated but not identical to each other…”

As I understand it, modal logic and infinite possible worlds are not equal terms. In any case, even if I don’t agree in one point, (esp. in the case of God, who has properties I consider to be incompatible with infinite possible worlds) I am not necessarily arguing against modal logic of any kind, in any instance.

As for the *actual* point of this post, I understand it is different from the issues I explored, but I do have a question I feel is directly related. Do you agree that if there is a being, G, who possesses attributes X, Y, Z and it can be shown that attribute X is inconsistent with fact P that if Y or Z does not change that P contradicts X, then it is not necessary to contradict Y and Z to show that G is inconsistent?

If such were the actual state of affairs, it would be possible 🙂 But, more seriously – I’m still working on an argument that will answer your question, and I’ll even use your example.

Mitchell LeBlanc

Looking forward to it, cheers!

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