by Matt Slick
Divine simplicity is the teaching that God is without parts, but is instead a single metaphysical essence. He is simple, not compound; hence, divine simplicity. He is not made up of various compartments like goodness, love, and justice that combine to form a whole. Nor are the three persons in the Trinity to be seen as "three parts" that make up the totality of God. Instead, he is goodness, love, justice, etc. He is trinitarian by nature. To reiterate, there are no components, no sections in his essence.
Furthermore, there is no sense in which one aspect of his being (i.e., love) is above or more significant than any other (i.e., love over justice). God is equally perfect in all his qualities. Therefore, God is equally loving and just, equally compassionate and wrathful, equally rational and good, etc. There is a perfect balance and harmony of all of God's characteristics. This further means that there is no distinction between his essence and his existence since he has the characteristics of eternality and omnipresence. Both are necessarily part of God's being.
To illustrate, a mouse trap has parts that together comprise the whole mechanism. Without one of the parts, it won't work. Each part can be differentiated from another part and each part is different in substance and function. Not so with God. Instead, imagine a single metal sphere. It is one thing, one substance without parts. Its attribute of "sphereness" is part of the essence of the sphere. God is like that. He is one essence from which we observe his attributes (i.e., love, justice, mercy, patience) as revealed in scripture.
In addition, there would be no distinctions between God's attributes and his essence. Let me illustrate. I used the illustration of mousetrap in the above paragraph. A mousetrap can be black. Therefore we would say that a particular mousetrap has the attribute of being black. But, that same mousetrap could be painted white. It would then have a different attribute of whiteness. In the case of a mousetrap, the attributes can change, but the essence remains the same. This idea of changing attributes does not apply to God. His attributes cannot be separated or altered since they are part of his nature. They are part of his essence. Therefore we would say that his attribute of goodness cannot be distinguished from his nature anymore than could his omniscience and omnipresence.
Both the Catholic and Protestant churches affirm the doctrine of divine simplicity.
Catholic: "Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that "between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude"; and that "concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him." http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/43.htm
Protestant: "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." Belgic Confession, a Protestant Confession, /belgic-confession
Where the Catholic Church is excellent in many of its doctrines (e.g., Trinity, Hypostatic Union, Ditheletism, etc.), it fails profoundly in others (Mary, Eucharist, works righteousness, etc.). But, even though there are many serious theological problems with Roman Catholicism, it has properly understood many doctrines. Divine simplicity is one of them.
Divine Simplicity in Scripture
There are many verses in Scripture that are used to demonstrate divine simplicity. I have listed seven below. The first three deal with God's oneness in his nature and essence. The following four show his characteristics, the attributes of his essence. These attributes cannot be separated from his essence. They are what God is by nature and cannot be changed the way the color of a car can be changed.
- Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!"
- 1 Corinthians 8:4, "Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one."
- Mark 12:29, "Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD;"
- John 4:24, "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
- 1 Corinthians 1:9, "God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
- 1 John 1:5, "This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all."
- 1 John 4:8, "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
As you can see from the above scriptures, God is described in many ways. But none of these "attributes" are above any other within God's nature and character. God is a complete unified, whole without division or sub-parts.
Elevation of attributes
Divine simplicity stands in opposition to a common error that is proposed by many people. An example of this error is to say that God is love (1 John 4:8); therefore, he would never send anyone to hell. This kind of argument denies the totality of God's whole nature and extracts one quality (God's love) and raises it above all the others (his justice and righteousness). This produces a false conflict where one characteristic of God's nature is set against another. The result is an error.
Also, when anyone singles out a particular quality of God nature as is revealed in Scripture and then represents God by that single attribute, he or she is committing a logical error called the fallacy of composition. This fallacy says that what is true the part is true of the whole. It's like saying the car's engine is blue; therefore the whole car is blue. It does not necessarily follow. So, to raise one divine quality of God above another use it to represent the whole of God, is wrong.
Divine simplicity is a true biblical doctrine that relates to the nature of God. God is whole, not comprised parts, complete in his essence, without variation, and is consistent and equally good as he is just, equally loving as he is merciful. His attributes are then necessarily part of his essence. So we would say that the characteristic of God's omnipresence is part of his nature as would be his goodness, his omniscience, his mercy, and is justice. God is a single whole, a complete totality that is a single divine nature.