Back during my seminary days, our family lived in Louisville, Ky. One of the advantages of living in Louisville was the occasional trip to Homemade Pie and Ice Cream, which had the most scrumptious pies in town. Each year, people from all over the country, even the world, travel to Louisville for the famous Kentucky Derby. Before the race, the festivities are marked not only by flamboyant hats and mint juleps but also by most bakeries’ selling out of their Derby pie.
I enjoy a classic Derby pie, but there is one pie I enjoy even more: Homemade Pie and Ice Cream’s award-winning Dutch apple caramel pie. Truth be told, the caramel on the pie is so thick that you need a butcher’s knife to cut through it. But let’s say you’ve found your knife and you begin dividing up the pie—a fairly large piece for me, thank you, and perhaps smaller pieces for everyone else.
It kills me to admit this, because a theologian is always looking for an insightful illustration wherever he can find one, but Dutch apple caramel pie is a poor illustration for what God is like. That’s right, a really bad one. And yet it’s how many people think about God’s attributes. In fact, it’s what makes me nervous about writing on the different attributes of God, as if we’re slicing up the pie called “God.”
The perfections of God are not like a pie, as if we sliced up the pie into different pieces, lovebeing 10 percent, holiness 15 percent, omnipotence 7 percent, and so on. Unfortunately, this is how many Christians talk about God today, as if love, holiness, and omnipotence are all different parts of God, God being evenly divided among His various attributes. Some even go further, believing some attributes to be more important than others. This happens most with divine love, which some say is the most important attribute, what they might call the biggest piece of the pie.
But such an approach is deeply problematic, as it turns God into a collection of attributes. It even sounds as if God were one thing and His attributes another, something added to Him, attached to who He is. Not only does this approach divide up the essence of God, but it potentially risks setting one part of God against another. (For example, might His love ever oppose His justice?) Sometimes this error is understandable; it unintentionally slips into our God talk. We might say, “God has love” or “God possesses all power.” We all understand what is being communicated, but the language can be misleading. It would be far better to say, “God is love” or “God is all-powerful.” By tweaking our language, we are protecting the unity of God’s essence. To do so is to guard the simplicity of God.
SIMPLICITY AND THE WISDOM OF THE A-TEAM
Simplicity may be a concept that is new to your theological vocabulary, but it is one that has been affirmed by the majority of our Christian forebears over the past two thousand years of church history, even by some of the earliest church fathers. And for good reason, too. Let’s consult Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas.
Apparently, I am not the only one who has appealed to an illustration to demonstrate what God is not like. In the fifth century, the church father Augustine did the same, though it wasn’t Dutch apple caramel pie. Instead, Augustine appealed to liquid, the human body, and sunshine. The nature of the triune God is called simple because “it cannot lose any attribute it possesses,” and because “there is no difference between what it is and what it has, as there is, for example, between a vessel [cup] and the liquid it contains, a body and its color, the atmosphere and its light or heat, the soul and its wisdom.” Augustine concludes, “None of these is what it contains.”1 A cup and liquid, a body and its color, the atmosphere and its light or heat, the soul and its wisdom—what do these all have in common? Answer: division.
Not so, however, with God and His attributes.
God’s attributes are not external to His essence, as if they added a quality to Him that He would not otherwise possess. It’s not as if there were attributes that were accidental to God, capable of being added or subtracted, lost and then found, as if they did not even have to exist in the first place. Rather, God is His attributes. Instead of addition and division, there is absolute unity. His essence is His attributes, and His attributes are His essence. Or as Augustine says, “God has no properties but is pure essence. . . . They neither differ from his essence nor do they differ materially from each other.”2
Augustine is not alone. Take Anselm, for example. If something is “composed of parts,” he remarks, then it cannot be “altogether one.” Whenever there is a plurality of parts, that which is made up of those parts is vulnerable to being dissolved. How disastrous this would be for God! By contrast, God is “truly a unitary being,” One who is “identical with” Himself and “indivisible.” “Life and wisdom and the other [attributes], then, are not parts of You, but all are one and each one of them is wholly what You are and what all the others are.”3
Or consider Thomas Aquinas. Since God does not have a body (like us), He “is not composed of extended parts,” as if He were composed of “form and matter.” It’s not as if God were something different from “his own nature.” Nor is it the case that His nature is one thing and His existence another thing. We shouldn’t suppose, either, that God is some type of substance, one that has accidents, traits that can be disposed of or cease to exist. “God is in no way composite. Rather, he is entirely simple.”4
While Aquinas uses the words “composite” and “composition” to explain what God is not, the church father Irenaeus uses the word “compound” to explain what God is not. If something is compounded, it means it has more than one part to it, each part being separate from the other. By contrast, God, being simple, is an “uncompounded Being,” not having different “members.” He is totally “equal to himself.” Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, to put the word wholly in front of each of His attributes to emphasize this very point. “God is not as men are,” Irenaeus explains. “For the Father of all is at a vast distance from those affections and passions which operate among men. He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since he is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, . . . wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good.”5
With the A-team by our side, it is appropriate to conclude that simplicity is not merely a negative statement—God is without parts—but a positive one as well: God is identical with all that He is in and of Himself. In the purest sense, God is one; He is singular perfection.
In Scripture, this cannot be said of the gods made by humans, gods composed of parts. Given God’s uniqueness, then, it is only right that God’s people confess together, as does Israel, that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4).
HOW SERIOUS IS A DENIAL OF SIMPLICITY?
The denial of simplicity is serious—so serious that one writer has said it is “tantamount to atheism.”6 That sounds extreme. Yet up until the nineteenth century, most would have agreed.
Unfortunately, too many Christians today have adopted monopolytheism (or theistic personalism)—that is, the belief that there is one God, but He looks a lot like the gods of mythology, possessing human attributes, only in greater measure. If monopolytheism were true, however, then God not only would be made up of various parts or properties, but He would be “logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings.”7 And if God were dependent on something or someone else, then He would have given up His deity altogether, for whatever He would be dependent on would have to be something that itself is greater than all else, something more comprehensive than Himself. That is serious.
In the end, simplicity is an attribute simply too serious to ignore.
Editor’s Note: Ideas or content in this article adapted from None Greater have been used with permission from Baker Books.
- Augustine, City of God, 11.10. ↩︎
- Augustine, Trinity, 6.7. ↩︎
- Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, 18. ↩︎
- Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a.3.7. ↩︎
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.13.3; emphasis added. ↩︎
- David Bentley Hart, Experience of God (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014), 128. ↩︎
- Hart, Experience of God. ↩︎