What does it mean when we say God is simple? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Usually when I tell people I hold to God being simple, I get a normal response. “How can you say God is simple? God is infinite in all that He is. God is the greatest being in the universe. Something like that cannot be simple!”
The problem is, we are speaking of it in a different way. When we say something is simple, such as a simple math problem or a simple brain teaser or saying there’s a simple solution to something, we mean that it is easy to understand. You can grasp the idea without problem. You can really wrap your head around it.
No one is saying God is easy to understand. No one who defends divine simplicity means that. If anything, a God that is simple in this sense is even harder I think to understand.
What it means is something basic. God has no parts. Now if you mean something like the computer I write on, most of us could understand that. God is not a material being. You cannot put Him together. Sure. However, we also mean that there is no combination of anything in God.
Take an angel for example. An angel has a nature. An angel also has existence. What you get with an angel is a certain nature that is granted existence. This is a combination of nature + existence. The medieval philosophers would tell you that when God created Michael, He broke the mold. Literally. Each angel is its own nature. That’s how you can tell one angel from another.
With God, there is no combination here. God is not God nature + existence. It’s not that there is a nature of God and that nature was granted existence. No angel exists based upon itself. Every angel in essence has a borrowed existence. Every angel depends on God for its being always. The same for everything else.
This would even happen with the universe if it was eternal. The universe could hypothetically be without beginning and still depend on something else for its existing. Consider the idea of a statue in front of a mirror. The statue is eternal and the mirror is eternal. The statue is eternally reflecting the mirror. If you want to say no one is looking at what is in the mirror, you could say a beam of light from an eternal flashlight with eternal batteries is shining on the mirror at an angle and eternally being reflected. In either case, the image or the light being reflected are both eternal too.
Question. Are the image and the light caused?
Yes. They are dependent on something else for their existing. The same would apply with multiple other examples. If you had an eternal table with an eternal book sitting on it, the eternal table is the cause of the book eternally being supported on it.
Okay. So the universe could hypothetically be eternal or perhaps there’s an eternal multiverse. Why can’t it be what is ultimate? Why need God then?
Because the universe, like the book and light and image, does not contain the principle for its existing in itself. The universe is composed as it is matter + a nature + existing. God is the one thing that is different. God is the only being in the universe whose very nature is to be. If you want to know what it means to be, look at God. Remove any kind of limitation out there and in the end, you get God.
This is also established in church history. Here are some quotes. (Thanks to this site for compiling them.)
“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, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good— even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God.” ~ Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.13.3.
“For God, who compounded all things to give them being, is not compound, nor of similar nature to the things made by Him through the Word. Far be the thought. For He is simple essence, in which quality is not, nor, as James says, ‘any variableness or shadow of turning’ (James 1:17). Accordingly, if it is shown that it is not from virtue (for in God there is no quality, neither is there in the Son), then He must be proper to God’s essence. And this you will certainly admit if mental apprehension is not utterly destroyed in you. But what is that which is proper to and identical with the essence of God, and an Offspring from it by nature, if not by this very fact coessential with Him that begot it? For this is the distinctive relation of a Son to a Father, and he who denies this, does not hold that the Word is Son in nature and in truth.” ~ Athanasius, Ad Afros Epistola Synodica, 8.
“God, however, has no body, but simple essence: no parts, but an all-embracing whole: nothing quickened, but everything living. God is therefore all life, and all one, not compounded of parts, but perfect in His simplicity, and, as the Father, must be Father to His begotten in all that He Himself is, for the perfect birth of the Son makes Him perfect Father in all that He has. So, if He is proper Father to the Son, the Son must possess all the properties of the Father. Yet how can this be, if the Son has not the quality of prescience, if there is anything from His Author, which is wanting in His birth? To say that there is one of God’s properties which He has not, is almost equivalent to saying that He has none of them. And what is proper to God, if not the knowledge of the future, a vision, which embraces the invisible and unborn world, and has within its scope that which is not yet, but is to be?” ~ Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 9.61.
“Do you worship what you know or what you do not know? If I answer, I worship what I know, they immediately reply, What is the essence of the object of worship? Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, So you worship you know not what. I answer that the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. But God, he says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.” ~ Basil of Caesarea, Letter, 234.
“Let them tell me in what sense Paul says, ‘Now we know in part’ (1 Cor. 13) do we know His essence in part, as knowing parts of His essence? No. This is absurd; for God is without parts. But do we know the whole essence?” ~ Basil of Caesarea, Letter, 235.
“The Divine Nature, then, is boundless and hard to understand, and all that we can comprehend of Him is His boundlessness; even though one may conceive that because He is of a simple Nature He is therefore either wholly incomprehensible or perfectly comprehensible. For let us farther enquire what is implied by is of a simple Nature? For it is quite certain that this simplicity is not itself its nature, just as composition is not by itself the essence of compound beings.” ~ Gregory Nazianzen, Oration, 45.
“For our statement does not hereby violate the simplicity of the Godhead, since community and specific difference are not essence, so that the conjunction of these should render the subject composite. But on the one side the essence by itself remains whatever it is in nature, being what it is, while, on the other, every one possessed of reason would say that these — community and specific difference — were among the accompanying conceptions and attributes: since even in us men there may be discerned some community with the Divine Nature, but Divinity is not the more on that account humanity, or humanity Divinity. For while we believe that God is good, we also find this character predicated of men in Scripture. But the special signification in each case establishes a distinction in the community arising from the use of the homonymous term. For He Who is the fountain of goodness is named from it; but he who has some share of goodness also partakes in the name, and God is not for this reason composite, that He shares with men the title of good. From these considerations it must obviously be allowed that the idea of community is one thing, and that of essence another, and we are not on that account any the more to maintain composition or multiplicity of parts in that simple Nature which has nothing to do with quantity, because some of the attributes we contemplate in It are either regarded as special, or have a sort of common significance.” ~ Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 12.5.
“‘God,’ so far as the human mind can form an idea, is the name of that nature or substance which is above all things. ‘Father’ is a word expressive of a secret and ineffable mystery. When you hear the word ‘God,’ you must understand thereby a substance without beginning, without end, simple, uncompounded, invisible, incorporeal, ineffable, inappreciable, which has in it nothing which has been either added or created” ~ Rufinus, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 4.
“But far be it from being so, since in truth in the Godhead is absolutely simple essence, and therefore to be is there the same as to be wise. But if to be is there the same as to be wise, then the Father is not wise by that wisdom which He begot; otherwise He did not beget it, but it begot Him. For what else do we say when we say, that to Him to be is the same as to be wise, unless that He is by that whereby He is wise? Wherefore, that which is the cause to Him of being wise, is itself also the cause to Him that He is; and accordingly, if the wisdom which He begot is the cause to Him of being wise, it is also the cause to Him that He is; and this cannot be the case, except either by begetting or by creating Him. But no one ever said in any sense that wisdom is either the begetter or the creator of the Father; for what could be more senseless? Therefore both the Father Himself is wisdom, and the Son is in such way called the wisdom of the Father, as He is called the light of the Father; that is, that in the same manner as light from light, and yet both one light, so we are to understand wisdom of wisdom, and yet both one wisdom; and therefore also one essence, since, in God, to be, is the same as to be wise. For what to be wise is to wisdom, and to be able is to power, and to be eternal is to eternity, and to be just to justice, and to be great to greatness, that being itself is to essence. And since in the Divine simplicity, to be wise is nothing else than to be, therefore wisdom there is the same as essence.” ~ Augustine, On the Trinity, 7.1.2.
“When, therefore, it is said of the Holy Spirit, ‘For He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak,’ so much the more is a simple nature, which is simple [uncompounded] in the truest sense, to be either understood or believed, which in its extent and sublimity far surpasses the nature of our minds. For there is mutability in our mind, which comes by learning to the perception of what it was previously ignorant of, and loses by unlearning what it formerly knew; and is deceived by what has a similarity to truth, so as to approve of the false in place of the true, and is hindered by its own obscurity as by a kind of darkness from arriving at the truth. And so that substance is not in the truest sense simple, to which being is not identical with knowing; for it can exist without the possession of knowledge. But it cannot be so with that divine substance, for it is what it has. And on this account it has not knowledge in any such way as that the knowledge whereby it knows should be to it one thing, and the essence whereby it exists another; but both are one. Nor ought that to be called both, which is simply one.” ~ Augustine, Tractate on the Gospel of John, 99.
Aquinas held to divine simplicity so much that after the existence of God in the Summa was established, simplicity was the first attribute of God’s that was defended.
It was also held to in the Reformation.
We know, however, that God’s power, arm, hand, nature, face, Spirit, wisdom, etc., are all one thing; for apart from the creation there is nothing but the one simple Deity himself. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 61]
Christ’s body is at the right hand of God; that is granted. The right hand of God,  however, is everywhere, as you must grant from our previous demonstration. Therefore it surely is present also in the bread and wine at table. Now where the right hand of God is, there Christ’s body and blood must be, for the right hand of God is not divisible into many parts but a single, simple entity. So too, the article of the Creed does not say that Christ is at one part, such as a little finger or fingernail of the right hand of God, but it says without qualification, “at the right hand of God,” that wherever and whatever God’s right hand is in reality and in name, there is Christ, the Son of man. [Luther’s Works vol. 37, 63-64]
Those interested in can look further. I do not have exhaustive resources here, but I am inclined to think our skepticism of the doctrine is more modern. I don’t think many people want to say God is made of parts and no one wants to say He is easy to understand, but the latter is a misunderstanding of the doctrine. When we say God is simple, we are also agreeing with how He described Himself. “I AM.” What it means to be God is what it means to be.
Now what difference does this make? That’s for another blog.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)