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Valley of the Gods
San Juan County
September 2022

Divine Simplicity and Trinitarian Action

One crucial aspect of storytelling is the concept of a “through line.” A through line connects themes and story structure throughout the story. In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mt. Doom serves to connect the many themes and subplots throughout the trilogy. Even when major events happen, like the siege of Helm’s Deep or the Ent’s attack on Isengard, they happen in the context of Frodo’s sacrificial mission from the Shire to Mordor.

Through lines exist in theology, too. Certain doctrines and concepts guide the theologian as he or she contemplates God and all things in relation to God. One such through line is the concept of God’s unity. Classically, trinitarianism follows the “through line” of divine unity from God’s being all the way to God’s actions in the world. In this classical view, the divine persons are not merely cooperating in harmony with one another but share in the same divine nature and perform numerically the same action in the world. Classical trinitarianism follows the thread that begins with the affirmation of a simple divine essence and concludes with the affirmation that every economic action of the Trinity is inseparable.

Certain doctrines and concepts guide the theologian as he or she contemplates God and all things in relation to God. Click To Tweet In post-Enlightenment theology, it became popular to venture from this through line and to view the relationship of divine persons similarly to the relationship of human persons. The Father, Son, and Spirit are in a divine society with one another, and each act separately from one another (though in complete harmony and cooperation). The unity of the Godhead is more akin to a unity of purpose rather than a unity of being and action.

I am convinced that we must not lose the plot. If we follow the through line that begins with God’s simplicity, then we will arrive at the inseparable operations of the Trinity in the economy.

Unity and God’s Essence

God’s unity and singularity leads to the confession that God is metaphysically simple. “We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths,” states the Belgic Confession:

“that there is a single

and simple

spiritual being,

whom we call God.”

The doctrine of divine simplicity answers the question, “What is God made of?” Negatively, the doctrine answers, “God is not made of anything.” A litany of implications follows this claim. Some of simplicity’s more modest claims are readily apparent from Scripture. God could not be a material composition because God is spirit (Jn 4:24a). God is not a physical being but a “spiritual being,” as the Belgic Confession states. God is not composed of matter and cannot be broken down into any material parts. More controversial claims, however, necessarily follow from this basic claim. According to the classical doctrine of God, God is not a composition of attributes and essence. What we call God’s attributes, like His omnipotence, His love, and His eternality, are not separate from or ontologically behind the divine essence. We, using human language, provide conceptual glosses on the divine essence. Like white light that bursts into a rainbow after passing through a prism, the divine essence “passes through” revelation and we perceive the rainbow of God’s attributes (which are just the divine essence). God’s unity and singularity leads to the confession that God is metaphysically simple. Click To Tweet

Another implication of divine simplicity is that God’s essence is His existence. God’s existence is of a totally different kind than that of creatures. Creatures receive their existence from God in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Additionally, you and I exist but not by necessity – we could have possibly not existed. Neither of these truths of existence applies to God. God does not receive His existence from anything besides His own essence. Further, God’s non-existence is an impossibility. God exists by His own nature.

So, why is it so important for classical theism to affirm divine simplicity? Is such a claim of divine unity necessary for a robust doctrine of God? Undoubtedly, yes. To affirm that God is simple is to affirm that God is the sufficient reason for His own existence, essence, and attributes and that He does not possess His perfections by relation to anything or anyone other than Himself. Thus, the denial of simplicity necessitates a denial of God’s aseity.

Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) summarizes this argument:

God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, that nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.[1]

If God were composed of parts – physical or metaphysical – He would rely on those parts for His existence, and He would depend on whoever or whatever composed those parts. The denial of simplicity necessitates a denial of God’s aseity. Click To Tweet Anything composed of matter is, in theory, subject to change and ontological determination. God, however, is the giver of being. He is Creator of all that is. If God received change from another, He would depend upon others to some extent. There is no “form” that stands behind God. Rather, God’s essence is His “form.” God, unlike the physical objects He created, is not a hylemorphic being with the potency to change. Likewise, God is not a “kind of thing” or an instance of some genus of God. God is utterly unique, such that “He must be His own Godhead, His own Life, and whatever else is thus predicated of Him.”[2]

Read the full article here

Jake Rainwater

Jake Rainwater (PhD, MBTS) is the Assistant Registrar and an adjunct instructor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His Ph.D. research focused on the covenant of redemption, divine simplicity, and trinitarian action. He is a member of Emmaus Church in North Kansas City, serving in various lay positions. He is married to his high school sweetheart, and they have two young children that terrorize their Great Dane, Scotland.

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