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Everything about God matters

Divine Simplicity

We live in an age of distraction, entertainment, and lasciviousness, all of which inoculate us against holy passion for the God who made and redeemed us. We can let the sociologists conduct surveys of culture and the psychologists ponder counselling feedback, but theologians know that a fresh sight of God is what revives the soul. Familiarity with history reassures us that our present culture of distraction is not as new as it imagines. Back in 1681 John Owen bemoaned that “the world is at present in a mighty hurry…it makes men giddy with its revolutions.”[1]

So, we revive our affections for God by theologizing in the only way that is true theology – contemplation of God as He has revealed Himself, with desire that our thoughts of Him change us and glorify God. The doctrine of simplicity is a teaching aimed to affirm that everything about God matters, and everything God says of Himself matters.

God Matters

The doctrine of simplicity addresses who God is: how important, vital and truly God-like He is. Understanding simplicity takes effort. God will be counter-intuitive to creatures since our daily experiences are shaped by engaging with creation rather than the Creator. We are more used to managing matters dependent upon us than worshipping the maker upon whom we depend. The doctrine of simplicity is a teaching aimed to affirm that everything about God matters, and everything God says of Himself matters. Click To Tweet

We can feel impatient reflecting on who God is as things we do seem more urgent. The Church has not been well served by those who have substituted technique, management, and advertising for scripturally-shaped knowledge of God. To any who think they can discover a life-changing ethic or philosophy of discipleship without the tough work of understanding the doctrine of simplicity, Augustine warned, “There is no living rightly without believing rightly in God.”[2] Who God is matters for life and worship.

Everything God Says of Himself Matters

Much good can be done by sharing with the world what God has done for us – sending His Son and Spirit, bearing His own wrath at sin in the person of the Son, and raising Him to ascendant life to await a future return to judge all. We must rejoice in all God has done and will do, and we must share the gospel news with all. Still, the command to teach all Jesus said must include what Jesus said about the nature of God. He is perfect (Mat. 5:48), He is humble (Mat. 11:27-29), He is omniscient (Mat. 6:6). It is a temptation to focus on ‘what God does’ at expense of ‘who God is.’ What sinful hearts we have, that even the saving works of God can be seized on to muffle what God reveals of Himself.

We must resist focusing only on part of what the Bible says of God. “A scriptural description of God comprises three aspects: the revelation of the one Essence by means of various attributes; the enumeration of the divine Persons; and the revelation of his deeds.”[3]

The doctrine of simplicity is the grammar of God. It seeks to ensure that when we read one thing about God in the Bible, we do not allow that to prevent us believing something else the Bible affirms of God, even if our first reading may seem to contradict it. Simplicity helps us worship the God who is both omnipresent and incarnate; both forgiving and wrathful; both above us and in us.

Bavinck defined simplicity as the teaching that “God is sublimely free from all composition, and that therefore one cannot make any real distinction between his being and his attributes. Each attribute is identical with God’s being: he is what he possesses … Whatever God is, he is that completely and simultaneously.’[4] Bavinck quotes Irenaeus and Augustine to sustain his point that simplicity has always been the instinct of the Church. Indeed, simplicity guards the nature of God from misrepresentation. The doctrine of simplicity addresses who God is: how important, vital and truly God-like He is. Click To Tweet

All that is created is composed of parts. People can change or lose part of what they possess while remaining who they are. A person can change with old age: losing patience to become grumpy. Such change in attributes may strain family relationships but would not mean the person had ceased to be who they are.

That is how humans are – we can change and lose attributes while remaining who we are in essence. God is different than us. Simplicity affirms that God’s essence is identical with His attributes. The Bible affirms not that God has a quality called love which could increase or decrease without changing who God is. Rather, ‘God is love’ (1 Jn. 4:8). Simplicity ensures that this statement is maximally true of God. Since God is love, He can never lose nor lessen His love. The doctrine of simplicity is the grammar of God. Click To Tweet

If we are tempted to think that the deeds of God are all that matters, just focus on the love God shows on the cross. Consider that without simplicity there is no guarantee the love shown on the cross will remain a reality in the future. The Spirit can only pour an endless fountain of God’s infinite love into our hearts if God is love. The Spirit’s work requires God be simple, and on this basis of simplicity the Spirit’s work can be relied upon through all seasons of this life into eternity.

To the extent that the modern evangelical movement prioritizes soteriology over theology, simplicity counters that good theology empowers soteriology. Justification may well be the “hinge on which religion turns,”[5] but it is God who justifies, and simplicity ensures the God we worship is willing and able to justify.

God’s Character Matters

There are a number of attributes that speak to God’s character – the kind of God he is ethically. God is holy (Ps. 71:22), loving (Jn. 17:24), righteous (Rom. 3:25-26), merciful (Ex. 34:6), faithful (Deut. 32:4), truthful (Heb. 6:18), wise (Rom. 16:27), eternal (Deut. 33:27), and much more.

Simplicity means that God’s essence is identical with His attributes. God is not some unrevealed being who possesses attributes such as love and knowledge. Rather, God is love and God is knowledge. This truth is tremendously reassuring, for it means when we encounter God’s love or knowledge, we are genuinely meeting with God. Were attributes not identical with essence, God’s revelation of Himself would perversely cloak rather than reveal Him.

If the grammar of holding to all God has revealed of Himself — simplicity — means that God’s essence is identical to His attributes, this also means that each attribute is identical with each other attribute. God is love and God is knowledge which mean that God’s love is knowledge, and His knowledge is love. The identity of attributes is counter-intuitive but is actually an invitation to know God better.

In creaturely affairs, we are all too familiar with imperfect and even dark knowledge – insights used to exalt self, harm others, and indulge in greed. We are, in our experience, familiar with dispassionate knowledge which has correct information about a person but lacks the desire to use it to the flourishing of the other. God’s knowledge is perfect which means it is perfect love. God’s knowledge is love; in His infinite knowledge, God always desires to use that knowledge for the good of the other. God’s knowledge is never dispassionate or dark – it is perfect knowledge, which is perfect love.

Were attributes not identical with essence, God’s revelation of Himself would perversely cloak rather than reveal Him. Click To Tweet God is eternal. This truth does not mean he is merely everlasting but that he exists outside of time. Eternality speaks to the mode of God’s existence. He is, unlike creatures, devoid of succession, change, growth, or decline. That each other attribute is eternal invites us to rejoice in the ways God is different to us. God’s knowledge is not acquired over time like human knowledge but is timeless knowledge. God is immutable because eternality is immutability – there is no change or succession in God. As Paul Helm wrote, “Timelessness is a mode of possessing attributes.”[6] This is true for all the attributes – each is a mode of possessing the others, as each is identical with the other.

God’s perfect knowledge is perfectly loving for it is perfect love. God’s omnipotence is omnipresent for His omnipotence is His omnipresence. God’s love is holy, and God’s holiness is loving for His love is His holiness.[7]

What God is like matters. We are to find God attractive so that we worship Him. Simplicity ensures that we can affirm all that the Bible says about God’s attributes. In affirming the identity of essence and attributes the reliability of revelation is affirmed. In affirming the identity of attributes with one another, we ensure that each attribute is adored as being the attribute of not a creature, but the perfect, splendid Almighty God who created all things. Simplicity is then the grammar of Theology.

God’s Relationality Matters

The “Augustinian exception” clarifies for us that the threeness of God does not militate against His oneness – trinity is no argument against simplicity. God, “is simple with the exception of what is said of one person with regard to another.”[8] That which is revealed of God as Father, Son, and Spirit does not undermine simplicity. Rather, it merely means that the perfect, simple God is trinitarian.

The simple God is perfect love, perfect wisdom, perfect power, perfect righteousness, and that God is three persons. Were God not Father, Son, and Spirit, he would not be these attributes in perfection.

What kind of knowledge, love, and power would a God be who is merely one and has no perfect Son or Spirit of love? Such a God would of necessity be impersonal, unsatisfied, and hermetically sealed off from creation other than by means of a schizophrenic affirmation of incompatible attributes. Far from being a problem for simplicity, trinitarianism is required by simplicity — the claim to perfection in attributes requires the Father, Son and Spirit to each be divine and there to be one God.

The simple God then is profoundly relational. Indeed, our relationality is merely an image of God’s relationality (Gen. 1:27). The trinitarian God of relationality is more attractive and compelling than the caricature of simplicity — a static, inert God whose immutability is like that of a stone. Yet, there is more to the trinitarian relationality that arises from the simple perfection of God. God’s simplicity, read through the Augustinian exception, is the trinitarian relational perfection of Father, Son, and Spirit. The threeness of this perfection ensures that God’s love endlessly overflows and orients itself towards the good of His creatures. Love between two would be a selfish holding of love within the couple; love between the three would overflow in an excess of love that works to perfect and sanctify creatures with no diminishment of the perfect joy, love, and rejoicing of the three in one another.[9] The threeness of God thus clarifies that the love of God is neither selfish nor envious: it is other-person focused and, as perfect love, is shaped by self-sacrifice. Far from being a problem for simplicity, trinitarianism is required by simplicity. Click To Tweet

So, the cross of Christ flows fittingly from the perfect love of God, and the Spirit’s presence in a heart manifests fittingly the perfect love of God. Simplicity ensures that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) truly means all it should mean in divine perfection — gracious salvation bought with the price of Christ’s death. The relationality of trinity and the grace of soteriology flow from simplicity.

How the Church Responds to God Matters

It is heartening to see numbers in the Church recover and promote doctrines that magnify God, such as simplicity. As we do so, let us be wary of detaching two things which, for a healthy vision of God, ought to be held together.

Firstly, as we commend creeds and confessions, valuable as they guard doctrines we need to recover, let us not allow those creeds to be detached from a vital sight of God. Creeds and confessions can be analyzed and promoted in a way that detaches them from worship of the living God. If we allow that to happen, then we misrepresent God even as we use true words about Him.

Secondly, let us not detach our doctrine of God from the Reformational instinct. Medieval theology got much right, but the Reformation was making necessary theological corrections. Luther and Calvin appreciated and upheld much said by medieval theologians – especially concerning the doctrine of God. At the same time, the reformers connected soteriology and the doctrine of God. Since all theology is organically connected, we ought not divide our doctrine of God from soteriology; merely assuming the medievals got the former correct while the reformers got the latter right. If we keep our doctrine of God related to the Reformational instinct, we will make much of the other-person-focused missions of the Trinity to save and sanctify creatures. This will allow the reformation’s soteriological corrections to reform our doctrine of God.

There is, however, a detachment we must make. Seeing how glorious and perfect God is ought to detach our heart from love of this world. Westminster Assembly member Jeremiah Burroughs argues that contemplating the privilege of communing with God weans us from our unsatisfying obsession with things of this life. Burroughs wrote, ‘Of all the creatures God has here upon earth, none are capable of knowing Him, the infinite First Being of all things, except the children of men. God has given them a nature of conversing with Him.’[10]

The perfect simplicity of God, as a way of ensuring we can affirm all Scripture says of God, is calculated to give us big visions, and a big heart, for God.


[1] John Owen, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, in Works, Vol 7.(London, 1681, Banner of Truth, 1988), 264.

[2] Augustine, City of God, 5, 10.

[3] Synopsis of a Purer Theology, Vol. 1, Ed. William Den Boer & Reier A. Faber, Davenant Press, 2023, Disp. 6, 18.

[4] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, p. 118.

[5] Calvin, Inst. 3.11.1.

[6] Paul Helm, Eternal God: A Study of God without Time (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011), 258.

[7] See John Webster, ‘The Holiness and Love of God’, Scottish Journal of Theology 57/3 (August 2004).

[8] Augustine, City of God, 11, 10.

[9] See Richard of St. Victor, On The Trinity, Trans. Ruben Angelici, (Cascade Books, 2011).

[10] Jeremiah Burroughs, A Treatise on Earthly-Mindedness, Soli Deo Gloria, 1991, p. 62.

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Peter Sanlon

Rev. Peter Sanlon (PhD, Cambridge University) is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary, UK. Alongside that he is minister of Emmanuel Church, Tunbridge Wells. His published books include ‘Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity’ and ‘Augustine’s Theology of Preaching.’

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