In this feature interview we talk with theologian Steven Duby to discuss the importance of God’s aseity and how it relates to other attributes such as simplicity and immutability.
Steven J. Duby is assistant professor at Grand Canyon University, where he teaches systematic theology and worldview theory. His research interests are in systematic and historical theology and in the interpretation of Scripture in conversation with the church’s theological tradition. He is the author of Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (T & T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2016).
For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the classical doctrine of God, what is divine aseity?
Aseity is an attribute that signifies that God exists and lives in and of himself, without having to depend on another to be the God that he is. It comes from the Latin phrase a se (“of himself”). It doesn’t mean that God causes himself to exist, only that he is eternally sufficient for himself.
Where do we see God’s aseity in scripture?
God’s aseity can be found in numerous places in Scripture. In Genesis 1, God simply creates the world. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern origins accounts, there is no theogony, no narrative of God having to become God or establish himself as God. He just is who he is, with or without us.
Likewise, in Acts 17:24-25, Paul teaches the Greeks in Athens that the true God, who made all things, does not live in temples built by human hands and is not served by human hands as though needing anything. More positively, John’s Gospel talks often of God having “life.” He has life in himself, and all other life is dependent upon God’s (e.g., Jn. 1:3-4; 5:26).
In what ways are the attributes of aseity and divine simplicity interconnected?
Aseity points toward God’s simplicity: if God is a se, then he does not depend on what is not God in order to be the God that he is. Aseity points toward God’s simplicity: if God is a se, then he does not depend on what is not God in order to be the God that he is. Click To Tweet That means God is not composed of parts distinct from himself or his essence. He is not put together or held together by anyone or anything other than God.
Simplicity, in turn, underscores God’s aseity: as the God who is his own goodness, life, holiness, and so forth, he does not depend on anyone or anything else to be who he is. Furthermore, to be consistent in our speech about God, we have to say that aseity and simplicity are simply glosses or descriptions of God’s being, not two different parts or “things” in God.
How does God’s aseity relate to other attributes, like immutability and timeless eternity?
Aseity informs our understanding of all of God’s attributes. It accounts for God’s immutability: being eternally rich and active in himself, God does not have to change at all in order to “become” something greater or to be prepared to perform his works in history. The attribute of eternity is simply an inflection of God’s aseity. God does not undergo succession in his life because he does not have any growth or “becoming” that he needs to do. It is not quite right, though, to say that God is “timeless” if that word is taken to suggest that God is stuck “outside” of time. God sustains the world from within and is always present to his creatures. Eternity just signifies that, in his relationship to the creature, God himself is not undergoing any actualization or succession of moments like we do.
Some detractors of aseity point out the tension between the eternal generation of the Son and the aseity of the Son. What should we make of this tension? Can the Son be autotheos and yet eternally generated from the Father?
The Son is autotheos with respect to the essence he shares with the Father and Spirit. He is, at the same time, “from” the Father with regard to his distinct mode of subsisting in that essence. Aseity does not conflict with eternal generation or eternal spiration given that aseity concerns the divine essence shared by the persons, not the relations of origin among the persons.
The attribute of aseity, along with other classical attributes of God, is being retrieved by scholars and pastors today. Why should we consider this good news?
The contemporary interest in divine attributes like aseity has great pastoral significance. For example, when Christian believers are assured that God does not need them to be who he is and that God has created them out of pure generosity, this causes us to trust in God’s goodness and love. He’s not using human beings to improve himself. He simply takes joy in blessing us in Christ.
Why does the doctrine of aseity matter for the local church? Should pastors concern themselves with teaching it in their congregations?
Pastors should concern themselves with attributes like divine aseity because it is vital for believers to know that God does not need them. This engenders humility and confidence in God. It conveys that our existence is a sheer gift and that, instead of bearing the weight of having to complete God or make God successful, we get to be part of something that is much bigger than us, a story that is preceded and encompassed by the sure foundation of the eternal love of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
If readers want to study attributes like aseity and simplicity more, what great thinkers in the history of the church do you recommend they read?
In order to explore aseity and related attributes, it is helpful to read works like:
John of Damascus’ Exposition of the Orthodox Faith
Athanasius’ Orationes against the Arians
Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae.
For Protestant works, see:
Volume 12 of The Works of John Owen, where Owen opposes a Socinian view of God.
Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (volume 1 of the English translation),
The forthcoming English translation of the doctrine of God from Petrus van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology.
Photo by Kich Anfoly