Divine Simplicity: Theology Proper For Liberals & Calvinists

Of all of the attributes of God, one that is commonly overlooked and ignored is His Simplicity.  God is simple.  In a Point blog/podcast, John Stonestreet shows why this fundamental Theology Proper doctrine is central to our understanding of who God is and how we understand and apply his attributes.  First, Stonestreet begins with what we (don’t) mean by simplicity:

When we hear the word simple, we tend to think easy to understand. When we talk of a simple person, we referring to someone not all that smart. But when Christians throughout history, like Thomas Aquinas and Iraneaus have said that God is simple, they don’t mean either of these things. What they mean is that God is not made of his attributes, God is identical to his attributes.

In other words, to say that God is simple is not to say that He is a simpleton. Kevin DeYoung helpful adds this in another post:

The simplicity of God means God is not made up of goodness, mercy, justice, and power. He is goodness, mercy, justice, and power. Every attribute of God is identical with his essence.

This is helpful. God is not made up of His attributes, He is His attributes all at the same time. In similar fashion, Stonestreet adds:

This idea means we can’t rank one of God’s attributes like his love or his justice over others. Though our intentions may be good, we end up making God in the image of the attribute. But God’s simplicity means His attributes can’t be separated because as Herman Bavinck said, “Whatever God is, He is that completely and simultaneously.”

This is where the rubber really meets the road. Many modern misunderstandings of the gospel and of God are rooted in a confusion of this fundamental doctrine.  The context of Stonesteet’s words is the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus but it could be applied beyond that.  Take Process Theology for example.  Process theologians begin with the attribute of God’s Love and make Him love.  So yes God is Love, but the opposite is what they really promote: Love is God. Everything, then, is determined by love and all else is trumped by it. So thoughts of wrath, judgment, or justice are either pushed to the side or completely ignored in favor of a soft-serve God who forgives, but does not condemn.

Most of the debate over doctrines like hell (remember Rob Bell’s book?) is a confusion over this doctrine.  The concept of eternal torment separated from God appears antithetical to the fundamental belief that God is love.  So to many, we have to choose.  Either God is an angry God waiting to punish those who don’t adopt a certain number of doctrines or He is “simply” love. So we can write off many of the Old Testament texts of judgment as an old idea of God in which we have evolved to have a better understanding of now.  Or we can simply say that that God is false.  Jesus, exemplified by His love (thus ignoring the times He acts like dear old Dad and gets angry) is the real portrait of God.

The fundamental rejection, or at least confusion, of this doctrine has immense implications. Like the Process crowd (which wound up infiltrating the Emergent community) many want to heighten human freedom to a level of autonomous sovereignty. Thus God does not override us or our decision. As a result, we deny or at least redefine God’s Sovereignty and Providence binding His hands behind His back.

Or perhaps we could use another example.  How about the conservative Christians in general and Calvinists (including the Young, Restless, and Reformed type) in particular? Unlike Process Theology, most YRR and old Calvinists don’t limit God by His love but speak so much of His Sovereignty or His Providence and Holiness that at times they might forget His other attributes. When people hear Calvinists why is it that they automatically think almost exclusively of Sovereignty? Why are the majority of conversations among Calvinists about election and providence?

God is not made up of Sovereignty.  He is Sovereign.  Sovereignty is not God.  But God is Sovereign.

As a minister of the gospel I have found great comfort in the understanding and application of such wonderful attributes like Sovereignty and Providence.  As I sit in the kitchen with parents dealing the loss or with a wife of 50 years who is now a widow I quickly turn the page to discuss sovereignty. Or when I deal with rebellious Christians content in their sin, God’s holiness matters. Or when today doesn’t make much sense and I want to quit the ministry, providence matters.  But providence is not God.

So as we preach, study, and proclaim let us present to our congregations and to our fallen world a simple God not defined by a buffet in which we pick and choose which part of Him we like. Or a God who is ranked by His attributes. After all, we all want a forgiving God after the fallout of sin, but we dare not forget His less popular attributes as well.  At the same time, we may want to preach sovereignty in order to sure up our five points, but we dare not preach sovereignty without grace.

Something for us simpletons to remember.

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