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Doctrine of Divine Simplicity: Does it Matter for the Church? Part 2 of 3

Connotative Denials of the Doctrine of Simplicity[1]

For classical theist, a denial of divine simplicity puts into question the efficacy and absolution of God Himself as Creator and Sustainer of all things.[2] A downright rejection would fundamentally place respective opponents within the wheelhouse of functional atheism, at most, and practical panentheism, at the least. For this reason, such deviations within a Creation-God framework are labeled by Dolezal as theistic mutualism which infers a commitment to “univocal thinking and speaking with regard to God and the world and thus conceives God as interacting with the world in some way like humans do, even if on a much grander scale.”[3] Moreover, a univocal approach assumes the existence of God’s being as an actualization amid the created order. Though such an assessment may at first seem a bit extreme or hyperbolic, further investigation would suggest otherwise. Contemporary and modern tampering with the doctrine’s demarcation, likewise, has placed God’s ultimacy into question. Reconfiguring Christendom’s linguistic description has left the church with a deity that images forth creaturely human characteristics rather than a representational portrayal of God Himself. As Steven J. Duby contends, “a Christian doctrine of God that neglects description of Him in His aseity and independence will risk treating God as but another part of the whole of reality.”[4] It is to this end, then, that an examination of denials and/or aversions from a classical rendering of the doctrine of divine simplicity must be ascertained. This portion of the research will assist in analyzing the significance of the doctrine and how it supports the mission and telos of the local church.


As a reminder, the premise of this paper will be to identify the relevancy of the doctrine of divine simplicity in the nature and essence of the triune God for the benefit of God’s covenant people—the church.[5] This will require a multi-varied process in formulating an initial response to this massive question. The initial feat will include a groundwork in determining and defining the doctrine itself (see here). Not only will propositional truths be set forward, but an examination on the implicit corresponding doctrines be searched, skewered, and addressed. Secondly, an examination upon the connotative denials of simplicity will take precedent amid a traditional framework found within evangelical theology. Thirdly, an interrogative approach will be applied upon a practical outworking of the subject; that is, does it really matter? Fourth and lastly, the notion of relevancy toward an ethos in ecclesial development will be examined. The fundamental question that drives the foci of this research will be built upon its aim and end toward an ecclesial context: how does the doctrine of divine simplicity positively benefit the expression and mission of the local church?


An Assessment


One key figure that has denied the usefulness and metaphysical framework of divine simplicity altogether is Robert H. Nash (1936-2006). His initial critique of the doctrine is built around the assertion that a simple God would be fundamentally incomprehensible and, therefore, impersonal to finite creatures. He contends that human beings “could never have knowledge of an absolutely simple essence.”[6] The composite nature of humanity, according to Nash, would not allow for finite minds to apprehend the transcendence of God within His simple nature. Humanity, being compositors amid finite orderings, lack the cognitive and spiritual capacity to reach toward the simple essence found within God Himself. Since the God of Scripture engages in covenantal relationships, asserts Nash, the classical rendition of divine simplicity insinuates a falsified claim within the character and nature of the Creator. Simply put, the relational dynamic of Yahweh Elohim—found within the narratival progression of the biblical storyline—usurp and undermine the classical claim of the nature of God. Furthermore, Nash objects to the notion that God is His attributes. Proponents of divine simplicity assert that the notion found within the multiplicity of attributes correspond not to God in and of Himself but to the perception that is grounded within human creatures. Therefore, questions Nash, “If human beings necessarily conceive God differently than He really is, is their conception of God not therefore false?”[7]


A quick response to both objections. First, it is imperative to state that the doctrine of divine simplicity is modified by the word “divine” which identifies classical simplicity under the guise of Christian orthodoxy. The concept of God’s singular essence, then, is not dictated by Hellenism’s ploy; that is, Yahweh Elohim is not constrained by mere abstraction of form nor conception of property as though humanity has a singular scheme in grasping toward transcendence.[8] Rather, the God of Scripture is a personal being whose engagement with creation is illuminated through covenant.[9] To this end, the knowability of God is His prerogative. “The reason why God can be known and is known by man,” asserts Van Til, “is because God has revealed Himself.”[10] Though the infiniteness of God cannot be fully comprehended by the finiteness of humanity, the creature—via God’s design through condescension—can still truly know her Creator.[11] K. Scott Oliphint, following a Van Tillian framework, affirms this sentiment by saying,

Only a god who has not condescended to the Lord could be reduced to a pure concept. The true, triune God, who is the Lord, has come from the infinite to the finite. He has condescended, convenantally, so that we might have “fruition” of Him. Apart from that condescension, there is no hope of knowing Him; He would only be, at best, “a mere thought-entity.” But since He has condescended, and since the One who condescended is the cosmic and redemptive Lord, we are guaranteed, for eternity, to have true and certain knowledge of Him.[12]

This notion, then, bleeds into the second rebuttal. Even though analogical assertions by nature are mediated through human language, they can be conveyed in such a way as to make true statements about God.[13] To this end, to diverge from divine simplicity not only distorts a cogent rendering in God but it divests the basis by which all things find their meaning; that is, it puts into question the absoluteness of God. If divine simplicity is abandoned, as Nash would affirm, it would suppose that His nature is composite. This, in turn, would necessarily discard God’s aseity and, thus, assume a life-source external to the Creator God Himself. In conjunction, God’s ultimacy would be challenged and cogency within a metaphysical realm impugned. It is for this reason that a denial of the doctrine of divine simplicity deteriorates into practical panentheism—a bilateral dependence of divinity to creatureliness—or functional atheism—an all-out practical rejection of the Creator God Himself.


The next key figure is John M. Frame. Though he may not necessarily deny the doctrine of divine simplicity outright, there are revisionist critiques to his nuanced articulation. Frame has sought to, on the one hand, affirm the classical doctrine itself while, on the other hand, demonstrate distinct and troublesome caveats. As it pertains to God’s divine attributes, he conveys them in such a way as to uphold a unity-diversity paradigm. This is in lockstep with his trinitarian assumption, which is commendable but potentially dangerous if not balanced amid a historically orthodox rendering of God’s nature.[14] The classical notion of God’s attributes assert that these divine characteristics are but one within the same in the essence of God; that is, God is simple in and with His nature. Augustine affirms this sentiment when he says,

We speak of God in many ways—as great, good, wise, blessed, true, and whatever else does not seem unworthily said of Him. Nonetheless, God is identical with His greatness, which is His wisdom (since He is not great by virtue of quantity, but by virtue of power); and He is identical with His goodness, which is His wisdom and His greatness; and He is identical with His truth, which is all of these things. For in Him it is not one thing to be blessed and another to be great, or wise, or true, or to be good, or to be altogether Himself.[15]

Frame, on the other hand, describes them as “multiple attributes [referring] to genuine complexities in His essence.”[16]He stresses the complexities of the attributes and characterizes them as expressing “the whole divine essence from three different perspectives.”[17]


By stressing this notion, he is assuming two problematic concepts. First, he misplaces the emphasis of diversity within the essence of God rather than within the distinction of personhood.[18] In doing so, Frame introduces a compositional framework within the nature of God’s being. This is contrary to Augustine’s formation when he infers that “He is not great by virtue of quantity, but by virtue of power.” The North African theologian makes a proper distinction within His power—that is, within His nature—amid the multiplicity of descriptive attributes. Regardless of how Frame wants to articulate this nuance, it is difficult to leave the conversation with a simple God intact. Secondly, as Dolezal asserts, Frame puts too much trust in humanity’s grammatical fortitude; that is, he “has great confidence in the ability of human thought and language to adequately represent the being of God.”[19] To this end, Frame supposes that the biblical rendering of God’s divine attributes is to be univocally taken as a genuine embodiment of the differing ways to describe God in His essence. The weakness of this insistence, of course, is that the language is describing God from a creaturely vantage point.[20] When assessing the nature and essence of God, it is a distinction within the “manner of revelation, not in God’s manner of being.”[21] Or said another way, cognizant language is not reaching up to grasp God per se, but rather it is God condescending Himself in order that rational communication can be achieved.[22] The magisterial Reformer himself, John Calvin, maintains that God intentionally lips when speaking to finite creatures because “such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of Him to our slight capacity.”[23] Jeffrey E. Brower defends this notion amid a philosophical framework found within the Truthmaker Account (TA). He goes on to say,

Interpreted in light of [Truthmaker Account], the doctrine of divine simplicity entails that God is identical with the truthmaker of each of the true intrinsic predications that can be made about Him. Thus, if God is divine, He is identical with that which makes Him divine; if He is good, He is identical with that which makes Him good; and so on in every other such case. On this interpretation, therefore, divine simplicity just amounts to the claim that God is the truthmaker for each of His true intrinsic predications.[24]

Conclusion


By analyzing potential diversions from the classical view of the doctrine of divine simplicity, we are better suited to examine the doctrine’s necessity and usefulness for local church ministries. We will explore the practical outworking and correlate their expressions in cogent renderings with divine simplicity. We will examine the cultural milieu and convey its importance to the church’s ploy in establishing a biblical and faithful metaphysics. It is to this task we now turn.

 

***footnotes***

[1] This content is taken with permission from a doctoral assignment in “Philosophical Theology” at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I am indebted to Dr. Thor Madsen for their critique and assessment. His instruction was a tremendous help and has propelled me toward greater studies in the realm of metaphysics. [2] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007), 270-295. Taylor attributes the rise of secularism to a shift from theism to deism which led, ultimately, to a possibility of an atheistic society. Trueman, similarly, comes to the same conclusion yet within the field of sexuality. Since deism is known to be merely a system provided by a divine entity, humanity has the fortitude to change her disposition at the course of her whim. A mechanistic existence, in turn, became paradigmatic in formulating modernity’s metaphysics. Rationalism transformed the previous Aristotelian outlook on causality—formal and final causation—and adopted a mechanical approach. Thus, there are no hard fixed laws, or rather those laws can be manipulated by technological developments. Malleability is contingent upon human ingenuity rather than divine decree. The disenchantment of thought gave rise to the secularized way of thinking which ultimately transformed the social and cultural metaphysic. This phenomenon, then, affirms Trueman’s thesis: how can a woman be trapped in man’s body? See also Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 35-102. [3] Dolezal, All that is in God, 2. See also Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2-16. [4] Duby, God in Himself, 210. [5] Ip, Pui Him. “Re-Imagining Divine Simplicity in Trinitarian Theology.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18, no. 3 (July 2016): 274–89. Ip traces trinitarian theology in light of the doctrine of simplicity and affirms their cohesiveness as well as the necessity of a simple God. Simplicity, according to Ip, magnifies the beauty and majesty of the trinitarian nature of God.

[6] Robert H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 85. [7] Ibid., 86. [8] See Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, 61-91. Carter argues that the church must not forfeit metaphysical assertions, but rather allow the Scriptures to reform and transform those concepts to better shape our hermeneutical engagement and, in turn, our ploy in interacting with the reality of life. Scripture assumes a metaphysic and, therefore, it is the duty of the church to align themselves—through the power of the Spirit—with such claims. [9] See Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ His Covenant & His Kingdom. Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019. [10] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 262. [11] Ibid., 60-70. Van Til affirms that as image bearers, humanity has a limited capacity in their epistemological formation. However, the basis of Christian knowledge is not set upon the image bearer herself, but upon the One by whom all things are created and by whom all things receive their purpose. Though humanity may never conceive comprehensively any one thing, they can truly know something—let alone God—because He is the basis by which all things are known; that is, since humanity’s interpretative reality is contingent upon God, God carries the brunt of the responsibility in knowing and creation derives their interpretation of that knowledge from He who is by His nature Truth. [12] Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 71. Oliphint uses Kant as a case study in measuring knowledge and epistemological structures. Kant, the Enlightenment philosopher, bases his epistemological assertions upon sense experiences and internal categories. Conversely, the realm of god, soul, and ontology are outside the bound of experience and, thus, transcends toward the realm of faith. God, for Kant, is merely a “though-entity” and, due to an inability to experience Him, is reduced to mere conception. Kant, in turn, categorizes knowledge and faith within two distinct brackets. Again, God cannot be known because He cannot be truly experienced. Oliphint, on the other hand, asserts the truthfulness of Kant’s premise, but conveys how the God of Christianity does not fit nice and neatly into his paradigm. The God of Scripture, rather, has covenantally made Himself known within creation and within image bearers themselves. God’s condescension in creation and, more importantly, Christ Jesus Himself has given humanity access to true knowledge of God. [13] See Dolezal, God without Parts, 119-123. Dolezal speaks of the analogia entis in which he focuses upon an analogy of proper proportion. In referencing Aquinas, Dolezal strikes to assert that though human analogy may not necessarily be a one-to-one comparison from finite to infinite, there is a sense in which a one-to-one ratio is not required in order to make an analogical truth claim. The two-term analogy implies a proper proportion between the finite and infinite without demanding definite relations. [14] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 227-228. [15] Augustine, De Trinitate, 6.7.8. quoted from Jeffrey E. Brower, “Simplicity and Aseity,” The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, ed. Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 108. [16] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 229. [17] Ibid., 228. [18] White, Thomas Joseph. “Divine Simplicity and the Holy Trinity.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18, no. 1 (January 2016): 66–93.

[19] Dolezal, All that is in God, 72. [20] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, 127. Bavinck argues from the premise that all of life is contained within the being of God. Therefore, to convey this fullness, He must reveal Himself amid the multiplicity of finite renderings. Bavinck goes on to say, “God is called by different names on account of the varying effects He produces in His creatures by His ever-constant being.” [21] Dolezal, All that is in God, 71. [22] See Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 268. Van Til asserts that humanity’s ability to conceive God presupposes His own self-revelation to creation. Thus, any predication of God is dependent upon Him formulating and sustaining logical coherence for finite creatures. Without God, He “would be not incomprehensible,” says Van Til, “but inapprehensible.” Therefore, Frame’s paradigm is broken because it starts from a creaturely perspective rather than God’s transcendent purview—revelation. God’s attributes, then, are displayed in a composite nature, not because God is composite, but in order to serve finite image bearers. [23] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1. ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1.13.1. [24] Brower, “Simplicity and Aseity,” 112.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, SBTS; ThM, MBTS) is the husband to Debbie and father to McCayden (13), McCoy (12), McColsen (10), and DeYoung (6). He is a Pastor of Preaching/Teaching at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. Along with his ministerial duties, he is a homeschool dad. In addition, McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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