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

Does Simplicity Really Matter?[1]

After laying out a philosophical and theological defense for the doctrine of divine simplicity, the next step in this venture is to fortify its practical value in the life of the believer and her covenant community. It is one thing to evaluate the intellectual complexities and philosophical nuances in propositional form, it is quite another to apply its integral components to a dynamic and bustling organism like the local church. In addition, the socio-cultural intricacies are fervently teeming amid the ever-growing kaleidoscope of meshing communities. Technological advancements within global interaction have heightened as the expansion of communication and travel blur the line of cultural normality. Lesslie Newbigin assesses the broader landscape rightly when he says, “It has become a commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society—not merely a society which is in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished.”[2] If plurality, with all of its complexities, is the new norm and posture for ongoing generations, it is imperative that the local church engage its mission field with greater clarity in cultural engagement as well as (if not more importantly) theological conviction. With ideologies such as pantheism, panentheism, dualism, animism, and the ever-growing atheistic framework looming at the front door of the church, the body of believers must know herself within her beliefs in order to stand a chance amid the paradigmatic attacks hurled from her vehement counterparts.[3] Simply put, the church must have great affection and an unwavering appetite for the commandments of God (cf. Jn. 15:1-11; Col, 3:16-17; 1 Jn. 5:1-3).


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 (see here). 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?


The Church Militant


To this end, a metaphysical framework becomes an essential mechanism in defending and mobilizing the church militant. As sojourners and exiles, the church must be inclined to handle the outworking of missions and evangelism within the realm of worldview and objective truth (cf. 1 Pet. 2:11; Rom. 12:1-3). With a clashing of cultural synthesis, Christian conversion must not merely ensue a change of scenery on Sunday morning. Rather, the entire person must be reached, stretched, and renewed to the image of the Son (cf. Rom. 8:28; Col. 3:10).[4] As Paul G. Hiebert (1932-2007) asserts,

Conversion to Christ must encompass all three levels: behavior, beliefs, and the worldview that underlies these… Conversion must involve a transformation of beliefs, but if it is a change only of beliefs and not of behavior, it is false faith (James 2). Conversion may include a change in beliefs and behavior, but if the worldview is not transformed, in the long run the Gospel is subverted and the result is a syncretistic Christo-paganism, which has the form of Christianity but not its essence… This includes a transformation not only in the way people think and behave but also in their worldviews.[5]

Therefore, deep meditation upon metaphysical truths of the Creator God is paramount to the life and mission of the local church. Such an examination not only fuels evangelistic engagement, but it also defines the parameters by which faithfulness and fruitfulness are gauged amid Gospel ministries.


However, this is not a new endeavor for the people of God. The biblical authors themselves engaged in polemical works in order to convey the absoluteness, ultimacy, and supremacy of Yahweh Elohim.[6] The inspired authors sought to provide correctives in demonstrating the covenantal Lord’s preeminence amid the backdrop of pagan metaphysical claims and Babylonian mythologies.[7] Throughout Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt, the covenantal Lord Himself expressed His desire that the “Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7:5; 14:4, 18). This is indicative of His covenantal vow given to His vassal people—the Israelites—when He said, “you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (6:7; italics mine). In either case, Yahweh Elohim is communicating metaphysical truths in light of faulty assertions placed upon Pharoah as divinity. As James M. Hamilton Jr. suggests, “Yahweh makes Himself known by hardening Pharaoh so that He can demonstrate His power through the plagues against Egypt.”[8] Fundamentally, the biblical narrative engages metaphysical structures found within cultural milieus. Due to the fallenness of man, each culture must, then, be addressed through the truthfulness and faithfulness of Scripture. Not only does worship, allegiance, and commitment submit themselves to the One true living God, metaphysical structures must be surrendered and subjected to the Creator God of the heavens and the earth.[9]Consequently, a proper and genuine transmission of the Christian faith cannot be void of God being known as the transcendent Creator God.


In addition, the fundamental claims of truth coalesce with metaphysical assertions that give rise to a functional worldview. If the basic premise of divine simplicity is to uphold the absolution of the Creator God Himself, objective truth must trickle down or rather find its essence amid the reservoir of a simple God. Thus, objective truth, first and foremost, begins with God Himself. As Scripture contends, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5). The term “light,” (Gk. φῶς) according to Bavinck, “denotes that God completely understands and knows Himself, the reason being that sin can never pollute Him.”[10] This is reaffirmed by the context which purports Jesus as being the Logos and, consequently, Creator of all things (Jn. 1:1-3). Conversely, sin is the deformation of truth which, in turn, distorts reality. Nevertheless, the transcendent God is Truth and, therefore, has no dealings with darkness. To justify, then, a single cause for objective truth would assume a transcendent simple entity of sorts. Simply put, for God to be the arbiter of Truth, He would have to be simple in nature.[11]


Furthermore, creaturely orderings are contingent upon objective truth; that is, to properly communicate order amid the contours of creaturely finitude one must assume an objective standard of arrangement. Random capricious notions moving toward a determinate goal is absurd because it presupposes an ultimate form.[12] Cosmic chance cannot in and of itself produce meaning or purpose. Since the notion of chance begins with an erratic supposition, its end is likewise. Or said differently, the idea of a telos requires a calculated starting point and a desired end point. Thus, empiricism, naturalism, and materialism cannot provide a necessary means in rendering such an ordering. If by isms, we mean sets of thought that are void of Christian influence and/or drive, any attempt to establish an objective basis upon these fronts would eventually move toward an arbitrary and erratic reconstruction.[13] Postmodernism’s enterprise, then, not only undermines the foundational basis of Christianity’s ploy—a simple transcendent Creator who is most absolute—it functionally subverts any ability to make sense of the created kosmos. Eventually, ultimate subjectivity brings itself to its own demise (cf. Rom. 1:21, 25, 28).[14]


This section began with the assertion, “Does simplicity matter?” Considering the cultural milieu found within the West and, more importantly, the witness of Scripture, a faithful metaphysical foundation is fundamental to the life and mission of the local church. Simply put, it matters. How should the church respond? To this we now turn.


The Pillar and Buttress of a Simple Truth


As we turn to the importance of the doctrine and how it correlates with the mission and aim of the local assembly, it would be advantageous for our purpose to define the mission of the church.[15] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert are helpful when they say, “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey His commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”[16] Two central themes descend, for our particular purpose, from this succinct definition: (1) reconciliation unto God and (2) discipleship unto truth. Both ensue from a foundational premise that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). If this is consistent (which we believe it is), we will analyze the duty of the church in upholding the integrity of who God is in the Gospel and the significance of how the bloodshed of Christ aligns His followers toward joyful obedience to God.


The prize of the Gospel is covenantal communion with God Himself.[17] The blood of Christ—the sacrificial lamb and Divine Warrior King—grants repentant sinners access into the dwelling place of the Father who no longer calls His people slaves but friends (cf. Eph. 2:18; 3:12; Heb. 10:19; Jn. 15:15). This God that the church has been saved unto must also be worshipped in accords to who He is and who He has revealed Himself to be. Thus, divine reconciliation must be coupled with a renewed mind in seeing God as the transcendent Creator who knitted together the intricacies found within the heavens and the earth (cf. Ps. 19:1-3). As Bavinck asserts the church is “never militate against nature as such but does join the battle—always and everywhere, in every area of life and into the most secret hiding places—against sin and deception.”[18] Thus, the church does not merely save individuals from the wrath of God. In addition, the church sanctifies and proclaims the Lordship of God over and against all other false gods. That is, God is not merely a generic deity among other deities. Rather, contrary to pagan mythologies, the triune God of the Scriptures is the One, true, simple, and eternal God of all. Divine simplicity, then, is paramount to a faithful rendering and missional engagement of the world.


Similarly, Paul engages the philosophers of Areopagus on Mars Hill with the same rigor and fervor (Acts 17:22-34). Though he uses their pagan deities as an entry point (Gk. agnosto theo), Paul quickly subverts the idolaters’ notion to showcase the supremacy of Yahweh Elohim. The Apostle asserts that the “God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Act 17:24). This description speaks to a transcendent being that is contrary to pagan articulation. What the apostle is presenting to the Gentile philosophers is something metaphysically distinct from what they have perceived. What the apostle is insinuating is Deus non est in genere. Duby affirms this notion when he says, “He is the God who eternally and absolutely is, the one in whom all things find their ultimate point of reference.”[19] To this end, the church must not merely evangelize people into the gathering, she must proclaim the Word in such a way as to rub against and formulate positively a metaphysic that is consistent with the biblical picture; that is, she must proclaim a self-sufficient, immutable, transcendent, and simple God.


In addition, if God is Creator, He is also Designer, and if Designer, then, His divine truth flows from the cistern of His perfect wisdom into every fiber and fabric of the created order.[20] This is done to reveal His infinite majesty, wonder, and glory. Bavinck affirms this notion by saying, “all of nature is a revelation of God’s attributes and a proclaimer of His praise (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:19).”[21] The church, then, must defend God’s truth amid the creational order. The church upholds these objective truths and stands amid the culture as a watchtower proclaiming and imitating God’s divine design. As the culture continues to deteriorate amid the confusion of sexual orientation, identity pronouns, and gender roles the church must look to the transcendent God, the One who is most absolute. Thus, the church’s apologetic engagement must be theologically weighed; that is, a firm metaphysics must be entangled with our pursuit to speak to a broken world. Van Til asserts, “The importance of this doctrine for apologetics may be seen from the fact that the whole problem of philosophy may be summed up in the question of the relation of unity to diversity; the so-called problem of the one and the many receives a definite answer from the doctrine of the simplicity of God.”[22] Regardless of what kind of foolishness the world digressed toward, the church must stand firm upon the truth of God and uphold His righteousness. The church is called to do such a task not because she is skillful in and of herself. Rather, the church’s ability is wholly dependent upon the One, true, simple, and eternal God.[23]


God is Simply Simple


Defining the contours of the doctrine of divine simplicity has revealed itself foundational when considering a pursuit in articulating a faithfully biblical and philosophical rendering to the nature and being of the triune God. Not only has the doctrine been defined and confirmed, but its corresponding effects with other dogmatic attributes has been exceedingly constructive. Furthermore, analyzing modern aversions continue to pay meaningful dividends in teasing out the differing nuances as well as providing a much-needed perspective upon the connotative vitality found within divine simplicity. This, then, informs the necessity and significance of the doctrine amid current cultural trends, fads, and/or movements. Or, said in question form, how does an intellectual and academic doctrine relate to the cultural norms found within modern sensibilities? The church’s aim, then, in evangelizing nations unto God is to point individuals back to their Creator through Christ Jesus our Lord. It is through Christ where finite creatures will come face to face with the transcendent simple God, and it is through Christ where humanity will become truly human in the One who holds all things in His hand.


Thus, the uniqueness of self is like snowflakes upon wintery nights. Thousands upon thousands may fall and yet no one snowflake is the same as the other. The intrinsic patterns and off-shooting impressions truly represent the peculiarities of every single one. The magnificence, however, should not terminate upon the snowflakes themselves. Rather, the wander and majesty that surround the simplicity and complexity of each snowflake are designed to point toward something higher, something greater. Their design and layout speak to the creativeness, intelligence, and ingenuity of the Creator. To miss this point, then, is to truly miss the grandeur of the snowflake themselves. It is like marveling at the structure of a house without acknowledging the sophistication of the architect; or like gazing upon the beauty of a painting without acknowledging the skill and expertise of the painter. To truly appreciate creation, one must recognize the profundity of the Creator. To truly love the self, one must be pointed toward the One to whom the self reflects.


In Christ creation has the One who unites the supernatural with the material universe and reconciles such conundrums. As Duby writes,

Insofar as God remains incorporeal and invisible, this knowing or seeing is not a corporeal vision. It is an intellectual vision wrought by a 'light of glory,' a divine gift elevating our intellect and enabling us to know God intuitively. The intellectual vision or intuitive knowledge of God requires an assimilation or union of the human intellect with God's essence, but our natural intellect does not have the capacity to apprehend God without created media. For this reason, God grants a new power of understanding above our natural powers to strengthen and perfect the intellect, enabling us to see God in His essence.[24]

Simply put, it is in Christ where the bridge from creation to Creator is fortified and knowledge of true self is accessed. As Duby goes on to convey, “From the well of His own knowledge of God Christ gives us knowledge of God.”[25] Thus, to genuinely and authentically love the self, one must be in covenantal union to the Creator and Designer of the universe through Christ Jesus our Lord. It is from this well where we will drink, be filled, and be sustained with true knowledge of God and, therefore, true knowledge of self.

 

***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] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 1. [3] See Peter Jones, The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat. Bellingham, WA: Kirkdale Press, 2015. Jones traces the influx of Eastern mysticism into the West which was predominantly Christianized (culturally at least) and argues for a paradigmatic shift in worldview formation. No longer does the common person assume a Creator-creation distinction in their metaphysical structure but has adopted a Onenistic notion of the world. This framing undergirds, according to Jones, much of what plagues western society and the church. As it pertains to Jones, “To thrive, the church needs to identify current pagan influence and understand this movement’s deliberate plans for a systematic reprogramming of the 21st century Western mind. The Christian world needs such insight if it is ever to wake the sleeping giant of Christian orthodoxy” (86). [4] See Herman Bavnick, Christian Worldview, trans. and ed. Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 21-29. In the introduction, Bavnick hammers home the necessity in combatting with the ideologies of this world. For him, there is no neutrality to posture ourselves nor is there a haven of sorts for peace to dodge the tension of worldview battling. We must come to terms with our current warfare and contend “for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). [5] Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 11-12. [6] Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, 83-199. In part two of his book, Carter implements his trinitarian hermeneutic which is rooted within a patristic metaphysic he calls “Christian Platonism.” In doing so, he argues for the polemical nature of Isaiah and his engagement with the false ideologies of his time. Isaiah, according to Carter, meets the cultural elites within their milieu and corrects their faulty notions as it pertains to the Creator, His sovereignty, and a proper worship that must only be attributed to Yahweh Elohim. To this end, Isaiah is engaged within an apologetical discussion on the metaphysical claims of a creator.

[7] See Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008. Niehause asserts that similarities between pagan mythologies and biblical narrative do not infer a common metaphysic or a shared outcome in religious dealings. Rather, such correlations speak to the polemical nature of the biblical witness and its aim in being a corrective in conjunction with the covenantal Lord Himself. If Israel and her covenantal documents are to bless the nations—in light of the Abrahamic covenant—a combative posture would be consistent with the aim and telos of God’s redemptive pedigree. [8] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgement: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 93. [9] Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, 126-139. Carter, following Heiser, does not negate that fact that other spiritual entities are behind pagan worship. However, those entities are finite and created beings who existence are not self-sustaining. Yahweh Elohim is the true living God who transcends all and is in Himself a se. See also Michael S. Heiser, Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural World of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015. See also Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, 237-268. Carter set a persuasive argument on to doctrine of creatio ex nihilo which, in turn, is foundational to the understanding of the Creator-creation distinction. This composition is contrary to pagan ideology as well as modern naturalism because it places Yahweh Elohim as the transcendent mind behind the created order. This metaphysical structure provides fundamental value in the make-up and defense of the Christian worldview. [10] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, 192. [11] Ibid., 196. Bavinck asserts that God’s knowledge does not stem from observation but rather is from Himself; that is, all things come to being out of His infinite knowledge. Therefore, His knowledge is undivided, simple, unchangeable, and eternal. He knows all things instantaneously and simultaneously. All things are eternally present in the mind of God. See also Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 25-27. Van Til helpfully describes the knowledge of God not as a temporal sequence as though He is analyzing material data, but rather as His knowledge taking precedence over the facts of finite creaturely manifestation. He says, “God knows or interprets the facts before they are facts. It is God’s plan, God comprehensive interpretation of the facts that makes the facts what they are” (27, italics original). [12] Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 43. [13] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1, A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1985), 1.2.7. [14] See Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, CA: Main Entry Edition, 2010), 170-172. Jones argues from his exegetical observations in Romans 1 that those who worship creation over the Creator are given over to their idolatrous ways. In so doing, they use the created world “unnaturally” and, thus, not only heap wrath upon themselves, but functionally live to their own demise. Jones rightly concludes, “If you dismiss the Creator of the ‘natural’ you will eventually reject the category of ‘natural’ and move to the ‘unnatural.’ Worshipping creation as divine produces ‘unnatural’ uses of the created order” (172). [15] See Andreas J. Köstenberger with T. Desmond Alexander, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Thoelogy of Mission, 2nd ed. NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. Köstenberger and Alexander do a fantastic job of tracing the theme of mission. They tie this pursuit to God’s redemptive purpose (mission Dei) with His plan in making a people for Himself. This is central to what the church is establish for and what they are to hang on to as a mission. See also Brian J. Tabb, After Emmaus: How The Church Fulfills the Mission of Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021. Tabb traces the inception of the New Testament church and affirms their mission which is tied to their Savior Jesus Christ. The church is the vehicle to which Christ is reaching the nations with the Gospel. [16] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 241. [17] See John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. [18] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 395. [19] Duby, God in Himself, 216. [20] Duby, Steven J. “Divine Simplicity, Divine Freedom, and the Contingency of Creation: Dogmatic Responses to Some Analytic Questions.” Journal of Reformed Theology 6, no. 2 (2012): 115–42. [21] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, 433. [22] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ, P&R Publishing, 2003), 25. [23] Teer, Torey. “‘As the Father Has Sent Me, Even so I Am Sending You’: The Divine Missions and the Mission of the Church.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 63, no. 3 (September 2020): 535–58. Teer emphasizes upon the ontology of the church prior to the mission of the church. In understanding her posture as the redeemed people of God, the church can better engage in the redemptive mission of a broken world.

[24] Duby, God in Himself, 38. [25] Ibid., 39.

 

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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