Divine simplicity is an attribute that most evangelicals have never heard of. I had never heard of it until my 3rd year of graduate level seminary study (2nd year at Gordon-Conwell). As such, it is an attribute that is often poorly understood, even among well read Christians.
A Working Definition
Although there are various understandings of this doctrine, the simplest (no pun intended) definition is as follows:
God is not composed of parts that are more fundamental than the whole.
What this means is that we cannot take God and subdivide him into components. We cannot say that God is a combination of love and wrath. We cannot say that God is a combination of justice and mercy.
Divine Simplicity in Application
Although there are disagreements about this, it is my position that this does not reduce God to a single attribute. We can still say that God has various attributes, but according to this doctrine, God’s attributes are eternally and perfectly united. God’s mercy is always a just mercy. God’s wrath is always a loving wrath.
Futhermore, this means that God is entirely free from any sort of internal self conflict. God never has to deliberate to know whether he should act in accord with his love or his justice. When he acts according to his justice, it is a loving justice. When he acts according to his love, it is a just love.
Finally, this also means that God is not a combination of actual and potential. God is not developing. God will never be something or someone other than he is. God never was something or someone other than he is. This comes into play, as we will see, when we talk about divine immutability and impassibility.
What about the Trinity?
The question is often asked, “How do we reconcile Divine Simplicity with the doctrine of the Trinity?”
I will address that more fully when we get to the doctrine of the Trinity, however there are two primary ways to explain this:
- Each person, when considered as a person, has the attribute of “simple” in light of possessing the entirety of the singular divine nature. This is my approach, and I think it avoids the implied difficulties of this question. Keep in mind, that I am of the persuasion that the person (particularly the person of the Father) should be the starting point for our reflection, and that it is the Father’s nature which is possessed by the Son and Spirit. Although I am not a social Trinitarian , this is also an approach that social Trinitarians would affirm.
- The divine nature is not composed of the persons such that each person is a component part. Rather each person is a repetition of the divine nature, such that the divine nature is not divided among them, rather it is modified in expression by them. How this is different from number 1 above, is that the nature is primary and each person is a unique expression of that nature.