Still Opposing EFS: Divine Simplicity

Well, I am not usually one to be behind the curve, I’m kind of an early adopter. But, while the rest of the Reformed world seems to have moved on to fighting over John Piper and Justification (See here and here), I’m over here still trying to keep up the fight against EFS.

One of the main issues in this debate is the concept of divine simplicity, and how it relates to the will of God. Divine Simplicity is a central doctrine within Christianity and, as James Dolezal has recently commented, contrary to popular belief it was the doctrine of divine simplicity that gave rise to the doctrine of the Trinity, not the other way around. Divine Simplicity is literally the reason that we believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God and not three.

Even so, it is a theological concept that is often not understood, and even less often adequately explained. This is because it is incredibly difficult to describe. Sure, we can say “God is without parts,” but what does that even mean? There is nothing in this world that we have experience with that is not composed of parts. Even the immaterial aspect of human existence is composed of parts. So just as there is no analog for a single nature subsisting in three persons, or a single person in whom two full natures subsist, there is no created analog for a truly simple entity (even the angels are not simple in this sense, presumably having will, intellect, etc).

I stalled out on my reading of On the Trinity by Augustine, but before I did I came across a phrase that has kind of haunted me. It has frequently crossed my mind, and I have struggled to get my head around it. However, I think that it has become for me the key to not only understanding but also explaining divine simplicity.

Augustine uses the phrase, or variations of it, in several places. He explains that “to be, and to be great, are not different things for God.” He also uses it with other attributes (wise, just, etc). What I think he is getting at is that for God, greatness (or wisdom, or justice, etc) is a necessary attribute. Whatever God is, he is necessarily. Another way of explaining that, is that there is nothing that God is, which he could not be, and still be God.

To elucidate that, consider humans as the counterexample. I am a blogger. However, you could take away that attribute and I would still be who and what I am. Although being a blogger is a part of my identity, it is not a necessary part. That is a rather shallow example. However, you could start to look at ontological attributes and more core identity traits. I am an academic and an intellectual, however, if I were to suffer some kind of traumatic brain injury and my intelligence lost I would still be both human, and the particular human I am. There is very little of our human existence that is necessary in order for us to remain both human and the particular human we are. The technical term for these non-necessary attributes is accidental.

This is not so in God. For God, no attribute is accidental. If any single attribute were to be removed, whatever we would be left with would cease to be God. So, as Augustine said, to be and to be great are not different things for God.

So how does that help us in understanding the error of the EFS position? I’m glad you asked!

In the Trinity, there is a single essence, or nature, or substance. Another way to think about this, and a translation that actually gets closer to the original Greek terms used in the patristic era, is existence. God is a single existence (compared to multiple humans, who have multiple existences that are independent of one another). This is why we sometimes use the term being (I have some concerns about the term, which is why I avoid it). Look at the word, it is the participial form of “be.” Like the word running, or acting, or blogging, when we add -ing to the end of a word, we are indicating that it is an ongoing action. So the word being means that something exists, in an ongoing way. This is the is-ness of a thing.

This single existence is fully participated in and shared by each person of the Trinity. The Father is not a portion of the divine existence, he fully is everything it means to exist as God, so also the Son and the Spirit. Despite popular attempts to visually communicate this, we must not think of the divine nature as being portioned out between the persons of the Trinity. The Son is not conceptually smaller than the divine nature. The Spirit is not the portion of the divine existence which exists outside the Father and the Son.

What distinguishes them is not what essential attributes they possess, but how they related to each other. This way of relating to each other also entails that each is the fullness of the divine nature in a way that is unique to and appropriate for their relations. The Father is the fullness of the divine nature in a way that is proper to his person, relative to being the Father of the Son and the personal origin of the Spirit. The Son is the fullness of the divine nature in a way that is proper to his person, relative to being the Son of the Father, and the mediate origin of the Spirit. 1 The Spirit is the fullness of the divine nature in a way that is proper to his person, relative to being the Spirit of the Father and the Son.

This understanding, that the hypostatic relations are what distinguish the persons, is vital to all of Christian theology. If we get this wrong, we get everything wrong. Contrary to the EFS position, which introduces additional essential attributes into each person of the Trinity and uses those to distinguish the persons, historic Christian orthodoxy only distinguishes the persons by how they relate to each other. Any other method of differentiating the persons invariably deviates into some form of Trinitarian heresy.

In the next post, I’ll show how this relates to the central question in the EFS debate about the divine will (wills?).

Notes:

  1. I affirm, with the early Church, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, through the Son. This is consistent with the Filioque clause and was a common articulation in the early church, although I believe it was ecclesiastical malpractice to insert the clause into the Nicene Creed. Furthermore, I believe that this position is consistent with article 2.3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith

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