A Non-Scholastic, Personalistic Doctrine of Divine Simplicity?

dogFollowing up the discussion of the doctrine of divine simplicity from Monday, one of the most frequent criticisms of the doctrine, certainly of its harder forms, is that it is not something derived from biblical considerations, but almost wholly from non-biblical, or even un-biblical philosophical presuppositions drawn from Platonist, Aristotelian, and other philosophical traditions. This charge is particularly leveled against the forms found in accounts like Thomas’ and those following in the Aristotelian tradition of reflection. For a good example of one of these accounts, I’d point you to this short post by my friend Steven Nemes.  For a good, much longer example of this sort of criticism, see Paul Maxwell’s recent, serious ETS article on the subject.

While I’m not going to try and defend or answer objections to this kind of account, I did recently run across John Frames’ account of divine simplicity in his The Doctrine of God (pp. 225-230) in which he argues that some form (probably falling somewhere in the first 5 senses of the term we listed out recently) should be attributed to God. What makes his account worth highlighting is that he’s trying to make the argument from within a theological methodology that he himself describes as “something like biblicism”, with a somewhat unsympathetic take on medieval and Reformational scholastic metaphysics. In other words, he’s kind of a prime suspect for rejecting the doctrine, and yet here he tries to find a way of salvaging and affirming it according to a “more scriptural” logic.

How does the argument work? Well, it begins simple enough. Frame notes that Scripture uses the language of attributes to describe God as “spirit” (John 4:24), “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and “light” (1 John 1:15). Scripture says not that God has these things, but that he is these things. These are three different ways of describing God that are perspectives on the whole divine essence. What’s more, he notes that the Lord swears by his own holiness (Psalm 89:5, Amos 4:2), with the insinuation that his holiness is nothing less than himself. The same sort of logic is at work when we consider God’s truth, which distinguishes him from false gods (Jeremiah 10:10), as well as Lordship and so forth. In the case of all of these attributes, Frame says that we can’t imagine God being God without being characterized by this quality.

Frame says that while we don’t find a clear passages showing that “all of God’s attributes are necessary to his being and thus perspectives on that being, but they do provide a pattern and a way of thinking about divine attributes to which it is hard to find plausible exception” (pg. 229). From there he asks “But does this pattern justify talk of simplicity?”

It’s here that things get interesting. Frame says that if we think that the different attributes are still perspectives or angles on the one reality of God, then we’ll have to admit at least a relative simplicity even while confessing some sort of complexity. The attributes are not separate in God and so therefore we begin to see that “attributes have attributes”: God’s love is holy, his righteousness is wise, his “mercy is eternal”, and so forth. Still that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the attributes are simply synonymous. It’s not that his justice just is his power which just is his love and so forth. Though the attributes are all together and mutually determining they are also truly distinguishable. For those who know what to look for, it’s beginning to sound like a Scotist account of the sort Tom McCall writes about in Forsaken; it allows for formal distinctions between the attributes by which they are inseparable, but really distinguishable in themselves, not just phenomenologically (or, just in our heads).

Still, despite pushing for a recognition of real distinctions between the attributes, he invites us to remember that God is a person, and so when we speak of the “divine goodness”, for example, we’re really just “referring to everything that God is”, not some abstract property. “For everything God does is good, and everything he is is good. All his attributes are good. All his decrees are good. All his actions are good. There is nothing in good that is not good” (pg. 229). When we praise his goodness, or his justice, or his beauty, we’re not praising some external standard to which he conforms to, possesses, or participates in, but rather just what he is.

At the heart, then, of Frame’s account of simplicity is the recognition that the biblical God is a “personal God.” He is not a bundle of attributes, but rather a whole person that relates to his creation as such. “The attributes merely describe different things about him. They are a kind of shorthand for talking about that person. Everything he says and does is good, right, true, eternal, and so on” (pg. 230).

Leaving a treatment of the Trinity and simplicity until later, Frame concludes:

It seems to me therefore, that there is a legitimate biblical motive in the doctrine of simplicity. We may be surprised to find that it is not an abstract, obscure, philosophical motive, but a very practical one. Those emerging from the murky waters of scholastic speculation maybe surprised to find that the doctrine of simplicity is really fairly simple. It is a biblical way of reminding us that God’s relationship with us is fully personal.

So the simplicity of God, like all his attributes, sets forth his covenant lordship. It reminds us of the unity of our covenant Lord, and the unity that he brings into our live as we seek to honor him and him alone. The Christian is not devoted to some abstract philosophical goodness, but to the living Lord of heaven and earth. (pg. 230)

Now, for some this will sound great. “Woohoo! We don’t need the philosophical speculation, or need to decide whether Aristotelian distinctions between essence/existence, form/matter, etc. are relevant in order to proclaim a simple God!” On the flipside, I can imagine some people sitting back and thinking, “Well, I suppose we can go that far, but then again, how is that any different than a really aggressive doctrine of the unity of God?”

At that point I don’t really have an answer, but I figured the train of thought was worth pursuing, sharing, and inviting comments on.


Soli Deo Gloria


4 thoughts on “A Non-Scholastic, Personalistic Doctrine of Divine Simplicity?

  1. I don’t know if God is simple. I’d rather think he’s complex.

    But His gospel for the forgiveness and acceptance of the ungodly is simple. In water and Word. Bread and wine. You can’t get much simpler than that.

  2. I was in a reading group with four other men and we reviewed this book. It was not very practical. Certainly needed a lot of explanation for the average lay Christian

  3. If you want a non-scholastic account of divine simplicity you should check out Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz. Thomas McCall also expounds his views on simplicity in greater depth in his recent lecture at the LA Theology conference (available for free online).

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