When ‘simple’ is incomprehensible

All That Is in GodI realize that reading one book does not make one an authority on a complicated doctrine, but I found James Dolezal’s All That Is in God a compelling argument for the classical understanding of divine simplicity.

As a simple, southern pastor I’ll leave it to the credentialed theologians to adjudicate the finer points of simplicity. In the meantime, I thought I might share a few reflections and excerpts from the book.

First, I need to read more “old” theology from the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Bavinck, etc. The more second-hand exposure I have to these guys the more impressed I am with the breadth and depth of their work.

Second, and closely related, we are either stunningly ignorant or conceited (or both) to labor under the notion that our benighted forebears piddled in the theological shallows leaving us to plumb the depths of the divine nature. There is nothing new under the sun and the writing of many books is endless. Keep those proverbs in mind whenever you read a new book.

Third, my experience in reading this book was a testament to Lewis’ belief that the heart may sing unbidden while working through a tough bit of theology. There’s something about being confronted with the ‘godness’ of God that leaves one in awe and wonder.

Here, then, is a distillation of divine simplicity according to Dolezal:

The principal claim of divine simplicity is that God is not composed of parts. Whatever is composed of parts depends upon its parts in order to be as it is. A part is anything in a subject that is less than the whole and without which the subject would be really different than it is. In short, composite beings need their parts in order to exist as they do. Moreover, the parts in an integrated whole require a composer distinct from themselves to unify them, an extrinsic source of unity. If God should be composed of parts–of components that were prior to Him in being–He would be doubly dependent: first, on the parts, and second, on the composer of the parts. But God is absolute in being, alone the sufficient reason for Himself and all other things, and so cannot in any respect derive His being from another. Because God cannot depend on what is not God in order to be God, theologians traditionally insist that all that is in God is God. (40-41)

A number of implications follow from this basic conviction. First, God’s existence (act of being) and essence [what He is] cannot be constituent components in Him, each supplying what the other lacks. Rather, God must be identical with His existence and essence, and they must be identical with each other. (41)

Second, if all that is in God is God, then each of His attributes is identical with His essence. . . . It further follows from God’s non-compositeness that in Him all His attributes are really identical with each other. For many, this implication is the hardest to accept. It would seem that if we know anything about God, then we know that His power is not His wisdom, and His wisdom is not His goodness, and His goodness is not His eternity, and so on. But if He is simple, and if His being is not dependent on component parts that are ontologically more basic than the fullness of His being, then all these things we say about Him would have to be identical in Him. (42)

God’s essence is not simply a bundle of contiguous properties or attributes, each existing alongside the others as an integrated whole. His divinity is not a sublime set of great-making properties all splendidly arranged together in Him. In His essence, it is not one thing to be good, another to be wise, another to be powerful, and so on. . . . Properly speaking, God is good by virtue of God, not goodness. He is wise by virtue of God, not wisdom. He is powerful by virtue of God, not power. He is love by virtue of God, not love. And when we say that God is goodness itself, wisdom itself, power itself, and love itself, we do not mean that these are so many really distinct parts or forms in God, but simply that He is all that is involved in these terms by virtue of His own divine essence as such. God is not the particular instantiation of a wonderful set of properties. Rather, there is nothing in God that is not identical with His divinity, nothing that is not just God Himself. (43)

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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