The doctrine of Divine Simplicity is the ultimate answer to rationalism.
You see there is nothing that is simple in our realm of experience. We only interact with compounds. Even the smallest of atoms is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. No matter how far down we dig, we just can’t manage to hit zero.
This reminds us of infinity. As finite creatures, whenever we even speak of infinity, we are talking beyond ourselves. We are seeking to describe that which is always just past the reach of our words. It drives Wittgenstein batty.
The traditional doctrine of simplicity asserts that God is His perfections. He does not “possess” them, nor does he stand under them or behind them. He is them.
And this is something we cannot fully comprehend.
Underneath this heading there are of course different flavors of simplicity. There are “stricter” versions and “looser” versions. Interestingly enough, theologians as varied as Basil the Great and Charles Hodge have denied the stricter views, while Augustine and Aquinas leave commentators buzzing trying to understand their views.
Perhaps the wisest treatment is merely to assert that God is simple and then move on. The Westminster Confession, following Calvin’s precedent, choose this route.
To return to my original point, divine simplicity is a negation of our finite reasoning. It is always there to say “Not so fast.”
This understanding makes the various rejections of divine simplicity somewhat ironic. You see, the critics of this doctrine all suppose they know what it is to be simple. They invoke a rationalist, perhaps pantheist, approach just long enough to reject simplicity on the grounds that it is supposedly rationalistic and pantheist. But nothing could be farther from the case.
As Stephen Holmes comments:
It seems to be regularly assumed that a monad, perfectly actualised, without extension, without duration, without composition, and so on, is ontologically basic, and so that to call God simple is to identify him with such a monad.¹
This is, however, quite backwards.
You see, simplicity is invoked, along with infinity, for the point of emphasizing mutual coextensivity. God is not merely “without extension,” whatever that might mean for the creator of extension, but rather He is omnipresent. He is omni-extension.
So too with all of the divine attributes. They neither compete, nor compound, but rather co-inhabit one another, retaining their unique qualities- however such a shared life may work. Instead of a neutral coffee, they create the glory-rainbow.
Holmes seeks to help us understand this concept by invoking an analogy (what else?):
Wine-tasting notes, for example, often contain a number of words and phrases, some of them apparently in tension if not simply contradictory, which are the attempt of the taster to express a single, but immensely rich, experience, viz. the taste of a fine wine.²
In more contemporary Protestant language, simplicity is what Van Til meant when he employed the phrase “equal ultimacy.” It is simply a trinitarian identity theory. Continue reading