Trinitarian Basics- Part 5

Divine Simplicity

“Simplicity” is the underlying definition of, or way to understand, the divine essence.  Though hotly contested among modern and post-modern theologians (you can see the shift in the mid-19th cent.  Bavinck even critiques Charles Hodge in a footnote about this very subject), simplicity was mostly universally accepted throughout Christendom.  Recently Lewis Ayres has identified three organizational planks behind pro-Nicene theology, and simplicity is right at the top of the list.  It is the statement that God is not composed of “parts,” nor do his attributes make up a composite.  All of God is all of God, and each of His attributes is Him.  “Simple” is thus opposed to complex or composite.

Simplicity is really another way to explain infinity.  If God is outside of space and time, and thus always all that He is without bounds, then no “real” distinctions can be placed within His being.  This means Continue reading

Appropriation

All of this talk about “simplicity” and “inseparable operations” can leave folks a little unsure as how to speak Biblically.  Surely the Bible presents the Son as doing things that the Father does not do, and just as surely, it must present the Spirit doing works that the Son does not do.  How can we reconcile this with our Trinitarian commitments?

Lewis Ayres offers up this explanation:

Closely linked to the doctrines of divine simplicity and inseparable operation is the practice of appropriation.  Appropriation is the practice of attributing to one divine person an attribute or action that is common to the Godhead and thus to all divine persons: because the persons work inseparably in the context of the divine simplicity we frequently speak about something as characteristic of a divine person although it is in fact equally true of all divine persons.  Appropriation is, for Pro-Nicenes, an important habit of Christian speech because it is central to Scripture’s own speech about the divine persons.  Appropriation is sometimes presented as an ‘Augustinian’ doctrine: in fact, Augustine’s clarity about the doctrine- which may be seen in Chapter 15- is simply the clearest statement of a common pro-Nicene principle.

~ Nicaea and Its Legacy pg. 297

We must also keep in mind the distinction between archetypal and ectypal phenomena.  What appears to us to be the work of a singular person, for it is occurring within our created world, involves all three persons in their infinity, however incomprehensible that may be.

Nyssa and Absolute Divine Simplicity

Bound up in his adherence to the infinity of the divine nature (which is the only pure being), is Gregory’s commitment to divine simplicity. Eunomius was content to use the terminology of “simple,” however he held to a plurality of being among the Father, Son, and Spirit. Thus, for Eunomius, each being was itself simple, but each was also distinct from one another, allowing for a variation of quality between the various beings.

Nyssa rejects this “with all his might,” and explains that simplicity applies to the single divine nature, thus admitting no variance of quality between the persons sharing that being. Simplicity and infinity, both aspects of the same concept, are what allow for total equality between the persons of the godhead. Gregory states:

We believe that the most boorish and simple-minded would not deny that the Divine Nature, blessed and transcendent as it is, was ‘single.’ That which is viewless, formless, and sizeless, cannot be conceived of as multiform and composite. But it will be clear, upon the very slightest reflection, that this view of the supreme Being as ‘simple,’ however finely they [the Eunomians- sw.] may talk of it, is quite inconsistent with the system which they have elaborated. For who does not know that, to be exact, simplicity in the case of the Holy Trinity admits of no degrees. In this case there is no mixture or conflux of qualities to think of; we comprehend a potency without parts and composition; how then, and on what grounds, could any one perceive there any differences of less and more. For he who marks differences there must perforce think of an incidence of certain qualities in the subject. He must in fact have perceived differences in largeness and smallness therein, to have introduced this conception of quantity into the question: or he must posit abundance or diminution in the matter of goodness, strength, wisdom, or of anything else that can with reverence be associated with God: and neither way will he escape the idea of composition. Nothing which posses wisdom or power or any other good, not as an external gift, but rooted in its nature, can suffer diminution in it; so that if any one says that he detects Beings greater and smaller in the Divine Nature, he is unconsciously establishing a composite and heterogeneous Deity, and thinking of the Subject as one thing and the quality, to share in which constitutes as good that which was not so before, as another. If he had been thinking of a Being really single and absolutely one, identical with goodness rather than possessing it, he would not be able to count a greater and a less in it at all. It was said, moreover, above that good can be diminished by the presence of evil alone, and that where the nature is incapable of deteriorating, there is no limit conceived of to the goodness: the unlimited, in fact, is not such owing to any relation whatever, but considered in itself escapes limitation. It is, indeed, difficult to see how a reflecting mind can conceive on infinite to be greater or less than another infinite. So that if he acknowledges the Supreme Being to be ‘single’ and homogeneous, let him grant that it is bound up with this universal attribute of simplicity and infinitude. If, on the other hand, he divides and estranges the ‘Beings’ from each other, conceiving that of the Only-begotten as another than the Father’s, and that of the Spirit as another than the Only-begotten, with a ‘more’ and ‘less’ in each case, let him be exposed now as granting simplicity in appearance only to the Deity, but in reality proving the composite in Him.

~ Against Eunomius 1.19

Let us note that Gregory takes it for granted that the Supreme Being is one and simple. He relies on this axiom to show that simplicity entails an identification of nature, and thus the Only-begotten and the Spirit, being one with the Father, share his nature and all of his attributes completely. There can be no scale of greater or lesser among these without either severing the unity of nature or making the Supreme Being composite, which would also entail that it was not, in fact, the Supreme Being.

Furthermore, if there is such as thing as “absolute” divine simplicity (over and against other formulations of simplicity), and this is itself disputed and would be anachronistic to apply to the 4th century, Gregory would most certainly be affirming absolute divine simplicity. He states that a simple being is formless and sizeless. It admits of no difference of quality. The attributes of the divine nature are not external, but rather rooted in the very nature itself.

Finally, Gregory gives us the most straightforward affirmation of simplicity when he identifies the divine nature with the good. It does not merely possess goodness. It is identical with goodness. He identifies the essence of God with the attribute or property of goodness.

And so we have Gregory the Augustinian and Gregory the Thomist. We have Gregory the Western scholastic “essence-minded” theologian.

How Can God Both Desire Your Salvation and Condemn You?

R L Dabney answered this question by an analogy:

The direction in which the answers are conceived to lie may be best indicated by an analogical instance. A human ruler may have full power and authority over the punishment of a culprit, may declare consistently his sincere compassion for him, and may yet freely elect to destroy him. A concrete case will make the point more distinct. Chief-Justice Marshall, in his Life of Washington (Vol. 4., Chap. 6.), says with reference to the death-warrant of the rash and unfortunate Major André “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy.” In this historical instance we have these facts: Washington had plenary power to kill or to save alive. His compassion for the criminal was real and profound. Yet he signed his death-warrant with spontaneous decision. The solution is not the least difficult either for philosophy or common sense. Every deliberate rational volition is regulated by the agent’s dominant subjective disposition, and prompted by his own subjective motive. But that motive is a complex, not a simple modification of spirit. The simplest motive of man’s rational volition is a complex of two elements: a desire or propension of some subjective optative power, and a judgment of the intelligence as to the true and preferable. The motive of a single decision may be far more complex than this, involving many intellectual considerations of prudence, or righteous policy, and several distinct and even competing propensions of the optative powers. The resultant volition arises out of a deliberation, in which the prevalent judgment and appetency counterpoise the inferior ones. To return to our instance Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned; but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments and propensions of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation. Let us suppose that one of André’s intercessors (and he had them, even among the Americans) standing by, and hearing the commanding general say, as he took up the pen to sign the fatal paper, “I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity,” should have retorted, “Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical.” The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real; but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal; but he had not the sanction of his own wisdom and justice. Thus his pity was genuine, and yet his volition not to indulge it free and sovereign.


Certainly aware of objections, Dabney proceeded to answer them in this lengthy essay. One of the more interesting aspects of the essay is Dabney’s criticism of Thomistic versions of divine simplicity. Hodge agreed with him in this respect, though it seems a historical oddity.

Here is his response to that issue:

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex.
    But we deny that the speculation is correct, susceptible of proof, or possible to be valid to the human mind. Evidently the cognition of such a being is inaccessible to man’s intelligence. The only way he has of knowing substance is through its attributes; and the only cognition we have of it is as the intuitive notion, which the reason necessarily supplies, of the subjectum to which the attributes perceived must be referred. Hence, to require us to think substance as literally identical with each attribute rationally referred to it, is to forbid us to think it at all. Again, reason forbids us to think different attributes as identical. We intuitively know that thought is not conation, and conation is not sensibility; it is as impossible to think these actually identical in God as in ourselves. Last, this speculation brings us too near the awful verge of pantheism. Were it true, then, it would be the shortest and most natural of steps to conclude that God has no other being than the series of activities of the several attributes with which they seek to identify the being. Thus we have the form of pantheism next to the gulf of nihilism. If the attributes are identical with the being of God and with each other, and if it be thus shown that God’s thought makes the object thereof, then, since God is eternally, necessarily, and infinitely intelligent, these results must rigidly follow: That all objective being known to God must be also as eternal and necessary as God; and that it must be as infinite as he is. What more would Spinoza have desired to found his mathematical proof of pantheism? The speculation is not true any more than it is scriptural. The Bible always speaks of God’s attributes as distinct, and yet not dividing his unity; of his intelligence and will as different; of his wrath, love, pity, wisdom, as not the same activities of the Infinite Spirit. We are taught that each of these is inconceivably higher than the principle in man which bears the corresponding name; but if the Scriptures do not mean to teach us that they are distinguishable in God, as truly as in man, and that this is as consistent with his being an infinite monad as with our souls’ being finite monads, then they are unmeaning.


A great essay if you’ve got the fortitude. Dabney should be read more often!

Dabney’s Solution to the Lapsarian Debate

This is worth quoting in detail. I’m very intrigued by Dabney’s particular understanding of divine simplicity, as he and Hodge were both very critical of the more Thomistic definition.

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex. Continue reading