What does it mean that God is “simple”?

God’s attributes are not like characteristics that are parts of who he is, as if he can act out his attribute of kindness in one moment but do apart from his attribute of justice (as an example). His attributes aren’t separate from who he is, nor do we separate his attributes from one another. It’s not as if he scores a 97 on kindness, 85 on patience, and 75 on gentleness. He is not a conflicted being where his mercy and wrath are at odds with one another. God is all his attributes perfectly and seamlessly.

This is known as divine simplicity, which isn’t to say that God is simple like we might think of simple, but that he is not made up of parts. We tend to use “simple” as a backhanded compliment: “He’s just a simple man.” So when theologians and books refer to God being simple, it can certainly be confusing. Matthew Barrett writes:

“God is not made up of parts, nor is he compounded or composite in nature. That means he does not possess attributes, as if his attributes are one thing and his essence another. Rather, his essence is his attributes and his attributes his essence. God is his attributes.”[1]

This is important because we can think of God in a distorted way by pitting his attributes against one another or making him a conflicted being. We might imagine God is in heaven weighing which attribute to act out today, as if it’s a superhero function that he can turn on and off. God is all his attributes all the time and they work in tandem as one rather than conflict or compete.

“Given divine simplicity, it is imperative that we integrate all the different elements of biblical revelation with one another. Simplicity prohibits us from isolating the attribute of divine love from God’s other attributes. Indeed, we cannot rightly understand any one of God’s attributes apart from the rest.”[2]

Garry Williams

God is always just, and his justice, righteousness, and holiness react with the action of wrath against sin (a judicious wrath, not a flip-the-lid human kind of anger), while he can still be merciful and gracious—because Christ absorbs the wrath of his people.

D. A. Carson writes, “I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.”[3]

When we think about God, we can skew our view of him by emphasizing some attributes while ignoring others. If we think of God in terms of holiness, transcendence (meaning he is beyond us and above us), glory, and righteousness but we fail to consider his patience, mercy, grace, and gentleness we will have a cold and angry God. Or, if we only think of God in terms of being “a God of love” and we don’t think of him as righteous and just, we have a sort of “hippie in the sky” who just wants peace and love and will overlook all the sin and problems of the world.

God is all that God is all the time and perfectly, in a way that only God can be.

Think about why this is important in trials or when we don’t like the circumstances we’re in. It’s important to remember God is wise, he is powerful, and he is good. If we think God is good and powerful but not wise than we might think he doesn’t know why we’re here and he’s running around fixing things rather than having a perfect plan for where he leads us. If we think God is wise and good but not powerful, then we might think God wants to help but he’s not able to. Circumstances are too powerful. Or if we think God is wise and powerful but not good, we might miss that his plans are actually what’s best for us and done with love. We need to remember his power, his wisdom, and his goodness or love.

“God is not a compound. If he were, he could not be the ultimate being. His parts would all be logically prior to him. Presumably there would also have to be some force that produced ‘god’ out of those different parts, and that force would also be a greater being than the resulting ‘god’ is. Such a being does not and cannot exist, and therefore we have to say that God is ‘simple’—he is what he is, and that is all there is to it.”[4]

This can be a good reminder to ask ourselves if we tend to only highlight certain attributes of God, or if part our misunderstanding or confusion about him at times is due to some aspect of who he is we’re missing. CWhat might be some of the practical implications in your Christian walk if you ignore divine simplicity in these ways?

  • You tend to think of God’s transcendence (he is beyond us) but not his immanence (he is near to us), or you think of his immanence a lot but not his transcendence?
  • When walking through trials, your mind gravitates toward God’s holiness, righteousness, sovereignty, and justice but you neglect his gentleness, grace, and mercy?
  • After sinning, you quickly bring to mind God’s grace and love but ignore thinking about God’s holiness and righteousness?
  • You tend to think of God as the one who blesses and provides but don’t always consider his wisdom in knowing when and how to do so or when to withhold things from us?
  • You view God in terms of biblical images of a king, creation, and law-giver but not a father, shepherd, or friend (or vice versa)?
  • When you’re discouraged and weary, you know God is powerful and able to change things—which can leave you frustrated when he doesn’t—but you don’t consider his patience in waiting, his purposes in difficulties, or his offer to supply mercy and grace?

These are just examples, but they remind us that we cannot pit God’s attributes against one another, and we can’t pick and choose which attributes of God we like. God is who he is, perfectly, eternally, all the time, and in every area.

Notes

[1] Matthew Barrett, “Divine Simplicity,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/divine-simplicity/

[2] Garry Williams, His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on the Immeasurable Love of God. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).

[3] D. A. Carson, “Distorting the Love of God?” in The Love of God

[4] Gerald Bray, The Attributes of God, quoted by Justin Taylor in “A Simple Explanation of Divine Simplicity.”

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indycrowe

You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IndyCrowe for the short & sweet stuff.

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