Simplicity, Scholasticism, and the Triunity of God

There’s a book that I think you all should know about. It’s called All That Is in God, written by Dr. James Dolezal, a fellow graduate of The Master’s Seminary, and currently a professor in the School of Divinity at Cairn University. Dolezal’s book seeks to introduce readers to the doctrine of divine simplicity. Now, divine simplicity doesn’t mean that God is simple to understand! Though truly knowable, God is incomprehensible to the finite minds of even His redeemed creatures. No, divine simplicity refers to the teaching that God’s being is not compounded; that is, God is not made up of parts. It’s the idea of simplicity as the opposite of duplicity. It’s not as if you can add a pinch of love, a dash of holiness, a sprinkling of truth, omniscience, and the rest of God’s attributes, and at the end of the recipe you get God. No, God’s attributes are identical to His essence. He is what He has. God is not just loving; He is love (1 John 4:8). He is not just holy; He is holiness (1 John 1:5).

Now, that doctrine winds up having a number of implications that at first blush can seem counterintuitive. Also, the doctrine concerns the nature of God’s being, and so discussions can run into the metaphysical and the abstract pretty quickly. For those reasons, while the doctrine of simplicity is part and parcel of classical Christian theism and a key aspect of historic Trinitarian orthodoxy, it’s fallen on hard times in contemporary evangelical theology. And Dolezal has written this excellent little book to expose you to the doctrine and its history, and to persuade you to reject contemporary revisions of it, even though many of those revisions have been proposed by some of the most popular theologians and philosophers in evangelicalism.

One of those theologians is Dr. John Frame, for many years a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Earlier this week he wrote a fairly critical review of Dolezal’s book. Frame’s review generated a lot of online discussion, and even prompted reviews of his review from several corners of the blogosphere. Mark Jones, Jordan Cooper, Kevin DeYoung, and Keith Mathison (review of Dolezal, review of Frame) all wrote what I thought were helpful reviews of Frame’s review and/or Dolezal’s book.

Now today, I don’t necessarily want to pick apart the content of any of those reviews. But I do want to comment on some of the discussion that they’ve generated concerning the legitimacy of the doctrine of divine simplicity and its theological heritage. Particularly, I want to respond to objections that simplicity is just a relic of Thomas Aquinas’s overly naturalistic, philosophical, skeptical theological method, in which he simply regurgitates the the pagan philosopher Aristotle in Christian dress, and based on that argue that simplicity should be rejected out of hand. And I realize that many of our readers haven’t been tracking with this discussion, and so some of this will feel a little like “inside baseball.” But permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all theological bloggy-ness.

Augustine the Thomist?

Me? A Thomist?

In the first place, I find it to be a facile and naïve charge to say that anyone who holds to the historic Christian doctrine of divine simplicity is either (a) uncritically imbibing Aquinas, or—since there is a host of theologians and thinkers who embraced divine simplicity before Aquinas—(b) are uncritically imbibing Aristotle. Before you repeat the objection that simplicity is just Thomistic or Aristotelian, I would challenge you to demonstrate that Augustine, Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers—all of whom were significant formulators and defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and who explicitly employed the traditional doctrine of simplicity to maintain and defend Trinitarianism from heretical opposition)—I would challenge you to demonstrate that those men were either literarily or philosophically dependent on Aristotle for their thinking. That case simply can’t be made. They may have used categories that overlapped with certain of Aristotle’s (or other philosophers’) ideas, but that doesn’t mean the Trinity is Aristotelian! And since those men found simplicity to be a key link in the chain of Trinitarian theology, it doesn’t mean simplicity is Aristotelian either.

Our “Scholastic” Heritage

I confess that I do get bugged at the contemporary evangelical’s (i.e., the theistic mutualist’s, as Dolezeal calls him) hunt for the Scholastic boogeyman. That is, to suppose that identifying an idea as “Scholastic” or “Thomistic” or “Aristotelian” is sufficient refutation of that idea. It’s not. Just because Thomas or Aristotle taught something doesn’t make it automatically unbiblical. What’s especially annoying about that is: we all stand on the shoulders of the so-called “Scholastics” any time we use metaphysical language like “person” and “essence” or “nature” to speak about the Trinity, or about the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ, or when we use language like ultimate versus proximate versus efficient causation in order to describe biblical compatibilism.

The Greek Fathers didn’t wholesale imbibe the metaphysics of Greek philosophy, but they certainly spoke in those categories. The key technical terms that figured so prominently in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity—terms like ousia, phusis, hupostasis—were either foreign to the New Testament, or used in such different senses that it was plain they were using nonbiblical language to describe biblical truth. The watershed issue of the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople I (381) centered around the term homoousios, a term found nowhere in Scripture. (The same was true for the Latin Fathers in their language: persona, substantia, essentia, etc.)

Now of course, the Fathers significantly revised of those metaphysical categories to reflect biblical truth, but there wasn’t this fear that to even use the same categories that the philosophers used would be a necessarily subjugation of biblical authority to philosophy. Similarly, whenever we use the formulae of proximate and efficient causation, we could be legitimately charged with employing an “Aristotelian” theory of causation. But simply because Aristotle might have helpfully observed that there are different kinds of causes and different levels of causation, it doesn’t mean that those categories are off limits to Christian thinkers when we see those concepts emerging from Scripture as well (as in, for example, in 2 Samuel 24, Isaiah 10, or Acts 2:23).

A Label is Not a Refutation

That brings me to a third point. In God’s mercy, certain men, who are created in God’s image, who have been endowed by His common grace with intelligence, are able to see truths about God from the light of nature, because God is clearly revealed therein (Rom 1:19–20). Now, that’s not an argument for the uncritical reception of so-called “natural theology” wholesale It’s just an acknowledgement that sometimes even unbelieving philosophers can reason to true conclusions about God, or think in categories that accurately describe the reality we live in. Their conclusions aren’t to be accepted simply on the basis that they said them, but on the basis that, in the mercy of God, some of their conclusions overlap with biblical truth.

So, “That’s Scholastic,” or “That’s Thomistic,” or “That’s Aristotelian,” is not an argument—no more than when someone dismisses the doctrine of the representative headship of Adam or the active obedience of Christ because, well, “That’s covenantalism,” or dismisses the doctrine that the physical promises made to national Israel will be fulfilled in the future restoration of the nation (and not merely in spiritual fulfillment to the church) because, “That’s dispensationalism.” Labeling an idea is not an argument against that idea.

Modified Simplicity?

Many of the contemporary detractors from classical Christian theism insist that they do hold to the historic doctrines of the faith, just not in the same way that they’ve been historically articulated. In other words, these men say they believe in the doctrines of divine simplicity, immutability, etc., they just conceive of them differently than “Thomism” or “Scholasticism” does.

But in the case of many of these theologians, that’s disingenuous, and it fundamentally misunderstands what simplicity, immutability, etc., are. You can’t say, “Yes, I believe God is simple; He’s just the kind of ‘simple’ that affords Him multiple existences and gives Him the ability to alternate between states of being.” Or, “Yes, I believe that God is immutable, but He’s the kind of immutable that does make some changes.” “Simple yet complex” is a fundamental violation of the law of non-contradiction, just as is “immutable yet changeable,” or “impassible yet impassioned.” You say, “Well, so is three yet one!” But no, that’s not the same thing, because we don’t claim that God is three in the same sense that we claim He is one. He is one in essence or substance, but three in person or subsistence. To say God is “Simple yet complex” is to say He is “Simple yet not-simple.” But we do not say that God is “Three yet not three.” So, “Simple yet complex” and “immutable yet changeable” are not “modified versions” of simplicity and immutability; they’re negations of those concepts altogether, while still desiring to use the terminology. (Presumably that’s to attempt to remain orthodox, or at least to retain the language of orthodoxy.)

It’s no different than saying, “Yes, I believe in the Reformation doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. I just don’t believe Christ’s obedience is the righteousness that’s imputed to believers.” Such a claim equivocates on what anyone who has employed those categories had ever meant by “righteousness” and “obedience.” Or, to use another example, it’s similar to saying, “I believe in justification by faith alone, I just don’t believe that the righteousness conferred in justification has anything to do with one’s standing before God’s law. That would be a legalistic understanding of righteousness!” That just won’t do, because the biblical terms for “righteousness” and “justify” (tzadek, dikaioō, and their cognates) simply cannot be evacuated of their legal character (i.e., conformity to the standard of a law) and still be the biblical concept of righteousness or justification (see 14:23 to 22:23 here).

So again, it’s disingenuous—or at least woefully uninformed—to say one can deviate from the core historical definition of a doctrine while still believing in that doctrine. The contention is that modifying simplicity in the way Frame seems to do in his review, or modifying immutability the way John Feinberg does in his No One Like Him, isn’t to modify those doctrines at all, but to reject them, propose alternatives, and call those substitutes by the same name.

But Is It Biblical?

Now, to me, the biblical case for simplicity is fairly straightforward. As I said toward the beginning of the post, God is love (1 John 4:8). He is Light (i.e., holiness) (1 John 1:5). Jesus tells us that He is the Truth (John 14:6). God does not merely have love and holiness and truth, as if those properties existed outside of God, which He instantiates or personalizes. No, He is those things.

From there, then, we have to ask, “Does Scripture mean to exalt love and holiness above God’s other attributes, so that, whereas He is love and holiness and truth, He only has power and unchangeableness, and grace?” I don’t believe Scripture gives us warrant for that dichotomization. And when you do consider the statements in Scripture concerning God’s independence (e.g., Acts 17:25; Rom 11:35) and aseity (e.g., Exod 3:14). I find that the claims of the classical doctrine of divine simplicity validly follow from those statements—i.e., that God depends on nothing that is not God to be God, that therefore He is not composed of parts and doesn’t move from one state of being to the next (or from passivity to activity) in response to His creation, and so on. It does involve drawing some theological inferences, but none which may not be deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence.

Also, the biblical case for divine simplicity is made any time Scripture speaks of God’s oneness (e.g., Deut 6:4; Isa 46:9)—that is, the “unity” part of “Triunity,” or “Trinity.” That’s because models of God’s oneness that deny His simplicity simply cannot account for why that oneness is a genuine oneness of essence which is fully possessed by all three Persons of the Trinity, and not merely a social oneness—similar to how my wife and I are genuinely one (even see Matthew 19:6!) while not sharing an identical essence. Put simply, if your doctrine of divine oneness can’t account for why that oneness isn’t the kind of oneness that can also be shared by separate beings, you can’t account for why tritheism isn’t a viable Christian doctrine of God.

Now, you say, “Well, because Scripture says God is one!” Yes, but the problem is: by denying simplicity you’ve already equivocated on your definition of “one,” and thus you allow for a divine oneness that is something other than identity of essence. Far from undermining or failing to explain the threeness of God (as is often charged), the classical doctrine of simplicity is necessary to maintain the genuine oneness of God. Simplicity doesn’t undermine the Trinity; it establishes it! (Which is why the anti-Trinitarian Socinians sought so vigorously to undermine simplicity.)

In fact, I’d contend that anyone who thinks simplicity undermines Trinitarianism has an implicitly partialist view of the Trinity. That is, they’ve been conceiving the Trinity as if each person does not fully possess the undivided divine essence, but is rather a one-third part (hence partialism) of the divine. To think that the claim “God is not composed of parts,” is at odds with “God subsists eternally in three persons,” is implicitly to identify “subsisting” as “composing,” and to assume that Trinitarianism claims “God is composed of three persons.”

But partialism is not and has never been Trinitarianism. We must confess that God is not composed of parts, because Scripture’s testimony to monotheism, divine unity, aseity, and immutability demands it of us. And we must confess that the one being of God eternally subsists in three co-equal and consubstantial persons, who do not each compose parts of the divine essence, but who each fully possess the undivided divine essence—because Scripture’s testimony that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each God but are not each other demands it of us.

Not Just Theoretical

Now, sometimes in theology, when we demonstrate the logical consequences of a particular view, those we’re interacting with don’t hold to those consequences. They, in our view, maintain their position inconsistently, so as to avoid what we think are devastating—perhaps even heretical—conclusions. But when I speak above of partialism and tritheism, it’s not just theoretical. Many who have denied simplicity (certainly not all, but a troubling enough number) have gone precisely there.

This was the part of Dolezal’s book that shocked me the most. On pages 125 and 126, Dolezal quotes revered philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig as saying each of the three persons of the Trinity are “distinct centers of consciousness, each with its proper intellect and will,” and say that “on no reasonable understanding of ‘person’ can a person be equated with a relation. Relations do not cause things, know truths, or love people in the way the Bible says God does.” Now, what’s the conclusion of such reasoning?

“It is the Trinity as a whole that is properly God. . . . [T]he Trinity alone is God and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while divine, are not Gods. . . . We could think of the persons of the Trinity as divine because they are parts of the Trinity, that is, parts of God. It seems undeniable that there is some part-whole relation obtaining between the persons of the Trinity and the entire Godhead.”

Now, I’d agree: once you jettison simplicity, conceiving of the Father as ‘part’ of God and the Son as ‘part’ of God is undeniable. But it’s also heretical. And I don’t mean the angry-social-media-rant kind of heretical, but actual anti-Nicene heresy. The Father is God. He is not part of God. Neither is the Son part of God, but is God of very God. So also is the Spirit not merely one-third God but is God Himself.

Similarly, Dolezal cites Cornelius Plantinga Jr. as saying, “. . . it will be appropriate to use the designator ‘God’ to refer to the whole Trinity, where the Trinity is understood to be one thing, even if it is a complex thing consisting of persons, essences, and relations” (cited in Dolezal, 126-27, emphasis added). Now, there you have it. If you deny simplicity and remain internally consistent, you will be constrained to confess that the Trinity consists of multiple essences, which is tritheism, and thus is also explicitly inimical to Nicene orthodoxy. And while we thank God that the many contemporary theologians who desire to “modify” the classical Christian doctrine of divine simplicity don’t embrace those heretical conclusions, it seems they only stop short of them inconsistently.

*     *     *     *     *

The fact that this conversation is so foreign to so many of us is a demonstration of why Dolezal’s work is so needed. So many of us take for granted the Trinitarian theology that we’ve inherited that we reduce it to confessing a few catch phrases that we don’t really understand. But these matters occupied our theological forefathers literally for centuries. It’s our responsibility as those who would call ourselves Christians—Trinitarian monotheists—to devote ourselves to understanding the theology that is the foundation of our faith. I hope works like Dolezal’s continue to generate renewed interest in and passion for the classical doctrines of historic Christianity.

from The Cripplegate


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