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I want to briefly introduce this first post in a series of blog posts condensing the material from the book written by Dr. James Dolzeal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, Oregon; Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011) and give a basic overview of each chapter to show the importance of this often neglected doctrine and conclude with a post on some practical applications of the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.  Bold text in quotes is added by me for emphasis of a key point.  I abbreviate the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity as the DDS, as does Dr. Dolzeal in his book.

I have already alluded to some apologetic implications of this doctrine in my critique of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint’s book, Covenantal Apologetics:

https://1689reformedbaptist.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/divine-impassibility-apologetics-the-inconsistency-of-dr-k-scott-oliphints-apologetics/

Due to the technical nature of the book I won’t be covering every detail. I will try to cover the main points and define key terms in each chapter, so hopefully this series will be useful for anyone trying to read through the book to get a condensed chapter summary and serve as an introduction to the DDS.  This series will also provide a useful starting place to understanding the DDS as the foundation for understanding the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility which is currently debated among many theologians.  Divine Impassibility assumes the DDS, so in order to properly understand Divine Impassibility it is important to get the context of the doctrine by first studying the DDS.  As will be demonstrated in this series the DDS upholds many essential doctrines of God, such as His Immutability, Aseity, Eternality, and Impassibility.

For anyone who wants a useful brief overview of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility I highly recommend Sam Renhian’s book, God without Passions: A Primer

http://www.rbap.net/god-without-passions-a-primer-by-samuel-renihan/

I. Defining Divine Simplicity

What is Divine Simplicity?  Dr. Dolzeal defines this doctrine as follows in the Preface of his book,

The classical doctrine of simplicity, as espoused by both traditional Thomists and Reformed scholastics, famously holds forth the maxim that there is nothing in God that is not God.  If there were, that is, if God were not ontologically identical with all that is in him, then something other than God himself would be needed to account for his existence, essence, and attributes.  But nothing that is not God can sufficiently account for God.  He exists in all his perfections entirely in and through himself.  At the heart of the classical DDS (Doctrine of Divine Simplicity) is the concern to uphold God’s absolute self-sufficiency as well as his ultimate sufficiency for the existence of the created universe[1].

Dr. Dolzeal also provides this more concise definition in the first chapter of his book,

The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that (1) God is identical with his existence and his essence and (2) that each of his attributes is ontologically identical with his existence and with every other one of his attributes.  There is nothing in God that is not God[2].

What Dr. Dolzeal is expressing here is the distinction between God as self-sufficient Creator, who is not dependent upon anything, and the creation.  This distinction between Creator and creature assumes that God is not composed of parts or pieces in contrast to creation which is composed of parts and is therefore dependent and not self-sufficient.  All created things are made of parts whether it is a house, car, or a computer, which makes the whole dependent on the parts because if one part isn’t working it may not function properly.  However God is self-sustaining, He is not dependent on something else to be God because by nature God is Creator and in a separate category of being from His creation.  He cannot be composed of parts or dependent on something outside of Himself because then He would cease to be God and be just like us, dependent on something else to exist.  We as creatures are dependent upon God to sustain us, but God requires no one to sustain Himself.

The first chapter of Dr. Dolzeal’s book gives an overview of the current landscape of the DDS among evangelical Christians; both current proponents and opponents of this doctrine.  Rather than re-iterating the historical theology of the DDS and all of the critiques by contemporary opponents of the doctrine of divine simplicity I will summarize the key presuppositions of both positions that Dr. Dolzeal provides in an outline format.  This will help provide a historical framework for some of the reasons why this classical and historical doctrine of God is often rejected by contemporary theologians.

II. Historical Theology & the DDS

Dr. Dolzeal gives a brief overview of the DDS as affirmed by patristic sources, medieval theologians, and reformed and modern theologians to demonstrate its historical significance as a catholic (universal) Christian doctrine.  In the patristic section Dr. Dolzeal briefly discusses 2 important apologetic uses of the DDS as employed by patristic authors:

(1) Irenaeus used the DDS in response to Gnostic views of God involving emanations, and God undergoing passions and mental changes to affirm and uphold God’s Immutability in his book, Against Heresies.

(2) Gregory of Nyssa affirmed the DDS to affirm unity of essence when describing the Doctrine of the Trinity in response to accusations of tri-theism by opponents.  Augustine also affirmed DDS, in order to affirm that each subsistence of the Trinity is Immutable [3].

Dr. Dolzeal mentions several Medieval writers who affirmed the DDS in order to affirm God’s Immutability and Aseity (self-sufficiency) such as Boethius, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus.  He focuses on the importance of Aquinas’ articulation of the DDS as it pertains to the Creator-creature distinction to contrast creatures’ essence as separate from its being, and therefore contingent on something outside of itself, whereas God’s essence is identical with his existence.  This leads to the conclusion that God is necessary and self-sufficient in contrast to creation which is contingent and dependent on a source outside of itself to be sustained.  Aquinas’ first cause argument for the existence of God assumes the DDS because everything else needs a cause outside of itself to exist, whereas God is the First and necessary uncaused, and self-sufficient being.

Dr. Dolzeal observes continuity among the Protestant Reformers and Scholastics who affirmed Aquinas’ articulation of the DDS.  He cites John Owen’s used of the DDS as a polemic against Socinian distortions of the doctrine of God.  The DDS was affirmed by Reformed writers into the 19th and 20th century.  Here are two citations from John Owen and Herman Bavinck showing their affirmation of the DDS,

John Owen on the DDS, “With reference to Exodus 3:14-15, Owen also explains God’s unity via the DDS: “[W]here there is an absolute oneness and sameness in the whole, there is no composition by an union of extremes….He, then, who is what he is, and whose all that is in him is, himself, hath neither parts, accidents, principles, nor anything else, whereof his essence should be compounded[4].

Herman Bavinck on the DDS, “If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of differing species belonging to the same genus), substance and accidents, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, then his perfection, oneness, independence, and immutability, cannot be maintained[5].

Dr. Dolzeal even mentions how the DDS was affirmed by 19th and 20th century Catholic theologians such as Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, however a shift began to occur in the 20th century away from an affirmation of the DDS as Louis Berkhof stated in his systematic theology,

In recent works on theology the simplicity of God is seldom mentioned.  Many theologians positively deny it, either because it is regarded as purely metaphysical abstraction, or because, in their estimation, it conflicts with the doctrine of the Trinity[6].

III. Recent Criticisms of the DDS

Atheistic philosopher Richard Gale gives 3 primary reasons for rejecting the DDS:

  1. It makes God equivalent to abstract attributes, thereby making God impersonal.
  2. If God is identical to His properties, then His properties cannot be shared by his creation, otherwise they would be God.
  3. If all of God’s properties are one and the same, then there should be no distinction between God’s attributes, but there appears to be differences between God’s attributes e.g. Omnipotence vs. omnibenevolence. Therefore distinctions between God’s attributes prove that God is not simple.

As will be observed later in the chapter overviews these criticisms are rooted in a foundational misunderstanding of the Creator-creature distinction.   Many of Richard Gale’s arguments are likewise employed by Christian theologians and philosophers to deny the DDS, so the arguments are not exclusive to Atheists.   Two primary criticisms that Dr. Dolzeal briefly responds to at the end of his first chapter are:

  1. Ontological Univocism (a denial of analogical predication and the Creator-creator distinction between the being of God and man. This assumes that there isn’t a fundamental distinction of God’s essence and the essence of creatures).
  2. Biblicist Hermeneutics ( a proof-texting approach to the Doctrine of God that argues that since there isn’t a single passage that explicitly says God is simple, therefore it cannot be a Biblical doctrine).

There are a large range of criticisms of DDS, which I will not be able to elaborate in a concise amount of space and since Dr. Dolzeal will address them in later chapters which I will be summarizing for blog posts I don’t need to list them all here.  It is better to address them progressively as the DDS is explained.

Dr. Dolzeal does observe a crucial underlying criticism among opponents of DDS, which is a tendency towards univocism, thereby denying the distinction between God and man by not making a careful distinction between the being of God and man.  It is this fundamental hermeneutical presupposition that critics of DDS deny before beginning to study DDS that results in their denial of it:

But it is precisely this ontological univocism that the DDS will not allow.  Though creatures bear the image of God’s existence and attributes, their similarity to God is better understood as analogical than univocal.  The manner in which God exists and possesses attributes is so radically unlike anything found in creatures that he cannot be classified together with them in a single order of being or as the highest link on a great chain of being.  As the one who ultimately accounts for being in general, as its first and final cause, God does not stand within the general ontological order.  In this connection the various critics surveyed in the foregoing section seem to have gratuitously precluded the very ontological outlook in which the DDS is intended to make sense[7].

The second common presupposition amongst critics of the DDS is a Biblicist hermeneutical presupposition as expressed by Dr. John Feinberg’s denial of the DDS[8]:

Are the biblical writers really making a metaphysical point in these passages?  Furthermore, would not any passage that speaks of God as possessing attributes argue equally well for the position that God is not identical with his attributes?  Feinberg concludes that the biblical data “underdetermine the issue.”  Indeed, this lack of explicit biblical data for the DDS “should be disconcerting at the least, and a good argument against it at most[9][10].

Many of the same arguments Dr. Feinberg is using here to deny the DDS could also be used by Biblicists such as Jehovah’s Witnesses arguing against the doctrine of the Trinity because it is not explicitly stated in one passage, but is rather the result of observing the totality of the Witness of Scripture and then being able to see the logical connections.  These arguments are not novel; the same Biblicist approach was employed by Socinians to deny the Deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. We cannot reduce the doctrine of God to mere proof texting arguments, we have to look at Scripture in its totality and have a consistent hermeneutic that accounts for the passages and doesn’t undermine fundamental doctrinal presuppositions that we cannot deny such as the Creator-Creature distinction.  No one interprets the Bible with a blank slate, with absolutely no presuppositions, when we study the Doctrine of God or any doctrine of Scripture.  This requires us to carefully think through our presuppositions as we study the DDS.

IV. Conclusion

In conclusion we can see that disagreement over the DDS is a hermeneutical difference at the most foundational level.  We must be humble as we study the Doctrine of God since as finite creatures we can never fully grasp the totality of all that God is.  This should encourage us to worship God who defies our limited creaturely categories in all his Divine perfections.  The importance of the DDS and its practical implications will become clearer as we progress.  I have attempted to address some of the reasons why this doctrine is so crucial to an orthodox doctrine of God in this brief introduction and overview of chapter 1.  As Dr. Dolzeal stated in the 2015 SCRBPC when he was discussing the DDS, we can rest in the assurance that God is immutable since according to the DDS God is not made of parts, and therefore we don’t have a God who will fall apart on us in the midst of the trials that we face in life.  It is the greatest comfort for believers to have an immutable God that is a firm foundation, than a mutable God who changes due to circumstances and causes since a mutable God would give us no assurance and would be creaturely and not Self-Sufficient and Sovereign.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36, NASB).

[1] Dr. James Dolzeal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, Oregon; Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), xvii

[2] Ibid, 2

[3] Often referred to as person, but subsistence is more precise and avoids confusion of terminology by defining person in a creaturely way, which unravels the doctrine of God and the Trinity.  The 1689 LBC uses subsistence rather than person in Chapter 2.3.  I have discussed in more depth some of the issues regarding the use of person and why it is better to use subsistence in an earlier blog post on the Doctrine of the Trinity:

https://1689reformedbaptist.wordpress.com/category/english/attributes-of-god-doctrine-of-god/

 

[4] Owen, Vindicae: Evangelicae, XII:72, cited in Ibid, 9

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II: 176, cited in Ibid, 9

[6] Berkhouf, Systematic Theology, 62, cited in Ibid, 10

[7] Dr. James Dolzeal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, Oregon; Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 29

[8] I recommend Dr. Richard Barcellos’ excellent thorough study of reformed/confessional hermeneutics and critique of Biblicist hermeneutics, Dr. Richard Barcellos, The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology: Geerhardus Vos and John Owen Their Methods and Contributions to the Articulation of Redemptive History  (Owensboro, KY; RBAP, 2011)

[9] Feinberg, No One Like Him, 329

[10] Dr. James Dolzeal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, Oregon; Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 27