[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Simplicity in Scripture

Fred Sanders on September 15th, 2016.

Fred Sanders

Fred Sanders is Professor of Theology at Biola University's Torrey Honors Institute. He has an MDiv from Asbury Theological Seminary and PhD from Graduate Theological Union. He is the co-editor of Christology, Ancient and Modern and Advancing Trinitarian Theology, and author of The Triune God. His new online course on the doctrine of the Trinity is also now available.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church. For introduction to the series, see this first post.

Moses from Getty german manuscript                 Moses in danger of being distracted by the manifold manifestations of God.

The unity of God is a basic datum of Scripture, and it is something easily unpacked in terms like uniqueness, singularity, and indivisibility. But the doctrine of divine simplicity seems to take a further step. Though it is a doctrine classically confessed by pro-Nicene theologies East and West, simplicity is a much more particular claim. Denying composition in God, simplicity requires us to confess at least that God is not different than his own perfections (he is good with goodness that is himself, as Augustine says) or that God’s essence and existence are identical. In any of its forms, it seems too philosophical to be the kind of doctrine we could expect to find stated explicitly in Scripture. Furthermore, at first blush it seems to move in the opposite direction from the doctrine of the Trinity: simplicity radicalizes oneness where trinitarianism extends to threeness.

But the biblical revelation’s way of leading us to the confession of divine simplicity is precisely the same way that leads us to the confession of the Trinity. It was the path followed by the church fathers, and it remains open to us today as we contemplate God through his self-revelation.

Just as sculptors have additive and subtractive processes, theology has expansive and contracting moments. In one sculptural medium, the whole art form is about adding material to a framework, expanding and developing the shape by piling on more wax, clay, or components. But another sculptural medium is all about strategically removing all the right parts, carving away wood or chipping away stone to bring out a form. And many sculptures require both: a phase of additive expansion followed by a phase of subtractive carving. Consider topiary art, or a trimmed hedge: the plant has to grow out before it can be trimmed back. The analogy is rough enough, but the doctrine of divine simplicity is the result of an additive and subtractive process in theological reasoning, and in God’s own self-presentation in Scripture.

It is fundamentally a cumulating doctrine, which begins with an initial statement of divine identity and then proceeds through an expansive elaboration of that identity, finally recapitulating the initial identity by means of a statement that explicitly includes the gathered fullness but finds conceptual resources to insist that the identity has not changed. We know that God is one, and as theological reasoning proceeds we find that this God has one perfection after another which is named and described. As these perfections accumulate conceptually, we eventually find that we need to specify that these attributes do not complexify God, but are each considerations of his oneness. This is necessary because, as Bavinck says, “simplicity speaks of the absolute fullness of life” of God; it is not a doctrine about what is absent from God (distinctions) but a doctrine about what is present: the fullness of one perfect life. The doctrine of divine simplicity functions to comprehend multiplicity and account for it, in a way that an initial statement of divine unity did not yet have to do. Initial oneness proceeds to final oneness which is understood as a richer and fuller insight into that oneness.

In Exodus 34:6-7, God identifies himself partly by reciting some of his perfections serially, making something of a list. The list seems to be an explication of his own revealed name, YHWH. Indeed, that name is repeated twice (“The LORD, the LORD”) before opening up to a series of the perfections of God’s character (“a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”), followed by the characteristic actions he takes based on who he is (“keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”), but concluding with a counter-balancing statement of God’s abiding righteousness (“but who will by no means clear the guilty”).

This self-declaration takes place in a story that is equally loaded with significance for God’s simplicity. After Moses asks to see God’s glory, the Lord promises to make his goodness pass before Moses, and to cover him with his hand until he passes by. Thus Moses sees the Lord’s back, but not his face. In the one God’s self-manifestation to Moses, we have a striking proliferation of terms: glory, goodness, hand, back, face. None of these things are each other, yet none of them are other than the Lord himself.[1]

We know that this God is one, and therefore that all of those accumulated names, perfections, and actions are going on in the one comprehensively simple LORD. God is still one, but now it makes sense to say that the way he is one is by having the fullness of the perfections in simplicity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is likewise a cumulating doctrine about the one God. It functions the same way, beginning with the God who created the heavens and the earth, then following through, in the light of Jesus Christ, to the Word who was with God and was God already before the creation of the heaven and the earth, and finally including the Spirit, Lord and giver of life. At the far end of biblical revelation, God is still one. But now it makes sense to say that he is one as having the fullness of divine life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Irenaeus of Lyons made much of this argument, confronted as he was with Gnostic ways of reading the divine names and attributes partitively. His insistence on the unity of God was an insistence that the same God was the maker and the redeemer; that the same God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is no accident that he based this argument on the unity of the Old and New Testaments, because the complex oneness of the canon harmonizes with the simple oneness of the triune God. We might even say that the unity of the Old and New Testaments is itself the dogmatic foundation of the simplicity of the triune God.

If we compare the expansive and contracting moments in this theological meditation to the additive and subtractive modes of sculpture, it is not to give the impression that doctrines as venerable as simplicity and triunity are a matter of tinkering, ingenuity, or trial and error. Confessing that the triune God is simple is anything but a tidy affair dictated by principles of conceptual craftsmanship. It is a matter of scrambling to catch up with what God has disclosed, and praising it adequately. If it is to be compared to a sculpture, perhaps the right one is the shape that Annie Dillard reported in her poem “Tickets for a Prayer Wheel”:

My sister
dreamed of a sculpture
showing the form of God.
He has no edges,
and the holes in him spin.

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Fred Sanders (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Author of numerous books on Trinitarian theology, he has most recently written The Triune God in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

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Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

[1] For this pointed exposition of Exodus I am indebted to Jordan Barrett’s forthcoming study Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account (Fortress Press).

image credit: fragment of Moses and the Ark of the Covenant, about 1400 – 1410, Tempera colors, gold, silver paint, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 33.5 x 23.5 cm (13 3/16 x 9 1/4 in.); The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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