Debating the Simple God



In the last few years, few issues have been more controversial among Reformed evangelicals than the debate over the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.[1] To the extent that God’s intra-triune life has been thought to be the foundation and model of inter-human relationships, many have perceived their various social programs (particularly in relation to the sexes) to be at stake, at times driving the debate’s resolution in a particular direction. One meta-issue continually at the forefront in the debate over eternal subordination concerns the traditional doctrine of God’s simplicity. In classical Christian theology, it is insisted that God is not composed of parts. The simple in divine simplicity is not simple as opposed to complex, but simple as opposed to composite. It is clear that, for instance, God is not a composition of soul and body. But from the classical theist perspective, the doctrine of divine simplicity goes further than this. God is also not composed of His attributes. They do not inhere in Him as accidental properties of a fundamental “God” substance. Rather, God’s existence is simply as His attributes, which simply are Him, and which (then) are to be seen as diverse ways of naming all that is in God. What is more, since there is only one God who just is (for instance) His own will, it is problematic—from a classical perspective—to speak of the Son as “submitting” to the Father in the intra-triune life from eternity past. It is difficult to see how this would not imply a multiplicity of wills of which God’s supposed “one will” is an amalgam.

Already, however, advocates of divine simplicity find themselves in the midst of exegetical and theological quandaries that need to be addressed. Most importantly, does this doctrine cohere with Scripture and its portrayal of God’s participation in human history, especially in the incarnation? And even more obviously, how does such a position cohere with the doctrine of the Trinity? If God is absolutely and essentially “one,” then in what way can we speak of the Father “not being” the Son, etc.? These twin concerns are perhaps the most common in Reformed evangelical circles. There are other concerns about the doctrine’s coherence and implications as such. For instance, if God’s will is essential to Him and God’s will has always been to create, does this mean that creation is somehow “necessary,” since God’s being is necessary? Presumably we’d want to avoid that conclusion—but it is difficult to see how we might on this view.
Controversy over the doctrine was ignited afresh with the publication of James Dolezal’s All That Is in God (2017).[2] Prominent theologian John Frame posted a several-part interaction with the volume on his website, making the case that Dolezal’s efforts privileged the categories of Greek philosophy over those of the Bible.[3] Lurking just beneath the surface of these different theological instincts are larger debates about the sources of theology, including the extent to which we can speak of a “natural theology,” but within the Reformed community (especially in America) this is itself often intertwined with radically different evaluations of the legacy of Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987). This is not to mention disagreement over even larger historical narratives concerning the continuity (or lack thereof) between the Reformed tradition and the Medieval church.

 

CORNELIUS VAN TIL

 

In light of this, this year’s themed editions of Ad Fontes seek to intervene into this conversation in a way continuous with last year’s broader treatment of Christianity and philosophy in general. Last year’s efforts, the results of which will be released in a book next month, seek to get at some of the issues of principle and method by means of which the particular issue in front of us might be negotiated.[4] But positive work is still very much in need of being done.
One would be forgiven, of course, for querying whether this is really the case. Much ink has been spilled on this doctrine, including recent historical, biblical, and systematic defenses.[5] Without a doubt, this work has been important. Our aim is to supplement such efforts by combining insights from several different disciplines in a single convenient place that gets at these issues from biblical, historical, systematic, philosophical, and pastoral theological perspectives. What is more, in each of these areas, we aim to extend the insights of our interlocutors by anticipating and addressing itches that many have not felt to be sufficiently scratched. In some cases, we will be covering well-trodden territory. In other cases, we hope to offer some fresh insight. Let us unpack some of the questions at stake.

Concerning the Bible, shouldn’t we take the plain language of Scripture over against our theological constructs? For instance, the Bible clearly speaks of different divine attributes, sometimes right next to one another. Does our doctrine of God risk retrofitting Scripture to fit our theology? What is more, isn’t the philosophical pedigree which would motivate us to do so one that comes from Parmenides and Plotinus rather than Peter and Paul? And would such philosophical categories even mean anything to Hebrews in the Ancient Near Eastern world? Apart from commitment to this philosophical construct, would we ever derive the doctrine from Scripture itself—even by good and necessary consequence—absent a pre-constructed, primarily Greek, philosophical construct? Does any biblical text actually prove it, or are we (at best) just demonstrating a “consistency” between the Bible and the doctrine? And if so, why should it be so central to Christian theology? But even beyond this, doesn’t simplicity stand in tension with the classical Christian doctrine of the Trinity? And for all that, is the doctrine even coherent? Can we avoid making creation necessary? Is it rationally necessary or only probable? Are good answers available for the many philosophical objections that have been thrown against it? And finally, how does this matter pastorally? Or even more urgently, is it harmful pastorally? Does it so qualify God’s being in His relationship to creation that we cannot take Scripture at face value and cannot know that any biblical portrayal of God is “true enough” to take comfort in it?

In the months to come and in the resultant volume to be published around this time next year, we hope to address all of these questions and more. We anticipate separate treatments of the Old and New Testaments, a treatment of the divine persons, several articles on the history, development, and diverse accounts of the doctrine within the classical theistic tradition, articles on its philosophical coherence and necessity, and articles on its relationship to other theological loci and its pastoral implications.

Our goal is not merely to defend the doctrine, but to appeal to and persuade the conscience of those who are reticent about it (as it stands in its traditional formulation). Of course, we will not persuade everyone, but we are confident that what we have to offer, in aggregate, ought to persuade our readers. The goal of this persuasion is not merely to resolve a point of technical, philosophical dispute. Rather, the goal is to cultivate the unity of the church in order that she might be aided in thinking clearly about God and the implications of the doctrine of God, and that she might be further united in common witness and worship.

Joseph Minich is the Editor-in-Chief for the Davenant Institute and a Ph.D candidate in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Dallas. He recently published Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism. More of his writing can be found at Mere Orthodoxy and The Calvinist International.

PHILOSOPHY AND THE CHRISTIAN

Notes

[1] On which, see the insightful commentary of Alastair Roberts, whose blog series is linked here:  “https://alastairadversaria.com/2017/06/26/the-eternal-subordination-of-the-son-controversy-11-concluding-reflections-part-2/.”

[2] I have reviewed the volume here, “https://calvinistinternational.com/2017/08/31/review-james-dolezals-god/.”

[3] See the helpful summary of Kyle Dillon, “https://allkirk.net/2017/12/01/roundup-on-the-frame-dolezal-dustup/.”

[4] See Joseph Minich, ed., Philosophy and the Christian: The Quest for Wisdom in the Light of Christ (Lincoln: The Davenant Institute, forthcoming).

[5] Of particular significance is James Dolezal, God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene: Pickwick, 2011), Steven Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2015), and Jordan Barrett, Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).