January 5, 2006

A Meditation on Divine Simplicity: Sam Storms on God as a Perfect Living Unity

Dr. C. Samuel Storms, in his book The Grandeur of God, discusses the relationship between God's essence and his attributes, or the issue of Divine simplicity. This is a profound subject, but he manages to navigate through it carefully. In the section called A Perfect Living Unity, he writes:
In the interests of what has been called the "simplicity" of God, theologians have been careful not to sever God's essence and attributes such that He might be thought of as a complex being. That is to say, God is not compounded of parts or a mere collection of elements, as if His attributes are but faculties or qualities pieced together to constitute a multifaceted whole. He is rather a living unity characterized by all His perfections. The notion of God's simplicity has prompted not a few to speak of essence and attributes as in some sense identical. Herman Bavinck argued that "every attribute is identical with God's being. He is what has has."

More recently, Carl Henry has echoed Bavinck's perspective: "The divine essence is not to be differentiated from the divine attributes, but is constituted by them; the attributes define the essence more precisely."

Again, Henry writes: "God's being is not the bearer of the divine attributes; rather, God's essence and attributes are identical....God is, in short, the living unity of his attributes." Therefore, each attribute is consistent with the others. No attribute or perfection is inferior or superior to another. All attributes are equally ultimate. God is not more holy than He is omniscient. Neither is He more loving than He is sovereign (contrary to much contemporary evangelical thought). Consequently, we should not exalt one attribute to the exclusion or subordination of another, but rather the one God in the unity of all His perfections.

This identity of essence and attribute, however, does not mean that the latter are but our subjective projections into God as a consequence of how we experience Him. The Lutheran Francis Pieper, like Bavinck and Henry, argued that in God essence and attribute are not separate but "absolutely identical." But unlike them he appears to deny that God's attributes are objective and real. Since human reason cannot comprehend God as the infinite and absolute simplex, "God condescends to our weakness and in His Word divides Himself, as it were, into a number of attributes which our faith can grasp and to which it can cling."

However, although Bavinck, Henry, and others like them insist upon an objective reality to the divine attributes, certain of their statements compromise that claim. For example, Bavinck contends that "one and the same thing is said whether it be stated that God is eternal or that he is immortal or good or just." Likewise, Henry writes: "God's wisdom is his omnipotence, God's omnipotence is his justice, God's justice is his love, and so on."

But if there is no genuine differentiation between the attribute of omnipotence and the attribute of justice, neither is there between God's love and His wrath. But if that be true, I have no certain assurance that what the Bible says is God's love for me is not, in fact, His wrath. It simply cannot be that God's love and wrath are identical. If they were, heaven and hell would be one and the same experience and we should have no preference for one above the other! Whereas it is true that because God loved us in Christ He caused His Son to endure that divine wrath which we deserved, that is not to say that God's love is His wrath. Likewise, using Henry's own example, whereas God's wisdom is compatible with His omnipotence, and His omnipotence always used wisely in the accomplishment of His purposes, wisdom and omnipotence are not identical in God's being.

It would appear, then, that out of a desire not to sever God's attributes from His essence has come a tendency to deny any genuine difference among the attributes themselves. We are, therefore, confronted with a need to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, we must not represent God as complex, as if to say His attributes are appendages of His being. They are co-ultimately the qualities or perfections which constitute what He is. On the other hand, we must not permit the simplicity of God's being to negate all distinguishable differences among the many attributes.

Would it not be preferable to say that God's attributes are the divine nature itself in its many and varied relations? For example, when the Divine Being is conceived in relation to time, He is eternal, or the attribute of eternity is manifest. When the Deity is to us in our sin the source of unmerited salvific favor, we may say that He is gracious, or that the attribute of grace is manifest. When He is or acts in relation to space, we speak of Him as omnipresent, and so on. It would be misleading, on the other hand, to say that in His relation to space God is omnipotent, or in relation to us in our sin He is eternal. But if God's attributes are identical, this is precisely what one must say. Yet, what could these assertions possibly mean? Then, again, it may be that what Bavinck and Henry mean to say is something to the effect that it is the omnipotent, omniscient, wrathful God who loves, and it is the wise, omnipresent, jealous God who is gracious, and so on. If this be the case, no objection is forthcoming. But to say that omnipotence is love or that wrath is grace is at best confusing, at worst theologically destructive.

Having briefly considered this problem of the relation between essence and attribute, as well as the distinctions among the attributes (when properly defined), we may have here encountered precisely that limit noted earlier beyond which the finite cannot fathom the infinite. Ronald Nash has recently concluded that the notion of divine simplicity should simply be rejected as incoherent and of no practical value in deepening our understanding of the being of God. This does not mean that we can no longer speak of God's essence and attributes. It is rather a sense that the discussion concerning them in their mutual relations has reached something of a theological impasse. I, for one, am not ashamed to say that I have no wholly satisfactory solution to the problem.
C. Samuel Storms, The Grandeur of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 36-39.

1 comment:

Steve Costley said...

Excellent post, Tony. As you know, I have long felt antipathy to the idea of absolute simplicity. I do not believe it makes sense to speak of God in that way. Interesting that Nash would reject it, and I am inclined to agree with him. Regarding Henry, he wrote in a different day. Perhaps if he were writing to reformed evangelical churches today he might also say that God is not more sovereign than he is more loving.