“We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths,” says the Belgic Confession (1561), “that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God” (Article 1).

God is simple.

This is an important truth few Christians have thought about. By “simple” I don’t mean God is dim-witted. Nor do I mean that God is easy to understand. Simple, as a divine attribute, is the opposite of composite. The simplicity of God means God is not made up of goodness, mercy, justice, and power. He is goodness, mercy, justice, and power. Every attribute of God is identical with his essence.

So you cannot say love is more central to God than sovereignty, or vice-versa. Christians make this mistake all the time. You’ll hear people say, “God may have justice or wrath, but he is love.” The implication: love is more central to the nature of God. But God is a simple being, not a composite being. So he is righteousness in the same way he is love.

Herman Bavinck explains:

The simplicity is of great importance, nevertheless, for our understanding of God. It is not only taught in Scripture (where God is called “light,” “life,” and “love”) but also automatically follows from the idea of God and is necessarily implied in other attributes. Simplicity here is the antonym of “compounded.” If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of different 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. Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, 176.

In other words, the simplicity of God not only prevents us from ranking certain attributes higher than others, it allows God to have “a distinct and infinite life of his own within himself” (177). He is not an abstract Absolute Idea who happens to have love, wisdom, and holiness, as if we first conceive of a being called God and then relate qualities to him. Rather, God in his very essence, within himself and by himself, is love, wisdom, and holiness. God is whatever he has, for he has nothing that he is not.

So remember, “God is simple.” His attributes do not stick to him; he is what they are.

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20 thoughts on “The Simplicity of God”

  1. Out of interest, if you had been one of the men instructed, as Saul was, to “go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have, not to spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” – would you have done so, acting as an agent of God’s love? (And sovereignty, and grace, and justice, and holiness etc.)

    http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=1+samuel+15

  2. Sterling Heibeck says:

    This is very interesting and gives me some small insight into what God meant when he called himself “I am”. I never really understood that at all before. Thanks, Kevin!

  3. John Thomson says:

    Kevin

    What Scriptures would you turn to to back-up this assertion?

  4. Great post! Our Wednesday night class is focusing on the attributes of God and this post coincides with the most recent attribute, God’s immutability.

    Ed, good question, however it kinda straw-mans God into something He is not. In the aforementioned story of Saul, he was acting as an agent of God’s wrath and justice. Here’s a different angle to approach this issue: We, all humans, are guilty sinners before a holy God therefore deserving of death and more over an eternal punishment (lake of fire- see revelation and Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man for starters.); which Christ bore on the cross that we might be saved through Him. As an act of justice He judges sin and as an act of love He sent Christ to redeem those who He calls (Eph. 1-2) So, God can still love and act justly without compromising one or the other. He would cease being just to allow sin to go unpunished and even the world even recognizes this in that we have prisons and death penalties for murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. Does that make law-enforcement officials unloving? Certainly not! Many are great dads and moms, loving their children probably more than anyone. If a law is broke, than the law-breaker must pay a penalty. God too has laws and wrote all 10 of them down so we wouldn’t forget. If we break even one we are guilty of bearing His wrath (Romans 1:18). However, it is His grace to all humans, sinner and saved, that He allows us to live and breath and exist at all! Here’s a question to ask yourself, “Why hasn’t God incinerated me, yet, for sinning against Him?” Answer- grace, patience, love, mercy, salvation. Mt. 5:45, 2 Peter 3:10-15 Hope this helps spur you on toward truth. My own presuppositions and ignorance are my worst enemy. And if I serve a God (e.g.) god of love, not hate; god of mercy, not justice; etc.) other than the one revealed in scripture I am guilty of idolatry. So, truth is a valuable pursuit. God bless you in yours.

  5. CT says:

    Perhaps we should rather say, “God is homogeneous.” Or, more vividly: “God is like processed milk.”

  6. In answer to John’s question, these verses point to the unchanging nature of God, which, since God is described elsewhere as “holy, love, great, etc” signify that he is always like this:

    God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Numbers 23:19

    For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. Malachi 3:6

    Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8

    And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.
    1 Samuel 15:29

    You, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
    you are remembered throughout all generations.
    … Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
    They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end.
    Psalm 102:12, 25-27

    There are many more places, but the inference is clear from these texts.

  7. John Thomson says:

    Ed

    I am not at all sure that immutability implies simplicity. I am not opposed to simplicity, more a question of whether it is a theological construct that can be biblically ascertained.

    Sometimes I wonder whether we begin to assert philosophical notions about God as if they were theological truths. I confess I have not looked much at ‘simplicity’.

    I thought your earlier question was a good one. It is a concrete example of a more general question: are all God’s actions loving? They are certainly not all ‘loving’ towards those on the receiving end. Eternal judgement shows God’s love of justice and holiness but it is not an act of love towards the lost. All God’s acts are loving towards his people but not to those who are not his people.

    If love is sovereign, then he can choose to love or not love. How do these reflections fit in with simplicity?

  8. OK John – if the argument from immutability doesn’t do it for you, what about Deuteronomy 6:4? “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That seems to speak directly to the issue of simplicity, however you read it…

    I suspect that in fact, taken from God’s point of view, which I imagine to be the ultimate, and therefore correct point of view, all of God’s actions, including his destructive ones, are motivated by love, and to that extent are loving.

    Sometimes love has to make a difficult choice, choosing what is for the best, based on what is ultimately to be treasured and valued.

    A prosaic analogical example is fatherhood: do I chastise my son when he persistently crawls towards the fire? I do, because I love him. I hate to do it, and he hates me doing it, but I do, because I would not be loving if I let him wander into the coals. There, in the disciplining act of chastisement, I am protecting what I love. Scale up the analogy, and you arrive at God’s dilemma. He too must answer the question “how best do I love” with reference to the primary object of his love.

    Every Christian thinker that I’ve read from Augustine to C.S. Lewis has squared this circle by thinking in terms of sin as a volition away from God, since only what is good comes from God, and since deficient movement is voluntary on the part of God’s creatures.

    Thus, in Lewis’s parable about Hell – the Great Divorce – he thinks in terms of Hell as a kindness. A remark he made apropos this sums up his idea:

    There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your way.”

    Now, it is clear that love cannot allow to stand any affront or any injury to love, and righteous anger should be that expression of love which protects the object of its own love. To this extent I seem to be arguing in favour of your proposition that God’s acts are loving towards his people but not to those who are not his people, but in fact precisely this reasoning takes me away from that conclusion. It won’t do, by the way, to say:

    “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”

    – all that proves is that as part of God’s scheme, He has goodness purposed for the elect: not that He does not love those who are lost.

    In such an understanding, God’s very anger is the ultimate expression of his love. This love is not without object, where people are concerned, but since it is evident that God shows love towards all people, whether they are predestined one way or the other, we must account for the facts by seeking some other object of God’s love.

    God does show love to all: to all he gives life, and he makes the sun come up on the righteous and the unrighteous. In Him we live and move and have our being, righteous and unrighteous: if this is not the expression of love, then what is? So what is the ultimate and righteous object of God’s love?

    Before answering that, notice this: the bible has a very high view of Anger, of the slow burning, God-like kind. In fact, it even enjoins anger on people: “be angry and do not sin”. (If you look, you will see that the text is in the imperative voice in the original.) Understood this way, anger is a facet of love.

    Augustine thinks about the matter of evil in terms of spoiled goodness:
    “All good is from God. Hence there is no nature which is not from God. The movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and all defect comes from nothing. Once you have understood where it belongs, you will have no doubt that it does not belong to God. Because that defective movement is voluntary, it is placed within our power. If you fear it, all you have to do is simply not to will it. If you do not will it, it will not exist”.

    I conclude from the scripture that God’s natural knowledge is of his own glory and goodness. He knows this not intuitively, but naturally in Himself. That is, when the bible says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” it implies a different order of knowledge. William of Occam, the fourteenth century franciscan thinker, put it like this:

    “The knowledge of a simple thing is never sufficient cause for knowing another simple thing”

    – Now that’s true for us, but manifestly false for God, whose creative power speaks to its sufficiency to know (indeed – to create!) as many simple things as pleases Him.

    Now, since God is everything that is good, and since all good proceeds from Him, His true object of love must be Himself, since he knows his own Glory and goodness better than anyone created in his likeness can know it.

    What is more, part of that glory is His expansiveness: God wishes to include people in his glory, and so he made all of us: those He predestined to their own will, and those He predestined to join Him as His sons – the ignoble and the noble. (In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.)

    God has a power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. But consistently with his power, he loves, and will not force men to love Him – even though the good ordering of all things ensures that every knee will bow and every tongue confess etc.

    In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, so it pleased Him through the folly of what Christians preach to save those who believe. But to consider *people* the object of God’s ultimate love is to miss what we are: partakers of his goodness, but not causes of it. This, finally, is my answer to the question of sovereign love that you issue: that God’s love is sovereign, and consistent with its ultimate rule: a rule of expansive love.

    Again and again, the bible talks about God longing for his people: is there any complaint more terrible than this?

    How gladly would I treat you like sons
    and give you a desirable land,
    the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’
    I thought you would call me ‘Father’
    and not turn away from following me.

  9. John Thomson says:

    Ed

    Things I agree with here and like. But there are things too that beg questions.

    God is One is primarily a statement of monotheism. I agree of course there is internal unity and integration in God . I agree he is consistent in himself and in all he does. This does not mean that in everything he does all his attributes have equal ascendency (I am glad you recognise that in some sense in a fallen world there is conflict in God [that he is not impassive] since Scripture after Scripture in the OT tells us he does agonize over Israel as the divine lover. I do note that you allow God makes difficult choices. What makes these choices difficult? Surely it is,in some sense, conflicting emotions.)

    You are right to say that our knowledge is finite. It is for precisely this reason we must be careful we do not allow our finite reasoning to decide what God is like rather than what Scripture says.

    Show me a Scripture that describes hell as an act of God’s love. It is an act of his justice, even love of justice, but not of love towards the sinner.

    Interestingly J I Packer was the first person I read years ago who said all God’s actions to his people were loving but not necessarily all actions to the ungodly.

    Actually I find it mildly abhorrent to try to construe Hell as is an act of love. You may as well say hell is an act of divine mercy. Language begins to mean nothing. Mercy and wrath become the same thing. No, this is nonsense.

    I may in love discipline my son (as God does every son he loves) but I will not banish him as an act of love to eternal damnation. Moreover, those God so banishes are not his sons.

    God is good and God is love are not the same things. Moreover Scripture does not invite us to think of hell as an act of love (however much philosophers wish to try to make such a case) but as an act of justice and judgement.

    None of this is inconsistent with his love for God can choose not to love – that is precisely what the sovereignty you rightly claim for God insists upon; Jacob have I loved Esau have I hated, and again, those I called ‘loved’ I will call ‘not loved(Roms 9). In the final analysis hell is not an act of love but of withheld love. It is I say again wrath, not mercy, justice not grace; and in this God is sovereign.

    I simply say, don’t let theology trump Scripture.

  10. Hi John -

    I’m doing my best to prejudice scripture over theology…

    In fact, I precisely hoped not to construe Hell as an act of love, but as a consequence of love: an act consistent with a simple God. In this language we retain meaning: Hell is the most loving thing God can do for people whose ultimate genuine wish is to be without Him.

    Hell is terrible not because the good things of God have been withdrawn, but because the God of Goodness is beyond its gates, and has locked them. That is, where God is not, there is no goodness. There is nothing lovely in Hell, for God has not allowed or created any loveliness from that place, only destruction for both soul and body – unquenchable fire.

    The wonderful thing about God’s love is that it creates value. Human love usually merely seeks value in its object. (My daughter loves the ice cream man. In fact, she loves the ice cream…) Where God “hates” he literally withdraws love, which is to say, he removes value from what he rejects. But whatever value any creature had came from God in the first place, and returns to Him. (For from him and through him and to him are all things.)

    Mercy and wrath do not, therefore, become the same thing: but are two perspectives on one event, and two aspects of the Character precipitating the event.

    This is why I was careful to talk about God’s perspective, speaking about “God’s point of view”. I don’t have that, of course, and though I’m sure I have made mistakes, I’m not sure what they are (yet)…

    Take 2 Thessalonians, for example. In chapter 1, Paul describes how people who cause Christians to suffer will have their deeds repaid: the exactness of the justice is also a consequence of the choice made – it is vengeance on those who do not know righteous God and on those who do not obey the gospel: those who by their actions demonstrate their wish to be away from the presence of the Lord and from the Glory of his might, which is eternal destruction to them.

    1 Timothy 2: 3-4 speaks of God our Saviour, “who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”. This is ultimately loving. God looks for a way out of having to punish – which is loving, and is good. Interestingly, Paul’s reasoning is that praying for people is what pleases God, FOR THERE IS ONE GOD. In other words, His unity expresses itself in a desire for prayer for all people, and Paul says that godliness consists in faith, love and holiness with self-control. He considers God to be the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe.

  11. John Thomson says:

    Ed

    Thanks for taking the trouble to respond.

    John

  12. Cheers John. Power to the mighty Greenview elbow from sunny Lenzie.

  13. Good post. “Simplicity of God” helps me approch God, in his grace, so much more confidently. I find that this doctrine confronts my fears that God is something other that what he has stated in his word. It seems that hope is produced in my heart knowing God is Simple, such as it is understood in this post.

  14. Steve Arrick says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for this explanation of divine simplicity. I was finishing a family worship guide on this part of the Confession and your explanation was very helpful.

    In realty, there appears to be nothing simple about divine simplicity, but it is certainly an attribute (distinction) worth
    maintaining.

    Our God is “as advertised” and that is very good. He is not at all like us and not in the process of becoming. Praise God! He is THE ROCK.

    Steve Arrick, Pastor of Zeltenreich Reformed Church (URCNA), New Holland, PA.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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