Just a note to announce I intend to interact with the presentation in Dr. James Dolezal’s books, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (2011) and All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (2017), especially by using the audio from his presentations on these topics to the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastor’s Conference in 2015. There is much to appreciate in Dr. Dolezal’s scholarship, and since the majority of those accusing me of “heterodoxy” these days (those are the generous ones) are using this material as their basis, it would be useful to engage it for a wider audience.
The issue is not strictly the doctrine of simplicity. I know few who would argue that God is actually “made up of” lesser constituent parts. The issue brings some very important concepts to light that, interestingly, are often the same issues we are addressing in the debate against Molinism. We are forced back to the 2nd century and the contrast between Justin Martyr and Tertullian and Theophilus. What truly does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? How does one maintain biblical supremacy as the source of divine truth and theology while bringing the gospel to the Greek speaking, and Greek philosophy filled world? These are not simple questions, to be sure, and we continue to wrestle with them today. Well, most of us do. Many have come to their own conclusions, and demand everyone else just get in line, at least in certain social media arenas anyway.
There are two issues: what is a biblical versus an Aristotelian doctrine of simplicity? That is, where do we pass out of the worldview of the prophets and Apostles and enter into that dominated by categories that derive from Aristotle’s mind? But immediately we will encounter those who say it is most proper to adopt Aristotle’s categories as long as we do so without violating the intent of the Scriptures. The sharp thinking person will recognize that this is a discussion that happens all across the spectrum. Think of arguments over the regulative principle of worship, for example. So the second issue is that of defining a meaningful doctrine of natural theology, and, of course, that is as controversial as can be in our day.
So, for those wondering what this controversy is about, who may have just gotten to the point of figuring out, sorta, was the truth value of a subjunctive conditional is supposed to be, this one can be summed up by the simple assertion, God’s essence and attributes are all one in Him. Now, that sounds fine and dandy: there is no disharmony in God, God is not the sum total of sub-concepts called attributes. We are all on the same page. But when you factor in Aristotle’s views and categories as tweaked and explicated by Aquinas, you end up, well, with this from Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology, 3.5:
Can the divine attributes be really distinguished from the divine essence? We deny against the Socinians
What are the divine attributes?
I. To understand the question certain things must be premised concerning the divine attributes. The divine attributes are the essential properties by which he makes himself known to us who are weak and those by which he is distinguished from creatures; or they are those which are attributed to him according to the measure of our conception in order to explain his nature.
II. Attributes are not ascribed to God properly as something superadded (epousiōdes) to his essence (something accidental to the subject), making it perfect and really distinct from himself; but improperly and transumptively inasmuch as they indicate perfections essential to the divine nature conceived by us as properties.
III. Although the several attributes represent the most fertile and simple nature of God, yet they can represent it only inadequately (i.e., not according to its total relation, but now under this perfection, then under another). For what we cannot take in by one adequate conception as being finite, we divide into various inadequate conceptions so as to obtain some knowledge of him (which is not a proof of error in the intellect, but only of imperfection). Thus omnipotence is the divine essence itself apprehended as free from every obstacle in acting; eternity is the essence of God as without limit in duration; and so of the rest.
IV. These inadequate conceptions of the essence of God are presented to us by a precisive abstraction (abstractionem praecisivam) or by a simple and negative precision (as I may think of goodness by not thinking of power); but not by an exclusive or privative precision (as, for example, I may assert him to be omnipotent who is neither merciful nor just).
Statement of the question.
V. The question concerning the divine attributes as distinct from the divine essence is agitated with us by the Socinians (who, the more easily to prove that the Holy Spirit is not God or a divine person—although he may be called a virtue of God—maintain that the attributes of God are really distinct from his essence). The orthodox teach that they are really the same with his essence, but are to be distinguished from it virtually and eminently.
VI. Those things are said to differ really which are distinguished as things diverse according to essence, whether they agree with the subject or not. But to be distinguished virtually is nothing else than either by virtue to contain distinct effects, or to have unitedly in themselves what are distinct in others, or to have an eminent virtue which can be the principal of diverse actions. Its foundation cannot be intrinsic, but extrinsic; not on the part of the principal or subject, but in relation to the end and object; on account of the diversity of operations and effects arising out of the properties and according to which diverse formal conceptions of them are formed.
VII. The attributes of God cannot really differ from his essence or from one another (as one thing from another) because God is most simple and perfect. Now a real distinction presupposes things diverse in essence which the highest simplicity rejects. Things really diverse can become one only by aggregation (which is opposed to absolute perfection). Again, if they differed really, the essence would be made perfect by something really distinct from itself and so could not be in itself most perfect. Third, it would follow that God is not therefore immutable because he would have in himself passive potency (the root of mutability) by which the attributes might either be elicited from the essence or added to it. But since God is the first and independent being (which is whatever can be) nothing can be added to or taken away from him.
VIII. Yet that the attributes of God differ both from his essence and mutually from one another is evident from the diversity of conceptions. For where there is ground for founding distinct formal conceptions of anything (although one and simple in itself considered), there we must necessarily grant virtual and eminent distinction. Since therefore in the most simple divine essence there is ground for forming diverse formal conceptions concerning the divine perfections (which is evident from their distinct definition and explanation), it is best to say that these attributes giving rise to such conceptions are virtually to be distinguished both from the essence and from each other.
IX. Although the attributes are essentially and intrinsically one in God, yet they may properly be said to be distinguished both intellectually (noēmatikōs) as to the diverse formal conception and objectively and effectively as to the various external objects and effects. Hence it is evident that this distinction is neither simply real between things and things, nor formal (which is only in our manner of conception), but eminent (which although it does not hold itself on the part of the thing as between thing and thing, yet has a foundation in the thing on account of the diversity of objects and effects).
Yes, Molinism almost seems less complicated. Turretin admits that, at least on our part, we really do properly distinguish between God’s wrath and God’s mercy, yet, if we are to be theologically precise, we must, at the same time, insist that wrath and mercy are one in God, lest, somehow, we deny simplicity. And standing behind all of that insistence is the influence of Aristotle, mediated by Aquinas, I assure you. Yes, even behind Turretin, bless his soul!
Now, briefly, a few thoughts suggest themselves. Would the Apostles of Jesus Christ agree with this formulation? How does one claim this is biblical teaching? Are we consistent in confessing sola scriptura if we insist that these conclusions must be confessed so as to be truly orthodox? And pastorally, if it is God’s desire to demonstrate and reveal Himself to His people, how does teaching those same people that God’s wrath and God’s mercy are “one in Him” assist in this task? Anyone can see that it is proper to say, “God’s wrath and God’s love are perfectly balanced in Him, are not constituent parts that, when added together, make Him God.” But what is accomplished by saying they are “one and the same in God” outside of saying “What God wants to show us about Himself isn’t really real in God, it’s just for our benefit”? We can easily say that “in God” (ad intra) these are all one, but to us, through revelation, they can be distinguished (ad extra). To which I reply, “So God is not able to make the distinction we do, or is the distinction we make, even in glorifying His mercy and fearing His wrath, substantially wrong?” And to borrow from Tertullian, “What does Aristotle have to do with Paul?”
As you can see, this topic is thick and challenging. Unfortunately, it is being presented in a very unfair and imbalanced fashion by some. It is not simply a matter of “us vs. them,” “truly orthodox vs. heterodox,” etc. You cannot toss everyone who does not drink deeply at the well of Aristotelian metaphysics into a big pile and call them “theistic personalists” or some other moniker, even though they differ wildly amongst themselves on key issues. How useful is a single pile of writers and theologians when they include those who confess the doctrine of simplicity (without the extremes demanded by Aristotle, or, in reality, by Thomas Aquinas) and those that directly deny it?
So all of that just to say, Lord willing, we will unpack this controversy as well as the Lord gives strength and health in the coming weeks.