IIIM Magazine Online,Volume 4, Number 21, May 27 to June 3, 2002


An Analysis of the Very Complicated Doctrine of Divine Simplicity: Part 2 of 3

by Jules Grisham


During the Middle Ages, two extreme and opposed views arose with regard to the nature of God in his relation to the divine attributes: extreme (or hyper-) realism and nominalism. Hyper-realism represented an overemphasis on the Platonic element that was already pervasive in Christian philosophy since at least the time of Augustine. But whereas the great movement of thought from Plato through Plotinus to Augustine had seen the eternal Forms "brought under God's control," as it were, insofar as they had come to be understood as subsistences in the mind of God, and thus ultimately as contained within, and as expressive of, the divine mind; the hyper-realists on the other hand, in their overvaluation of the reality of these Forms, "re-liberated" them from their status as mere subsistences in God's mind and re-elevated them to eternal substances, i.e., to the status of really existing hypostatized essences. In other words, Christianity had already successfully incorporated Platonic thought to the extent that the Forms, or Ideas, had come to be seen to exist only in the mind; but the hyper-realists threatened to restore the entirely pre-Christian view by which these Forms could exist apart from and independent of the mind. Thus, for example, the attribute of goodness was transformed in their thinking from a property of God to an autonomous hypostatized existent. The danger in this trend was clear: if these eternal Ideas actually possessed autonomous existence (i.e., if they were not merely subsistences in the mind of God), then God himself, insofar as he partook of these Ideas, was rendered like the Greek gods, a composite being dependent upon more basic elements existing independently of himself.1

As a philosophical aside, the worldview of hyper-realism is rather interesting in that it so closely resembles that of modern materialist atomism, by which every thing in the world - that is, every physically existing entity – is seen to be composed of more basic building blocks of matter called atoms; except that hyper-realism adds the twist that the atomism in question is ideal rather than physical in nature. Thus we see in the hyper-realists a strain of what might be called ideal atomism, by which the world is seen to be composed of varying degrees and combinations of the ultimately basic building blocks, which are the Forms. Unfortunately for this view, insofar as it seeks to press its claim to being a Christian philosophy, it actually undermines the concept of a Sovereign God by rendering him a composite of more basic Forms – even though God might be said to possess these Forms in fullness. An example of ideal atomism may be apprehended if we consider a computer screen. While the computer is on, each pixel is a unit comprised of varying degrees of red, green, and blue. The analogy would be that each such pixel represents "particulars" – individual entities – which are composed of varying degrees and combinations of the Forms, or "universals" (such that we would substitute goodness, justice, knowledge, etc., for the red, green, and blue). Next, on that computer screen, for every pixel whose red, green, and blue content is maximized, that pixel will show up as white, the fullness of possible color shown by the screen. Thus can we think of the ideal atomists' God: he is fullness of color (white), when all the Forms are present in their maximum intensity. God is thus great. But he is a composite of more basic substances. This is fascinating to contemplate, but surely it does not conform to the God who reveals himself in Scripture.2

The other view, that of the nominalists, represented the opposed and opposite extreme. Whereas we have seen that the hyper-realists "held that general terms expressed not merely thought, or abstract conceptions in our minds, but real or substantive, objective existence, and [that] hence they were disposed to represent the divine attributes as differing from each other realiter, as one res or thing differs from another; the nominalists, on the other hand, said general terms are mere words answering to abstractions formed by the mind."3 Nominalists, in other words, held that in speaking of the variously defined and described attributes of God, theologians are in fact only using different words to speak of the one and same thing. Again, for clarification – whereas the hyper-realists had transformed the attribute of goodness from a subsistence existing in the mind of God to a substance existing autonomously of it, the nominalists went to the opposite extreme and denied the reality of goodness at all – whether as subsistence or as substance. The logic of nominalism declares a God with no attributes, and thus one with no nature; but a God with no nature is essentially unknowable, for there can be no characteristics expressed or revealed. Yet the nominalist must then also argue that our experience of God's seeming-multiplicity of attributes is merely a subjectivist illusion, describing not God as he is in himself but only our own experiences as finite creatures. Thus nominalism offers us an unknowable God to whom we respond on the basis of feelings and intuitions. (And we see in this the clear connection, the straight path from Occam's nominalism to Schliermacher's liberalism.)

Ronald Nash provides a good outline of the basic nominalist argument, as follows:

  1. Universals [i.e., "goodness"] do not exist.
  2. Therefore, properties (a species of universals) do not exist.
  3. Therefore, God does not have any properties; God has no nature.
  4. Therefore, words that apparently refer to divine attributes cannot possibly denote distinguishable properties within the divine essence. There are no properties of God to which they can refer.
  5. Since words referring to divine attributes all have the same referent (nothing), all of God's attribute-words mean the same thing.
  6. Thus, absolutely no differences exist between the various attributes of God.
  7. Thus, God's omniscience is identical with his omnipotence, which is identical with his goodness, and so on.4

With regard to nominalism, Charles Hodge notes that Lutheran and Reformed theologians have traditionally leaned heavily in that direction, to the effect that they have tended to emphasize, say, the logical precedence of the unity and simplicity of the divine essence over all other criteria of multiplicity. Hodge points out that the illustration which they usually employed to explain this view was drawn from the sun, by which God's "ray, by one and the same power (as was then assumed) illuminates, warms, and produces chemical changes, not from any diversity in it, but from diversity in the nature of the objects in which it operates. The force is the same; the effects are different." But he then goes on to point out the dangers of such a leaning, writing that "to say, as the schoolmen, and even as so many Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God."5 Indeed, this is a path that leads directly to subjectivism, and to the replacement of Scripture-based theology with existentially oriented emotional responses to an unknown God. Surely such an outlook does not conform to the God who reveals himself in Scripture.

In summary, then, we have seen two errors with regard to the question of God's attributes, opposed to one another and on opposite sides, yet both tending away from a truly Christian theism. The error of the hyper-realists was in dividing the substance of God and thinking of him as being composed of parts; while the error of the nominalists was to confuse the attributes and obliterate all distinctions between the divine attributes.6 Thus, it was to counteract, balance, and re-center this issue of the relationship of the attributes to God that the doctrine of simplicity was formulated in its medieval, scholastic context; and because, therefore, it was elaborated against the backdrop of erroneous doctrines, we have referred to this as the "negative basis" of its formulation. Again, with one faction pressing the case that God's nature is a composite of more basic substances and another arguing that God has no nature, but that our experience of such things as attributes are ultimately on account of our subjective finitude, the doctrine of simplicity arose as a median approach between these two erroneous extremes, according to which God does indeed have a nature, but it is at the same time non-composite. As we shall see, this emphasis on divine simplicity could be understood as the key to the entire Thomist system. First, however, we will turn to a modern, positive (that is, not arising in opposition to error, but on account of its own merits) basis for the formulating and retaining of the doctrine of simplicity, as it is expressed in the thought of Alvin Plantinga.


Plato, in his Euthyphro, posed the question of whether piety is what it is because the gods declare it to be so, or whether the gods command piety because of piety's intrinsic nature, quite apart from their own say in the matter. In other words, is piety merely an arbitrary ordinance of the gods, or are the gods not even themselves able to control the nature of piety?7 If we substitute the attribute of goodness for the concept of piety, its significance to our discussion becomes instantly evident: Is goodness good because God says it is? Or is God good because he conforms to goodness? What is the relationship of God to his nature?

Alvin Plantinga has recently reworked some of the issues raised by this "Euthyphro Problem," and in doing so has shown another reason for the doctrine of simplicity's formulation. In his book, Does God Have a Nature? , he presents the case as follows:8 First, let us suppose that God possesses a given property (following our example, we will assume "goodness"). Now, either this property (goodness) "depends upon" God or it does not. If it does "depend upon" God, then would seem necessarily to entail the fact that God is logically prior to goodness. Put another way, it would mean that God existed before goodness existed; or again, that God created goodness. But here, Plantinga points out, we run into a problem, which is that if God's existence preceded his goodness, this seems necessarily to entail a time before goodness was, when God was thus not good. (Note that this conforms to the "goodness is good because God says it is" side of the Euthyphro dilemma.)

The problem, of course, is that it cannot be the case that God has ever been anything but good, because goodness is a divine attribute of his eternal nature, an essential property in the absence of which God would not be God. So it would seem that goodness couldn't be said to "depend upon" God, at least according to this line of thinking (though, as we shall see, this is exactly the position we will take, for there are cogent arguments in favor of it.)

Next, if we should now hold that goodness does not "depend upon" God, we would find ourselves on the opposite side of the Euthyphro dilemma, by which "God is good because he conforms to goodness." But this has landed us back in hyper-realism! Now God must be seen as in some sense "depending upon" his properties. "His existence seems conditioned or limited in some sense by his properties," Nash writes. "God could not be good unless goodness existed." In short, "that God has an essential property like goodness is beyond his control."9

At this point Plantinga raises an even more significant problem, to which we shall refer henceforth as the "Nature/Sovereignty Problem," by which we come to realize that the very assignation of a nature to God – of any sort or degree – seems to limit him, to bound him as something-definite (say, goodness) and not therefore as something-else. In this regard, he cannot be said truly to be sovereign, in the sense of being free to transcend the boundary or limitation imposed by his own nature. Thus the prospect of a divine nature seems to conflict with – in that it curtails and limits – divine sovereignty. Moreover, this seems to be a necessary conflict; nature by definition applies definition, describing and declaring what some essence is, but in doing so also declaring everything it is not. (Here we see the operation of the law of non-contradiction and its corollary, the principle of the excluded middle.) This imposition of necessary limits might well be seen as a limitation on God's absolute sovereignty. For example, "goodness," however we define it, will possess a set of characteristics that are "beyond God's control… [such that] nothing God can do can make goodness other than what it is."10 Nash then continues this line of thought:

As we have seen, if God has even one property, that property must have some kind of existence independent of God. Even the character of that property is independent of God. And, finally, there is a sense in which God's very existence depends upon his properties. Both the existence and the character of God's essential properties are, as Plantinga puts it, "necessary conditions of God's being the way he is."11

So it would seem at this point in our study of divine simplicity that divine sovereignty and divine nature are necessarily in some degree of conflict. It seems that we can have either a sovereign God with no nature (who is thus unknowable, and thus unbiblical), or a God whose nature is real and knowable, but who is thus somehow less than sovereign (and thus unbiblical)!

1. Nash, Concept of God, 87.

2. This notion of "ideal atomism" and its "RGB" analogy came to me during my interactions with the material in Ronald Nash's book, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).

3. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology in Three Volumes, vol. I. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 369.

4. Nash, Concept of God, 88-89.

5. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 369. For a contemporary example of heavily-nominalist leaning thinking from the Lutheran camp, see Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. I (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 428-30: "Objectively, that is, in God, essence and attributes are absolutely identical… Since finite human reason cannot comprehend 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." And a little further on: "Though in reality these perfections, or attributes, are not accidents nor in reality different from the divine essence, they are nevertheless distinguished from the divine essence and likewise from one another, because our finite and imperfect reason cannot comprehend the infinite perfection in God… On the one hand, God designates himself as the infinite, indivisible God, and on the other hand, the indivisible God divides himself, as it were, into parts."

6. Nash, Concept of God, 91.

7. The formulation of this issue is taken from Frame, Doctrine of God, 373.

8. The following summary of Plantinga's argument is taken from Nash, Concept of God, 91-92.

9. Ibid., 91-92.

10. Ibid., 92.

11. Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), 7, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 92.