IIIM Magazine Online,Volume 4, Number 22, June 3 to June 9, 2002


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

by Jules Grisham


Historically speaking, the challenge to authentic Christian theism posed by the erroneous notions of the hyper-realists and their opposed counterparts, the nominalists, provided a sort of negative trigger for the formulation of Scholastic (i.e., Thomistic) simplicity. But doctrinally speaking, we can understand the issue more clearly if we examine it from the vantage point of simplicity's positive formulation, as an attempt to answer the issues inhering in the two besetting problems that we inherited from the last section — these being the Euthyphro Problem and the Nature/Sovereignty Problem. Four responses to these problems have been advanced over the years, including: the Cartesian solution (emphasizing the supremacy of the will), the contemporary nominalist solution (emphasizing the non-existence of the attributes), the Thomist solution (emphasizing the doctrine of simplicity in its strong form), and the Augustinian solution (emphasizing a modified form of simplicity).

Recall that in the context of the Euthyphro Problem we put the dilemma of the relationship of God to his nature as follows: Is goodness good because God says it is? Or is God good because he conforms to goodness? Descartes broke the dilemma by coming down strongly on the side of the former, holding that goodness is good because God says it is. Goodness is goodness because God made it so, and God is good because he has willed to so limit, bound, describe, and reveal himself. Descartes advocated the total sovereignty of God's will, such that God is wholly unbound by any essentially constraining nature. In this way, he also answered the Nature/Sovereignty Problem, basically by denying the essentiality of nature (that is, of any given complex of attributes).

Now, while the Cartesian solution does solve both of the problems about which we've been speaking, yet it does so at a great price. Descartes' God emerges as the terrifying prospect of an all-powerful and all-arbitrary deity, lacking in any constraining nature onto which we humans can grasp or (importantly, from a biblical perspective) "image." There are no essential properties limiting such a God in any way, and as a consequence, he controls every proposition, and every property that is the predicate of a proposition. In response, Plantinga declares Descartes' view to be "wildly counterintuitive."1 And against it, Nash points out that God must have at least one essential property, which is that of "not knowing that he does not exist."2 As a consequence of God's possessing this necessarily essential attribute, Nash reasons, he must therefore be said to possess a nature, with all that that entails in terms of necessary limitation. Thus the Cartesian solution is shown to be inadequate.

Contemporary nominalists have formulated another solution to the Euthyphro and Nature/Sovereignty Problems. Like their medieval forerunners, they deny the reality of distinct essential properties existing in the Godhead. In arguing thus they effectively bypass both problems; denying the reality of distinct attributes (the Euthyphro problem is declared meaningless, because the key content of the supposed dilemma (goodness) is held not to exist, whether as substance or subsistence), entails necessarily the denying of a divine nature (the Nature/Sovereignty Problem is solved by default: there is no nature, so God is totally sovereign). The apprehension of such divine attributes as goodness becomes a matter of human subjectivity and finitude, a seeing in part aspects of that which no composite creature can comprehend in its infinite unity. Yet the nominalists would argue that this is not to deny God's goodness. God is good, they would affirm, as a statement of fact, as a matter of truth; but this truth does not thereby necessitate that God "has" some essential, really distinct property of "goodness."

Against this position, Plantinga argues that the truth structure of propositions is necessarily true, and that this truth is not within God's control. In other words, if there are necessary truths, and there are (indeed there simply must be, and we know it), then these are outside God's control in their very necessity. Thus, we are again confronted by the "problem" of God's limitation.3 Thinking they had avoided the issue entirely by voiding it — i.e., by declaring the attributes non-existent — the nominalists find themselves after all confronted with the same issues, by which there are necessary properties not in God's control. Thus the nominalist solution is shown to be inadequate.

The third solution to these problems was formulated as we have already mentioned by Thomas Aquinas, who sought to resolve the Euthyphro Problem by arguing for the identification of God and goodness, and more generally, of God and his attributes. In other words, the Thomistic answer to the question of which came first, God or goodness, is both. For God is goodness. Goodness is good because God is good; goodness is what God is. Thus the Euthyphro Problem is resolved by positing an eternal nature that is eternally identified with God. According to Nash, "Aquinas sought to preserve both beliefs — that God has a nature and that God is sovereign. To this end he argued that God is identical with his nature. In God, essence and attribute are identical."4 God does not have goodness; he is goodness. Thus is God said to be simple.

At this point, we have the expression of the mild form of divine simplicity, which is wholly in accord with the God who reveals himself in Scripture. However, we are still confronted with the Nature/Sovereignty Problem. Indeed, now that we've posited an eternal identity between God and his nature, we have clarified the problem and made it even more acute than before. If God is eternally identical with his nature, then God is thus eternally limited, and is therefore eternally less than sovereign. In addressing this issue, Aquinas shifts gears, as it were, and we enter into the strong form of divine simplicity. As we shall see, this strong form of simplicity is coherent within — and indeed, is key to the coherence of — the Thomistic system, predicated as it is upon the ultimate principle that God is Being,5 that his essence is existence itself, that he is Actus purus (pure Act), without any passive potency to become, for he lacks no perfection. Since God's perfection is held to be such that it "is" without ever "becoming," God never changes. He can never lose any part of his perfection, nor can it be added to; thus, God has no parts, in the sense of autonomous, distinct, separable components of his being which might render him composite. Rather, God is non-composite, characterized by simplicity. And with regard to simplicity, Nash speaks of the centrality of this attribute, pointing out that:

Simplicity may be the key to the Thomistic package since so much seems to follow from its attribution to God. If a being is simple, then it has no parts. If a being has no parts, then it cannot change (since there is nothing for it to lose or gain). If a thing cannot change (is immutable), then it must be pure actuality in the sense that it cannot possess any potentiality. ‘Before' and ‘after' would be inapplicable to such a being, a point which entails that any simple being must also be timeless." 6

Viewed from the vantage point of the Thomistic system itself, the whole package can be seen to possess a remarkable, almost dazzling, coherence. And simplicity fits well into its key position, being discussed immediately after Actus purus itself in the Summa Theologiae.7 Moreover, Thomas seems to have resolved the Nature/Sovereignty problem by so redefining God's nature, according to so simple, so purely existent an essence, as to allow for God's perfect sovereignty to operate in his very Act of Being, which is the perfect expression of his nature. Surely, we must confess that this would seem to be a brilliant solution!

However, we must continue to ask whether the God presented in this or in any such philosophical system really conforms to the biblical pattern of his own revealing. By this standard, the Thomistic package fails. It elaborates a God along the philosophical model so "simple" (he is pure Act, undifferentiated essence, One) that the ultimately crucial Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are rendered problematic. This too-great emphasis upon simplicity appears in Aquinas' obliteration of all real distinction between the attributes, which is the logical end of declaring the wholesale identification of God's attributes with God himself. We end up with a doctrine of simplicity so relentless in its application that we come disturbingly close to the position of the nominalists, who denied all real distinctions in the Godhead and who declared all experience of God's multiplicity to be merely subjective effects arising from human finitude.8 Aquinas adopts these positions, and at the last, distinguishes himself from the nominalists only in asserting that God does have a nature, period. Here is Frederick Copleston on this subject:

Apart from the fact that the very structure of our language compels us to speak in terms of subject and predicate, we apprehend the divine perfection piecemeal, as it were. We attain our natural knowledge of God only by considerations of creatures, God's effects, and since the perfections of creatures, the manifestations or reflections of God in creatures are different, we use different names to signify those different perfections. But if we could comprehend the divine essence as it is in itself and if we could give it its proper name, we should use one alone…. In God there is no distinction between essence and existence; he does not receive his existence, but is his existence; his essence is to exist… God is goodness, for example, and his goodness is identical with his essence, but goodness, in our human experience, follows on and accompanies esse; though not really distinct, it is conceived as secondary.9

There are two major problems with this Thomistic formulation of the doctrine of simplicity. The first of these problems involves a matter of logic, by which, as we have seen, in equating God with each and every one of his essential properties, we are forced to hold that, in an ultimate sense, God has only one property. In other words, despite Aquinas' care to protect the reality of God's nature from the nominalists who would deny it entirely, his nature is made so empty of content (or at least of knowable content), that the entire construction collapses back upon itself, into the primordial One of Neo-Platonism and nominalism, unknowable except by existential, emotional subjectivity. Against this view of God's complete identity with his properties, Plantinga points out that:

If God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property — a self-exemplifying property. Accordingly God has just one property: himself. This view is subject to a difficulty both obvious and overwhelming. No property could have created the world; no property could be omniscient, or, indeed, now anything at all. If God is a property, then he isn't a person but a mere abstract object; he has no knowledge, awareness, power, love, or life. So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake.10

The second problem has to do, as we have mentioned in passing, with the matter of Scripture, according to which the Thomistic formulation of simplicity seems powerfully to conflict with the biblical revelation of God as a person. Aquinas' unquestioned assumption in the elaboration of his system, the peg upon which his entire system hangs, is his grounding God's unity upon the impersonal perfection of Being, rather than upon the personal perfection of his eternally triune relationalism, which would arise from a more biblically-derived philosophy. Here is a quote from John Frame on this subject:

[Aquinas'] is essentially the Plotinian neo-Platonic view, in which the best name of God is "One." Even that name is inadequate, since God is utterly beyond the descriptive power of human language. But "One" is the best we can do, since unity is prior to multiplicity and more noble than multiplicity…. [But] a biblical trinitarian cannot argue, for example, that in every respect unity is prior to multiplicity. Nor can he argue that diversity in God is only apparent, only a diversity within our own minds. In Scripture… God is one and many, and the balance of unity and diversity in God insures the balance and diversity within the created world. [Aquinas'] analysis of the Trinity in terms of subsistent relations, however, plays down the distinctions between the trinitarian persons… [For Thomists], simplicity pertains not to the three persons, but to the divine nature which they all share. But are not the persons themselves essential to God's being, just as essential as any attribute?… Certainly it is true to say that God's being is triune.11

In sum, as with both the Cartesian and Nominalist solutions, Thomistic simplicity seemed at first to answer our twin problems (re: Euthyprho and Nature/Sovereignty), but the price was the loss of the God of the Bible, surely too high a price to pay for adopting a presumably Christian philosophy! Instead of the personal God of the Bible whose nature is known on the basis of objective revelation, we are given an impersonal God, Being, whose nature is really unknown,12 and about whom what is experienced is not real but a matter of subjective reinterpretation and experience. To which we might reasonably say, "No thank you, Doctor Aquinas."

And so we come at last to the fourth solution that has been advanced to answer our problems while yet remaining in accord with the pattern and emphasis of Scripture. This solution involves a sort of stepping backward from the Thomistic position, into a modified version of that held by Augustine. According to this view, God does have a nature, but he is neither wholly identical with his nature nor are his attributes identical with one another. This is a mild statement of the doctrine of simplicity, according to which while God is non-composite (in the sense of possessing separable parts), yet distinctions are still permitted. This entails a return to Augustine's understanding of the Forms (or Ideas, or rationes aeternae) as being eternally subsisting in the mind of God. Rather than seeking to reduce everything to an absolute singularity, we are free in this view to apprehend God's unity (his personhood, his mind which contains the rationes aeternae), even as we can contemplate the real distinctions of the subsisting Ideas. Indeed, in his presentation of this view, Nash goes further, drawing up an entire list of abstract objects which can be held also to exist eternally and necessarily (including properties, relations, propositions, states of affairs, and numbers).13 Thus, the unity and multiplicity in and of God is resolved in arguing for his unity of essence, his unity of personhood (in its triune relationality), and his unity of mind; yet apprehending and allowing for the multiplicity in his persons, as well as for his attributes and Ideas, which subsist in the mind of God. Thus, returning to Plantinga's statement of the Euthyphro problem, now we see how "such entities exist eternally and [at the same time] depend upon God for their existence. Thus it is not that God created the numbers, but we might think rather that he eternally affirms their necessary existence14." In short, goodness is good because God affirms it to be so.

At this point we might ask, however, whether we have really resolved our problems. We have asserted that goodness "depends upon" God, who "holds it in his mind," as it were, who "affirms it," "believes it," "knows it." But then, surely, one might posit that at some point there was a time when goodness might not have been in his mind. But this option is foreclosed by the eternal nature of these rationes aeternae present in the mind of God. They are dependent on God — i.e., they have their subsistence in his mind — yet they are also stable forms, patterns, archetypes, which are eternally present in and to the divine mind.

But surely, one might persist, dependence implies some point of origin at which God is prior to his attributes. And to this we must answer yes. But it doesn't matter. That is to say, in the mathematics of infinities, there is no "infinity + 1." The infinity of even numbers is equal to the infinity of integers, even though this might seem at first glance counterintuitive. Thus we have a pattern emerging out of infinity, by which God and his attributes are always together, the latter ever dependent upon the former.

Ah, but wait, one might press the matter. This argument assumes that God's eternity is everlasting (i.e., characterized by an infinite sequence of time), rather than timeless (according to which time would have had a beginning). And in any event, we have not answered the Nature/Sovereignty Problem. To this we answer that everlastingness is a quality that inheres in and is expressed by and through the eternal Word of God. In other words, for as long as the Word of God has been and will continue to be, so long has time lasted and will continue to endure as a temporal sequence, which is to say it is eternally everlasting.

To this, one might put forth one final argument: haven't we just transferred the Euthyphro problem from the question of the priority of God and his attributes to that of God the Father and God the Son? Yes, and we can resolve it the same way. Our discussion has brought us then, to the deep and mysterious issues of the Trinity, and we turn now to the Christian doctrine of the Word, for it gives us the very pattern for understanding the relation of God's attributes to God himself. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The Son-Logos is eternally begotten of the Father, and, as long as the Son-Logos is present, so too does time exist and the rationes aeternae remain in the mind of God. And how long is that? Everlasting eternity. There was no time when the Son was not. Here is a longish, but extraordinary quote from Etienne Gilson, as he reflects upon the nature of the Word in Augustine's thought:

Saint John says that the Word is the light that enlightens every man that comes into this world (1:9). The Word is the living and eternal thought of the Father (see John 1:9). In other words, he is the self-knowledge of the Father, and, as such, his perfect image and resemblance. In fact, being a perfect expression of the Father, the Word is Resemblance itself, and the model of all other minor resemblances. This is to say that the perfect resemblance of absolute "being" is the model of all that which is, or can be. The Word then contains within himself, or, rather, he is all the intelligible patterns, or "reasons," of all that which is capable of existence. These eternal intelligible patterns, or models, are called the divine Ideas… After Augustine, this notion of the divine Word, conceived as full of the Ideas after whose pattern God has created the world, will become the common property of practically all the Christian theologians… In short, the Word is the light of the world, because He is the source of its intelligibility, of its order, and of its beauty.15

The Euthyphro Problem is thus resolved by realizing that goodness subsists as one of the rationes aeternae within the Son-Logos, who himself from time without limit is eternally begotten of the Father, in whose exact image he is. The attributes of God, as indeed all-eternal and necessary Ideas, subsist eternally and necessarily in the eternally begotten Logos of God. As for the Nature/Sovereignty Problem, that is, in our opinion, the great mystery in this business. Even Nash notes that he is still left "with the problem of reconciling God's having a nature with his being sovereign."16 Plantinga begins to approach the matter of how we might someday resolve it, in his restatement of Augustine's eternal subsistence, by which he seeks to find the logical language by which we might be able to ground the necessity of, say, certain mathematical expressions in God's willing them to be so, such that these expressions (or objects) "depend upon" God without their being within his control. In other words, can we find a way of saying that "Three + two = five is a necessary truth" is so because "It is part of God's nature to believe that three + two = five." Taking a step backwards, for example, we know that we can answer the question, "Why is ‘Three + two = five a necessary truth' true"? The answer is "Because ‘God believes three + two = five.'" Plantinga is searching for a sense of "explain" by which "It is a part of God's nature to believe that three + two = five" would explain "Three + two = five is a necessary truth," without having at the same time the latter explain the former. In other words, we seek a non-commutative sense of "explain," by which we can see God's belief as logically prior to the thing believed. God's belief in a proposition renders that proposition necessarily true; his belief is the ground of that truth.17 One is reminded in all of this of the entire hermeneutic of Augustine: Credo ut intelligam: "I believe in order that I may understand." Only here we see the priority of God's believing to the state-of-x being. God believes, and it is so. Goodness is good, because God believes it to be so, because it is part of God's nature to believe it to be so.


In the final analysis, we have seen how complex some of the philosophical terrain that is associated with the doctrine of simplicity can be. We have argued throughout the course of this paper that simplicity which is grounded in the impersonal perfection of Being, the One, or other such abstractions, bears scant resemblance to the God of Scripture. That God is certainly not like the Neo-Platonic One who lacks any complexity at all. With regard to this complexity, Frame writes:

Though God is numerically one and simple, he has many attributes, as we have seen, thinks a vast number of thoughts, and performs innumerable actions. His attributes are one, but a oneness that can be characterized in many ways. His thoughts are one, but they are thoughts about innumerable objects. His actions are one, but they have a vast number of effects in the world. His life is the ultimate in richness and fullness. Scripture expresses this richness in various ways, eventually bringing into focus its specifically Trinitarian character.18

But we must also see the unity in this complexity. There is room, there is warrant, for the doctrine of simplicity, insofar as it upholds the unity of God's personhood (in triune relationality). The Christian God, our God, is a personal God. This is the clear and sustained emphasis of Scripture. And it is upon this emphasis — upon a personal God, possessing a knowable nature, known and encountered on the basis of objective revelation — that we should build any doctrine of simplicity. As remarkable, even as beautiful, as we might confess the Thomist system to be, yet to the extent that its strong statement of simplicity is grounded ultimately not upon Scriptural but upon philosophical considerations, we see that it is not long before we are stranded with an impersonal God (Being), unknowable as to its nature, and experienced only through purely subjective criteria. This is not the Christian God, and so the doctrine of strong simplicity that offers us this God ought to be rejected.


Bavinck, Herman. The Doctrine of God. Trans. William Hendricksen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951. Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith. Trans. Sierd Woudstra. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. Brunner, Emil. The Christian Doctrine of God. Dogmatics: Volume I. Trans. Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Volume II: Augustine to Scotus. Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1962. Davis, Stephen T. Logic and the Nature of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983. Frame, John. The Doctrine of God. As yet unpublished draft; used as text for his Systematic Theology—Doctrine of God class. Gilson, Etienne. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1955. Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology in Three Volumes. Volume I. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Hughes, Christopher. On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas' Philosophical Theology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. Nash, Ronald H. The Concept of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983. _______. The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine's Theory of Knowledge. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1969. _______. The Word of God and the Mind of Man. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982. O'Connor, Timothy. "Simplicity and Creation." Faith and Philosophy. Volume 16, Number 3, July 1999, 405-12. Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. Volume I. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950. Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998. Stump, Eleonore, and Kretzmann, Norman. "Absolute Simplicity." Faith and Philosophy. Volume 2, Number 4, October 1985, 353-82. Thomas Aquinas, Saint. Summa Theologiae. Volume 2: Existence and Nature of God (Ia. 2-11). Trans. Timothy McDermott. London: Blackfriars, 1964.

1. Ibid., 127, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 93.

2. Nash, Concept of God, 93.

3. Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? 86-87, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 93-94.

4. Nash, Concept of God, 94.

5. This notion arising from the key passage in Scripture where God identifies himself as "I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3:14).

6. Nash, Concept of God, 22.

7. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 2, trans. Timothy McDermott (London: Blackfriars, 1964), pt. 1, q. 3, art. 8.

8. Editor's Note: See Almighty Over All by R.C. Sproul Jr. as an example of a Thomistic-influenced supralapsarian holding to this position.

9. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. II (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1962), 361. For a modern example of the Thomistic emphasis on the subjectivist interpretation of multiplicity, here is Stump and Kretzmann: "The atemporal pure actuality that is God can have various manifestations and effects in time… [The distinctions between God's various acts at various times] does not compromise God's absolute simplicity because those events are to be understood as various temporal effects of the single eternal act identical with God, God's action in the strict sense… The absence of real distinctions among divine attributes such as omnipotence and omniscience is to be explained along similar lines. According to the doctrine of simplicity, what human beings call God's omnipotence is the single eternal action considered under descriptions they find variously illuminating, or recognized by them under different kinds of effects or manifestations of it. What the doctrine requires one to understand about the attributes is that they are all identical in references but different in sense… The respect in which God is utterly devoid of real distinctions does not, after all, preclude our conceptually distinguishing God's actions in the world from one another or from God himself. See Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, "Absolute Simplicity," Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 1985, 356-57.

10. Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? 47, cited in Nash, Concept of God, 94.

11. Frame, Doctrine of God, 208. Another interesting argument against Thomistic simplicity is expressed by Stump and Kretzmann, who point out that "if in accordance with the doctrine of simplicity each action of God's is in all its detail identical with the divine essence, the doctrine entails that God could not do anything other or otherwise than he actually does… "Indeed, God can't do much anything at all, lest he seem to have an intrinsic property at one time which he lacks at another time." See Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, "Absolute Simplicity," Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 1985, 355.

12. Except only by analogy.

13. Nash, Concept of God, 96.

14. Ibid., 97.

15. Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955), 72-73.

16. Nash, Concept of God, 96.

17. Ibid., 97.

18. Frame, Doctrine of God, 580.

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