Volume 47 - Issue 1

Reassessing Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Objections to Divine Simplicity

By Jean Gomes


This article offers a reading of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which has seen a kind of rebirth amongst both Catholic and Protestant theologians in recent decades. For some, Wolterstorff denies divine simplicity because it might rule out all distinctions in God and thereby be inconsistent with the variety of divine attributes. Others locate Wolterstorff’s position as part of the modern philosophical movement that rejects divine simplicity because of a conflict between essentialist and actualist ontologies. Although the above criticisms are fair, there is more to Wolterstorff that prevents him from accepting divine simplicity. From a liturgical point of view, he argues that divine simplicity entails confusions for people attending worship, such as the notion that divine interaction with human beings would be merely metaphorical language. Although this last argument by Wolterstorff should be appreciated given its pastoral appeal, this article proposes to demonstrate that none of Wolterstorff’s arguments compels us to deny divine simplicity, not even his most significant liturgical critique.

The doctrine of divine simplicity has been rediscovered in recent decades by both Catholic and Protestant theologians, showing a remarkable ecumenical point of contact with all Christian traditions.1 However, a number influential thinkers, even within the Reformed tradition, have critical misgivings about this doctrine.2 This essay looks closer at Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent objections to divine simplicity.3 For some, Wolterstorff denies divine simplicity because it might rule out all distinctions in God and thereby be inconsistent with the variety of divine attributes.4 Others examine the tenability of Wolterstorff’s argument that modern theologians and philosophers reject divine simplicity because of a clash between “constituent” and “relation” ontologies.5

Although the above criticisms are fair, there is more to Wolterstorff that prevents him from accepting divine simplicity. From his early philosophical works to his recent contributions on liturgical theology, I have noticed three main concerns Wolterstorff has against divine simplicity. First, Wolterstorff agrees with Alvin Plantinga that divine simplicity should be rejected because it reduces God’s being to a property or a mere abstract object. Thus, God loses his personal character.6 Second, Wolterstorff suggests that divine simplicity is of Hellenic origin, thus questioning a Christian appropriation of it without biblical warrant.7 Third, he argues that divine simplicity entails “bafflements” for people attending worship, such as the notion that divine interaction with human beings would be merely metaphorical language. The first two objections have been discussed in previous studies, but no one has noticed the liturgical argument against divine simplicity, and perhaps that is the significant contribution of the present work.

This essay suggests that although Wolterstorff’s critiques go beyond what scholars have already pointed out, his arguments are not solid enough to discard divine simplicity. The article addresses his objections with three arguments. First, I seek to understand Wolterstorff’s acceptance of a relation ontology and its possible pitfalls. I claim that when properly understood, divine simplicity and the traditional ontology do not clash with our trust in the personal God. Then, I evaluate the accusations that divine simplicity is rooted in the Greek tradition. I argue that rather than uncritical absorption, the doctrine of divine simplicity more closely resembles the result of a missionary encounter of the early church with the Greek society. Finally, I look at Wolterstorff’s liturgical argument against divine simplicity. Although one might appreciate the argument in view of its pastoral value, it does not necessarily compel us to deny divine simplicity.

1. Divine Simplicity and the Clash of Ontologies

In this first section, I offer a brief overview of Wolterstorff’s take on divine simplicity and examine how his relation ontology played a role in his critique of the doctrine. But, first of all, let me clarify what divine simplicity is. This question might look simple, but it carries several complexities. What exactly are we saying when we say that God is simple? The Belgic Confession made divine simplicity its opening statement: “We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God.”8 The basic definition of divine simplicity is that God is not composed of parts. James Dolezal explains, “Whatever is composed of parts depends upon its parts in order to be as it is. A part is anything in a subject that is less than the whole and without which the subject would be really different than it is.” If God is composite, then he would be doubly dependent: on the parts and on the composer of the parts, which he rejects since it makes God derive his being from another. As Dolezal points out, “God cannot depend on what is not God in order to be God.”9 In other words, to talk about the uncompoundedness of God is the first step to understand the basic idea of divine simplicity.10

Wolterstorff deals with this doctrine in his article “Divine Simplicity,” where he pursues the answer for the underlying reasons of conflict between the medieval and contemporary attitudes toward the doctrine.11 In his view, there are three theistic identity claims that sum up Thomas Aquinas’s approach to divine simplicity: (1) God is not distinct from God’s essence; (2) God’s existence is not distinct from God’s essence; and (3) God has no property distinct from God’s essence. Although Wolterstorff recognizes that some modes of composition in God are false—that God is matter, for example—he finds the above claims ontologically problematic. Wolterstorff asks how any substance could possibly be its essence? How could such an entity’s essence be its essence? And how could all its properties be identical with its essence?12 Or he might ask, “Why would a medieval thinker find the theistic identity claims ontologically non-problematic, whereas so many of us find them inscrutable or incoherent?” And his solution is: a clash of ontologies between the medievals and moderns.13 Wolterstorff’s article, therefore, is an attempt to go back in time and think within the medieval ontological framework to see if the three theistic claims make sense.

Wolterstorff portrays the medievals using a constituent ontology while contemporary thinkers use a relation ontology.14 Under a constituent ontology, everything is a “what-it-is-as-such” and “does not have a certain nature in the way that it has a certain property. It is a certain nature.”15 Under a relation ontology one looks not at “what an entity is as such” but rather acknowledges relations between a thing and something it necessarily exemplifies—a property or set of properties that comprise essence—a thing and something it contingently exemplifies (a contingent property), and instances of properties present in things.16 The main difference between medieval and contemporary ontologies, says Wolterstorff, “hangs on these two different construals of ‘having.’ Whereas for the medievals, having an essence was, having an essence as one of its constituents, for us, having an essence is having an essence as one of its properties: exemplifying it.”17 Thus, after analyzing the three theistic identity claims through medieval lens, Wolterstorff finds nothing problematic in divine simplicity, after all, medieval ontology has a completely different view of essence from that espoused by the moderns. Yet, because he judges that medieval ontology inadequate for our time—though not making it clear for what reasons—the doctrine of divine simplicity is necessarily problematic for those who operate from a relation ontology.18

Wolterstorff closes his essay by pointing out that the problem is not divine simplicity itself (or the three theistic identity claims) but the framework in which these claims derive from: constituent ontology. He then suggests that a stronger denial of divine simplicity would need to address three questions: (1) whether the constituent ontology is tenable; (2) whether it is possible for simplicity’s supporters to develop a theory of predication which adequately accounts for the multiplicity of God’s attributes; and (3) whether the doctrine of simplicity does not contradict other fundamental doctrines. Answering the three questions would require one article for each. What follows is an attempt to show that constituent ontology is much closer to the New Testament than Wolterstorff supposed.

There are at least two flaws in Wolterstorff’s approach. The first is that instead of arguing about the reasons why he embraces this relational ontology, he simply assumes it to be self-evident. One may wonder what is the ontology accepted by the biblical authors? Although it is hard to say dogmatically, it is clear that New Testament authors dialogued with the Greeks using their terminology and thus presupposing some ideas of their ontology. We see divinity in Romans 1:20; nature in Galatians 4:8; deity in Colossians 2:9; substance in Hebrews 1:3; divine nature in 2 Peter 1:4. And there are also passages referring to human nature from similar categories (cf. Acts 14:15; Phil 2:7–8; James 5:17). Duby writes, “Whether the New Testament authors, in employing such terminology, were bearing in mind all the niceties of philosophical conceptualization or not, the point still remains that even the allegedly simple-minded apostolic communities do not shrink back from describing God with metaphysical language.”19

Galatians 4:8 says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.” What does “by nature” mean in this text? Wolfhart Pannenberg correctly states that this expression implies that “the God Paul preaches is alone God by virtue of his essence.” Pannenberg accurately comments that Paul is linking up with the philosophical question of God raised by Stoic’s natural theology, “even if by means of a critical refraction.” Pannenberg also mentions Romans 1:20 in which Paul assimilates the negative designations of God as invisible and incorruptible apparently from the same tradition.20 In my analysis, these few examples serve to discredit a radical break with the old ontology.

In the second place, Wolterstorff’s rejection of the essentialist ontology raises the problem that God would depend on or coexist with elements outside of himself. Wolterstorff indeed argues that the question of whether the divine perfections or universals are uncreated or created is irrelevant to the Christian view of creation. To him, the fact that universals are never mentioned in the biblical account of creation, and the fact that the doctrine of creation in biblical thought is designed not to deliver a theoretical ontology but to incite trust and praise of God, suggests that universals are not enclosed within God’s creative action.21 It is difficult to reconcile the idea that there is a conglomerate of objective universals that are neither God himself nor things created by God with Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16–34) and even his words in 1 Corinthians 8:6: “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Still, does divine simplicity prevent us from confessing a personal-relational God? In my view, when properly comprehended, divine simplicity does not clash with our trust in the personal God but rather enhances it. Although Wolterstorff is careful to present the doctrine of divine simplicity, his criticism has a couple of misconceptions. For instance, referring to medieval theologians, Wolterstorff opens his essay by saying that “God, they said, is simple; in God there are no distinctions whatsoever.”22 Near the conclusion, he seems to explain what he had left open, “The general strategy of the medievals was clear: to interpret these different predications as expressing different ‘cognitive fixes’ on God. What they could not say, however, was that the difference between these different cognitive fixes on God is grounded in some difference within God’s essence or God’s accidents; for that, of course, would introduce composition.”23 After all, are there distinctions in God or not? Wolterstorff’s explanation is unclear.

A careful look at the classic orthodox tradition will show that patristic, medieval, and Reformed theologians affirmed that there are distinctions in God’s simple being. As Richard Muller argues, the point was not to deny the distinctions of God, but to understand the precise nature of the distinctions that belong to the Godhead. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, indicates that there are relational distinctions in the Godhead in such a way that “threeness of person does not conflict with oneness of essence.” Muller explains, “The three persons participate in the one essence without dividing it into three parts: Christianity is monotheistic, not tritheistic.” Accordingly, the concept of unity and distinction of the persons is not to identify the distinction of persons, “but to find a way to argue a certain manner of distinction (for the sake of manifesting the three) while at the very same time denying other kinds of distinction (for the sake of confessing the One).” Therefore, with regard to its purpose, the theological role of divine simplicity is not ruling out distinctions, but “allowing only those distinctions in the Godhead that do not disrupt the understanding of the ultimacy and unity of the One God.”24

Discussing the Holy Trinity, Thomas argues that there are distinctions in God without compromising his simplicity. There are three types of distinctions possible, according to Thomas. The first he calls real distinction, which is the kind of distinction that subsists between things and other things. The second is called rational distinction founded on the thing and assumes that our attributes reflect actual properties and are not merely rational distinctions made for the convenience of the human knower. The third might be called purely rational distinctions, and has to do with distinctions made only from the human point of view without necessarily having any foundation in the thing. Thomas argues that “there must be real distinction in God, not, indeed, according to that which is absolute—namely, essence, wherein there is supreme unity and simplicity—but according to that which is relative.”25 What does Thomas mean by relative distinctions? He is concerned whether there are real relations in God: “The Father is denominated only from paternity; and the Son only from filiation. Therefore, if no real paternity or filiation existed in God, it would follow that God is not really Father or Son, but only in our manner of understanding; and this is the Sabellian heresy.”26 Muller comments that “the paternity, filiation, and procession are real relational or relative distinctions, but they are not real essential distinctions such as subsist between things and other things or such as would imply composition in one thing.”27 Putting it differently, “The basic doctrinal point is plain: in God there is an essential or substantial simplicity but there are distinctions—and these distinctions can be represented on the analogy of distinctions in the intellect.”28

Thus, there must be distinctions in God, real relational distinctions, not real essential ones. If we deny the first distinction, we deny the truth of the Trinity, which Scripture stands as witness; if we affirm the possibility of the second distinction, we deny monotheism, which is also absurd. As a result, by denying the classical concept of essence, Wolterstorff puts himself in a risky position having to give explanations of how we can continue to confess the Trinitarian doctrine. Although the doctrine of divine simplicity remains a mystery, it is perfectly possible to speak of a simple and relational God from the Trinitarian standpoint.

2. Doing Theology with the Greeks

In this second section, I address Wolterstorff’s charge that divine simplicity is of Hellenic origin, thus making a Christian appropriation of it problematic. He writes,

As I read the history of medieval philosophy and theology, the medievals were ineluctably gripped by the Plotinian vision of reality as requiring something that is the unconditioned condition of everything not identical with itself; this they identified with God. Says Plotinus: “If there were nothing outside all alliance and compromise, nothing authentically one, there would be no Source. Untouched by multiplicity, it will be wholly self-sufficing, an absolute First, whereas any not-first demands its earlier, and any non-simplex needs the simplicities within itself as the very foundations of its composite existence.” Anyone who is gripped by these convictions and arguments would see our twentieth-century claim, that God has an essence—i.e., that God stands in the relation of exemplification to an essence—as an obvious violation of God’s self-sufficiency.29

For Wolterstorff, therefore, Thomas and those who operate with an essentialist ontology are struggling to reconcile the Plotinian vision of reality to their biblical framework.30 By saying this Wolterstorff is not affirming that everything that the Greeks said is false. “Of course, not every bit of dehellenization is laudatory from the Christian standpoint.” What is at stake, he continues, “is that the patterns of classical Greek thought are incompatible with the pattern of biblical thought.”31 Wolterstorff alludes to Plotinus once more as an example of the perils of doing theology with the Greeks:

Plotinus, has been deeper than any other in classical Christian theology; namely, the assumption that God is unconditioned…. On most Christian theologians this deliverance of Plotinus has had the grip of obvious and fundamental truth. From it has been extracted a truly astonishing list of conclusions: that God is simple, thus having no nature as we would nowadays understand “having a nature”; that God is immutable; that God is eternal; that God is entirely lacking in potentialities, thus being pure act; that God exists necessarily, since God’s essence and God’s existence are identical; that no predicate correctly predicated of something other than God can with the same sense be correctly predicated of God; and—to break off the listing—that God has no passions. Of course, these conclusions were not all derived directly from God’s status as unconditioned. Chains of argument were used.32

Given the way Wolterstorff canvasses the question, it looks as if the Christian tradition has absorbed Greek philosophy without much judgment. Is that true, though? Various scholars say otherwise. In his fine essay “The Trinity between Athens and Jerusalem,” Christoph Schwöbel argues that the engagement of Christian theology with Greek metaphysics is an inevitable development given the eschatological finality of Christ’s resurrection.33 Schwöbel notes that this extraordinary event “motivated the mission to the Gentiles and brought Christian faith in an often controversial conversation with Greek philosophy.”34 He explains,

By claiming to be vera philosophia, Christian theology took on the interpretation of reality as a whole which had shaped the development of philosophy in Greece since the Ionic philosophers of nature who were devoted to understanding the whole of the world from its foundational principle…. Perhaps one can also see Philo’s identification of the one God of Judaism with Plato’s doctrine of the One as a precursor of this mode of doing theology…. Greek philosophy of the first four centuries was no longer practiced in the schools of their founders, but scattered throughout the Mediterranean…. All this provided a basis for a controversial and fruitful interchange. Christian theologians perfected the exercise of snatching the intellectual weapons from their philosophical opponents, modifying and reshaping them for their purposes, to a fine art. All this, of course, for the purpose of demonstrating the truth of the Christian message by the most sophisticated intellectual tools available.35

From Schwöbel’s reasons we might suggest that although acknowledging that divine simplicity has Hellenic roots (e.g., Xenophanes, Plato, Philo, and Plotinus), it does not necessarily contradict the teaching of Scripture but offers a new way of understanding the perfections and unity of God’s attributes. Rather than uncritical absorption, the doctrine of divine simplicity more closely resembles the result of a missionary encounter of the early church with the Greek community. And in this encounter with Greek philosophy, the Christian model was to accept what the Greeks said that was in harmony with Scripture and reject what was pure paganism.

In Paul’s experience with the Athenians, some things are worth mentioning. First, Paul knew Greek literature profoundly, as he quotes the Cretan philosopher Epimenides—“For in him we live and move and have our being” —and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus—“We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). Second, Paul approved some points of the divine ontology elaborated by the Greeks, and here is the greatest example that God is relational and yet simple, namely, the idea that God “is not from anyone of us,” and that he is one and the very source of all existence (17:27–28). Third, it is also clear that Paul challenged their idolatry, called them to repentance, and that he fearlessly introduced the concept of the resurrection of the dead. As a result of this judicious speech, “some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (17:32–34).

Herman Bavinck also demonstrates that divine simplicity is not part of a careless appropriation of the church amid the dominant philosophies of its time. Bavinck says that “the simplicity of God is absolutely not a metaphysical abstraction. It is essentially distinct from the philosophical idea of absolute being, the One, the only One, the Absolute, or substance, terms by which Xenophanes, Plato, Philo, Plotinus, and later Spinoza and Hegel designated God.” Instead, Bavinck stress that it “is not found by abstraction, that is, by eliminating all the contrast and distinctions that characterize creatures and describing him as the being who transcends all such contrasts. On the contrary: God’s simplicity is the end result of ascribing to God all the perfections of creatures to the ultimate divine degree.”36

For the above reasons, Wolterstorff’s second objection—though it is a valid reminder of the way we do theology—is not fair to the struggle that classical orthodox Christianity has made to appropriate judiciously the good of Greek thought.

3. Divine Simplicity and Liturgical Theology

In his recent books, The God We Worship and Acting Liturgically, Wolterstorff explores the relevance of doctrines such as divine simplicity and aseity to the field of liturgical theology. He deals with the doctrine of divine simplicity in the chapter, “What Are We Saying When We Say That God Listens?”37 And he considers the doctrine of divine aseity in the chapter, “Does God Know What We Say to God?”38 In both cases, Wolterstorff discusses the cogency of the two doctrines in dialogue with Thomas Aquinas.39 In this last section, I will focus only on Wolterstorff’s remarks on divine simplicity, although both doctrines are interdependent.40 One might ask: what has liturgical theology to do with divine simplicity? Interestingly, the expression “doctrine of divine simplicity” appears in the very first page of The God We Worship. Wolterstorff refers to the doctrine while distinguishing Thomas and Calvin’s styles of doing theology. Before we talk about divine simplicity per se, it is worth clarifying Wolterstorff’s views of these notable theologians.

Aquinas structured theology to fit what he regarded as the requirements for something’s being a science—in Latin, scientia. He began with a proof of the existence of the object of this particular scientia, namely, God…. Aquinas argued, that there must be something that is the unconditioned condition of all that is not identical with itself; this we all call “God,” he says. The fact that God is the unconditioned condition of all that is not identical with God implies, so Aquinas argued in a long chain of deductions, that God is simple, perfect, good, infinite, immutable, eternal, and so forth…. The theology that Calvin developed in the Institutes had a very different configuration. It presented a way of interpreting Scripture that was aimed at cultivating in readers what Calvin called “piety”—piety being understood as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of [God’s] benefits induces” (Institutes I.ii.1). Whereas the doctrine of divine simplicity had looming importance in the configuration that Aquinas gave to theology, it had none at all in Calvin’s configuration.41

Wolterstorff seems unaware of the configuration and purpose of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae. The structure of the Summa attempts to reproduce the very movement of divine wisdom and divine action in the work of creation, culminating in man, who is made in the imago Dei, and the work of government, leading all creatures back to God as their ultimate goal and happiness. Thomas theology mirrors the way in which revelation has happened. He puts into words the way in which God, the teacher, has taught humanity, and the purpose for which God’s teaching has been made: a divine reunion with God in heaven. In this structure, according to Vivian Boland, Thomas “is thinking not only about how to present theology in a material way, but is also thinking of the students studying theology for particular spiritual and pastoral purposes.”42

Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Calvin seems problematic. While it is true that Calvin did not cover the doctrine of divine simplicity in detail as Thomas did, it is inaccurate to say that it has no significance in Calvin’s theology. Parallel to Thomas, for instance, Calvin mentions divine simplicity when dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity. He says, “When we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we understand three persons, or hypostases.”43 Calvin also distinguished the doctrine of divine simplicity as a key piece to safeguard the one identity of the three persons of the Trinity. Discussing the errors of Servetus, Calvin even goes so far as to say that those who publicly declare that there are parts and divisions in God’s essence fall into an execrable heresy: “Indeed, to be execrated far beyond all else is the fact that he [Servetus] indiscriminately mingles both the Son of God and the Spirit with created beings generally. For he publicly declares that in the essence of God there are parts and divisions, each portion of which is God.”44 Calvin, therefore, is not a good ally to be used in rejecting divine simplicity. On the contrary, he saw it as a fundamental divine attribute of our language about God and specifically for a correct understanding of divine triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.45

Leaving these details aside, Wolterstorff has an intriguing “liturgical argument” against divine simplicity. He wonders if speaking of God as a listener would be making God in our own image. Or put another way, he asks, “Is it unacceptably anthropomorphic to think and speak of God as listening and speaking?”46 This is a question not addressed by the defenders of divine simplicity. Wolterstorff asks if God really listens to our prayers or whether the very act of “listening” would be figurative language, given that God is spiritual and therefore has no physical ears. His question is very pertinent, for if the “hearing” of God is merely metaphorical—not real, then—the liturgy becomes a perplexing service at its best. Why talk to a being who figuratively listens to me but does not truly hear me? As we will see later, for Wolterstorff, the doctrine of divine simplicity is at the root of the problem.

Wolterstorff begins his investigation by looking at Maimonides’s thesis that because speech is a characteristic of those who have bodily organs, God cannot literally speak, for he has no mouth, tongue, or vocal chords. The human attributes we ascribe to God are simply figurative, means for grasping divine actions, and thereby not identical with his being: “since God has no ears or eyes, God cannot listen. And so just as we should understand ourselves as using language figuratively when we attribute speech to God, so also we should understand ourselves as using language figuratively when we attribute listening to God.”47

Wolterstorff argues against Maimonides that our responsiveness to God is not a bodily action. He explains that we perform this response by doing something with our bodies, “but they are not themselves bodily actions. They are imperceptible particulars.” Therefore, Wolterstorff concludes that “the fact that God has no eyes or ears is not a reason for holding that God cannot listen.”48

If Maimonides’s theory is not a good solution to avoid the accusation of idolatry (anthropomorphizing), how do we solve the problem? To answer this requires an exploration on the topic of predications concerning God, Wolterstorff argues. He begins his solution by defining the terminology of the question. In order to predicate things, one can use terms literally, figuratively, and with analogical extension. What does he mean by this type of analogy? Wolterstorff takes a dog as an example. He explicates that analogical extension happens when we predicate something to this dog, such as “He knows his master.” Yet, since we know nothing about the interior life of dogs, we do not know whether it is literally true of the dog that he knows his master, or “whether what is literally true of him is, rather, that he does something a good deal like that.” Consequently, Wolterstorff says, “What I am doing, when I predicate the term ‘knows’ of my dog, is saying that he literally either knows or does something a good deal like that. That’s an example of what I mean by ‘using a term with analogical extension.’”49

Next, Wolterstorff distinguishes the single use of a term—which can be done literally, figuratively, or by analogical extension—from the univocal, equivocal, and analogical terms that can only be used for making comparisons between two or more uses of a term.50 He sums up this distinction as follows:

Whether it is possible to say something true about God by speaking literally, or only by speaking figuratively or by analogical extension, is one question. It’s a different question whether a predication of God that is true of God, and a predication of human beings that is true of human beings, can ever be univocal with respect to each other, or whether two such predications are always equivocal with respect to each other; and if they are always equivocal with respect to each other, whether in some cases they are analogical with respect to each other.51

This distinction is important to Wolterstorff because he understands that Thomas’s doctrine of analogy applies only to the second category mentioned, that is, for making comparisons between two or more uses of a term. After a well-elaborated exegesis of Thomas’s view on predicating literally to God (first category) and predications that are analogous to God and creatures (second category), Wolterstorff concludes that Thomas is more complex than his interpreters imagined. On the one hand, Wolterstorff tries to prove against the majority of commentators that some of our predicates apply literally to both God and creatures, such as “being,” “good,” and “living,” which are perfections that flow from God and are to be found in creatures, according to Thomas. 52 On the other hand, Thomas understands that between God and creatures, neither perfection terms nor any others are ever predicated univocally. For Wolterstorff, Thomas’s claim that there are some predications that apply literally to God, but that with respect to predications compared to humans they are never univocal; it is a dilemma.53 Wolterstorff then asks, “How can the same term in the same sense apply literally both to God and to us, and yet our predications not be univocal with respect to each other?” And the answer is: Thomas holds the doctrine of divine simplicity.54

Indeed, God is said to be “being,” “good,” and “living,” which are perfections literally attributed to human beings as well, but because God has a simple essence, he “is” his perfections differently from the humans who are complex beings. Thomas says, “The forms of the things God has made do not measure up to a specific likeness of the divine power: for the things that God has made receive in a divided and particular way that which in Him is found in a simple and universal way. It is evident, then, that nothing can be said univocally of God and other things.”55 The expression “measure up” is key to understand his point. Thomas is arguing that all that is in God is in him in a simple way, whereas all that human beings receive from God they receive in proportionately inferior and divided form. In other words, “there is nothing in God that is not the divine being itself which is not the case with other things. Nothing, therefore, can be predicated of God and other things univocally.”56 Thomas explains,

Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion … this mode of community of idea is a mean between pure equivocation and simple univocation. For in analogies the idea is not, as it is in univocals, one and the same, yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals; but a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing.57

Wolterstorff concludes that neither Maimonides nor Thomas offers satisfactory explanations for the predications dilemma concerning God. Both are caught up in the Greek framework and thereby are unable to abandon divine simplicity. But unlike the stance he took previously, Wolterstorff is more convinced that divine simplicity should be discarded. He argues,

I think it [divine simplicity] should be discarded…. Among my reasons for thinking the doctrine should nonetheless be discarded are the following two. I do not find the argument compelling, that reality is such that there has to be something that is the unconditioned condition of all that is not identical with itself. And, more important, the doctrine seems to me ultimately incompatible with the doctrine of God as triune. To say that God is triune is perforce to say that there is some sort of distinction within God, a distinction of persons, to use the traditional concept…. What my rejection of divine simplicity implies is that I have no need for Aquinas’s idea of predications concerning God and creatures that are equivocal with respect to the copula but univocal with respect to the predicate. On my view, the copula is used with the same import when speaking of God and of creatures.58

After all, what are we saying when we say that God listens? Wolterstorff’s solution to the danger of making God in our own image is rather simple: to address God using analogical extension. He explains, “When saying that God listens and speaks, we are not impaled on the dilemma of either speaking literally and hence thinking anthropomorphically, or speaking figuratively. We are using the terms ‘listens’ and ‘speaks’ with analogical extension.”59

Wolterstorff’s argument has at least three problems. First, those who endorse divine simplicity have the same solution as he found for the supposed dilemma. Bavinck, for example, states that it must not be overlooked that “we have no knowledge of God other than from his revelation in the creaturely world.” “Though not exhaustive, he explains, “it is not untrue, since all creature are God’s creatures and therefore display something of his perfections.” Therefore, all who think about God or want to speak about him “derive—whether by way of affirmation or negation—the forms and images needed for that purpose from the world around them.”60 As a result, when we claim that God listens, speaks, and responds, we are analogously assuming that God does all these things differently from how we humans do, nonetheless performing all these in his own uncompounded way. In this sense, Wolterstorff’s idea that God does not need a body to respond to human beings is helpful. But it does not make the doctrine of divine simplicity necessarily untenable either.

In the second place, the fact that the predications “being,” “good,” and “living” are applicable to God and human beings literally does not make them univocal. In fact, it seems that Wolterstorff himself confuses the two categories—which he himself said were easy to fall into—by assigning the same meaning to the words literal and univocal.61 Even though Wolterstorff denies the presence of analogical extension in Thomas with respect to the single use of a term, analogical thinking remains implicit in the way Thomas develops his argument. He made it clear that such literality was not absolute, given that all attributes “pre-exist excellently” in God. Also, the fact that a name is applied to God figuratively does not preclude it from having an analogous and true aspect in God.

Finally, there is the dilemma that Wolterstorff left open: his own. He claims that his rejection of divine simplicity implies that he need not be for Thomas’s idea of predications concerning God, for his view “the copulation is used with the same import when speaking of God and of creature.” If so, why continue to emphasize the analogical extension solution? In this case it would be more coherent for Wolterstorff to advocate for a more explicit univocity when speaking of God and of creatures than to assume the analogical relationship between them. In arguing for the analogical extension, Wolterstorff is operating with some remnant of divine simplicity even he is unaware of it.

Does divine simplicity, after all, have any relevance to our liturgical action? Among other things already mentioned, divine simplicity offers us a grammar to address God in prayer, adoration, and preaching. It helps us discern the ontological distance that needs to be kept between God and creation; otherwise, we would be very close to idolatry. Muller notes that divine simplicity is not a doctrine so speculative as to be devoid of practical use. He reminds us of Richard Baxter, who declares that “the simplicity of God should make us know the imperfection and vanity of all the creatures that are compounded things; and so should help to alienate us from them.” Baxter continues saying that human knowledge is mixed with much ignorance, humility, pride, and love with selfishness, but that “in God is none of all this mixture, but pure uncompounded good.” For that reason, Christian piety learns to “leave then the compounded, self-contradicting creatures, and adhere to the pure, simple Deity.”62

4. Final Considerations

The aim of this study was to carefully examine Wolterstorff’s objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity. I have tried to make it clear that while he raises ingenious challenges to the doctrine, none of them are definitive or compel us to abandon it. On the contrary, Wolterstorff’s critiques might encourage us to refine our understanding of divine simplicity and how it can be addressed from different angles: metaphysical, theological, and liturgical.

This article has shown the limitations of Wolterstorff’s relation ontology and proposed that when correctly understood, divine simplicity and the traditional ontology do not clash with trusting in the personal God. This essay also highlighted that rather than naive absorption of Greek thought, divine simplicity more closely resembles the result of a missionary encounter of the early church with that of the Greeks. And in this exchange with Greek ideas, the Christian exemplary was to agree to what the Greeks said that was in accord with Scripture and to jettison what was paganism. Finally, although Wolterstorff’s liturgical argument against divine simplicity has some pastoral value, his reasoning does not require us to discard divine simplicity from the Christian tradition.

More has to be done, and I hope this article will foster further discussion on the pastoral significance of divine simplicity. Fortunately, a number of scholars have been grappling with the doctrine and showing its philosophical, theological, historical, and exegetical robustness. The doctrine of divine simplicity has its place in the liturgy and not just in speculative debates. It has pastoral value because it helps us understand how God is one and triune, to recognize that all divine perfections are symmetrical, and particularly to ensure that we are not facing a manipulative idol but a God who is simple, even though his simplicity constrains us to think with greater complexity.

[1] Modern Theology has published a special themed issue on “Catholics and Evangelicals on Divine Simplicity,” which underlines the significant ecumenical convergence of Catholic and Protestant theologies in this topic. See Modern Theology 35 (2019): 409–597. See also R. T. Mullins, “Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account,” JTS 69 (2018): 895–98.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980); Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983); John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001); J. P. Moreland and William L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003); Katherin Rogers, “The Traditional Doctrine of Divine Simplicity,” Religious Studies 32 (1996): 165–86. PhD dissertations have also been written to answer the main challenges posed by modern critics to divine simplicity. See, James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011); Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology 30 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015); Jordan P. Barrett, Divine Simplicity: A Biblical and Trinitarian Account (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017). See also Peter Sanlon, Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004); and Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 221–58.

[3] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Inquiring about God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 91–111, 133–222; The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 71–170; and Acting Liturgically: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 230–48.

[4] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 3:40, 58 (hereafter PRRD); Reita Yazawa, “John Howe (1630–1705) on Divine Simplicity: A Debate over Spinozism,” in Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition, ed. Jordan J. Ballor, David Sytsma, and Jason Zuidema (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 629. For a nuanced analysis of five recent criticisms of divine simplicity, see Duby, Divine Simplicity, 42–53.

[5] Barrett, Divine Simplicity, 27; Duby, Divine Simplicity, 44, 45, 53.

[6] Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature?, 27–28, 47–53; Wolterstorff, Inquiring about God, 91–95.

[7] Wolterstorff, Inquiring about God, 93, 108–9, 135, 208.

[8] Belgic Confession, article 1 (1561), in James T. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 2:425.

[9] James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 40–41.

[10] For a summary of what divine simplicity implies, see Duby, Divine Simplicity, 80–9.

[11] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991): 532.

[12] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 534.

[13] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 535.

[14] It is also common to refer to these ontologies as essentialist and actualist, respectively.

[15] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 541.

[16] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 541–42, 548.

[17] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 542.

[18] That the doctrine of divine simplicity is automatically problematic for relation ontologists is not necessarily true either. Karl Barth, for example, bases all his Church Dogmatics using an actualist ontology—which is the same ontology of Wolterstorff—and remained confessing the doctrine of divine simplicity, albeit with his own peculiarities. Cf. Bruce L. McCormack, “Grace and Being,” in Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 98–99; and “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 185–242.

[19] Duby, Divine Simplicity, 59.

[20] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “The Appropriation of the Philosophical Concept of God as Dogmatic Problem of Early Christian Theology,” in Basic Questions in Theology: Collected Essays Volume II (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 136.

[21] Nicholas Wolterstorff, On Universals: An Essay in Ontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 293–96. “Plantinga and Wolterstorff conclude that there is a conglomerate of objective universals that are neither God himself nor things created by God.” Duby, Divine Simplicity, 172. For a detailed analysis of their views, see also pages 167–78.

[22] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 531.

[23] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 550.

[24] Muller, PRRD, 3:41.

[25] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981), Ia q.28 a.3. See also, Muller, PRRD, 3:54–55.

[26] Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia q.28 a.1.

[27] Muller, PRRD, 3:55.

[28] Muller, PRRD, 3:58.

[29] Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 108–9. Plantinga takes the same direction, “This mysterious doctrine has its roots deep in antiquity, going all the way back to Parmenides, with his vision of reality as an undifferentiated plenum in which no distinctions can be made.” Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature?, 27.

[30] “Aquinas struggled, then, to find a way of accounting for the predications that his biblical and Greek inheritance required him to make of God that would preserve the distinctness of these predications without compromising God’s simplicity.” Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” 93. For a more nuanced assessment of Plotinus, cf. Paul Gavrilyuk, “Plotinus on Divine Simplicity,” Modern Theology 35 (2019): 442–51.

[31] Wolterstorff, Inquiring about God, 135.

[32] Wolterstorff, Inquiring about God, 208.

[33] Christoph Schwöbel, “The Trinity between Athens and Jerusalem,” JRT 3 (2009): 37.

[34] Schwöbel, “The Trinity between Athens and Jerusalem,” 38.

[35] Schwöbel, “The Trinity between Athens and Jerusalem,” 38.

[36] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:176. For a thoughtful discussion of the reception and defense of divine simplicity at the time of the Post-Reformation, see Muller, PRRD, 3:271–99. For view on Turretin, cf. Steven J. Duby, “Receiving in Perfection from Another: Francis Turretin on Divine Simplicity,” Modern Theology 35 (2019): 522–30.

[37] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 87–106.

[38] Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 230–48.

[39] For a different view of Thomas on simplicity, see Eleonore Stump, The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, Aquinas Lecture (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016). See also the fine essay by Stephen D. Long, “Thomas Aquinas’ Divine Simplicity as Biblical Hermeneutic,” Modern Theology 35 (2019): 496–507.

[40] Aware of this, Wolterstorff points out that “God’s having epistemic contact (knowledge by acquaintance) with things other than God would be incompatible with God’s aseity, with God’s impassibility, and with God’s simplicity. And if we agree with Aquinas, as I think we should, that aseity implies simplicity, and if we also agree with him, as I think we should, on his criterion for the non-identity of acts of knowledge, then God’s having knowledge by description of things other than God would be incompatible with God’s simplicity, and hence with God’s aseity. I see no way in which God’s having knowledge of things other than God can be harmonized with the doctrine of God’s aseity.” Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 246.

[41] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 1.

[42] Vivian Boland, “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education,” in Towards the Intelligent Use of Liberty: Dominican Approaches in Education, ed. Gabrielle Kelly and Kevin Saunders (Adelaide: ATF, 2011), 37.

[43] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed., John T. McNeill, trans., Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.13.20.

[44] Calvin, Institutes 1.13.22.

[45] For more on Calvin’s view of divine simplicity, see Muller, PRRD, 3:273–75.

[46] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 88.

[47] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 89.

[48] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 89–90.

[49] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 91–92.

[50] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 92–93.

[51] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 94.

[52] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 95; Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia q.13 a.3.

[53] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 98; Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia q.13 a.5.

[54] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 98; Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia q.3.

[55] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), I.32.2.

[56] Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles I.32.3.

[57] Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia q.13 a.5.

[58] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 104.

[59] Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 106.

[60] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:130.

[61] Cf. Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, 99–100.

[62] Richard Baxter, The Divine Life in Three Treatises (London: 1664), 144 (, quoted by Muller, PRRD, 3:284.

Jean Gomes

Jean Gomes is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and pastor of discipleship at First Byron Christian Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan.

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