God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness

Written by James E. Dolezal Reviewed By James N. Anderson

I remember the incredulity with which, as a young Christian, I first greeted the claim that God is a “simple” being. God is simple?! What in the world could be more complicated than God? How could the Lord whose ways are far beyond our ways be considered simple? The incredulity was dispelled once I learned that “simple” is a technical philosophical term meaning “not composed of parts.” The doctrine of divine simplicity is thus the teaching that God, unlike his creation, is not composed of parts. God isn’t “made up” of entities that are more fundamental or ultimate than he is. Rather, God is an absolutely unified, indivisible, spiritual being. In short, there’s nothing in God that isn’t identical to God.

Thus explained, the idea of God’s simplicity seems more reasonable and appealing. Yet many Christian philosophers today treat the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) with almost the same degree of incredulity as I once did. They do so not because they don’t understand what it means, but because they’re confident that they do understand what it means. For example, they will argue that if DDS is true then God’s attributes—his goodness, power, knowledge, and so on—cannot be external to him or internal parts of him. In other words, God’s attributes must be identical to God: God just is his own goodness, power, knowledge, etc. But it isn’t immediately clear how to make sense of such a claim. Moreover, if God’s attributes are taken to be properties and if God is identical to his attributes, it follows that all God’s attributes must be one and the same property—and that property must be God. So according to DDS, God is a property. But how could a property be a person? How could a property create the world or speak to Abraham or become incarnate and make atonement for our sins?

Such deductions explain why DDS, which was practically a nonnegotiable of medieval theology, has fallen on hard times. Into this contemporary theological context steps James E. Dolezal with a penetrating book-length defense of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

The central thesis of God without Parts can be stated fairly succinctly. If God is truly an absolute being (i.e., if God is utterly self-existent, independent of and unqualified by any other reality), then DDS must be true. Furthermore, DDS can be defended against many of the common objections leveled against it, most of which fail to understand its claims and theological motivations. Even if some serious perplexities remain, that’s an acceptable philosophical price for maintaining God’s absolute existence. To put the point somewhat paradoxically: if DDS is false, God is less than God.

The opening chapter might well have been titled, “The Rise and Fall of the Classical Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.” Dolezal concisely surveys the history of the doctrine, focusing first on its “friends” and then its “foes.” Almost to a man, the church fathers held to DDS and routinely deployed it in their theologizing. DDS was later endorsed by Boethius and Anselm, but the development of the doctrine reached its apex in the classic treatment of Thomas Aquinas, whose greatest contribution was to explicate the distinction between existence and essence (roughly, “whether something is” versus “what something is”) and to argue forcefully that for God, and God alone, existence and essence must be identical. Thomism remains the dominant tradition among Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers, so it comes as no surprise to find DDS still defended (albeit with some reservations) in those circles today. Among Protestants, however, enthusiasm for DDS has waned over the last few centuries. As Richard Muller has documented, the Reformers and their scholastic heirs accepted Thomas’s version of DDS with little question, in spite of their sharp theological disagreements with him in other areas. John Owen, Francis Turretin, and Herman Bavinck all viewed the doctrine of simplicity as essential to Christian orthodoxy. It would be historically inept, not to mention theologically myopic, to reject DDS for fear that it’s a “Catholic doctrine.”

Yet despite its pedigree DDS has come under considerable fire recently from conservative Protestants. More than a few Christian philosophers have renounced the doctrine—Christopher Hughes, Thomas Morris, Ronald Nash, John Feinberg, and William Lane Craig, to name only five—but perhaps the most biting criticisms have come from the most influential Christian philosopher of our generation: Alvin Plantinga. In large measure, God without Parts is pitched as a forthright pushback against this trend within our own theological tradition.

Chapter 2 sets out to explicate DDS by the time-honored via negativa (“way of denial”). Various “models of composition” (ways in which one thing can be composed of other things) are identified, and in each case it is denied that the model applies to God. In contrast to his creatures, God is not a mixture of act and potency, has no bodily parts, is not a form-matter or supposit-nature compound, cannot be “categorized as a species in a genus,” is not a substance with accidents, and—perhaps the strongest and most controversial entailment of DDS—is not composed of essence and existence. Rather, God’s essence (what God is) and existence (that God is) are strictly identical, each being identical to God. Dolezal’s exposition, by his own admission, closely follows that of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae I.3. One concern about this chapter, and indeed of the book as a whole, is that (following in Aquinas’s footsteps) it appears to take Aristotelian metaphysics largely for granted. If you’re already comfortable with that metaphysics, the argument will make good sense. If you’re not (as, for example, a process philosopher would not be), then all bets are off. Such quibbles aside, the overall thesis of the chapter is an attractive one: if any one of these models of composition applies to God, it follows that ultimately something other than God accounts for his existence. Like us, God would require a cause or a composer (in the metaphysical sense). A denial of DDS thus amounts to a denial of God’s absolute self-existence.

Chapter 3 sets forth the theological rationale for DDS indirectly by exploring its connection to other traditional Christian doctrines. Dolezal contends that DDS offers a strong account of why God has five incommunicable attributes: aseity, unity, infinity, immutability, and eternity. The argument here is not that each of these doctrines (or their conjunction) implies DDS, but rather that DDS offers the best metaphysical explanation for these divine attributes. In each case Dolezal argues that God manifests that attribute because he is absolutely simple. So the contention is that DDS offers the best way—and perhaps the only conceivable way—of preserving these time-honored claims about the divine attributes. As Dolezal puts it, “It is God’s simplicity that promotes these doctrines of aseity, unity, infinity, immutability, and eternity to their status as genuinely incommunicable divine attributes.” Once again, there’s a sense in which this argument will be appealing only to those who already hold to a certain conception of God.

Chapter 4 explores in more detail the connection between DDS and God’s “absolute existence” (roughly the idea that God alone is the sufficient explanation for his own existence). Following the pattern of the previous chapter, Dolezal argues that DDS “enables us to maintain that God is identical with that by which he exists” (his emphasis). This is important not only for preserving the classical divine attributes but also for permitting an ultimate account of all existents. In good Thomist fashion it is argued that there can be contingent beings (like us) only if there is a being with absolute existence, a being whose existence is not dependent on any other being. While Dolezal doesn’t put the point so concisely, in essence he is arguing that were it not for DDS, nothing at all would exist. Another correlative, which Dolezal emphasizes at a number of points throughout the book, is that the being of God is sui generis. It is not the same “order of being” as that of the creation. God’s being and the creation’s being relate analogically rather than univocally.

Chapter 5 marks a shift in the second half of the book from exposition to defense. One of the main challenges faced by advocates of DDS is to explicate the relationship between God’s attributes. DDS has traditionally been taken to entail that God’s attributes are not diverse: each divine attribute is ultimately identical to every other divine attribute, and furthermore, each divine attribute is ultimately identical to God himself. This bold thesis has invoked howls of complaint, if not derision, from critics of DDS. What sense does it make to say that omniscience is really just the same as omnipotence and omnipresence? Aren’t they obviously different attributes? Still more problematically, to say that God is identical to his attributes is to say that God must be a property (since attributes are properties). But how could a property (such as the property of being all-powerful) be a person? There seems to be a basic category mistake here. Drawing on various conceptual distinctions found in the Thomistic and Reformed scholastic traditions, Dolezal deftly explains why identifying God with his attributes isn’t nearly as outlandish and incoherent as its critics make out. After critiquing a metaphysically weaker account of the divine attributes (the “Harmony Account”) that fails to secure God’s non-compositeness and thus his absolute existence, Dolezal endorses the recently developed “Truthmaker Account,” according to which God himself (and God alone) is the “truthmaker” for true predications such as “God is omnipotent” and “God is omniscient.” On this view, God himself plays the role, as it were, of the divine “properties.”

Chapter 6 takes up two challenging questions concerning the implications of DDS for God’s relationship to his creation, given that the latter is both complex and contingent. As Dolezal formulates the questions: (1) “How can a simple God have a proper knowledge of many different things without thereby possessing a complex intellect composed of many different ideas?” (2) “How can a simple God exercise volition inasmuch as all willing seems to add some sort of actuality to the one willing?” Here again, Dolezal’s answers closely follow Aquinas: “God knows all non-divine things in knowing his own essence [and he] wills all non-divine things in willing the goodness of his essence. The primary object of God’s knowledge and will is himself, while creatures are always secondary objects.” On this view, it is argued, God can be identical to both his knowledge and his will; thus his absolute existence and independence from his creation are not jeopardized.

The second of these claims, however, raises a very knotty problem to which the entire following chapter is devoted. How can God’s simplicity be reconciled with his freedom? If God is identical to his own will, including his will to create the world, how could his will be contingent in any real sense? Doesn’t DDS entail that God necessarily wills to create? Whatever theological merits DDS might have, sacrificing God’s freedom seems far too high a price to pay! Dolezal considers and ultimately rejects two proposed solutions, one from Norman Kretzmann and another from Eleonore Stump. After questioning (rightly in my view) the presumption that divine freedom must be construed in terms of “counterfactual openness” (which requires God to “stand deliberatively before a range of possibilities” and involves a real movement from “could will” to “does will”), Dolezal concedes that a residual problem persists: it’s very difficult to conceive of God’s free will in a way that it doesn’t imply some kind of movement from potentiality to actuality. In the end, Dolezal appeals to divine incomprehensibility: “Though we discover strong reasons for confessing both simplicity and freedom in God [viz., both are required by the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo], we cannot form an isomorphically adequate notion of how this is the case. In fact, this confession of ignorance is precisely what one finds in the Thomist and Reformed traditions.” I’m sympathetic to this move, but I wish a little more had been said about what justifies an appeal to divine incomprehensibility in this instance, given that theologians presumably don’t have carte blanche to play the mystery card at any time in order to excuse apparent incoherencies in their positions.

God without Parts is a book about a simple God, but it is not a simple book. The argument is dense throughout and, in good scholastic fashion, is developed in terms of some highly technical metaphysical distinctions. It does not make for easy reading, but the effort is repaid because the book represents the most thorough and up-to-date explication and defense of the doctrine of divine simplicity from within the Protestant tradition. Dolezal has given us a fine example of Reformed philosophical theology: historically informed, confessionally observant, ecumenically oriented, and analytically rigorous.

Despite its many virtues, however, I must note that God without Parts does almost nothing to address two common objections to DDS from confessional Protestants. The first is that the doctrine lacks biblical support: it’s a speculation wrapped in a deduction inside an extrapolation, one might say. For Roman Catholics, who hold a higher view of church tradition, that isn’t much of a concern. (There’s always the Fourth Lateran Council, which in 1215 canonized the claim that God is “absolutely simple.”) But for theologians committed to sola scriptura, the prima facie lack of biblical support is troubling. One solution here is to argue that DDS may be deduced “by good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) from the biblical teaching about God’s attributes, particularly divine aseity. Dolezal points us to this approach in the introduction to chapter 3, but other than a passing reference in chapter 1 to Exod 3:14–15 (traditionally viewed as a proof-text for DDS), little else is said about the biblical support for the doctrine or even about the putative need for such support. (An alternative approach would be to argue that DDS is a legitimate piece of natural theology.)

The second objection to DDS is that it conflicts with the doctrine of the Trinity. Consider the answer to Question 9 of the Westminster Larger Catechism: “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.” On the face of it the catechism is teaching us that each of the persons is the one God, yet there are still real distinctions between them, and those distinctions are grounded in their possession of unique properties. The problem is this: DDS seems to rule out both real distinctions within God and the possession of properties by God (compare the discussion of divine attributes in chapter 5). I’m not suggesting that this problem cannot be resolved; I’m merely observing that Dolezal barely acknowledges it. (A passing reference to the objection can be found in a quote from Louis Berkhof on p. 10.) In the book’s index, “Trinity” is conspicuous by its absence—likewise “Bible” and “Scripture.”

The upshot of these omissions, whether intentional or not, is that Dolezal doesn’t offer us a particularly Christian defense of DDS. (Paul Helm, writing in the book’s foreword, apparently felt obliged to give a brief defense of the compatibility of DDS with the doctrine of the Trinity and to highlight the biblical basis for God’s “unsurpassable greatness.”) This is not to say, of course, that the book is anti-Christian! Yet an orthodox Jewish or Muslim philosopher could be entirely comfortable with Dolezal’s explication of divine simplicity; indeed, the Muslim might take it as a fine defense of the Islamic doctrine of tawhid. To repeat: my point is not that anything in Dolezal’s defense of DDS is inconsistent with Christian orthodoxy, but only that a Reformed defense of divine simplicity ought to be conducted in a more self-consciously Christian context.

I trust that this criticism will not dissuade anyone from reading this fine book. “It is my hope,” writes the author in his preface, “that this volume will revitalize the confession and defense of divine simplicity among orthodox Christians and will be a serviceable introduction to the doctrine for those who have hitherto found it elusive or impenetrable.” There’s every reason to think that if God without Parts is widely read and digested, that hope will be realized.

James N. Anderson

James N. Anderson
Reformed Theological Seminary
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

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