Understanding the Trinity: What is Divine Simplicity?

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Not too long ago I was having a discussion on twitter. The person I was chatting with made the comment that they believed in most of the aspects of Trinitarian doctrine but would not call themselves a Trinitarian because God cannot be explained with human words and the Trinity is just an attempt to explain Him. There is some truth to this line of thought. In fact, it is exactly where the Trinitarian debates began.  

The idea of language has always been a problem when talking about God. How can we as humans attempt to explain the infinite, all powerful, Almighty God with human language? The answer is, we can’t. However, we also need to realize that God gave us language and within the Scriptures language is used to talk about the Almighty. Although we may never be able to fully explain the fullness of who God is, we can attempt to explain as much as possible because we have precedent within the Word to do so 

Divine Simplicity

Trinitarian debates ultimately began over an attempt to understand who Jesus is in relation to the Father. What does it mean that Jesus is the “Son” of God? To answer this question we must first attempt to answer the question “what is God?” This overwhelming question was debated on several fronts, but the conclusion comes from God Himself in Exodus 3:14: 

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ 

It’s easy to say “God is” but what does this really mean? The idea of who God is brings us to a doctrine called “Divine Simplicity.” This doctrine states that God is not made up of different elements such as love, holiness, compassion, etc. But rather, God is the fullness of a thing. He is infinite in His attributes. For instance, God doesn’t just love, or have a huge piece of Himself that loves, but rather, God is love (1John 4:8, 16). In the same way, God is not a very holy being, and he is not simply the “most” holy, but rather, God is holiness (Is. 6:3, Rev. 4:8).  

The simplest way to put this is that “God is.” 

Origen of Alexandria 

Origen lived from 185254CE and was known most for his biblical commentary. Like many before the coming of Christ and after, Origen saw Jesus spoken of within the Old Testament as the Word and Wisdom of God.  

He [Origen] draws upon the, by now classic, images of Wisdom, Reason, Word, and makes the standard argument that the Father is never without his Wisdom, and so the son is eternal alongside the Father. ‘there was not [a time] when he was not,’ claims Origen, at least three times. To this he adds an argument from divine immutability: God does not change, and so the Father could not become the Father by begetting the Son; the Father must eternally be Father, and so the Son must eternally be.[note]Stephen Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity (IVP, 2012) p.75-76[/note]

Origen’s claim is a powerful one. If the Father has always been the Father, such a title implies a Son. So, the real question is, has the Father ever not been “Father?” If the answer is “no” then there must have been a Son eternally as well 

God’s Action in Relation to His Being

In a recent discussion with a friend who is a unitarian, I brought up Origen’s argument. My friend responded by saying, “if God has always been Father and this requires a Son, has God always been creator? Wouldn’t this require creation?” This is a clever argument but one that was considered by people like Augustine of Alexandria. This is his take: 

God’s life in history does not make God the one God is. Rather, God’s life is “wholly achieved.” Augustine thinks that the New Testament encourages this rule. It resists attributing changeability to God. The Son’s sending and the Spirit’s being breathed eternally manifest the former’s generation and the latter’s precession. [note]Christopher R.J. Holmes, The Holy Spirit (Zondervan, 2015) p. 68[/note]

In other words, God’s actions do not make Him who He is, rather, God is and His actions flow from that. Another way to put this is that God was still God before He brought Israel out of Egypt. He was still God before Jesus died on the cross, and in the same way, He was still God before He created the world. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not made up of some Father and some Son and some Holy Spirit, but rather, God is Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  

We must remember that the trinitarian debates were an attempt to reconcile how the Bible talks of the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Holy Spirit as God, while giving them all separate actions and attributes. 

In my next post, I will continue to look at the question of who Jesus is in relationship to the Father. I would encourage you, if you haven’t already, to download my 11 page study on John 14 and the doctrine of the Trinity. You can find this study on the Resource Page by Clicking Here 


Photo by Carolyn V

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