Divine Simplicity: Christian Scholar’s Conference Paper

I have been taking some time to teach (two courses–one at Lipscomb and the other at Harding University Graduate School of Religion) early in June and to rest in the rest of June. Consequently, I have not been blogging with regularity over the past two months. I make no apologies for that.  :-) But I will probably return with more regularity–at least by the middle of  August.  :-) Summer beckons me to spend some time in self-care, family life, house work (especially after the flooding of my basement during Nashville’s May adventure), etc. Blogging will have to wait.

I did, however, want to post my contribution to the 2010 Christian Scholar’s  Conference the first week of June.  Tom Olbricht asked me to respond to Ron Highfield’s new book on the theology of God entitled Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God.  My paper is entitled “The Simplicity of the Divine Nature: A Response to Ron Highfield’s Great is the Lord“.

Specifically, I was asked to review Highfield’s reflections on the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity, that is, that God’s being or essence does not belong to the same metaphysical categories as created reality. Simplicity denies that God has parts or is like a completed Lego set because this would imply that God participates in realities–as part of God’s essential Being–outside of the divine nature. God is not one being among others, but is the ground of being itself. God is Creator–the ground and origin of all other reality–rather than a participant in some greater or other reality.

For example, we do not say love is God or that God participates in holiness or even possesses holiness.  God does not possess attributes as if those properities have independent  reality. Rather, it is more biblical to say that God is love. God–whatever God is–is the reality of love, holiness, justice, etc. God is what God is. In other words, God is simple–one integrated, undivided essence. Simplicity, then, protects the aseity, uniqueness and independence of God.

Since I generally regard myself as a narrative theogian, I do not usually entertain such classic metaphysical discussions. At the same time, I see the point that links the narrative with the systematic theological point of simplicity. For example, simplicity reminds us that while we may use the language of different attributes or even assert that one attribute is central to God (whether it is glory, love or holiness), our fragmented picture of God is discursive rather than absolutely or essentially true. Simplicity, Highfield observes, “warns us not to take literally our affirmations about God” (p. 269). We understand that “God is love” through the self-emptying act of God in Jesus, but we do not thereby have a univocal grasp of what God’s own self-undestanding of love is. We understand only by analogy. Simplicity, thus, recognizes that God’s nature is an integrated whole rather than conflicted or fragmented. Simplicity reminds us that when we speak in fragmented terms about God (e.g., God is just and God is mercy, even to the point of placing those in opposition to each other), that fragmentation is part of our finitude rather than part of the divine essence.

God is what God is. That is the meaning of divine simplicity. I think Ron summarized and defended it well though I don’t think it entails the kind of immutability that he defends elsewhere in his book. But I will leave that for those who wish to read the paper itself.



9 Responses to “Divine Simplicity: Christian Scholar’s Conference Paper”

  1. Avatar of Betty Stockstill  Betty Stockstill Says:

    Thank you for posting. I always find good things in your work. This “Divine Simplicity: Christian Scholar’s Conference Paper” is interesting and offers food for thought. I have especially liked your thoughts on “Eschatology:The Grand Purpose Realized.” Since I am near the age of 80, I find my thoughts turning to end-time events. It is fascinating to try to get a picture of God’s reality. Countless visions pass through the mind. I do hope to read the book by Highfield and your paper. Will your paper be posted or where shall I look?

    I do hope God blesses you with rest and all the things you listed above. I am sorry about your basement! I will be looking forward to your future posts.

    May the Lord bless you and yours,
    Betty

  2. Avatar of Betty Stockstill  Betty Stockstill Says:

    Thanks. I did click the links for the info I requested.
    Betty

  3.   rich Says:

    James
    1:17

    I hate this phone sorry

    Blessings bro and thanks
    Love rich

  4.   rich Says:

    John mark
    Would you please
    Elaborate on the
    James 1:17
    Please contextiulize with the
    Simplicity
    Of our god’ being
    whsaT does 1:17 mean in the
    Greek? PlEase
    I have heard over the years it is a big.big Deal
    Rich

  5.   johnkking Says:

    Thanks for sharing the paper with us. You and Highfield wade into some deep water (speaking of floods), brother!

    The passage I would love to see you write on, out of the context of dialoguing with Highfield’s book, is Exodus 33-34 where God reveals his glory and describes himself (34:6-7) to Moses. In this narrative we overhear Yahweh’s self-portrayal. Yes, he uses our limited language, but in this moment when he is giving Moses this most intimate gaze upon the divine nature, he describes his essence as “slow-to-anger love.”

    This is one of the texts where I believe your work as a narrative theologian could shine. Thanks for your thoughts!

  6.   rich constant Says:

    “narrative theologian:”
    john is this a real TITLE or did you just make it up?….
    never heard the term used as a title …
    it sounds really good :-)
    rich constant

  7.   rich constant Says:

    John mark:
    I THINK IF THIS “BISON PARTIAL” is not found (I THINK) the universe does not exist as theorized by the high rollers,.,of theoretical physics ,,
    that is what they are trying lately to find,enough mass to go and to reverse the effect of an increasing outward movement of stars of not just a shift in our galaxy.

    so i would say today that “good(in direct opposition to GODS LAW) was put on a cross and the DEATH did not prevail for the reason of faithfulness,or fulfillment of scripture.

    i think my brother as “TRUE” sintsist climbs the mountain of “REAL truth” guess who they will find along the way.
    simply put god the father to the son you put all things in order the WAY you would like”I SAY WHEN” …..

  8.   rich constant Says:

    P.S.

    THROUGH THE FAITH THAT THE SPIRIT GIVES AND ALLOWS …..
    TO ME IS LESS ABOUT ME AND YOU AND MORE ABOUT THE UNITY OF THEM AND HIM

  9.   Kraig Says:

    John Mark,

    Thanks for the comments. I stumbled across your blog while doing a search for information on the Christian Scholar’s Conference and, as I have been reading a lot of Aquinas this summer, was interested in this entry.

    I have not been convinced to accept Divine Simplicity. Aquinas needed it because it followed from his Aristotelian hylomorphism and from his understanding of God as the Unmovable Prime Mover. But why should we accept Divine Simplicity apart from an acceptance of those metaphysics?

    Aquinas thought that God could not be a composite because, first, His being a composite would entail (under his accepted metaphysics) that He had a material body and, second, because His being a composite would undercut His theoretical action as the Prime Unmovable Mover. If God had a body, Aquinas reasoned from his Aristotelian metaphysics, then he would have potentiality. But if he had potentiality, then he would not be the Prime Mover. Hence, God is pure actuality and completely simple. But if we reject those metaphysics, why accept that God is simple?

    One reply to that question is that God’s simplicity explains His unity. But why should we think that lack of composition is the principle of unity? A good painting, composed of various colors and textures and shadings, has undeniable unity. Why should we think that unity demands lack of composition?

    Anyway – those are just my thoughts. Thanks for the entry on divine simplicity. I enjoyed it!

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