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Simplicity and Trinity

Divine simplicity means that God is not composed of different parts, but utterly whole and indivisible.  Its opposite is not “complex” but “composite.”  To affirm divine simplicity is to affirm that each of God’s attributes is identical with his essence: God is not merely loving and righteous and holy, but Love and Righteousness and Holiness.  Whatever God is, He wholly is.

I used to really struggle to understand how the doctrine of God’s simplicity fits together with the doctrine of the Trinity.  After all, if God has no parts, how can we say that He exists in three Persons?  How is it not inconsistent to affirm both that God has distinct relations within Himself and that He is simple and indivisible?  Lately I have come across some helpful treatments of this problem in some older theologians.

First, Anselm in chapter 23 of Proslogion: “you are so simple that there cannot be born of You any other than what You are.  This itself is the Love, one and common to You and Your Son, that is the Holy Spirit, proceeding from both….  Whatever each is singly, that the whole Trinity is altogether, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; since each singly is not other than the supremely simple unity and the supremely unified simplicity which can be neither multiplied nor differentiated.”

Second, Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit, 18.23): “how does one and one not equal two Gods?  Because we speak of the emperor, and the emperor’s image – but not two emperors….  Since the divine nature is not composed of parts, union of the persons is accomplished by partaking of the whole.”

And finally, Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 149): “nor is simplicity inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, for the term simple is not an antonym of ‘twofold’ or ‘threefold’ but of ‘composite.’  God is not composed of three persons, nor is each person composed of the being and attributes of that person, but the one uncompounded (simple) being of God exists in three persons.”

These passages have helped me to see not only are divine simplicity and trinity compatible, but they stand in the closest possible relation and inform one another.  The crucial insight that helped remove any sense of inconsistency was seeing that there is a difference between divisions in the Godhead and distinctions in the Godhead.  The Father, Son, and Spirit are not divisions, or composite parts, in the Godhead – they don’t combine together to add up to God.  Its not as though the Father equals 33.3% of God, the Son another 33.3%, and the Spirit the remaining 33.3%.  Rather, the three Persons are distinctions, or relations, in the one God, each one being fully God Himself.  As Anselm puts it: “whatever each is singly, that the whole Trinity is altogether.”  And how is this?  Because of divine simplicity.  If God were divisible, we might be tempted to veer off into tritheism.  But because God has no divisions or parts, the Son who is begotten by the Father is not other than the Father, and the Spirit who is generated from both is not other than the Father or the Son.

In other words, not only are simplicity and trinity compatible, but they interpret and protect one another.

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8 Responses

  1. Gav,

    Nice Rublev icon.

    Rather, the three Persons are distinctions, or relations, in the one God, each one being fully God Himself.

    I think you are right to affirm that real distinctions exist in the Godhead, but the problem with this is that Western Christianity (beginning with St Augustine) has maintained the exact opposite: there are no real distinctions in God; rather, all distinctions in God are merely mental distinctions that we attribute to God.

    I am aware that classic Western scholastic theology has defined persons as relations, but, frankly, I have no idea what that even means. Defining persons as relations seems really counter-intuitive to me. There has to be more to personhood than relational properties.

    But even granted that persons are relations, according to Western scholastic theology, the persons inhere in the divine essence, and no real distinctions exist in the divine essence. It follows from this that the relations (‘persons’) are the divine essence. Or, in other words, relations and essence are identical. Aquinas makes this clear enough: ‘Since a relation, inasmuch as it is something real in God, is the divine essence itself, and the essence is the same as a person, as we have already made clear, it must be that the relation is the same as a person.’

    I don’t see how one can (consistently) maintain Orthodox Trinitarianism while also maintaining an unqualified (or absolute) divine simplicity. Manifold theological problems ensue. One, for instance, is the equating of a divine person (the Holy Spirit) with a divine attribute or operation (love) as seen in the Anselm quotation you provided. If a divine person (the Holy Spirit) is identical to a divine attribute or operation (love), and all the divine attributes are identical with the simple divine essence, then the Holy Spirit is the divine essence. This, in my view, seems to be implicitly modalistic.

  2. Gav, I’m also fairly convinced that Basil the Great’s understanding of divine simplicity is radically different from either Anselm’s or Bavinck’s — and by extension, the Latin and Reformed traditions in general.

    For Basil, simplicity is employed apophatically. The divine essence remains, in an ineffable manner, wholly indivisible, and each divine person possesses this unpartitioned divine essence entirely — yet in such a manner that real distinctions in God remain as well, distinctions between the metaphysical categories of persons, operations, and essence. God is three in persons, manifold in operations, and one in essence. For Basil, and for the Greek Christian tradition as a whole, simplicity and multiplicity are not dialectically opposed.

  3. Drew,

    I haven’t thought about this as much as you have, and I’m firing at just about maximum mental capacity here, so if this gets any deeper I might need some Advil and a break (especially if you bust out more words like “apophatically”). Having said that, here is my response:

    1) we agree that there are distinctions in God (though I might not call them “distinctions between the metaphysical categories of persons, operations, and essence” – I’d have to think about the word “essence” there). I wouldn’t know how to believe in trinitarianism and not affirm distinctions in God.

    2) we agree (I think) that divine simplicity in SOME sense is valid (though you might speak of it more reservedly, almost as a piece of negative theology)

    3) we agree that “unqualified” or “absolute” (your words) divine simplicity – i.e., a definition of simplicity in which relations=essence – is problematic.

    4) The main thing I don’t agree with you on is simply the historical record. I don’t think the Western tradition as a whole affirms the radical definition of simplicity you are critiquing, and I suspect (though I am not learned enough to know for sure) that things are not so uniformly in the other direction in the East. Now I grant that Aquinas probably made that error, and the quote you provided is problematic. Perhaps you could find similar statements in Augustine? (I am hoping to reading his De Trinitate this summer.) Nevertheless, I think the Western tradition as a whole affirms a more modest definition of divine simplicity – one which denies DIVISIONS in God but does not deny DISTINCTIONS in God (the CAPS are not me shouting, just a substitute for italics). Perhaps if you differ you could provide quotes?

    5) You’ve provoked me to think more critically about the word “relations.” Thank you.

    6) Let me state my position again, to be clear. When I say divine simplicity, I simply mean that God not composite, i.e., that he has no parts or divisions. In this I agree with Basil who said as quoted above, “the divine nature is not composed of parts.” I don’t think this is at all at odds with divine simplicity (as defined in all the systematic theology books on my shelf) because simplicity is not at odds with personal distinctions, but with divisions and parts. I think simplicity, when defined like this, actually helps illumine and guard biblical trinitarianism (as I argued in my post).

    PS: I am jealous you get to live in Southern California. Esther and I met in CA and love it there. We want to visit some time. Perhaps you could just cover our plane tickets? Thanks, that’s awfully generous of you.

  4. Gav, you make me laugh. I appreciate your sense of humor.

    Perhaps you could find similar statements in Augustine?

    Augustine’s neoplatonism is undisputed, and it was the Thomistic philsopher Étienne Gilson who said (and I’m paraphrasing) that Augustine made his philosophical first principles one with his religious first principles. In other words, he worked to synthesize his (philosophical) belief in the neoplatonic One with his (Christian) belief in the One God and Father. In neoplatonism, and preeminently in Plotinus, the One is an utterly transcendent and absolutely simple essence in which there is no division, multiplicity, or distinction; being, existence, nature, activity, and will are all identical. Inherent to neoplatonism is the dialectic of opposition; the One can only be all that it is over and against what it is not: the One in opposition to the many, infinite in opposition to the finite, absolute in opposition to the relative, simple in opposition to the complex, and universal in opposition to the particular. To be fair, Augustine is not as consistent as, say, Aquinas, or a number of the Western scholastic theologians, and is thus more of a Christian bound by revelation than a philosopher bound by reason, but that’s probably because Aquinas was a better philosopher than Augustine. But the groundwork is most certainly laid with Augustine.

    ‘. . . the Godhead is absolutely simple essence, and therefore to be is there the same as to be wise.’ (On The Trinity, 7.1.2)

    ‘. . . just as He is called in respect to Himself both God and great, and good, and just, and anything else of the kind; and just as to Him to be is the same as to be God, or as to be great, or as to be good, so it is the same thing to Him to be, as to be a person.’ (On The Trinity, 7.6.11)

    ‘. . . but [the Trinity] can be called, in its entirety, the Holy Spirit, according to that which is written, God is a Spirit; because both the Father is a spirit and the Son is a spirit, and the Father is holy and the Son is holy. Therefore, since the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, and certainly God is holy, and God is a spirit, the Trinity can be called also the Holy Spirit.’ (On The Trinity, 5.11.12)

    There are a number of other quotations that could be drawn up. Augustine’s commitment to absolute divine simplicity would subversively undercut his commitment to faith in the Trinity by confusing the categories of person, operations (attributes), and essence. This would be something to keep an eye out for when you read On The Trinity. Also, I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say that Augustine is the father of the Western theological tradition. Every theological issue the Western theological tradition has ever faced has been viewed through an Augustinian lens.

    There is much, much more that could be said on this issue, as I believe it is the issue. It has incredibly far-reaching implications that effect ecclesiology, soteriology, sacramentology, Christology — in short, everything. That makes sense, though, right? That one’s doctrine of God would effect everything else? If you’re interested, then we can pursue it further. But I don’t want to hijack your blog and make it my soapbox, which I fear I already have.

    And finally, you’re always welcome here. We have a guest room that’s got Gav and Esther Ortlund written all over it. Or I’m sure grandma would love having you stay with her. And right on the beach too.

  5. Drew, perhaps I’ll hit you back on this after Augustine?

    No fear of taking over my blog – I enjoy the interaction, and you sharpen my thinking.

    I look forward to more conversations down the road. Perhaps even on the beach.


  6. Gav,

    That’d be great. I look forward to our future conversations as well.

    Also, a couple of books may be of interest to you:

    1) David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom

    2) Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity

    The books are expensive, but given that you live in D.C., you could probably find them in a university library somewhere.

    If you don’t have the time or the interest to wade through those books, let me recommend a couple of helpful papers by David Bradshaw. The relevant papers are ‘The Concept of the Divine Energies’, ‘Christianity East & West: Some Philosophical Differences’, and ‘The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies’.

  7. Drew,

    my “summer 2010 reading list” is quite long already, but I’ll keep those in mind. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that the Cappadocian Fathers are on my list, though I’ll also be reading those rationalistic Westerners as well (I say that jokingly).

    I’m going to set aside the month of July to read pre-Reformation theology, so perhaps more posts to come on these issues …


  8. Although it is useful and beneficial to attain a deeper understanding of the Blessed Trinity : it is and always will remain a Mystery, at least in this life.

    What, God willing, we will see in the next life when hopefully we will be in possession of the Beatific Vision……..well!

    and all the best for the New Year 2012.

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