Essay / Theology

Deeper Simplicity (Dialogue with Dolezal)

common-places-simplicity-screencapLate in 2016 I wrote a blog post on divine simplicity for the Pro-Nicene Theology series at Zondervan Academics’ Common Places blog (now available as part of a free mini-e-book). My goal was to show the biblical support for the doctrine of divine simplicity (simplicity was much on my mind, and I also wrote on the doctrine for Seedbed around the same time).

My main point in the Common Places post was that divine simplicity is a cumulating doctrine, which arcs from an initial statement of God’s unity, through the manifold revelation of his perfections, to a final affirmation that these many perfections are not different from God. Divine simplicity is what the doctrine of God’s unity looks like on its subsequent side.

Not long afterwards, I got a friendly e-mail from Dr. James Dolezal, who teaches theology at Cairn University, and is author of a fine book on the doctrine of divine simplicity.

He has thought harder about this subject than I have, and he had questions for me. I quickly recognized this as a golden opportunity to learn more about an important subject, so I asked if we could post the dialogue here at Scriptorium. Here’s the exchange.

dolezal-headI wonder if I might raise a point or two of concern about your simplicity post. For the most part I found it clear and theologically agreeable. An area of concern I have, though, is with respect to the relation of divine attributes in God’s essence. In regard to the various terms God uses to describe himself in Ex. 34:6-7 you observed that “none of these things is identical with each other.” Did you mean that they are non-identical in the form in which they are revealed to us and understood in our minds or did you mean that they are non-identical in the Godhead itself (i.e., that in God there are real distinctions among his attributes just as there are real distinctions among the divine persons, perhaps)?

fred-sanders-headshot-thumbAh, good question. Definitely the former: Expounding that complex verbal/visual theophany, I said “In the one God’s self-manifestation to Moses, we have a striking proliferation of terms: glory, goodness, hand, back, face. None of these things are each other, yet none of them are other than the Lord himself.” I actually avoided the word “identical” on purpose, because it’s got a more precise meaning than I was comfortable with in describing the event. I didn’t want to say “none of these things are identical with each other,” because it’s a more precise term and raises, I suppose, exactly the question you’re asking. Since I was only aiming to boost the plausibility of simplicity as a biblical doctrine, I needed to show restraint to keep from projecting precision onto an event that is narrated more phenomenologically.

But since you ask: I think things like God’s goodness and his glory are revealed to us as non-identical manifestations, and understood by us as non-identical things. On reflection, each of them is just God considered under some aspect. God’s hand is God, and God’s face is God; they are not parts of God (God having no parts). So even if God were to say something like “my hand, not my face,” the contrast would be between two ways of considering God himself, not between two parts of God (God having no parts). Are they non-identical in the Godhead? I think I have to say each of them is identical with the Godhead. Does that identity-with-the-Godhead entail also identity-with-each-other? Yes. Unless there’s some reason to think otherwise, I think identity has to work that way.

dolezal-headThanks for clarifying. I suspected that is what you meant. It makes me think of the analogy offered by so many in the Augustinian tradition in which God is considered as pure white light and the revelation of God in creation and history is considered as the same light appearing to us under an array of spectral diversity. The distinctions lie on the side of our apprehending God in manifested spectral glory, not in the unapproachable and unrefracted light which is God himself.

In Jordan Barrett’s dissertation he proposes that we might fruitfully use the real distinctions among the divine persons as a formal analogy to resolve the “problem of ‘identical attributes.” Do you agree that there is a problem with identifying all of God’s attributes (in the sense of saying each is the “same” reality) with each other in God? Barrett proposes that we think of the divine attributes as really distinct in God and yet united in him as “interwoven or integrated realities.”

This seems to be the position of John Frame and Kevin Vanhoozer as well. They affirm that God’s existence and essence are identical and they affirm that God is identical with his essence. Of course these are both traditional and orthodox features of the simplicity doctrine. But they deny that the attributes of God’s essence are really identical in the essence itself. I confess that I cannot see how this notion of the essence as a network of really distinct attributes (what Thomas Morris calls “a maximally perfect set of compossible great-making properties”) can avoid a compositional account of divine unity, thus setting it in direct conflict with any strong notion of divine simplicity.


Well, here’s the kind of account of attribute-simplicity I learned from Anselm and have found compelling. God is merciful and just. But mercy and justice seem to dictate different outcomes (giving or withholding what is deserved). So we affirm that God is good, and is merciful because he is good, but also is just because he is good. So his mercy is just and his justice is merciful, and if we think those attributes contradict each other, we have reason to revisit our definitions of them.

But does that account stop short of the full implications of divine simplicity by reconciling the attributes to each other simply by modifying each of them with each other adjectivally? I admit that this “resolution by adjective” (a position I am ascribing to my own pattern of thinking, not to any carefully established principle) seems superficial. Should I go beyond “merciful justice” to affirm that God’s mercy is God’s justice?

dolezal-headI think you should. I agree that in the manner of our God-talk, which is unavoidably complex and multipart, it is helpful to allow the various divine attributes to function as mutually conditioning adjectives. We should speak of God’s loving justice and his just love, of his wise power and powerful wisdom, and so forth. But when it comes to giving an account of the ontological foundation of these attributes in the being of God himself, we should avoid reading off the multipart contours of our surface grammar some corresponding multipart underlying manner of God’s intrinsic being.

Perhaps an illustration may help. If I say “Fred is good” (and I do say that, sometimes), I am making a multipart statement (subject + predicate) that actually parallels a multipart ontic reality, namely, Fred + goodness. You are not identical with your goodness (since you could fail to be good and yet still be Fred, which I suppose happens on a rare occasion) and that goodness by which you are good is not identical with your being Fred. And if I added more predications such as wise, strong, humorous, etc. these realities would not be identical with each other or with your being Fred. You could be strong and yet a stodgy and an altogether dull and thick person. Yet insofar as each of these predicates is really true of you – that you are Fred and that you are good, wise, strong, and humorous – each would exist in your being and each could characterize the others in you. I could speak of Fred’s wise strength and good humor. Yet for all this your ontological unity is still the unity of numerous distinct (even though unseparated) parts which each serve as a discreet foundation or source of some actuality in you (that which makes you the subject Fred + that which makes you good + that which makes you wise, and so on).

So, if all we say about God is that each of his attributes characterizes every other one of his attributes – while this is useful for our complex God-talk and multipart way of theologizing – it still seems to leave us with an account of God’s essence that requires an ontological foundation (or many distinct foundations) more basic than the unified whole of his essence. And it also requires that we offer an account of the unity that exists between the really distinct attributes. What holds them together? Obviously, if they were each really identical with each other such a question would not arise. Their unity would consist in their identity.

Anyhow, you asked a straightforward question and I gave a meandering reply, but I hope it shows why I am insistent on the strong attribute-identity version of divine simplicity. Every other account seems to require that we posit ontic foundations for God’s being and unity more primitive than his divine essence itself, thus making him dependent on what is not God in order to be God.

fred-sanders-headshot-thumbI will have to go away and think about this, as they say in England. It does seem worthwhile to reflect on how to avoid accidentally confessing any foundations more primitive than the divine essence itself.

What kind of objections do you hear to this way of construing divine simplicity?

dolezal-headSome are concerned that real attribute identity in God might lead to real identity among the divine persons and so destroy the Trinity doctrine. But the reason we insist on a real distinction among the persons is because each person is identified by (and with) his unique relation, thus requiring us to confess real “opposition” and otherness among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (oppositio being entailed in relatio). But what would generate such an affirmation of otherness with regard to the essential attributes, presuming they are not distinct from each other by virtue of the oppositio which belongs to the proper ratio or relation (since they are not relations)?

Anyhow, I am not suggesting that your short piece made any such claims, but I wonder if this is the path many are beginning to head down: deploying the real distinctions among the three persons confessed in the Trinity doctrine to save us from the “intellectually repugnant” notion that all God’s attributes are identical in him.


Interesting. The Trinitarian relations pick out persons precisely because the persons stand in relations of opposition to each other. If you get hold of the Father-Son relation of eternal generation, for example, you know Father is on one end and Son is on the other. You also know you can’t have one without the other. But if we tried to apply this to divine attributes, we’d have to say that things like goodness and glory stood in an oppositio relation to each other, as if goodness begets glory or vice versa. I can’t imagine any way of mapping the divine attributes that would make sense of this. If I were trying to be creative about it, I might suggest that blessedness begets glory, because all that God enjoys inwardly (blessedness) is all that shines outwardly from God (glory). But that’s a kind of conceptual relationship that I don’t think has any metaphysical heft. It’s also something I just made up, so I don’t trust it.


Ha. I’m sure your creativity will inspire some PhD student to develop a whole dissertation on divine attributes as real relations in God. We’ll call it “Sanders’ Rule” and evangelicals will wrangle over its genuine meaning for the next two centuries.

I have one final thought and question for you. Proposals suggesting that the divine attributes are really distinct in God in a way analogous to the real distinction among the persons, seem to require that we deny the fullness of the divine essence to each attribute. Here’s why. When I say the Father, Son, or Spirit is wise, good, loving, just, true, and powerful (and anything else that belongs to each person as fully divine) I also intend, per simplicity, that each person is identical with the wisdom, goodness, love, justice, truth, and power by which he is wise, good, loving, just, true, and powerful; namely, with divinity as such. In fact, the only thing I say each person is not is that he is not the other two persons (the other relata).

In this way I can account for why I predicate the entirety of the divine nature to each person and why I can say unqualifiedly that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. But if each of God’s essential attributes is really distinct in him from every other one of his essential attributes, then it appears that we are compelled to deny some feature of the divine essence – namely, the other attributes – to each attribute. Arguing that each attribute qualifies or conditions every other does not help because some units of being more fundamental than the entire mutually conditioning network of properties would still seem to be present in God. Saying that in God goodness is not wisdom and wisdom is not power and power is not love, and so on, seems to deny something essential to Godness – something of the divine quiddity or “form of God” – to each of the attributes. In which case we cannot say that each attribute just is God (because each is not fully identical with all that is in his divine essence as such) as we can say the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. By my lights this appears to be one of the more significant liabilities of claiming real distinctions among God’s intrinsic attributes; each must lack in itself what is proper to every other intrinsic attribute and thus not all that is in God is God. Does this concern sound valid to you? Any thoughts?


My intellectual trajectory is from Trinity to simplicity; that is, I have pondered the implications of trinitarian claims pretty extensively, but am still growing in my understanding of the implications of simplicity. This is mostly due to the accidents of my theological formation, not to the substance of the doctrines. But the argument you make here appeals to me because it parallels some things I’ve grasped in trinitarian theology. For one thing, your case prompts me to consider what it entails to say that the Father is good with a goodness that is not other than the divine being, and that the Son is good with the same goodness. This kind of attribute identity shows the persons to be knit together more closely than we might otherwise conceive, or at least it gives us material for rehearsing that closer unity.

The other connection I recognize is that this stronger construal of divine simplicity seeks to banish the specter of some phantom Godness underlying the Godness that is in the attributes. This reminds me of the way trinitarian theology has to avoid the elementary blunder of counting to four by treating the divine essence as something that exists alongside, or along with the three persons. I’m still tentative about the right way to speak clearly regarding “the entire mutually conditioning network of properties,” or that maximally comperfect  great-making whatchacallit bundle.

So I’ve still got some homework to do on the philosophical side (going to have to do some worksheets on formal distinctions, I reckon), but it seems worthwhile to push for a deeper construal of simplicity than overworking the adjectives, which has been my default method. I especially appreciate the clarity on how simplicity and triunity mutually support each other, which is what I would expect them to do given the biblical witness and the pro-Nicene interpretation of it.

James Dolezal is the author of the 2011 book God Without Parts. You’ll especially want to keep an eye out for his forthcoming book, All That is in God. I’ve had a peek at the manuscript, and I think it’s going to be incredibly helpful for teaching the doctrine of God in the coming years.


Share this essay [social_share/]