Thursday, August 9, 2018

Part Five: The Compatibility Of The Doctrines Of Divine Simplicity And The Trinity

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2 Corinthians 13:14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.


We have taken the time to journey our way through a doctrine that has been in use by Christians since the early days of the church: the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. For readers that are interested in links to previous posts in this series, please click on the link to the last post, which contains links to the other parts of this series here:

This doctrine asserts that everything in God is God and that His very essence contains no "parts" that would somehow compose Him. Scripture's way of describing God as Divinely simple is seen in those texts which equate His attributes with Himself. For example, we see that God "is" light (1 John 1:5-7); God "is" love (1 John 4:8); God "is" holy (Isaiah 6:3; Psalm 99:1); God "is" all-knowing (1 John 3:20) as language describing God's simplicity of being. God's attributes are not just descriptions that we "predicate" to Him. As a human being, I can be loving, which predicates the act or attribute of love. However, to say I "am" love is blasphemous, since I am but a creature. For God, we don't merely "predicate" to Him the attributes we find of Him in scripture. Instead, Scripture identifies God with His attributes, which means He is not lacking in any property necessary for Him being God.   

God is not some sort of Divine being assembled from a collection of eternal properties and attributes that resulted in He being God. This mistaken notion of God is referred to as "complexity". Complexity (that is, composed of parts and things which go from a state of potentially being what they "could be" to becoming "what they are") is a trait shared by all created things. If God were "complex" (such as all created beings) rather than simple, then whatever properties we speak of, those properties would somehow either pre-exist prior to God or God would had picked them up along the way. Rather, what we have discussed in these last series of posts is how Divine Simplicity attempts to explain how God is God and why God is totally different from everything else. 

The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS), in concert with the Doctrine of the Trinity, expresses the first plank of the Trinity doctrine: monotheism. We mentioned in the last post how the doctrine of the Trinity, along with the doctrine of Divine simplicity, works in tandem to express the Biblical revelation of God that is Personally involved in His creation (such as in answering prayers, guiding people in history and working in the salvation of sinners). In today's post, we continue on with our discussion of how Divine Simplicity and the Trinity are compatible doctrines that work together to expound on the God of the Bible. 

Plank #2 of the Trinity: there are a plurality of Persons sharing the Divine nature - Father, Son and Holy Spirit

The doctrine of the Trinity not only asserts monotheism, but secondly, it affirms that this monotheistic nature is undividedly shared by Three co-eternal, co-equal persons (compare Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 13:14). Within the shared relationship of the members of the Trinity, each member (Father, Son and Spirit) is an "instance" or a true possessor of the Divine nature. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that each member of the Trinity is a true Personal, eternal  instance or "subsistence" of the Divine nature. (Note: if readers feel the need to skip the following discussion on the meaning of the term "subsistence", they may do so and move onto the next heading of the post, otherwise, dive in!) Put another way, its not like the Father is 1/3 God, the Son is 1/3 God and the Holy Spirit is 1/3 God. Recall, the Divine being of God is simple - incapable of division and not composed of parts. Each Person of the Trinity bears forth the essence of Deity. It is within and through the Trinitarian relationship between Father, Son and Spirit that the undivided essence of Deity resides and is expressed. Again, readers can explore the next two paragraphs which attempt to trace this thought out or simply move onto the next heading in this post, wherein I discuss what I call "compound unity".

What do we mean by "subsistence" with reference to the Trinity (optional reading section)

A "subsistence" is a bearer of properties or characteristics that indicate the sort of substance we are talking about. Subsistences can be non-living things (such as rocks) or living things (such as my cat). Subsistences can also lack a will or include a will, dependent upon whether we speak of the given substance being a mind (immaterial and endowed with volition), or rocks. The 1689 Baptist Confession explains this idea in the following sense as pertaining to God:

"In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided."

Again, when we speak of "properties", we mean all of the attributes that describe or indicate what a given entity is. The essence or "substance" of a given thing is that to which the various properties are assigned. When we speak of God, we have not one, not two but three, Divinely Personalized "subsistences" or property bearers. The question is: what sort of property is it that the Triune Persons are bearing? If we say a Divinely Simple nature, then each "subsistence" or "Person" can with the other two make a unified decision to create or not to create. Also too, the Triune Persons, each carrying the unified essence of Deity with the other two Persons, can answer prayers and legitimately interact with the world without undergoing internal changes to what it means to be God. 

The Doctrine Of The Trinity and the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity present a God that is a "compound unity"

One question that was asked of me in in this series of posts had to do with a term I used: "compound unity". When I use the term "compound", I speak to the discrete identities of the Father, Son and Spirit. The London Baptist Confession of 1689, Article 2, has the following final statement in its section on the Persons of the Trinity:

"but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him."

Though the essence of God is without parts and devoid of literal distinctions among the Divine attributes, this does not apply to the three "subsistences" or Persons which bear the essence. In other words, it is appropriate to make necessary identity distinctions between the members of the Trinity. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father and the Spirit is neither the other two. 

We do differentiate between the Persons by their identities. When I use the term "unity", that term speaks to the simple essence which is borne truly and completely by each Person. Since the Divine Essence is "Simple", this means that the Trinity is not "three deities", but Three Persons (or subsistences) within and through whom consists the one essence of Divine being. The Athanasian Creed has the following thoughts within its rich contents:

"The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty."

Ending on a practical note for today

I know these last several posts have taken us into deep waters. However, using our minds to think hard about God is a form of worship (see Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:1-2) that cultivates the appetite of the heart for the Lord (Psalm 34:8; 2 Peter 3:18). Where does all the above, admittedly technical sort of discussion, lead us? I come back to the issue of prayer. When we pray, we pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit (see Ephesians 2:18). When we address one of the Persons, we are also including the other two, since, after all, we are praying to God (John 14:8,23; Romans 11:34-35; Hebrews 1:1-2). Such a Divine nature as that of the Biblical God, incapable of division, is expressed truly and totally by each member of the Trinity, which together constitute the identity of God. It is important what we think about God. It is vital how we talk about God, since the Bible reveals a God that is very Personal and worthy of worship.

More next time....

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