Divine Simplicity and Immutability of God
With readings from Stephen Charnock van Mastricht and Herman Bavinck
Simplicity is the perfection of God that excludes any physical or metaphysical composition in the being of God. God is not made up of more basic parts for this would mean that God’s existence is contingent or dependent on something more basic than him. There is nothing in God that is not God. God is maximal perfection and goodness. God has no potentiality so that he can become something more than he is. The simplicity of God entails his immutability. Therefore, God is identical with his existence and essence.
The Reformed theologian Stephen Charnock explains simplicity in terms of God’s supreme existence:
God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence. [Stephen Charnock, Discourse on the Existence and Attributes of God (Baker, 1996, reprint of Carter & Brother, 1953 edition), p. 333]
Charnock notes that God’s simplicity is the absolute correlate of his divine aseity.
We can conceive no other of God, if he were not a pure, entire, unmixed Spirit. If he had distinct parts, he would depend upon them; those parts would be before him; his essence would be the effect of those distinct parts, and so he would not be adequately and entirely the first being; but he is so (Isa. 44: 6): ‘I am the first, and I am the last.’ He is the first; nothing is before him. Whereas, if he had bodily parts, and those finite, it would follow, God is made up of those parts which are not God; and that which is not God, is in order of nature before that which is God. So we see that if God were not a Spirit he could not be independent. [Charnock, Existence and Attributes of God, p. 186. Charnock often uses “Spirit” as a shorthand reference for simplicity]
In response to the Socinians who attack the doctrine of simplicity (DDS), Van Mastricht argues that the doctrine is true for the following reasons:
XXI. And this is true because he is: (1) the absolutely first being. Accordingly, if he were, by composition, one thing and another thing, there would be more than one first being, and of these beings, none would be absolutely first, because it would not be prior to all the other parts that coexist with it. In addition, if he were composite, he would require someone to compose him who was prior to the first being. (2) Independent, which would not be so, if his whole depended upon component parts, if the union of his parts depended upon someone to unite them and to preserve their union. (3) Immutable, for when there is a unification of parts by composition, then there can also occur a dissolution of those parts, and thus an alteration. (4) Infinite, for composing parts, since they cannot but be finite, cannot come together to produce something infinite. (5) Eternal, for that which has been composed has, from the one who composes it, a beginning through its construction, and can have an end through the dissolution of its parts. (6) Most perfect, not only because it is, in the consensus of all, more perfect to be goodness itself (for example) than merely good, wisdom itself than merely wise, but also because a part contains various imperfections, since it does not possess the perfection of the whole, and because a part requires someone to have made it a part of the whole. Finally, (7) if there is composition in God, then he is not the light in which there is no darkness, not pure deity: for parts, as they are doubtless diverse, could not constitute such pure deity. Therefore Justin rightly says in Questions and Answers to the Orthodox, question 144, “God does not exist in the likeness of the creature, such that what he is and has should be understood in terms of composition, as with created nature. And even in regard to the fact that God does possess a nature, he should still be understood in the same way: what he is and what he has, he possesses beyond all composition.” [Van Mastricht, Faith in the Triune God, vol.2 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), p. 144]
Each of his attributes is ontologically identical with his essence. There is nothing heterogeneous or divisions in God’s nature. There is no contradiction between the love of God that saves sinners and the holiness of God that judges and condemns sinners. God is eternal even when he acts in time. Carl Henry elaborates,
If God is noncomposite, and his essence and existence are identical, then all divine attributes are mutually inclusive. Each attribute in the nature of God interpenetrates every other attribute and no conflict or contrast among them is possible. God’s wisdom is his omnipotence, God’s omnipotence is his justice, God’s justice is his love, and so on. God and holiness, and God and love, are mutually exhaustive synonyms; Scripture itself testifies that “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and not simply that love is in God. No divine perfection is therefore inferior or subordinate to another; all God’s perfections are equally ultimate in the simplicity of his being. The Bible uses attributes to describe God and to express his essence, e.g., the Holy One, the Gracious One, the Most High. As Bavinck writes: “God’s attributes do not differ from his essence nor from one another” [Carl Henry, God Revelation and Authority, vol. 5 (Crossway, 1999), p. 132]
We cannot rank one attribute of God to be more important or essential than another, not even with the goal of ‘unifying’ them under one supreme attribute like love. It is God who acts, but not God’s love, or God’s power or justice; it is God in the unity of being (simplicity) who acts. We do not worship any divine attribute; we worship the personal God with all his attributes.
One of the reasons philosophers why reject divine simplicity is that it renders God unable to relate to his creation. Their argument goes as follows: Since God is simple then there can be no addition or subtraction to his nature. Genuine interaction between God and his creature entails real relations. Therefore, there can be no relations or interaction between God and his creature. However, this argument puts the Creator with creation on the same level. But God is pure actuality (without potentiality or potency) while the creature contingent with passive potency. As such, while interaction between God and his creatures may bring change to the creature, there is no change in the perfect nature of God.
Contrary to the skeptics, divine simplicity and immutability do not preclude the dynamism of God’s nature. That is to say, simplicity and immutabiliy does no entail immobility or inactivity. It is crucial that we distinguish two senses of immobility. (1) Contingent beings (with passive potency) can be immobile because they lack the ability to act, but (2) God who is pure actuality (immutable) cannot be moved to receive more actuality. Thomas Weinandy explains the difference between these two senses of immobility:
One should not be misled into thinking that God’s immutability is like the immutability of a rock only more so. What God and rocks appear to have in common is only the fact that they do not change. The reason for their unchangeableness is for polar-opposite reasons. The Rock of Gibraltar does not change or changes very little because it is hardly in act at all, and the change that it does undergo is mainly from outside causes—wind and rain. God is unchangeable not because he is inert or static like a rock, but for just the opposite reason. He is so dynamic, so active that no change can make him more active. He is act pure and simple. [Thomas Weinandy, Does God Change, pp. 78-79]
Since the nature of a rock is one of passive potency, immobility entails inertness. But the DDS denies that God is composed of act and potency. On the contrary, God is pure actuality or simplicity. As such, skeptics have wrongly equated immutability of God who is pure actuality with inactivity of contingent creatures defined by passive potency.
Weinandy elaborates in a later book, Does God Suffer,
What the critics consistently fail to grasp is that God’s immutability is not opposed to his vitality. Nor need one hold together in some dialectical fashion his immutability and his vibrancy, as if in spite of being immutable he is nonetheless dynamic. Rather, it is precisely God’s immutability as actus purus that guarantees and authenticates his pure vitality and absolute dynamism. Thus, when the critics assert that because Aquinas and the tradition believe God to be immutable they espouse a static and inert conception of God, they but demonstrate their own lack of understanding…In the final analysis divine simplicity furnishes the logic of immutability with its denial of act-potency composition and establishes the absoluteness of God’s immutability over against all relatively immutable spiritual substances. It further ensures that this immutability is really the unchangeableness of an absolute life and activity. [Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer (Uni. NotreDame, 2000), p. 124]
Herman Bavinck highlights the theological and religious significance of God’s simplicity and immutability.
Nevertheless, the doctrine of God’s immutability is highly significant for religion. The difference between the Creator and the creature hinges on the contrast between being and becoming. All that is creaturely is in process of becoming. It is changeable, constantly striving, in search of rest and satisfaction, and finds this rest only in him who is pure being without becoming. This is why, in Scripture, God is so often called the Rock (Deut. 32:4, 15, 18, 30, 31, 37; 1 Sam. 2:2; 2 Sam. 22:3, 32; Ps. 19:14; 31:3; 62:2, 7; 73:26; etc.). We humans can rely on him; he does not change in his being, knowing, or willing. He eternally remains who he is. Every change is foreign to God. In him there is no change in time, for he is eternal; nor in location, for he is omnipresent; nor in essence, for he is pure being. Christian theology frequently also expressed this last point in the term “pure actuality” (purus actua). Aristotle thus conceived God’s being as the “primary form” (reality) without any change (δυναμις), as absolute actuality (ἐνεργεια). Scholasticism, accordingly, began to speak of God as “utterly pure and simple actuality” to indicate that he is perfect and absolute being without any capability (potentia) for nonbeing or for being different. Boethius states, for example, that God does not change in essence “because he is pure actuality.”32 For that reason, too, the expression “causa sui” (his own cause) was avoided with reference to God. [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol.2. God and Creation (Baker, 2004), pp. 156-157]
This immutability, however, should not be confused with monotonous sameness or rigid immobility. Scripture itself leads us in describing God in the most manifold relations to all his creatures. While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states. Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself. There is change around, about, and outside of him, and there is change in people’s relations to him, but there is no change in God himself. In fact, God’s incomprehensible greatness and, by implication, the glory of the Christian confession are precisely that God, though immutable in himself, can call mutable creatures into being. Though eternal in himself, God can nevertheless enter into time and, though immeasurable in himself, he can fill every cubic inch of space with his presence. In other words, though he himself is absolute being, God can give to transient beings a distinct existence of their own. In God’s eternity there exists not a moment of time; in his immensity there is not a speck of space; in his being there is no sign of becoming. Conversely, it is God who posits the creature, eternity which posits time, immensity which posits space, being which posits becoming, immutability which posits change. There is nothing intermediate between these two classes of categories: a deep chasm separates God’s being from that of all creatures. It is a mark of God’s greatness that he can condescend to the level of his creatures and that, though transcendent, he can dwell immanently in all created beings. Without losing himself, God can give himself, and, while absolutely maintaining his immutability, he can enter into an infinite number of relations to his creatures. [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol.2. God and Creation, pp. 158-159]
It is precisely because of the simplicity and immutability of God that we can acknowledge the pathos of God without compromising the absolute existence of the immutable God.