God without Parts: The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

Recent trends in evangelical theology have called into question the traditional understanding of God’s being. For centuries, theologians have maintained that God is immutable and simple, that is, not composed of parts. Yet many recent philosophers of religion have found the doctrine to be untenable. Dr. James Dolezal argues for the importance of retaining divine simplicity while he discusses his dissertation in this fascinating look at the classic doctrine.


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33 Responses

  1. An other fascinating program. It’s interesting to note that the misunderstanding of God’s simplicity is an aspect of Richard Dawkin’s main objection to theism in his “God Delusion” pp. 157-8.
    Rejection of God’s simplicity is one of the heretical themes of Mormonism: Brigham Young declared: “…brother Joseph B. Nobles once told a Methodist…that the god they worshiped was the ‘Mormon’s’ Devil-a being without a body, whereas our God has a body, parts and passions” (Young, J.D. 5:331).
    Mormon scripture teaches: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” (D&C 130:22). LDS President Joseph F. Smith asserted: “I know that God is a being with body, parts … his parts and passions…”

    1. James

      Hi Jeff,
      I appreciate your interest in my work on divine simplicity. I am happy to report that it is under contract with Pickwick Publications and is presently being edited for publication either sometime later this year or early next year.

      1. James,

        Great, I will make sure the librarian at Greenville Seminary knows about this so we can order a copy for our library.

        Jeff Downs

  2. I am trying to hold the Trinity Foundation’s nose to this issue so maybe if I inform our opponents of this there will be enough motivation for Tom J to make some moves. Dr. Gordon Clark clearly rejected this doctrine of Absolute Divine Simplicity. This rejection was at the heart of his entire philosophy and I have catalogued his statements about this here: http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/theology-proper/divine-simplicity-and-scripturalism-part-2-by-drake.

    I have a question for the Reformed Forum. Is “to be” the same thing as “to be a person” to God?


  3. Also, as Muller points out in his PRD Vol 3 that Picet notes, “the perceptive will is properly speaking, the execution of a part of the decretive will, namely, that part which has determined what shall be revealed to, or enjoined upon, men in due time. ” (pg 460)

    So the will of God has parts? I agree but doesn’t that deny ADS?

  4. Bob Kirk

    Would it be possible to request your publisher (Wipf & Stock/Pickwick) to assign and ISBN and get it listed, pre-publication, on Amazon, so one can pre-order? Just read Paul Helm’s foreward at Helmsdeep and very much want to see more. Hopefully, the price to the public will be reasonable. With appreciation,

  5. David J. Houston

    I too just finished reading Helm’s review and am interested in getting a copy. Does James interact with the truthmaker accounts of Divine Simplicity a la Brower, Pruss, and Vallicella?

  6. James

    Hi David,
    Hopefully the book will be available in the near future. Yes, I do interact with the truthmaker account and argue that it provides a way out of the problems that plague the various “property accounts” of DDS defenders like Stump, Kretzmann, and Mann. In short, I conclude that God does not actually possess properties in a metaphysical sense. All talk about “divine properties” is simply an accommodation to our creaturely way of thinking. Among the truthmaker theorists, I found Jeffrey Brower to be the most useful for the Reformed and Thomistic view of simplicity. Thanks for your interest.

  7. David J. Houston

    Thanks for the reply, James. Brower softened my once cold heart to DDS and Vallicella’s ‘A Paradigm Theory of Existence’ made me a believer! I’m most interested now in the relationship between DDS and the Trinity. Do you address the Trinity in your book? Have you read Anderson’s ‘Paradox in Christian Theology’? If so, do you make use of it in your argument?

  8. David J. Houston

    Thanks for the reply, James. Brower softened my heart to hear about DDS and Vallicella made me a believer! Now I’m most interested in how DDS relates to the Trinity. Do you address the sorts of puzzles that come form combining the two? Have you read Anderson’s ‘Paradox in Christian Theology’? If so, do you make use of his argument in the book?

    1. James

      I’m glad to hear of someone else who appreciates Brower like I do. Many of his arguments seem tailor-made for the Reformed perspective (though I’m sure we were not on his radar when he was writing his articles). Unfortunately, the scope of my book did not allow me to wade into the Trinitarian waters; I focus almost entirely on the existence/essence side of things. It seemed necessary to get clear on these matters before entering into the question of how to relate divine simplicity to God’s three-personed manner of subsistence. I hope to treat that knotty question in a future article or two. Briefly though, it seems to me that many of the difficulties that the Trinity raises for simplicity nowadays can be tied to the modern tendency to treat divine three-personed subsistence as if it were just another essential divine attribute. Historically, God’s existence and essence have been formally distinguished from his manner of subsistence, even if acknowledged to be really identical in actuality. Absent this formal distinction, modern Christian theologians are bound to have serious difficulties with the DDS. Anyhow, one the best works on the Trinity that avoids the pitfalls (by my lights) is Gilles Emery’s “The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.”
      Yes, I have read Anderson’s book and found it to be immensely sophisticated and useful. I did not interact much with his material, though I’m sure my work would have been greatly improved if I had. To give you a feel for my general orientation, I depend heavily on John Wippel for my Thomistic metaphysics and on David Oderberg, Jeffrey Brower, and Barry Miller for more general philosophical matters. From the Reformed side of things I interact quite a bit with Francis Turretin, Stephen Charnock, Herman Bavinck, and Richard Muller.

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  12. Dave D

    Hi James,
    I know this is abit late but I’ve only seen this video discussion and read your book within the past couple of weeks.. I was just wondering about the tantalizing reference you make to Hugh McCann in the talk – your book doesn’t really mention him however.. I guess I’m just wondering if you could elaborate more on the whole modality-essence thing in relation to what McCann argues and how if God’s essence remains essentially hidden or unknowable to us at present then his being free to create the world also remains a mystery?

  13. James

    Hi Dave,
    Thank you for taking the time to read the book. Hugh McCann sent me the final chapter of his forthcoming volume after I had finished most of my writing (though I did briefly mention him on p. 211). His proposal, as I understand it, is that since God is simple he cannot be characterized according to de re modalities. He wants to say two things about God which could not be simultaneously said if God were subject to de re modalities: (1) in creating the world God could not have done otherwise (i.e., since he is pure act he has no passive potency toward some other act of will); and (2) in creating the world God did not have to do what he did. While these seem flatly contradictory according to any scheme of de re modality McCann’s argument is simply that our customary notions of freedom and necessity cannot be univocally (though I don’t think he uses this exact term) applied to God. McCann suggests that when speaking of God we need “a higher type of freedom, one transcending even the ‘libertarian’ variety.” I tend to agree with him. Unfortunately, I have not seen the other chapters in McCann’s volume, but you might want to read it when it comes out (http://www.amazon.com/Creation-Sovereignty-Indiana-Philosophy-Religion/dp/0253357144).

  14. Dave D

    Hi James,
    Thanks for the response – it certainly sounds intriguing and I’ll have to get hold of McCann’s book when it comes out. One other thing which I’ve found hard to understand with regards to simplicity is how we come to see that God is a personal agent i.e. to me it seems like all of these arguments get back to a first cause who is pure actuality/existence/form etc. and so immaterial, immutable, being itself – the problem is I have a hard time seeing how we deduce such a cause is a personal being.. in many respects I’m reminded of the Neoplatonic ‘One’ who is otherwise wholly impersonal and beyond ‘being’ – what stops this Thomistic/Aristotelian God being construed in essentially the same manner? (Interestingly Edward Feser did some posts on this a year or two back where he conceded that Plotinus’ arguments for the One were essentially the same as Aquinas’)
    I guess my worry is simply that it seems we can have this ‘being’ that is Pure Actuality etc. which gets the universe going and that’s all.. I can also see that what you say in the book about God being totally without need and self-sufficient in His being, therefore not needing to create the universe, is perhaps an implicit argument against Neoplatonism, as in theres no apparent reason why such a ‘being’ should emanate the rest of the created order if it is totally self-sufficient – perhaps this in itself proves that there is some kind of will at work which is identical with the Divine Being itself? Otherwise it would seem that there would simply be this impersonal pure actuality who just is existence and exists self-sufficiently and without anything else.
    Hope that makes sense and I’m not just rambling!
    Thanks again,

    1. James

      Hi Dave,
      You raise an important point with respect to whether or not the simple “One” is actually a personal agent (by which I assume you mean a volitional and intelligent agent). Feser is probably correct to point out the many formal similarities between the Neoplatonic and Thomistic arguments for God’s simplicity. But there are also numerous dissimilarities (though I fear that when Feser speaks of God as the “first member” of being, he unwittingly diminishes the sharp distinction between Thomas and Plotinus). Probably most important is that for Neoplatonists the world is not properly regarded as a creation, but rather an emanation. On this scheme the simple “One” spontaneously produces the world by an absolute necessity. Thus, there is no freedom of will involved (and perhaps no volitional act at all) and so no reason to suppose that Plotinus’ “One” is a personal agent. It seems to me, though, that emanationism actually undermines the very simplicity and pure actuality in which it is supposedly grounded. If the being of the One naturally requires the being of another, then the being of the One is correlative to another and so not purely actual after all (since there must be some real differentia by which they are distinguished). In other words, by denying that the One is a (freely) willing agent and that the world is a creation (rather than an emanation) it seems that Neoplatonism can no longer uphold God’s pure actuality. Neoplatonists plainly locate God within the same order of being as the world (i.e., as the top of the great chain of being) and thus are committed to a univocal account of God’s being (their many good arguments for the simplicity of the First Cause notwithstanding). Only a creation ex nihilo brought about by God’s free will can satisfy the demands for a simple First Cause (specifically, the demand that the First Cause not be existentially correlative to other beings, even those lower on a so-called “chain of being”). All Neoplatonists end up making God correlative to the world and to that extent diminishing his pure actuality. This is why I would insist that God’s pure actuality requires that we regard him as a personal agent. No agent that naturally emanates the world could be purely actual.
      By the way, I would say that the Thomistic God is both a personal agent and purely actual inasmuch as Thomas recognized that only a God who creates the world freely and ex nihilo could satisfy the requirements for absolute simplicity. Aristotle never achieved this since he lacked a doctrine of creation and held that God is eternally correlative to matter. Aristotle’s god is not truly pure act since he is differentiated from matter precisely by his lack of the actuality exhibited by eternal matter.
      Anyhow, I hope these thoughts are helpful is some way.

  15. Dave D

    I’d also just like to say I’m grateful for your book and what you’re attempting to defend in it. I think we need more people to uphold the view of God you’re espousing – many Christian philosophers and apologists today seem to have the kind of less-than-Absolute God in mind when writing their works. To me men like Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards paint such a massive, awe-inspiring picture of God and His nature that it seems this has to and should be a key element in combating many of the New Atheist thinkers. The problem I find with Dawkins etc. is that their view of God is so crude, anthropomorphic and, sometimes, petty that I’m not surprised nobody believes in the god they’re presenting. For that reason I think we need more people like Ed Feser, John Piper (and yourself?) etc. who are distilling some of the more abstract work of these great thinkers to a more readable level (though obviously there’s only so far you can go in doing that without losing the essence of their thought). Anyway I’m certainly grateful for men like Plantinga, Craig etc. but I think in the midst of their arguments from the fine-tuning, the kalam, the EAAN etc. we often lose sight of the truly massive picture of the Being who stands behind this created order – that picture needs to be painted more.
    (On a related note it certainly seems to me that Dawkins totally misunderstands Aquinas in the God Delusion, misrepresents some of his arguments, ignores the Aristotelian metaphysics and dismisses him in about 3 pages – despite literally volumes of work written by and about Aquinas in the past 1000 years. Certainly if he’d have represented him correctly he might have noticed that his ‘central argument’ against God’s existence based on His apparent ‘complexity’ doesn’t hold much water with classical theism and DDS).
    Thanks again,

    1. James

      Thank you for your kind remarks. I whole-heartedly concur with your thoughts here about needing to present an awe-inspiring God who is radically other than his creation and who alone supplies the reason for our existence. Only such a God is worthy of our worship. Some, no doubt, will think Feser and Piper to be strange bedfellows, but both have done fine work in helping us see the wonder and absolute sufficiency of our Triune God.
      All the best,

  16. Aron

    Hello James,

    I recently read, and greatly benefited from, your book: thank you. In this program you gave a qualified but high recommendation of Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?; I’m wondering if you have read, and if so, if you would recommend as highly, his Does God Change?. I read the former, and am now reading the latter. I ask because in his dealing with the kenosis theory(ies) he barely mentions Phil. 2 and I’d like to see it dealt with exegetically with this question in mind.

    I would appreciate any help you can offer.

    Thank you,
    Aron G.

  17. Rob Steele

    Great stuff! I often try to get atheists to see some of this by saying:

    Since God is self-existent he is his own context.

    The universe has its being in God rather than vice versa.

    God is to us approximately as we are to fictional characters.

    As far as I can tell it never works. They never seem to accept the idea that there could be a more fundamental level of reality than our own.

    1. Kevin Vasquez

      Exactly! I’m a freshman in college and so when I explained to my ethics/”critical thinking” professor about why Euthyphro’s Dilemma does NOT apply to the Christian God incorporating many aspects of DDS, he seemed surprise and could offer no argument! It was as if he has never heard anyone explain God’s being in contrast to the Greek gods using DDS! Much less from a freshman 😉

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  19. Kevin Vasquez

    Hello Dr. Dolezal,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your book a lot. I have really begun to see the majesty of the very God of Scripture and it is so amazing to learn doctrine such as DDS.

    Just wanted to ask, have you ever interacted with philosopher Ryan Mullins? He wrote an article (I think that’s what it’s called or something) where he treated DDS. He was arguing against it and so I’m not sure if you have interacted with him. If so, can you please give me the link. If not, then you should! 😉

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