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Something So Simple I Shouldn’t Have to Say It

[Update from the Editor: December 5, 2019] At the author’s request, we had temporarily removed this essay. Westminster Theological Seminary is reviewing the theology of Dr. Oliphint and have asked that faculty members (including adjunct faculty) refrain from blogging, podcasting, or writing about the thesis of Dr. Oliphint’s book, God With Us. At the time, the author was an adjunct faculty member and was made aware of this policy following the initial publication of this essay. The author has since resigned his position due to the handling of matters regarding Dr. Lane G. Tipton.

Following a previous essay, I continue a series of interactions with the first edition of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint’s God With Us.[1] I want to consider Dr. Oliphint’s treatment of the biblical, confessional, and sadly much misunderstood and maligned doctrine of divine simplicity. That this doctrine has been a bulwark of orthodoxy is something so simple and straightforward I should not even have to say anything, but alas, I must say something.

It seems clear to me that while Dr. Oliphint ostensibly affirms a kind of divine simplicity, his unique doctrine also presents something of a two-natured God, which undermines whatever affirmation of the doctrine he may offer. Let me be transparent. This is not now, nor has it ever been, a personal issue. It is all a matter of doctrinal fidelity and clarity. There would be nothing better than to see Dr. Oliphint issue a revised and improved edition of his God With Us.[2] That being said, let’s begin by formulating a simple doctrine of simplicity.

The Doctrine of Simplicity

The doctrine of divine simplicity affirms that God is not made up of more basic parts (or any parts whatsoever). Perhaps two illustrations will help us understand this. First, consider a brick wall. A brick wall is a single thing, right? Yes and no. Yes, it is one thing: a wall. But it is made up of more basic or primitive parts, namely: bricks and mortar. Second, my wife makes a wonderful Johnny Cake (cornbread). It is one thing: a Johnny Cake. But as I watch my wife make the Johnny Cake, I see that she uses many ingredients. She uses corn meal, eggs, butter, salt, sugar, etc. We say that the ingredients that go into making the Johnny Cake are more basic than the Johnny Cake itself. In like manner, bricks and mortar are more basic than the brick wall.

The doctrine of divine simplicity is formulated from biblical texts and the implications we can draw from them that God is not made up of more basic ingredients (e.g. Deut. 4:15–16; John 4:24; Luke 24:39). We cannot even think of the three persons that way. God the Father is not one-third of the Triune Godhead, the Son another third, and the Spirit yet another. Each person of the Godhead is wholly God and the full God due to the mutual interpenetration of the persons in one another (called perichoresis in Greek or circumincessio in Latin).[3]

You may be wondering what the big deal is. Perhaps this all strikes you as so much abstract philosophizing. But it isn’t. Before we turn to Dr. Oliphint’s formulation of the dual-layered nature of God, let’s consider some implications of the doctrine of divine simplicity and connections it may have with other aspects of what we know about God as revealed in the pages of Scripture and developed in systematic theology (see the Westminster Confession of Faith chapters 2, 5, and 8; the Larger Catechism Q&A 7, 10, and 12; and the Shorter Catechism Q&A 4).

The doctrine of divine simplicity is inextricably tied up with God’s other attributes. This should not surprise us since God is simple. Properly understood, God is his attributes. Divine simplicity articulates the truth that God is not made up of ingredients that are more basic than he. As the WCF 2.1 has it, “God is without body, parts, or passions. . .” There is no before or after with God. This is divine simplicity seen in terms of time. There also is no here or there with God’s location, since he fills all space. This is what divine immensity is about. It is divine simplicity with regard to space. Also related is the doctrine of divine aseity. God is a se, from himself. As Cornelius Van Til was fond of saying, God is the “self-contained ontological Trinity.”[4] That is, God is absolutely independent. Whereas we as creatures are dependent on God, he is never dependent upon us. God is also pure act(ion) meaning he has no unactualized potential. God is an utterly immutable, simple dynamic perichoretic Triune being.

This ties closely into God’s omnipotence and omniscience. God could not be all-powerful or all-knowing if he is not a se or simple. If God was not simple, he could get stronger or weaker. If God was not simple, he could discover new truth he did not know before or he could forget knowledge he had once possessed. To say that God is simple is to affirm divine immutability. God does not change. Even the incarnation does not change this. God the Son united himself to a true human nature, a “true body and a reasonable soul” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 22 has it. The Son as to his divine nature did not change in the incarnation. Yes, a human nature was added to the divine nature. But the person of the divine logos was the person of the God-man Jesus Christ. That is, the Son as to his divine nature did not undergo change in the incarnation even though his human nature most assuredly did.[5]

God With Us and Simplicity

Now that we have given a brief definition of divine simplicity as God not having more basic or primitive parts (elements or ingredients) in terms of time or space that can be gained or lost, let us consider what Dr. Oliphint says in his book God With Us that might relate to this subject. I will not be citing or referencing every possible instance of relevant material but providing clear illustrations of statements that relate to divine simplicity followed by some interaction and analysis. Before we look at a few instances of Dr. Oliphint’s thinking, I will seek to provide a brief overview of his articulation of the God/world or Creator/creature distinction and relation.

Dr. Oliphint argues in God With Us that in order for God to relate to his creation he has to take on properties or attributes which he would otherwise not have. To accommodate this, Dr. Oliphint distinguishes between God’s essential nature and his covenantal nature. He also speaks of essential and covenantal attributes or properties. We need to realize that the term “covenant” has a unique or idiosyncratic working definition in God With Us. According to Dr. Oliphint, God’s essential nature is immutable, but his covenantal nature (comprised of created, covenantal, human properties) is changeable.[6]

Dr. Oliphint seems to believe he maintains biblical and Reformed orthodoxy by maintaining the mere existence of God’s essential nature. But in this schema, there are two senses in which divine simplicity is denied in fact even if not in intention. First, the very distinction between God’s essential nature and his covenantal nature, brought about by the assumption of covenantal properties or attributes is itself a contravention of the doctrine of divine simplicity. Second, the covenantal nature is itself changeable or mutable, not to say malleable. To sum up my concerns, Dr. Oliphint has ontologized in his theological formulation what has been understood by the vast majority of the Christian tradition as a relation between the absolutely immutable Creator and his changeable creatures.

The following are examples of Dr. Oliphint’s view that God had to assume covenantal properties in order to relate to his creation (bolded italics mine):

First, there can be no question that God appears to his people from the beginning. These appearances of God entail that he is making himself known by way of properties and qualities that would otherwise not belong to him.”[7]

God’s covenantal character includes, at least, the span of covenant history . . .”[8]

The Son of God had been appearing to the saints throughout redemptive history. He did that by temporarily taking on various qualities and characteristics in order to be with His people, to speak to Moses and the prophets, etc.[9]

The mediation of God (the Son) is, to use Turretin’s word, theandric [divine human union]; it includes, necessarily, both the divine and the human. In the same way, therefore, and proleptically, the mediation of God (the Son) prior to the incarnation is theandric as well. The point is not that it includes the permanent assumption of a human nature, as is the case in the incarnation, but that it includes the fact of God’s taking to himself created, covenantal, human properties, all the while maintaining, as he must, his essential divinity.[10]

Dr. Oliphint goes further and notes that these assumed covenantal attributes are not just “improper” or metaphorical ways of speaking. They really do exist:

. . . those covenantal attributes of God’s are no less ‘literal’ than are his essential attributes. God’s repentance, then, is not simply something that ‘seems to us’ like repentance. It is literal repentance, he is (covenantally) changing directions because of his faithfulness to his covenant. But it is repentance of a condescended, covenant God who has come down . . .[11]

On the contrary, as we have seen, we can truthfully predicate both aspects and properties of Christ; the communicatio [communication of sharing of attributes] means that both aspects of Christ’s character can (and must) be affirmed. So also with God. He both is immutable andin his condescension takes on covenantal properties in order really and truly to relate himself to us.[12]

Briefly put, explanations of God’s interaction with creation have tended in one of two directions. Either God gives up aspects of his essential character and is, thereby, essentially constrained by his creation, or those passages in Scripture that indicate constraint or limitation in God as he interacts with creation are metaphorical or somehow ‘improper.’ Neither of these tendencies allow the proper, gospel emphasis of Scripture to shine.[13]

Rather, the God who is immutable and whose plan and purpose for creation and his people will not fail nevertheless can and does relent.[14]

So why does God say of himself, “Now I know . . .”? He says this, in part, not because he wants us to map this expression of his knowledge onto his essential character. Rather, we have to take seriously God’s condescension. Once God condescends, we should recognize that, in taking to himself covenantal properties, he takes to himself as well the kind of knowledge (and will, to be discussed later) that accrues to those properties. Or, to put it another way, one of the covenantal properties that he takes to himself is the development of knowledge that is conducive to his interaction with his creation generally, and specifically with his people.[15]

These selections should clearly indicate that Dr. Oliphint has provided us with a new understanding of how God condescendingly relates to us creatures. Dr. Oliphint is forthright about this on page 43 of God With Us. If it was not new, it would altogether eliminate the raison d’etre for the book. With this formulation of the doctrine of God, how can one avoid seeing a schizophrenic God who has a dual-layered nature that is essentially immutable but covenantally open to the future free actions of his creatures? How can one avoid making God dependent upon his creatures? Do we have access to the essential God or only his mutable covenantal nature? Is God even capable of a relation according to his essential nature? This appears to me to be an unstable mixture of the classical theistic and the open theistic views of God. The orthodox tradition has rightly understood these to be incommensurable. And so it rests on the church to answer these questions in humble submission to her Lord as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures.

[1] K. Scott Oliphint, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). I have drawn from a few other sources for instances of Dr. Oliphint’s thinking.

[2] Dr. Oliphint has indicated that he is in the process of revising God With Us. We anticipate a greatly improved version of the book.

[3] See Dr. Richard A. Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Being Drawn Principally From Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

[4] See Cornelius Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology and Defense of the Faith for this kind of language.

[5] See the Chalcedonian Formula for an orthodox understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures in one person of Jesus Christ. Each nature retains its proper characteristics while being joined together in one person, namely the eternal divine Logos.

[6] While Dr. Oliphint does note that the covenantal attributes are created, covenantal, and human, it is not clear that he maintains that clear distinction throughout his writings on covenantal attributes nor does it improve his doctrinal view one iota.

[7] Oliphint, God With Us, 182.

[8] K. Scott Oliphint, “Tolle Lege: A Brief Response to Paul Helm,” Reformation21, accessed February 16, 2019, http://www.reformation21.org/articles/tolle-lege-a-brief-response-to-paul-helm.php.

[9] K. Scott Oliphint, The Majesty of the Mystery: Celebrating the Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 74.

[10] Oliphint, God With Us, 198.

[11] Oliphint, God With Us, 219.

[12] Oliphint, God With Us, 191

[13] Oliphint, God With Us, 198.

[14] Oliphint, God With Us, 186.

[15] Oliphint, God With Us, 194.


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