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Bavinck and Divine Simplicity
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'Nevertheless a fountain or pit, wherein there is plenty of water, shall be clean: but that which toucheth their carcase shall be unclean.'
Lev. 11.36
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Herman Bavinck is a profound and serious theologian, presented as a 'model of exhaustive and balanced exegesis'. His Doctrine of God is described as 'an unusually accurate and authoritative volume'. Here we consider briefly his section on Divine Simplicity, and ask whether it too has been profaned by the touch of Plotinus pagan philosophy.
The subject of Divine Simplicity comsidered
Scriptural texts against neo-Platonic Divine Simplicity
Simple?The Doctrine of God: The Incommunicable Attributes

Defences of Divine Simplicity
A. Historical sources of the doctrine

1. God's being is described by abstract nouns, not by adjectives alone.

Truth, life, light, love, wisdom. Jer. 10.10, 23.6, Jn. 1.4,5.9; 14.6, 1 Cor.1.30, 1 Jn.1.5; 4.8.

2. 'Every attribute of God is identical with God's being by reason of the fact that every one of his virtues is absolutely perfect'.

Is God patient, or forebearing, or longsuffering? Is the exercise of these attributes without any limit? Is God all patience, without any alloy? All forebearance, without just action? All longsuffering without any imposition of justice? Or are there real and important exceptions to this statement? (Ex.32.10, Deut.9.14,19, Gen.18.32, Num.16.22,45, Jer.15.1, Ezek.14.14 etc.)

3. 'God is one in every respect. He is whatever He has. He is his own wisdom, his own life; being and life are one in him.'

Does God have jealousy? Is He justly furious? Is He capable of retribution and vengeance? Is He than His own anger, jealousy and retribution? Again is this assertion not curtailed by the reality of God we perceive in scripture. (Nah.1.2,6, Isa.63.1-6, Rev.6.17, 19.15, Lam.1.12,15, etc)

Bavinck seems to somewhat mischaracterise the Eunomians, though their writings are only accessible now in their refutations, by suggesting they mischaracterise Divine Simplicity, by stripping God of His attributes. However this is precisely what pure and consistent advocacy of Simplicity has entailed from the beginning. Theologians who try to meld simplicity and Divine complexity or defend the possession of 'accidental' attributes are the ones who need to justify themselves not the more devoted disciples and heirs of Plotinus.

B That it is not a metaphysical abstraction.
Simplicity is 'of the greatest importance for the knowledge of God'. It is noteworthy that there is not one direct scripture quote for the whole of the next two sections.

4. 'It is plainly taught by scripture, where God is called light, life, love etc.'

This line of argument does not impress, light, life and love are each exceedingly complex, composite, non homogeneous arrangements.

5 'It is also implied by the very idea of God and in the other attributes'.
'If God be composed of parts, as a body is composed of parts, of genus and differentia, substance and accident, matter and form.. his perfection, unity, and immutability cannot be maintained.'

Are the perfection, unity and immutability in mind here the Divine attributes and characteristics described by the scriptures, or are they the more absolute philosophical attributes rigidly founded upon a presupposition of simplicity?

6. 'On that basis [that of composition], he cannot be love in the highest sense of the term, for then there is in God a subject which loves, and love itself; the same would also apply to the other attributes.'

Is there both a Beloved and a Lover in the Godhead or not? If not who does God actually love? If there is no distinction within the Godhead, a fault and flaw in His absolute simplicity (as far as Plotinus would see it), doesn't it make the claim that God is love completely meaningless? Plotinus seemed to recognise no love or affection in Deity. How then does asserting simplicity in any way support the knowledge of Who God is? Does it not rather destroy it?

7.
'God is not then [if the exercise of love and its object may be distinguished] the One "than whom no better thought can be thought." We must therefore maintain God's aseity [His absolute self-sufficiency]; that there is nothing  above him; hence wisdom, grace, love etc., are identical with his being; he is absolutely perfect...'

Actually His self-sufficiency is completely demolished if He is perfectly Simple, in any meaningful sense as defined by its philosophical architects, which is precisely why they had no conception of Him as perfect and omnipotent Compassion, but rather as a formless and impersonal Being, entirely bereft of feeling or affection. If His being is not just equal to but identical with perfect wisdom, identical with perfect grace, identical with perfect justice and identical with perfect love, is not the necessary corollary that wisdom, justice, grace and love are actually truly and perfectly identical? Is God not actually a self contradiction if He is truly and perfectly non-composite?
 
8. 'All his attributes are divine attributes; hence infinite: identical with his being.'

In what meaningful sense is His patience infinite if He exercises justice, in what sense is His justice infinite if He exercises patience?
Is all His being simple patience without alloy or admixture? Is all His being pure vengeance, without any desire for exercise of mercy by just and lawful means? Or is this statement attractive but inconsistent and incoherent wordplay?

9. 'The idea of God's simplicity is not the result of abstraction; i.e., it is not arrived at by eliminating from the concept of God all oppositions and distinctions which pertain to creatures, and by describing him as the being in whom there are no opposition'

Simplicity has indeed been changed from its original sense, and has now become an exceedingly plastic and complex term. Can it mean whatever one wants it to mean?
Without a scriptural anchor, we are in danger of being caught up by Euroclydon.

10. 'On the contrary, God's simplicity is the result of ascribing to God all creaturely perfections in the most complete and divine manner. By describing God as "simplest essence" we designate him as perfect essence...Hence God's simplicity does not exclude the many names ascribed to him - as Eunomius thought - but demands them.'

Bavinck is to be congratulated for defending and averring the Divine attributes vigorously, but not by trying to squeeze them into the wineskin of a modified simplicity, that lacks any recognisable coherence or resemblance to simplicity as its original advocates defined it, and is completely devoid of scriptural support. It has now become a 'silly putty' idea, a phantasm of imagination. What does simplicity now actually mean? It is full of all creaturely perfections, almost all of which rely upon composition for their excellence. Is any creaturely perfection actually truly and perfectly non composite, non complex, not profoundly interdependent? How much more complex, non homogeneous, composite and interdependent, the Divine Substance of the creaturely analogy? God is perfectly One in His complexity. (Deut. 6.4,5, Lk. 10.22, 1 Jn.5.7)

11. 'God is "simple" in his "multiplicity" and "multifold" in his "simplicity".

Plotinus, Plato and the Greek philosophers would marvel at this language, it wrests definition and erects their altar upon a foreign base, not so much a Christian one, as an incoherent one.

12. 'The term simple is not used as an antonym for "twofold" or "threefold," but of compound.'

Where in scripture or in the writings of the framers of the doctrine of simplicity is such an idea propounded? If there is a real 'fold' a real distinction or demarcation, not merely an apparent one, how is the object being described actually simple as opposed to complex, and in what sense is a being not compound, if it is actually complex, there being real and significant essential distinctions within its being? Either one must deny the reality of the internal relations and distinctions or one must deny the reality of simplicity.


Comments on Plotinus
As a general observation, I am not convinced Bavinck accurately characterises Plotinus view of the Primary Principle, the Simplex, when Bavinck writes on the concept of Divine 'becoming' as opposed to 'being' as a key characteristic of heresy, he observes, 'Plotinus more than any one else made use of this concept, and he applied it not only to matter but also to that which he regarded as absolute being. He taught that God brought forth his own being, that he was active before he existed.' (p.150 in Hendriksen's Banner of Truth translation).
It's not my task to defend Plotinus, I hate his doctrine, and his 'deity' is utterly abhorrent an impersonal power or energy, however it's a grave mistake to mischaracterise his views. His basic view is that the Simplex is self existent, self supporting, primordial to all, including intellect, perception and reflection, and that creating actions and characteristics spring from this source, Simplex.
The quotes reveal the panentheistic nature of his thinking.
Bavinck's defence may lay in seeing Deity as the whole composite of First Principle, Intellect and the other attributes and powers that spring from it as Deity. However that admission is to absolutely deny Simplicity pertains to Deity, at least in Plotinus' writing.

Ennead 2, ninth tractate, para 1:

'Even in calling it "The First" we mean no more than to express that it is the most absolutely simplex: it is the SelfSufficing only in the sense that it is not of that compound nature which would make it dependent upon any constituent; it is "the Self Contained" because everything contained in something alien must also exist by that alien.

Deriving, then, from nothing alien, entering into nothing alien, in no way a madeup thing, there can be nothing above it. We need not, then, go seeking any other Principles; this the One and the Good is our First; next to it follows the Intellectual Principle, the Primal Thinker; and upon this follows Soul. Such is the order in nature. The Intellectual Realm allows no more than these and no fewer.' (McKenna's translation)

Or para 10.
These are very near to the unneeding, to that which has no need of Knowing, they have abundance and intellection authentically, as being the first to possess. But, there is that before them which neither needs nor possesses anything, since, needing or possessing anything else, it would not be what it is the Good.'


and again,

'And this surprises no one: though it is in fact astonishing how all that varied vitality springs from the unvarying, and how that very manifoldness could not be unless before the multiplicity there were something all singleness; for, the Principle is not broken into parts to make the total; on the contrary, such partition would destroy both; nothing would come into being if its cause, thus broken up, changed character.

Thus we are always brought back to The One.'


It is true that Plotinus believes the First Principle is so 'fundamental' so simple and independent, it doesn't actually exist, it is not!
Then again it is not for me to relieve the godless of their own oxymorons.

2nd Ennead, 9th tractate, para 10.
'Certainly this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source, its nature is that nothing can be affirmed of it not existence, not essence, not life since it is That which transcends all these.

But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel.'

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