Bavinck and Divine Simplicity
a fountain or pit, wherein there is plenty of water, shall be clean:
but that which toucheth their carcase shall be unclean.'
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
Scriptural texts against
neo-Platonic Divine Simplicity
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.
'Every attribute of God is identical with God's being by reason of the
fact that every one of his virtues is absolutely perfect'.
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.'
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)
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.
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.'
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'.
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.'
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.'
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...'
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
8. 'All his attributes are divine attributes; hence infinite: identical with his being.'
what meaningful sense is His patience infinite if He exercises justice,
in what sense is His justice infinite if He exercises patience?
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
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'
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
Without a scriptural anchor, we are in danger of being caught up by Euroclydon.
'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.'
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".
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.'
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 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.'