A response to John Owen's brief defence of Divine Simplicity in Vindicae Evangelicae


'...behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?' 1 Ki.19.9 

It is with considerable reticence and embarrassment that we here respond to the pen of a redoubtable and valiant defender of the faith. John Owen has rightly been described as a Prince of Theologians, and as Prince of the Covenants. We heartily commend the reading of his work the Vindicae Evangelicae, in which he exposes the rampant heresy of the Socinian catechism of a Mr Biddle. Yet we believe in championing the doctrine of Divine Simplicity to do so, as Turretin also chooses to do, he has taken carnal arms to disarm a spiritual foe, carnal arms which are neither necessary to the task, and indeed both inconsistent with and ultimately injurious to the cause of Christ. To those who consider the championing of the doctrine of Divine Simplicity essential to Orthodoxy, we urge a careful consideration of its origin, its complete absence of scriptural support and its similarly vigorous advocacy by extreme heretics like the Eunomians, opponents of the Cappadocian theologians, Maimonides, Muslim philosopher theologians (like Ibn Sina, Al Kindi and Al Farabi) and the neo-Platonist philosophers whose deity is an impersonal Simplex, who reaches his apotheosis in Plotinus' Enneads.

And this may suffice to this exception of Mr B., by the way, against the simplicity of the being of God; yet, because he doth not directly oppose it afterward, and the asserting of it doth clearly evert all his following fond imaginations of the shape, corporeity, and limitedness of the essence of God (to which end also I shall, in the consideration of his several depravations of the truth concerning the nature of God, insist upon it), I shall a little here divert to the explication of what we intend by the simplicity of the essence of God, and confirm the truth of what we so intend thereby. As was, then, intimated before, though simplicity seems to be a positive term, or to denote something positively, yet indeed it is a pure negation, f119 and formally, immediately, and properly, denies multiplication, composition, and the like. And though this only it immediately denotes, yet there is a most eminent perfection of the nature of God thereby signified to us; which is negatively proposed, because it is in the use of things that are proper to us, in which case we can only conceive what is not to be ascribed to God. Now, not to insist on the metaphysical notions and distinctions of simplicity, by the ascribing of it to God we do not only deny that he is compounded of divers principles really distinct, but also of such as are improper, and not of such a real distance, or that he is compounded of any thing, or can be compounded with any thing whatever.

First, then, that this is a property of God’s essence or being is manifest from his absolute independence and firstness in being and operation, which God often insists upon in the revelation of himself: Isaiah 44:6, “I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.” Revelation 1:8, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is,” etc.: so chap. 21:6, 22:13. Which also is fully asserted, Romans 11:35, 36, “Who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? for of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever.” Now, if God were of any causes, internal or external, any principles antecedent or superior to him, he could not be so absolutely first and independent. Were he composed of parts, accidents, manner of being, he could not be first; for all these are before that which is of them, and therefore his essence is absolutely simple.

The lynch pin here is, 'Were he composed of parts, accidents, manner of being, he could not be first.' That God's being is eternal and that He is the sole, independent originator and cause of all things is well substantiated from these texts and not disputed. However the method of His creation is abundantly clear, it is by the Agency of His Word (Gen.1.3,6,9,11,14,20,22,24,  John 1.1-3, Prov.8.22-31 (incidentally the AV translation of קנני is strongly to be commended), Psalm 33.6,9). This perception is integral to true faith (Heb.11.3). In the special creation of man He takes counsel with His Word (Gen.1.26,27,29). Whether the preexistence of His Word, with Him, yet of Him and executing His will is compatible with a purely homogenous and absolutely simple nature is doubtful. It is exceedingly doubtful that the first proponents of Simplicity in the First Cause would be content with such a construction. There is relation and distinction between the Speaker and the Spoken, the Father and the Son which precludes simple and  absolute identity, it would be erroneous to claim that the Word is the Father or that the Father is the Son, yet these statements are the necessary corollary of claiming that both share one simple, same essence, i.e. that they are actually identical. This relation and distinction is we believe compatible with the essential unity of God declared in the Shema' and the great command (Deut.6.4-6), but not with absolute essential identity of an absolutely simple kind. These relations and this distinction also impinge on the essential character of both, the Son speaks of His own self, and of the Father's self (John 17.5) of His own and of the Father's being (Luke 10.22), of the love the Father eternally bore Him (John 17.23,26) and scripture witnesses to a state of eternal communion between them (John 1.18), these expressions too are compatible only with a complex and heterogeneous essence, a compound consistent with the Hebrew of the Shema and wholly alien to a philosophical concept of Simplex, as the philosophers themselves are prime witnesses.

Secondly, God is absolutely and perfectly one and the same, and nothing differs from his essence in it: “The LORD our God is one LORD,” Deuteronomy 6:4; “Thou art the same,” Psalm 102:27. And where there is an absolute oneness and sameness in the whole, there is no composition by an union of extremes. Thus is it with God: his name is, “ I AM; I AM THAT I AM,” Exodus 3:14, 15; “Which is,” Revelation 1:8. He, then, who is what he is, and whose all that is in him is, himself, hath neither parts, accidents, principles, nor any thing else, whereof his essence should be compounded.

That the Shema' provides primary evidence for a relational not simple unity has already been argued elsewhere. The proof of God's glorious immutability very properly derived from texts like Ps.102.27 or Malachi 3.6 is important to Simplicity. If God is immutable in an absolute and rigorously extended sense, then He cannot be considered to relate, react, feel, think in any sense that we can appreciate, moreover His perception and knowledge of all things must be understood in such a way that it introduces no change in His being. Plotinus does this by separating perception from the Simplex, and advocates of Simplicity seem to follow. Whether such far reaching inductions are wholly accurate I leave aside for now, however what is clearly the focus of the psalmist is primarily on the vast contrast between the transient nature of all created things and their eternal Creator, and on the assurance this provides His people that His relationship with them and His purpose toward them are much less subject to decay or change than the most permanent objects in Heaven. This seems to be especially intended in the phrase, 'Thou art the same' or 'Thou art the selfsame' as another translation puts it. The Hebrew literall reads 'וְאַתָּה-הוּא' or 'Thou [art] He', Thou art the still One who convenanted, Who redeemed, Who forbore and forgave, Who judged and vindicated, Thou art and always will be Him. That a pressed extrapolation of this principle of immutability leads to an Essence incapable of relationality or relation within let alone outside itself is evident from the writings of its purest advocates, and seems to have transformed a comforting attribute of the Divine Father into the idolatrous altar of devotion to a philosophical principle more akin to the worship of a mineral, than the supra-relational Being, Who is the author and architect of all relations. As to the question of the Sacred Name and its meaning and significance to the essence of the Godhead, I defer this weighty consideration to elsewhere, but it will be manifestly seen to be most alien to the conception that the Divine Essence is a simple, same, homogeneous entity.

Thirdly, The attributes of God, which alone seem to be distinct things in the essence of God, are all of them essentially the same with one another, and every one the same with the essence of God itself. For, first, they are spoken one of another as well as of God; as there is his “eternal power” as well as his “Godhead.” And, secondly, they are either infinite and infinitely perfect, or they are not. If they are, then if they are not the same with God, there are more things infinite than one, and consequently more Gods; for that which is absolutely infinite is absolutely perfect, and consequently God. If they are not infinite, then God knows not himself, for a finite wisdom cannot know perfectly an infinite being. And this might be farther confirmed by the particular consideration of all kinds of composition, with a manifestation of the impossibility of their attribution unto God; arguments to which purpose the learned reader knows where to find in abundance.

The logic is easy to impeach, even in the accessible conceptual world there are different orders of infinity, some theoretically countable (integers) others not (real numbers). So within a finite portion of an infinite entity, there may yet be infinite properties or subdivisions. What seems easy and intuitively correct in this field may readily prove to be mistaken. Yet how much more inaccessible to our feeble minds are spiritual realities than the realm of theoretical mathematics, itself far below the substance of earthly revelations (Jn.3.12). It is wiser to stick to the guiderope (Deut.29.29), than to wander off into a speculative morass in order to prove a favoured idea, but where is the proof in scripture of the pagan notion of Divine Simplicity?

Fourthly, Yea, that God is, and must needs be, a simple act (which expression Mr B. fixes on for the rejection of it) is evident from this one consideration, which was mentioned before: If he be not so, there must be some potentiality in God. Whatever is, and is not a simple act, hath a possibility to be perfected by act; if this be in God, he is not perfect, nor all-sufficient. Every composition whatever is of power and act; which if it be, or might have been in God, he could not be said to be immutable, which the Scripture plentifully witnesseth that he is. These are some few of the grounds of this affirmation of ours concerning the simplicity of the essence of God; which when Mr B. removes and answers, he may have more of them, which at present there is no necessity to produce.

Here is reasoning straight from the scholastics, and Thomas' Summa, and beyond them the metaphysics of the philosophers, but it is bereft of revelatory foundation. Indeed it savours of precisely those worldly principles of observable causation (the rudiments of the world or στοιχεια του κοσμου)which the Apostle warns against (Col.2.8, which passage should be meditated upon carefully by all examiners of this question). Therefore this must be regarded as wholly unsound for building upon.
                            Poor foundation

1. Suarez. Metaph. tom. 2:disput. 30, sect. 3; Cajetan. de Ente et Essen. cap ii.

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