Bavinck On Divine Simplicity

Now Christian theology has always been more or less conscious of this calling. On the whole, its teaching has been that God is “simple,” that is, sublimely free from all composition, and that therefore one cannot make any real [i.e., ontological] distinction between his being and his attributes. Each attribute is identical with God’s being: he is what he possesses. In speaking of creatures we make all sorts of distinctions between what they are and what they have. A person, for example, is still human even though he or she has lost the image of God and has become a sinner. But in God all his attributes are identical with his being. God is light through and through; he is all mind, all wisdom, all logos, all spirit, and so forth. In God “to be is the same as to be wise, which is the same as to be good, which is the same as to be powerful. One and the same thing is stated whether it be said that God is eternal or immortal or good or just.” Whatever God is, he is that completely and simultaneously. “God has no properties but is pure essence. God’s properties are really the same as his essence: they neither differ from his essence nor do they differ materially from each other.”68

68. Augustine, The Trinity, VI, 7; John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, I, 9; T. Aquinas, Summa theol., I, qu. 2, art. 3; H. Heppe, Dogmatik der evangelisch-reformierten Kirche, 42, 51–53; H. F. F. Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 122.

—Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, trans. John Bolt and John Vriend, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 118.

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  1. Dr Clark, I agree with what this quote says. How would you respond to Christian Universalists who say that because the above is true, God’s patience cannot come to an end and therefore all people will eventually be saved? Obviously Scripture teaches against this. But from a systematic approach, how would you address this question? I stand by what this quote says and the clear teaching of Scripture on eternal punishment of the wicked, but I have no idea how to respond to these claims made by Christian Universalists. Help?

    • BL,

      1. Hell is (Matt 5:22, 29; 10:28; 16:18; 18:9; 23:33
      2. It is evidently populated (Luke 16)
      3. Therefore not everyone is saved from eternal judgment

      We can make the same sort of syllogism re reprobation:

      1. Reprobation is (Rom 9)
      2. There are reprobates (Esau, Judas; Acts 1:25)
      3. Therefore not everyone is saved from eternal judgment

      As a matter of systematic theology, we’re harvesting the teaching of Scripture, taking account of the history of the church and doctrine, and responding to contemporary challenges. There’s little doubt in my mind that the historic Christian doctrine is that there is a place of eternal punishment, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. I first encountered questions about the reality of hell when I was in the UK. It has become commonplace among English (mainly Anglican) evangelicals to deny the existence of eternal punishment (e.g., Wenham, Easter Enigma). Wenham was a lovely man and a good scholar but that book was not persuasive.

      This is really a matter of whether we’re willing to follow the Scripture even when it puts us at odds with the prevailing culture. Modernity won’t have it so we have a choice, whether the stand where Scripture stands or to cave in. The problem with caving is that the culture will not let us off easily. Next they will come for the deity of Christ and the very idea of salvation. If there is no hell, from what do we need to be saved?

      Literature: I would start with WGT Shedd. See also Hell Under Fire. I would also go to the standard systematic works, e.g., Hodge, Berkhof, and Horton.

    • I am 100 percent with you. What I am asking: How would you answer the charge that God’s patience “ending” (eternal damnation) implies a change within God? I keep getting this question from Christians who deny what Scripture clearly teaches about hell.

      • 1. We can’t decide a priori what God’s “patience” is or entails. To operate that is nothing but rationalism.
        2. We have to realize what the nature of Scripture is, that it uses figures of speech. E.g., Scripture says that God “repented” (Gen 6) but we may not take this to mean that God thought one way and then changed his mind. It’s a figure of speech. To think that God literally changed his mind is nothing but paganism.
        3. Scripture says that God has arms, feet, toes, nose, eyes, hands, legs, feet etc. Nevertheless, we know that these are figures of speech. The earliest heresy the post-apostolic church faced was the “Anthropomorphite” heresy, which argued that God is bodily. Of course, the intent of his language is to help us think about God, to understand his attitude, as it were, toward various things but not to think that he actually is bodily.

        So, the problem is not what Scripture says or even systematic theology but hermeneutics. We don’t have a Socinian (biblicistic) hermeneutic. We recognize figures of speech. We recognize that Scripture is accommodated to our weakness.

  2. Thanks for this quote. It’s the first explanation of God’s simplicity that has been simple to understand!

    Good ol’ Bavinck.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    If someone were to say that while God’s Being is simple, that His attributes (or certain of them) can be distinguished from His Being and from each other, then, other than denying a teaching of Scripture, what would you (and/or what did Bavinck or others) say would be the major negative effects?

    Perhaps a related question is why exactly do we want to affirm that God’s attributes are indistinguishable from His Being and from each other? Are there other doctrines about God which lead us to deduce that particular point by good and necessary consequence? Or is this an “express” (manifest, explicit) Scriptural teaching?

    My understanding is that the Cappadocians, while affirming the simplicity of God’s Being, did not affirm it of (all) His attributes (or rather, of the relation of His attributes to His Being). In any case, when was the doctrine about “no real distinctions” first articulated as Bavinck affirms it?

    If I just read that section in Bavinck, will he answer my questions?

    • Gregaory,

      See Bavinck, of course. See also Turretin, who is very helpful here.

      The reason we must say that God is his holiness etc is that if we say it otherwise, then God becomes complex. There is a powerful impulse in the modern period to say that God is becoming. If God is complex, if he isn’t utterly all that he is from all eternity, then is becoming. The God of Scripture is. That’s it. God is not composed of parts. He doesn’t think one thing and then think another. He isn’t mutable. He doesn’t suffer. He just is and that is true of God alone.

    • I will read (especially that section) of Bavinck then. (And I’ll look for it in Turretin). Thanks.

      May I yet pursue my questioning a little further?
      What if one were to say that God is simple in His Being, and that from all eternity (so no temporal ‘tense’ intended in the verbs here) He (eternally) took on His attributes? So that His unknowable ‘essential’ Divine Being then immutably and eternally “possesses” all the characteristics He does *freely,* by His Own Divine Will, in infinite freedom to always be all who He is without temporal becoming or mutability?

      This position seems to allow for distinguishing without falling to an idea of becoming.
      And my impression has been that this is (more or less) the Cappadocian view.

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