Simple

God is simple. That might be a surprising thing to say – shocking even. We tend to use the word pejoratively.  In our world, simple is associated with inferiority and stupidity. In our world, things move from simple to complex. So we had better sort out quickly what we mean by simple and complex in this context.

Machines are complex. They have lots of different interconnecting parts. You are complex. You have limbs and organs, innate characteristics, acquired skills etc.  Now, because you are complex, you can lose any one or number of those things at any one time and still be you.  If you have a leg amputated, you are still you, just minus a limb and possibly a bit slower at getting around; your personality may well have changed over time, but you are still the same person; you will have acquired skills over time and maybe even lost them. There was a time when I couldn’t speak French, then I studied up to GCSE, I could just about hold a simple conversation (there’s that word again) and ask for basic directions, but I never used the language and so I lost the skill, but I am still the same person, just a little less useful on holiday!

Now, if something is simple, then that means it is the opposite of complex. It is not made up of different components; it is one entity. This means that you cannot add or subtract parts from it. That’s what we mean when we say that God is simple. We are saying that every aspect of God’s character  is essential to who he is.  You cannot chop a bit off of God and say that he is still God.

We know this first of all because God is Spirit. The Bible may sometimes talk about God’s arm or God’s sight metaphorically, but God does not have a body, limbs, eyes, organs etc.  That is why God is invisible[1] and it is why God can be everywhere (omnipresent). We sometimes say that God is “incorporeal.”  As Bavinck says,

“The simplicity of God… leads very naturally (since all that is corporeal is composite) to the treatment of God’s spiritual nature. Scripture to be sure, always speaks of God in human fashion, and ascribes to him an array of physical organs and activity, but even in this connection it observes a certain limit. Of the human body’s internal organs only the heart and the ‘intestine’ are attributed to him, never organs of food intake, digestion and reproduction. Sight hearing and smell are attributed to him, not taste and touch. Nowhere is a body assigned to him. Although the Old Testament also at no point explicitly states that God is Spirit, yet this view is basic to its entire description of God.”[2]

Secondly, we know this because throughout the Bible, God’s characteristics are described in absolute terms to describe his essential essence. God is Love: in other words, he doesn’t just have the quality of love/ it is not just that He is loving: He IS Love – love is essential to who he is. God cannot stop being loving. But the Bible also says that “God is light”[3] “God is Spirit”[4] “God is a consuming fire.”[5] God is also Holy and Just. He is Sovereign, He is Eternal.  Each of these statements describes something that is essential to God’s nature.  All of these characteristics are essential to him; all of them describe the whole of his being.

John Frame puts it this way:

“So God’s attributes are not parts or divisions within the Godhead… but each attribute is necessary to God’s being. Each is essential to him and therefore his essence includes all of them. God cannot be God without his goodness, wisdom and eternity. In other words, he is necessarily good, wise, and eternal.  None of his attributes can be removed from him, and no new attributes exist without the others. So each attribute has divine attributes; each is qualified by the others.”[6]

This doesn’t mean that we just muddle all of the attributes up together as though each characteristic says exactly the same thing about God. Each attribute describes “everything he is.”[7]  However,

“This is not to say that God’s attributes are synonymous. They all refer to his essence, but they describe aspects of it.  God really is good and just and omniscient.  The multiple attributes refer to genuine complexities in his essence.”[8]

Nor does it mean that:

“All attributes are equal and important. We may recall from chapter 18 the comment by one writer that God is a ‘knitter’ in Psalm 139. Well, I suppose that on that basis we should recognize (sic) ‘knitting capacity’ as a divine attribute. But of course that would not be as important as love or omnipotence.  It would be a perspective on all of God’s attributes, for all of God’s work is the knitting of a tapestry to set forth his glory. But it is not the most important perspective in Scripture.”[9]

What it does mean is that each attribute which we use to describe God gives us a way in to describing his whole person from that perspective. For example, this means that when we say that God is love, then we are saying that love will characterise everything that God is and does. When we say that he is just, his justice is a loving justice, his might and power is exercised out of love, his holiness – i.e. that which distinguishes and separates him out from everything else is a loving holiness. It is his perfect and infinite love that distinguishes him from our imperfect, finite love.  Similarly, his love, power and holiness are characterised by justice and so on.

Why is this important?

God’s simplicity is important because it protects us from the two main errors that we’ve described. In answer to the question, “Is God good or is God all-powerful?” we must answer “Both.”  God is good and loving and merciful and he is strong, all-powerful, invincible. More than that, the properties of goodness and love describe the very nature of his power; it is a good and loving power.  It is love and kindness that motivates him to act to defeat his enemies and to rescue his people. When we say that God is love, this does not imply weakness; love is not soppy and sentimental in God, but it is strong.

So we simply cannot talk about God without saying that he is good and loving. A God who does not love is not just a lesser or weaker God. He is not God at all. This is important for anyone who is sliding into despair and can only see God as capricious and angry or who believes that God hates them.  It is of course right to talk about God’s anger or wrath, but we must never confuse this with a lack of love.

On the other hand, as we have seen, some people want to emphasise God’s love at the expense of his sovereignty and power. Here are three examples:

First of all, in The Lost Message of Jesus, Steve Chalke describes the discovery that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) as something that comes late in the Bible. He says that

“This truth more than anything else informs Jesus’ message. That God is love is the entire foundation upon which the kingdom and the shalom of God are built.”[10]

Now, we’ve already seen as we’ve looked at The Trinity that saying that “God is Love” is something wonderful, an important starting point in our knowledge of God, something unique to the Christian Gospel. However, to make it absolute and exclusive in this way goes further than Scripture. Chalke contrasts the statement that “God is Love” with “God is power.”

“Most people if they believe in God at all, think that he is power and that power is all about the domination of others. However, this assumption that God is first and foremost power is not new –it runs throughout history. In fact, the thought of a loving god was total anathema to ancient peoples.”[11]

Power is seen in negative terms about abuse, control and selfishness. Power from this point of view excludes love.  This leads Chalke to reject the idea of God’s anger and eventually to describe the idea that on the Cross, Jesus bore the penalty of sin, satisfying God’s wrath as akin to “cosmic child abuse.”

Secondly, Rob Bell in his book “Love Wins” claims that the story of Jesus and love has been hijacked by other stories that are in fact nothing to do with the Gospel.

“I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is stunning, beautiful, expansive love and it is for everybody everywhere. That’s the story.”[12]

For Bell, the idea of Hell and eternal judgement cause a problem: these things don’t fit with his story of love. He has three basic solutions to this. So first of all, hell is essentially a metaphor for the pain caused when we turn our back on God. It’s about what happens here on earth, now.[13] Secondly, he argues that:

“Love demands freedom. It always has and it always will. We are free to resist, reject and rebel against God’s ways for us, we can have all the hell we want.”[14]

Thirdly, he intimates that in some way God must eventually save everyone. Whilst he sees the Gospels as exclusively through Jesus, it is inclusive in giving eternal life to all, regardless of whether or not they’ve believed in Him because God must either be “a loving heavenly father who goes to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them”[15] or “a cruel mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.”[16]

The third example of an exclusive emphasis on “God is Love” comes from Open Theism which we have already met. Richard Rice says that:

“From a Christian perspective, love is the first and last word in the biblical portrait of God…The statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes giving us a definition of the divine reality.”[17]

He goes on to add that “love, therefore, is the very essence of the divine nature. Love is what it means to be God.”[18]

So, when we emphasise “God is love” as God’s one essential characteristic, then the result is that we cannot cope with much of what the Bible has to say. We struggle with the idea of God’s wrath with judgement with punishment. We end up struggling even to make sense of the purpose of Jesus’s violent death on the Cross.  “God is love” ends up becoming “Love is God.” We not only decide that this is God’s chief attribute, but we end up deciding what that attribute entails. We define love and from there we define God.  So for these three errors, love is defined in terms of freedom and so God must give us freedom to do as we please.

If God is Simple, then we will not allow our own human definition of love to dictate our definition of God. Rather, we will allow all of God’s other essential attributes to inform our understanding of what true love is.  It is only by doing this that we can really come to make sense of this world with all its mess, evil and suffering, our place in it and exactly what Jesus has achieved for us on the Cross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 187-191.

[2] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 182.

[3] 1 John 1:5

[4] John 4:24

[5] Hebrews 12:29

[6] Frame, Doctrine of God, 226.

[7] Frame, Doctrine of God, 229.

[8] Frame, Doctrine of God, 229.

[9] Frame, Doctrine of God, 393-394.

[10] Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 46.

[11] Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 47-48.

[12] Rob Bell, Love Wins, vii.

[13] Bell, Love Wins, 93.

[14] Bell, Love Wins, 113.

[15] Rob Bell, Love Wins, 173.

[16] Rob Bell, Love Wins, 173-174.

[17] Richard Rice “Biblical Support for a New Perspective” in Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP, 1994), 18.

[18] Richard Rice, “Biblical support for a new perspective,” 19.

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