God is good, loving, and merciful. And while this affirmation makes good sense, it does lead to the question of how God is good, loving, and merciful. We sometimes are good. Sometimes not. But God always is and does good. So when John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he means something different than the phrase “Stephanie is a loving person.”
The traditional answer is bound up in the idea of God’s simplicity. In short, God simply is who he is (Exod 3:14). So that means God is love by nature. And the two terms are basically interchangeable. To say Love is to say God because Love defines God by nature. The nature of God is identical to his properties or attributes.
While most Christians had affirmed this answer (it appears in the Reformed confessions and early Christian thought), some have now challenged the idea that God is identical to his properties.
Objections to God being identical to his properties really amount to objecting to the doctrine of divine simplicity. Here are three such objections.
First, divine simplicity means God has only one property not many. Alvin Plantinga explains: “In the first place if God is identical with each of his properties, then each of his properties is identical with each of his properties, so that God has but one property” (1980: 47).
Yet if God has only one property, then it does not make sense of the common belief that God many properties(1980: 47). In this case, power and mercy would be identical. But we know that power and mercy are, in fact, different. So divine simplicity does not make sense.
Second, divine simplicity makes God a property. Alvin Plantinga explains: “In the second place, if God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property—a self-exemplifying property” (1980: 47).
According to Plantgina, no property can create and be omniscient, etc. (1980: 47). If God is a property, then he is not a person but some abstract object. He concludes: “So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake” (1980: 47).
Third, divine simplicity cannot make sense out of the fact of creation. God created Adam. And before he created Adam, he had the characteristic of not-creating-Adam. Afterwards, there was some sort of characteristic change (Plantinga 1980: 41–43). So God seems to add something like properties to himself, which are not essential to him (see also Feinberg 2001: 331).
Before answering objections, we need to first answer the question of whether or not Scripture teaches divine simplicity. More specifically, we need to answer the question of whether Scripture affirms God is identical to his attributes.
First, the name of God identifies him with his properties. When Moses asked God for his name (Exod 3:13), God replied, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exod 3:14).
God claims to be just who he is. What he means here gets filled in as God conquers the Egyptian false gods through the ten wonders that show his dominance over nature, over life, and over death. He reveals his moral standard at Sinai. And he gives a glimpse into his essence at the request of Moses in Exodus 33–34.
Exodus 33:18–23 reads:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
When Moses asks to see God’s glory, God responds, “all my goodness” will pass before him so that Moses may know God’s name. The name, “the Lord,” translates the Hebrew word Yahweh. Now Yahweh looks almost exactly like the phrase “I am” in Hebrew (Exod 3:14). In this sense, God’s glory in the form of “all my goodness” explains the name, “I am” or Yahweh.
Exodus 34:5–7 narrates God passing by Moses:
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Strikingly, God reveals his name by articulating his attributes: mercy, grace, slow to anger, loving, faithful, and so on. These attributes are his glory, his name. And they seem to be included under the large category of “all my goodness.”
A name defines a person or thing. God’s name, Yahweh, means “I am.” And this name—this state of existence—finds a fitting explanation in various attributes. These attributes fall under all God’s goodness. They also proclaim his name, Yahweh, “I am.”
Summary, all God’s goodness seems to be the equivalent of God’s mercy, grace, and so on. And these properties together proclaim the name of God, of Yahweh, of “I am.”
So the properties of God amount to the name of God. They seem inclusive, included in the name of God.
Second, God’s other names identify him with his properties. In Scripture, God often is identified with names or attributes. So, God is Love (1 John 4:8), God is Holy (Isa 6:3), God is Spirit (John 4:24), God is Maker (Isa 54:5), He is Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6), God is Good (Matt 19:17), and so on.
God is these properties. God is Love. God is Holy. The various names of God (or properties) all are God himself. They are his essence, his nature. So on the basis of God’s various names, it is at least reasonable to affirm that God is his properties.
Third, God must be identified with his properties due to necessary inferences from Scripture. Scripture provides us with writings from various authors as they are carried along by the Spirit.
We don’t know everything Paul believed, for example. But we do know that he confessed a pattern of sound words that made up his theology (1 Tim 6:3). And we can discern this pattern explicitly as in 1 Corinthians 15 or implicitly as he corrects and encourages various churches by Scripture.
This idea of “the pattern of the sound words” leads us to read Scripture as a canonical whole to understand its full and contextual meaning by the Spirit (2 Tim 1:13). It requires us to make sound judgments on the basis of what the Bible says.
So when Genesis 1 narrates God creating the world, we can say: God is creator. We made a necessary judgment on the basis of this text. We can also affirm that nothing existed before God since he created “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1).
One implication here is that God stands outside of time because he put everything into motion. Time measures motion. So created time simply affirms that things change. But God does not change (Numbers 23:19; James 1:17) since he can neither grow or decline; he neither learns new things nor loses knowledge since he knows all; he does not become corrupt. We do all these things.
So if God is outside of time (i.e., he does not change), then nothing can precede him. If something did, it would before God and in someway share in his attribute of timelessness. But that cannot be true because God created all things (John 1:3).
But properties—if they are not identical to God—would precede him in some way. If a complex set of properties like infinity, love and so on come together, they would make up God. Then God, his essence, would come through these properties. They may not temporally precede him, but they logically come before him and thereby cause his existence.
Imagine a friend. That friend has a distinct background, key traits, and a particular look that makes them who they are. They sometimes act. Sometimes do not. They sometimes act virtuously and at others times not. Their background and family also provide part of the picture. They are, if we might say it, the sum of their parts. All the parts of their life make up who we know them to be.
But God is Spirit (John 4:24). So he has no parts like this. He is eternal. So he has no background to inform who he is. He is before all things. So nobody composed God from these attributes. He is love, goodness, and mercy; he did not have to learn them. It would be hard to conceive of these attributes preceding him and so characterizing his essence. He just is these things. We intuitively know that. But it is hard to pin down exactly what that means.
Even so, we must resist the urge to apply the same criteria that we judge our friend who is finite, changeable, and full of possibilities with a God who is timeless, unchangeable, and who acts always according to his nature, which is perfect. We simply cannot say that God’s properties precede him and together paint a complex picture of who God is.
This would not make sense of how Scripture defines God—as the timeless creator who is before all things and depends on nothing for his existence (Job 41:11). He just is: “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14).
So not only does God’s divine name and names (properties) lead to divine simplicity, but also necessary inferences from Scripture do in accordance with the pattern of sound words that we read.
Responses to objections
If the biblical account is true, it must make sense. God is a God of order, not chaos (1 Cor 14:33, 40). Can this account overcome the objections given above? In short, yes.
Response 1. When it comes to the objection that divine simplicity means God has only one property not many, I have to give a hearty amen. God has one simple nature which we perceive as multiple and complex because we are not simple. The infinite God has one perfect nature, but we experience his perfections in a finite way.
When we see God act in history, we may discern love in him or holiness. But he always perfectly is and acts according to his one perfect and simple nature. So this objection rather than militates against divine simplicity contributes to an understanding of it.
Response 2. The objection that divine simplicity makes God a property does provide a conceptual problem for divine simplicity. But the doctrine of analogy helps here. We only know God by analogy—not by univocal (direct) or equivocal (without true knowledge) reasoning.
To say God is Love and this property is the nature of God means that we use analogies from our human experience to make sense of an infinite and singularly perfect divine being. To say God is his properties means only that the alternative does not make sense: that God is not his properties. The positive affirmation is admittedly mysterious.
What does the inner life of God look like? We cannot know. God’s archetypal knowledge (of himself) is known only by him. Yet we can know his ectypal knowledge that he shares with creation. This sort of knowledge allows us to make true analogous claims about God. But our finite nature prevents us from knowing God as God since we are not divine but only human. It is epistemic humility to restrain ourselves here.
Response 3. The objections that divine simplicity cannot make sense out of the fact of creation fails to account for God’s timelessness. God does not change. He therefore is not temporal. He experiences all things in some timeless way. He knows the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10).
However we conceive of his timeless existence (and we cannot know what it means fully because we are time-bound), God can know that Adam was not yet created before creation and was created after it because he timelessly knows all these facts, which belong to him in his subsisting Wisdom.
I grant that I cannot articulate the fullness of the mystery of God’s timeless existence. Only God knows how that works (archetypal knowledge). But if we grant this truth, then divine simplicity can account for creation.
The doctrine of divine simplicity entails that God is identical to his properties. The name and names of God in Scripture strongly suggest this reality. Considering the words of Scripture and what they necessarily entail confirms that God is simple.
In the end we could do no better than to heartily affirm the words of the Reformed theologian Petrus van Mastricht (1630–1706) who wrote: “all the attributes together in God are nothing but one certain most simple and most pure act, his very essence, and his infinite perfection” (2019: 2:117).