Over the past while, some Christians have disagreed about how to talk about God’s nature. The disagreement centres on how to talk about God’s attributes. Everyone agrees that the Bible says God is just, merciful, and holy.
Yet some conclude that each attribute of God can be distinguished in God because the Bible says God is each of these things. Others say that each attribute of God cannot be distinguished in God but only in our minds.
At the heart of the debate then is this: in God, are his attributes distinct, or is God One and we perceive his attributes as distinct things?
I affirm that all that is in God is God because it better matches God’s revelation in Scripture and accords with reason.
All That Is in God is God
I claim that all that is in God is God. We see God act mercifully and justly and call him Merciful and Just. In God, these are not different attributes. We see them that way because that is how humans perceive things. In other words, when the Bible calls God various names like Just, Holy, and so on, it does so to help us make sense of who God is.
Since God is not a creature, he does not carry creaturely characteristics like we do: he is outside of time, he does not grow better or worse, and his nature is simple and not complex. I could quote a Bible verse. But the whole Bible tells us that God is not like us. He is outside of anything created; he is uncreated.
With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared? (Isa 46:5).
Once we reflect on what the Bible says about God and the way the world works (reason), then it becomes clear that God cannot be like we are. We started at one time. God did not. We grow, get better, get worse. God is always the same. If he got better, he’d be imperfect now; if he got worse, he would be imperfect since he’d have a flaw.
Nothing made him and so nothing put him together part-by-part. He stands outside all that is since he brought into being all that is. God’s nature then differs from the createdness of everything. It is not put together. It is what it is: I am who I am (Exod 3:14).
Our Limits as Creatures of God
As creatures of God, we see glimpses of his nature and describe him as holy, just, and pure. But can we really say that our human capacity can name truly all that God is?
The Bible denies that. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isa 55:8). “God is not human” (Num 23:19). “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom 11:33). The Book of Job concludes by telling us we cannot know God’s mysterious ways.
So why would anyone be so bold to claim that they can?
We need to trust the Bible, accept what it says—both about God and about us. We learn all about God’s attributes and all about our ability to know God. God truly gives us glimpses of who he is—in a mirror dimly—because that is how we can perceive him. In God, he is simply who he is. Not like us, but like him.
Whatever else that means, it cannot mean he has parts put together like us (eyes, veins, etc.); it cannot mean his stomach’s hunger makes him angry and full of passion; and it cannot mean he can get better or worse (he is who is and not possibly who he might be).
So God is One. And so he is simple—without parts, passions, and possibility, even if our minds cannot grasp it. Long books work out the chain of reasoning in more detail, here I only want to say that God is not like us; and we cannot be so bold to think we know God as he is since the Bible says we cannot.
We must trust the Bible, not our brains.
I perceive God part-by-part because I can only know what happens around me and only one thing at a time (God knows all at once perfectly). So I can see him act justly and say, “He is Just”; act holy and say, “He is Holy.” But these are created words and concepts that humans use to describe God who simply “is who he is” and whose thoughts and ways are inscrutable.
We are bound to conclude (even if it takes a few years of prayerful reflection) that God is simple, one, without parts, passions, and possibility. His justice is his mercy because God is One, and we recognize glimpses of God when we say he is Just and Merciful. He is all that and more—more beyond our ability to know!
Praise be to God that we cannot tame him, understand him fully, or else he would be a creature—a great one to be sure, but like us, at the end of the day.
The Counter Argument
Recently, a Christian apologist argued against aspects of the view laid out above. He denies that “God’s wrath is God’s mercy, or God’s justice is God’s omniscience.”
The apologist continues, “I affirm God is one, unchanging, infinite, Creator of all things, eternally Triune, indivisible. I simply do not believe any prophet or Apostle said, indicated, even thought, that God’s grace and mercy is the same attribute as God’s justice and wrath.”
For this person, Scripture stands at the centre of his argument: “And I see no reason in Scripture to believe that what is true in God’s revelation (which plainly distinguishes these attributes) is untrue in God’s being .… And if you want to say that in some mysterious way your assertion is true in God but is not true in revelation, that is your prerogative.”
The author does not believe divine simplicity is taught in Scripture as he explains: “But you have no basis for saying a fellow believer is in “error” for not believing such an extended, mysterious assertion that has no foundation in Scripture, nor is it a necessary result of holding together the teachings of Scripture.” If divine simplicity (as defined above) “has no foundation in Scripture,” then it follows that it is an interesting belief but one not necessary for Christian theology.
Some short responses
Christians have consistently affirmed God’s simplicity through the ages in ways similar to what I have said above. Christians of the past help us to be good listeners to what God says because Christian tradition points to a long history of listening to what God says.
As we listen to Christians of the past, we stand on the shoulders of Christians for two-thousand years. We listen with them. Our patient listening to God’s word can last beyond our mere lifetime of say 80 years. We listen alongside the great cloud of witnesses for two-thousand years, involving ourselves in the church’s long patience and long meditation of what God says.
In other words, Christian tradition helps us to listen and reflect on the Bible’s meaning. It takes a church to listen to and reflect patiently by the Spirit upon what God has revealed to us.
Individuals, lone-rangers do not make up a church. We have elder-boards for a reason. There is a body of Christ for a reason.
The apologist above seems to reject this aspect of Christian tradition because he cannot discover a Bible verse that affirms divine simplicity. He has not listened well or patiently. We stand on the shoulders of Christians who have patiently received God’s word for 2,000 years. We adopt that long and patient stance when we receive the tradition of meditation on God’s word. We do so because the Bible tells us to listen to leaders and teachers. They are a cloud of witnesses before us.
Humans make mistakes. I understand that. But I am hesitant to think that I, as an individual, can gainsay the majority of Spirit-filled people, because I don’t see a Bible verse yet.
That sounds like pure liberalism. John Locke affirmed life, liberty and estate; the USA affirmed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The individual, the liberal view—freedom as the essence of being human—has shaped our modern world so profoundly that we find it hard to listen patiently to God’s word with other Christians. I think that has happened here, in part.
More directly, I think the apologist reads the Bible univocally—thinking that God’s revelation comes to us just like a human’s revelation would. Hence, he says, “I see no reason in Scripture to believe that what is true in God’s revelation (which plainly distinguishes these attributes) is untrue in God’s being.” But that’s unbiblical, wrong, and impious.
He claims that Scripture comes to us as if it spoke about a creature. We can understand God in a one-to-one way. But that’s false because the Bible tells us that God is not like us and his ways are beyond ours. We must trust the Bible, not our intellect.
Job made a similar mistake. When he realized it, he said: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). Paul, even after a revelation from Jesus himself, still affirms:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (Rom 11:33–35).
God is not like us. He reveals himself to us in ways that make sense. John Calvin says God talks to us like a baby. He condescends to our level. He allows us to know him as only we can—through our creaturely limitations. But God is beyond all that. So we cannot know him as he knows himself—perfectly and at once without limit. That’s absurd.
So we catch glimpses of him—we see his justice, his mercy, his love, and we rightly say: God is Just, Merciful, and Love. Then we must reflect on all that God has revealed and conclude: we have got glimpses of your glory! But you are so high above us, that we cannot know you in the way you know yourself.
God is not a human. He has no parts, passions, or possibility. He is what he is. Apart from any creaturely characteristic. He is simple. He is One. He reveals himself to us part-by-part, mercy then justice, because he graciously shows us himself in ways that we can apprehend. But in himself, God is who he is.
That distinction matters because it’s true. Because we must worship God. And because Scripture affirms it.