Discovering the Trinity: Divine Simplicity

[This article is linked to Discovering the Trinity.]

In order to have a good controversy, you need at least two sides that both agree on some things and disagree on others. If the opponents share insufficient common ground, then there is no conversation. All the voices in the Trinitarian controversies agreed on one concept: God is simple. They disagreed on the ramifications of that statement and its application to theology.

Today, the word simple often means “easy to understand.” Divine simplicity, though, uses an older sense of the word, “uncompounded” or “without parts.” It is the opposite of complex, meaning “composed of many parts.” Although absolute simplicity is beyond our ability to grasp, we can reach an approximation by starting with something complex and subtracting complexity.

So, we begin with a car. A car has many components, each of which serves a distinct function. Some components are not necessary to the car. For example, most cars have air conditioning, but a car without air conditioning is still a car. A component of this type is “accidental.” On the other hand, without an engine, there is no car, only a chassis. A component of this type is “essential” or “substantial.” A car’s complexity, then, is very unlike God’s simplicity.

Next, we consider a brick. Unlike a car, the brick doesn’t have separate functioning units. Each part of it is identical to each other part. However, bricks are made by a process of composition: clay, silica, lime, and perhaps a few other ingredients are fired together to make brick. So, the brick is less complex than the car, but still not like God. In God, there are no layers or ingredients that bind together to make God.

We take a vial of pure mercury for our next thought experiment. Now, mercury is an element, so it doesn’t come into being the way a brick does, by mixing different substances. Also, unlike the car, each drop is identical to each other drop, so there is no division of function. However, I can take that vial and pour the mercury into three separate beakers. If nothing else, I can still physically separate the mercury, and the mercury in the first beaker is not the same mercury that is in the second and third beakers. God cannot be separated like this. God is not a generic name that can be divided among several separable objects. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not each 1/3 God. With this last experiment, we realize that nothing physical can be truly simple, since it can always be divided.

What about the human mind? The mind is not physical, so it can’t be divided into parts like the mercury. Also, most ancient philosophers agreed that the mind performs various functions, but not with different parts. When the mind remembers, the whole mind does the remembering. When the mind thinks, the whole mind thinks. The functions are not parceled out to different regions. (Modern neuroscience tells us that the brain does in fact divide functions among separate regions of the brain, but is the brain the mind?)

However, the mind is capable of its own complexity. Of all the pro-Nicenes, Augustine is most insistent that the mind retains a moral complexity. It is drawn in various directions by its warring passions. We all know the experience of the divided mind, not by physical division, but by conflicting desires. So, we find that we are not at unity even within ourselves. Yet, even if our minds were to be united, perfectly purged from all conflict, we would still not be perfectly simple, because accidents would remain in the mind. Knowing is essential to mind, but knowing your birthday is accidental. Still, the unified mind is a remarkable window into divine simplicity, so much so that Augustine declares it to be the imago Dei (image of God).

Having approached a description of divine simplicity, later installments will show why ancient theologians asserted divine simplicity and how it both complicated and enabled the pro-Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.

Published in: on April 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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