“When Scripture speaks about God’s attributes it never singles out one attribute of God as more important than all the rest. There is an assumption that every attribute is completely true of God and is true of all of God’s character.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)
As I begin this series on systematic theology I readily admit to having a keen sense of trepidation. Where do I begin? How do I condense so much information into little tiny blog posts? Will I be able to keep it going for the months–possibly years–it will take? Will women really even want to walk through these doctrines with me?
All these thoughts have filled my mind as I’ve contemplated which doctrine to begin with and how to present it. I’ve sat with my heavy, systematic theology books on my lap and had serious thoughts about going back and deleting that first post on the importance of theology and pretending like this series never happened. But then, as I begin studying and meditating on the Word of God, the joy of knowing him fills my soul and I find a little bit of confidence in my pursuit of sharing him with you–in seeking to enjoy him together.
Today we begin that pursuit by exploring God’s simplicity–a doctrine that will help us balance all of the attributes of God that follow it in our study.
God is simple in that his being is not divided or complex.
It seems illogical to say that God is simple. After all, though he has revealed himself to us through his Word, we know that as finite creatures, our understanding of him will always be limited. “Simple” just doesn’t seem like a fitting description of this infinite God we worship. However, this is not the kind of simplicity we are referring to. When theologians use the word “simple” to describe God they are saying that he is completely unified. There is not one part of his character that is more important than any other, nor does he cease to be one attribute while being another. Though each of his attributes (i.e. loving, holy, righteous) are different and can be experienced by us at different times and in different ways, he is always, fully each of his attributes at the same time.
This is why he describes his very being by his attributes. Take for example 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” We are not told that God sometimes loves, but rather that he is love. His very nature is loving at all times. Now, in the same letter, written through the hand of the same man, God reveals that he also is light: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 5:8) Therefore, we can conclude that God is simultaneously love and light (i.e. pure and sinless). He is not sometimes loving and sometimes pure, but rather always both at the same time. In this way, his character is simple.
We are not like this. We are not simple in this respect. There are times when we cease to be loving and times when we show more wisdom than others. God, on the other hand, is continually each of his attributes. Even when he is judging, he is loving, for he cannot deny himself.
Why It Matters
We have a tendency to elevate certain attributes of God over others as though some are more important than others, but to do so is to define God on our own terms. If the Word of God says that he is always righteous as well as always loving, then it is wrong to value his love above his righteousness because he is both. As Michael Horton says: “We do not worship any divine attribute; we worship the personal God who is simultaneously the being that his attributes indicate.” (The Christian Faith)
We must also guard ourselves from compartmentalizing God’s attributes. For instance, we should not view the God of the Old Testament as a God who is wrathful and holy and then view him in the New Testament as suddenly loving, merciful, and gracious. He has always been and will continue to be each of his attributes. While he certainly does a lot of judging in the Old Testament, he is not lacking in love in those moments, because he is love. In the same way, though God reveals his grace to us in various ways throughout the New Testament, he does not cease to be just at the same time because he is just. Though we may see one of his specific attributes expressed in a particular circumstance (i.e. judgement in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) he does not cease to be his other attributes in that same circumstance (i.e. merciful, loving and kind). He cannot stop being himself.
Another important thing to consider is that this means his attributes are not at odds. The world finds it difficult to view a “loving” God as able to sentence sinners to hell in judgement. If he truly were loving, they say, then he would not judge people according to their sins. In this way they create a God in their own image. Yet, the Bible does not only reveal a God who is love, but a God who is holy. Thus, he can righteously judge sin while also maintaining his loving character. God is simple in that his character is completely united. He is not like man, therefore we should not expect him to have the same limitations.
We can easily see this doctrine in action through the sacrifice of Christ. Here we see God displaying his wrath against sin as he punished the holy Son of God. Yet, in the same act, in the same moment, he is showing his gracious love to those who were being purchased by the Savior’s blood. These attributes were not warring against one another to see which would win, but rather they were perfectly working together in unity. As Christ–in the greatest display of love ever known by this world–hung on the cross, God did not cease to also be a holy judge. His love did not “win out” over his wrath against sin. On the contrary, God was showing his great holiness and wrath against sin while simultaneously displaying his love as he poured out judgement on Christ for the sins of his people. This is a vivid picture of how God is continuously each of his attributes. Michael Horton explains God’s simplicity and the mystery of the cross this way:
“Simplicity reminds us that God is never self-conflicted. In God’s eternal decree, even in the most obvious example of possible inner conflict (namely, the cross), justice and mercy, righteous wrath and gracious love, embrace.” (The Christian Faith)
Also worthy of mentioning as we contemplate God’s simplicity is the fact that his attributes do not fluctuate in intensity. He is not a god who feels a little bit loving sometimes, and then a god who feels a little bit more loving other times. He is always fully love. This is incredibly encouraging to the believer as we can be confident that through Christ, we have access to the God whose very character is defined by love and grace and mercy and justice. As we draw near to him, we know that he is not just a little bit gracious to his children, but rather he is completely gracious to those whose sins have been judged on the cross. Through the blood of Christ, we can experience this marvelous God who is love. He does not have a limited reserve of love to give to us, rather he gives love out of the abundance of who he is. And that is a marvelous truth to meditate on!
Talk Back and Connect
- How does God’s simplicity affect your view of him? Can you think of a practical way this truth impacts your life?
- Are there attributes of God that you value more than others? Which ones? How would viewing God as simple (unified in character) challenge the way you have prioritized his character qualities?
- Consider this insightful quote and its applications to your life: “It is not that God first lives and then also loves. But God loves, and in this act lives.” (Barth, Church Dogmatics)