For much of my theological life, I have not understood the notion of divine simplicity nor thought it important to understand. What has divine simplicity to do with the lively God of the Bible‽ Even after I began to read up on the topic about a decade ago, it continued to seem irrelevant—and not only irrelevant but perhaps even dangerous: dangerous because it threatens to replace the biblical understanding of God with a philosophical construction. My suspicions were confirmed by David Bradshaw’s challenging book Aristotle East and West. Bradshaw argues that without a clear distinction between the divine essence and divine energies, the simplicity doctrine reduces God to static existence, enslaves him to necessity, and renders impossible synergistic relations between the Creator and human beings. Bradshaw did not convince me that St Gregory Palamas’s construal of the divine essence and energies is the most adequate and satisfying understanding of biblical deity; but he did persuade me (unintentionally, I’m sure) that metaphysical speculation on the divine nature should be restricted to the backrooms of the university. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked Tertullian.
But then several years later I came across this sentence in The Experience of God: “It seems obvious to me that a denial of divine simplicity is tantamount to atheism.” If anyone else had written this line, I probably would not have paid it much mind, but David Bentley Hart always warrants my attention. Here’s the passage:
There is an ancient metaphysical doctrine that the source of all things—God, that is—must be essentially simple; that is, God cannot possess distinct parts, or even distinct properties, and in himself does not allow even of a distinction between essence and existence. I shall discuss this idea below, very soon. Here I shall only record my conviction that the idea is not open to dispute if one believes that God stands at the end of reason’s journey toward the truth of all things; it seems obvious to me that a denial of divine simplicity is tantamount to atheism, and the vast preponderance of metaphysical tradition concurs with that judgment. (p. 128)
Why is it obvious to Hart, when it is not obvious to so many modern theologians and philosophers, that a proper understanding of divinity entails divine simplicity? Earlier in his book Hart invites us to consider with wonder the very fact of existence. “How odd it is, and how unfathomable,” he muses, “that anything at all exists; how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event. … Every encounter with the world has always been an encounter with an enigma that no merely physical explanation can resolve” (pp. 88-89). The universe poses the question “why?” and in so posing this question, it reveals to us its absolute contingency. The universe need not have been. “Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its existence” (p. 92):
All things that do not possess the cause of their existence in themselves must be brought into existence by something outside themselves. Or, more tersely, the contingent is always contingent on something else. This is not a difficult or rationally problematic proposition. The complications lie in its application. Before all else, however, one must define what real contingency is. It is, first, simply the condition of being conditional: that is, the condition of depending upon anything external or prior or circumambient in order to exist and to persist in being. It is also mutability, the capacity to change over time, to move constantly from potential to actual states, and to abandon one actual state in favor of another. It is also the condition of being extended in both space and time, and thus of being incapable of perfect “self-possession” in some absolute here and now. It is the capacity and the tendency both to come into and pass out of being. It is the condition of being composite, made up of and dependent upon logically prior parts, and therefore capable of division and dissolution. It is also, in consequence, the state of possessing limits and boundaries, external and internal, and so of achieving identity through excluding—and thus inevitably, depending upon—other realities; it is, in short, finitude. (pp. 99-100)
Note Hart’s identification of composition as revelatory of contingency. Composite beings cry out for explanation. If an entity is made up of parts, whether material or metaphysical, then the parts are more fundamental than the whole. Of composite beings we may always ask, How did these parts come together to form this particular entity?
The universe poses to us the fundamental question of contingency. We name the answer, if there is an answer, “God.” God is the unconditioned source of all that exists, the one of whom we cannot ask “why?” A child queries, “Who made God?” We can only smile, for if we can ask that question of God, we aren’t thinking of God. As Hart notes: “God stands at the end of reason’s journey toward the truth of all things.”
If the Deity is the unconditioned source of creaturely existence, then we must logically conclude that in the plenitude of his infinite Being he enjoys a profound, inconceivable, transcendent unity. He cannot be divided into spatial parts, temporal parts, or metaphysical parts. God is not a being:
The precise sense in which God is not a being, or indeed the sense in which he could even be said not to “exist,” is as some discrete object, essentially distinct from all others, “standing forth” (which is what “exist” means, etymologically speaking) from being as such. A being of that kind—one to which the indefinite article properly attaches—possesses a certain determinate number of attributes, a certain quantity of potentialities, a certain degree of actuality, and so on, and is at once both intrinsically composite and extrinsically enumerable: that is, every particular being is made up of a collection of parts and is also a discrete item within the sum total of existing things. All of this is precisely what classical metaphysical theism says God is not. He is instead the infinite to which nothing can add and from nothing can subtract, and he himself is not some object in addition to other objects. He is the source and fullness of all being, the actuality in which all finite things live, move, and have their being, or in which all things hold together; and so he is also the reality that is present in all things as the very act of their existence. God, in short, is not a being but is at once “beyond being” (in the sense that he transcends the totality of existing things) and also absolute “Being itself” (in the sense that he is the source and ground of all things. As Sufi tradition says, “God is al-Haqq, Reality as such, underlying everything. All finite things are limited expressions, graciously imparted, of that actuality that he possesses in infinite abundance. (pp. 108-109)
Hart’s contentious claim that denial of divine simplicity is denial of God himself thus becomes clear: if God were composite in any way, he would not be God. To sum up: “To be the first cause of the whole universal chain of per se causality, God must be wholly unconditioned in every sense. He cannot be composed of and so dependent upon severable constituents, physical or metaphysical, as then he would himself be conditional” (p. 134).