Simplicity of God in the Church Fathers

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Charles Johnson

Puritan Board Junior
I have compiled quotes relating to divine simplicity from the first 1000 years of the Church, in part to show that the version of simplicity taught by Aquinas is not a novel, roman catholic doctrine, or even "Thomist," as it were, but something universally held to among the fathers (not to mention reformation protestants). In fact, I have been unable to locate any fathers that did not hold to divine simplicity.

Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians, ch. 8:
“As regards, then, the doctrine that there was from the beginning one God, the Maker of this universe, consider it in this wise, that you may be acquainted with the argumentative grounds also of our faith. If there were from the beginning two or more gods, they were either in one and the same place, or each of them separately in his own. In one and the same place they could not be. For, if they are gods, they are not alike; but because they are uncreated they are unlike: for created things are like their patterns; but the uncreated are unlike, being neither produced from any one, nor formed after the pattern of any one. Hand and eye and foot are parts of one body, making up together one man: is God in this sense one? And indeed Socrates was compounded and divided into parts, just because he was created and perishable; but God is uncreated, and, impassible, and indivisible — does not, therefore, consist of parts.”

Ibid., ch. 23:
“Did, then, he who had contemplated the eternal Intelligence and God who is apprehended by reason, and declared His attributes — His real existence, the simplicity of His nature, the good that flows forth from Him that is truth, and discoursed of primal power, and how all things are about the King of all, and all things exist for His sake, and He is the cause of all; and about two and three, that He is the second moving about the seconds, and the third about the thirds; — did this man think, that to learn the truth concerning those who are said to have been produced from sensible things, namely earth and heaven, was a task transcending his powers? It is not to be believed for a moment.”

Irenaeus, Against Hereies, §2.13.3
“But if they had known the Scriptures, and been taught by the truth, they would have known, beyond doubt, that God is not as men are; and that His thoughts are not like the thoughts of men.(2) For the Father of all is at a vast distance from those affections and passions which operate among men. He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members,(3) and altogether like, and equal to himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good--even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God.”

Novation, On the Trinity, §5:
“For the diversity in us of the materials of which we consist, is accustomed to arouse the discord of anger which corrupts us; but this, whether of nature or of defect, cannot subsist in God, seeing that He is known to be constructed assuredly of no associations of bodily parts. For He is simple and without any corporeal commixture, being wholly of that essence, which, whatever it be — He alone knows — constitutes His being, since He is called Spirit.”

Ibid., §6:
“Moreover, He Himself is all eye, because He all sees; and all ear, because He all hears; and all hand, because He all works; and all foot, because He all is everywhere. For He is the same, whatever it is. He is all equal, and all everywhere. For He has not in Him any diversity in Himself, being simple. For those are the things which are reduced to diversity of members, which arise from birth and go to dissolution. But things which are not concrete cannot be conscious of these things. And what is immortal, whatever it is, that very thing is one and simple, and forever. And thus because it is one it cannot be dissolved; since whatever is that very thing which is placed beyond the claim of dissolution, it is freed from the laws of death.”

Athanasius, De Decretis, §22:
“ If then any man conceives God to be compound, as accident is in essence, or to have any external envelopement , and to be encompassed, or as if there is anything about Him which completes the essence, so that when we say 'God,' or name 'Father,' we do not signify the invisible and incomprehensible essence, but something about it, then let them complain of the Council's stating that the Son was from the essence of God; but let them reflect, that in thus considering they utter two blasphemies; for they make God corporeal, and they falsely say that the Lord is not Son of the very Father, but of what is about Him. But if God be simple, as He is, it follows that in saying 'God' and naming 'Father,' we name nothing as if about Him, but signify his essence itself. For though to comprehend what the essence of God is be impossible, yet if we only understand that God is, and if Scripture indicates Him by means of these titles, we, with the intention of indicating Him and none else, call Him God and Father and Lord. When then He says, 'I am that I am,' and 'I am the Lord God Exodus 3:14-15,' or when Scripture says, 'God,' we understand nothing else by it but the intimation of His incomprehensible essence Itself, and that He Is, who is spoken of. Therefore let no one be startled on hearing that the Son of God is from the Essence of the Father; but rather let him accept the explanation of the Fathers, who in more explicit but equivalent language have for 'from God?' written 'of the essence.' For they considered it the same thing to say that the Word was 'of God?' and 'of the essence of God,' since the word 'God,' as I have already said, signifies nothing but the essence of Him Who Is. If then the Word is not in such sense from God, as a son, genuine and natural, from a father, but only as creatures because they are framed, and as 'all things are from God,' then neither is He from the essence of the Father, nor is the Son again Son according to essence, but in consequence of virtue, as we who are called sons by grace. But if He only is from God, as a genuine Son, as He is, then the Son may reasonably be called from the essence of God.”

Hilary, On the Trinity, §9.61:
“But God can never be anything but love, or anything but the Father: and He, Who loves, does not envy; He Who is Father, is wholly and entirely Father. This name admits of no compromise: no one can be partly father, and partly not. A father is father in respect of his whole personality; all that he is is present in the child, for paternity by piecemeal is impossible: not that paternity extends to self-generation, but that a father is altogether father in all his qualities, to the offsprings born of him. According to the constitution of human bodies, which are made of dissimilar elements, and composed of various parts, the father must be father of the whole, since a perfect birth hands on to the child all the different elements and parts, which are in the father. The father is, therefore, father of all that is his; the birth proceeds from the whole of himself, and constitutes the whole of the child. God, however, has no body, but simple essence: no parts, but an all-embracing whole: nothing quickened, but everything living. God is therefore all life, and all one, not compounded of parts, but perfect in His simplicity, and, as the Father, must be Father to His begotten in all that He Himself is, for the perfect birth of the Son makes Him perfect Father in all that He has. So, if He is proper Father to the Son, the Son must possess all the properties of the Father. Yet how can this be, if the Son has not the quality of prescience, if there is anything from His Author, which is wanting in His birth? To say that there is one of God's properties which He has not, is almost equivalent to saying that He has none of them. And what is proper to God, if not the knowledge of the future, a vision, which embraces the invisible and unborn world, and has within its scope that which is not yet, but is to be?”

Hilary, Ibid., §9.72:
“God is a simple Being: we must understand Him by devotion, and confess Him by reverence. He is to be worshipped, not pursued by our senses, for a conditioned and weak nature cannot grasp with the guesses of its imagination the mystery of an infinite and omnipotent nature. In God is no variability, no parts, as of a composite divinity, that in Him will should follow inaction, speech silence, or work rest, or that He should not will, without passing from some other mental state to volition, or speak, without breaking the silence with His voice, or act, without going forth to labour.”

Hilary, Ibid., §10.58
“He is a simple and blessed nature, a single, complete, all-embracing Whole.”

Basil of Caesarea, Letter 234
“The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach.”

Pseudo-Justin (5th century), Quaestiones ad Orthodoxos, q. 144
“If God has a subsistence that exists, and a will that exists in it, and a Son that exists, how, being composed of so many things, is he called ‘simple?’
Resp. Just as God is whole in every respect, and whole in each one, and whole in and of himself, and we have faith in this, thus, his simple whole is the Son, and the whole that has a Son, and the whole is his will, and the whole that has a will. For God does not exist in keeping with created nature, in order for his existence, and what he possesses, to be reckoned as a composite whole, as a created nature; but rather, his existence, and what he possesses, are beyond all composition.”

Augustine, On the Trinity, §6.4.6
“ For in like manner the virtues which are in the human mind, although each has its own several and different meaning, yet are in no way mutually separable; so that, for instance, whosoever were equal in courage, are equal also in prudence, and temperance, and justice. For if you say that such and such men are equal in courage, but that one of them is greater in prudence, it follows that the courage of the other is less prudent, and so neither are they equal in courage, since the courage of the former is more prudent. And so you will find it to be the case with the other virtues, if you consider them one by one. For the question is not of the strength of the body, but of the courage of the mind. How much more therefore is this the case in that unchangeable and eternal substance, which is incomparably more simple than the human mind is? Since, in the human mind, to be is not the same as to be strong, or prudent, or just, or temperate; for a mind can exist, and yet have none of these virtues. But in God to be is the same as to be strong, or to be just, or to be wise, or whatever is said of that simple multiplicity, or multifold simplicity, whereby to signify His substance. Wherefore, whether we say God of God in such way that this name belongs to each, yet not so that both together are two Gods, but one God; for they are in such way united with each other, as according to the apostle's testimony may take place even in diverse and differing substances; for both the Lord alone is a Spirit, and the spirit of a man alone is assuredly a spirit; yet, if it cleave to the Lord, it is one spirit: how much more there, where there is an absolutely inseparable and eternal union, so that He may not seem absurdly to be called as it were the Son of both, when He is called the Son of God, if that which is called God is only said of both together. Or perhaps it is, that whatever is said of God so as to indicate His substance, is not said except of both together, nay of the Trinity itself together? Whether therefore it be this or that (which needs a closer inquiry), it is enough for the present to see from what has been said, that the Son is in no respect equal with the Father, if He is found to be unequal in anything which has to do with signifying His substance, as we have already shown. But the apostle has said that He is equal. Therefore the Son is equal with the Father in all things, and is of one and the same substance.”

Ibid. §7.1.2
“But if the Father who begot wisdom is also made wise by it, and to be is not to Him the same as to be wise, then the Son is His quality, not His offspring; and there will no longer be absolute simplicity in the Godhead. But far be it from being so, since in truth in the Godhead is absolutely simple essence, and therefore to be is there the same as to be wise. But if to be is there the same as to be wise, then the Father is not wise by that wisdom which He begot; otherwise He did not beget it, but it begot Him. For what else do we say when we say, that to Him to be is the same as to be wise, unless that He is by that whereby He is wise? Wherefore, that which is the cause to Him of being wise, is itself also the cause to Him that He is; and accordingly, if the wisdom which He begot is the cause to Him of being wise, it is also the cause to Him that He is; and this cannot be the case, except either by begetting or by creating Him. But no one ever said in any sense that wisdom is either the begetter or the creator of the Father; for what could be more senseless? Therefore both the Father Himself is wisdom, and the Son is in such way called the wisdom of the Father, as He is called the light of the Father; that is, that in the same manner as light from light, and yet both one light, so we are to understand wisdom of wisdom, and yet both one wisdom; and therefore also one essence, since, in God, to be, is the same as to be wise. For what to be wise is to wisdom, and to be able is to power, and to be eternal is to eternity, and to be just to justice, and to be great to greatness, that being itself is to essence. And since in the Divine simplicity, to be wise is nothing else than to be, therefore wisdom there is the same as essence.”

Ibid. §15.5.8
“Further, if we say, Eternal, immortal, incorruptible, unchangeable, living, wise, powerful, beautiful, righteous, good, blessed spirit; only the last of this list as it were seems to signify substance, but the rest to signify qualities of that substance; but it is not so in that ineffable and simple nature. For whatever seems to be predicated therein according to quality, is to be understood according to substance or essence. For far be it from us to predicate spirit of God according to substance, and good according to quality; but both according to substance. And so in like manner of all those we have mentioned, of which we have already spoken at length in the former books. Let us choose, then, one of the first four of those in our enumeration and arrangement, i.e. eternal, immortal, incorruptible, unchangeable; since these four, as I have argued already, have one meaning; in order that our aim may not be distracted by a multiplicity of objects. And let it be rather that which was placed first, viz. eternal. Let us follow the same course with the four that come next, viz. living, wise, powerful, beautiful. And since life of some sort belongs also to the beast, which has not wisdom; while the next two, viz. wisdom and might, are so compared to one another in the case of man, as that Scripture says, Better is he that is wise than he that is strong; and beauty, again, is commonly attributed to bodily objects also: out of these four that we have chosen, let Wise be the one we take. Although these four are not to be called unequal in speaking of God; for they are four names, but one thing. But of the third and last four — although it is the same thing in God to be righteous that it is to be good or to be blessed; and the same thing to be a spirit that it is to be righteous, and good, and blessed; yet, because in men there can be a spirit that is not blessed, and there can be one both righteous and good, but not yet blessed; but that which is blessed is doubtless both just, and good, and a spirit, — let us rather choose that one which cannot exist even in men without the three others, viz. blessed.”

Ibid. §15.13.22
“And the knowledge of God is itself also His wisdom, and His wisdom is itself His essence or substance. Because in the marvellous simplicity of that nature, it is not one thing to be wise and another to be, but to be wise is to be; as we have often said already also in the earlier books.”

Cyril of Alexandria, Thesaurus, PG75, p. 451
“It is attributed by all to God that he is simple and not composite. And thus, it is absurd to say that he has such a knowledge of himself as we have. For if he is one thing, and the knowledge that is in him is another, he would be composite, and not simple. Now, since without a doubt he is simple, certainly, the knowledge which is in him is not something different than he is. But in us, it is of a different nature. For we properly exist according to substance, and we have knowledge situated in our substance, like color in a body. Therefore, we do not know similarly and in a like way to God; we who certainly exist differently than he does.”

Cyril of Alexandria, De SS Trinitate, Dialogus II, PG75, p. 755
“The nature of the Deity is one and simple. Moreover, we say that it is life, virtue, wisdom, and glory. That which is made alive lives by that life, and that which receives strength is strengthened with that virtue, and that which is made wise is made wise with that wisdom, and that which is glorified is glorified with that glory.”

Cyril of Alexandria, De SS Trinitate, Dialogus V, PG75, p. 916
“But how could the divinity be simple, if, they say, it is both understood to be in existence, and in will, separately? For then it would be composite, and made up of parts that come together to form a complete whole.
Resp. Therefore, since the Deity is simple, and it seems to you that it is too excellent to be composite (and you think rightly), his will is not something distinct from himself. Moreover, if you say ‘will,’ you signify the nature of God and the Father.”

Maximus the Confessor, Capita Ducenta Ad theologiam Deique Filii in carne dispensationem spectantia, §82-83
“Every intellection has either a multiple or at least a dual aspect. For it is an intermediate relationship between two extremes - an intellective being and an intelligible being - and links the one to the other. Hence neither extreme can possess an absolute simplicity. An intellective being is a subject/and so the capacity of apprehending some intelligible object is necessarily associated with it. And an intelligible being necessarily either is a subject or exists in a subject: as a subject it possesses the intrinsic capacity of being apprehended by an intellective being; as existing in a subject it presupposes a being in which it exists potentially. For no creature is in itself a simple being or intellection, in such a way as to constitute an indivisible unity. Thus, if we call God a being, then the capacity to be apprehended by a process of intellection is not inherent in His nature, for if it were He would be composite. Or if we call Him an intellection, then He does not possess an essence with a natural capacity for being an intellective subject, but He Himself is intellection in His very essence; the whole of God is intellection and intellection alone. But in terms of intellection He is also being: the whole of God is being and being alone. And yet the whole of God is beyond being and beyond intellection, because He is an indivisible unity, simple and without parts. Thus whoever, to whatever degree, still apprehends by means of intellection has not yet transcended duality. But he who has advanced altogether beyond intellection, and has renounced it because he has transcended it, has come to dwell to some extent in unity.
In the multiplicity of beings there is diversity, dissimilarity and difference. But in God, who is in an absolute sense one and alone, there is only identity, simplicity and similarity. It is therefore not safe to devote oneself to the contemplation of God before one has advanced beyond the multiplicity of beings. Moses showed this when he pitched the tent of his mind outside the camp (cf. Exod. 33:7) and then conversed with God. For it is dangerous to attempt to utter the inexpressible by means of the spoken word, for the spoken word involves duality or more than duality. The surest way is to contemplate pure being silently in the soul alone, because pure being is established in undivided unity and not among the multiplicity of things. The high priest, who was commanded to go into the holy of holies within the veil only once every year (cf. Lev. 16; Heb. 9:7), shows us that only he who has passed through what is immaterial and holy and has entered the holy of holies - that is, who has transcended the whole natural world of sensible and intelligible realities, is free from all that is specific to creatures and whose mind is unclad and naked - is able to attain the vision of God.”

Pseudo-Clement, Decretals, Migne, PG1, p. 473

“Moreover, the name ‘God’ pertains to an eternal substance, or a divine fear. Therefore, God is without beginning, without end, simple, incorporeal, and incomprehensible.”

Gregory Nazianzen, Oration, 45. (All credit to Marco Barone for this one,
"The Divine Nature, then, is boundless and hard to understand, and all that we can comprehend of Him is His boundlessness; even though one may conceive that because He is of a simple Nature He is therefore either wholly incomprehensible or perfectly comprehensible. For let us farther enquire what is implied by is of a simple Nature? For it is quite certain that this simplicity is not itself its nature, just as composition is not by itself the essence of compound beings."

Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 12.5. (This one is from Marco’s blog as well)
"For our statement does not hereby violate the simplicity of the Godhead, since community and specific difference are not essence, so that the conjunction of these should render the subject composite. But on the one side the essence by itself remains whatever it is in nature, being what it is, while, on the other, every one possessed of reason would say that these — community and specific difference — were among the accompanying conceptions and attributes: since even in us men there may be discerned some community with the Divine Nature, but Divinity is not the more on that account humanity, or humanity Divinity. For while we believe that God is good, we also find this character predicated of men in Scripture. But the special signification in each case establishes a distinction in the community arising from the use of the homonymous term. For He Who is the fountain of goodness is named from it; but he who has some share of goodness also partakes in the name, and God is not for this reason composite, that He shares with men the title of good. From these considerations it must obviously be allowed that the idea of community is one thing, and that of essence another, and we are not on that account any the more to maintain composition or multiplicity of parts in that simple Nature which has nothing to do with quantity, because some of the attributes we contemplate in It are either regarded as special, or have a sort of common significance."
I appreciate you doing this but you’ve clearly misunderstood me. I used many of these examples in my own dissertation. But there is absolutely a very developed model of simplicity which is Thomist, both historically and in contemporary debates, and to argue otherwise is just ignorance. As a quick example, there is a difference between Aquinas’ view and Duns Scotus’.

The Church Fathers did not explicate simplicity to the same degree as Aquinas. For example, I did not find anyone saying that God’s existence is identical to God’s essence.
I appreciate you doing this but you’ve clearly misunderstood me. I used many of these examples in my own dissertation. But there is absolutely a very developed model of simplicity which is Thomist, both historically and in contemporary debates, and to argue otherwise is just ignorance. As a quick example, there is a difference between Aquinas’ view and Duns Scotus’.

The Church Fathers did not explicate simplicity to the same degree as Aquinas. For example, I did not find anyone saying that God’s existence is identical to God’s essence.
Why assume the post is directed at you?
Regarding Scotus, none of them make the distinctions Scotus makes in the essence of God. It's patently absurd to claim they incline toward a Scotist view of simplicity.
Why assume the post is directed at you?
Regarding Scotus, none of them make the distinctions Scotus makes in the essence of God. It's patently absurd to claim they incline toward a Scotist view of simplicity.
I never claimed that they did, which is evident to anyone who reads my post properly. And it was a normal assumption to make given our last correspondence.
Can we slow down for a second and let me ask a question?

I'm detecting two tracks of thought here - those that deny simplicity outright and those that deny some more fully developed doctrine from Aquinas.

I also sense a sense in which some philosophers believe that prior generations did philosophy in such a way that relies upon Aristotle which current philosophers find problematic.

I suppose what I'm asking is sort of how would Christians in the era of the Nicene Creed be able to determine if someone was a Christian. From my little reading of the time, it seems that the thinkers of time reached for language for something that was intended to be adored more than completely articulated but they were forced to put to language something that others were denying and that has stuck with us.

The quotes demonstrate a consensus in speech regarding essence and subsistence that defined the bounds of orthodox talk about God. It provided guardrails so that you could talk about God and not involve either tri-Theism or denying the Divinity of any of the Persons.

Maybe I have a few questions:

Can we agree that it's possible to confess Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy and even simplicity without being bound to later Thomistic refinements?

Could Soctist or other Nominalist framings of the same still be orthodox in their confession of the same?

If one is convinced that modern, analytical philosophy says "a pox on some distinctions" how do we still speak to each other in ways that determine if someone is going too far? For instance, I think Frame's ideas of God in Covenant involve a form of Divine mutualism. If his defenders retreat into the insistence that modern philosophy makes him immune to this charge then what resources does the Church have to sort this out?

What I'm ultimately driving at here is that this is not a battle to show how muscular one's philosophy is. If modern metaphysicians think the past is wrong then they still owe it to Christians of all ages to ultimately "get at" what prior generations were confessing in the historic Creeds rather than making their confession equivocal.
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