Book Review: Divine Simplicity

Divine Simplicity Steven Duby

Occasionally I like to stretch my little grey cells by reading something technical, slightly outside of my comfort zone, that forces me to really engage the brain. This book, which I review nervously (as it is eminently possible that I have completely misunderstood it) falls into this category. Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account by Steven J. Duby is a revision of his PhD thesis, dealing with the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity, the idea that ‘God is without parts’, and God is thus identical to his attributes (things like omnipresence, goodness, truth, eternity, etc). This idea is criticised regularly throughout history, even though, as Duby notes, “The lineage of the Christian doctrine of divine simplicity reaches back to the earliest stages of the church’s reflection on biblical teaching. In the midst of a number of doctrinal controversies, the catholic church fathers are remarkably united in denying composition in God…“. One key reason it is important, back in the Early Church and certainly still now, is related to “a … general confusion of God and the world in pagan thought… overturned by the Creator-creature distinction, which is parsed by way of God’s simplicity“. Whilst this might seem like high-falutin ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’, it does have pastoral and practical implications, including for our worship, our service, and our very trust in God.

Despite certainly stretching my little grey cells, this is a relatively readable and defintiely well-organised book. Duby’s first chapter, ‘Some Historical Bearings’ is more than just history – he helpfully introduces Divine Simplicity in a way that is relatively easy to understand and explain. This is not a book for everyone – but anyone with, say, undergraduate level interest in theology should be able to understand what is going on. You may, as I did, occasionally need to consult dictionaries or google! To attempt to summarise this first chapter, though, I would point to Duby’s quotation of Colin Gunton, that “Simplicity… is ‘a function of the doctrine of God’s triune and holy love’“. It matters how we understand God – because God is not just an idea or a vague sense, but a person, a community of persons, greater than any human. The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity, in my understanding, helps us to articulate that without constantly caveat-ting and explaining what we are trying to say. Duby’s second chapter is an introduction to what he plans to do – which, again, simply put, is to explain how dogmatic theology and biblical exegesis should come together with the aid of analytic philosophy to engage with the claim that Divine Simplicity is truly a biblical doctrine. Duby is open with his presuppositions – making it easy to follow his argument, even for readers who may not be convinced – noting that “The coherence of Scriptrue entails also that the meaning and implications of one biblical passage may be illumined by the clearer or more developed teaching of another relevant passage“, and that “dogmatics in another sense just is exegesis carried out in a certain elaborative manner“. Duby firmly and robustly confronts the modern trend to do ‘systematic theology’ without engaging with the text of the Bible. Thus, it is important to note that “this study proposes that the content of biblical teaching is not reducible to the plane of history but also touches (often cautiously and only momentarily) upon God’s own being“. This is central to the meat of the book.

The meat of this book is found in chapters 3 and 4, wherein Duby sets out his Exegetical-Dogmatic Case for Divine Simplicity. We  read that “we may characterize God’s singularity as the uniqueness, particularity and in-communicability with which he is God, which is inclusive of the Trinity of persons but exclusive of false gods unworthy of the designation and, indeed, exclusive of all created being“. We are in deep but beautiful theological territory here; “God’s freedom concerns not only the particular manner of his acting in redemptive history or the work of predestination but also his decision to bring creation into being“. For Duby, “divine simplicity has been rooted in the teaching of Holy Scripture and in the richness of God’s being instead of an essential thinness disparate to God’s economic activity“, that is to say that a biblical/exegetical account/argument can and arguably must be made for the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity. In chapter 4 Duby carefully engages with some of the more complex biblical insights into God’s character and activity, including “the apparently contradictory remarks about God repenting and not repenting“, as seen in 1 Samuel 15, Genesis 6, Exodus 32, Joel 2 and John 3/4, among others. This, then, is a book that takes seriously the full canon of scripture. In a related way, helpful for contemporary discussions of what it means to talk about God’s presence, Duby writes that the “biblical dynamic of divine transcendence of space and divine nearness in space implies that God’s filling all things does not entail and enmeshment or composition with them“. This is in contrast to some popular misconceptions. Chapter 4 is perhaps the boldest in the book – as Duby engages relatively fearlessly with some very important questions.

The fifth and penultimate chapter, ‘Objections to Divine Simplicity’, considers how this Doctrine relates to three objections: the plurality of the attributes of God, the concept of divine freedom, and the Doctrine of the Trinity. I was particularly impressed by/interested in Duby’s discussion of Trinitarian relations, again in light of popular misconceptions about God: “For each person is not merely a relation toward another but is God and is the divine essence subsiting in relation, which accounts for the ontological destiny of each person who is in relation and, as to his distinctness and incommunicability, in fact just is a (subsisting) relation“. If that didn’t make sense, then it is fair to say this book is probably not one you should be reading (if that doesn’t sound unbelievably rude – but then, to be blunt, that is the role of a book review). Duby sums up the chapter by arguing that “an account of simplicity in the vein of Thomas and Reformed orthodox authors… affirms the multi-faceted richness of God in his manifold attributes and… contains no logical inadequacies as the presumption of univocity in theological description is called into question by the biblical account of God“. In his conclusion to the book, Duby observes the following: “the simple triune Creator is the self-effacacious and ultimate origin of all that exists“, “A number of philosopher’s concerns have been addressed throughout this study“, and “the exegetical impulse in dogmatic conceptualization is vital“. To translate, somewhat, God as Trinitarian creator is vital for understanding everything, objections to Divine Simplicity can be engaged with, and it is vital to use the Bible when doing systematic theology.

Reading this book and writing the review have made me very grateful to Duby for his work in synthesising and explaining a number of immensely important and complex topics within the vital question of who God is, and what God is like. Clearly, this is not a book for most people that read my blog, but for those really leaning in to theological study, or for theologically trained church leaders wanting to engage with some of the topics I’ve noted in my review, this is a really excellent book. As I occasionally do, I’ll give the last words to Duby, who ends his book thusly:

To the extent that persistence in theological interpretation of the Bible and patient retrieval of past insights are pursued in contemporary theology proper, Christian discourse about God will be enriched and strengthened.

If you wanted to purchase a copy, you can get it direct from Bloomsbury/T&T Clark.

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