This phrase that God is “without parts” comes from the Westminster Confession, which explains that God is a “pure spirit” and that He is “without body, parts, or passions” (WCF 2.1). Maybe the best way to explain this is that the background to that statement lies in an older theological tradition that used Latin terms, and they spoke about God as being simplex, or simple. They did not mean this in the sense we usually use the word simple, as a reference to somebody who is naive, but rather in contrast with the word complex. So, when we speak about the simplicity of God, we mean that He is not made up of parts as we are.
We are complex beings: we are made of body and spirit. We’re complex beings in another sense as well, in that our lives are complicated by our sinfulness. For example, we could say that Nathan W. Bingham is kind and generous to his guests, but sometimes Nathan W. Bingham can be just a little bit nasty. Either way, he is still Nathan W. Bingham. So, you could lose some of your qualities, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, and still be the same person. You are a complex being. You are made up of parts. If you lost a hand, you would still be Nathan W. Bingham.
The Westminster divines saw in Scripture that when God reveals who He is, He says, “I am who I am,” meaning: “I’m not made up of parts. I am not the kind of being where if I cease to be loving, I am still God. I am always all I am. I am my attributes.” That makes God distinct from us. With us, there is our individual person and there are our attributes. We can lose those attributes—physical, spiritual, or emotional—and still be that person.
The Westminster divines were emphasizing that we need to learn that God actually is His attributes. Further, unlike us, who have many complex attributes, all of God’s attributes are one and the same reality. It’s because of our finitude that we describe Him as loving, gracious, righteous, holy, and so on. Think about something that seems small and yet it is incredibly heavy. You might think, “How can there be so much weight?” In that way, you can catch a sense of the intensity and the density of being in God. He always is all that He is all of the time.
This idea has been discussed by theologians and philosophers and might seem remote, but is practically significant because we are complex not only in the basic sense of having bits and pieces and parts, but we are actually very complex, complicated people. And our greatest need is that the gospel should simplify us, that the gospel should uncomplicate us. When we come to have fellowship with the God who is without parts, without passions, without body—who is simply who He is all of the time—one result is that the better we come to know Him, the simpler our lives become because we are taken up with the knowledge of Him.
We still live in a complicated world, but I think we become much more like Paul, as he writes in Philippians 3, “I’m doing only one thing.” Sometimes I like to think whimsically, and I think Timothy is there when Paul is writing his letter to the Philippians, saying: “Come on, Paul, you’re never doing only one thing. You’re doing a thousand things all the time.” And I think of Paul saying: “No, Timothy, I’m not doing a thousand different things. I’m doing one thing in a thousand different ways.”
As we’re taken up with the character of God, instead of “without parts” seeming to be a strange theological statement, it becomes a very practical and pastoral help to us as we live our Christian lives to know: “I am complicated and complex, and He will simplify me. Though I am still a creature, He will make me more and more like Himself.”
So, there is both a theological and a pastoral side to what the Westminster divines were saying when they spoke about God being without parts.
This transcript is from an Ask Ligonier Podcast session with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email email@example.com or message us on Facebook or Twitter.