May 28, 2024

The Simplicity of God

Sinclair Ferguson
The Simplicity of God

God is not made up of separate parts, such as wisdom, power, and holiness. All of His attributes are simply who He is in His essence. Today, Sinclair Ferguson describes the marvelous doctrine of divine simplicity.


Yesterday, we began some reflections on God, and I was trying to remind us of the difference between the Creator and the creature. We are, as the hymn says, “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” We grasp the privilege of knowing God, then, not by making Him small, but when we realize the sheer greatness of the One we’ve come to know.

But what’s involved in knowing God, knowing who He is and knowing what He’s like? We can come to know Him only because God has condescended to reveal Himself to us, and because, in addition, He has made us as His image and likeness, giving us, as it were, built-in receptors that enable us to know Him. He is the original Person. He has made us as image persons, kind of miniature likenesses of Himself, persons of a different genre from Him but who have been created by Him to know Him and love Him.

And one way we come to know and love each other as persons is through what we might call our attributes. And the same is true with God. Just to be clear about what we are talking about here: when we speak of attributes, we don’t mean the noun attribute as though it meant the same as the verb attribute. For example, you may know that in some hymn books, the lovely sixteenth-century hymn, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” is attributed to John Calvin. For all practical purposes, “attributed” there means maybe he wrote it, maybe he didn’t, but some people attribute it to him. But when we speak about the attributes of God, we’re not talking about characteristics we think He has but He might not have; we’re talking about characteristics He displays. We’re talking about what Scripture teaches us about Him. In the same way, we have attributes—we’re hopefully kind and trustworthy and patient and so on.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there? I might be kind and patient today, but tomorrow, for whatever reason, I might become someone who’s cruel and irritable, yet I’d still be the same person, wouldn’t I? I’d still be Sinclair Ferguson. I’d still be the same person if I had different attributes. But God isn’t like that. And we need our thinking caps on to reflect on this.

One reason why God isn’t like this is because in God, ultimately, all of his attributes are just Himself. They’re all simply who and what He is. His goodness, and His faithfulness, and His omnipotence, His holiness, and His unchanging character—they’re all who He is. Theologians call this the simplicity of God. They don’t mean He’s simpleminded; in fact, the very opposite.

Imagine two balls: one is large, the other is absolutely minute—like a round speck of dust so small you can hardly see it. I ask you to lift them one at a time. You manage, with some effort, to lift the big one. “Well done,” I say, “Now relax for a minute and lift the small one.” “Easy,” you think, but then you try, but you can’t. “You’ve stuck it down,” you say to me. “No,” I respond, “It’s not stuck down. Try again.” You try and try and try again but fail each time. Why? And why are you surprised? This tiny ball is simply too dense for you to lift. It’s as though all the weight in the world has been concentrated into one tiny point. It’s all one tiny, indivisible reality, and its mass is enormous. Well, all illustrations have their limitations, don’t they? And this one certainly does. But what I’m trying to say is that when we speak of the simplicity of God, we mean the immense density of all His attributes all concentrated into one unimaginably great being.

So, when the shorter catechism says, “God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” these are not elements that when added together make up the being of God so that He gets bigger and bigger. They are really ways of expressing the sheer density, the simplicity of the perfection of His being—who He is.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that we are told in Isaiah 6 that the seraphim, who are perfectly holy, veil their faces in God’s presence. It’s not that He’s holy and they are not. They’re perfectly holy too. But if I can put it this way, their holiness is light by comparison with the density there is in His. There’s an eternal density in the way all of God’s attributes are simply who He is. So, no wonder the seraphim repeat the word “holy” and then repeat it again. And when we turn to the back of our Bibles, they’re still repeating it in Revelation 4:8. It’s as though they can never get to the bottom of the density of the being of God. And it’s that greatness that makes John 1:18 such wonderful news: “No one has ever seen God; but the only God, who is at the Father’s side (that is the Lord Jesus), he has made him known.”