Thomas Torrance’s project was largely about reifying classical theological concepts under the pressure provided for by a personalist understanding of the Triune life; Barth in his own way obviously reformulates the tradition as well. What I want to do with this post is share a snippet from John Webster and his description of Divine Simplicity vis-à-vis a doctrine of creation, and then suggest a way that this might be reified in a Torrancean or Barthian way. Webster writes:

Simplicity is a broad term for the fact that God is not formed from elements, whether internal or external; God has no career, no process of coming-to-be. Simplicity indicates the intrinsic absence or need for derivation in God and, further, betokens that God is not ordered to anything else, even as the most excellent or supreme being. The world, therefore, is not a concomitant to God. ‘[I]t is absolutely necessary that God should be differently related to his effects than any other possible cause to its effects and that he should possess his nature in a different way from any other possible being. The concept of “incompositeness” enables us to secure the assertion of these things.’

Because God is simple, he is absolutely and not merely contingently other than the world. God’s not being part of the world is not such that he is some reality alongside and contrasted with the world, as if God and the world formed a pair with their respective natures determined in part by their divergence and differentiation from each other. The otherness of God as creator is not an instance of correlativity or complementarity. God is non aliud, beyond relations of similarity or contrast. ‘Creatures are not related to God as to a thing of a different genus, but as to something outside of and prior to all genera.’[1]

I want to affirm, in principle, what Simplicity intends to signify in regard to God’s “antecededness” and otherness. What I have emboldened, I believe, is of the upmost to affirm in regard to recognizing the distinction between Creator/creature in a God-world relation. Both Torrance and Barth also want to, and do affirm this reality about God; this is the orthodox and catholic affirmation that we seen present in the lives and thought frames of all orthodox thinkers in the realm of the church catholic transcending all periods of church history.

Simplicity is an important feature of Christian theology. I think though that while it can be and ought to be affirmed in its conceptuality that there are different ways to articulate it within a Dogmatic frame. Interestingly Webster is largely working from Aquinas’s understanding of Simplicity, but Aquinas held along with the Fourth Lateran Council that while there was certainly an absolute distinction between the Creator and creatures that nevertheless there remained a possibility of ‘contact’ of similarity between God as the first mover over against the moved movers wherein a knowledge of God could be connived by way of analogy [of being]. This is where I demur. With Barth (and Torrance) I maintain that while God is Simple, properly reified, that the divide is so great between He and us that outwith his gracious willingness to step down and come to us in Christ in the miracle of resurrection that there is no way to know God; and this precisely because of God’s Simple nature. Barth, and Torrance following, I believe actually is in a place, with his anti-natural-theology approach, to magnify the Creator/creature distinction much more than even Thomas Aquinas.

George Hunsinger helps us grasp how Barth thought we might know God precisely at the point that God in himself is unknowable. Barth had a way to bridge the gap between God and us without positing, as Thomas did, some sort of innate analogical point of contact between us and God. Note:

Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[2]

For Barth it is Grace all the way down; grace not a perfected nature is the way Barth traverses the ditch between God and humanity; grace who in fact is Jesus Christ.

While I appreciate Webster’s description of Simplicity I think Barth’s way of thinking it actually magnifies Simplicity insofar as the Creator/creature distinction is honored precisely by radicalizing a concept of Grace by seeing that as the relation that God has always already related to his creation through to begin with; as the ‘first Word’ (cf. Gen. 1.1 / Jn. 1.1). We can all agree that God is incomposite and in that sense ‘untouched’ by his creation, but at the same time we don’t want to soften this (as I believe Aquinas does) in order to think a way for the gap to be bridged, in regard to knowledge of this Simple God, by bridging our apprehension of Him through an intact capacity within an abstract humanity; a humanity that isn’t grounded in the archetypal humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

By the way: to think Simplicity from the ‘Grace-alone-frame’ does things. It implicates a discussion on impassibility/passibility etc.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 120 [emphasis mine].

[2] Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes, 70-1.