Thinking Divine Simplicity from a Grace-Alone-Frame

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.

20 thoughts on “Thinking Divine Simplicity from a Grace-Alone-Frame

  1. Hi Bobby, if you’ll pardon my self-recommendation, in my book The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, I argue for the doctrine of simplicity along with the validity of the analogy of being. Barth features nicely as well, along with Aquinas and others in my chapter on the doctrine of God as it pertains to the divine nature and beauty. If you’re ever inclined to include my book in your readings I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.


  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Alright, thanks for the recommend. I recently read Mark Mattes’ book on Luther and Aesthetics; a very good book! I’m not a fan of analogia entis, but I’m always up for reading good works that I don’t necessarily agree with.


  3. I recently read Mark Mattes’ book on Luther and Aesthetics as well. A solid treatment to be sure. My theological aesthetic actually takes issue with some key areas Mattes’ lays out on Luther’s theology. Specifically, I contend that the so-called alien work of God in his hiddenness upon the sinner should not be thought of as being an alien work at all but rather as all part of God’s proper (i.e., fitting) work. Nor, for that matter, should God be thought of as operating in his hiddenness but rather as all part of God’s unmitigated revealedness. I don’t deal with Luther in my book but you’ll readily see when you read it. Thanks for putting it on your to-read list.


  4. I’m a fan of Luther’s theology of the cross as I see it as an anticipation of key moves in Barth’s own theology (particularly as that is laid bare in the CD). So I’ll be interested to see how you work out your own theological aesthetic. Someday, I don’t know when. I’m massively behind on book reviews, and I keep putting other books prior to those; this must stop! 😉


  5. Bobby, I think that you and I will probably never get around to agreeing over the analogia entis, which is fine by me btw. But what does stick out to me is that Barth doesn’t really stand apart from at least some forms of classical simplicity, which does entail a radical transcendence of the Creator. At the same time, I don’t think that the post-metaphysical theologies of Barth, Torrance, et. al. can go much further in their theological language for simplicity beyond their affirmations because simplicity entails multiple metaphysical assumptions.

    I just finished reading Eric Perl’s book Theophany which deals with Dionysus the Areopagite’s neoplatonic metaphysics. While there are probably several irreconcilable differences between Dionysus and Barth, there are some interesting points of contact. Because Dionysus presents God as Being-beyond-being, he, more than perhaps any of the other Patristic theologians preserves a radical transcendence for the Divine, so much so that he asserts that we do not have language that can ascend from creature to Creator. However, from the superabundance of Divine grace, we receive the language of analogy that grounds our ability to know God – this is more participatory than linguistic, because our language is still in a qualitative way incapable to peer into Divine incomprehensibility.

    I’m still grappling with the Patristic constructs of classical theism, but as I am slowly working through their works I am finding a whole host of concepts that are strikingly relevant for Reformed theology, and are probably far more helpful than the theological witness that was developed in Reformed scholasticism. I know that there is hesitancy among Barthians to embrace apophatic language, but in many ways I see them embracing the essence of the apophatic tradition even if they are wary of the concept and are more inclined to a Christocentric language of affirmation. Barth seems to have a rather unique language of negation (e.g. the ‘No-God’ so prevalent in his Romans Commentary) that does remind me a lot of the Patristic apophaticisms. While I am not a theologian in any proper sense, I find my own interaction between the Patristics and the 20th Century dialectic theologians as something more constructive and synthetic, because there is so much concordance between them. Are you aware of any contemporary Barthians who deal with the analogia entis in more favorable terms?


  6. The thing is, though, Jed, is that the apophatic trad offers a faceless conception of God whereas in the actualism, particularly of Barth, there is no “facelessness of God,” there is Jesus Christ. The No-God of Barth is a negative negation; it’s really, as I see it, a riff on Feuerbach’s projectionalism. But this is why Barth doesn’t negate analogy as a proper mode for theological discourse and as a frame for knowledge of God, per se. Instead, he’s going to ground the ‘point of contact’ between God and humanity by way of the an/enhypostatic reality of the Christ for us. The critique of analogy of being is based upon a diastasis between a kind of pure nature and a nature that is always and already “given” as a new event over again afresh mediated through the risen humanity of Jesus Christ as the firstborn of creation. While the critique of Barth (even by John Webster) is that Barth does not have a full-orbed doctrine of creation available; I disagree. Instead Barth has a full-orbed doctrine of new-creation as the ground upon which he sees protological reality regulated and given orientation before God from his eschatological life. Why is this important? Because it recognizes that there is not an inherent in-built capacity latent in the creation that is towards God (even in an unactivated yet to be activated mode), but that instead creation itself is adumbrated always and already by its eschatological telos in and from God’s election to be for and with humanity, and not God without humanity before the foundations of the world. But I’ll keep your comment in mind as I’m finishing up my current post on the analogia entis.


  7. I’m glad you bring up the intimate connection between protology and eschatology, because several of the Fathers are quick to point out that the first cause can only be understood in light of the final cause. While Barth might word this differently, I don’t see substantial disagreement with where they end up. Inasmuch as Barth stood against the formulae that were trying to build a ‘ground-up’ metaphysics, I think his critique is helpful. But, I don’t think that this is how the Fathers and even St. Thomas conceived their metaphysical positions. Perhaps they lapsed at times into trying to get to a God behind Jesus, and this is a problem, but I don’t think that this is a dominant feature of classical Christian metaphysics or the analogia entis in particular.

    Christian theology in the wake of Kant has had a real difficulty with metaphysics in general, however, the problem is the rejection of metaphysical language and concepts is in itself a metaphysical claim. All I am essentially claiming is that there is a via media between the best of Barth and traditional Christian metaphysics, and that they can both be mutually informative.


  8. I’ve read much of the Fathers and Thomas myself over the years; I do think they often hellenized more than is helpful. I actually do think that what you don’t think is a dominant feature is indeed just that. I think that is the case because of the metaphysic itself. When you think in terms of substances and qualities, no matter how hard one tries to personalize such conceptuality it remains resistant by definition. When your grammar of being is ‘Pure Being’ or an Actual Infinite etc you necessarily end up with a monadic conception of the Ultimate. So, no I don’t agree with you. And then when you attempt to have such a being related to the world the causal theory that is developed is even harder to personalize. This is why we end up with a decretal God rather than a personally relating God under the pressures of what you’re claiming were not the dominant features of classical theism in the main. But the proof is in the soteriological pudding. This is why I believe attempting to build theology on such foundations is ultimately problematic and even deleterious. But I also recognize that the developments of the past were what they had available to them THEN; we can certainly learn things from them, but we have other resources and categories available to us today. It’s really not a matter of how the trad conceived of their projects and what they were doing; it’s a matter now of recognizing their own periodization and constructively identifying their weaknesses and strengths—things they couldn’t see themselves.

    Yes, Barth has a metaphysic of freedom attending his “postmetaphysics,” these things are well recognized. But that doesn’t really concern me as much as others—ie whether a project is fully postmetaphysical or not—what I’m concerned with is the material production that a system of theology has the capacity to generate vis a vis the reality of the Gospel attested to most specifically in Scripture. As I’ve noted in my most recent post I’m happier with the terminology of narratival theology, and I default to that trajectory with full recognition of the value of orthodox grammar; but also with the recognition that said grammar is eschatologically open and allowed to be excavated as we continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ—Hunsinger identifies such patterning in Barth’s theology as the Chalcedonian pattern (in the way that Barth engages w/ the trad). But it doesn’t do us well to soften the differences in the metaphysics operative between the periods and recognize the impact those have. I’m not all that interested honestly in finding the impossible via media, I’m more interested in staying with the contours of Holy Scripture and allowing those to norm the impulses that frame the way we continuously engage with the trad.

    I know you’ve been reading Aidan a lot. I appreciate Kimel, he and I go way back to 2005 in the blogs. But at the end of the day Al is Orthodox, he repudiates sola scriptura and elevates the Eastern trad and her Fathers. I’m not interested in that mode. I’m not interested in making peace with that way, per se. There’s a fundamental difference between doing theology that way versus doing theology as a Protestant. I take Protestantism to be a largely modern phenomenon; even as that began to move under the pressures of Christian Humanism through Luther into post reformed orthodox theology and then even into modern reformed theology. So because of that reality (the Free reality that entails per a theology of the Word) I’m going to allow a commitment to the Scripture principle and the spirit of semper reformanda be regulative for my theological approach. This means I will not let overly metaphysical schemas with their related theories of causation etc to intrude and speak where Scripture and its reality does not. This is why attempting to find a via media or a “catholic” continuity between all the various trads and developments, in my view is a lost cause.

    In some ways I think you and I are on very different paths.


  9. I’ll address your last statement first – I think you’re right and it is fair to say that we are probably on different paths inasmuch as I am far more open to an eclectic approach where I am comfortable in departing with Protestantism in some ways and appropriating the tradition in others. I do think that this is still within the constructive spirit of Semper Reformanda and I am not willing to leave Protestantism behind because I do think that there are elements in Catholic and Orthodox doctrine that do genuinely conflict with Scripture. The Protestant hermenutic, in several of its variations, is a development in the theological witness of the Church is largely positive, so I am not willing to grant where some theologians (Hart particularly) are insistent that Protestants got Paul wrong; I think that they got him more right than wrong (and there are significant Patristic sources – Irenaeus and Cyril who are more concordant with Protestant exegesis than these Orthodox theologians are willing to entertain). I still firmly believe that the Reformers recovered the Gospel, and this is ground that I still stand firmly upon. I am in total disagreement with Evangelical Calvinism, but I am probably more of a Deviant Calvinist that Crisp describes at this point (and in a sense that goes beyond that). I wouldn’t say that my own development is complete, because I plan on circling back into Protestant theology in a more detailed way in the coming year. I’ll say this about your work and why I appreciate it; you do a great job at bringing together the trajectory of Barth, Torrance, et. al. and in many ways I use this as a check on my assessments while I approach my own reworking through the Christian tradition. So, even where I am not inclined to agree with you, I think your work is of great value; the points of contact that I think I am more inclined to agree are exegetical, but the dogmatic commitments are an area where I’m not sure our views are amenable.

    As to the substance of your critique, I think that metaphysics are an inescapable consequence of creatio ex nihilo. The legacy of the Reformers, especially through the High Orthodoxy period affirm this metaphysical stance and this places them firmly in the broad catholic tradition that I am highly resistant to departing from. That’s not to say I don’t think there are excesses, but their theological grammar is something I am in substantial agreement and this is where we are furthest apart. The problem I have with the modern, post-Kantian tendency in theology, even where it isn’t definitively Kantian the repudiation of metaphysics comes at great cost in the central dogmas in Christianity. I do think that Barthians do a good job of avoiding some of the pitfalls that other Reformed and Evangelical theologians fall into where their formulae of theistic personalism is running amok in basic Trinitarian theology as well as theology proper.

    Christian metaphysics is not about affirming a depersonalized monad, I don’t think there is any way to square this with the Fathers because they are the ones who developed Trinitarian theology in the first place. Neoplatonism, in Plotinus and Proclus might go this way, and however much Christian theology develops in the Platonic/Neoplatonic framework it is still fundamentally Trinitarian. I think it is a mistake to say that we can dispense with a theology that does not acknowledge that God preexists creation and creates with absolute freedom (through Christ who is preexistent).

    I’ll leave my comment at this, because I have to get ready for work – I am much more interested in a catholic theology than you are, because I don’t think that Protestantism is an end in and of itself. But, I do appreciate your dialogue on this, as always you’re both provocative and irenic and give me much to chew on. I’ll try to get to your comment on the next post at some point late today, but as always thanks for your thoughtful response, I do appreciate it a great deal.


  10. BTW, there’s a significant typo in my comment – where I said I’m in total disagreement with Evangelical Calvinism, I meant to say I’m NOT in total disagreement with Evangelical Calvinism… oops!


  11. I’ll leave my comment at this, because I have to get ready for work – I am much more interested in a catholic theology than you are, because I don’t think that Protestantism is an end in and of itself.

    I doubt this. And this is the point: there are different ways to be catholic. Like even among the high orthodox, there is lots and lots of variance by way of their various emphases (per the person).

    Christian metaphysics is not about affirming a depersonalized monad, I don’t think there is any way to square this with the Fathers because they are the ones who developed Trinitarian theology in the first place.

    No, the landscape is too broad to make a flat statement like this. I have some essays here on the blog somewhere where Myk gets into the way some of the Fathers handled the Hellenistic temptation and reification process better than others. There are impulses within various characters of every period that are more pregnant and theologically helpful than others. For EC purposes the doctrine of the primacy of Christ; union with Christ theology (think Cyril, Athanasius, Maximus et al) are the types of loci we draw from. But no, I mean sure you can assert that classical theism doesn’t depersonalize, but I have argued over and again here at the blog and elsewhere, drawing off of others work etc, just the contrary.

    I think it is a mistake to say that we can dispense with a theology that does not acknowledge that God preexists creation and creates with absolute freedom (through Christ who is preexistent).

    I kind of don’t understand this reading of things. Where have I repudiated a prior or antecedent reality or Logos asarkos in God? If you read my posts in total this is a dominant theme and emphasis. Just as there is more than one way to be catholic there is more than one way to be postmetaphysical; lets say hard and soft postmetaphysical. Someone like Congdon is hard PM I am soft (but then again I’d say Athanasius fits into the soft style as well). You need to read Darren Sumner’s work on Christology to get a better read on what I’m talking about in regard to how the preexistent functions in Barth’s theology in particular. And then of course TFT readily affirms a prior pre-temporal reality (how could he or Barth not given their doctrines of election?). So no, that’s just a misunderstanding of where I’m coming from. When I say “narratival” that’s not a wholesale collapse of all reality into some sort of structuralist literary construct; it’s just to identify the way that the Scripture principle functions for my theological project.

    As to the substance of your critique, I think that metaphysics are an inescapable consequence of creatio ex nihilo. The legacy of the Reformers, especially through the High Orthodoxy period affirm this metaphysical stance and this places them firmly in the broad catholic tradition that I am highly resistant to departing from.

    Again, this is also a misunderstanding of my position. My position is contingent on creatio ex nihilo, following TFT’s et al work (i.e. contingency away from and towards God as TFT would says). But what I don’t understand is why you seem to think that substance metaphysics is a necessary consequent of creatio ex nihilo; why do you think it is? What EC is about is recognizing that creation out of nothing is a function of God’s gracious choice to be for us, and out of that choice as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit he creates. Creation is grounded in the relationality of the Triune life and the space inherent between the persons. How that becomes “substance” is not a necessary consequence of that reality as it is rooted in the divine life which is characterized by the filial-relational (Athanasius). When the whole tradition gets flattened out as if the whole tradition shares the same emphases is an error that does not allow folks to read the tradition with care. To flatten out the catholic faith and simply live in the assertion that all of these thinkers through the millennia operated off of the same impulses or that they all were substance metaphysicians is just not the case; not if we are able to identify various streams (which we are) of emphasis, particularly streams where the relational reality of God’s relationship to humanity comes through in greater ways than others. Calvin is a good interlocutor because he indeed is a catholic thinker, but he is not slavishly bound to the tradition either. He has an eclectic offering that affirms certain aspects of the Patristic theology (as he read that), and then demurs at other points because he believes Scripture does.

    Oh, you keep referencing Barth et al as working in the post-Kantian tradition. It would be more correct to read Barth (and even Bultmann) as working in the post-Luther[an] tradition in the mood of the theology of the cross. Congdon helpfully identifies and develops that distinction, and notes how Luther himself serves, for Barth et al, as a primary touchstone in developing his style of dialectical theology (God’s hiddeness and revealedness in hiddeness). Yes, Kant made things more acute for Barth et al, but theologically the premises were present not from Kant but Luther; that needs to be appreciated much more by readers of this period.

    Ultimately I think the way you have characterized isn’t all that accurate. Like I said I am “moody” we say EC is a “mood,” and I string back and forth between various emphases all within a certain mood that is counter what you seem to think is the catholic way that is present in the trad. I don’t think that’s an accurate way of reading or engaging with the trad; it has more depth and is more round than that.


  12. Look Bobby, I get the sense that this is going in direction I don’t care to engage because I’m not that interested in winning this argument. I had no intention of misreading what you said in this post, if I did, my apologies. I’ll continue to follow along as you post more on this topic, but I gotta duck out of this like I said above – my week is starting to stack up on me. Cheers, and I look forward to reading more.


  13. Jed, all I said is that you have mischaracterized my position. Calm down. I appreciate the engagement, but at the same time you have seemingly read me into a position that I don’t actually hold. I was simply attempting to correct that. There’s no “argument” here, it is simply a matter of representing something accurately. But I don’t agree with the premise that you are more catholic than me. That’s a rather big statement to make, I think. That’s really what I was busy about correcting in my response. It isn’t just this post. You’ve been reading me long enough to know that I’m not in the PTS combine and that sort of postmetaphysical camp. I wouldn’t want to be reduced to one blog post and the emphasis I’m highlighting in said post as if that is representative of what I am all about.

    I think we share similar impulses in certain ways. But to be clear EC itself is certainly greater than me, and within the mood we are operating within we have identified a contrariwise movement of thought that is just as in the tradition and is just as catholic as the catholic line you claim to be following. Yes, I actually do take that seriously. Pax


  14. Bobby, in retrospect I would have stated the catholic contention differently, it was a careless statement in a hastily typed comment. I don’t doubt that you’re highly catholic in your approach, and there’s more than one way to go about that. Apologies dude, I honestly meant no offense. But, I can’t engage much beyond this. Starting my masters program next week and have tons of work in front of me. I’ll continue to follow along, and comment as time allows.


  15. No worries man, these things happen when we discuss what we’re passionate about. Anyway, I’ll be pursuing my MA in Education with a credential in English, then Lord willing an MA in Lit. Should be a busy season. I’ve been in a long transition out of the business world into education and now that all my kids are in school I have time to put the petal to the metal.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.