Divine Simplicity (Simplicitas Dei)

Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works Here are two Christian theologians’ discussions of divine simplicity (simplicitas Dei).  The first, comes from Anselm of Canterbury (around 1080) in Proslogion:

“What are you, Lord, what are You; what shall my heart understand You to be?  You are, assuredly, life, You are wisdom, You are truth, You are goodness, You are blessedness, You are eternity, and You are every true good.  These are many things, and my limited understanding cannot see them all in one single glance so as to delight in all at once.  How then, Lord, are You all these things?  Are they parts of You, or rather, is each one of these wholly what You are?  For whatever is made up of parts is not absolutely one, but in a sense many and other than itself, and it can be broken up either actually or by the mind – all of which things are foreign to You….”

“Therefore there are no parts in You, Lord, neither are You many, but You are so much one and the same with Yourself that in nothing You are dissimilar with Yourself.  Indeed You are unity itself not divisible by any mind.  Life and wisdom and the other [attributes] then, are not parts of You, but all are one and each one of them is wholly what You are and what all the others are.  Since, then, neither You nor Your eternity which You are have parts, no part of You or of Your eternity is anywhere or at any time, but You exist as a whole everywhere and Your eternity exists as a whole always.”

Second, around 800 years later, Herman Bavinck said it this way (c. 1900):

“On the whole, [Christian] teaching has been that God is ‘simple,’ that is, sublimely free from all composition, and that therefore one cannot make any real [i.e. ontological] distinction between his being and his attributes.  Each attribute is identical with God’s being: he is what he possesses.  In speaking of creatures we make all sorts of distinctions between what they are and what they have.  A person, for example, is still human even though he or she has lost the [original] image of God and has become a sinner.  But in God all his attributes are identical with his being.  God is light through and through; he is all mind, all wisdom, all logos, all spirit, and so forth.  …Whatever God is, he is that completely and simultaneously.  …This doctrine of God’s simplicity was the means by which Christian theology was kept from the danger of splitting God’s attributes from his essence and of making them more or less independent from, and opposed to, his essence” (Reformed Dogmatics II, 118).

rev. shane lems


Barth on Credo Ut Intelligam

Product Details Some parts of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics frustrate me, upset me, and make me want to quit reading them once and for all.  Other parts make me want to finish them ASAP.  Here’s a helpful quote – one of the reasons I read this stuff.  It has to do with the first line of the Apostle’s Creed (I believe in God the Father Almighty) and Anselm’s famous line, Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand).

“In the present instance this means: I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son our Lord, in order to perceive and to understand that God the Almighty, the Father, is the Creator of heaven and earth.  If I did not believe the former, I could not perceive and understand the latter.  If I perceive and understand the latter, my perception and understanding are completely established, sustained, and impelled by my believing the former.  Thus the confession of God the Creator belongs integrally to the rest of the confession.  It does not constitute a foreign body in the confession – a mere prolegomenon.  It is not for nothing that the word ‘credo’ stands before this first statement of faith.  Nor is it merely because it has to stand at the head of the whole confession.  But it is used here with its full Christian content.”

This quote is found in III.1.4 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

shane lems

A Prayer of Anselm: “Truth and Understanding”

  Many of us may have heard Anselm’s (d. 1109) famous line, “I believe so that I may understand.”  That famous line is part of a longer (and outstanding) prayer we may not have heard.  Here it is (at least part of it).  Read it slowly and deeply.

“I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that You have created Your image in me, so that I may remember You, think of You, love You.  But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless You renew and reform it.  I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it.  But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ [Is. 7:9].”

Amen.  This prayer puts us in our rightful place before God: bowing at his feet, in need of everything.

The quote is found in Proslogion, which can be found in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.

shane lems