Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Karl Barth on Divine Simplicity

Karl Barth addresses divine simplicity as part of his teaching on the unity of God (CD II/1, 442ff.).  God is one.  That implies, on the one hand, his uniqueness; on the other, his simplicity.  But what does 'simplicity' mean for Barth - and what does it not mean?

That God is simple "signifies that in all that He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself." (445)  God is not composite.  He is not composite in the three Persons of his existence, nor is he composite in his distinguishable attributes (or as Barth prefers to call them, his perfections).  God is never distant from himself, never in conflict with himself.  He is always all of himself in all his fullness.

The divine simplicity also implies divine lordship.  "Nothing can affect Him, or be far from Him, or contradict or withstand Him, because in Himself there is no separation, distance, contradiction or opposition." (445)  Being completely and unconditionally the Lord of himself, God is the Lord in all other relationships and situations.

So far, so classical.  Where does Barth differ from the tradition, if indeed he does?

In his brief sketch of the historical origins of the doctrine, Barth points out that the early church clarified its doctrine of divine simplicity as it grappled with the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.  His complaint is that already in Augustine, and throughout the periods of Catholic and then Protestant Orthodoxy, the doctrine comes to be developed in "a purely logical and metaphysical" way (446), no longer anchored in the gospel.  This is problematic, because a purely logical and metaphysical doctrine of simplicity both points away from the Holy Trinity toward a generic theism, and "leads to an underlying nominalism or semi-nominalism in the doctrine of the attributes" (447) - that is to say, the wealth of perfections in God cannot be taken with full seriousness, even where the attempt is made to do this.

The issue here is whether the concept of simplicity is still flowing from revelation, or whether it has become detached and absolutised.  Whilst it is true and necessary to say that God is simple, "the assertion of the simplicity of God is not reversible in the sense that it could equally well be said that the simple is God." (449)  The mere idea of simplicity will not serve us well here.  "In Scripture, the utterly simple is 'simply' God Himself in the actuality, the superior might, the constancy, the obviousness, or even more simply, the factuality, in which He is present as God and deals as God with the creature, with man." (457)

Barth's critique is that the idea of simplicity has replaced the actually simple God.  Who and what, then, is God?  For Barth, the important thing is to resist every instinctive feeling for what God ought to be like, or what simplicity must imply, and to follow Scripture.  That leads him to ground his doctrine of simplicity in the fact that the prophets and apostles all heard this one God and found themselves called to obedience.  And in each case, it was the same God.  In all his words and works, he is found to be himself.  He is trustworthy.  "And He is not merely casually or accidentally trustworthy, so that He could also be untrustworthy.  On the contrary, He is trustworthy in His essence, in the inmost core of His being.  And this is His simplicity." (459)  Barth goes on to equate God's simplicity with his faithfulness.  When we say God is simple, we say that in all his multiple words and works he is the same God, wholly himself and the whole of himself in every act.  It is God's 'simple' faithfulness that warrants and draws forth our 'simple' faith. (460)

The key thing, for Barth, is that we get things in the right order: that we hear God's self-witness in Scripture and acknowledge that in every way he is always himself, and therefore that he is simple.  God himself will determine what his simplicity means, what it means for him to be wholly himself and the whole of himself in all his ways and works.  We don't get to decide on the basis of an analysis of the concept of simplicity what God can or can't do.  We can't use simplicity to go behind God's revelation.

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