Confessing Simplicity Isn’t Enough

Can you spot the irony in the quote below?

“He begot an only begotten Son before aeonian times (γεννήσαντα υἱὸν μονογενῆ πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων), through whom he also made the aeons and everything, begetting him not just in appearance but in truth, giving him existence by his own will, unchangeable and unalterable, a perfect creature of God (ὑποστήσαντα ἰδίῳ θελήματι, ἄτρεπτον καὶ ἀναλλοίωτον, κτίσμα τοῦ θεοῦ τέλειον), but not as one of the creatures, an offspring (γέννημα), but not as one of the offsprings; nor is the Father’s offspring an emanation (προβολήν), as Valentinus taught; nor is the offspring a consubstantial part (μέρος ὀμοούσιον) of the Father, as Mani presented him; nor as Sabellius said, dividing the monad, a “son-father” (υἱοπατόρα); nor as did Hieracas, who spoke of a lamp from a lamp or as it were a torch divided in two; nor do we hold that the one who was previously was later begotten or created as Son (οὐδὲ τὸν ὄντα πρότερον, ὕστερον γεννηθέντα ἢ ἐπικτισθέντα εἰς υἱόν), even as you, blessed Pope, used often in the midst of the church and council to reject those who introduced these ideas. Rather, as we said, he was created by the will of God before times and before ages, and received life and being from the Father, and the glories, since he gave him existence alongside himself (συνυποστήσαντος αὐτῷ τοῦ πατρός). For the Father, having given him the inheritance of all things, did not deprive himself of that which he possesses unoriginatedly (ἀγεννήτως) in himself; for he is the source of all things. Thus there are three hypostases. God, the cause of all things, is supremely alone without beginning (ἄναρχος μονώτατος), while the Son, having been begotten timelessly (ἀχρόνως γεννηθεὶς) by the Father, and created and established before the aeons, was not before he was begotten (οὐκ ἦν πρὸ τοῦ γεννηθῆναι), but, begotten timelessly before all else, was alone given existence by the Father (μόνος ὑπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς ὑπέστη). For he is not eternal or coeternal or counbegotten with the Father, nor does he have being together with the Father, as some people speak of things being in relationship, thus introducing two ingenerate principles. Rather, as the monad and principle of all things, God is thus before all things. He is also therefore before the Son, as we learned from you when you were preaching in church. As therefore it is from God that he has being, glories and life, and all things have been handed over to him, in this way God is his cause (ἀρχή). For he, as his God and being before him, rules (ἄρχει) him. And if the words “from him,” [Rom 11:36] and “from the womb” [Ps 109:3 LXX] and “I have come forth from the Father and am here” [Jn 16:28] are taken by some to mean that he is a consubstantial part of him, and as an emanation, then the Father will be composite, divisible, and changeable, and will, according to them, experience having a body and, insofar as they can arrange it, what is consequent to having a body, he who is God incorporeal.”

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 136–137 (emphasis added).

This lengthy quote is from Arius, the notorious heretic who denied that Jesus was one in substance with the Father. I wanted to provide the entire passage from John Behr’s, “The Nicean Faith” to show context. Notice the last section, “…some to mean that he is a consubstantial part of him, and as an emanation, then the Father will be composite, divisible, and changeable, and will, according to them, experience having a body and, insofar as they can arrange it, what is consequent to having a body, he who is God incorporeal”. Arius is utilizing language of divine simplicity (and even immutability). He asserts that the Father (as understood by Arius) can’t be divided. It is clear that Arius thought if the Son was God, then this would compromise the doctrine of God’s unity. He didn’t grasp the concept of relational distinction which would have solved this problem, but instead thought the Son was a creature. Behr notes,

“In his positive assertions, particularly striking is the variety of ways in which Arius describes the relationship of the Son to the Father, using images which go back to Wisdom’s description of her origins in Prov 8:22–25: “The Lord created (ἔκτισεν) me at the beginning of his work … I was established (ἐθεμελίωσεν) … before the hills he begets (γεννᾷ) me.” Such descriptions are taken, by Arius, to apply univocally to the Son himself (rather than as divine or as human), though in a manner incomparable with others. Thus, Arius is clear that the Son can be spoken of as a creature, a “perfect creature of God,” yet “not as one of the creatures,” for the Son alone was given existence by God, while all other things were brought into existence through the Son. Similarly the Son can be called an “offspring,” but again, “not as one of the [other] offsprings” mentioned in Scripture…”

John Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part 1 & 2, vol. 2, The Formation of Christian Theology (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 138.

Arius’s confession of simplicity goes to show that confessing the doctrine isn’t enough. As heretical as he was, this fundamental truth about God was not compromised by him. Yet, the implications of this crucial doctrine were not worked out. We need to work out the implications of simplicity in order to remain in line with the doctrine as laid out in Scripture. This article is not meant to defend this doctrine. We’ve done that before, and I’d recommend listening to this episode from our podcast with Dr. James Dolezal. Now, when I say we need to work out the implications, I’m not saying we need to work out every implication about this doctrine in this life. That’s impossible as that would mean we would be able to grasp God perfectly. But we should work to know our God and have an orthodox understanding of the doctrine beyond just simply saying, “I believe in divine simplicity”. The more we know of our God, not only will we learn how to worship Him better, but it will help keep us from error about God. If one says they believe that God is not composed of parts, but then turns around and says that God’s attributes are really different in God, then you have to wonder if they really believe the doctrine they claim to hold to. Being consistent with what we claim to believe must be our goal.

– Daniel Vincent

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