The Complexities of Worshiping a Simple God

I’ve heard a surprising amount about the “divine simplicity” these last weeks. At its most basic, this doctrine teaches that God is “without parts” which seems easy enough to hold onto: we all know that God doesn’t have a face, or a beard, or an arm. But divine simplicity also means that God is without extension in time. Eternity in the classical usage is not the unending years of the last verse of Amazing Grace, it is a single, unending moment. If God is simple, God is outside of time. But we are so absolutely structured by the kinds of beings that we are, in space and in time, that we have trouble imagining what it means to say that God is outside of those things.

There are three places where I’ve recently seen arguments about divine simplicity. The first was an article by Chad Pecknold, published at the Catholic Herald. The second is an ongoing series over at Syndicate discussing D. Stephen Long’s recent book, The Perfectly Simple Triune God. In that book, Long argues that it is precisely divine simplicity that makes the Christian witness to the Triune God possible. Finally, Pray Tell’s own Father Anthony Ruff wrote about divine simplicity in terms of liturgy and church music in the Amen Corner for Worship in May of this year.[1]

Why is all this engagement with divine simplicity happening? A lot of it has to do with our era’s attempt to take history and suffering seriously as categories for theology. Especially since the Second World War, there have been theological voices making the case that we should ditch divine simplicity as an idea because it makes God too distant from the world to either intervene in it or love it. And that is true of some notions of divine simplicity, especially pre-Christian ones.

As Father Anthony Ruff pointed out, such an understanding of divine simplicity means that God cannot be affected by anything else. In this case, prayer, liturgy, or even the incarnation, would be impossible. In dialogue with the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, Ruff lays out a vision that develops the Christian claim that the simple God has entered our world and united humanity to his own life. This vision understands liturgy to be directed towards glorification, as the church and the cosmos are wrapped up into the life of Christ.

While disagreeing with Ratzinger on some of the implications of the thesis for liturgical practice, Ruff reminds the reader that “true spiritualization, for Christians, is incarnate, bodily, and sensual.”[2] This is true precisely because of the incarnation, for the perfectly simple God has taken on flesh. The eternal has entered into the temporal, or as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it:

One could say that man is able to participate in the dialogue within God himself because God has first shared in human speech and has thus brought the two into communication with one another. The Incarnation of the Logos brings eternity into time and time into eternity. It is not that God is time, but he has time. As a result of the Incarnation, human speech has become a component in divine speech; it has been taken up unconfusedly and inseparably, into that speech which is God’s inner nature.[3]

A second engagement with divine simplicity is penned by Chad C. Pecknold. Instead of engaging the liturgy, Pecknold is concerned with change in theology. He traces both the decline in church attendance and theological problems in Germany to a latent Hegelianism. Pecknold sees in Hegel a God who is not simple, who “suffers with, and changes, precisely through the sin and suffering of his creatures, dialectically pouring out his love and mercy through the progress of history.”[4] He then draws a fairly straight line from his understanding of Hegel to 20c. German theology.

But there is nevertheless something deeply Hegelian about making the unfolding of human experience in history a standard for theological development — to which God or the Church, always in mercy, must conform. Unfortunately, this is a terrible standard for change which leads not only to false reform, but to apostasy and desolation.[5]

There are number of things wrong with this genealogy, most importantly the fact that Pecknold assumes that any change in theology somehow implies a change in God. This takes the idea of the “deposit of faith” at its most literal, as a thing that is out there, fully knowable, and that merely requires that one take a good look. Such knowledge of God would require not only that God reveals himself, but that he would make human beings to be a fundamentally different kind of creature – one that knows him without mediation.

It is at this point that the discussion of D. Stephen Long’s book can help both of our engagements so far. One of the takeaways from this discussion is that if God is both perfectly simple and triune, then God is simultaneously not a thing in the world in competition with other beings, and human life and human being is taken up into the very Godhead in Jesus.

The logic of the communicatio idiomatum, i.e. the language by which we speak about the incarnation, rules here. Jesus is the unchanging, simple, eternal God. In Jesus, this unchanging, eternal, simple God dies. And this language is found throughout our liturgy and in many, many hymns. In the same way, to say that theology develops is not to say that God changes, or that the deposit of faith has changed. Instead, this faith is incarnate in the church, the church that the Second Vatican Council declares to be “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, [and] always follows the way of penance and renewal.” As the church continues its pilgrim journey in time, it will come to understand different things about the unchanging God it has always known.

I am not willing to give up on the doctrine of divine simplicity. It is simply too ingrained in monotheistic and Christian thought, and it makes sense of much of what we say about God. But I understand why people worry about it, especially when it is used to distance God from the creation he entered into, or to argue against the deep incarnational embeddedness of the church in history and therefore in the processes of change.

At its root, the question boils down to how eternity and time can relate to each other. Finally, the only answer that Christians can give is the Trinity. For Christ, by sharing our humanity, has made us part of his own divine life. But we do well to remember that the revelation that God made was the revelation of a divine-human life. Therefore the traditional designation of the liturgy as theologia prima is most accurate, for it is here that we experience the faith of the church. Only in light of this experience can we begin our work of appropriating it for our time in communion with the church of all times.

[1] Anthony W. Ruff, “The Amen Corner: Revisiting Joseph Ratzinger’s Theological Basis of Church Music,” Worship 91 (May, 2017), 196­–203.

[2] Ruff, 201.

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, Graham Harrison, trans., (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1986); Kindle ed. 26.

[4] Pecknold, https://goo.gl/3Vp2wA

[5] Ibid.

 

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Jakob Karl Rinderknecht is the Director of the Pastoral Institute at the University of the Incarnate Word. His research centers on the implications of embodiment for theology, especially relating to sacramental and linguistic mediation. Some of this work was recently published as Mapping the Differentiated Consensus of the Joint Declaration, and he is currently editing a collection of essays on the uses of cognitive linguistic theory in theology. He is in the initial stages of a new project investigating understandings of sacramental validity and their implications for ecumenism.

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5 comments

    1. The divine simplicity doesn’t annihilate the human nature. But, as the Council of Chalcedon affirms, Jesus is

      “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ…” (Tanner translation, 86).

      Because of this, it is not a *nature* that dies in the crucifixion, but *Jesus,* and in Jesus, the natures cannot be divided. The Son dies in the flesh, but it is the Son who dies. If we start dividing up the natures as to which nature “did what,” then we are on the road to Nestorianism.

      I think that this union of the natures in the person of the Son is exactly the position that Thomas is supporting in Articles 2 and 3 of the link you provided.

  1. I count all three of the authors you discuss as friends, and concur with your judgments (particularly concerning the rather unfortunate logical leaps in Chad Pecknold’s article concerning Hegel).

    One point suggested by our esteemed editor concerning divine simplicity that it might be worth underscoring: if God is absolutely simple and (to use Aquinas’s terms) has a “logical” relation to creatures and not a “real” relation, then the primary emphasis in worship is not on giving God something (as if he lacked some glory that we might supply), but on the sanctification of the faithful by which they come to share in God’s glory.

    Sometimes you hear people speak as if, in worship, we ought to give that which is objectively superior to God because this pleases or glorifies God more. You often hear this in particular from those who think a certain form of music or ritual or architecture is superior, regardless of whether people find it meaningful or whether it raises their minds and hearts to God. But this can’t possibly be the case: God cannot be more pleased than he already is in contemplating his own goodness; God cannot be more glorious than he already is in begetting the Son and breathing forth the Spirit.

    When we talk of “giving glory” to God in our worship, this must be taken metaphorically, as a way of speaking of how in worship we are lifted up. So the subjective effect of ritual forms on the worshippers is hardly beside the point; indeed, it is the point.

    This does not mean that we should not be concerned with the quality of what we offer in worship. I would argue that a theologically rich hymn or chant will have, over time, a more salutary effect on the worshipping assembly than some praise song that endlessly repeats an anodyne banality, even if the latter has more immediate appeal and uplift. But the ultimate criterion is how the quality of our worship affects the worshippers, not some imagined effect that it has on God.

    1. Excellent point – thanks for highlighting that!

      I do wonder how we learn to judge what the effects of particular music or ritual are on the assembly over time. I’m not disagreeing with you, just trying to figure out how we 1) account for difference and its role in this process and 2) avoid eliding our preferences with our judgments of what will be more salutary.

      But that may be the topic of the entire blog, rather than this post.

    2. I largely agree, but isn’t a praise song that endlessly repeats something that is theologically rich to be preferred to a hymn or chant that is an anodyne banality? What is the right setting for “God is simple”?

      Lord have mercy. That is theologically rich, even when repeated endlessly. Even when it is treated as praise, as equal to “the lord has mercy, even for me.” I prefer not to think of anodyne banalities that I have heard elaborated in hymns, you probably can come up with some examples. Sometimes the simple can be the most salutary. Sometimes the simplest, silence, is. God is simple, after all.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion, that doing our best is for our benefit, not for God who is always doing the best for us.

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