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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.
 Anthony W. Ruff, “The Amen Corner: Revisiting Joseph Ratzinger’s Theological Basis of Church Music,” Worship 91 (May, 2017), 196–203.
 Ruff, 201.
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, Graham Harrison, trans., (San Francisco, Ignatius, 1986); Kindle ed. 26.
 Pecknold, https://goo.gl/3Vp2wA
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.