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Theology is the study of God and of creatures in their relation to Him. The goal is to know God and to worship Him in truth. In this connection, Christians rightly confess a profound distinction between God the Creator and His creatures. To deny this distinction would seem to lead inevitably toward either a partial or complete identification of God with the creaturely order, something Romans 1:22–25 would judge to be idolatrous. Upholding the Creator-creature distinction is indispensable for ensuring that we steer clear of false worship. Yet here we discover a difficulty: Christians can sometimes fail to properly recognize or characterize this all-important distinction. And when we do this, we can fall unwittingly into the trap of worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.

Consider the Apostle John’s lapse in Revelation 22. An angel sent from God guided him on an apocalyptic tour culminating in a vision of the heavenly holy of holies in which John beheld the light and water of life emanating from the throne of God and of the Lamb (21:22–23; 22:1). Surely, we might imagine, one could not be confused about the proper object of worship in a moment of such glorious rapture. And yet, John shockingly records just such confusion in 22:8: “I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me.” John’s confusion did not absolve him of moral culpability. The angel sternly rebukes him, saying in 22:9: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you. . . . Worship God.” Indeed, worshiping God is the heart of the matter. For all intents and purposes, the Apostle was treating the angel as if he were divine. No doubt, John saw something glorious in the angel and perhaps even perceived a great distinction between the angel and himself. Yet this was a distinction between two fellow creatures. No matter how far exalted above the yet-­unglorified Apostle the holy angel may have been, he nevertheless stood with John on the side of the creatures and servants of God with respect to the Creator-creature distinction and so was not a suitable object of worship.

This is a sobering scene. Even the Apostle John was not immune from this grievous error of confounding the Creator with the creature. It should impress upon us that consistent maintenance of the Creator-­creature distinction requires purposefulness and vigilance. Merely acknowledging that there is such a distinction is not sufficient. There are, after all, vast distinctions among creatures themselves—between angels and humans, between humans and animals, and so forth. God’s distinction from all creatures must not merely be confessed, but properly located, and its implications clearly thought through. This is crucial both for the right ordering of our worship and for fostering confident hopefulness as we pass through this world of adversity (Ps. 46:10; Heb. 6:13–18).

Classical theism aims to protect the Godness of God from the human proclivity to distort it or misassign His divinity to that which is not God.

Happily, we are not the first to pass this way. Many generations of Christian theologians have gone before us and have left behind a considered and profound body of theological reflection upon the being and essence of God, grounded in God’s self-disclosure in creation and Holy Scripture. While this literature is not uniform in every respect, we are able to discern a broad consensus of core claims about God stretching from the second century through to the seventeenth—a consensus sometimes given the moniker “classical Christian theism.” It is this consensus that one finds in the conciliar statements of the patristic and medieval eras as well as in the Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It includes such doctrines as God’s aseity (self-sufficiency), eternity, immutability, impassibility, and simplicity. For much of church history, these doctrines constituted a theological grammar by which Christians were helped to properly locate the Creator-creature distinction. Classical theism aims to protect the Godness of God from the human proclivity to distort it or misassign His divinity to that which is not God. A significant conviction underlying the core claims of classical theism is that God is not to be numbered among those beings that are in any way caused-to-be, namely, creatures.

Particularly prominent among the classical doctrines about God is divine simplicity. Early Protestants such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists all confessed that God is without parts, as had Christians for a millennium and a half before them. Yet over the past few centuries, this doctrine has become increasingly obscured, and to us moderns it may even sound wrong or insulting to call God simple. We tend to deem simple things among the least awe-inspiring, the nearest to nonbeing. Surely, complex things are more impressive and more capable of performing powerful acts than simple things are—like the difference between a Boeing 747 and a grain of sand, say. And if God is the Creator of all things, then would He not need to be the most complex of all?

Classical Christian orthodoxy contends that the first cause of all being must be simple for the straightforward reason that complex or compound things depend upon parts that are more fundamental in being than themselves. And nothing is more primary in being than God. Parts are really so many causes giving some form of actuality to those entities in which they are integrated, and enabling them to operate as they do, like the six million parts of a Boeing 747. Composite beings are doubly dependent: first, upon their various component parts, and second, upon whatever agent or power acts to unify their parts in them. But if this were how God had His being, then He could not be the absolute Creator and source of all things. There would be causes of God’s own being more primitive and foundational than Himself. The Puritan Stephen Charnock distills this basic claim:

God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.

This has enormous implications for the way we conceive of God’s existence, essence, and attributes.

All that is in God is God. . . . He is the lone worthy object of all our worship and gratitude. All things look ultimately to Him for their being, but He looks to none.

First, it means we cannot posit a distinction between God and His attributes the way we might between a creature and its attributes. A man, for instance, may be wise, just, and powerful. But he is not identical with the wisdom, justice, and power by which he is such. Each of these is a part that contributes some form of being to him, and each is distinct from the man as a whole. He depends upon these qualities to be as he is. Because God is simple, this is not how He has His attributes. Properly speaking, God does not have wisdom, justice, power, and so forth—attributes really distinct from His being as God. Rather, God just is the wisdom by which He is wise, the justice by which He is righteous, and the power by which He is powerful, and so forth for all His other attributes.

Second, and more deeply, divine simplicity means that God is not composed of existence and essence. As with His attributes, God does not have existence or essence as principles really distinct from His being as God. Rather, God just is the act of existence by which He exists and the essence of divinity by which He is God. But this is not how it is with creatures. To be a human, for example, is to be a certain kind of creature. But no human being is humanity as such. Rather, each one possesses humanity as a principle determining him to be the kind of being he is. Moreover, being a human does not explain why any particular human exists. Rather, each man’s act of existence is a principle he possesses in addition to his essence. In short, it is not the essence of humanity to be. For classical theists, this is the proper locus of the Creator-creature distinction. Creatures possess existence as a gift (see Acts 17:25, 28; Rev. 4:11) that is really distinct from their respective essences, whereas God simply is His own existence, there being no composition of principles of existence and essence in Him.

All that is in God is God. He, being His own existence and essence, and so not derived from causes as are all other beings, is alone adequate to ultimately account for all that is caused-to-be. He is the One from whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things (Rom. 11:36). This identifies Him as the lone worthy object of all our worship and gratitude. All things look ultimately to Him for their being, but He looks to none. While divine simplicity is not the only way to characterize the Creator-­creature distinction, it is a doctrine without which the distinction becomes nearly impossible to maintain. It helps us see why God cannot be reimagined as a super-angel even though angels are immaterial beings of immense power, glory, and holiness. An angel, no matter how magnificent, still depends upon principles of being more primitive than itself and so clearly is not the first cause and Creator of all things. The classical doctrine of divine simplicity deserves renewed attention from modern Christians as we seek to be ever watchful in maintaining the Creator-­creature distinction and in giving to God alone the worship that is due Him.