Back during my seminary days, our family lived in Louisville, Ky. One of the advantages of living in Louisville was the occasional trip to Homemade Pie and Ice Cream, which had the most scrumptious pies in town. Each year, people from all over the country, even the world, travel to Louisville for the famous Kentucky Derby. Before the race, the festivities are marked not only by flamboyant hats and mint juleps but also by most bakeries’ selling out of their Derby pie.
I enjoy a classic Derby pie, but there is one pie I enjoy even more: Homemade Pie and Ice Cream’s award-winning Dutch apple caramel pie. Truth be told, the caramel on the pie is so thick that you need a butcher’s knife to cut through it. But let’s say you’ve found your knife and you begin dividing up the pie—a fairly large piece for me, thank you, and perhaps smaller pieces for everyone else.
It kills me to admit this, because a theologian is always looking for an insightful illustration wherever he can find one, but Dutch apple caramel pie is a poor illustration for what God is like. That’s right, a really bad one. And yet it’s how many people think about God’s attributes. In fact, it’s what makes me nervous about writing on the different attributes of God, as if we’re slicing up the pie called “God.”
The perfections of God are not like a pie, as if we sliced up the pie into different pieces, love being 10 percent, holiness 15 percent, omnipotence 7 percent, and so on. Unfortunately, this is how many Christians talk about God today, as if love, holiness, and omnipotence are all different parts of God, God being evenly divided among His various attributes. Some even go further, believing some attributes to be more important than others. This happens most with divine love, which some say is the most important attribute, what they might call the biggest piece of the pie.
But such an approach is deeply problematic, as it turns God into a collection of attributes. It even sounds as if God were one thing and His attributes another, something added to Him, attached to who He is. Not only does this approach divide up the essence of God, but it potentially risks setting one part of God against another. (For example, might His love ever oppose His justice?) Sometimes this error is understandable; it unintentionally slips into our God talk. We might say, “God has love” or “God possesses all power.” We all understand what is being communicated, but the language can be misleading. It would be far better to say, “God is love” or “God is all-powerful.” By tweaking our language, we are protecting the unity of God’s essence. To do so is to guard the simplicity of God.
Simplicity and the Wisdom of the A-Team
Simplicity may be a concept that is new to your theological vocabulary, but it is one that has been affirmed by the majority of our Christian forebears over the past two thousand years of church history, even by some of the earliest church fathers. And for good reason, too. Let’s consult Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas.
Apparently, I am not the only one who has appealed to an illustration to demonstrate what God is not like. In the fifth century, the church father Augustine did the same, though it wasn’t Dutch apple caramel pie. Instead, Augustine appealed to liquid, the human body, and sunshine. The nature of the triune God is called simple because “it cannot lose any attribute it possesses,” and because “there is no difference between what it is and what it has, as there is, for example, between a vessel [cup] and the liquid it contains, a body and its color, the atmosphere and its light or heat, the soul and its wisdom.” Augustine concludes, “None of these is what it contains.” A cup and liquid, a body and its color, the atmosphere and its light or heat, the soul and its wisdom—what do these all have in common? Answer: division.
Not so, however, with God and His attributes.
God’s attributes are not external to His essence, as if they added a quality to Him that He would not otherwise possess. It’s not as if there were attributes that were accidental to God, capable of being added or subtracted, lost and then found, as if they did not even have to exist in the first place. Rather, God is His attributes. Instead of addition and division, there is absolute unity. His essence is His attributes, and His attributes are His essence. Or as Augustine says, “God has no properties but is pure essence. . . . They neither differ from his essence nor do they differ materially from each other.”