A Life Most Divine: Karl Barth and Divine Simplicity

At a crucial point in his discussion of the perfections of God, Barth says something which struck me as odd. After tracing what he takes to be nominalistic understandings of God’s essence and attributes – where God’s attributes are really only distinctions in our knowledge of God as opposed to things that God actually has – Barth gives three propositions in which he explains how he understands God’s attributes over against nominalism. While all three of these are important in understanding just how Barth thinks of God’s attributes, the second proposition gave me pause (or, to be more precise the ending of the second proposition):

Our doctrine therefore means that every individual perfection in God is nothing but God Himself, and therefore nothing but every other divine perfection. It means equally strictly on the other hand that God Himself is nothing other than each one of His perfections in its individuality, and that each individual perfection is identical with every other and the fulness of them all.  (CD II.1, pp. 332-333)

A bit of background is in order. Many moons ago, Alvin Plantinga attacked divine simplicity, roughly arguing that to take divine simplicity seriously is to equate God with a property. If God is identical to God’s essence, and an essence is a property of a substance, then God is a property. This attack has somewhat set the tone for discussions of simplicity by marking a kind of boundary: if your doctrine of simplicity crosses the line, then it’s a bad doctrine. Barth appears (if I may indulge in a bit of time-warping), however to do the exact opposite. In fact, he appears to make just the problem Plantinga identified his doctrine of simplicity. And this puzzled me. It puzzled me because, for page upon page, Barth sets in his sights theologians who have a ‘philosophical’ doctrine of simplicity. He rails against nominalism for separating God’s attributes from God’s essence – but isn’t his solution just the other side of the same coin? If the nominalists separate the attributes from the essence, surely collapsing them altogether is no great advance. If God just is each of his perfections, then Plantinga has landed a deadly blow here, and Barth’s God ends up looking like a mere property.

So, then, Barth’s statement is on its face problematic. But as one explores Barth’s treatment of the divine attributes – particularly before he actually gets to simplicity proper – a somewhat interesting picture begins to emerge. Perhaps Barth’s problematic statement above can be reworked – that’s a matter of theology and perhaps metaphysics. But upon closer inspection, Barth does something more counterintuitive: he builds multiplicity into his definition of divine unity and even into his doctrine of God proper!

The multiplicity, individuality and diversity of the divine perfections are those of the one divine being and therefore not those of another divine nature allied to it…in so far as God is almighty, eternal, wise and merciful, it does not add anything new or strange or half-divine to His being as the One who love in freedom. On the contrary, the divine being as the one who loves in freedom is the divine being in the multiplicity, individuality and diversity of these perfections. He does not possess this wealth. He Himself is this wealth…He Himself is the perfect One in the abundance and variety of these perfections. (p. 331)

Why is Barth so keen on this? An answer begins to form as one continues to read: Barth is driving home the point that to ask about the nature of God is to ask about God. When we answer a question about the nature of God – He is wise, merciful, etc – we are simply naming God as the one who loves in freedom. ‘But He is in essence not only one, but multiple, individual and diverse’ (p. 331)

The God under discussion here is the living God, and this is Barth’s way of framing the entire question of the attributes of God. God has and is life. Barth begins to venture closer to simplicity proper with the second proposition (from which the problematic line comes from):

The multiplicity, individuality and diversity of the perfections of God are those of His simple being, which is not therefore divided and put back together again In God multiplicity, individuality and diversity do not stand in any contradiction to unity. Rather the very unity of His being consists in the multiplicity, individuality and diversity of His perfections…(p. 332)

This appears to do little for a doctrine of simplicity, or at least one that has any teeth. The entire point of the traditional construals of simplicity has been to deny just this kind of real multiplicity (recall that Barth is attacking nominalistic understandings in which God’s attributes figure in our knowledge of God but not in God himself), and multiplicity does not get any more real than it does for Barth right here. ‘The multiplicity, individuallity and diversity of God’s perfections are rooted in his own being…’ (p. 333). So where does this leave us, exactly?

At a glance, we appear to have a God who is a very odd sort of God. How can his unity and simplicity coexist with his multiplicity when the latter is rooted in God’s own being? If this doesn’t fall prey to Plantinga’s critique then surely it is, at best, wishful thinking and at worst incoherent. And yet. Later on, once we get to Barth’s examination of simplicity proper, we start to see how it all makes sense. The key to this entire line of thinking resides in one small piece of text:

God is simple. This signifies that in all that He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself. At no time or place is He composed out of what is distinct from Himself. At no time or place, then, is He divided or divisible. (p. 445, emphasis mine)

God is simple. This signifies that in all that He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself’ This is the key Barthian insight. This is what gives his doctrine force and coherence. Simplicity, for Barth, is not a doctrine dealing with a being that has no parts. Simplicity is an identity statement. It tells us about God. What does it tell us about God? It tells us two things. First, the simplicity and unity of God tell us that God is free. Simplicity and unity tell us that God is one, and that God is one tells us that God is unique, grounded completely in Himself. ‘In regard to His uniqueness and equally in regard to His simplicity God is therefore the only being who is really one. His unity is His freedom, His aseity, His deity’ (p. 447).

Barth’s problematic statement, however, still lurks. This is all fine and good: but is God a property? Barth has already moved the question of simplicity and unity out of the realm of abstract theological metaphysics and into the realm of the divine life. Simplicity for Barth, ‘is not an attribute of a being with no distinctions’ (Christopher Franks, ‘The Simplicity of the Living God’). What does Barth think simplicity finally is?

The simplicity or indivisibility of God…reveals itself to us with the invincible truth of a determination of the freedom of God only when we allow ourselves to be reminded, by the witness of Scripture, that God’s freedom and therefore His simplicity are the freedom and simplicity of His love. Not an idea of simplicity, for, as we have shown, this could only draw us away from the knowledge of God. In Scripture the utterly simple is “simply” God Himself in the actuality, the superior might, the constancy,  the obviousness, or even more simply, the factuality, in which He is present as God and deals as God with the creature, with man. (p. 457)

What is simplicity? The Living God. Perhaps we might even rephrase the question in a suitably Barthian manner: instead of asking what Barth’s answer to ‘what is divine simplicity’, we ought to ask ‘Who is simple?’. We are now in a position to revisit the problematic quote from Barth above, with a little help from Robert Jenson:

God’s essence, says Barth, is indeed not divided, but its simplicity is precisely the richness of one utterly coherent life. Therefore, even as God’s attributes are identical with his essence, and therefore identical with each other – as the standard maxim has it – this is not to be taken as the tradition, in Barth’s judgement, too often has. For each divine perfection is identical with each other perfection and with all others taken not identically but together, precisely in their distinction from one another (Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Thomas Joseph White, p. 50).

Barth’s simplicity is, then, not ‘an attribute of a being with no distinctions’ but a statement of the identity of the Living God who is present with man.


11 thoughts on “A Life Most Divine: Karl Barth and Divine Simplicity

  1. scbrownlhrm February 4, 2017 / 7:14 am

    Beautifully done Joshua and very helpful. The Divine Life — or the irreducibly triune — is that fountainhead or wellspring where we find the dissolution of various metaphysical tensions and conundrums which no other paradigm seems able (…ultimately…) to dissolve. Another approach is that, by necessity, there is *GOD*, or the Divine Mind and the Divine Mind is Being in totum, and, just the same, there is in the Divine Mind the processions thereof, or the Logos, and again by necessity such processions cannot be less than Being in totum. It’s peculiar but unavoidable: in Infinite Consciousness we come upon the Infinite Knower and the Infinitely Known and the processions thereof or the Logos thereof. By necessity we find three distinctions within the the Divine Mind (…within infinite consciousness…) which cannot be less than Being in totum. A is not B and B is not C and C is not A, and each is by necessity Being in totum. The syntax of self/other and of us begins to force its way in, which is itself uncanny if not expected because such syntax reveals that that which provides us with the ultimately rational is seamless with that which provides us with the ultimately moral. One can follow through with this in two ways: Both logic and love compel reason into a thoroughly Trinitarian metaphysic, or, instead, just this: We are compelled into a thoroughly Trinitarian metaphysic.


    Postscript: The “Trinitarian Life” or the “Divine Life” is ever helpful, a kind of “key” as it were, and if it is okay with you I might find it helpful to link essays here dealing with simplicity in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. cal February 4, 2017 / 9:56 pm

    The fundamental problem is still in how the above commentor phrased the multiplicity in the Divine Mind: how can we entertain simplicity, Trinitarian theology, and Creator-creation distinction? How is the Universe not merely God as an extension? And if it is not God, how does it relate to God?

    Barth begins to sound panentheistic, which is perhaps why many contemporary Barthians have basically taken that route in contrast to what is deemed “classical Theism”.


    • Joshua February 4, 2017 / 9:59 pm

      I really don’t see how panentheism, or any of the problems you list, follow from any of this, especially since part of Barths point is to establish how ‘wholly other’ God is from creation. God is simple, Trinity, and creator.


      • cal February 5, 2017 / 10:27 am

        These are just assertions, but don’t tumble from the way he makes his argument about diversity being intrinsic to simplicity and simplicity as merely the presence of God. How is God Wholly Other and yet present as full available in His perfections that man interacts with (I’m assuming this is what this means). This seems to be where the bow of mystery is tied, but it sounds as if this depends on soaring prose (or incoherence) rather than a fitting place for this to occur.

        At the end of the day, we have two asserted dogmas Barth wants to defend a) Creator-creature distinction (an infinitely qualitative one) and b) God’s active presence with Man. But he doesn’t help me sort through this. How is God an identity with the total of His perfections, maintaining distinction with one another, yet the World, as gestalt of created things, not part of this? And if it is not how is it not obliterated with the presence of divine perfections? What ultimately makes creation different than Creator? How is this not another instance of Origen’s ambiguity over whether the World is somehow eternal?

        I think there are ways to get at this better, but Barth here is just confusing me. Maybe I just don’t understand his prose (nor that of Jenson or, though you didn’t quote her, Sonderegger, or many other orthodox Barthians).


  3. scbrownlhrm February 12, 2017 / 10:13 am


    That the “Created X” can in fact *be* and in fact not be a *part* of God is perhaps not a question on the ontological Trinity but on the metaphysics of the creative act.

    On Trinity, or on the Infinite Consciousness that is the Divine Mind — in which [A] the Infinite Knower and [B] the Infinitely Known and [C] the Logos or Processions therein all by necessity cannot be anything less than Being in totum, we find that A is not B and B is not C and C is not A, and each is by necessity Being in totum.

    Whereas, on the metaphysics of the creative act, that (…perhaps…) brings us to the “principle of proportionate causality“. How can the Created X traverse the abyss of non-being and cross over into being?


    …..To be a tree or to be a stone is merely to participate in “treeness” or “stoneness.” But to be at all — which is the characteristic effect of an act of creation out of nothing – is to participate in Being Itself. Now the principle of proportionate causality tells us that whatever is in an effect must be in some way in its cause. And only that which just *is* Being Itself can, in this case, be a cause proportionate to the effect, since the effect is not merely to be a tree or to be a stone, but to be at all.

    [Only] pure actuality or Being Itself rather than a being among others – can cause a thing to exist ex nihilo….. (E. Feser)

    End quote.

    We arrive here:

    1. I AM/God. The Necessary. Being Itself. Being in totum.

    2. And, then, me. I both * am* and am *contingent*. I am/have being, but I neither am nor have being in totum.


    • cal February 20, 2017 / 6:17 pm

      Yes, I understand all of this. It is this formula that is problematic. The Trinitarian formula collapses persons into forms of self-relation. You don’t seem to appreciate how Being could be an Eternal Property of God without God is Being. As Palamas says, God is beyond knowing, but also beyond not knowing, He is beyond being, but also beyond not being. There’s a rationalism here that ends up with either pantheism or an inseparable gulf between God and man. And beyond that, it depends on a philosophical scaffolding that is pretty alien to Scripture.


  4. Ex. Theo. July 29, 2017 / 4:43 pm

    This is an excellent post. Incredibly informative. Thanks for writing this. I have a follow up question. Would Barth’s view of simplicity rule out the existence of created ontologically simply things (e.g. monads or ‘atoms’)? Or, is the existence or non-existence of created simples irrelevant to God’s simplicity?


    • Joshua August 1, 2017 / 7:18 pm

      That’s an interesting question. I tend to think that it’d be irrelevant – one could believe in a completely complex God and also think that there are atoms, monads, what have you, that are themselves simple. Put another way, I don’t think there’s any reason to suppose that because God is simple, there can’t be created simples.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ex. Theo. August 1, 2017 / 10:26 pm

        Thanks for the comment. That was my intuition as well.


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