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On the Simplicity of God

October 31, AD2015

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St. Thomas Aquinas, in his ability to know Who and What God is, chose a unique path in which to travel. Many are familiar with his work, Summa Theologica. His use of apophatic theology led to an incredible understanding of God’s nature, not because it is based on facts/proofs about Who God is, but rather Who He is not. St. Thomas appropriately covered five themes dealing with God, namely His simplicity, perfection, infinity, immutability, and unity.

For such a process to be successful, Aquinas had to show God as eventually existing beyond comparisons to human nature. Therefore, the ideas surrounding God had to be relative only to God, and God alone. In the end, Aquinas proved that God is supremely simple, supremely united, and that He is the True God, who can neither be divided, nor seen as lacking in anything.

How Did He Accomplish This?

God’s ways are beyond our own.  His essence and His existence are intertwined in such a way that they mirror each other perfectly. This concept is not rivaled within humanity. We are distinct, and therefore cannot assume this type of fulfilling state, based on our finite nature. This finite quality, however, does not relate to God. This is at the heart of the God’s simplicity. St. Thomas’ method always results in affirming the significance and power of God, while also emphasizing His simplicity. He never deviated from God’s Almightiness.  Rather, he provided a particular approach in order to see God as He truly is.

Aquinas began by discussing the composition of God; that He is not composed of parts. As a society, we place a high sense of value on this reality. This is due to our temporal mentality that more must mean better. Therefore, when something is needed, it means that something is lacking. If we look at average consumer goods, we are always wary of the potential, newer model, or advanced version. We see things as better when they have been reformulated or remodeled.

Aquinas understood that if God needed this level of improvement upon Himself, it would mean that something else existed, beyond Him, which would benefit Him. Human beings, after all, develop, age, and are often in need of parts (whether biological or chemical) in order to maintain themselves as they advance through life’s many stages. God, however, is perfectly put together from the beginning in the fact that He is the First Cause—the cause of everything that exists. It would be impossible to suggest that He would need something more.

In addition, a level of dependence is exercised for any item that would not be able to stand alone, but in need of something else. God has no need for improvement, as this would further contradict the fact that He is the First Cause. He does not need to be dependent upon anything since nothing exists outside of Him. He is the Primary Being, by which all else follows. His form is not composed of what we would understand, based on a corporeal fashion, and His unity has never been, nor will ever be, comprised of parts. Again, His simplicity is based on His unity. His simplicity is also based on the understanding that His existence has always been ultimately fulfilled. As Aquinas continued his analysis, he explored the idea of potentiality where he eventually came to the conclusion that God has no potential.

God Has No Potential?

Potentiality exists to address that a particular object, or individual, is not functioning at its optimal level yet, nevertheless, exhibits the ability to achieve it. St. Thomas viewed God as not having potential.  This was not meant to discredit God, but to emphasize further His fullness in His existence.

There must be potential in everything, and the higher the element within nature, the greater the potential. Simplicity should falter under this pressure, but not so with God, St. Thomas affirmed. God’s wholeness does not require Him to obtain a higher level of potential or even perfection.  He is the epitome of such an achievement. This is apparent in our realization that God, due to His transcendent nature, is in all things at all times. He does not have to wait to become involved as He is already present from the beginning. This also provided insight into another investigation, namely change.

Change implies an act of transformation, essential within an object. St. Thomas was aware of this transformation and the relationship between cause and effect when he came to the conclusion that God does not change. This was because St. Thomas saw God as the First Cause, and in addition, recognized God as a pure act. This strengthened the idea that God’s completeness in His actions left nothing out. Nothing had to change because that would have meant that an act was imperfect before, and was now in need of enhancement, modification, or stabilization. God’s act is complete in that it anticipates any and all factors simultaneously within the event. God’s simplicity echoes in this area as it leaves nothing to change.

God Came Before Evolution (And Relativism)

Nothing precedes God and nothing follows. His ways do not evolve. Furthermore, movement is not a component which God possesses, as this too would show that He was not complete. Once we have established how God’s simplicity manifests itself through pure and complete acts, and His infinite ways are not subject to change, we can explore God’s knowledge of truth.

God’s ability to know things outside of Himself and understand them follows this same format. Humans follow a set system of acquiring knowledge and formulating facts. This is because our aptitude can grow and mature as we experience the world around us (this is also how we can stagnate and fall prey to the dictatorship of relativism). This does not happen with God, as St. Thomas described.  God is not only the First Cause, He is also the Final Cause. He has no need of a learning process. He knows His creation with a perfect knowledge, a perfect truth (this is also significant when discussing the will of God). God’s perfect and simplistic knowledge does not require more since His being the Final Cause shows that He has always had full awareness of events (past, present, and future) from inception to completion.

This continues to show that His essence is His existence. It also, however, shows that His ways are always within the realm of eternity. God is eternity and His simple way of knowing only adds to truth, real truth. He needs no further instruction or advancement as all things are present to Him in their fullness. God, by His own, individual involvement in creation, from the beginning, experienced the perfect level of wholeness, truth, beauty, and goodness. There is no separation among these. God sees it all at once as a novelist sees the whole story in its entirety (although there is an order that must be experienced by the reader). Regardless of where one may be in their journey of faith, God was, is, and always will be, aware of the outcome.

Aquinas showed that God’s simplicity did not negate His significance. Even though we may place emphasis on the more complex than the simple, God cannot be marginalized. Furthermore, God does not receive His existence based on various events as creatures do. He constantly remains His existence. God is not only simple; He is also complete, perfect, and whole. He is eternity.

Aquinas’ findings on God are equally important for us today as we contemplate our relationship with Him, and continue developing a deeper sense of understanding, appreciation, and awe.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Todd was born and raised just outside of Philadelphia (Go Phils!) but now lives and works down south. He has been involved in the Church, serving youth & young adults, for over 15 years in the areas of ministry, athletics, education, and outreach. He earned his M.A. in Theology from Catholic Distance University (special thanks to the intercession of St. Joseph of Cupertino). He is a proud family man and has a passion for all things CATHOLIC! You can follow him on twitter (@4RealCatholic) for spiritual and inspiring quotes from our Saints.

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  • Guy McClung

    For this – God is simple – and other reasons it is not possible for God to have a “greatest attribute” or a “greatest virtue.” Anyone who says, e.g., God’s greatest attribute is mercy, is in error. Nothing about God can be less or greater than anything else about God. The error is compounded if one says, e.g. God’s greatest attritubute is mercy, and then goes on to contradict God’s words in Scripture [e.g. no need to go and sin no more] and/or to contradict, deny, or alter church doctrine since “mercy is greater than justice” or some such theological baloney sausage. Hopefully the Year of Mercy will not morph into the Year of Baloney Sausage. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas