This means he is uncompounded and noncomposite and without moving parts. He does not gain or lose an attribute, nor is an attribute attached to him from the outside. It means God’s perfect unity.
This attribute or perfection is called uncommunicable or “unshareable” or “nontransferable” to us humans because we have accidental properties, like hair color or girth or eye color, all of which come in pieces and parts. (“Accidental” and “essential” are opposites.)
God’s attributes are always the same and never change; they are essential. As one theologian says, “He is what he has” (Bavinck, Doctrine, p. 121). In contrast, we humans have attributes.
See below for examples of attributes in the articles in the series “Do I Really Know God?”
What do theologians say?
Don’t feel frustrated if you have to read this section several times. The terms are new right now, but eventually they will click.
Princeton professor Charles Hodge speaks of the differences between the attributes in God and in us humans:
God is a simple Being, not only as not composed of different elements, but also as not admitting [allowing in] of the distinction between substance [essence] or accidents. Nothing can either be added to or taken from God. In this view simplicity, as well as the other attributes of God, are of a higher order than the corresponding attributes of our spiritual nature. The soul of man is a simple substance, but it is subject to change. I can gain or lose knowledge, holiness, and power. These are in this view accidents in our substance. But in God they are attributes, essential and immutable [unchangeable] (vol. 1, p. 379).
Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck boils down what God’s being and essence is.
… God is “simple,” that is, free from composition. God is identical with each of his attributes; he is what he possesses. In God “to be” is the same as to be wise, to be good, or to be powerful. All God’s attributes are identical with his essence. In all his attributes he is pure being, absolute reality. (Reformed, p. 175).
Wayne Grudem teaches us that God’s simplicity means his unity. Further, he is indivisible, but he does relate to us with different attributes that we humans may need at any moment in our lives. He defines it simply:
God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times. … When Scripture speaks about God’s attributes, it never singles out one attribute of God as more important than all the rest. There is an assumption that every attribute is completely true of God and is true of all of God’s character. (pp. 177-78).
Then he gives an example in 1 John. One verse says, “God is light” (1:5) and another one says, “God is love” (4:8). God is not part light and part love. “It is God himself who is light, and God himself who is also love” (ibid., emphasis original).
This attribute or perfection means that God is a unity, undivided in parts and non-composite.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations or in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
Recall that “simple” and “one” are synonyms in this context.
Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deut. 6:4).
Kingdoms may believe they are the greatest, but only God is.
16 “Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. … so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are the only God. (Is. 37:16, 20)
Jesus references Deut. 6:4:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Mark 12:29)
Paul repeats it:
Since there is only one God …. (Rom. 3:30)
Other gods are really just nonexistent or some are demonic spirits. God is one:
“There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:4-6)
Paul in the next two verses proclaim God’s unity or oneness:
[O]ne God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph, 4:6)
For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5)
James, the brother of Jesus, affirms God’s unity:
You believe that there is one God. Good! (James 2:19)
Is there an illustration of how God is unity but has various attributes?
Yes, please click on Do I really Know God? What an Attribute Is.
How do I know God better through this post?
It is true that God is completely and absolutely and simultaneously all his attributes, but if he were to show us all of them down here at the same time and in their total fullness while we live in our untransformed and unresurrected bodies, we would die. It is merciful of God to show them only little by little through Scripture and through the Spirit living in our hearts. That is, God acts within his creation and in the world of humans, and he shows forth his attribute or attributes when this or that human needs one or more of them.
For example, creation shows forth the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and God gets the glory when he performs a miracle in our lives. Even in the Old Testament God is love, but often he had to show his justice or judgment. But God’s essence never changed or changes from then to now.
Let’s contrast God with us—easy to do! Humans have only one essential attribute that never goes away: the soul that lives on forever, but even that attribute can change as one mentally or emotionally grows or develops. (Some misinformed teachers say that the human spirit, distinct from the soul, is perfect and never develops, but the Bible never says a part of humankind is absolutely perfect or perfected here—the presence of sin degrades us even a little.) But God is so unlike us in his perfections or attributes that we can worship him as the wholly other Being.
So how do God and you relate? God shares some of his attributes with us in small part, because he made us in his image. He is completely and absolutely merciful, and we are part-time and incompletely merciful. When his Spirit lives in us, we have a better time showing mercy, as he nudges and reminds us to do so.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Simple