I must confess that my warning bells go off when I hear people say, "Well God is x but he is also y." Here's a few examples.
"Well, God is loving, but he is also holy"
"Well, God is merciful, but he is also just."
"Well God is immanent, but he is also transcendant."
Such talk is not without merit – its goal is the very worthy one of balancing theology so that we embrace more of the fullness of divine revelation rather than picking parts and dropping other parts (God is nice and loving so he would not hurt a fly).
Such talk is also predicated on the intuitively correct belief that the qualities of love and holiness, or mercy and justice, or transcendance and immanence (etc) are not the same as each other. (Of course, according to the classical notion of divine simplicity all of God’s properties were identical with each other and with God’s existence. I have not the confidence to write off the classical doctrine of divine simplicity as wrong but it certainly has some mammoth hurdles to jump to convince people of its truth. I’m open to persuasion but I think that God’s love is not the same thing as God’s justice, say.)
Nevertheless, my worry with all these “x but also y” reminders is that they feel like the speaker’s doctrine of God lacks integration. It sounds like, “sometimes God is x and but sometimes he is also y”. Or perhaps like, “God is x with some people but y with others.”
For instance, what does it mean to say that “God is loving but he is also holy.” Does it mean, “God is sometimes loving, but he is also sometimes holy”? Does it mean “God loves some people but he is holy with others?”
What does it mean to say that “God is loving but he is also just”? Does it mean that God is sometimes loving but that at other times he is just? Does it mean that he is loving to some people but just towards others?
I write the above as if everyone will say, “Of course it does not mean those false things!” but I have to be honest and say that in the contexts in which I hear such sentences as “God is loving but he is also holy/just” used, they regularly seem to mean precisely such questionable things to the speakers. They seem to be saying, "Sure God is loving, BUT ..." Hence my alarm bells.
And perhaps here is where the right instinct that motivated the classical doctrine of divine simplicity might lie: the integrity of God. I want to say that all God’s actions are loving, are holy, are just. His love is a holy love, a just love. Similarly, his justice is holy and loving. He treats all people with justice and with love. And his mercy is not unjust nor does it trample justice.
And the God who is immanent within creation is the transcendant God who is transcendant in his very indwelling and closeness to his world.
It may be that I am shooting my mouth off without thinking through the implications of this idea adequately (and I certainly do not wish to dissolve all tensions in our doctrine of God), but I do think that we need to seek to integrate our view of God better. I want to embrace a theology according to which God is unfailingly just, impeccably holy, unremittingly loving and whose nature it is always to have mercy.
- Robin Parry
- Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).