Divine Simplicity

Christ and the Crisis of Metaphysics

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Paul R. Hinlicky
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , July
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The doctrine of divine simplicity has had, and continues to have, a long and influential history in the Christian faith’s doctrine of God. Recently, however, the doctrine as traditionally conceived, which emphasizes the monotheistic singularity and God’s ontology as non-compositional, has come under severe criticism especially from those who advocate a strong personalist and social trinitarianism. Moreover, with the teetering and crumbling of classical metaphysics with its substance ontology, Christian theologians have been promoting a more actualist and anthropomorphic ontology that is more fitting with the picture of the God as revealed by Jesus Christ.

Into this current debate steps Paul Hinlicky, a seasoned Lutheran theologian, who published his magnum opus Beloved Community in 2015 but had not yet composed his theology of divine simplicity. Thus, Divine Simplicity completes his mature, systematic theology. The main thesis of this book is that the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity as a protological metaphysic of absolute oneness must be thoroughly revised and begin not with the simplicity of essence of the deity of God’s nature; rather, Hinlicky contends that a more coherent and biblically defensible and faithful rendering of divine simplicity must begin with the three “persons” of the Trinity and their relations as revealed in the economy of creation and salvation-history as testified to in the Christian scriptures.

The book begins with an introduction in which Hinlicky sets out the rationale for the book and why he believes the doctrine of divine simplicity must be reconstructed on the basis of the doctrine of the Trinity as revealed in Jesus Christ. Chapter 1 sees Hinlicky engage with the late Colin Gunton’s final work of theology, Act and Being (Eerdmans, 2003), with which Hinlicky concurs that the best linguistic approach to theology is univocity and not equivocity or analogy. Hinlicky continues by favorably interacting with R.T. Mullins’ work on divine simplicity and ends the chapter by drawing upon the theologies of Régnon, Lossky, and Hinlicky-Wilson to demonstrate the necessity of maintaining a strong distinction (but not division) between the nature of God in the three “persons” of the Trinity.

Chapter 2 provides an example par excellence and critique of what happens when a Christian theologian unfortunately synthesizes the biblical testimony of the God of Jesus Christ with a non-Christian metaphysic—namely, Aristotelianism. Hinlicky’s chief interlocutor is, thus, Thomas Aquinas and those who have interacted with Thomas, including the Muslim Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Roman Catholic Fergus Kerr and David Burrell. Hinlicky concludes the chapter by arguing against Radical Orthodoxy’s blame of John Duns Scotus for contemporary theology’s many ills, arguing instead that the blame should be laid at the feet of Aquinas’ unstable theological synthesis. Between chapters 2 and 3, Hinlicky provides an extended excursus on Clement of Alexandria’s doctrine of the true gnosis, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 3 sees Hinlicky rehearse the history of the doctrine of divine simplicity by utilizing Gavin Ortlund’s work and compares the Augustinian version with the Cappadocian version. Hinlicky further critiques Augustine’s difficulty with Jesus Christ being described as “the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24) because these titles apparently compromise the essence of divine simplicity. Hinlicky then shows how the theology of the Arian heretic Eunomius seeped into the theologies of Pseudo-Dionysius and Evagrius. In chapter 4, Hinlicky interacts with Karl Barth’s “analogy of faith” with which he agrees and disagrees because Hinlicky believes Barth’s trinitarian theology is still too Augustinian and, thus, too psychological. Then, after providing a critique of the analytic theologian James Dolezal’s doctrine of divine simplicity, Hinlicky concludes by providing a rule version of his doctrine of divine simplicity as structured by the first table of the Ten Commandments. After chapter 4, Hinlicky provides a glossary placed before the indexes for the many Latin, Greek, and German words or phrases that he employs throughout the book.

This work is classic Hinlicky. Dense, erudite, and demanding, this book is intended only for those who have completed, at a minimum, an undergraduate degree in Christian theology and are able to keep up with the clever turns of phrase, hints, and intimations that Hinlicky employs in his eclectic array of interlocutors and theological viewpoints. I am grateful that Hinlicky completed this book after leaving his readers in a bit of a theological lurch by not having it ready before his systematic theology Beloved Community. Hence, readers may now (re-)read the prior work and then read Divine Simplicity to complement and complete Hinlicky’s mature theology. Regarding the content of this book, I am grateful that Hinlicky provides such a thoroughgoing critique of the traditional view of divine simplicity as a speculative, protological Christianized metaphysic and even more sustained argument for a consistent socially perichoretic view that looks first and finally to the trinitarian “persons” in eternal communion as the basis for divine simplicity. I applaud Hinlicky for the courage to offer such a rich and generative account of divine simplicity that must be reckoned with by those who still hold to the traditional view of the doctrine.

This book, however, does not escape criticism. First, inasmuch as I appreciate the excursus on Clement of Alexandria’s true gnosis, I find it difficult to see how it relates to the rest of the book’s argument. In fact, this excursus could have been left out of the book with no real damage done to its central thesis. Second, although Hinlicky interacts charitably and no less critically with certain significant theologians, past and present, he tends to converse more with the secondary literature on these major theologians rather than the primary sources of those theologians. Third, and most significantly, Hinlicky is a Lutheran theologian and this, at times, unnecessarily colors his criticisms of especially Reformed theologians when he thinks he sees the specter of Nestorius in Reformed Christology as the culprit for the perpetuation of the classical view of divine simplicity. That said, Hinlicky has done a great service to Christian theology by forcing the issue that the three “persons” of the Trinity must be given more attention when constructing the doctrine of divine simplicity, especially in the light of the impending collapse of traditional (i.e., essentialist) metaphysics in Christian theology. I recommend this work as a textbook for advanced courses on the doctrine of God and/or contemporary theology.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. In addition to numerous contributions to edited volumes and journals, he has authored three critically acclaimed studies in systematic theology, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom, and Divine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal Christianity.


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