By Samuel D. Samson, UT Austin
As fallen beings living in a fallen world, we do not possess the capacity to fully understand God’s nature and attributes. Therefore, until we attain the Beatific Vision and sans miraculous revelation, our comprehension of God will be necessarily limited. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, emerging from one such ecstatic revelation, was humbled to the point of degrading his great masterworks as mere “straw.” As can be expected, this human limitation has yielded debate, confusion, and even permanent factionalization over God’s nature and attributes throughout the history of the Church.
Yet of all confusions, perhaps the most disparate of these regards a seeming incompatibility of scale—namely, the reality that God is both necessarily infinite, yet also perfectly simple—a juxtaposition of Divine infinity and Divine simplicity. Per titulo, these two tenets appear diametrically opposed, even contradictory. Indeed, how can an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being, Creator of an immensely complex universe be simultaneously purely simple, “nothing but” Himself?
We often take these two points as given components of the faith. However, as creatures called to know and love God, we ought to parse them out. This is because the apparent incompatibility, though we might not realize it, is very present in the way we practice, perceive, and grow in our faith. Faced with the seemingly irreconcilable incompatibility, we reason, even if subconsciously, that only one may be logically correct. In doing so, we slip into a favoring of one while implicitly rejecting the other. Yet in the dichotomy of Divine infinity and Divine simplicity, to choose one over the other is inevitably wrong. Thus, we would do well to understand what we already know to be true: that both realities are indeed correct, and even further, that they are necessarily compatible.
Divine Infinity, Divine Simplicity
The concept of Divine infinity is one of the most basic and widespread teachings of the Catholic Church—the idea that God is the almighty, perfect, everlasting creator of all things. “We believe that his might is universal, for God who created everything also rules everything and can do everything” (CCC 268). Further, as states St. Paul in his epistle to the Colossians: “For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him” (Colossians 1:16). Indeed, God is infinite, without restraint on his power, dominion, and knowledge. When speaking of Divine infinity, we speak of Him without limits, and more specifically, without terminus. We affirm this truth every Sunday in the Creed—cuius regni non erit finis—and His kingdom shall have no end. God exists outside of time, unbound by any human or created nature. He endures before, with, and after us. He is both our first cause and our ultimate end. He is necessarily infinite, beyond the grasp of what our bound and temporal minds can ever fully comprehend. This is the truth that has been revealed to man through Christ and His Church, and remains one of the most central tenets of the faith.
Conversely, Divine simplicity is a truth that, though perhaps implicitly known by most, is less discussed in the Catholic mainstream. The concept can be stated generally as such: that the Being of God is identical to the attributes of God. As St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes: “God is not only His own essence, as shown in the preceding article, but also His own existence… since in God there is no potentiality… it follows that in Him essence does not differ from existence” (ST I, 3, IV). Thus God is His nature. He simply is love, knowledge, goodness, and truth themselves. As the first cause and creator, His essence and existence are the same. He possesses no potential to act other than what He is. In fact, it is from this tenet that the privative theory of evil is derived—that evil is but the absence of good, due to God’s inability to be other than good essentially. Thus Divine simplicity, though perhaps a more subtle truth, has likewise endured as a central component of Catholic theology.
Thus the Catholic Church affirms God as both infinite and simple. Yet how can these things be true of the same Being? The vastness of infinity seems so unlike the meekness of simplicity. The answer lies, as always, God Himself: that His infinity is simple. Simplicity does not refer to scale and size, but rather to the congruence essence and existence. In this way, it might be best to address the dichotomy with the following answer: God is simply infinite. His infinity is both his essence and existence—an infinity of everything that He is. There is no complexity or potentiality to the infinity—He cannot be but infinite, and in this, His infinity is definitionally simple.
Significant metaphysical lifting is necessary to even begin understanding God’s simple infinity. Yet even so, our limited human intellects will never be able to perfectly understand these things while in this world. While we might be comfortable with the concept theologically, our worldly experience still nags and questions its veracity. As temporal creatures it is impossible for us to grasp infinity, and as holders of potentiality, we cannot fathom what it is to be truly simple. By our human perception, these things must be incompatible. Infinity and simplicity are frank impossibilities on a human scale. Thus, even though we know otherwise, we often cannot help but act as if there exists no congruence—that only one or the other can possibly be correct.
Exemplified in Love
Perhaps nowhere else is the concept of God’s simple infinity—and the consequences of its misinterpretation—more exemplified than through His love. The Church teaches that, simply, God is love—a love one and the same as His essence. Thus His love is infinite, unconstrained and unending. Yet it is also simple—constant, perfect, and necessary. However, as much as we accept this truth metaphysically and theologically, our fallen nature blurs our understanding, and we become confused. How can one love without end? How can one love without the potential of not loving? How can one love without imperfection? It is true that such a love is impossible for man without God’s grace. Without grace, without God, the congruence of Divine infinity and Divine simplicity does not compute, and we thus our fallen minds assume that the correct answer lies one or the other. In doing so, we err significantly—conforming God to our own limited intellect instead of accepting his revealed truth.
When faced with the reality of God’s love, we sometimes favor infinity, viewing God as vast and daunting. This leads to an uncertain, skeptical, fearful perception of a distant God. On a more human scale, it leads to doubt. How can such an infinite Being love me? How can I know His love is true and undying? Such an inclination leaves us searching and questioning, manifesting itself in a dangerous skepticism towards love. After all, if we doubt love itself, how can we trust it manifested in others? Suspicious, we frantically and fruitlessly scramble in the darkness for earthly proof and certainty. We reject instances of God’s love, shunning people who love us in the process. We turn inward, seeking solace in temporal things we believe are graspable. We fuel a hatred of ourselves and are consumed by our iniquity. We turn God into a proof, a mere philosophical concept, a figment of our intellect that we might expose if we just study harder. Left alone, this approach leaves one exhausted, spiteful, and even more doubtful of love than when once began—because ultimately, faith has been discarded.
In viewing God as exclusively infinite, we risk sulking in the pit of our own limitation, forgetting the true intimacy of His love. Forgotten is the guarantee of love that Divine simplicity brings, ignored is the reality that God cannot do but love us deeply and personally. God’s simplicity makes graspable His infinity. We need not doubt His love for us because He cannot help but love us. His love is vast, yes, but it is also deeply intimate.
Yet other times we favor simplicity. This simplicity can be described more as “one dimensional” than any sort of metaphysical simplicity. In this view, God’s love becomes a self-conjured sentiment, an emotion, inseparable from the human sense appetites. The goodness and love of God is conflated with a distorted human reflection of these things—easily confused with vice. Love is blurred into lust. Goodness blurred into opportunism. Joy blurred into hedonistic pleasure. Indeed, this distorted simplicity is intimate in that it exists within the self, but it forgets the scale and magnitude of God’s nature. This is seen increasingly through the modern relativization and politicization of Chrsitianity—centered largely around the concept of feelings. It turns consolation into a malleable clay, reflective of human emotions, and easily conflated with love-adjacent (yet dangerous) passions.
If a focus on infinity alone leads to vitriol, a focus on simplicity alone leads to a dangerous personalism. Gone is a reverence for the Divine majesty, diluted is any fear of the Lord. Indeed, God’s love is essential, intimate and undying, but one must remember that it is not contingent upon our own whims. It is a necessary component of our infinitely loving God.
Et Verbum Caro Factum Est
Most of us Catholics will be able to recognize occasions in which we have viewed God as either exclusively infinite or exclusively simple. We have shunned His love and also relativized it to our own satisfaction. So how can we fight against this slippage? How might we better understand, as best we can, God’s simple infinity? We need look no further than Jesus Christ incarnate, the Word made flesh. In Christ, infinite goodness, truth, beauty, and love take on human form. The infinity of the Incarnation occurs in a simple manger. The infinity of God is made flesh in a simple man. The infinity of His love is given for us on a simple cross of timber—unwavering, unending, unceasing.
Nowhere is God’s simple infinity more strikingly revealed than in the Eucharist itself. God incarnate, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent—humbly taking on the accidents of bread and wine. In the consecration a miracle is performed on an infinitely majestic scale, the transubstantiation of simple bread and wine into our Lord Himself. The source and summit of the faith, Jesus Christ in body, blood, soul and divinity, present necessarily and completely in the Blessed Sacrament. The Eucharist shows us God’s simple infinity in a way that we, even in our fallen and limited state, can observe and understand—and even further, as the ultimate demonstration of His love, he invites us to receive Him into our hearts, that we might share in His love completely.
Through receiving the Eucharist, we bring Christ, both in His infinity and simplicity, into our hearts. He presents Himself to us, beckons for us to receive, understand, and love Him. While God’s simple infinity may be hard to grasp intellectually, the sacrament provides us a very tangible and beautiful answer. Our fallen state means that we will always falter in our understanding, yet with frequent reception of the Eucharist, devout contemplation, and unceasing prayer, we might be reminded of His love for us, infinitely and simply undying.
There exists a vast difference of scale between infinity and simplicity, yet they remain necessarily intertwined—demonstrated in Jesus Christ. The infinity of God the Son is sacrificed, simply given in love for each one of us. Through the crucifixion salvation is exacted, for the human race, yes, but also for each individual human soul. Indeed, we see examples of God’s simple infinity all around us, revealed in the world and especially in the beauty of the Church itself. We see Him in the infinity of a beautiful vista, sprawling mountain range, and golden sunset, but also in the singular bluebonnet sitting on the side of the highway. We see Him in the love and piety of the communion of saints, but also in the same shown by our closest friend. We see Him in the vast intricacy of the grandest Cathedral, but also in the small host in the monstrance on the altar. As such, we ought to continue contemplating God’s simple infinity, and strive our hardest to unite ourselves with He who manifests it most perfectly—Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Vol 1. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs