The One And Us

The One And Us August 9, 2017

ropped version of Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD“ (Deut. 6:4 RSV).

Despite some confusion various Christians and non-Christians have concerning the Trinity, this truth is one of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine: God is one. Indeed, God is the One. Various philosophical and theological discussions can and do ensue from this fact. While the transcendence of God makes even what it means for us to say he is one impossible for us to comprehend, we can nonetheless use our reason to discern some intelligible things about this oneness. Indeed, as many of the philosophers show, there are many ways in which we can use our reason to conclude that there is indeed one Absolute above all things, and this Absolute must in some way or another be said to be one. Thus, so-called natural theology, reflection on the truth which engages our reason with limited forms of divine revelation in and through nature, is able to establish the concept of a singular One which precedes all other things as it is included in all other subsequent things similar to the way mathematical one is included within the concept of all other forms of enumeration.  Natural theology, therefore, is able to discern that the Absolute One exists. All that takes on existence finds itself coming from the Absolute One which Christians call God.

The Absolute, the One, God, is existence, indeed, it can be said to be being. For it to be one, it must be without parts, for if it had parts, it would not be one but many. This is why God is said to be simple (through the teaching of Divine Simplicity).  The One, God, does not rely upon anything else for its existence for if it did, then it would not be simple but compound, with its existence given to it by something else. This is why the One is said to be the foundation of all, including itself, lest it is not the One; there is nothing which can be said to be ontologically prior to it.

Thus, if we are interested, we can explore various forms of natural theology which reflect upon what it means for the One to be the One, for it to be absolutely simple. Perhaps there is no better philosopher on this subject than Proclus, and his Elements of Theology is his major text on the relationship between the One  and the rest of creation. The One is God, and so God is one, simple and without parts. Because God is without parts, God is also without change, for change would suggest some addition or subtraction to the One (which would only be possible if some part is added or subtracted from him). This means God is, God always is, and God always is what he is. This is how and why he is said to be eternal, with his eternity being one with and the same as his existence and his oneness itself. Once his eternity is established, it is easy to see how and why it is said what God does is what God is, for he is nothing other than his eternal activity, which is the perfect fulfillment of his potentiality.

We come after the One, and so find ourselves no longer simple in the way the One is simple. We exist underneath the One, contingent upon the One, and so we find ourselves unable to grasp the one with our intellect. The One will always transcend our ability to conceptualize it. And yet, we can discern something about it based upon our experience of it and our reason. We experience the activity of God, and so discern qualities about God in relation to such activity.

Thus, despite the fact the One has no parts, we establish through our examination the One logical constructs, attributes, which we use to name him and represent him and who and what he is.  The One is God, and God loves, so God is love. The One is God, and God is good, so God is the good. The One is God, and God is beautiful, so God is the beautiful. The One is God, and God is truthful, so God is the truth. The One is God, and God exists, so God is existence. We separate these attributes and ponder them in and through our human conventions. By doing so, it seems as if  God has parts, but we must remember who and what he is: the One without parts, and so all of these are the same as who and what he is, the One who is what he does. Our logic divides what is in reality incapable of being divided, showing how what we grasp and engage in relation to the One is a human convention for something which transcends what we can understand. It is difficult for us to comprehend how God is all of these at once without confusing these logical attributes together. They are distinct qualities and activities we see from the eternal One and yet they are one with the One, and so one with each other in the One.

The teaching of the Trinity does not change this. The Trinity must not to be seen as  teaching that there are three parts in one God. Jesus pointed out there is no separation between him and the Father, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30 RSV). This  does not mean that the Father and the Son are the same person, only that they are not parts of one greater God. Thus, each person must be seen as God, relationally distinct from each other without establishing division in the divinity itself.  The doctrine of the Trinity includes as its foundation that God is One and without parts; any attempt to read the Trinity as being established as three parts for God must be denied because it undermines their simple unity. There must be nothing which essentially distinguishes one person from the other; they must be understood as one, which is why if we have one, we have them all. St. Bonaventure, trying to explain this truth, suggested we understand the persons in relation to the self-communication of God:

Because the first and the highest beginning by the very fact that it is the first is the simplest and by the fact that it is the highest is the most perfect, it follows that it communicates itself in a most perfect manner because it is most perfect; it is completely indivisible by the very fact it is most simple; and consequently without violation of the unity of nature, there are modes of emanating perfectly. The modes of emanating perfectly are only two, namely, by the mode of the nature and of the will. The first is generation and the second is spiration or procession, and these modes of emanation are present in the Trinity.[1]

Various qualities which we discern in God, which are one in him and united in him in his eternal activity, emerge from him and become distinguished in creation. When we look back to God, to the One, we have the hardship of dealing with their relationship with each other: we think of them along the lines of our conventions which establish themselves in a dualistic fashion, while in God, they must be non-dual. That means, on the one hand, we understand who God by our experience these qualities in the world, and yet we know they differ in him than in the way we experience them, so our experience must be seen as analogous to their reality in God. What we ascribe to God comes from human conventions which impute logical attributes to God which he transcends. The mystery which is God lies in the fact we know him through his actions, and so we know him to exist, and we know through his actions qualities which are his in a way which transcends our knowledge and experience of them.

When we try to place some sort of pattern or order to the attributes we know to be in God, we often find ourselves making one quality dependent upon and so less than another, instead of discerning their unique interdependent and equal relationship with each other. This is exemplified in the way St. Thomas Aquinas not saw God’s justice was said to be “preceded” by his mercy:

Likewise, whatever is done by Him in created things, is done according to proper order and proportion wherein consists the idea of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works. Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something that precedes. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will–which is the ultimate end. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; and his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes. For this reason does God out of abundance of His goodness bestow upon creatures what is due to them more bountifully than is proportionate to their deserts: since less would suffice for preserving the order of justice than what the divine goodness confers; because between creatures and God’s goodness there can be no proportion. [2]

There is great truth here, for his justice is merciful and not anything apart from that mercy. Aquinas  is right in discerning mercy as being central to how we interpret justice, but yet a problem emerges if this convention is taken as absolute, for then justice is undermined, and God himself loses his simplicity.

This then is how and why we must discern the attributes of God in a way which understands all of them as being conventions pointing to a truth beyond the conventions themselves. In and through our declaration of his attributes, we find the source of various qualities of being and yet in the One they are not distinct from each other. God is goodness, he is truth, and yet he is not goodness or truth as we know them but rather as their sources, as the foundation by which we know goodness and truth. When we encounter them thanks to his activities, we must understand them as being  like rays of light which flow from the absolute transcendent light of his own supra-essential being. This is why it is right to apply such attributes to him while acknowledging that when we do so, we only point to something about him in a human convention. We speak a conventional truth about God which is true and yet must not be seen as comprehending who and what he is.   We must not absolutize and reify our understanding of his attributions. That is, as Henry of Ghent put it, “It must be said that God is not a thing belonging to some category. Rather, things belonging to a category are only those things that come from him.”[3]  Likewise, Moses Maimonides explained: “Whenever any one of His actions is perceived by us, we ascribe to God that emotion which is the source of the act when performed by ourselves, and call Him by an epithet which is formed from the verb expressing that emotion.”[4] He is what he does, but we only grasp and understand what he does through our limited intellect. This is why it is better to follow him in a love which engages our will, for then we can transcend our intellect by willing to follow him beyond our knowing. Otherwise, we would end up limiting our eschatological potential upon the limits of our intellect.

“For the LORD is righteous, he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (Ps. 11:7 RSV).  The merciful compassion of God, in his righteousness,  seeks all things to be good. Insofar as they are good, they are united with him in his greater and absolute good. Likewise, God seeks to save  those who have found their goodness hindered by the corruption of sin: “This divine Righteousness is also praised as the ‘Salvation of the world,’ since it ensures that each being is preserved and maintained in its proper being and order, distinct from everything else. It is so called also because it is pure cause of everything active in the world.”[5]  If we follow through and engage God with love, shall find such love transforming us so we can be made righteous; this is possible thanks to the objective grace God has given out for the salvation of all.  If we follow him in love, one day we shall see him face to face. We shall  see him as he is, finding him beautiful and a joy to behold. This is possible because will have become like him and have a face by which we can face him with.  If we want to be with him, if we want to be saved, we must be just and merciful, good and truthful, beautiful in character and indeed, analogous to God in our human form; to reject this is to close ourselves off from God, and woe to the one who comes face to face with God in such a state.


[Image from Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] St. Bonaventure, Breviloquium. trans. Erwin Esser Nemmers (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Company, 1946), 27-8.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947), I-xxi.4.

[3] Henry of Ghent, Henry of Ghent’s Summa: The Questions of God’s Unity and Simplicity (Articles 25-30).trans. Roland J. Teske, S.J. (Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2006), 119 [xxvi. q2]

[4] Moses Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed. Trans. M. Friedlander (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004), 141 [LIV].

[5] Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 114.


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