How do Protestants explain penal substitution being consistent and compatible with divine simplicity given the following discussion?

For most of Church history, most Christians have believed that in some sense God is simple i.e. not made up of parts. Stephen R. Holmes writes (39):

Simplicity is a property of the divine essence. A standard piece of logic in the Greek philosophical tradition, accepted without demur by the Fathers, claims that anything composite must have been composed by an agent; therefore, the claim that God is incomposite is to insist that God was not made by any more basic agent. Then if God is incomposite, God is necessarily simple — the two words are not quite synonyms, but they are certainly mutually entailed. There is no complexity in the divine nature; God is not separable into this bit and that bit.

This belief that God is simple, seems important for believing that God is uncreated, or uncaused by anything outside himself – which would offer a legitimate challenge to the idea that he is truly ‘God’. Furthermore, Holmes continues (40):

This matter is coupled with the classical concern to avoid putting God into any class. The logic is once again easily described: if God is one example of a class of things — say, one merciful thing among many other merciful things — then the class as a whole is larger than God, and so something is greater than God. Similarly, the Christian solution to the Euthyphro dilemma is the doctrine of simplicity. The dilemma, in Christian theological terms, runs as follows. Is God good because we define good to mean what God is (which evacuates the term of any transcendental moral content)? Or is God good because God conforms to some external standard of goodness (which asserts the existence of something greater than God)? By identifying God’s goodness with God’s essence — divine simplicity — we are able to claim that God’s own life is the transcendental standard of goodness, avoiding both unacceptable consequences.

This doctrine of divine simplicity usually includes along with it a doctrine of impassibility i.e. God is unable to be ‘created,’ ‘caused,’ or ‘influenced’ by his emotions, because for them to affect him they must be a separate ‘part’. James E. Dolezal writes about passibility meaning 'caused to be' (24)

Every passion is a caused state of being into which one is moved by the activity of some agent. For this reason, all passions are finite, dependent, time bound, and mutable states of being. Moreover, to experience passion one must possess a principle of receptivity (i.e., passive potency) by which new actuality is received. That is, one must be moveable or changeable. Metaphysically speaking, a passion is an accident that inheres in a substance and modifies the being of that substance in some way. In existential terms, every experience of passion causes the patient to be in some new way.

Although it seems okay to say that God can be affected by emotions in his human incarnation (see this question) penal substitution seems to imply that he is ‘required’ by his wrath to punish humanity for sin.

In the most basic sense, penal substitution is:

the idea that Christ’s death is in some way a representative one in which he suffers the judgment/wrath of God on behalf of deserving sinners thereby releasing them from guilt and obtaining forgiveness for them

But the way it is typically described by protestants emphasizes God’s anger wrath that cannot be appeased without some sort of blood sacrifice. We say something like: “God cannot abide sin” or his “justice demands to eradicate it”. Tom Wright describes this wrath-bound God as being a hold-over from medieval times:

Christians have spoken, in effect, of the angry God upstairs and the suffering Jesus placating him. Spoken? They’ve painted it: many a mediaeval altarpiece, many a devotional artwork, have sketched exactly that. And of course for some late mediaeval theologians this was the point of the Mass: God was angry, but by performing this propitiatory sacrifice once more, the priest could make it all right. And it was at least in part in reaction against this understanding of the Eucharist that the Reformers rightly insisted that what happened on the cross happened once for all. They did not invent, they merely adapted and relocated, the idea of the propitiation of God’s wrath through the death of Jesus.

This seems to be out of line with belief in God’s simplicity, suggesting that Jesus ‘had’ to die to appease God’s justice, but in so saying, describing justice as a power separate from God himself which ‘affects’ him (contra passibility) and ‘causes’ (contra simplicity) him to demand blood.

Even though wrath does seem to be a real biblical motivator for God’s judgement (Rom. 1:18 and various OT events), it also seems in practice to overly distinguish the ‘loving’ sacrifice of Jesus from the ‘wrath’ of God. That is why Orthodox Abbot Tryphon says:

The major problem with this teaching can be seen in the fact that had Christ died for our sins against God the Father, thus causing a division of God, with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity laid waste, with God pitted against God. This heretical doctrine divides God by implying that Christ isn’t fully God. It also suggests that there is a higher force than God, thus making, God Himself ruled by a “higher force”. In other words, God has no choice but to punish. By this notion, justice forces God to respond to our sin with His wrath, with love becoming secondary.

My questions are as follows:

(1.A.) Are there versions of penal substitution which do not include recourse to a lack of emotional self-control – i.e. ‘needing’ to punish someone?

(1.B.) How do they make sense of God’s anger/wrath in scripture?

A discussion regarding simplicity and God's attributes can be found here, although it doesn't address the atonement.

(2.A.) Alternatively, how do advocates of penal substitution communicate Christ’s work without seeming to violate divine simplicity/impassibility?

(2.B.) Or do these concepts themselves need to be modified in light of penal substitution?

A discussion which gives more precision to the reasons for believing in simplicity can be found here.

  • "God is unable to be ‘created,’ ‘caused,’ or ‘influenced’ by his emotions, because for them to affect him they must be a separate ‘part’." I haven't heard this. I think people normally say God being impassible means he can't be affected by anything outside himself. I could be wrong though. Do you have quotes showing your definition?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 14:05
  • 2
    This is an excellent deep question, thanks!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 14:20
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    There must be a reason why you have not referred to scripture, even once, in this question.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 15:47
  • 2
    Maybe this is too simplistic but aren't all of the philosophical problems alleviated in that, although God is One (simplicity), His attributes (justice, love, etc.) are as infinite as He is in and of themselves? Can it be said that Light has no choice but to dispel darkness and so Light is forced into action when darkness is present? God IS just. God IS Love. These aren't things He feels or does; He acts according to them always because they're who He is and He has perfect, simple integrity. Mercy and Truth are met together, Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other. - Psalm 85:10 Commented May 1, 2020 at 16:03
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    @NigelJ I think scripture should be the authority under which divine simplicity and impassibility 'could' be modified (per Q 2.B.) but this is primarily a theology-proper question than a 'what does the bible say about this' question.
    – ninthamigo
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 17:36

1 Answer 1


It's important to keep in mind that Divine Simplicity, Divine Impassibility, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement are man-made theological constructs which attempt to codify the vast depth of God's revelation, making it easier to remember and apply but not necessarily fully encompassing all of God. We have been united with the mind of Christ but we are not yet made perfect and we are certainly not infinite in understanding. Theology must expect and even welcome uncertainty where the Divine being is concerned.

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. - Romans 11:32-36

Divine simplicity speaks of the attributes of God as being un-partitioned. In other words God is not like a Venn diagram in which some areas are just one attribute and other areas contain overlap between two or more attributes. It is unfortunate that a Venn diagram illustration of the Trinity is often used to try and clarify that doctrine of God's triune being because it visually and conceptually divides God into 3 parts with some overlap.

Divine Simplicity asserts that each attribute of God, for example Justice or Love, is entirely God or put another way, God is entirely each attribute. Notwithstanding that theologians dispute the various attributes ascribable to God, whatever attributes He does actually possess are, each of them, all God. Incidentally, assenting to this idea of Divine Simplicity ought to immediately make the Trinity acceptable if not completely ascertainable.

It is a biblically accurate idea:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD. - Deuteronomy 6:4

This verse speaks of God not as an ordinal number but as an inseparably unique unity and it is valuable because it keeps us from imagining that God is somewhat like us with conflicting passions, strengths, and weaknesses. It can be difficult for us to grasp, however for two related reasons:

  1. Often we erroneously conceive of certain attributes of God as opposite. For example we picture love and mercy being overcome or deferentially stepping aside as justice is dispensed. This is particularly evident when reconciling Divine Simplicity with Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Where has the love of God gone while divine justice is being dispensed? How is the one of whom God said, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." now hanging upon the cross drinking to the dregs the undiluted cup of God's wrath? Human reason says it has diminished, departed, or been set aside. Divine simplicity declares it has not moved or changed in the slightest. In the cross is displayed God as Just and God as Love and not just portions of each. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were still sinners Christ died for us."
  2. While we acknowledge God as infinite and eternal we do actually struggle to constantly and accurately incorporate these into all of our thoughts of God. If God is all of each of His attributes and He is infinite and eternal then He is infinitely and eternally each attribute as well. When Lamentations declares "His mercies never come to an end." it is drawing upon this principle of the infinity and eternality of each Divine attribute.

Divine impassibility is often considered as a corollary to simplicity because one attribute cannot trump another and force God's hand from within. Impassibility does not stem from simplicity, however, when declaring that God's hand is not forced from without; as if justice were a principle external to God which God is forced to obey. This blurring of distinction between Simplicity and Impassibility is a source of difficulty when Penal Substitutionary Atonement is considered. Let's look at the 4 questions again:

(1.A.) Are there versions of penal substitution which do not include recourse to a lack of emotional self-control – i.e. ‘needing’ to punish someone? This question introduces an assumption of emotional instability within the Godhead and makes the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus seem like a Divine reaction where some attributes overcome others. As the impetus to wrath is an internal one in this view, it is Divine Simplicity which provides the answer. "God IS light and in Him is no darkness at all." - 1 John 1:5. The (wrathful) expulsion of darkness from God's presence does not fall into the category of something forcing God to act or react. It emanates from His being. He IS the expeller of darkness infinitely and eternally.

(1.B.) How do they make sense of God’s anger/wrath in scripture? Prior to the foundational creative act it was already settled within the Divine Mind (Logos) that the Word of God would incarnate, bear humanity's sin, and redeem all creation.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. - Philippians 2:5-11

The Son’s eternal complicity in his own condemnation as our substitute is one of the gospel’s most glorious truths and it reverses the order in which we usually perceive Penal Substitution. Jesus Christ did not die as a Divine reaction to a creation gone bad. In the Divine economy of eternity Christ died, not so much first, as always. The Lamb was slain prior to the creation of time itself for God knows (not just intellectually but intimately and experientially) the end from the beginning. To be sure, "When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son..." but this is just that, the appearance of the Christ in time...however his "coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. - Micah 5:2b". This "from of old, from ancient days" is a picture of "to the horizon, and again"...eternity.

This actually accentuates the love, justice, and mercy of God that He would pay so dear a price prior to creation and explodes the boundaries of grace when we realize that God did not have to create. This eternal grace of God in Christ displays every Divine attribute in full, impassible Simplicity not just in our redemption but in the whole of creation.

(2.A.) Alternatively, how do advocates of penal substitution communicate Christ’s work without seeming to violate divine simplicity/impassibility? The answers to 1 A and B show how Christ's work both displays and upholds simplicity/impassibility. No real resolution can be made without a robust and accurate Trinity. It’s no use pitting “vindictive God” against “innocent Jesus,” for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God.

(2.B.) Or do these concepts themselves need to be modified in light of penal substitution? Theological constructs of Simplicity, Impassibility, and Penal Substitution all need to be pressed deeper into the realms of infinity and eternality where God dwells in unapproachable light. The three are well demonstrated in Scripture and if they do not appear to harmonize with each other it can only be because our theological constructs of God, with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning (James 1:17b), are limited and incomplete. As always, the center of the problem is that our God is not big enough: That is to say, the very act of trying to intellectually encapsulate Him is a diminution because the finite cannot contain the infinite. This is not to suggest that we cannot know God, after all He has condescended to reveal Himself, but the human heart wickedly seeks that complete understanding which indicates mastery and is a polluted manifestation of the naming power that God gave to Adam.

"I am the Lord, I do not change and therefore you are not consumed, Oh Jacob." - Malachi 3:6

  • I really appreciate your response and your humble approach to theological knowledge. Especially your suggestion that just as God's justice simply punishes evil so his mercy expressed in Jesus responds in mercy, but both are ultimately a part of the simple act of God.
    – ninthamigo
    Commented Jul 28, 2020 at 0:25

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