God is One: Unity Defined
Barth makes the bold statement that “If we understand it rightly, we can express all that God is by saying that God is One” (CD II/1, 442). However, understanding this divine perfection rightly is crucial, for Barth always cautions against the abstraction or absolutizing of the divine attributes.
“The relation between subject and predicate is an irreversible one when it is a matter of God’s perfections” (CD II/1, 448).
“Necessarily, then, we must say that God is the absolute One, but we cannot say that the absolutely one is God” (CD II/1, 448)
…“when the unity of God is turned into the divinity of unity there can only result what are actually caricatures of God” (CD II/1, 450).
God defines his perfections, not vice versa. With this caution in mind, to define the divine perfection of unity we look to God himself.
Most succinctly, God is One.
This oneness, however, has both an external and an internal dimension.
Externally, God’s oneness refers to his uniqueness – he is utterly without equal. “God alone is God. He is the only one of his kind” (CD II/1, 442). This uniqueness gets to the heart of the divine essence, and also plays an apologetic role:
A being which was not unique, and not this unique being, would not be God. For this reason any so-called or would-be God which has a second god alongside it is bound to be a false god or no god. The very moment we conceive of a second person or thing of the same kind as God, even if it possesses only one attribute of the divine being, we cease to think of God as God. […] To be one and unique is true only of him in the sense proper to him. (CD II/1, 442-3).
That is, God’s oneness in this external sense is so absolute that it casts all false gods into nothingness and renders all other forms of uniqueness relative. He alone is God alone.
The internal complement to God’s external uniqueness is his simplicity. For God to be simple does not mean that he is uncomplicated or easily-understood, but rather that “in all that he is and does, he is wholly and undividedly himself” (CD II/1, 445)…“at no time or place is he composed out of what is distinct from himself” and “at no time or place, then, is he divided or divisible” (CD II/1, 445). However, we must not import our own abstractions of simplicity and thus paint a mere caricature of God as homogenous, flat, and dull – as simplistic in the pejorative sense. On the contrary, God’s simple unity is anything but simplistic, for:
He is One even in the distinctions of the divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is One even in the wealth of his distinguishable perfections. In specific things that he is and does, He never exists in such a way as to be apart from [all] other things that he also always is and does.
(CD II/1, 445).
The divine perfection of simple unity cannot refer to simplistic homogeneity, for God has eternally existed in the otherness contained within the Trinity. God’s simplicity is robust and diverse. At the intersection of divine unity and otherness is this perichoresis, the mutual interpenetration or interdependence of the persons of the Trinity, such that each can only be known in terms of its relation to the other two, enabling the Godhead to be One “even in the distinctions of the divine persons” (CD II/1, 445).
In the same manner, the Trinitarian pattern of the divine perfections means that God is still able to be One despite possessing innumerable attributes. And finally, God never separates who he is from what he does. That is, his being and his act are always inseparable, and they too have a perichoretic relationship to each other. This diverse and relational unity within the Trinity, the divine perfections, and God’s being-in-act must inform our notions of what simplicity entails when we are speaking of God.
Externally and internally, then, God is One in his uniqueness and simplicity. He is God alone, unequaled and unrivaled. He is also One in the midst of the otherness and perichoresis of his triune being-in-act in the fullness of the divine perfections. We would therefore be very much mistaken to claim that God is One in a homogeneous static, and simplistic way. On the contrary, His is a diverse and robust unity in both its uniqueness and simplicity.
Creation: Unity Shared
At creation, God shares his unity in both of these senses. Although this act does not imply “a commixture or [ontological] identification of God with the world,” (CD II/1, 446), it does extend the same kind of unity which is appropriate to the Godhead outward to that which is not God. As Constantine Scouteris notes, in this act “God abolishes the infinite distance between uncreated and created.” This extension or sharing of God’s unity has important implications for the created order, for “recognition of the unity of God is the human response to the summons and action of this incomparable and undivided being” (CD II/1, 450).
However, this epistemic recognition was eternally designed to coincide with an ontic reality. That is, just as appropriate epistemic faith in the faithful God leads to ontic faithfulness, the proper creaturely response to God’s oneness has always entailed knowing and being, recognizing and doing.
From the beginning of time, the created was to be in unity with the creator, sharing in his goodness by taking into account both the external and internal dimensions of God’s oneness. The proper epistemic and ontic responses to God’s oneness can both be seen in the Great Shema of Deut 6:4-5.
First, God demands that his external uniqueness be recognized. He alone is to be worshipped by his creation above all other false gods and idols. This is the sense in which God’s oneness is referred to in Deut 6:4 – “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” As elsewhere in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are urged toward covenantal faithfulness on the basis of his unique oneness and his unique relationship with them as a people. This reflects God’s creative purposes as a microcosm (respective to Israel) of the universally appropriate creaturely response to divine uniqueness.
Second, God desires that his internal simplicity be demonstrated by humanity in its undivided relationship with itself, the rest of creation, and with God. We see this also in the Shema. First, the syntax of Deut 6:4 suggests that “oneness” is part of God’s nature, shifting the focus from his uniqueness to his undivided simplicity. On the basis of this divine oneness, Israel was to love and worship God in undivided devotion, as the very next verse commands: “You must lovethe Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength” (Deut 6:5). Projected onto creation at large, then, the Shema calls humanity to undivided devotion to the God who is One.
In addition to being unique and simple, God’s oneness is also peaceful, characterized by shalom. The eternal God thrives in the otherness inherent to the Trinity, and he desires to share the same robust and diverse unity with his creation as it functions in perfect shalom, peace and fullness. However, a quick observation of the created order reveals that reality does not currently correspond to this idyllic notion of shalom unity. What has gone wrong?