Review: Simply God

As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, over the past academic year I’ve been studying a course on the Doctrine of God. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the best courses I’ve done at college: the doctrine of God is fundamental to theology – it affects pretty much everything else (what else is theology if not about God, in order to relate us to him?). And it’s been a real privilege to look into how the great theologians of the past (such as Augustine and Aquinas) have understood the doctrine of God, and how they went about doing theology – their careful methodology is a real treat given much of what passes for theology on the internet these days.

And it’s not just an intellectual thing – I’ve found my faith enlivened as we have considered together what it means for God to be God. My mind has been stretched as we’ve thought about God’s simplicity (theological term, not simplicity as you may know it… hence the title of the book), omniscience, omnipotence, eternality and so on. In short, I’ve discovered to be true what Spurgeon once said about God:

Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.

Given all that, I can warmly and heartily recommend “Simply God” to you: Peter Sanlon was until recently a tutor at college and taught the Doctrine of God course which I’ve been doing this year. As such, much of the contents of this book are similar to what I’ve been learning at college – if you wanted one book to read instead of doing the course, you couldn’t do much better than this one. Let me highlight a few aspects of the book I found particularly helpful.

  • The book starts out by discussing what it means to speak of God, in terms of analogical language. I found this very helpful: too often I think our contemporary debates in the church assume God is simply a bigger version of us. If we want to speak of God at all, we have to fundamentally grasp his otherness – the distinction of the Creator and the created (I’ve lost count of the number of times the phrase ‘Creator-creature distinction’ has been used in the course… it’s pretty important).
  • I enjoyed the discussion of Calvinist and Arminian theology: too often, people claim to be “Calvinist” because they hold to the so-called five points of Calvinism (‘TULIP’). What Peter highlights in the book is that it’s missing the point to hold to those five points if you do not actually hold to the understanding of God which gave rise to them. The classical understanding of God actually integrates and underpins Calvin’s theology.
  • The most moving chapter for me was the chapter on suffering: how can God be all-powerful and all-good while allowing suffering to exist? Many people would perhaps not expect to find such a pastorally helpful chapter in a book on theology, however Peter is writing from a position of knowing suffering personally and as such the book should strike a chord for those also suffering. It helps to answer the question: how does our understanding of God speak into the bad times of life?
  • Finally, each chapter ends with a short meditation. It’s good to be reminded that theology, and especially our understanding of God, should lead to worship and adoration: we do not learn intellectual about God, but our hearts should be warmed and our lives transformed as we see more of who he is.

As such, I have no hesitation in recommending the book to you. It is not complex, it is written in a warm and engaging style. There are a few more complex sections which may be harder to understand, but these do not distract from the heart of the book. I would say anyone could read this book and learn more about what it means for God to be God.