A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

The Terrible, Wonderful Simplicity of God


“The faith of a devil!” When John Wesley preached about saving faith, one of the ways he distinguished it from the non-saving kind was with this bold paraphrase of James 2:19. That passage says “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” Demons, Wesley noted, exercise some sort of belief in God. In Sermon 1, “Salvation by Faith,” he enumerates some of the things demons must believe about God: “Not only that there is a wise and powerful God, gracious to reward, and just to punish; but also, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, the Savior of the world.” In typical Wesley style, he is not so much exegeting this single verse as networking a whole range of relevant Scriptural texts (including the cry of the demon in Luke 4:34, “I know Thee who Thou art; the Holy One of God!”). That’s a lot to believe in!

But look for a moment at James 2:19 itself. What the demons are said to affirm is just that “God is one.” This article of infernal faith seems to be derived from Deut 6:4’s “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” As an echo of the Shema, it contains considerably more than mere belief in the existence of a God. Yet it also seems to contain considerably less than Wesley finds in it: wisdom, power, grace, justice, the Trinity, salvation.

What is it about believing in God’s oneness that makes demons shudder? It seems unlikely that a shudder would be provoked just by monotheism as opposed to polytheism. There must be something more lurking in the affirmation that “God is one.”

There is good reason to think that what shakes “the faith of a devil” may be a richer conception of God’s oneness, a conception that includes a radical consolidation and convergence of all that God is. The force exerted by the idea may be the insight that this one God not only has wisdom, but is the wisdom that he has. And that wisdom which God simply is, is not even theoretically at odds with the power which God simply is, because God is wise power and powerful wisdom at once. Nor is grace tacked on to that being, nor justice. No, in the case of every divine attribute, God simply is each of them, and exists as the absolutely singular and uncompounded unity of all of them. “God is one.”