Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 2. Divine Attributes.

To the divine essence, which in itself is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, belong certain perfections revealed to us in the constitution of our nature and in the word of God. These divine perfections are called attributes as essential to the nature of a divine Being, and necessarily involved in our idea of God. The older theologians distinguished the attributes of God, (1.) From predicates which refer to God in the concrete, and indicate his relation to his creatures, as creator, preserver, ruler, etc. (2.) From properties, which are technically the distinguishing characteristics of the several persons of the Trinity. There are certain acts or relations peculiar or proper to the Father, others to the Son, and others to the Spirit. And (3.) From accidents or qualities which may or may not belong to a substance, which may be acquired or lost. Thus holiness was not an attribute of the nature of Adam, but an accident, something which he might lose and still remain a man; whereas intelligence was an attribute, because the loss of intelligence involves the loss of humanity. The perfections of God, therefore, are attributes, without which He would cease to be God.

Relation of the Attributes to the Essence of God.

In attempting to explain the relation in which the attributes of God stand to his essence and to each other, there are two extremes to be avoided. First, we must not represent God as a composite being, composed of different elements; and, secondly, we must not confound the attributes, making them all mean the same thing, which is equivalent to denying them all together. The Realists of the Middle Ages tended to the former of these extremes, and the Nominalists to the other. Realists held that general terms express not merely thoughts, or abstract conceptions in our minds, but real or substantive, objective existence. And hence they were disposed to represent the divine attributes as differing from each other realiter, as one res or thing differs from another. The Nominalists, on the other hand, said general terms are mere words answering to abstractions formed by the mind. And consequently when we speak of different attributes in God, we only use different words for one and the same thing. Occam, Biel, and other Nominalists, therefore, taught that “Attributa divina nec rei, nec rationis distinctione, inter se aut ab essentia divina distingui; sed omnem distinctionem esse solum in nominibus.” The Lutheran and Reformed theologians tended much more to the latter of these extremes than to the former. They generally taught, in the first place, that the unity and simplicity of the divine essence precludes not only all physical composition of constituent elements, or of matter and form, or of subject and accidents; but also all metaphysical distinction as of act and power, essence and existence, nature and personality; and even of logical difference, as genus and specific difference.

In the second place, the theologians were accustomed to say that the attributes of God differ from his essence non re, sed ratione. This is explained by saying that things differ ex natura rei, when they are essentially different as soul and body; while a difference ex ratione is merely a difference in us, i.e., in our conceptions, i.e., quod distincte solum concipitur, cum in re ipsa distinctum non sit.” Hence the divine attributes are defined as “conceptus essentiæ divinæ inadequatæ, ex parte rei ipsam essentiam involventes, eandemque intrinsice denominantes.” Aquinas says, “Deus est unus re et plures ratione, quia intellectus noster ita multipliciter apprehendit Deum, sicuti res multipliciter ipsum representant.” The language of the Lutheran theologian Quenstedt375375Theologia, part I. cap. viii. § 2, edit. Leipzig, 1715, p. 426. exhibits the usual mode of representing this subject: “Si proprie et accurate loqui velimus, Deus nullas habet proprietates, sed mera et simplicissima est essentia quæ nec realem differentiam nec ullam vel rerum vel modorum admittit compositionem. Quia vero simplicissimam Dei essentiam uno adequato conceptu adequate concipere non possumus, ideo inadequatis et distinctis conceptibus, inadequate essentiam divinam repræsentantibus, eam apprehendimus, quos inadequatos conceptus, qui a parte rei essentiæ divinæ identificantur, et a nobis per modum affectionum apprehenduntur, attributa vocamus.” And again, “Attributa divina a parte rei et in se non multa sunt, sed ut ipsa essentia divina, ita et attributa, quæ cum illa identificantur, simplicissima unitas sunt; multa vero dicuntur (1.) συγκαταβατικῶς, ad nostrum concipiendi modum, . . . . (2.) ἐνεργητικῶς, in ordine ad effecta.376376Ibid. II. cap. viii. § 2, p. 426. The favorite illustration to explain what was meant by this unity of the divine attributes, was drawn from the sun. His ray, by one and the same power (as was then assumed) illuminates, warms, and produces chemical changes, not from any diversity in it, but from diversity in the nature of the objects on which it operates. The force is the same; the effects are different. The meaning of these theologians is further determined by their denying that the relation of attribute and essence in God is analogous to the relation of intelligence and will to the essence of the soul in man; and also by the frequently recurring declaration, borrowed from the schoolmen, that God is actus purus. Schleiermacher goes still further in the same direction. With him the divine attributes are mere Beziehungen, or relations of God to us. He commonly resolves them into mere causality. Thus he defines the holiness of God to be that causality in Him which produces conscience in us.

Divine Attributes.

A third and less objectionable way of representing the matter is adopted by those who say with Hollazius: “Attributa divina ab essentia divina et a se invicem, distinguuntur non nominaliter neque realiter sed formaliter, secundum nostrum concipiendi modum, non sine certo distinctionis fundamento.377377Examen Theologicum, edit. Leipzig, 1763, p. 235. This is very different from saying that they differ ratione tantum. Turrettin says the attributes are to be distinguished not realiter, but virtualiter; that is, there is a real foundation in the divine nature for the several attributes ascribed to Him.

It is evident that this question of the relation of the divine attributes to the divine essence merges itself into the general question of the relation between attributes and substance. It is also evident that this is a subject about which one man knows just as much as another; because all that can be known about it is given immediately in consciousness.

This subject has already been referred to. We are conscious of ourselves as a thinking substance. That is, we are conscious that that which is ourselves has identity, continuance, and power. We are further conscious that the substance self thinks, wills, and feels. Intelligence, will, and sensibility, are its functions, or attributes, and consequently the attributes of a spirit. These are the ways in which a spirit acts. Anything which does not thus act, which has not these functions or attributes, is not a spirit. If you take from a spirit its intelligence, will, and sensibility, nothing remains its, substance is gone; at least it ceases to be a spirit. Substance and attributes are inseparable. The one is known in the other. A substance without attributes is nothing, i.e., no real existence. What is true of spiritual substances is true of matter. Matter, without the essential properties of matter, is a contradiction.

We know, therefore, from consciousness, as far as it can be known, the relation between substance and its attributes. And all that can be done, or need be done, is to deny or correct the false representations which are so often made on the subject.

The Divine Attributes do not differ merely in our Conception.

To say, as the schoolmen, and so many even of Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God. Thus even Augustine confounds knowledge and power, when he says,378378Confessiones, XIII. xxxviii. 53, edit. Benedictines, vol. i. p. 410 b.Nos ista, quæ fecisti videmus quia sunt: tu autem quia vides ea, sunt.” So Scotus Erigena379379De Divisione Naturæ, iii. 29, edit. Westphalia, 1838, p. 264. says, “Non aliud est ei videre, aliud facere; sed visio illius voluntas ejus est, et voluntas operatio.” Thomas Aquinas380380Summa, I. xiv. 8, edit. Cologne, 1640, p. 30. says the same thing: “Deus per intellectum suum causat res, cum suum esse sit suum intelligere.” And again, “Scientia (Dei) causat res; nostra vero causatur rebus et dependat ab eis.” Even Mr. Mansel,381381Limits, p. 195. to aggravate our ignorance of God, speaks of Him as “an intellect whose thought creates its own object.” It is obvious that, according to this view, God is simply a force of which we know nothing but its effects. If in God eternity is identical with knowledge, knowledge with power, power with ubiquity, and ubiquity with holiness, we are using words without meaning when we attribute any perfection to God. We must, therefore, either give up the attempt to determine the divine attributes from our speculative idea of an infinite essence, or renounce all knowledge of God, and all faith in the revelation of Himself, which He has made in the constitution of our nature, in the external world, and in his Word. Knowledge is no more identical with power in God than it is in us. Thought in Him is no more creative than is thought in us. Otherwise creation is eternal, and God creates everything — all the thoughts, feelings, and volitions of his creatures, good and evil; and God is the only real agent, and the only real being in the universe. According to this doctrine, also, there can be no difference between the actual and the possible, for the one as well as the other is always present to the divine mind. It would also follow that the creation must be infinite, or God finite. For if knowledge is causative, God creates all He knows, and you must limit his knowledge if you limit creation. It need hardly be remarked that this doctrine is derogatory to God. It is not only a much higher idea, but one essential to personality, that there should be a real distinction between the divine attributes. That which from its nature and by necessity does all that it can do, is a force, and not a person. It can have no will. The doctrine in question, therefore, is essentially pantheistic. “However much,” says Martensen, “we must guard our idea of God from being degraded by anything that is merely human, from all false Anthropomorphism, yet we can find in Nominalism only the denial of God as He is revealed in the Scriptures. It is the denial of the very essence of faith, if it is only in our thoughts that God is holy and righteous, and not in his own nature; if it is we who so address Him, and not He who so reveals Himself. We teach, therefore, with the Realists (of one class), that the attributes of God are objectrvely true as revealed, and therefore have their ground in the divine essence.” There is a kind of Realism, as Martensen admits, which is as destructive of the true idea of God as the Nominalism which makes his attributes differ only in name. It grants, indeed, objective reality to our ideas; but these ideas, according to it, have no real subject. “The idea of omnipotence, righteousness, and holiness,” he says, “is a mere blind thought, if there be not an omnipotent, righteous, and holy One.”382382Dogmatik, p. 113.

The Divine Attributes not to be resolved into Causality.

It amounts to much the same doctrine, to resolve all the attributes of God into causality. It was a principle with some of the schoolmen, “Affectus in Deo denotat effectum.” This was so applied as to limit our knowledge of God to the fact that God is the cause of certain effects. Thus, when we say God is just, we mean nothing more than that He causes misery to follow sin; when we say He is holy, it only means that He is the cause of conscience in us. As a tree is not sweet, because its fruit is luscious, so God is not holy, he is only the cause of holiness. Against this application of the principle, Aquinas himself protested, declaring, “Cum igitur dicitur, Deus est bonus; non est sensus, Deus est causa bonitatis; vel Deus non est malus. Sed est sensus: Id, quod bonitatem dicimus in creaturis, præexistit in Deo; et hoc quidem secundum modum altiorem. Unde ex hoc non sequitur, quod Deo competat esse bonum, in quantum causat bonitatem; sed potius e converso, quia est bonus, bonitatem rebus diffundit.383383Summa, I. xiii. 2, edit. Cologne, 1640, p. 28. And the Lutheran theologian, Quenstedt, says, “Dicunt nonnulli, ideo Deum dici justum, sanctum, misericordem, veracem, etc., non quod revera sit talis, sed quod duntaxat sanctitatis, justitiæ, misericordiæ, veritatis, etc., causa sit et auctor in aliis. Sed si Deus non est vere misericors, neque vere perfectus, vere sanctus, etc., sed causa tantum misericordiæ et sanctitatis in aliis, ita etiam et nos pariter juberemur esse non vere misericordes, non vere perfecti, etc., sed sanctitatis saltem et misericordiæ in aliis auctores.384384Theologia, I. viii. § ii. 2, p. 481.

The Divine Attributes differ Virtualiter.

Theologians, to avoid the blank ignorance of God which must follow from the extreme view of the simplicity of his essence, which requires us to assume that the divine attributes differ only in our conceptions, or as expressing the diverse effects of the activity of God, made a distinction between the ratio rationantis and the ratio rationatæ. That is, the reason as determining, and the reason as determined. The attributes, they say, differ not re, but ratione; not in our subjective reason only; but there is in God a reason why we think of Him as possessing these diverse perfections. This idea, as before stated, was often expressed by saying that the divine attributes differ neither realiter, nor nominaliter, but virtualiter. If this be understood to mean that the divine perfections are really what the Bible declares them to be; that God truly thinks, feels, and acts; that He is truly wise, just, and good, that He is truly omnipotent, and voluntary, acting or not acting, as He sees fit; that He can hear and answer prayer; it may be admitted. But we are not to give up the conviction that God is really in Himself what He reveals Himself to be, to satisfy any metaphysical speculations as to the difference between essence and attribute in an infinite Being. The attributes of God, therefore, are not merely different conceptions in our minds, but different modes in which God reveals Himself to his creatures (or to Himself); just as our several faculties are different modes in which the inscrutable substance self reveals itself in our consciousness and acts. It is an old saying, “Qualis homo, talis Deus.” And Clemens Alexandrinus385385Pædagogus, III. i. edit. Cologne, 1688, p. 214 a. says, “If any one knows himself, he will know God.” And Leibnitz expresses the same great truth when he says,386386“Théodicée” Preface, Works, p. 469, edit. Berlin, 1840. “The perfections of God are those of our own souls, but He possesses them without limit. He is an ocean of which we have only received a few drops. There is in us something of power, something of knowledge, something of goodness; but these attributes are in entireness in Him.” There is indeed danger in either extreme, danger of degrading God in our thoughts, by reducing Him to the standard of our nature, and danger of denying Him as He is revealed. In our day, and among educated men, and especially among students of philosophy, the latter danger is by far the greater of the two. We should remember that we lose God, when we lose our confidence in saying Thou! to Him, with the assurance of being heard and helped.

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