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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 3. Classification of the Divine Attributes.

On few subjects have greater thought and labor been expended than on this. Perhaps, however, the benefit has not been commensurate with the labor. The object of classification is order, and the object of order is clearness. So far as this end is secured, it is a good. But the great diversity of the methods which have been proposed, is evidence that no one method of arrangement has such advantages as to secure for it general recognition.

1. Some, as has been seen, preclude all necessity of a classification of the attributes, by reducing them all to unity, or regarding them as different phases under which we contemplate the Supreme Being as the ground of all things. With them the whole discussion of the divine attributes is an analysis of the idea of the Infinite and Absolute.

2. Others arrange the attributes according to the mode in which we arrive at the knowledge of them. We form our idea of God, it is said, (1.) By the way of causation; that is, by referring to Him as the great first cause every virtue manifested by the effects which He produces. (2.) By the way of negation; that is, by denying to Him the limitations and imperfections which belong to his creatures. (3.) By the way of eminence, in exalting to an infinite degree or without limit the perfections which belong to an infinite Being. If this is so, the attributes conceived of by one of these methods belong to one class, and those conceived of, or of which we attain the knowledge by another method, belong to another class. This principle of classification is perhaps the one most generally adopted. It gives rise, however, really but to two classes, namely, the positive and negative, i.e., those in which something is affirmed, and those in which something is denied concerning God. To the negative class are commonly referred simplicity, infinity, eternity, immutability; to the positive class, power, knowledge, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Instead of calling the one class negative and the other positive, they are often distinguished as absolute and relative. By an absolute attribute is meant one which belongs to God, considered in Himself, and which implies no relation to other beings; by a relative attribute is meant one which implies relation to an object. They are also distinguished as immanent and transient, as communicable and incommunicable. These terms are used interchangeably. They do not express different modes of classification, but are different modes of designating the same classification. Negative, absolute, immanent, and incommunicable, are designations of one class; and positive, relative, transitive, and communicable, are designations of the other class.

3. A third principle of classification is derived from the constitution of our own nature. In man there is the substance or essence of the soul, the intellect, and the will. Hence, it is said, we can most naturally arrange the attributes of God under three heads. First, those pertaining to his essence; second, those referring to his intellect; and third, those referring to his will, the word “will” being taken in its most comprehensive sense.

4. Others again seek the principle of classification in the nature of the attributes themselves. Some include the idea of moral excellence, and others do not. Hence they are distinguished as natural and moral. The word natural, however, is ambiguous. Taking it in the sense of what constitutes or pertains to the nature, the holiness and justice of God are as much natural as his power or knowledge. And on the other hand, God is infinite and eternal in his moral perfections, although infinity and eternity are not distinctively moral perfections. In the common and familiar sense of the word natural, the terms natural and moral express a real distinction.

5. Schleiermacher’s method is, of course, peculiar. It is based on the characteristic principle of his system, that all religion is founded on a sense of dependence, and all theology consists in what that sense of dependence teaches us. He does not treat of the divine attributes in any one place, but here and there, as they come up according to his plan. Our sense of dependence does not awaken in our consciousness a feeling of opposition to God’s eternity, omnipotence, omnipresence, or omniscience. These, therefore, are treated of in one place. But we, as dependent creatures, are conscious of opposition to God’s holiness and righteousness. These, therefore, belong to another head. And as this opposition is removed through Christ, we are brought into relation to God’s grace or love, and to his wisdom. These form a third class.

That so many different principles of classification have been adopted, and that each of those principles is carried out in so many different ways, shows the uncertainty and difficulty attending the whole subject. It is proposed in what follows to accept the guidance of the answer given in the “Westminster Catechism,” to the question, What is God? It is assumed in that answer that God is a self-existent and necessary Being; and it is affirmed of Him, I. That He is a Spirit. II. That as such He is infinite, eternal, and immutable. III. That He is infinite, eternal, and immutable, (1.) In his being. (2.) In all that belongs to his intelligence, namely, in his knowledge and wisdom. (3.) In all that belongs to his will, namely, his power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Whatever speculative objections may be made to this plan, it has the advantage of being simple and familiar.

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