Making Distinctions

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There are many ways to think about God's attributes. They can be divided between those that affirm something about God and those that deny something about God, those that are communicable to creatures (i.e. can exist in or be communicated to them somehow) and those that are incommunicable, and those that are expressed ad intra (within the Godhead) and ad extra (toward creatures), among other possible divisions. Today, I will consider a related issue: Whether the divine attributes are distinct in God--as opposed to being one and the same thing--and how we ought to describe that distinction, if indeed it exists.

It may seem odd to ask such questions, but this has been an important issue for theologians throughout Church history. It became particularly controversial during the medieval period, continued to be debated throughout the Reformation era, and has made its way down to the present day. At issue is the way we think about God and his relationship with us, so it is a matter of no small importance.

Why is the distinction of divine attributes problematic or difficult?

Perhaps the most natural reaction for the uninitiated person when coming across this debate is to ask, "Why does it matter?" The average churchgoer accepts easily enough that God has the attributes mentioned in Scripture (holiness, wisdom, eternity, etc.) and doesn't give them deeper consideration until one or more attributes--say, love and justice--seem to conflict with one another. The way that theologians distinguish the attributes in seminary classrooms may be of little interest to most, or at the very least it may not be intuitively obvious to outsiders why this process should be controversial.

In short, the issue is difficult because it hinges on a kind of paradox. On the one hand, Reformed Christians and many belonging to other traditions confess that God is simple, not in the sense of being easy to understand, but in the sense of being indivisible and immutable, a perfect existence of unchanging being, in whom the fullness of all that is good eternally resides--and in whom there is no composition of separate parts (A longer explanation of divine simplicity can be found here.) See, for example, the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

"There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal..."[1]

Because the Reformed churches confess that God is without "parts," the theologians in this tradition have almost universally held that it is not possible for God's attributes to be really different things in him. (Notice here that I say "in him" and not "in his works" or "in our minds." The distinction becomes important.) God's attributes belong to his being, and that being cannot be divided. There was no collection of parts that had to come together to make God, as argued by the following theologians:

"From the simplicity of God it follows that God and His attributes are one. The attributes cannot be considered as so many parts that enter into the composition of God, for God is not, like men, composed of different parts. Neither can they be regarded as something added to the Being of God, though the name, derived from ad and tribuere, might seem to point in that direction, for no addition was ever made to the Being of God, who is eternally perfect. It is commonly said in theology that God's attributes are God Himself, as He has revealed Himself to us." - Louis Berkhof [2]

"Each attribute is identical with God's being: he is what he possesses. In speaking of creatures we make all sorts of distinctions between what they are and what they have. A person, for example, is still human even though he or she has lost the image of God and has become a sinner. But in God all his attributes are identical with his being. God is light through and through; he is all mind, all wisdom, all logos, all spirit, and so forth." - Herman Bavinck [3]

That is one end of the paradox--an extreme from which we must steer clear. However, there is another end that has been equally concerning to some Reformed theologians: If we deny any distinction between the attributes of God, we rob them of meaning and turn them into what Geerhardus Vos called "empty sounds."[4] Consider what he has to say here:

"We may be content to say that all God's attributes are related most closely to each other and penetrate each other in the most intimate unity. However, this is in no way to say that they are to be identified with each other. Also in God, for example, love and righteousness are not the same, although they function together perfectly in complete harmony. We may not let everything intermingle in a pantheistic way because that would be the end of our objective knowledge of God."[5]

Yes, those who have pressed for a closer identification between God's attributes have often been accused of pantheistic tendencies. Some have pushed back against that designation, but the point is that it is a cause for concern among certain theologians, such as Charles Hodge...

Read the full article here. 

Posted November 6, 2019 @ 8:51 AM by Amy Mantravadi

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