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Divine Attributes

Systematic idea of God, to unfold the implications of the truth

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Attributes, DIVINE.—In order to form a more systematic idea of God, and, as far as possible, to unfold the implications of the truth, God is All-Perfect, this infinite Perfection is viewed, successively, under various aspects, each of which is treated as a separate perfection and characteristic inherent to the Divine Substance, or Essence. A certain group of these, of paramount import, is called the Divine Attributes.


Our natural knowledge of God is acquired by discursive reasoning upon the data of sense and introspection, “For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal power also, and Divinity” (St. P. Romans, i, 20). Created things, by the properties and activities of their natures, manifest, as in a glass, darkly, the powers and perfections of the Creator. But these refracted images of Him in finite things cannot furnish grounds for any adequate idea of the Infinite Being. Hence, in constructing a synthetic idea of God, before one can apply to the Divinity any concept or term expressing a perfection found in created being, it must be subjected to rigorous correction. The profound disparity between the Divine perfection and the intimations of it presented in the world-copy may be broadly laid down under two heads. (I) Number.—The perfections of creatures are innumerable, the Divine perfection is one. (2) Diversity.—Created perfections differ endlessly in kind and degree; the Divine perfection is uniform, simple. It is not a totality of various perfections; absolutely simple, the Divine perfection answers to every idea of actual or conceivable perfection, without being determined to the particular mode of any. Hence, when any attribute expressing modes characteristic of the world of being that falls within the range of our experience is applied to God its signification ceases to be identical with that which it has in every other case. Yet it retains a real meaning in virtue of the ratio which exists between the finite being and its Infinite analogue. In philosophical phrase, this use of terms is called analogical predication, in contra-distinction to univocal, in which a word is predicated of two or more subjects in precisely the same sense. (See Analogy.)


To correct, as far as possible, the inadequate character of the concepts through which we must formulate our idea of God, the first step is to distinguish created perfection into two kinds, viz., mixed perfections and pure perfections. A pure perfection is one whose exact concept does not include any note formally expressive of defect or limitation; the content of the idea is entirely positive. The idea of a mixed perfection, on the contrary, formally or directly connotes, along with what is positive in the perfection, some privation or deficiency. Examples of the former are power, truthfulness, will; as an instance of the latter, materiality may be offered. For, though the reality that belongs to matter is, of course, a participation of existence and activity, yet the concept of it connotes the imperfections of that particular kind of existence which is composite and subject to disintegration. Again, personality is a pure perfection; for, as Catholic philosophy teaches, though the finite character of human personality comes into play in the awakening of self-consciousness, yet limitation is not an essential constituent of personality. All terms that stand for pure perfections are predicated analogically of God, and are designated attributes in the wide sense of the word. When terms which signify mixed perfections are predicated of God, the analogy becomes so faint that the locution is a mere metaphor.


The elaboration of the idea of God is carried out along three converging lines:

(1) The positive way of causality

In virtue of the principle that whatever excellence is contained in an effect is represented in the efficiency of the cause, reason affirms that every positive perfection of created being has its transcendental analogue in the first cause. Hence, from the existence of an intelligent being, man, in the cosmos, we rightly infer that God is intelligent, that is to say, His infinite perfection is superabundantly adequate to all the operations of intellect.

(2) The negative way

If we fix our attention precisely on the Infinity of God, then, focusing the negation not upon the positive content of any created perfection, but upon the fact that, because it is finite it is determined in kind and limited in degree, we may affirm that it is not found in God. We may say, e.g., that He is not intelligent. The meaning of the statement is not that God lacks intelligence, but that in Him there is not intelligence exactly as we know it. Again, since there is no imperfection in God, every concept of defect, privation, and limitation must be negated of God. Many negative names, it is true, are applied to God; as when, for instance, He is said to be immutable, uncaused, infinite. It should, however, be carefully observed that some attributes, which, from the etymological point of view, are negative, convey, nevertheless, a positive meaning. Failure to perceive this obvious truth has been responsible for much empty dogmatism on the impossibility of forming any concept of the Infinite. The basic note in the idea of the Infinite is existence, actuality, perfection; the negative note is subordinate. Furthermore, since the force of the latter note is to deny any and all limitations to the actuality represented by the former, its real import is positive, like the cancellation of a minus sign in an algebraic formula; or, it discharges the function of an exponent and raises actuality to the nth power.

(3) Way of eminence

The concept of a perfection derived from created things and freed of all defects, is, in its application to God, expanded without limit. God not only possesses every excellence discoverable in creation, but He also possesses it infinitely. To emphasize the transcendence of the Divine perfection, in some cases an abstract noun is substituted for the corresponding adjective; as, God is Intelligence; or, again some word of intensive, or exclusive, force is joined to the attribute; as, God alone is good, God is goodness itself, God is all-powerful, or supremely powerful.


Having established the existence of God from metaphysical, physical, and moral arguments, the theologian selects some one of the attributes which these proofs authorize him to predicate of the Divinity and, by unfolding its implications, reaches a number of other attributes. For instance, if God is Pure Actuality, that is, free from all static potency, it follows that, since change implies a transition from an antecedent potential condition to a subsequent condition in which the potentiality is realized, God is immutable. Here we reach the point where the term Attribute is employed in its strict sense.


Transcendentally one, absolutely free from composition, the Divine Being is not, and may not be conceived as, a fundamental substrate in which qualities or any other modal determinations inhere. The reality to which the various attributes are ascribed is one and indivisible.—”Quae justitia,” says St. Augustine, “ipsa bonitas; quae bonitas, ipsa beatitudo.”—In this respect, the relation of the attributes to the Divine nature might be illustrated by the various reflections of one and the same object from a concave, a convex, and a plane mirror. Nevertheless, to systematize the idea of God, and to draw out the rich content of the knowledge resulting from the proofs of God‘s existence, some primary attribute may be chosen as representing one aspect of the Divine perfection from which the others may be rigorously deduced. Then arises a logical scheme in which the derivative attributes, or perfections, stand towards one another in a relation somewhat similar to that of the essence and the various properties and qualities in a material substance. In this arrangement the primary perfection is termed the metaphysical essence, the others are called attributes. The essence, too, may be regarded as that characteristic which, above all others, distinguishes the Deity from everything else. Upon the question, which attribute is to be considered primary, opinions differ. Many eminent theologians favor the conception of pure actuality (Actus Purus), from which simplicity and infinity are directly deduced. Most modern authors fix on aseity (Aseitas; a=”from” se=” himself”), or self-existence; for the reason that, while all other existences are derived from, and depend on, God, He possesses in Himself, absolutely and independently, the entire reason of His uncaused, infinite Being. In this, the most profound and comprehensive distinction between the Divinity and everything else, all other distinctions are implicitly expressed. Whether, and in what way, the distinctions between the attributes and the metaphysical essence, and among the attributes themselves, have an ontological basis in the Divine nature itself, was a subject which divided Nominalists and Realists, Thomists and Scotists, in the age of Scholasticism (cf. Vacant, Dict. de thdol. cathol., I, 2230-34).


Taking as the basis of classification the ways by which the attributes are developed, they are divided into positive and negative. Among the negative attributes are simplicity, infinity, immutability. The chief positive attributes are unity, truth, goodness, beauty, omnipotence, omnipresence, intellect and will, personality. Some authors divide them into incommunicable and communicable. The former class comprises those which belong to God alone (e.g., all-wise, self-existent, omnipotent) to the latter belong those which are predicable, analogically, of God and creatures; as good, just, intelligent. Again, the divine nature may be considered either as static, or as the source of activity; hence another division into quiescent and active. Finally, some perfections involve a relation to things distinct from God, while others do not; and from this standpoint theologians divide the attributes into absolute and relative. The various classifications adopted by modern Protestant theologians are due partly to the results of philosophical speculation and partly to new conceptions of the nature of religion. Schleiermacher, e.g., derives the attributes of God from our threefold consciousness of absolute dependence, of sin, and of grace. Others, with Lipsius, distinguish the metaphysical attributes from the psychological and the ethical. A simpler division groups omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity, omniscience, and unity as the metaphysical predicates, justice and goodness as the moral attributes. The fundamental attribute is, according to Ritschl, love; according to Professor Royce, omniscience. The main difficulty with these writers centers about the idea of God as a personal being.


The supernatural knowledge of God given in revelation is apprehended through the medium of conceptions that belong to natural knowledge. Therefore, the same principles of attribution that govern the one hold good also for the other.


In the fourth century Aetius and Eunomius maintained that, because the Divine nature is simple, excluding all composition or multiplicity, the various terms and names applied to God are to be considered synonymous. Otherwise they would erroneously imply composition in God. This opinion was combated by St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Basil, and St. Gregory of Nyssa (In Eunom., P.G., XLV). The principle of attribution received more precise statement at the hands of St. Augustine, in his investigation of the conditions of intellectual knowledge (De Genesi ad Litteram, IV, 32). In the ninth century, John Scotus Erigena, who was largely influenced by Neo-Platonism, transmitted through the works of the Pseudo-Dionysius, contributed to bring into clearer relief the analogical character of predication (De Diving Natura, Lib. I). The Nominalists revived the views of Eunomius, and the opposition of the Realists was carried to the other extreme by Gilbert de la Porree, who maintained a real, ontological distinction between the Divine Essence and the attributes. His opinion was condemned by the Council of Reims (1148). St. Thomas definitively expressed the doctrine which, after some controversies between Scotists and Thomists upon minor points and subtleties, and with some divergence of opinion upon unimportant details, is now the common teaching of Catholic theologians and philosophers. It may be summarized as follows: The idea of God is derived from our knowledge of finite beings. When a term is predicated of the finite and of the Infinite, it is used, not in a univocal, but in an analogical sense. The Divine Perfection, one and invisible, is, in its infinity, the transcendental analogue of all actual and possible finite perfections. By means of an accumulation of analogous predicates, methodically coordinated, we endeavor to form an approximate conception of the Deity who, because He is Infinite, cannot be comprehended by finite intelligence. Modern philosophy presents a remarkable gradation, from Pantheism, which finds God in everything, to Agnosticism, which declares that He is beyond the reach of knowledge. Spinoza conceives God as “a substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence”. The two attributes manifested to us are thought and extension. At the other extreme we find Agnostics of the school of Herbert Spencer (see Agnosticism) and some followers of Hegel, who hold that the nature of God, or, to use their favorite term, “the Absolute“, is utterly unknowable, and its existence not determined to any mode; therefore, to predicate of it various attributes, expressive of determinations, is idle and misleading. Between the finite and the Infinite there is no common ground of predication; hence, words which signify finite perfections can have no real meaning when predicated of God; they become mere empty symbols. All theological attempts to elaborate an idea of God are vain, and result in complete absurdity when they conceive God after man’s image and likeness (see Anthropomorphism), and circumscribe the Infinite in terms borrowed from human psychology. Criticism of this kind indicates that its authors have never taken the trouble to understand the nature of analogical predication, or to consider fairly the rigorous logical process of refining to which terms are subjected before being predicated of God. It often happens, too, that writers, after indulging liberally in eloquent denunciation of theological anthropomorphism, proceed, on the next page, to apply to the Infinite, presumably in a strictly univocal sense, terms such as “energy”, “force”, and “law”, which are no less anthropomorphic, in an ultimate analysis, than “will” and “intelligence”. The position of the Catholic Church, declared in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), is again clearly stated in the following pronouncement of the Vatican Council:

“The Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church believes and professes that there is one living and true God, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, omnipotent, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intellect and will and in all perfection; Who, being One, singular, absolutely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, is to be regarded as distinct really and in essence from the world, most blessed in and from Himself, and unspeakably elevated above all things that exist, or can be conceived, except Himself.”


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