Wallace and the Hypostatic Union – Part II

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Can God’s Attributes Be Divided?

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            While an exhaustive discourse on the attributes of God is quite out of scope presently, it is terribly pertinent to the present discussion to breach the topic.  Any discussion about the hypostasis is ultimately going to reduce to a discussion about being and attribute.  Specifically, and without encroaching too far into the hypostatic union just yet, if Christ is to be completely God and completely man in one being, then it will be necessary to define what it means to be ‘completely God.’  By necessity, this discussion will have to be preceded by an explanation of what it means to have attributes in being, and how those attributes should be viewed in light of the incarnation.  For the sake of conciseness, then, the discussion will be limited to the relationship between attribute and being with brief introductory comments on classification of those attributes.

            Historically, theologians have distinguished between elements of God’s personal being that are shared in some regard with humanity based on its creation in his image and those that are only experienced by God himself.[1]  Though some, such as Haserot, have argued that the philosophical possibility of God possessing ‘individual attributes’ to be distinguished in substance and character is more a contribution of the intellect observing the attributes than indicative of separate qualities within the being,[2] it is important to acknowledge that, at least in perspective, there are some elements of God’s being that we cannot experience.  Whether these distinctions represent some real kind of fissure or dissection in the being of God in comparison to attributes we do experience is the important relative issue.  Can God be God without the function or experience of any of his attributes?  Importantly, are God’s attributes the essence of his being, or merely an expression of his interaction with creation?  Do attributes that can be ‘shared’ or imitated by humanity genuinely constitute the reality of God’s being?  While these questions cannot all be probed presently, they at least point to the difficult task of classifying the nature of God’s being.

            Something that aids our understanding of the classification of God’s attributes, but hinders our understanding of humanity’s interaction and experience of them is the notion of God’s unity.[3]  The doctrine of God’s unity asserts that God is, in essence, all of his attributes fully and completely all the time.  There is not an attribute that takes precedence over another, nor does one exist to a greater degree than another does.  This helps us to understand that the attributes of God as expressed in Scripture are a type of ‘reader’ on who God is in reality.  Our finite minds are not capable of understanding the infinitude of God’s being all at once, so he has compartmentalized the revelation into expressions of individual and necessary attributes.  According to Grudem, it would be incorrect to say that at one time God functions in perfect love and at another time in perfect justice.  He always functions perfectly in both love and justice.  However, in our localized and temporal interaction with God we may only see one of those attributes at work.[4]  This may tempt some to equate the being of God with his work.

            Should we consider allowing God’s attributes, then, to become a function of a role or interaction with creation instead of essential to his nature and being?  This is precisely how some see the attributes of God, not as an essential quality or the identity of God, but as creations of expression going out from God.  Puccetti writes, “All of God’s necessary attributes, then, really describe God’s relation to the world, rather than God himself.”[5]  The nuance here is that in God’s relation to the world you see indications of his character or attributes, and so indirectly through God’s behavior humanity experiences the being of God  The problem with this view is that one cannot ‘experience’ the attributes of God in this regard without subjectively qualifying them.  “Still those attributes have to be qualitatively symmetrical with our ordinary notions of such qualities if His attributes are to have any meaning for us.”[6]

            These conjectures lead Puccetti, and rightly so, to the conclusion that God cannot exist.  It is his reformulation of the classic ‘problem of evil’ argument.  It is important to the present argument, however, because it shows the danger of not association God’s attributes with his person.  The flaw in Puccetti’s presentation is that he refuses to see the attributes of God as descriptions of God’s person; rather he wants to presuppose that they are descriptions of God’s interaction with creation.  While one certainly cannot argue that God’s behavior is apart from who he is, it is important to note that a being’s essence or attributes can certainly be withheld from its own interaction with objects outside of its being.  Is the withholding of God’s essential attributes or being really a notion so foreign to biblical material?  Puccetti has completely ignored the historical fall of humanity in his estimation of God’s interaction with the world.  In addition, consideration of such an important part of our theological framework, the doctrine of original sin, places God’s interaction with creation into proper context.  The limit is not God’s will; rather it is certainly his ability.  God by essence cannot interact fully with the fallen world.  It is, in fact, the very motivation behind the incarnation; the incarnation was the only way for God to reveal himself to humanity in a way that was meaningful to them.

            Therefore, it is the attributes of God that must predicate our experience of God.  The notion of unity or simplicity becomes a strong foundational notion for our understanding of God’s nature.  God’s attributes are God.  Leftow argues that this does not objectify God, nor does it violate Scriptural conceptions of theism.  To the contrary, denial of this “Identity Thesis” is to assume that God must have created his own attributes, or that they are in some regard apart from his true essence.[7]  Leftow explains that the claim of the unity of God in theology, “is shorthand for the claim that He exemplifies no metaphysical distinctions whatsoever, including that between subject and essential attribute.”[8]  Therefore, to delineate distinction in the attributes of God is to delineate distinction within the being of God.  This would be in direct violation of the ‘unity of simplicity.’


[1] These have received a multitude of treatments (i.e. communicable and incommunicable, immanent and intransitive, absolute and relative, natural and moral, as well as moral and amoral from Wallace). cf. Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology, New Combined ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 54-57.  Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 156-160.  Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 291-293.

[2] Francis S. Haserot, “Spinoza’s Definition of Attribute.” The Philosophical Review, 62 (October 1953): 510.

[3] Grudem makes good argument for preferring the term unity to the archaic sense utilized in the medieval doctrine of ‘simplicity.’  The complete term should be “unity of simplicity.” cf. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 177.

[4]Ibid., 180.

[5] Roland Puccetti, “The Concept of God,” The Philosophical Quarterly 14 (July 1964): 241.

[6] Ibid., 243.

[7] Brian Leftow, “Is God an Abstract Object?” Nous 24 (September 1990): 583.

[8] Ibid., 581.

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One Comment

  1. Shawn wrote:
    …if Christ is to be completely God and completely man in one being, then it will be necessary to define what it means to be ‘completely God.’ By necessity, this discussion will have to be preceded by an explanation of what it means to have attributes in being, and how those attributes should be viewed in light of the incarnation….

    RESPONSE:
    I am sure you agree that when one defines “what it means to be completely God” that it is important to define the attributes in a manner that is consistent with the biblical data. If we fail to follow the biblical data we may wind up with a definition of divine attributes that are not internally consistent.

    For instance, some atheists wish to define our terms for us. Some claim that “omnipotence” means, “God is supposed to be able to do (absolutely) anything.” The classic question that often follows this faulty definition of omnipotence is, “Can God create a rock that is too heavy for God to lift?”

    Note that even the Bible teaches that there are things that God cannot do. For instance, God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), and God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). Such limitations upon God’s power have always been accepted as a part of the biblical idea of omnipotence.

    In dealing with the internal consistency of the divine attribute of omnipotence, Thomas Aquinas distinguished between two types of possibilities: logical possibilities and physical possibilities. Logical possibilities are things that are logically possible. Physical possibilities are things that are physically possible even though they may not be physically probable or even logically possible. Anything that is not logically possible is simply a “pseudo-task.” A being’s inability to perform a pseudo-task (for example, creating a square circle) cannot count against its power.
    So, in response to the question above (concerning God creating a rock that is too heavy for God to lift), if God did create such a stone, He would be faced with a pseudo-task. That task would be to lift a stone that He cannot lift. That task is self-contradictory. It is not a real task that anyone could logically perform. Thus, it says nothing of God’s omnipotence.

    If we allow our modern culture and society (Webster’s Dictionary and Wikipedia) to define our terms instead of consulting the God inspired biblical data for our definitions, then we may wind up with unnecessary contradictions and internal inconsistencies that are based more on semantics than on reality.

    Reply

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