Friday, February 19, 2016

Reformed Orthodox "Solutions" to the Distinction of God's Attributes

An excerpt from Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 296–298.

"By way of summary, we have found three basic solutions to the question of the distinction of attributes. All of the Reformed orthodox assume the simplicity of the divine essence, and all understand the attributes as in some sense distinct. Some, like Alting, Burman, Owen, and Mastricht, argue the essential identity of the attributes and point to their rational distinction ad extra on the basis of their effects, and echo elements of the Ockhamist solution to the problem, albeit without drawing the conclusion that God, in an ultimate sense is perfection, without any “attributes” or “properties” in the usual sense. Maccovius and Heidanus clearly follow the nominalist solution, denying distinction of attributes ad intra—in Heidanus’ case, surely grounded in his appreciation of Cartesianism. Many, including Ames, Maresius, Leigh, Wendelin, and Twisse, argue in continuity with the medieval discussion that distinctions between attributes can be defined ad intra, whether as eminent or virtual, following a more or less late Thomistic pattern of argument, resembling the views of John of Paris and Cajetan. Others, notably Turretin and Voetius, argue a slight variant—namely, an eminent distinction of the attributes, but, adopting a slightly Scotistic accent, allow a formal distinction of the attributes in their ad extra conception in the mind. Le Blanc may go so far as to argue a formal presence and distinction of attributes in God.

This insistence of the majority on an essential identity with an eminent or virtual distinction intrinsic to the divine essence, reflected in the distinction of attributes in their operation ad extra is also born out in the structure of the discussion of individual attributes, notably in the distinctions between infinity, immensity, and omnipresence, or between infinity, eternity, and everlasting duration. The proponents of the rational distinction ad extra, moreover, pose no explicit objections to the distinction per eminentiam, reserving their polemic for the Socinians, and may differ with their Reformed contemporaries only because of the relative brevity of their statements—and their unwillingness to posit the nature of the fundamentum in re of the distinction of attributes. And, most probably the reason that a series of definitions affirming the way in which positive distinctions can be made in God does not always appear (notably being absent from the writers noted in the first view) in the doctrine of divine simplicity is that the doctrine belongs to the via negativa and is designed to indicate that God is non-composite—whereas the distinctions appear along the lines of the via eminentiae, as indicated by the language of the distinctions itself (i.e., per eminentiam and eminenter).

In addition, beyond the purely philosophical and linguistic issues addressed by these formulations of a basic rule for understanding the divine attributes lies a crucial question of the logic of theological system—of the theological reason for formulating the rule in this particular way. Those modern writers who take the concept as purely philosophical and therefore miss the point of the traditional treatment, which always assumed that the denial of composition was made for the sake of the right understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and of the divine attributes. Aquinas himself, like Alexander of Hales and like many theologians in the subsequent tradition, recognized the potential for misunderstanding caused by a juxtaposition of divine simplicity with the doctrine of the Trinity: the assumption of “threefold personality … in God,” inasmuch as it indicates number and, given that “number always follows division,” appears to contradict the notion of “supreme simplicity” in God, unless as has been consistently the case in the Christian tradition, the notion of divine “persons” is carefully defined to avoid the analogy with human persons or distinct “centers of consciousness.” Yet, neither Aquinas nor later writers, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, were ready to give up either of these points of doctrine (simplicity or Trinity) that had been so intimately related in patristic orthodoxy—indeed, virtually all theologians we will examine on this point, whether medieval scholastics like Aquinas, Reformers like Calvin and Musculus, or subsequent Protestant scholastic writers like Perkins, Turretin, Howe, and Rijssen, held to the patristic assumption that, far from contradicting the doctrine of the Trinity, the notion of divine simplicity offered profound support to an orthodox doctrine of the triune God. In its affirmation that God is one and also three, the church consistently assumed that God was one in essence and three in persons or hypostases—one in one way and three in another—and that personal distinction was to be necessarily correlated with essential identity.

We recognize in the first place that the Reformed orthodox version of the rational distinction of attributes conforms to the general structuring of the orthodox system around the epistemological problem of the finitum non capax infiniti and its resolution in the explication of the eternal decree and its execution of the sovereign will of God in and for the temporal economy. Here we see both a statement of the non capax and an approach to the divine relatedness: the mind cannot conceive of the way in which the attributes belong to the utter simplicity of the divine essence; nonetheless, the distinct attributes are correctly distinguished by reason in the effects and operations of God in the world—and these effects and operations rightly and genuinely reveal the identity of God, indeed, the indivisible essence of the utterly simple Godhead. The effect of this distinction, like the effect of the distinction between the decree and its execution, is to direct attention away from the divine essence toward the divine economy: this in the reputedly speculative doctrine of the divine attributes! In practical terms, this economic direction of the language points directly toward the Protestant orthodox insistence that all of the attributes have implications for piety and toward the intensely practical sections found not only in the English Puritan discussions of the divine attributes but also in many of the continental Reformed presentations of the attributes.