(Note: The following is a presentation of the classical Thomistic doctrine of philosophical theology for those who are unacquainted with it. Knowledge of the classical doctrine itself is valuable for any student of philosophy. This branch of philosophy is called Natural Theology or Theodicy and discovers the First Efficient Cause and the Last Final Cause of all things. This study is a purely philosophical one, and draws no arguments from revelation (although it makes reference to Christian revelation at certain points); it is a truly metaphysical study, for it is a reasoned treatise on nonmaterial real Being, from a traditional Christian perspective. Some of this treatise is highly technical and an acquaintance with Classical Thomistic ontology is highly recommended before approaching this subject.)
Adapted from various sources and edited
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
Part Two: The Nature of God
A. Essence and Nature
The essence of a thing is what constitutes it. The essence of a thing is what is expressed in a true definition of the thing.
A thing may be regarded in two ways:
- as an existible reality, and
- as an understandable reality.
Hence, any reality may be defined in two ways:
- either according to its being as an existible thing, or
- according to its being as an understandable thing.
Suppose we define man. As an existible thing man is a substantial compound of body and soul; as a thing that can exist among other things, man exists as body and soul. This is a definition of man, and it is called a physical definition. A definition expresses an essence, and the physical definition of man expresses the physical essence of man, that is, “body and soul substantially united.”
But suppose we define man as an understandable thing. We do not mean to define him according to the mere viewpoint of the mind; we mean to define him as a reality. But we mean to make our definition of those points of reality in man (not physical parts like body and soul) which render him intelligible. Now, how does an adequate mind or understanding lay hold of the reality called man?
- Well, first of all it knows man as some thing.
- Further, it knows man as a substantial thing, and as a complete substance; it knows man as subsistent. The mind knows man as a subsistent thing.
- But it knows him as distinct from such subsistent things as pure spirits; for it knows man as a bodily-subsistent-thing.
- And it knows man as other than mere bodies like sticks and stones; for it knows man as a living-bodily-subsistent-thing.
- And it knows man as something more than a living substance such as a tree; for it knows man as a sentient-living-bodily-subsistent-thing.
- And it knows man as something more than a sentient substance like a dog or cat; for it knows man as endowed with intellect and will, that is, it knows man as a rational-sentient-living-bodily-subsistent-thing.
Notice that all the points the mind knows about man as understandable are points of reality; they are not points of the mind’s view, they are points of fact in man himself; yet they are not physical parts. The six points of reality about man that make him intelligible or understandable are: thing, subsistent, bodily, living, sentient, rational. And you may take any one of these as predicate and say that man is such a thing: man is subsistent; man is alive; man is rational. Now the sum of all the points of reality which render a thing understandable constitutes the metaphysical essence of that thing.
Thus the metaphysical essence of man is: “a reality or thing that is subsistent, bodily, living, sentient, and rational.” Since the first five of these points of reality in man (that is, thing, subsistent, bodily, living, sentient) make the metaphysical essence of animal, we may merely add the word rational to animal, and we have, in shorter compass, the metaphysical essence of man. The metaphysical essence of man is expressed in the metaphysical definition of man: “Man is a rational animal.”
The physical essence of man is his constitution as an existible thing; it is made up of man’s fundamental and indispensable physical parts; it is constituted by man’s body and soul.
The metaphysical essence of man is the sum of the points of reality about him that make him understandable; the sum of points of reality recognized by a mind that knows what man is; this metaphysical essence of man is constituted of animality and rationality.
Now, what we have said about the physical and metaphysical essence of man is true of the physical and metaphysical essence of anything. We have used man only as an illustration. In our present study we are to inquire into the physical essence and the metaphysical essence of God.
The nature of a thing is its essence regarded as the root or source of its operations. The nature of a thing is its working essence. Thus, while we say that the essence of a man is (physically considered) his body and soul, we say that the nature of man is his essence as operative. We say that it is according to man’s nature that he thinks and wills; we say that it is natural to man to walk and to speak, and so on.
Now, the items of perfection that belong to a thing because it is of such a nature , are called attributes of the thing. It is essential (metaphysically) to man that he be fundamentally equipped for reasoning and willing; he has this fundamental equipment even as a baby when he is unable to use it; he has this equipment even if he be so mentally handicapped that will never use it. But the actual ability to use this fundamental equipment belongs only to man when he is sufficiently matured, when he is conscious, when he is unprevented in its use.
But granted that a man is fully constituted in being, that he is mature, awake, alert, unblocked in the exercise of his powers, it will follow of necessity that he is able actually to reason and to use free will. This actual ability, we say, belongs to his nature, his operative essence; this ability follows upon that nature because it is such a nature. Therefore this actual ability is proper to man, it is to be attributed to man: actual reasoning and actual willing are attributes of man. An attribute is, therefore, the normal and necessary consequence of an essence fully constituted in its working capacity, that is, of an essence constituted as a nature. In brief, an attribute is a perfection that belongs by natural necessity to a nature.
We see, therefore, that an attribute (since it belongs to a nature because this is such a nature) is an index of the nature to which it belongs. If we know the attributes of a thing, we shall know by them the nature whence they flow, or to which they necessarily belong. Therefore, in our present study we shall investigate certain attributes of God, so that we may know the nature of God.
To sum up: Essence is that reality which constitutes a thing as existible (physical essence) or as understandable (metaphysical essence). Nature is essence considered as the source of operations. Attributes are perfections that belong by necessity to a fully constituted and unhampered nature.
B. The Essence of God
1. The Physical Essence of God
God is not a body; He is not made up of parts. God is not a creature; He is not limited or confined or in any way composed. Hence, the physical essence of God is a unique physical essence. We cannot illustrate it perfectly by showing what the physical essence of some creature is, and then drawing a comparison. But, since God is “constituted” (to use an imperfect word) in His being by Himself, and not as a sum of parts or of distinct elements or perfections, it may suffice to say that God’s physical essence is his infinite and indivisible being as pure spirit. That is what God is an existing thing: a Spirit infinitely perfect. More fully, God’s physical essence is defined as the one and only infinite indivisible and all-perfect Spirit.
Notice that we mention several perfections in setting forth this physical definition of God. We speak of the oneness or unity of God; of His uniqueness which which we indicate by the word “only”; of His simplicity or indivisibility, for God has no parts; of His full perfection; of His infinity; of His spirituality.
Now, it must be always understood that in God there is not only no distinction of parts (for He has no parts), but there is no real distinction of perfections; all that God has He is. All these perfections are in reality one with God and one with one another; all are one in the Infinite Essence with which they are identified, and of which they are but various aspects taken by the finite mind.
2. The Metaphysical Essence of God
That is called the metaphysical essence of God which affords the mind its basic grasp of what God means. Theologians have ever differed in their opinion of what precisely is the point by which a creatural mind lays hold of God as understandable. Some had said that the fundamental notion or idea which the mind grasps in knowing God is His radical infinity; others have said that it is His boundless knowing. But others, with more show of reason, say that before we think of God as infinite or as all-knowing, we think of God as there. We think of Him as existing. And we think of Him as existing of Himself, or, in other words, we think of God as Subsistent Being Itself. In this we discern the metaphysical essence of God.
C. The Attributes of God
An attribute, as we have learned, is a perfection that belongs to a thing because the thing is of such a nature. It belongs to a nature. It flows from a nature fully and perfectly constituted and unprevented in function. Strictly speaking, God has no attributes. What we call His attributes are Himself regarded by our finite minds from different angles. God is simple, indivisible, not made of parts or elements. All that God has, God is. But we must use such terms as we can; we are finite and our language is not adequate for expressing infinity with full perfection. Therefore, as long as we know that what we call God’s attributes are not things other than God which God merely possesses, we may use our inadequate terminology as the only available instrument for the expression of important truths.
We have already mentioned many attributes of God in this study. We have spoken of God’s oneness or unity, of His infinity, of His simplicity, of His uniqueness, of His supreme intelligence, of His supreme will, and of other divine perfections or attributes. Here we mention these again, together with some others. In studying the attributes of God, we are directly studying the nature of God.
1. Absolute Divine Attributes
“Absolute” means “freed from all ifs, buts, hows, whys, conditions.” The absolute attributes of God are those which belong to God as God, not to God as Creator, or Preserver, or Governor, but to God simply. Such are infinity, immensity, immutability or changelessness, knowledge, wisdom.
Absolute divine attributes are either positive or negative.
- Positive divine attributes express infinite perfection in God: life, wisdom, understanding, will, etc.
- Negative divine attributes express absence of imperfection in God: infinity (which means that God is not limited); indivisibility (which means that God is not made up of parts); immutability (which means that God is not changeable), etc.
2. Relative Divine Attributes
“Relative” means having a relation to, a connection with, something else. Now, on the part of God, who is infinite and self-sufficing, there are no real relations whatever. But creatures have essential relations with God, and these are real. God’s relative attributes bring creatures into relation with Him; they do not bring God into any real relations with creatures. Relative attributes of God are, for example, His power, as creating, preserving, providing, governing the world and especially man; His goodness to His creatures; His fidelity to His word; His truthfulness, and so on.
In general, reason declares that since God is the fulness of all perfection in infinite degree; since He is Pure Actuality; since He is wholly Self-sufficing; since He is without the shadow of any imperfection, He has a attributes all pure perfections in a way superior to that in which perfections are possessed or can be possessed by creatures. The technical way of expressing this reasoned truth is this: God has all pure perfections formally and eminently.
A pure or unmixed perfection is one that involves no imperfection, such as life, knowledge. A mixed perfection involves imperfection, such as walking or reasoning. For it is a perfection to be able to walk; but it is an indication of limitation (hence an imperfection) that a person must walk to reach another place and cannot be there instantly without walking. So it is a perfection to be able to reason out a truth; but it is an imperfection that one must think it out and cannot see it at once without mental labor. We say that mixed perfections are in God virtually; that is, the equivalent of all that is perfect about them belongs to God eminently. Thus, God who knows all things comprehensively (in such a way as to perfectly possess all possible knowledge about them) has no need of reasoning, that is, of studying things out; but He has all that such study or reasoning could possibly give; he has all knowledge; therefore we say that he has reasoning virtually or equivalently.
Now, the proof of all the perfections which can be listed as attributes of God rests upon the perfection of God in His metaphysical essence as Subsistent Being Itself. For such a Being is unconferred, unreceived, and hence not limited. Being that is received is received in a measure, Being unreceived must be unlimited, for only a cause can limit being as only a cause can confer it. So Being unreceived, unconferred, is being uncaused and unlimited. It is Infinite Being.
Out of God’s essence as Subsistent Being Itself appears the fundamental attribute of infinity. Upon infinity, as upon their proximate foundation (and their proof) rest the other divine attributes. Thus God is infinite or unlimited in time; He is eternal; He has the attribute of eternity; and this eternity is not limited or measured by days or hours or centuries; it has no succession (for this would involve limitation); it is an everlasting now, without past or future.
And God, as infinite, is unlimited by place; He is immense or immeasurable, not having size, which, however large, is a limitation. God thus has the attribute of immensity, of not being contained in limits of measurement or dimensions. And similarly God has the attribute, on this score, of omnipresence or ubiquity; God is everywhere, for placecannot shut Him out any more than it can enclose Him.
And infinity involves immutability or changelessness in God, for any change means a loss and a gain, and a loss means a limit now, while a gain means a limit before the gain was made. Infinity in God means that he is not limited in knowledge, in wisdom, in power, in any perfection. Thus, infinity in God means simply that God is all-perfect. And since personality (that is substantial personality) is a high perfection, it must be in God in eminent degree. Human reason thus concludes inevitably that God is a personal God, not a “Cosmic Force” or an “Unconscious Absolute.”
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted both of Dr. Dolhenty’s projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of his work.