Finney's Lectures On Theology
Volume 1, Unpublished, c. 1860
THE NATURAL ATTRIBUTES OF GOD.
Having, as we suppose, sufficiently discussed the question of the divine existence, the next question for discussion in the natural order of our course is, the natural attributes of God. And the first inquiry is into the method by which we are to ascertain what these attributes are.
We have ascertained first, that God is the First Cause of all finite existences; and secondly, that he is infinite and perfect in his natural attributes. The question, then, of his natural attributes must be settled by a consideration of what must be implied in his being the infinite and perfect First Cause of all finite existences. The question of his moral attributes must be arrived at more particularly through the medium of conscience, or the moral function of the reason. It will be observed that the inquiry is rational in the sense, not that it belongs to the department of natural theology, but that it is particularly that function of the intellect which we denominate the reason, by the use of which we are to ascertain the kind and extent of the natural attributes of God.
I. WHAT IS A NATURAL ATTRIBUTE?
But first, I must define a natural attribute. An attribute is a permanent quality of a thing. This is its generic definition. It is that which is predicable of a thing as essential to its nature. The natural attributes of God are those permanent qualities which belong to his nature; those qualities without which he would not be God.
Again, I remark that the existence of these qualities in God is indicated in the things that he has made. But the infinity of these attributes is not demonstrated in the works of creation, for nothing which has been created is infinite. But the infinity of his attributes is nevertheless irresistibly implied, as we shall see, in his being a First Cause.
For example, we do not logically infer the omnipotence, the omniscience, or the absolute ubiquity of God from his works; for we cannot know that it required absolute omnipotence to create finite works; nor his ubiquity from his presence throughout the material universe; nor his omniscience from his possessing sufficient knowledge to create the universe. Intelligence, power, extension, must be implied in his being the Cause of the universe. But as a Cause he cannot be infinite, that is, he never has exerted the whole of infinity in producing action. In other words, an infinite Cause would imply an infinite effect, which is impossible and a contradiction.
We have seen that cause is power in producing action. Now a being may be infinite without ever exerting the whole of his infinite power in an act of causality; indeed, it would seem to be a contradiction. Therefore, in inquiring into the natural attributes of God, we are not to expect to find any infinite effect in his works; but from the fact that he is a First Cause we find the implication irresistible that he must possess certain attributes, and that they must be infinite in degree. But I must proceed to name some of them.
II. WHAT ARE THE NATURAL ATTRIBUTES OF GOD?
1. SELF-EXISTENCE. By this I mean that the ground of God's existence is in his own nature, and consequently that his existence is unconditioned. He exists of himself. Not that he created himself, for he never began to be; but that he has in himself the quality of necessary existence. This, it will be seen, is implied in his being the First Cause. If he is the First Cause, he is of course uncaused; if uncaused, he never began to be. If he is and always was, it is simply because he possesses this attribute of self, or necessary, existence. This attribute is then plainly implied in his being the First Cause of all finite existences.
2. IMMUTABILITY is another of his natural attributes. This is also implied in his being a First Cause and a self-existent Being. I have defined self-existence to be a necessary existence; a necessary existence exists necessarily; exists just as it does necessarily, and therefore must be incapable of change either from within or from without itself. Change in a necessary existence is a contradiction; that is, a necessary existence must necessarily exist either in a quiescent state, in a state of rest, or in a state of change. In whatever state it necessarily exists, therein precisely it must remain; and to say that this state can be varied is a contradiction.
3. ABSOLUTENESS. The absolute is the unconditioned; and by this attribute we understand that God's existence is above all conditions. All finite existences are conditioned, and we cannot conceive of them as existing except under the conditions of time, space, and cause. That is, we necessarily conceive that they must exist in time and space, and have been caused. But God, the absolute, is above conditions of time and space, and sustains no such relations to them as that his existence is conditioned upon theirs. This is implied in his being a necessary existence.
4. INFINITY is a natural attribute of God, and a quality of all and each of his attributes. Our finite idea of infinity is that of the unbounded; and of this there are several modifications. We conceive of a mathematical line of infinite length; that is, as unlimited in length. Here we affirm infinity only in one direction. We may affirm a thing to be infinite in more than one respect or direction, without affirming infinity in the highest or absolute sense. For example, we can conceive of two lines of infinite length, but one inch apart. Now the space contained between these two lines we can affirm infinity in two respects: First, that it is infinite in length, because it has no ends; and secondly, that it is infinite in the real amount of its superficial area. But in another sense we affirm it to be finite. In two respects it has no limits; it has no ends, and consequently no whole to it in superficial area; but upon both its sides it is limited. Thus it is that in our conception of infinite, infinites may differ in real amount; as mathematicians teach us, may be multiplied ad infinitum.
But when we affirm infinity as an attribute of God, we mean by it that he is infinite in the absolute sense; that there is no limit to his being in any direction; no bound is set anywhere to his being; that there is no faculty of his nature that is not absolutely infinite. This must be implied in his self-existence; for his existence, we have seen, is necessary; and necessary existence, we have also seen, can neither be annihilated nor changed by any conceivable power. But if God has any attribute that is not really infinite, it is conceivable that it might be changed. Indeed, it cannot be self-existent; and if it be not necessarily existent, it might be annihilated or changed. But if it is necessarily existent, which is implied in his being a First Cause, then it must be infinite in the highest possible sense.
5. Again, LIBERTY is another natural attribute of God. By liberty is intended the inherent quality of self-activity, or self-action in either of two or more directions. His nature must be such that he originates his own actions, and is an entire sovereign in acting in one way or another. Liberty also implies that he acts one way or the other upon occasions presented to his intelligence, and not under any law of necessity whatever. Liberty in this sense is implied in his being a First Cause. If he had been a necessary being, in the sense that he cannot abstain from acting in the precise manner in which he does act, it would follow that he must have been a Cause from eternity, which is a contradiction. If he is not free in regard to his actions any more than he is in regard to his existence, then it would involve the absurdity, as has been said, of his being an eternal Cause, and events would have been eternal; which is impossible. Liberty, then, is implied in the fact of his being a First Cause.
6. Again, OMNISCIENCE is a natural attribute of God. By omniscience is meant the actual and necessary knowledge of all objects, actual or possible. In other words, by omniscience is intended infinite knowledge. When omniscience is affirmed to be a natural attribute of God, it is intended that God does not obtain knowledge by study, reflection, or experience, or that he obtains knowledge at all; but that all knowledge is absolutely necessary to him. This is implied in his self-existence. Although he exists above the conditions of time and space, yet he necessarily exists in all duration, and in all space. All objects of knowledge, possible or conceivable, must, from the very nature of his existence, be known to him. That he has knowledge is implied and manifested in the universe which he has created; that he has vast knowledge is implied in the very structure and laws of the universe; but that he has infinite knowledge we know from the fact that every attribute of him, who is self-existent, must be infinite. To this it has been objected that God cannot be omniscient, or infinite in knowledge, because there are no infinite objects of knowledge, the whole creation being but finite. To this I answer, God is himself an object of infinite knowledge, and he must know himself.
7. Again, OMNIPOTENCE is a natural attribute of God. I have said that cause is power in efficient action; and it has been shown that God is Cause, and the First Cause of all finite existences. That power, then, is an attribute of God, is certain, because he is a Cause. By omnipotence is intended power or ability to do whatever is an object of natural power or of infinite power. Infinite natural power cannot do what is not an object of natural power. For example, it is not an object of natural power to influence the choices of free moral agents. This is an object of moral power; that is, of persuasion, argument, and the presentation of considerations adapted to stimulate the actions of the will. The creation and government of the material universe, and the creation of the spiritual universe, are objects of natural power. Now by infinite power is intended power or ability to do whatever is an object of natural power. Natural power cannot perform contradictions. It cannot cause a thing to exist and not to exist at the same time; but it can do all things that are doable by natural power. That God is a power, or possesses this attribute, is implied, I have said, in his being a Cause. Its absolute infinity is implied in his being a First Cause; for we have seen that a First Cause must be self-existent and infinite in all its attributes.
Dr. Dwight maintained the omnipotence of God upon the ground of this affirmation, that power to originate existence, to create in distinction from, to form, implies infinity; that that power which could originate any existence could self-evidently originate all existences, and could do anything that is an object of natural power. This may be true. I think it is. But nevertheless it is not true in such a sense that all minds must admit it. But I think that all minds must admit that a necessarily existent Being must be infinite in all his attributes; else his attributes might be annihilated or changed -- That is, it is conceivable that they might be. But of an absolutely necessary existence we must affirm that change from that state in which it necessarily exists is impossible and a contradiction.
Power is certainly an attribute of God. As God is a First Cause, self-existent and infinite in all his attributes, he must be omnipotent in regard to all his natural attributes. I may say, that we necessarily conceive of them as unlimited. I have said in a former lecture, that we necessarily transfer our conception of ourselves to God, and conceive of him as being like ourselves, only as infinite while we are finite. We know ourselves to be causes, but limited in our power; we know God as a Cause, and irresistibly conceive of him as unlimited in his power. We cannot conceive of anything as impossible to God that does not involve a contradiction.
8. Again, ETERNITY is another natural attribute of God. I have said that God, the self-existent, is above the conditions of time and space. That is, time or duration, as separate from God, is not a condition of his existence. He inhabits eternity, but his existence is not conditioned upon it. By the eternity of God, then, is intended that he sustains no such relation to time or duration that he passes through it, or that his existence is measured by it, or that he grows older. Never having began to be, with him, properly and strictly speaking, there is no time, past, present, or future. All creatures exist under relations of time; their very existence passes through successive moments; they grow older; they have a constant succession in their exercises and thoughts; consequently their consciousness is constantly varying. God is omniscient; his consciousness must always be one.
I said, with him, strictly speaking, there is neither time past, present, nor future: it has been common to speak of God as filling eternity in such a way as that all time is present to him. In a certain sense this is true, but not in the sense in which time is present to us. The word present is relative, implying a past and future -- that there is something else beside the present. As the word self implies not self, as the term here implies a there, so the term present implies a not present. In respects to all creatures God sees that there is a present, a past, and a future; but with him, strictly, there is neither.
We speak of time in respect to God as an eternal now. But if by now is implied a not now, if by now is to be understood as distinguishing present time from time that is not present, this is not speaking with exact propriety of God. We are finite, and our UNDERSTANDING conceptions cannot grasp this truth. Our understanding cannot even conceive of God as being above the conditions of time and space. Our reason affirms that he must be; how he can be it saith not. Our reason affirms that if God is the absolute self-existent Being, he can sustain no such relations to time as those sustained by all finite beings. In communicating with us he speaks of himself in a manner adapted to our understanding conceptions of him. As we are confined to space he speaks of himself as being in every place, without meaning to say the he sustains any such relations to place as we do. As time past, present, and future are realities to us, he speaks of himself in a manner adapted to our practical conceptions of him. He indeed affirms that time to him is no lapse; that he "inhabits eternity;" and "that one day to him is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day;" meaning by this, as he must mean, that all succession of events in time as they appear and are to us, are not so to him. The end is present to him from the beginning; and therefore by the eternity of God, we mean that his existence necessarily fills all duration.
What to us is eternity, past and present, is the same to him. He fills all; but his existence is independent of duration. He fills all the duration antecedent to creation, all duration present and future to created beings; to him it is and must be a unit. Reason says it must be; for it would contradict our rational conception of God to suppose that he grows older, or that anything is otherwise to him than that we call present to us -- "The same yesterday, today, and forever."
That eternity in the sense explained is an attribute of God is implied in his self-existence. He never began to be, he never can cease to be; and yet he grows no older. Much confusion has arisen by attempting to grasp the infinity of God's attributes with the understanding. Our understanding conception of God is that of a finite being, sustaining substantially the same relations to time and space that we do; that is, that he is living on from generation to generation; has come on in his existence from eternity, and passes on to eternity; and that things with him are past, present and future.
So also our understanding conception of God is that he is everywhere; and yet that whereness is properly affirmable of God, and that the only difference between him and us in this respect is that his existence is indefinitely extended -- this [is] not our rational conception. I have spoken of extension as belonging to God. In the first place, it is proper to say that extension is not a quality of mind in the sense in which it is a quality of matter. Matter is a space-filling substance, is bounded on all sides, is solid, and therefore has form and dimensions, a part here and a part there. Mind is in no such sense related to place. It is not a space-filling substance; it is not surrounded by space in any such sense as to have form and limit. It is not a part of it here and a part there; it has no right or left sides. Of the actual essence of mind or matter we know nothing, except their attributes. The attributes of matter necessarily give it location in space; but the attributes of mind, thought, willing, feeling, do not locate in space -- these need no place. The comprehension of this is perhaps impossible; yet we know it as a fact that no attribute of mind is dependent on the existence of space, or is so related to space as to imply that it has form or extension.
9. This leads me ninthly to say, that UBIQUITY is a natural attribute of God. Ubiquity is OMNIPRESENCE. From what has just been said, it will be inferred that by this I do not mean that whereness is properly predicable of God, and yet we cannot speak of him without supposing him as somewhere. It is true that he is in all space, yet his existence does not occupy or fill space in the sense of excluding anything from it, nor in such a sense that its existence is a condition of his existence. Space is the condition of the existence of body, but not of mind.
That God exists, we have seen; and that he exists of necessity, and therefore every attribute of God must be infinite. Now in the sense in which it can be truly said that God is anywhere, it must be said that he is everywhere; understanding that by whereness we do not mean to predicate locality of him. I have said that he cannot with respect to his own existence say, I am here, or anything is here, for here implies a not here, or there; and there is not there, or not here, in respect to God's existence. In regard to finite beings, he sees that there must be a here and a there, and up and down, a this way and a that way, a this side and a that side; but in respect to his own existence, there can be no such thing; and such words convey no meaning when applied to the real existence of God. All is alike here to him; and yet not here in any sense that implies that we predicate whereness of God otherwise than as affirming that there is no limit in any direction to his existence, that wherever space is he is, and all of his nature and attributes are alike omnipresent. His is not extended in the sense that a part of him is here and a part there, but all his attributes are in every place.
10. Again, SPIRITUALITY is a natural attribute of God. When we speak of matter or of spirit, we do not mean to be understood as knowing the substratum of any existence, material or spiritual, except as we know it in and through its attributes. Matter is known to us by the perception of certain attributes; mind or spirit is known to us by the conscious exercise of certain natural attributes. We irresistibly affirm that attributes inhere in substance; that substance is and its attributes are. By spirit we mean that substance that thinks, wills, feels. These attributes have nothing in common with the attributes of that which we call matter. Matter is space-filling, spirit is not space-filling; matter has form, spirit has not; matter has solidity, spirit has not; matter has divisibility, spirit has not; matter has inertia, spirit is active; matter is extended in the sense of part here and part there, spirit is not extended in this sense.
I said, spirituality is an attribute of God. Our necessary conception of God is that he is Spirit, as we are spirit. Not that he has a material body, as we are aware of having; but that he has a spirit without body. His spirituality is implied in his self-existence, and in all his natural attributes -- immutability, absoluteness, liberty, omniscience, omnipotence. Indeed it is impossible, if God were material, that he should be infinite, that he should be a first cause or self-existent. If material and self-existent he would be under a law of inherent necessity. If he were material, as matter is made up of particles, he could not be infinite; for an infinite number of particles is an absurdity. If he were material, or space-filling, he must exclude the existence of all other material substances. For if material and omnipresent, he must be infinitely solid, or the spaces would not be filled with God. He could not be solid and infinite, but yet porous. Indeed it is impossible to conceive of God as an infinite material existence; but as a first, free, self-active, Cause, he must be Spirit.
11. Again, MORAL AGENCY must be a natural attribute of God. I have said that we naturally conceive of God as possessing a nature like our own, A moral agent is one possessing intelligence -- including conscience or moral intelligence, sensibility, and free will. We ourselves are moral agents; God is our creator. We cannot conceive of God as not a moral agent. I said, a moral agent is one possessing intelligence -- including conscience, sensibility, and free will. I should have added to this -- existing under conditions of intellectual development; that is, possessing actual knowledge. There is a distinction to be taken between a moral being and a moral agent. A moral being is a being possessing the attributes above named. An infant before reason is at all developed is a moral being; a man in sleep is a moral being; a man in a fit of insanity is a moral being; but in none of these cases is he a moral agent.
Moral agency implies the possession of these faculties and the natural exercise of them; that conscience should exist as a faculty and be in a state of development; and that the moral being should be awake, and rational as opposed to insane. In other words, the moral being must exist under conditions of the present knowledge of duty, in order to be a moral agent. We necessarily affirm of God that he is good, morally good; and in this assumption is implied our necessary conviction that he is a moral agent. If not a moral agent he cannot have the ideas of right and wrong; he cannot be under moral law; he cannot have moral character. But all men do necessarily conceive of him as having moral character; this is our a priori conviction or necessary assumption.
We have seen also that through the medium of conscience we know God as Moral Governor: this implies that we know him as a moral agent under the relation of Supreme Ruler. But again, moral agency is implied in God's being a first cause. That he has created moral agents is proof conclusive that he has the idea of a moral agent; and his being a first cause shows that he is free. Now if he knows what a moral agent is, and is free, he must have the powers of a moral agent; and being free and omniscient he must in fact be a moral agent. Again, if God has reason, conscience, sensibility, and free will, he must be a moral agent. He must act and act morally, or under moral responsibility to his conscience. He does not necessarily act right, for this were a contradiction. But he must act right or wrong. He must be a moral actor. This is the true idea of a moral agent.
12. UNITY is a natural attribute of God. By this is intended that God is not made up of parts in the sense of particles; or in the sense of possessing various members, as bodies have members; or in the sense of being more than one substance. This is implied in his infinity; in every sense in which he is infinite he must be a unit -- I mean, so far as his existence is concerned. This infinite essence or substance may posses many capacities or qualities, and be capable of doing, feeling, thinking, infinitely; nevertheless as substance it is one and identical, and cannot be composed of finite parts; for no number of finites could make an infinite, nor even approach the infinite in the least degree. In his essence he must be one; in his capacities he may be many.
13. INDEPENDENCE is also a natural attribute of God. By independence is meant that he exists independently of all other existences; and in the exercise of his attributes is entirely independent. This is implied in his self-existence, and in his being a First Cause. By independence I do not mean that God can deny himself, that he is independent of the subjective laws of his own existence, that his will is independent of his moral nature or conscience; but that in his being and in the exercise of his attributes he is a law to himself. This is implied in his self-existence and infinity.
14. NATURAL PERFECTION is one of his attributes. That is, his nature is absolutely perfect; no conceivable improvement could be made in it. This is also implied in his self-existence. Our necessary conception of God is that of a being infinite in all his attributes; no conceivable improvement could be made in them; in other words, the conception of any limit to any one of them is impossible. (Roman numerals and twofold division added.--Gordon Olson).
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