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§ 17. (2.) The Essence of God.

Our knowledge of the essence of God (quid sit Deus) is also mainly derived from revelation, for the Holy Scriptures give us in His names, attributes, and works a description of God Himself. [3] And with the knowledge thus derived we must be satisfied, for we know concerning the essence of God nothing more, and nothing more specific, than what the Holy Scriptures teach. We acquire, indeed, from this source no 112adequate and complete knowledge of the essence of God; for this transcends our powers of comprehension, and for this reason the Scriptures declare the incomprehensibility of the divine essence. (1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 3:2; Rom. 11:33.) But we may very well be content with the knowledge imparted to us through the Holy Scripture, as we nevertheless learn therefrom as much about God and His essence as is needful for our salvation. [4]

From what has been said, it is manifest in what sense God may be defined. He cannot be literally defined, i.e., we cannot express in words what God is as to His essence, what He is in Himself, because no adequate conception can be formed of Him; but a definition of God, in a wider sense, may nevertheless be given, in so far, namely, as, upon the authority of the Holy Scriptures, a description of God may be presented, according to which we can most clearly distinguish between Him and other essences. [5]

Upon the authority of the description of God given in the Holy Scriptures, we can thus define Him as an Infinite Spiritual Essence.

[6] [1] See above, § 15, Note 4.

[2] GRH. (III, 40): “To some it may seem that this question in the Church is superfluous, since it is known and conceded by all that God exists, and there is no people, however barbarous, that denies that God exists, and that He is to be worshiped (though it may not know how to worship Him), and so the knowledge of God is naturally innate in all. . . . But, nevertheless, we must prove that God exists, (1) for the confutation of those who deny that there is a God; (2) for the confirmation of our faith (. . . in great and severe temptations, says Chemnitz, we are all either Epicureans or Stoics; our mind must therefore be established by the consideration of the arguments which prove that there is a God, and that He exercises a providential care over human affairs); (3) for the perfecting of natural knowledge (. . . since the natural knowledge of God is imperfect and languid, and so must be confirmed, widened, and deepened from the Word divinely revealed.”)

[3] CAL. (II, 110): “That God exists, special scriptural statements testify, especially those which communicate His names, words, and works.”


GRH. (III, 14): “To synonymics belong the names of God, in the exposition of which the principal part of the doctrine concerning God consists, because our theology in this life is almost wholly grammatical, whence whatever we may know concerning God is called a name of God. . . . The names of God are general or special. In a general and wide sense, a name of God is whatever is predicated of God; thus the term was employed by the ancients, who, under the designation of names, embraced also the attributes or characteristics.”

QUEN. (I, 268): “In determining the question what God is, we must first consider the divine names, some of which, either in view of their etymology or from the manner in which they are used in Scripture, indicate the essence of God and are commonly called essential, as Jehovah, Jah, Elohim; others are derived from the divine attributes, as when God is called omnipotent, just, wise; others from the divine works, as when He is called Creator, Preserver, etc.”

[4] CHMN. (Loci Th., I, 24): “As we are not to think of God otherwise than as He has revealed Himself in the Word He has given, these questions (concerning the essence and the will of God) have certain prescribed limits, within which the human mind, contemplating God, must confine itself. For dangerous errors have arisen on this subject, for no other reason than because the point of view was not rightly taken, or because human curiosity in this discussion wandered farther than was meet.” . . .

SELN. (I, 53): “It has been said that we ought to be content with the descriptions of God which are given by God Himself.”

ID. (I, 51): “Hilary says: We understand that only that is to be heartily believed concerning God, in reference to which He himself authoritatively testifies that it is to be believed concerning Him. What, therefore, God is absolutely, and what is His nature and substance, we know that no one can state, imagine, comprehend, or declare by an essential definition, either by any dialectic reasoning or by the keenness of the human intellect. For, since neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those that love Him, how much less can the dulness of the human mind grasp God Himself? Whence many are accustomed to say, that it is easier to define what God is not, than what He is.”

Thus GRH. says (III, 15) of the divine majesty: “The variety of divine names expresses the divine majesty. For since, in consequence of its infinite perfection, the divine majesty cannot be fully recognized by us, therefore so many divine names are given 114in the Scriptures, that from these we may be led to something like a suitable recognition of the divine majesty.”

BR. (173): “It must be confessed that in this life we may not have a specific, proper, and adequate conception, well-defined and clear, of the divine essence; for we know but in part.”

[5] Thus already CHMN. asks (Loc. Th., I, 25), after the example of the Scholastics: “If a definition must explain the nature of the thing defined so as to lead the mind, as it were, into the very thing itself, how then can God be defined?” — and answers; “The reply is easy: It is indeed true, concerning our knowledge of God in this life (1 Cor. 13:12), that ‘we see through a glass, darkly;’ and so in the definition it is said, ‘He is of immense wisdom and power,’ i.e., God is greater than we can imagine or declare. . . . But, in examining the definition we do not scrutinize those mysteries of the essence and will of God which He wishes us to be ignorant of; but we gather a brief statement from what God has Himself revealed to us in His Word concerning His essence and will. And, since God surely wishes to be recognized and worshiped as He has revealed Himself, that description of God is to be held, to which the mind reverts in prayer; for adoration is nothing but a confession, whereby we ascribe to the essence addressed in prayer all the attributes comprised in the definition. There is, therefore, a name of God occult and hidden, which is not to be searched out. There is, however, also a name of God made known that He wishes to be recognized, spoken about, praised, and worshiped.”

GRH. (III, 70) therefore distinguishes: “(1) Between a perfect definition, which exactly conforms to the accuracy of logical rules, and a description drawn from the Scriptures. (2) Between knowledge and comprehension. That is comprehended which is perfectly known; that is perfectly known which is known so far as it can be known. We know God, indeed, but we do not comprehend Him, i.e., we do not perfectly know Him, because He is infinite. Here we must note, however, that the knowledge of God derived from the Word is called perfect, as well by reason of its end, for it is sufficient for salvation, as by way of comparison with natural knowledge, which is very obscure and imperfect. (3) Between the knowledge of God in this and in another life. . . . The latter, or intuitive definition is the most perfect of all, for we shall then see God in the future life, face to face. . . . (4) A nominal definition may be given, but not an essential one.”

CAL. (II, 142) distinguishes in the same way between a definition rigidly taken and a definition broadly applied.


GRH. (III, 68) proves the inadmissibility of a definition in the strict sense: “(1) From the want of a genus. That of which there is no true and proper logical genus cannot be defined, because the genus is an essential part of a definition. But God has no true and proper logical genus; because, if there were such a genus, that would be in the same terms essentially and equally predicated of God and of creatures, which cannot be done, because God as the Creator and the creature are separated from each other by an infinite interval, and there is nothing that can be equally predicated of both. (2) From the divine perfection. God is the supreme Being, so He has nothing beyond Him; but whatever is properly defined is defined through something going before . . . (3) From a sufficient enumeration. If God may be properly defined, that would be either an essential or a causal definition. Essential it could not be, because that consists in genus and specific differentia. But God has no name of the same genus with other beings, nor is His most simple essence composed of genus and differentia. Neither can it be a causal definition, since God is the cause of all things, but of God there is no cause.”

[6] This position is taken by Calovius, Quenstedt, Koenig; while others, as Baier (173), Hollazius (229), thus define: “God is a spiritual Being, subsisting of Himself; or, more concisely: God is an independent Spirit.”

The individual terms are explained as follow:

(1) BR. (172): “By the term divine essence is meant that which is first thought of in God, and through which God is adequately distinguished from all other things, and which, in our mode of conception, is the root and source of all the perfections which, as attributes, are ascribed to God.”

(2) QUEN. (I, 284): “The term spiritual essence is a common conception. For the term essence is common to God and creatures, but belongs to God originally and independently, to creatures secondarily and by way of dependence. And the term spirit also is analogically predicated of God and angels, and also of the souls of men.” (The difference that is observed when these two terms are predicated of God and of creatures respectively, is still more accurately indicated in the statement: “Essence, substance, spirit, and consequently the remaining attributes which are ascribed at the same time to God and to creatures, are predicated of God and of rational creatures not συνωνυμος, univocally, nor ομωνυμως, equivocally, but αναλογως, analogically, so that they belong to God πρωτως and absolutely, to creatures δευτερως and by way of dependence, analogy being properly thus employed with reference to an intrinsic 116attribute. The term univocal, properly and strictly speaking, belongs to such things as have the name and the thing denoted by that name equally in common, no inequality interfering on account of the dependence of the one upon the other; equivocal, to such as have a common name but not the thing signified by the name; analogical, to such as have both the name and the thing designated by that name, but unequally, when the name and the thing belong to the one πρωτως and absolutely, but to the δευτερως and by way of dependence.”) (Id., 293.)

(3) “But the predicate infinite expresses the peculiar conception; for by this God, as an infinite Sprit, is distinguished from angels and the souls of men, or finite spirits, and by this infinity of His own, God transcends all the bounds of being, so that He cannot be limited by time or place or any other thing, but, considered simply in His own nature and essence, He is of Himself and absolutely infinite. Nor do we speak of God as compounded, when we form both a common and a peculiar conception concerning Him. For that is a distinction of the reason only, and not a real one. (God is infinite, not by virtue of quantitative extension, since He is devoid of all quantity, but by virtue of essence and perfection.)”

The independence is thus explained by BR. (173): “For, as by this, God is adequately distinguished from all other things, so there is nothing that you can earlier conceive of in God, as a peculiar and specific conception, than this, that He is not from another, and so exists of Himself and necessarily. Proof-texts: Isaiah 44:6, compared with Isaiah 41:4; Rev. 1:17.”

The more popular definition of God (definitio Dei nominalis) is: “By the term, God, is understood the first Being, because He is of Himself and is the cause of all other things, and because He preserves and governs all things;” concerning which HOLL. remarks (187): “All men in the present life discover in themselves that they do not and cannot otherwise conceive of God than as related to created things, as the first Being, because from Him is the cause of all other beings, and He preserves and governs all; or as the Being most excellent of all, than whom nothing can be, or be thought of as being. better or more perfect.”

The earliest theologians, who did not as yet treat of the attributes as a special topic, embrace them all, together with a notice of the Trinity, in the definition of God. Thus MEL. (Loci Theol., I, 13): “God is a spiritual essence, intelligent, eternal, true, good, pure, just, merciful, most free, of vast power and wisdom, the eternal Father who begat the Son, His own image, from eternity, and the Son, the co-eternal image of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, proceeding 117from the Father and the Son.” Later theologians also regard it as necessary to incorporate at once the Trinity in the definition of God. Thus CAL. says (II, 282): “Those who do not include a statement of the three persons in the description of God do not present that doctrine in a form at all genuine or complete, since without these it does not yet appear what the true God is.” Compare, per contra, § 19, preliminary note.

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