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De Moor IV:19: Classification of God's Attributes: Absolute and Relative

γ. Into Absolute and Relative, which imply a Relation to the creatures with Himself, and are founded in Absolutes. Thus an Absolute Attribute of God is Goodness, but a Relative Attribute is Mercy, which pertains to the Goodness of God, but additionally involves a regard to a miserable creature. Immensity is an Absolute Attribute, but Omnipresence is Relative, because it indicates a relation to created things, in all which it asserts the presence of God. Vindictive Justice is a Relative Attribute, indicating a relation to a creature, sinful and worthy of punishment; but it is founded in an Absolute Attribute, divine Holiness. And so, although that relation did not obtain before the things were created, nevertheless the Relative Attributes are able truly to be said to be Essential to God, because they are always applicable to God with respect to their foundation.

Thus rightly and properly are the Absolute and Relative Attributes set over against each other and distinguished from one another: but incorrectly, should you, when there is a treatment of God Essentially considered, or according to the common Nature of the Three Divine Persons, distinguish between Essential and Relative; since, as Relative is opposed to Absolute, so to Essential is properly opposed Accidental, which is not applicable to God; in whom, because of Simplicity, Independence, Infinite Perfection, and Immutability, all the Attributes, no less than the very Essence, are actually completely Essential, even that that we are wont to call Relative: neither is it proper to attribute to God any Perfection that would not be Essential to Him, since in this manner the Infinity of the divine Perfection would be greatly injured. Now, relation to Creatures, or to a certain state of them, which obtains in the denomination of any Divine Attribute, whether considered in itself or in its effects, adds or diminishes nothing of intrinsic Perfection from a Divine Attribute of this sort: see my Disputationem de Justitia Vindicativa Deo Essentiali, § 27, 28. Hence BRAUN, Doctrina Fœderum, locus II, chapter II, § 16, 17, although not in all things with equal accuracy: “Indeed, in creatures some Attributes are Essential, like, for example, extension in the body, thought in the spirits, which constitute their very essence; others are Accidental, like figure, motion, rest, in the body, or modes of thought in our mind, suppose to understand, to will, to understand or to will in this or that manner, to deny, to affirm, to doubt, to love, to hate, etc. But in God no Attributes are able to be conceived of as Accidental, but all are only Essential, that is, are His very Essence; and so they are said to be of His Essence, not only virtually and eminently, but also formally and in their own nature. For, just as extension is an essential attribute of a body, and indeed the body itself, and thought is an essential attribute of the mind, indeed the mind itself; so certainly the Attributes of God, that is, His knowledge, will, power, righteousness, mercy, clemency, goodness, mercy, is God Himself understanding, willing, powerful, righteous, clement, good, and merciful. Therefore, the Socinians and Remonstrants err grievously, who teach that some Attributes are in God as accidental, whether they be God’s faculties, by which He acts, or actions, or qualities; in which way they deny God’s omnimodal Simplicity and Immutability.” And so, less properly and less prudently the illustrious JOHANN MELCHIOR,[1] in Fundamentis Theologiæ Didascalicæ, book I, chapter I, § 46, furnishes an opportunity for a distinction of the Divine Attributes into Essential and Relative; since, 1. as I said, the Relative is not properly opposed to the Essential, but to the Absolute. 2. Because the foundation of this distinction is not sought from this, that we discern it to obtain in the Divine Attributes themselves, or in what direction the consideration of the same of itself leads us; but from the finite and in many ways imperfect nature of the Creatures, as that most illustrious Man himself indicates in Fundamentis Theologiæ Didascalicæ, book I, chapter I, § 46, writing: “In the most advantageous order the Attributes, with the divine mode, are contemplated by us, if we distinguish what we see in creatures to pertain to essence, from their consequent applications and relations; or we might prefer to use primary and secondary.” It is indeed true that MELCHIOR does not in these words set forth expressly the distinction of the Divine Attributes into Essential and Relative: but others, with opportunity thence taken, going further, have hammered out that distinction into Essential and Relative Divine Attributes. In accordance with which, to the Relative Attributes are referred, for example, the Knowledge of Simple Intelligence, Holiness, Goodness; which nevertheless are no less Essential to God than Independence, Eternity, Immutability, and no less than these are able to be conceived of in God absolutely and without relation to Creatures. 3. Although Sacred Scripture denominates most of the Divine Attributes from those that are conceived to have some similitude in Creatures, as MELCHIOR says in Fundamentis Theologiæ Didascalicæ, book I, chapter I, § 44; nevertheless, the Proper Attributes, or those that are revealed in a proper sense concerning God, as, when God is said to be God, Wise, Just, they are applicable to God of themselves and primarily, and, just as I observed above at the beginning of this §, God is Good, before He communicated any vestige of His Goodness to creatures. 4. Because, if you say that Spirituality, Life, Intellect, and Will are Essential Attributes of God; it is to be seen whether these do not rather pertain to the Substantial Nature of God with His Spiritual Faculties, to whom then Infinite Perfection is attributed and assigned by means of various Attributes, according to their various objects and effects, and our manner of conception: see § 12-14, 16, 17 of this Chapter, and soon in this § 19, letter δ. 5. Because sometimes the Divine Attributes are distinguished into Essential and Relative, in such a way that it is not added for the sake of explanation that this distinction was sought from those things that we observe to be more or less Essential in Creatures; without which caution added this distinction is a stumbling-block, and furnishes occasion for mistrust, as if you would attribute some Perfections to God that would be less Essential to Him than others, perhaps being added to the Divine Essence in the manner of Accidental Properties. 6. Because, if we speak of God’s Primary Attributes, which are Essential, and Secondary, which are Realtive, an occasion arises from this for confusion of concepts and for controversy, while what things this one holds as Primary Attributes, another calls Secondary, and vice versa: for example, Holiness and Goodness according to the thinking of MELCHIOR are Secondary Attributes; on the other hand, BURMAN,[2] in his Synopsi Theologiæ, book I, chapter XXIV, § 5, teaches, “Nevertheless, there are certain Virtues in God that are conceived of as primary, others as secondary. For example, Goodness and Holiness are primary Virtues; but Mercy and Vindictive Justice are reckoned among the secondary, since they are not put forth in act except with sin presupposed. It is another thing to distinguish, which is rightly done, between God’s Essential and Personal Properties or Perfections, which latter ones, although they be Incommunicable, as it is to beget, to be begotten, and to proceed, are wont to be designated, not Absolute, but Relative; see below on Chapter V, § 3, 6, pages 709, 710, 725.

[1] Johann Melchior (1646-1689) was a German Reformed theologian. He served as Professor of Theology at Herborn rom 1682 to 1689.

[2] Frans Burman (1628-1679) was a Dutch Reformed theologian and a Cartesian. He served as Professor of Theology (1662-1671) and Professor of Church History (1671-1679) at Utrecht.

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