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§ 1. Definitions of God.

THE question whether God can be defined, depends for its answer on what is meant by definition. Cicero372372De Oratore, i. 42, 189, edit. Leipzig, 1850, p. 84. says, “Est definitio, earum rerum, quæ sunt ejus rei propriæ, quam definire volumus, brevis et circumscripta quædam explicatio.” In this sense God cannot be defined. No creature, much less man, can know all that is proper to God; and, therefore, no creature can give an exhaustive statement of all that God is.

To define, however, is simply to bound, to separate, or distinguish; so that the thing defined may be discriminated from all other things. This may be done (1.) By stating its characteristics. (2.) By stating its genus and its specific difference. (3.) By analyzing the idea as it lies in our minds. (4.) By an explanation of the term or name by which it is denoted. All these methods amount to much the same thing. When we say we can define God, all that is meant is, that we can analyze the idea of God as it lies in our mind; or, that we can state the class of beings to which He belongs, and the attributes by which He is distinguished from all other beings. Thus, in the simple definition, God is ens perfectissimum, the word ens designates Him as a being, not an idea, but as that which has real, objective existence; and absolute perfection distinguishes Him from all other beings. The objection to this and most other definitions of God is, that they do not bring out with sufficient fulness the contents of the idea. This objection bears against such definitions as the following: Ens absolutum, the self-existent, independent being; and that by Calovius, “Deus est essentia spiritualis infinita;” and Reinhard’s373373Dogmatik, p. 92.Deus est, Natura necessaria, a mundo diversa, summas complexa perfectiones et ipsius mundi causa;” or Baumgarten’s “Spiritus perfectissimus, rationem qui ipsius rerumque contingentium omnium seu mundi continens;” or, that of Morus, “Spiritus perfectissimus, conditor, conservator, 367et gubernator mundi.” Probably the best definition of God ever penned by man, is that given in the “Westminster Catechism”: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” This is a true definition; for it states the class of beings to which God is to be referred. He is a Spirit; and He is distinguished from all other spirits in that He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and perfections. It is also a complete definition, in so far as it is an exhaustive statement of the contents of our idea of God.

In what sense, however, are these terms used? What is meant by the words “being,” and “perfections,” or “attributes” of God? In what relation do his attributes stand to his essence and to each other? These are questions on which theologians, especially during the scholastic period, expended much time and labor.

Being of God.

By being is here meant that which has a real, substantive existence. It is equivalent to substance, or essence. It is opposed to what is merely thought, and to a mere force or power. We get this idea, in the first place, from consciousness. We are conscious of self as the subject of the thoughts, feelings, and volitions, which are its varying states and acts. This consciousness of substance is involved in that of personal identity. In the second place, a law of our reason constrains us to believe that there is something which underlies the phenomena of matter and mind, of which those phenomena are the manifestation. It is impossible for us to think of thought and feeling, unless there be something that thinks and feels. It is no less impossible to think of action, unless there be something that acts; or of motion, unless there be something that moves. To assume, therefore, that mind is only a series of acts and states, and that matter is nothing but force, is to assume that nothing (nonentity) can produce effects.

God, therefore, is in his nature a substance, or essence, which is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; the common subject of all divine perfections, and the common agent of all divine acts. This is as far as we can go, or need to go. We have no definite idea of substance, whether of matter or mind, as distinct from its attributes. The two are inseparable. In knowing the one we know the other. We cannot know hardness except as we know something hard. We have, therefore, the same knowledge of the essence of God, as we have of the substance of the soul. All we have to do in reference to the divine essence, as a Spirit, is to deny of it, as we do 368of our own spiritual essence, what belongs to material substances; and to affirm of it, that in itself and its attributes it is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. When, therefore, we say there is a God, we do not assert merely that there is in our minds the idea of an infinite Spirit; but that, entirely independent of our idea of Him, such a Being really exists. Augustine374374Enarratio in Psalmum, lxvii. I. 5, edit. Benedictines, vol. iv. p. 988 c. says, “Deus est quædam substantia; nam quod nulla substantia est, nihil omnino est. Substantia ergo aliquid esse est.”

If, therefore, a divine essence, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, exists, this essence existed before and independent of the world. It follows also that the essence of God is distinct from the world The Scriptural doctrine of God is consequently opposed to the several forms of error already mentioned; to Hylozoism, which assumes that God, like man, is a composite being, the world being to Him what the body is to us; to Materialism, which denies the existence of any spiritual substance, and affirms that the material alone is real; to extreme Idealism, which denies not only the reality of the internal world, but all real objective existence, and affirms that the subjective alone is real; to Pantheism, which either makes the world the existence form of God, or, denying the reality of the world, makes God the only real existence. That is, it either makes nature God, or, denying nature, makes God everything.


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