Standard Questions, Incomprehensibility, and Simplicity
God is incomprehensible. This means that he is always beyond us. The heaven of heavens cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron. 2:6; 6:18), much less our feeble minds and lisping speech. For this reason, lists of divine attributes have always appeared to be a bit beyond theologians who have made them, since no two lists of attributes agree fully. Even the Westminster Catechisms and the Confession of Faith differ from one another in this regard to some extent. Some have divided divine attributes into communicable or incommunicable ones, absolute or relative ones, as well as a few other methods. Yet while we cannot comprehend God, we can (and we must) apprehend him by faith in Christ, with the Spirit’s help, as he has revealed himself in Scripture.
One way to do this is to understand how the divine attributes relate to one another in some measure. The so-called Leiden Synopsis helps us do this to some extent through its concise summary of the divine attributes, written by Antonius Thysius. This can help us think through the attributes and, in doing so, better understand how and why Reformed theologians grappled with what kind of God the true God is. This post will trace some of his thought by looking at the standard questions related to the divine nature and at the general principles tying together the divine attributes, including the divine names and God’s incomprehensibility and simplicity. The next post will outline how he related specific attributes to one another under the categories of incommunicable and communicable attributes, with some possible implications for understanding Reformed doctrinal summaries, such as the Westminster Catechism and Confession of Faith.
The three standard questions facing theologians were whether there is a God (an sit Deus), what kind of God the true God is (quails sit Deus), and who he is (quis sit Deus). Thysius began by saying that in theology, we should not ask an sit Deus, or whether God exists, “since theology takes for granted that he does exist” (151). Theology begins with faith in the triune God of Scripture rather than an open question as to whether there is such a God or not. Quis sit Deus, or who God is, related to the doctrine of the Trinity, which needs to be treated separately in its own right. Qualis, or quid sit Deus sought to describe what kind of God the true God is through his names and attributes (155). This is the question at hand here.
While other authors gave lengthy treatments of the divine names, Thysius listed only a few. Theos, which refers ordinarily to the Father in Scripture, “is appropriated to the Father especially (Romans 1:1), both because of the relation between the [divine] persons, as well as because of the economy and plan that was established in order to maintain the mystery of our salvation” (157). After introducing various names related to el and Elohim, including their proper and improper uses (157), he concluded that Yahweh, or Yah, was God’s proper name and that it carried the idea of eternality (159). Yahweh is adonai, or Lord. This God revealed himself clearly as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament. In summary, this means that the God who exists is Triune, he is the self-existent, eternal, independent God, and he is both God and Lord. This takes us from common questions related to the doctrine of God through a truncated view of the divine names, which was the first way of understanding God’s character.
The divine attributes, or qualities, came next. The general principles tying together the divine attributes related to overarching considerations as well as to means of classifying the attributes. As for overarching principles, Reformed theology recognized that God was both incomprehensible and simple. The theologian’s daunting task was to describe from Scripture the God “who cannot be defined” (161). In summary, Thysius wrote that God,
is a spiritual essence, entirely simple and infinite, that is eternal and immeasurable, an immutable; living and immortal, understanding, wise and all knowing. He is goodness itself, love, kindness, mercy, forbearance, righteousness, and holiness, etc. (161).
The et cetera at the end of this short list meant that he could have kept going. The idea was that while the Scriptures provide us with true knowledge of God, they never furnish us with exhaustive knowledge of God. God only has archetypal theology, which includes his self-knowledge and his knowledge of all things in relation to himself. We only have ectypal creaturely knowledge in which we understand God by way of dim analogy.
Reformed authors also taught that God was a single simple essence. This meant that he could not be divided into parts. He is not the sum total of his attributes, but he is all of his attributes all at once. The attributes are not things that God possess, but aspects of who he is. We distinguish between the attributes only so that we can speak meaningfully about God, but he is always beyond our comprehension and there is no real distinction between his essence and his properties (163-165). This incomprehensible and simple God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who is “the Creator, the Preserver, and the Ruler of the universe, the Redeemer, Savior and Glorifier of his elect” (161).
Reformed theologians treated the divine attributes in light of divine simplicity. This meant that the attributes represented differing interlocked and mutually informing facets of the divine nature without importing any real distinctions or parts into God. The attributes were more than names and less than real distinctions in God. This partly explains why he is incomprehensible. While we really know God, he is always beyond us. Though we cannot comprehend him fully in our understandings, we must learn to apprehend him truly by our faith. As we apprehend him by faith, we must worship him in hope and in love.
Editors Note: Read more about the Leiden Synopsis at reformation21!
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.