• Catholic Encyclopedia critiqued: The Nature and Attributes of God (Pt 1)

    Here is a broad selection of claims and quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia article “The Nature and Attributes of God” compiled by my friend Julian Haydon:

    God is infinitely perfect
    He is infinitely good, intelligent, wise, just, holy, etc
    no Theist of average intelligence ever thinks of understanding literally the metaphors he applies, or hears applied by others, to God
    Thus God is said to see or hear, as if He had physical organs, or to be angry or sorry, as if subject to human passions
    Obviously there can be only oneinfinite being, only one God.
    God is a simple being or substance excluding every kind of composition, physical or metaphysical.
    When we say that God is a personal being we mean that He is intelligent and free and distinct from the created universe.
    in the one true God, Who is the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, and is also, in the words of the Vatican Council, “omnipotent, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intellect and will and in every perfection”
    The finite mind is not capable of comprehending the Infinite so as adequately to describe its essence
    By saying that God is eternal we mean that in essence, life, and action He is altogether beyond temporal limits and relations. He has neither beginning, nor end, nor duration by way of sequence or succession of moments. There is no past or future for God — but only an eternal present.
    Divine immensity means on the one hand that God is necessarily present everywhere in space

    In God “there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (James 1:17); “They [i.e. “the works of thy hands”] shall perish, but thou shalt continue: and they shall all grow old as a garment. And as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: but thou art the selfsame and thy years shall not fail” (Hebrews 1:10-12, Psalm 101:26-28. Cf. Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8). These are some of the Scriptural texts which clearly teach Divine immutability or unchangeableness, and this attribute is likewise emphasized in church teaching, as by the Council of Nicaea against the Arians, who attributed mutability to the Logos (Denzinger, 54-old No. 18), and by the Vatican Council in its famous definition.

    That the Divine nature is essentially immutable, or incapable of any internal change, is an obvious corollary from Divine infinity.

    That God is omniscient or possesses the most perfect knowledge of all things, follows from His infinite perfection. In the first place He knows and comprehends Himself fully and adequately, and in the next place He knows all created objects and comprehends their finite and contingent mode of being. Hence He knows them individually or singularly in their finite multiplicity, knows everything possible as well as actual; knows what is bad as well as what is good. Everything, in a word, which to our finite minds signifies perfection and completeness of knowledge may be predicated of Divine omniscience, and it is further to be observed that it is on Himself alone that God depends for His knowledge. To make Him in any way dependent on creatures for knowledge of created objects would destroy His infiniteperfection and supremacy. Hence it is in His eternal, unchangeable, comprehensive knowledge of Himself or of His own infinite being that God knows creatures and their acts, whether there is question of what is actual or merely possible. Indeed, Divine knowledge itself is really identical with Divine essence, as are all the attributes and acts of God; but according to our finite modes of thought we feel the need of conceiving them distinctly and of representing the Divine essence as the medium or mirror in which the Divine intellect sees all truth.

    His own infinitegoodness

    He freely chooses whether or not creatures shall exist and what manner of existence shall be theirs,

    I plan on critiquing these points, though will need to do this in a couple of posts. Many of the points are huge, so I will point you to other posts I have done. So, here goes.

    God is infinitely perfect

    I have criticised this point before in my post “God Cannot Be Perfect Because Perfect Does Not Make Sense“. The basis of the post is this. You can only be perfect in a goal-directed sense, such that a golf ball is perfect for playing golf, not for cooking supper or playing tennis. This is the same for anything you can think of. There can be subjective elements to this, too. Calling something intrinsically perfect is nonsensical, and so it is with God.

    The other problem is that perfection of a being involves multiple aspects such that, as the classic problem goes, God cannot be perfectly just AND perfectly merciful since to be perfectly just assumes punishing justly for a misdemeanour, and to be perfectly merciful assumes some kind of leniency.

    With all of these characteristics which conflict, the theist retreats to maximal perfection, a sort of optimal scenario given all of the nuances and variables. But this becomes arbitrary and subjective. One more ounce of mercy and one less ounce of justice might be perfect for a God wanting to achieve A, but vice versa might be better for wanting to achieve B.

    He is infinitely good, intelligent, wise, just, holy, etc

    Having edited James A. Lindsay’s masterful Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly I can do no better than send you there, as the book deals with the incoherence of using the term “infinity” with regard to God. However, let me say that apologists like William Lane Craig claim that actual infinities as sets of things do not exist. Since these claims above can be quantified in some way, then this is an admission that an infinite set does exist, in God. I suggest looking here at Lindsay’s post about the quantity vs quality aspect of infinity.

    Infinity is an abstract concept, a map which describes the terrain, and to claim that God is infinite is to abstract him, and to confuse the map with the terrain. God becomes a obtuse abstract concept.

    no Theist of average intelligence ever thinks of understanding literally the metaphors he applies, or hears applied by others, to God

    There is a problem with biblical revelation inasmuch as we cannot objectively tell what in the Bible is metaphor, and what should be taken literally. This also calls into  question the mechanics and people involved in revelation rendering the Bible an imperfect revelation. After all, it was used to countenance slavery for almost 2000 years.

    Metaphors are limited since, after all, they only liken something to something else. Applying metaphors to God is like trying to clothe a shadow.

    Thus God is said to see or hear, as if He had physical organs, or to be angry or sorry, as if subject to human passions

    Again, the problem of an imperfect revelation. I have talked before about the incoherence of emotions with regard to God. Emotions are evolutionarily derived mechanism which provide material beings with advantages. How so for God? As Valerie Tarico states in John Loftus’ The End of Christianity:

    To say that the descriptions of God in the Bible are metaphors does not make the situation any better. A metaphor about something as deep as the human relationship to ultimate reality needs to be deeply accurate. The center of gravity needs to be spot on even if the surface meaning is grossly simplistic. But biblical descriptions of God have this backwards. Rather than heightening the sense of an ineffable power that is compatible with philosophical concepts like omniscience or omnipresence or with the laws of physics and biology, they force divinity into a human template. Rather than evoking the humility, wonder and delight of the unknown, they offer the comfort of false knowledge. Rather than being true to timeless, placeless completeness, they are true to the place-time-culture-ecosystem nexus in which they arose.

    When the writers of the Bible said God was angry, or regretful, or pleased, they had only a superficial idea of what these words actually mean. How could they know that these affective labels describe intricate, functional body systems, just like our visible appendages?  Their peers didn’t yet understand how two eyes create binocularity or how our muscles contract the hand, let alone the chemistry and function of emotions. They were not responsible for their ignorance; they did the best they could with the information at their disposal. They looked at patterns in the natural world and human society and made their best guesses about what lies beyond. We should do the same. (p.177)

    On to the next statement:

    Obviously there can be only one infinite being, only one God.

    OK, so I have talked a little about infinity being problematic. Now we have monotheism. The problem here is that the Judeo-Christian God embodies the Holy Trinity which makes no sense. The leading theory is mysterianism which states that it is beyond our ken to understand. Well, there you go. We simply cannot make sense of it. Perhaps because it makes no sense? See here:

    The Holy Trinity as incoherent #1

    The Holy Trinity as Incoherent #2 – Penal Substitution Theory

    That should be enough to be getting on with. The Trinity makes no logical sense. Same same but different?

    God is a simple being or substance excluding every kind of composition, physical or metaphysical.

    The Divine Simplicity argument flies in the face of Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 thought experiment. The designer of something must be at least as complex as the thing it designs. God must be the most complex thing we know. God is also infinite, apparently, and must contain that infinite knowledge and wisdom etc which must add to levels of complexity. Of course, it depends how you define complexity.

    This also means that God can magic stuff out of nothing. This ex nihilo creation means that since God has no physical dimension, it is somewhat astounding that he can create every physical thing without any such property.

    As Ex-Apologist states:

    Thus, suppose we came upon a log cabin in the forest, and were told that the cabin was very special: it popped into existence out of nothing without an efficient cause. I imagine most of us would find that implausible. But suppose instead that we were told that it was special for another reason: a lumberjack built it without building materials. I imagine most of us would find the second claim at least as implausible as the first claim.

    To which Wes Morriston says:

    After all, a house “popping into existence out of nowhere” doesn’t seem any less absurd just because somebody says (or thinks), “Let there be a house where there was no house.”

    To say that this is unproblematic when the “somebody” in question is an omnipotent God is to beg the question against those who doubt that creation ex nihilo is metaphysically possible. The reason is that on standard assumptions about the nature of omnipotence, God is not supposed to be able to do what is metaphysically impossible. If someone insists it is just “obvious” that God could create a world without any preexisting material stuff to work with, on the ground that there is no lo gical contradiction in the idea of such a feat, then the proper reply is that there is also no logical contradiction in the idea of the universe beginning without a cause.

    This point can be expressed quite precisely in terms of Aristotle’s distinction between efficient and material causes. When I do the relevant “thought experiments,” I find the absence of amaterial cause at least as troubling as the absence of a n efficient cause. At the level of raw, untutored, intuition, the idea of somebody “making” a universe out of absolutely nothing seems to me to be every bit as absurd as that of a “beginning” with no efficient cause.

    I am not suggesting that creation ex nihilo is logically or metaphysically impossible. I am also well aware that the kalam argument is not an argument for a first material cause, but rather an argument for a first efficient cause. (Notwithstanding the title of one of Craig’s articles on the kalam argument!) Nevertheless, I think the “intuitive” absurdity of making something “out of” nothing is a near neighbor of the intuition that something can’t “come from” nothing, and this raises a doubt about the wisdom of relying so heavily on such “intuitions” for the defense of premise (1). Craig may perhaps not unreasonably be accused of emphasizing intuitions that support the picture of creation he wishes to defend, and neglecting those that don’t.

    So this is probably enough to be getting on with. I’ll save the next few lines to the next post.

    Category: AtheismFeaturedGod's CharacteristicsPhilosophy of Religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce