The Attributes of God

February 16, 2011 — 1 Comment


[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]

These two chapters of The Christian Faith start the second section of the book: God Who Lives. Chapter 6 covers the incommunicable attributes of God, while chapter 7 covers the communicable. This distinction is fairly typical of Reformed theology. In a way it is based on the distinction between God’s transcendence and immanence. Attributes related to transcendence are supposedly not shared by men and attributes of immanence are. Horton’s rationale underlying the approach is moving from the via negationis to the via eminentia. The former is focused on attributes that are framed negatively (infinite, immutable, invisible, etc.), while the latter is focused on attributes.

John Frame in his Doctrine of God notes that this distinction may be helpful for categorization but is not technically accurate:

In one sense, all the divine attributes are incommunicable. Our love, at its best, is an image of God’s love, but it is not divine. God’s love is identical to his very essence, and therefore radically distinct from ours, even from our love at its best. In another sense, all divine attributes are communicable. Man is the image of God. We are not merely the image of some divine attributes; we image God himself, who is inseparable from all his attributes. (pg. 396)

You’ll have to read more of Frame if you want to see his reasoning, but certainly given Horton’s priority of both analogical knowledge and analogical existence, the attributes of God we may image are still just analogical (and he says so on pg. 259). He does note as well that the distinction is merely a heuristic device. Frame however alters his presentation accordingly and orders the attributes along his triperspectival understanding and separates them out into attributes of goodness (ethical), power (metaphysical), and knowledge (epistemological). There is no reason to fault Horton for following the traditional categories though, its just worth pointing out it does have some weaknesses.

Personally, I find this more helpful than Horton’s presentation, which has several weaknesses. The first is that Horton is not very precise in his definitions. For instance, in his discussion of God’s impassibility, he defines impassibility as “incapacity for being overwhelmed by suffering” (pg. 226, also discussion 242-253). What is lacking in the discussion though is a clear definition of suffering, divine and/or human. By not clearly defining what suffering would entail for God, it leaves open the question of how emotions and pain affect God, especially with reference to the cross.

He also makes the problematic claim that the persons of the Trinity are affected by creatures (making them mutable in some sense) but the essence is immutable. He makes the analogy of how this works with human persons who are mutable while humanity is not, but this creates the problem that now he is arguing that humanity is immutable in a way that seems more than analogical of divinity. This almost comes down to a denial of immutability since he is basically arguing that the persons of the Trinity are mutable, which is hard to differentiated from just saying God is not immutable, since by “God” we are referring to the persons. All of this could have seemingly been avoided had Horton defined better what “suffering” entails on the divine level and then clarified that while the persons experience pain and negative emotions, they do not experience any internal changes of being, which means they are immutable.

Frame on the other hand in his discussion affirms that God experiences pain and negative emotions, but then clarifies what suffering would entail so that his whole discussion, whether or not you agree with his conclusions has a level of clarity and precision that Horton lacks. This leads to another weakness of Horton’s work. It seems to lack a clear principle of organization. Consider the outlines for these two chapters:

  • Chapter 6
  • I. Names, Narratives, and Nouns
  • II. Incommunicable Attributes
  • A. Simplicity
  • B. Self-Existence (Aseity)
  • C.Immutability
  • 1. Scriptural Support
  • 2. Historical Definition
  • 3. Modern Challenges
  • 4. Exegetical Questions
  • D. Impassibility
  • 1. Defining Impassibility
  • 2. Evaluating the Doctrine of Impassibility
  • 3. Recent Criticism of Impassibility
  • 4. Navigating Between Scylla and Charybdis
  • E. Eternity and Omnipresence
  • Chapter 7
  • I. Omniscience and Omnipotence: God’s Knowledge, Wisdom, and Power
  • A. Free Agents and the Infinite-Qualitative Distinction
  • B. Sovereignty and Omniscience
  • C. Sovereignty and Omnipresence
  • II. Goodness, Love, and Mercy
  • III. Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice
  • IV. Jealousy and Wrath

Now in Chapter 6, II.C Immutability, the structure found there should realistically be replicated under each attribute. Some attributes may require more exposition, more historical defense, or more philosophical fleshing out, but each attributes should be clearly drawn from any Scripture passages that support it, demonstrated to be a historical way of talking about God, and defended briefly against any modern challenges. Every attribute should have a clear, precise definition of it that is easily discerned from the text and any component parts of that definition should be defined as well (for instance the issue above with no clear definition of “suffering” upon which the definition of “impassibility” hinges).

Beyond all of this, the one other weakness of Horton’s discussion of the doctrine of God is that it can be hard at times to tell when he is departing from the traditional formulations. In Frame’s writings he routinely departs from traditional language, but when he does so, you usually get several paragraphs of argumentation which have as the conclusion “and that is why I am expressing this idea/doctrine differently.” Some of this may come down to background. Horton’s training is in historical theology and that comes through clearly in his work and his proclivity to interact with so many diverse sources. Frame on the other hand was trained in analytical philosophy and his writing tends be more philosophical than Horton’s but also more clear and precise. Even when you disagree with Frame, you at least have a clear chain of argumentation to examine. Horton’s writing does not facilitate this kind of analysis very well.

In terms of positive value to Horton’s work in these two chapters, he has a much more clear reliance on Scripture than we saw in the earlier chapters. Many of the things he says are good orthodox descriptions of the attributes of God. To make some of the criticisms I have above may make it seem like these two chapters aren’t worth the time it takes to read them, but that is certainly not the case. His aim in the chapter on God’s communicable attributes is almost devotional in its nature. The only real criticism of that chapter is that it may be too short. Much more could have been said, but what Horton says is on the whole pretty good. The problem we keep running into is that a surface reading of Horton seems to be really good, but further examination brings out problems. It may on the whole have been better for this work to be better edited and had more time to simmer before being released.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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