Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 2: On the Attributes of God and First, on the Incommunicable Attributes - Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael
Return to Title Page for Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter 2: On the Attributes of God and First, on the Incommunicable Attributes - Gershom Carmichael, Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael 
Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: The Writings of Gershom Carmichael, ed. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
On the Attributes of God and First, on the Incommunicable Attributes
On the attributes of God in general, and their division
In the last chapter we demonstrated the existence of a Supreme Deity, that is, an independent spirit, supremely perfect, from whom all things have their being. The next step is to give an outline, however briefly, of certain particular perfections of the Deity which are contained by necessary connection in the idea we have just explained and to demonstrate that they belong to the Deity. The perfections formally involved in this idea need no further work, since we have demonstrated above that God exists, when the idea of him is considered in its full comprehension. This was the result of the first two sections of the last chapter, where we proved from the evident series of causes that an independent being exists; then, that what is independent is infinitely perfect; that what is infinitely perfect contains in itself all the perfections of other things, and consequently all things depend upon it; and finally that this most perfect being is also a thinking being and is therefore spirit. Since, as I say, we have adequately demonstrated the existence of this Being which is represented by the idea of God just defined, we must now investigate the attributes which we infer are necessarily connected with that idea.1
One part of this complex idea is generic, namely, that by which God is represented as spirit, or thinking substance; the second part is distinctive, by which God is represented as infinitely perfect, independent, from whom all things depend. Hence also arises a double order of secondary ideas, or attributes. Those which are a consequence of the generic concept, that is, spirituality, are called communicable, because they belong or may belong also to created spirit, at least in some degree. But those ideas which are a consequence of the distinctive concept, i.e., infinite perfection, independence, and absolute primacy, are normally called the incommunicable attributes of God.
We must speak briefly about both kinds of attribute, but first about the incommunicable attributes, both because they are by and large formed in our conception from the attributes common to every being by the removal of the imperfections or limitations which are found in every being except God, and because it is by adding incommunicable attributes that we are to give a particular description of the communicable attributes and in some measure elevate them in our thought in order to make our conceptions of them worthy of God. By this means other incommunicable attributes are generated from the combination of communicable and incommunicable attributes with each other. They designate in a manner appropriate to us the special mode in which otherwise communicable attributes belong to God. Thus infinitude added to knowledge constitutes omniscience, added to power, omnipotence, and so with the rest.
On the necessary existence of God
First, it is inferred from the divine independence that God exists necessarily, that is, by internal and absolute necessity, not (like all other things) in relation to some external principle.
However we do not therefore, as some do, consider the divine perfection as either the cause or reason of the divine existence. Perfection cannot be conceived as the reason for existence, unless existing perfection is meant; that is, unless we assume the very thing whose reason is supposed to be being explained, since existing perfection necessarily involves an existing subject to which it belongs.
We are correct therefore in saying that no cause or reason for the existence of the first and intrinsically necessary being ought to be sought or can be given. In truth it exists, because it exists. And therefore its existence does not have to be demonstrated by us a priori, but only a posteriori. However we do not deny that granted the existence of a deity, his infinite Perfection can be understood, to our way of thinking, as the reason why he cannot but exist in any case.
But from the fact that no reason can be given for first existence, it does not follow (as a certain learned man contends)2 that the first being exists purely fortuitously. Intrinsically necessary existence is not less contrary to fortuitous existence, it is in fact much more contrary to it than it is to anything that follows by the strictest necessity from any principles whatever; and for this reason it cannot by any chance cease to exist.
On the divine unity
The infinity of God no less clearly entails his unity, or his uniqueness, which is utterly incompatible with the existence of several gods, several beings supremely and infinitely perfect.
For what is infinitely perfect essentially involves all pure and simple perfections; and so leaves no perfections of that kind (perfections, that is, from which every imperfection is absent) to be possessed by any other being whatsoever.
Likewise, all things depend on what is infinite, so that no room is left for any other independent being whatsoever. Divine perfection therefore utterly excludes any other being similar or equal to it.
Conversely, no finite being includes in the idea of itself any essential attribute which may not belong to anything at all.
On the divine simplicity
Not only is God himself one, so that it is impossible that more than one God exists; but also whatever exists in God is one in such a way that it is plainly incompatible with the presence in him of several parts or perfections which are really distinct from each other or different from God himself.
For either the several things which are supposed to exist in God are finite and dependent, or they are infinite. If the former, they cannot belong to God, whose perfection does not allow that anything found in him be dependent or finite; if the latter, they imply a plurality of gods, a view refuted in the previous section.
The divine simplicity consists in this real identity of all things that exist in God, among themselves and within God himself. This not only precludes God from being composed of several things, that is, from drawing his existence from others; it also precludes him from being composed with several things, or entering as a part into the constitution of some whole. For this would prove that God does not contain all perfections in himself, but must borrow some by the addition of a component.
This is the point of the phrase of the Scholastics that God is purest Act,3 by which they mean that in God there is nothing potential, that is, no passive power of receiving any perfection or quality whatsoever which is not contained in his essence itself.
On the divine immutability
God’s immutability necessarily flows from his simplicity.
Every change occurs either by a new arrangement of parts or by the addition of some new component, or by the removal of what had previously been a part. But none of these can occur to God, who, as we demonstrated in the previous section, admits neither parts nor components. Therefore the excellence of the divine nature utterly rejects any change whatsoever.
It is equally evident that all created things, being composed of several things or at least with several things, are liable to change.
On the divine eternity
Because of this mutability of all created things and because of their contingency, they may not only possess perfections at one time and lack them at another, but also may exist at one moment and not exist at all at another. Further because of their finite natures and the frequent incompatibility of the properties which they may admit, they possess the various modifications of which they are capable only in succession. This is why we normally measure the existence of created creatures by time, that is, by the parts of succession with which they coexist.
By contrast, the uniform constancy (if one may put it this way) of the existence of God, who exists necessarily, and possesses immutably and therefore all together, all the perfections which can belong to a Supreme Being, and who contains all things by virtue of himself, is far above all those modes of measurement. Hence on the one hand it makes no difference to the essential perfection of the Deity whether succession itself exists and so whether God coexists with it, or not; and on the other hand the Supreme Deity could not lack any of the eternal constancy of existence which coexistence with a succession which was infinite on both sides would involve.
The ideas of divine eternity and immensity which we explain here may seem to some to be rather unusual. But we could not follow the philosophy of some recent writers4 and accept succession and extension as properties of the Supreme Deity or regard them as anything but properties of contingent things, to which necessary existence is no more to be attributed for that reason than to the subjects in which they are. On the other hand we could not for that reason follow the unsubtle subtlety of the Scholastics,5 who on the one hand declare that the whole idea of succession is so distinct from the concept of eternity that they do not seem to recognize any relation of one to the other, and yet by their very manner of speaking betray the fact that they secretly cherish in their minds the popular idea of eternity as a permanent coexistence with a certain infinite flux of moments, or a temporal space, so to speak; just as they do not conceal the fact that they conceive of immensity by means of presence (but without any extension on its own part) with infinite local space. At the same time, since they do not concede necessary existence either to succession or to real extension, they call both spaces imaginary, and thus attribute the properties of real entities to mere nothing. He who seriously reflects on this, will easily recognize that no other way is left than the one which we have attempted. 6
God therefore is eternal, he is the one who, without succession in himself, transcends the whole order of successive things and embraces all succession in his own person, so that he can lengthen or shorten it, by the effective decree of his will, to whatever limits he wishes in either way, while he coexists with it all in the most perfect manner, neither adding anything to his existence, nor taking it away.
On the divine immensity
Again, we are accustomed to define created things not only by times, or parts of succession with which they coexist, but also by places, or parts of extension with which they correspond.
Now the simplicity of the divine nature does not admit this kind of part any more than the other, nor does actual extension any more than succession belong to the essential perfection of the Deity (for the existence of both is contingent). It is a puerile sophism which some learned men have used in trying to demonstrate that real existence cannot be bounded by any furthest limits, much less not exist at all. That which is extended, they say, if it is finite, is either bounded (i.e., as they explain it, surrounded) by that which is extended or by that which is unextended or by nothing; if you say surrounded by nothing, you are, according to them, already attributing extension, which is a property of real being, to nothing. But what schoolboy does not see that the sense of the proposition by which it is said that an extended thing is surrounded by nothing, is negative, i.e., it is not surrounded by any thing, or not surrounded at all. For that every extended finite thing should be actually surrounded by something else (which necessarily posits a further extension) is an obvious petitio principii.7 Yet it is certain that God cannot lack any amplitude which copresence with extension infinite in all dimensions would include.
We therefore conceive of God as immense, that is, as one who without extension in himself, transcends all extension and has it all within himself, so that by the effective decree of his will he may command it to be extended or circumscribed to whatever limits he pleases, being present himself to the whole of it in the most perfect manner, neither adding anything to himself nor taking it away.
On the divine omnisufficiency
From what has been said it is easily understood that God is omnisufficient, i.e., that both for himself, and for all others from himself, he is all in all.
That he is sufficient to himself, is quite obvious from his independence. But if God, the supremely perfect being, is sufficient to himself, much more must he be sufficient for other things which have no perfection at all in themselves, except so far as they carry some shadow of the divine perfections, whether for giving them existence and maintaining it, or affording them the highest perfection they can attain. This is particularly true of the dispensation of complete beatitude, perfect at every point, for rational creatures, not only for giving it to them from himself as the supreme provider, but also for exhibiting it in himself as omnisufficient object.
On the divine incomprehensibility
From each and every one of the perfections explained so far, it obviously follows that the Supreme Deity is incomprehensible, that is, that he cannot be so thoroughly understood by any intelligence except his own that he is not infinitely more concealed than known.
This is not to be understood only in the sense in which it may be truly affirmed that no object of any kind can be comprehended by a finite intelligence, because any given thing has innumerable relations with other things, whether existing or possible, which no finite intellect could exhaustively enumerate. The divine incomprehensibility, I say, is not to be understood only in this sense. For not only does God have infinite relations with infinite external objects, but infinite in himself he also contains all their perfections within himself, and thus has infinitely more perfections than can be enumerated; which cannot be said of any other being.
In fact, though in some measure we do grasp the divine attributes which we conceive, yet in the manner in which they belong to God, each of them leads the mind as it were into an abyss which no finite mind has power to penetrate.
And yet this does not prevent the idea of God which with due attention we achieve, from being said to be clear and distinct in the sense intended by recent writers on logic.8 For however inadequate it may be, and however much of the unknown it may contain, yet in itself it does strike the mind with sufficient vividness, and is easily distinguished from any other idea.
Note too that the finite capacity of our minds implies not only that all the knowledge which we can have of God is quite inadequate in any case, but we cannot grasp it all in one go; we are compelled to present to ourselves the perfections which are plainly identical in God (as is clear from section iv) under various different notions.
But if God cannot be comprehended by the mind, much less can he be plainly expressed by the tongue; and thus he is ineffable.
On the divine admirability
From the divine incomprehensibility it follows that God is supremely admirable, since however long the mind persists in its contemplation of him, something new is always arising for its contemplation, even for eternity.
On the divine adorability
Finally, from all the aforesaid prerogatives of Deity, his adorability necessarily flows; that is, the eminence of perfection on account of which every rational creature is bound to submit himself to God with the greatest mental devotion, and to order all his actions to celebrate his praises. This prerogative necessarily presupposes that God is a thinking agent, and is in truth the incommunicable acme of the divine majesty, of which we will speak in the next chapter.
[1.] Carmichael’s exposition of the existence and attributes of God follows the method of the early (twelfth-century) scholastics, Anselm, Peter Lombard, and others, which was then adopted by the Reformed scholastics: of arguing from the order of the creation, or the via causalitatis (Synopsis, ch. 1); from those attributes of divinity which cannot be shared with mankind, or the via negativa (ibid., ch. 2); and from those attributes which are shared with mankind but are more perfectly possessed by God, or the via eminentiae (ibid., ch. 3). See Turretinus, Institutio theologiae, p. 196. For background, see Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 52.
[2.] Carmichael’s note: S. Clarke in the “Letter on a priori argument,” which is annexed to the most recent edition of the Demonstration of God, etc. [Samuel Clarke, Demonstration of God, 7th edition (London, 1728), pp. 497–504].
[3.] Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 57, citing Daneau and others: “God is actus purissimus et simplicissimus” (purest and most simple act).
[4.] More, Enchiridion metaphysicum, pp. 73 ff. Carmichael had made a similar objection in his early writings to More’s claim that extension should be considered an attribute of spirit. See below, p. 342.
[5.] E.g., Turretinus, Institutio theologiae, p. 233.
[6.] This paragraph was a footnote in Carmichael’s text.
[7.] Part of this paragraph was a footnote in Carmichael’s text.
[8.] E.g., the authors of The Art of Thinking. See below, pp. 287 ff. and 380 ff.