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chapter 3: On the Communicable Attributes of God - 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).
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On the Communicable Attributes of God
On the communicable attributes of God in general
It naturally tends to enhance our devotion to God to consider him as a spirit, a spirit in whom all the individual prerogatives of supreme Deity which we surveyed above are attached to each of the common properties of spirits.This attachment of incommunicable attributes to communicable attributes is neatly expressed by the reverend theologians of the Synod of Westminster, when in describing God in the Westminster Catechism, Question 4, they liken the incommunicable attributes to adjectives, the communicable to substantives which the adjectives modify.1 In order to proceed properly in this train of thought, we should reflect on ourselves and on the modes of thinking which we experience in ourselves; we must then carefully distinguish in each mode what indicates a perfection and what indicates an imperfection. Our aim is to reject all imperfections, that is, all those conditions which derogate in any way from the divine prerogatives established in the last chapter, and to assign the remainder securely to the Deity, not only stripped of imperfections, but also negatively separated from them, or so elevated by the addition of incommunicable attributes, that the result is worthy of God and proper to him. We have explained above (ch. 2, sec. i, toward the end) the way in which incommunicable attributes are formed from communicable attributes.2
But (to avoid repeating the same thing again and again later) we must make a cautionary point at the outset. We find an imperfection in all our modes of thinking: they are adventitious to our minds and different in reality both from the mind itself in which they inhere and among themselves, and they are only formed in us successively. But in God there is a completely different mode: all his thoughts are one most simple and eternal act which is in reality identical with his essence, as is quite clear from the simplicity and immutability which we previously asserted of the Deity.
Further, a consideration which we used above to form the notion of the simplicity of God in general is highlighted in a special way when we attribute the perfections of spirits to God. For, since the divine essence has necessarily to be recognized as most perfect in itself without addition of any distinct entity, it cannot be most perfect without actual knowledge, and that knowledge must be consistent with his most perfect nature, i.e., it must be infinite. Hence knowledge which is actually infinite belongs essentially to God, i.e., is identical with his nature. (The same thing is to be understood of an actual volition that conforms with the supreme reason, etc.) With this observation, we go on to particular points.
On the divine ideas of things
In the first place we experience in ourselves that we contemplate various ideas of various things or conceive of various objects; and since it denotes a perfection rather than an imperfection to conceive of objects or to apprehend them (because this is necessarily involved in every thought about them), there is no doubt that we should attribute the same to God.
But our mind has particular concepts of only a few things, and these are thoroughly imperfect and inadequate; and just as it views external things only in ideas drawn from outside itself, so perhaps it does not know itself till it catches itself engaged with things other than itself.
By contrast God himself is the closest object of knowledge to God; thus while he comprehends himself in his omnisufficiency, he must also contemplate in the most perfect manner all possible things which are virtually contained in it. That God cannot comprehend himself without contemplating all possible things, since they are virtually and eminently contained within himself, is so far from convicting him of poverty (as Poiret foolishly fears) that on the contrary it is to be attributed to the infinite sufficiency of the Deity.3
But we must not attribute to the Deity the sensations and imaginations that are found in us, since they are not in themselves true representations of objects, but give evidence of passions and dependence on external things, and seem to have been given to us only to assist our weakness, i.e., so that external things, which would otherwise be hidden, may become known to us through their effect on our minds.
On the divine knowledge
We also observe in ourselves that we form opinions or judgments by comparing ideas with each other. As the knowledge of truth which consists in the sole act of judging is a great perfection of a thinking thing, without which simply having ideas by observation would be of little use to the mind, there is no doubt that judgment, understood in this sense, belongs also to God. We here use the term “judgment” as it is understood by logicians in describing acts of the mind. One must beware therefore of following the usage of our vernacular idiom and including anything in the idea of it which would derogate from the certainty of knowledge.4
But of the immense number of knowable truths our judgment extends only to a few, and is frequently uncertain even about these and quite often wrong. But the judgment of God bears on its face the highest evidence of truth in all things, and has the most absolute right to be called knowledge. It also embraces the whole range of truth in its scope; for only infinite knowledge is worthy of infinite Spirit. But to get a better grasp of these things so far as our means allow, we must distinguish between the different classes of truths to be known.
In the first place there is no doubt that God, however incomprehensible to every finite intellect, is wholly perspicuous to himself; he is conscious in the most perfect manner of his own existence and of his infinite perfections. For no other object of knowledge is either more intimate to infinite mind, or more worthy of it.
Further, since God in his omnisufficiency, as we said in the last section, contemplates all ideas of possible things whatsoever, he must be able to perceive all their possible relations, i.e., those hypothetical truths about the connections and oppositions between the attributes of things which, since they are the same at any point of time, are generally called eternal, and among which are all the things that we get to know by direct or indirect comparison of abstract ideas.
These hypothetical truths have this in common with the truths concerning the actual existence of God himself and the supreme perfections, that they are conceived as being as they are necessarily and independently of the decree of the divine will; hence both these kinds of knowledge in God are called the knowledge of simple intelligence.
With great effort and with no success the distinguished Poiret attempts to show that all truths, even purely hypothetical truths concerning the properties of finite things, have their origin in the free and indifferent decision of the divine will. In fact he seems to betray his case when he contends that in no way could those things be without those properties. But they could (he says) have been nothing. What is this? Not to exist? No one denies it. They could (he says) not have been possible. But no; for since they involve a contradiction, they could never have been possible for that reason. The learned man seems to have been misled by the fact that (following a scholastic prejudice on this issue) he considered the essences of nonexistent things as something real; nor has he fully recognized that whatever is affirmed of things which are not posited as actually existing, is only affirmed in view of the possible case that they exist. 5
Again, God, who is intimately aware within himself of his eternal design, ever knows with supreme certainty the existence of all created things and all their actions and all the changes which may occur to them at any time, since these are all determined directly or indirectly by the decree of the divine will. Divine knowledge of truths of this kind, which he contemplates in the deliberation of his will, is called the knowledge of vision.
In knowing all these things, God does not depend on acquiring pieces of knowledge from external sources as we do, nor does he perceive them in their effects, but in the first cause of all things. Hence he does not make use of discursive thought, that is, he does not proceed from the known to things which were previously unknown. The supreme perfection of the divine intellect does not permit this successive mode of thought; its absolute simplicity and immutability does not suffer it; these individual perfections make it clear that the divine intellect surveys all truths in one eternal and simple act. But if our successive mode of knowing does not belong to God because it implies previous ignorance or doubt, still less does forgetfulness, which is subsequent ignorance, take place in him, not to mention the cruder imperfections of our intellect such as error and inconsistency in judgment.
God’s knowledge is called wisdom, since it is concerned with what it is most worthy of divine perfection to effect and most fitting to illustrate his glory in a splendid manner. Since it is understood to embrace the whole system of things that might be created and thus assumes that nothing has yet been decreed, it belongs to the knowledge of simple intelligence.
Besides this double knowledge which we have shown to be rightly attributed to God, some of the Scholastics (namely those who, as we shall explain below, have denied to God the determination of the free actions performed by rational creatures) have concocted a third knowledge, which they call mediate. They were attempting to explain how God has foreknowledge from eternity of the free actions of creatures, though they have not been at all determined by his decree. Mediate knowledge is the knowledge by which God is said to know what a rational creature would do, if he were placed in such and such circumstances; and thus God would know what the creature would actually do when he saw in his decree that the creature would be placed in such circumstances.6
But either the circumstances in which the creature is assumed to be placed have a necessary connection with the action which the creature is foreseen as likely to do in that case, or they do not. If the former, God knows the connection by the knowledge of simple intelligence, and by placing the creature in those circumstances, he determines it by that very fact to do the action necessarily connected with them. If the latter, the connection of the action with the circumstances supposed could neither occur nor be foreseen without an ordination of the divine will by which it would be determined, either in itself or in its cause (for nothing else can be credited with connecting things which are not linked by nature), and in this case God knows the said connection by the knowledge of vision. In both cases, the action of the creature cannot be known as absolutely going to occur except in those causes by which, when taken together as a whole, the exercise of the same action is determined. Nor could something which was to exist in time be foreknown from eternity, unless something also existed from eternity which determined its existence. And thus we are led to think about the divine will.
On the divine will
We experience in ourselves that we will what seems compatible with ourselves and that we reject what seems incompatible with ourselves. Since this in itself shows no imperfection but on the contrary obvious perfection, it is certain that will is to be attributed to God. For we cannot understand the notion of a happiness in which the happy person does not acquiesce by willing it, and no action which is not done freely, i.e., by command of the will, is worthy of a most perfect being.
The difference is that men want what they will because it contributes in some manner to their felicity (which good men seek in God, and pursue in order to illustrate the divine glory). God, on the other hand, who is most happy in himself, as will be said below, first seeks, in whatever he wills outside himself, not the increase or preservation of his own felicity but the illustration of his infinite perfections (in which lies the felicity of rational creatures who seek their felicity in the manner which God commands). As we can conceive of no object outside God more worthy of conception by the divine will, so it is noteworthy that Holy Scripture everywhere favors this manner of conceiving him.7
What God’s will is in other respects and with what objects it is concerned, can be understood to some extent from what has been said before.
Firstly, it is agreed that the divine will is utterly independent and cannot be moved or swayed properly speaking by external objects, since it is in reality the same as the divine essence and therefore is prior to all external things and eternal and immutable. As far as the objects are concerned, the divine will can be distinguished in much the same way as we distinguished divine knowledge in the previous section. First it is certain that God wills himself, wills his own existence and all his perfections; likewise he wills that the eternal and immutable relations of ideas, or what we have called hypothetical truths about the essential attributes of things, be always the same as they always are. But with respect to these, since the divine will, as far as our mode of conceiving goes, seems rather to presuppose than to precede the truth of the things themselves as it appears to the divine intellect, this will of God which is concerned with the objects of the knowledge of simple intelligence, is usually called approving will.
Secondly, God also wills that certain beings different from himself should exist, each in their own times; that they should have a certain fixed order and arrangement among themselves; that some things be born, some die, etc. As there seems to be no necessary reason in any of these things why it should be thus or otherwise antecedently to the ordination of the divine will, for this reason God is conceived (in our order of conceiving) as willing those things to be so, before the things themselves are conceived as such or known by God to be so. This will of God, which is concerned with the objects of the knowledge of vision (which is itself founded in that will, so far as our manner of conceiving it goes) has normally been called deciding will or decree.
And just as approving will extends to all necessary and immutable truths, so deciding will pertains to all truths which we normally call contingent, not only about things as absolutely going to be or not going to be, but also about connections made between things which are bound together with each other not in their natures but in the divine decree; knowledge of them, as we remarked above, belongs to the knowledge of vision.
For we understand here by necessary truths to which we extend the knowledge of simple intelligence and the approving will of God, only those truths whose ground, in our order of conceiving, does not seem to need to be sought in the divine will. Such truths, as we indicated above, include purely conditional truths, as well as the existence of God himself and his supreme perfections. By contingent truths, on the other hand, which we assign to the knowledge of vision and the deciding will, we understand all truths whose reason for being as they are should be sought in God’s will. Such are all truths which are not purely conditional and abstract about created things as well as those which flow from the will of God and which we understand from the very idea of Deity as belonging to his most perfect nature.
Thus the distinction between the approving will and the deciding will in no way coincides with the distinction which some make between the necessary and the indifferent will of God. We assume, for example, that retributive justice is essential to God. On this assumption, it is certain that God necessarily wills that if sins have been committed, they should be punished; this however is the deciding will, and the knowledge by which God knows that sins will be punished is the knowledge of vision. For the reason why this will happen is to be sought in the divine will, and antecedently to the divine will there is no necessity for it internal to the effect itself, however necessarily that will (even in our ideas) is connected with divine perfection. Hence this necessity is not at all opposed to liberty rightly understood, since it does not prevent the effect being produced by God through the decision of his will.
The conclusion of the argument is that the will of God is the true cause of all real existence outside of God, since it completely depends on God and on his willing it. And since the divine decree is identical with God, it cannot depend on any cause which is really distinct from him, even though in our order of conceiving it (which is by analogy drawn from our mode of thinking) the decree presupposes the divine existence together with its essential perfections, as well as the knowledge of simple intelligence.
Furthermore by the mode of thinking with which we are familiar, one decree is normally thought of as presupposing another. For among men, what is last in execution of a set of effects bound to each other by constant connection, is normally first in intention; so in comparing the works of God (where what is last in execution seems to be superior in excellence, and its production seems to illustrate the divine perfections more clearly) it is natural for us to think of God as willing one thing first, then as willing other things so far as they are means to it. And indeed, when some creation of God’s manifestly serves an excellent purpose worthy of the divine wisdom, it would be an absurd scruple, which would seriously insult the supreme craftsman, to doubt that the fitness of this creation to this use was appointed by the most wise counsel of God. And it is not only in the apt fitting of means to ends, but also of other things between which there is no physical connection (especially of moral actions with their moral effects) that the divine purpose so plainly appears that we cannot fail to recognize it without impiety.
Thus we prove that the successive mode of willing does not belong to God by employing the same considerations by which we showed in the previous section that discursive thought is not appropriate to him. The successive mode of willing is that by which we are led from intending an end to deciding on the use of means, or in general are led from a thing previously decided to deciding another which must be connected with it. Similarly it seems that we cannot find a more suitable way to think about the divine purposes from our narrow perspective than by representing God to ourselves as taking in at one glance the whole system of things, or even innumerable possible systems, or (as a certain recent excellent writer, Leibniz,8 loved to say) infinite possible worlds, from which he chooses one, namely that system of things which are to exist at the time and place that has seemed to infinite wisdom to be most appropriate.
Since we see such a small part of this system (not to mention the infinite possible systems with which it is compared in the divine mind), the reasons for the divine purposes even in things which come within our view, are for the most part hidden from us.
Finally just as every vacillation and inconstancy is to be excluded from the divine will, so much more is every irregularity, though all too often found in our wills.
On the divine sanctity
And from here we move to consideration of the divine sanctity. The difficulty of conceiving it is all the greater because though it is a perfection in us to conform our will to the supreme rule, yet this implies the imperfection of assuming a superior whose will we are bound to respect; and to recognize a superior denotes a dependence which is as alien to the Supreme Deity as it is possible to be.
But one must reflect that the sanctity, or moral goodness, of a rational creature consists in his love and veneration of God, and in displaying these feelings by habitual will in all those actions which God determines to demand as evidences of them. And similarly the sanctity of God consists in the infinite love by which God embraces his infinite perfection, and in his immutable will to declare this love by all those dispensations toward creatures, and especially rational creatures, which eternal reason teaches most aptly serve this end. When we assert that the idea of moral good necessarily has regard to God, we do not therefore abandon the idea of a moral goodness which is to be attributed to God himself, nor are we forced to turn it into something trivial, as some wrongly object.9
Here it is relevant that God is truthful, so that he is not able to contradict himself either by deceiving a creature by his testimony or by imposing a false proposition on him to be accepted by faith. It is also relevant that he is benevolent, or ready to do good to his creatures, especially his rational creatures, so far as they bear his image and are not opposed to him, and finally that he is just, i.e., he approves in a rational creature what is consistent with himself and rejects the inconsistent, and he wills that both be manifested by connecting the felicity of a creature with duly observed subordination to him, its misery with violation of that subordination.
God’s will to interpret certain actions of a rational creature as tokens of due or undue feeling toward him or the preservation or violation of subordination and thus to connect it with the happiness or misery of the creature, this will, I say, when proclaimed to the creature by suitable signs, is called the divine law. No secret will of God is ever in conflict with this will so signified. For in its precepts God does not express absolutely what he wills or decrees that the creature should do, but what sort of deed on the part of a rational creature he will accept as an indication of love and veneration and connect with the happiness of the same creature; and what sort of deed, by contrast, he will hold as a sign of neglect or contempt for himself, and will connect with the misery of the creature. And the event always corresponds to this revealed will.
On the divine power
We also experience in ourselves some power over external objects or at least a shadow of such power. This is the power by which in response to specific acts of our will, certain new motions are produced in our bodies and sometimes also in external objects by means of bodily motions; and such motions could have been restrained or at least checked by contrary acts of will. Since power which is freely active (i.e., power that acts at the command of the will) argues no defect, but on the contrary denotes a perfection which is utterly worthy of the being who embraces all things by his own virtue, it is certain that freely acting power belongs to God, or that the will of God is efficacious in external objects.
But our power is quite limited and dependent; that is, it extends only to producing certain changes in things, a few small changes which are put within our power by the efficacy of a superior cause. These imperfections must be excluded from divine power. Only infinite power is to be attributed to an infinite being and only a wholly independent power to an independent being.
We are right to say therefore that God is omnipotent; by this title we imply that the efficacy of the divine will is such that God brings about outside of himself by the sheer command of his will whatever he wishes to exist, at the time and in the circumstances in which he wishes it to exist. He does so quite independently and irresistibly, so that in carrying out his will he does not depend on the influence of any superior or allied cause; nor is any other cause capable of putting an obstacle in his way.
By this kind of explanation, by which we conceive the power of God as the efficacy of the divine will, we neither confound the idea of power with the idea of will nor restrict the power itself. (Both of these objections are made and both are wrong.) We only restrict the exercise of it to objects which God actually wishes to exist.
On the dominion and majesty of God
Since God, the creator of all things, ever seeks the illustration of his infinite perfections and of the infinite love with which he embraces them as eternal reason dictates, it cannot be doubted, that he both can and will, by most just right, dispose all things created by himself to that most excellent end. In the first place he can and will dispose those endowed with reason. To them God shows himself a most worthy object of love and veneration in which alone they can be supremely happy, and at the same time declares that he wills with equally just right that happiness be connected with duly observed subordination to him, misery with the violation of subordination; and he is omnipotent to carry out this his will. It is evident that nothing is lacking to bind each rational creature by the most sacred ties to seek his happiness (to which he ever aspires by the fundamental law of his nature) in God, and to pursue it by a series of actions which God wills to require as symbols of love and veneration toward himself; and he rightly renders the creature which acts otherwise liable to supreme misery. And the sovereign right of the Supreme Deity, insofar as it affects all creatures indifferently, is his dominion; insofar as it regards rational creatures in particular, it is his majesty or authority.
On the divine happiness
Finally we have the experience from time to time of enjoying happiness or pleasure, but also sometimes are afflicted by misery or pain. And so we understand that our beatitude or misery does not depend wholly upon us, since we would wish to be always happy, never miserable. To be happy is indeed a great perfection of thinking substance, and therefore to be attributed to the Deity without reservation. But to depend on another for one’s happiness, and to be capable of misery, are imperfections, which must therefore be excluded from God. As he is most perfectly conscious of his infinite perfection, he cannot but acquiesce in it with supreme complacency; he has from eternity infinite beatitude in the enjoyment of himself, to which no external thing can add or subtract anything.
[1.] This sentence was a footnote in Carmichael’s text. The reference is to Question 4 in “The Westminster Shorter Catechism”: “What is God?” The Answer: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”The Confession of Faith, p. 288.
[2.] See above, pp. 248–49.
[3.] This sentence was a footnote in Carmichael’s text. Pierre Poiret, Cogitationes Rationales, III.VII, p. 295.
[4.] The last two sentences were a footnote in Carmichael’s text. On judgment, see below, pp. 298 ff.
[5.] This paragraph was a footnote in Carmichael’s text. Poiret, Cogitationes Rationales, III.VII, p. 296.
[6.] The notion of “mediate knowledge” (scientia media) was considered by some among the Reformed scholastics to be an invention of the Jesuits, adopted by the Arminians or Remonstrants, to reconcile divine foreknowledge (scientia visionis) with the human freedom to perform acts not determined by the divine will. Carmichael’s argument against this position is consistent with the reasoning of Gisbertus Voetius and others, reviewed by Heppe, Refomed Dogmatics, pp. 77–81. For background on the lives and writings of Voetius, Turretinus, and others, see Trueman and Clark, Protestant Scholasticism, pp. 227–55.
[7.] This sentence was a footnote in Carmichael’s text.
[8.] Carmichael owned a copy of Leibniz’s Essais de Théodicée. It was a gift from his student John MacLaurin, who became a respected Presbyterian clergyman; the copy is in Glasgow University Library.
[9.] This sentence was a footnote in Carmichael’s text.