Friday, April 25, 2008

Dialogue on God's Infinity

The following dialogue took place between a member of my formerly active Greektheology yahoogroup and me. I have edited some parts of the dialogue to render it more coherent. Our debate centered around a passage that I quoted from Louis Berkhof's systematic theology. I have replaced my interlocutor's name with a pseudonym.

I thought you had a copy of Berkhof. I was therefore
surprised when you described God's infinity as being
"quantitative," when Berkhof clearly shows that it
is not. Rather, God's unlimitedness is qualitative in
nature. Aquinas, Scotus and Berkhof all agree that
God's boundlessness is not quantitative.

Did you read the following sections on eternity and
immensity? It is clear their that with respect to God's being,
Berkhof sees God's infinity as quantitative,
and with respect to his attributes, from the section you partially
cited, as qualitative. I am simply saying that the
two (God's attributes and being) cannot be separated
except for the purposes of discussion.

Yes, I've read what Berkhof has to say about God's
eternity, immensity and putative omnipresence. I can
therefore point out that he clearly does not view
God's infinity as "quantitative," nor does he even
conscript the term in his section on God's immensity
or eternity, as far as I can tell. As I demonstrated
earlier, if God's infinitude were quantitative in
nature, it could be counted or measured. But it cannot be
quantified; ergo, it is not quantitative. Berkhof most
definitely does not support you here. I don't know how
you're using or construing the adnominal "quantitative," but it
manifestly is not applicable to God's
infinity (whether He is incorporeal or not).

I don't agree because you are drawing an invalid
inference from what Berkhof actually writes.

Can you demonstrate how I am drawing an "invalid
inference" from what Berkhof writes in Systematic
? Where does he state that the infinity of
God is quantifiable? How much clearer could Berkhof be when
he writes that God's infinity "should not be
understood in a quantitative, but in a qualitative
sense; it qualifies all the communicable attributes of

[Edgar continued]
There appears to be no doubt that you and Berkhof
concur in the respect you have outlined. You are
apparently referring to the SIMPLICITAS DEI here,
when you speak of God's attributes being coextensive
with His being, a belief that I have not seen good
reason to affirm for biblical, logical and theological
reasons. Don't get me wrong. I do not believe that
God's attributes are parts or accidental modes of
the divine being. However, it appears to me that there
is both a conceptual and probably even a formal
distinction (at the very least)--that is to say, a
Scotistic-like DISTINCTIO FORMALIS--between, for
instance, divine omnipotence and divine

And that distinction would be?

It is easy to see how these two divine incommunicable
attributes are conceptually distinct. Analytically
(i.e. by definition), omnipotence cannot be the same
attribute as omniscience without a severe
contradiction obtaining. I don't think you dispute
this point. The more controversial proposal might be
the notion that there is a "formal distinction"
(DISTINCTIO FORMALIS) that obtains between divine
omnipotence and divine omniscience. By this, I mean
that these two essential properties of God *may* be
two different aspects of one divine perfection. I'm
not sure about this idea though. In any event, if
there is a formal distinction between omniscience and
omnipotence, it would mean that the distinction is not
merely conceptual but much the same as the DISTINCTIO
between head/tails or space/time or matter/energy. If
we are careful with our speech and concepts, we do not
wholly conflate the foregoing things, one with
another, because they are not reducible, one to

As long as you realize that these distinctions are
theoretical. We may speak of God's essence and existence,
but the former essentially (!) implies the latter.

How does the former entail the latter? I define the
essence of an entity as its "quiddity" (QUIDDITAS),
nature or whatness. Existence, on the other hand,
refers to the lived actuality of an essence (Thomas
Aquinas uses the expression ACTUS ESSENDI). Scotus
makes a helpful distinction between the essence,
existence and HAECCEITAS of a RES. In other words, it
is possible to posit an essence for an entity (RES)
that does not actually exist. For example,
unicornality in no way implies that unicorns exist.
Essence does not imply existence. This is even the
case when God is the "essence" that we have in mind.



Jason said...

Hi Edgar,

Though I am not so sure I understand how the issue of whether God's infinity is quantitative or not could have arisen in the first place given that - which it doesn't seem to me that either side is intending to deny - infinity is beyond number and thus of necessity beyond quantity, I wish to hazard a comment. For I perceive that the issue of God's infinity and the essence/attributes distinction ties in quite neatly with where our discussion on time and eternity ended, where we discovered that we could not agree on what exactly is signified by saying that God is timeless/atemporal. (Thanks for engaging me in that discussion. I thoroughly appreciated it, for it has given me quite a lot to contemplate. I realize that I never did get around to responding directly to your points about the distinction between the a-series and b-series of time. Perhaps there may be a future occassion for that.)

As your present post clearly shows, you have indeed learned to 'play the game', and quite well, ACCORDING TO THE WESTERN SET OF RULES. If I were to operate solely within the confines of that version of the game, then I would have difficulty agreeing with your position on the distinctions among God's essence, existence, and attributes. However, the Eastern 'rules' are somewhat different, and within that context I can easily agree with most of what you have presented.

Though most of the terminology is the same (infinity, essence, timelessness, simplicity, existence, etc.) the terms, and the concepts they express, do not occupy exactly the same theological 'location', so to speak, within the context of the Eastern theological framework as they do in their Western counterparts. I believe that this is sufficiently borne out by the following quotations from John of Damascus and Pseudo-Dionysius. I am most curious to hear what your take might be on the relation of the following to the issues raised in your dialogue on God's infinity and the essence/existence/attributes distinction.

Near the beginning of De Fide Orthodoxa, John of Damascus says: "He does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, assuredly that which is above knowledge must certainly be also above essence; and conversely, that which is above essence will also be above knowledge. God then is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. But all that we can affirm concerning God does not show forth God's nature, but only the qualities of His nature."

And in Pseudo-Dionysius we find the following:

"He is the boundary to all things and is the unbounded infinity about them in a fashion which rises above the contradiction between finite and infinite." (Divine Names, 5,10)

"It is customary for theologians to apply negative terms to God, but contrary to the usual sense of a deprivation." (Divine Names, 7,1)

(And in direct contradiction to Aristotle:) "Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privation, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion." (Mystical Theology, 2)

"It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation, it is also beyond every denial." (Mystical Theology, 5)

God bless,


Edgar Foster said...

Hi Jason,

I wanted to give you a more extensive answer, so I put off sending a reply. But if I wait much longer it may result in a response never being given. I'll therefore make what I'm going to say brief.

Whether infinity is a number or not depends on one's definition of infinity. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the substantive "infinity" may denote: "Unbounded space, time, or quantity" or "An indefinitely large number or amount." More germane for our discussion, Aquinas explicitly argues that God is not quantitatively infinite:

Aquinas contends: "Infinity cannot be attributed to God on the score of multitude, seeing there is but one God. Nor on the score of quantitative extension, seeing He is incorporeal. It remains to consider whether infinity belongs to Him in point of spiritual greatness" (SCG 1.43).

Duns Scotus likewise insists that God's infinity is qualitative rather than quantitative.

Edgar Foster said...

Regarding the quotes you provided, they are interesting, but I cover some of these points in my dissertation. The East seems to think that God transcends the Aristotelean distinctions A and not-A. This construct has been called "Neoplatonic" by western theologians. Whether the charge is justified or not, I find it difficult to espouse the mystic theology of the East. But the liturgy of the East makes for an intriguing study.