A Brief History of the Christian Doctrine of God, Part 2: Some Early Defining Characteristics

Following up on the section on Anselm, Muller continues to discuss some of the issues which later became some defining issues in the evolving Christian Doctrine of God.

Developing Questions over God’s Freedom, the Persons of the Trinity, “Divine Simplicity”:

Although Anselm’s genius certainly assured the ultimate victory of philosophical realism in the debates of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the outcome was not, at the time, sufficiently clear nor was the superiority of Realism sufficiently manifest to prevent alternative views from appearing and from having their influence, whether positive or negative, on the formulation of doctrine.

Two controversies of the twelfth century exemplify the diversity of early scholastic formulation and the need, perceived by many of the teachers of the era, to establish a normative language concerning God and the attributes. The earlier of these two debates concerned Abelard’s views on the relationship between God’s goodness and the work of creation, as addressed by the Synods of Soissons (1121) and Sens (1140). The second debate was over the view of the divine essence and attributes reportedly advanced by Gilbert de la Porrée and condemned at the synods of Paris (1147) and Rheims (1148).

In reaction to the heightened realism of the school of Chartres and its conception of creation as an emanation out of the divine, Abelard argued a clear distinction between God and world in creation and identified creation as the result and the revelation of God’s goodness. This fundamentally orthodox corrective to the pantheistic tendencies of the day led Abelard, however, to a series of conclusions that challenged the concept of God’s freedom in creation: given that God is absolutely good and must always, therefore, act for the best, he must create the world and, in fact, must create this particular world: Abelard states explicitly that “it is necessary that God wills and makes the world, nor does he exist at leisure, like one who, before he makes [something] is able not to make it.”

Attacked by the Cistercians Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry, Abelard’s views were condemned at the Synods of Sens and Soissons. Subsequent medieval approaches to the question insisted on the freedom of God and, consequently, the contingency of the world order.

Of particular importance to the development of the scholastic doctrine of God was the controversy surrounding the teaching of Gilbert de la Porrée concerning the distinction of persons and of attributes in the Godhead. Gilbert, a student and follower of Anselm who was bishop of Poitiers from 1142 to 1154, was construed by his contemporaries as teaching that the divine persons and the divine attributes, as representing distinct ideas in the mind that conceives them, must also be distinct within the divine essence.

Specifically, in raising via Boethius the question of the relationship of goodness and being, Gilbert had recourse to the formula diversum est esse, et id quod est—existence is different from what a thing is, or, existence is different from essence. Gilbert, following out the distinction, was reported as making a real distinction between essence and existence, even in God, and as positing real distinctions between one and another divine attribute, between each of the attributes and the divine essence, among the persons, and between each of the persons and the divine essence. His critics concluded that he had taught that God was a composite being.

The Synod of Paris (1147) condemned a series of propositions attributed to Gilbert on the basis of reports of his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate. Inasmuch as Gilbert claimed to have understood Boethius differently and inasmuch as the council did not have direct access to his book, the abbot Gottschalk of St. Eligius was commissioned to review the book and document its erroneous propositions.

Gilbert, in his turn, was able to demonstrate how his own understanding of the propositions was not at all heretical and thereby to avoid condemnation: he did not, he argued, extend the logic of a distinction between essence and existence to infinite Being, who has his being according to his essence and not by participation. God is simple Being and is all that he has: it is not merely the case that God is powerful and wise, God is his power and is his wisdom. Gilbert escaped condemnation but, as Chossat points out, failed to resolve the basic question of the basis for making distinctions among divine attributes.

More importantly, the problems posed by the debate over Gilbert’s theology became a focus of further discussion at the Synod of Rheims (1148), which, in the presence of Pope Eugene III, affirmed as dogma a series of propositions formulated by Bernard of Clairvaux, heard further explanations and retractions from Gilbert, and thereby formalized the outlines of the doctrine of divine simplicity in its relationship to the fundamental trinitarian definitions.

The conciliar decision is not a matter of abstruse speculation and is certainly not a denial of any and all manner of distinctions in God. The propositions of the council stand primarily as arguments that (1) there may be no distinction between divinity and God such as might imply that God was one being in a genus and therefore somehow subordinate to the idea of Deity, (2) that the threeness of person does not divide the divine essence or substance, (3) that the various relations or properties—that is, personal or essential properties—associated with God are not separable from God, and (4) that incarnation does not divide the Godhead.

The council, therefore, hedged the concept of divine simplicity both positively and negatively—positively as an affirmation of the absolute ultimacy and priority of God and negatively as a concept that neither undermines the threeness of the Trinity nor prevents the identification of attributes in God.

The medieval conciliar teaching did not extend beyond the teaching already present in the writings of the fathers. Specifically, with relation to the problem of the predication of divine attributes, the issue remained precisely where the Christian Platonism of the fathers has placed it: the divine attributes, considered as ultimate exemplars of the good, the true, the righteous, and so forth, could no longer be understood as ideas having a real existence extra mentem Dei and, therefore, prior to God, as would have been the case with the Platonic Demiurge. So, too, the eternal exemplars of temporal things must subsist in mente Dei and must subsist in such as way as to respect the ultimacy of God as the source of all that is and, therefore, of all that is good, or true, or righteous, and so forth.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 3: The Divine Essence And Attributes (pp. 35–37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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