[K:NWTS 25/2 (Sep 2010) 9-35]

Muller on Divine Essence and Attributes: A Review[1]

Scott F. Sanborn

If Plato's dialogues, Shakespeare's plays, and Jane Austen's novels deserve to be called classics because every rereading brings forth new gems, so also does Muller's third volume (The Divine Essence and Attributes) deserve to be called a classic among the works of historical theology. It is a tour de force. It is rich in historical theological insight. And it does great justice to the worthy theologians whose thought on the doctrine of God Muller unpacks in these pages. Above all, it ultimately witnesses to the richness of the Scriptures above all merely human works. We are fully in Dr. Muller's debt.

This volume represents a continuation of Muller's attempt to show the continuity between the Reformers and later Reformed theology of the late 16th through the early 18th century. There is so much in this fine volume that any review of its contents can only begin to scratch the surface. And this review will only highlight some of its elements without doing justice even to the balance of the whole.

The initial stages of the book deal with Medieval background on the nature and attributes of God. This is one of the strengths of this book, as with all of Muller's scholarship—it sets before us the background of Reformed scholasticism in both Medieval scholasticism and the Reformers. We begin our discussion of some of the topics of this book by noting Dr. Muller's claim that the Reformed scholastics held different views on the relationship of God to metaphysics. While Muller argues that Reformed scholastic doctrine derives essentially from the Scriptures and not from metaphysical speculations about the divine nature, the matter of metaphysics has some introductory importance for our subject. For any claims about the divine nature seem to involve metaphysical assertions. But perhaps (according to Muller) not all the Reformed agreed on this point.

As defined by Aristotle, metaphysics studies Being as Being (Being qua Being). Thomas Aquinas taught that God was Being essentially and thus could be discussed in metaphysics. However, Aquinas stressed that God's Being was analogous to our being. God does not possess being in the same way that we do. His Being is underived,[2] immutable and eternal. Our being is dependent, contingent, and finite. In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Francisco de Suarez rearranged the materials in Aristotle's work entitled the Metaphysics. Aristotle's work was a series of notes on the nature of being that were probably compiled later by someone else. Many among the Reformed accepted Suarez's rearrangement of Aristotle's Metaphysics and with it his essential acceptance of Aquinas's view that God was the subject of metaphysics. Among the Reformed, Alsted falls in this category, and, we might add, Jonathan Edwards (with some possible modifications) as exemplified in his work On Being.

However, already in the Middle Ages, Duns Scotus had pointed out that the study of metaphysics deals with Being qua Being. And he argued that insofar as God is Being, his Being is univocal to our being. That is, "to be" or have being is the same thing for God as it is for us. In this respect, he disagreed with Aquinas.

Some among the Reformed took seriously the claim that metaphysics deals with Being qua Being. However, they claimed that, as a result, God was not the subject of metaphysics. God was not a substance. He was not composed of matter and form. Therefore God was not considered under the discussion of metaphysics. Bartholomaeus Keckermann and Johannes Maccovius fall under this category. The reviewer wonders if they drew this last conclusion from Aristotle's claim in the Metaphysics that if we are to study Being, we must study it in its most fundamental manifestation which is substance.

God's Simplicity

According to Muller, the Reformed scholastics saw an interrelationship between God's simplicity and perfection as well as infinity and immutability, all of which are essential attributes of the first order. These are related to God as infinite Spirit. God is a spirit, and spirits are non-composite (simple) and invisible. Further, since God is immutable, he is necessarily non-composite. The simplicity of God's nature is that by which all his attributes are ultimately one in essence. God is not a composition of various discrete characteristics. At the same time, God is infinite and thus not limited as created spirits. Thus God is Spirit and immutably simple.

While Muller does not raise the question, we may ask if this is in harmony with the eschatological interpretation of John 4:24, "God is a Spirit". We see no disharmony here. For it may be affirmed that the qualities of God as a simple Spirit are fundamental to his essence as that is revealed in his heavenly and eschatological throne room. Thus, the coming of the new age in Christ brings God's people into greater vital union with God, their simple, infinite, and immutable Redeemer.

Muller has an excellent summary of the transcendental nature of being, that Being qua Being transcends all distinct categories. Then he relates this (at least by way of analogy[3]) to God's simplicity. God is simple and his essence transcends all real distinctions. Real distinctions are distinctions between things and this can have no place in God because God is not a composite being. At the same time, the Scriptures distinguish God's attributes and distinguish the three persons of the Trinity. Therefore, the Reformed asked; what is the nature of the distinction between God's attributes? In answer, the Reformed generally rejected the formal (or modal) distinction between attributes as well as the real distinction. Otherwise, Reformed scholastics differed on their answer to this question. Some considered the nature of the distinction to be eminent; others thought it was virtual, and still others rational. Here we briefly define each of these proposed distinctions. The formal (generally rejected) is the formal distinction between qualities like the formal distinction between the woodiness and hardness of a table (Scotus). The eminent affirms the causal foundation of one thing in another. That is, it affirms that each of the ad extra manifestations of God's attributes find their distinct causal foundation in God's essence (ad intra). The virtual does not affirm that God's essence (ad intra) is the foundation for the distinction between God's attributes. It only affirms that the distinction between attributes reflects the ad extra exercise of God's power or potency. And the rational is a reasoned analysis based on the thing that (unlike the others) "does not specify the nature of its foundation" (287; Aquinas). Muller clearly defines each of these distinctions in greater detail, showing how they are developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. These developments are either rejected or modified by various Reformed theologians. The Reformed generally reject the formal (modal) distinction between attributes, especially as developed more realistically by Suarez and used by Conrad Vorstius and the Socinians. At the same time, they differ in their choice of the rational, eminent, or virtual distinctions.

However, the Reformed do affirm the formal (modal) distinction between the three persons of the Trinity (at least in its original Medieval form). As John Howe affirms against Benedict Spinoza, God is not an omni-modus simplicity.

The discussion of the distinction between God's attributes involves the problem of predication with respect to those attributes. That is, it deals with those truths that can be predicated of God. Along these lines, Muller claims that the Reformed are spread across the philosophical spectrum. All are eclectic to some degree. Some are modified Thomists, others are more Scotistic, while some follow Nominalist arguments at points. However, with respect to the problem of predication, the fully Nominalist position does not seem to be an option. At least reading Muller's discussion of predication gives one this impression. The Reformed were guarded in their use of the term attribute. However, this care did not arise from the Ockamist concern that "attribute" ascribes characteristics to God that he does not possess inherently. Rather, the Reformed were concerned that the term "attributes" might lead to the impression that the attributes are merely constructs of the human understanding. For the Reformed, the concrete relation between human understanding and the divine nature was crucial and their simultaneous assertion of God's incomprehensibility did not undermine this point.

In spite of these philosophical concerns, Muller shows how the Reformed received their doctrine of God from Scripture. Philosophy was simply a handmaid to theology, not its principium. For instance, following Jerome Zanchi, the Reformed scholastics often began their discussion of God's attributes with an exposition of God's names, not philosophical speculation. There was even debate over using the term "nature" (a term prominent in philosophy) with reference to God since it is a term derived from the creation.

Following the belief that Reformed scholasticism was excessively philosophical, it is sometimes thought that the Reformed scholastics did not deal adequately with the Creator-creature distinction. However, we find that they were very sensitive to the issue. For instance, following the reservations of Zanchi, some of them were apprehensive about the distinction between the incommunicable and the communicable attributes. For they thought that the communicable attributes might imply that God communicated to creatures attributes that were properly his alone. Thus some, like Franz Burman, distinguished between the Absolute and Relative attributes. For Burman the Absolute attributes were a different category from the via negativa and the via eminentiae, which were both categorized under the Relative attributes. Peter Van Mastricht followed a similar model, distinguishing between quid, quantus, and qualis (222).

Even those like Francis Turretin who accepted the distinction between the communicable and incommunicable attributes did so with qualifications. For instance, they followed Aquinas in claiming that (properly speaking) creatures do not participate in the divine nature. Rather they participate in the divine goodness which is communicated to them in the good effects of God's power. In this way, the Reformed scholastics sought to guard the Creator-creature distinction while acknowledging our participation in the divine goodness.

Together with these concerns, the Reformed sought to guard the utter independence and self-sufficiency of God. Muller's allusions to the divine self-sufficiency show the care that the Reformed scholastics took on this issue. For instance, properly speaking God is simply life itself rather than self-existent. For to call God self-existent suggests that God continuously causes himself to exist. And this is contradictory. For it would imply both that God does exist (in order to cause his own existence) and that God does not exist (in order for his existence to be caused). Thus, it is better to say that God simply exists and is life itself (1 Jn. 5:20; 4). As John says, "He has life in himself" (Jn. 5:26).

Returning to God's simplicity, we may conclude by noting the importance of this subject against Atheism in our own day. And here Dr. Muller's work can help us understand the penetrating reflections of the Reformed scholastics on this issue. Recently, Richard Dawkins has picked up David Hume's argument against the argument from design and spread it far and wide. He argues that if the complexity of the world requires a complex cause (namely God), then that complex being must require an even more complex cause ad infinitum. Even Christians who reject any form of the argument from design will now find themselves dealing with Atheists who consider this argument one central pivot in their arsenal of unbelief. That is, they will reject out of hand a God who is rich in the manifestation of his attributes, considering him to be complex in the same way that the world is complex and even more so.

The Reformed view of divine simplicity presented in this volume speaks against such a composite understanding of the divine richness. Honest philosophers would do well to consider the arguments in this book. And ministers would be advised to do the same as they deal with the present intellectual climate. Alvin Plantinga has responded to Dawkins by noting that divine simplicity is at odds with Dawkin's own view of complexity as composition. However, perhaps because of the brevity of his comments, Plantinga suggests that a more precise definition of the divine simplicity may not be helpful in this discussion. But we would suggest that it can be. God as a necessary being is immutable and therefore non-composite (simple); and yet he must be rich in order to account for the richness of the cosmos. Further reflection on the nature of the distinctions among the divine attributes may help us here. Whatever one's approach may be to Atheism, certainly a careful reading of this volume will fill in the gaps and expand one's knowledge of God's simplicity leading to a greater witness to Christ.

Above all, further reflection on God's simplicity and spirituality will enrich the church's appreciation of the transcendent eternal glory of its Creator and Redeemer. And this discussion is essential for all that follows in this volume. All of God's attributes are simple in his own nature and thus none of his attributes (not even wrath and mercy) are at odds with one another. Instead, they all work in harmony in the richness of the divine nature. In fact, Muller does not fail to give us food for eschatological thought. When we observe our fellow humans, composed, and therefore capable of contrary virtues and vices, we are led to him who is non-composite and non-contradictory. And, we may add, to the eschatological city where he is most supremely present.

God's Immutability

We have already seen briefly how Muller describes the relationship between God's immutability and his simplicity. Yet this attribute has far more to offer. For instance, in Muller's discussion of God's immutability, we find an example of how the Reformed dealt with objections to the divine attributes. First, he points to the question—did not God change when he created the world (for in creation God first acted in a way that he did not act before)? Also, does not the incarnation change his nature now that a hypostatic union exists for the second person of the Trinity—a hypostatic union that did not exist before? In addition, do not the divine passions show that God is affected by creation and thereby changed by it?

First, Muller argues that in both the creation and incarnation, God only takes on a new relation external to his internal divine nature. As for creation, when God exerts his power, he exerts it toward something outside himself; therefore, this does not change his internal nature. It simply places something outside of himself that is now in a new relation to himself. It seems that Muller has in mind the fact that relations were considered accidental qualities in Aristotle's Categories. A new relation does not change the substance of the entity that is coming into the new relation. Muller suggests that the Reformed scholastics dealt with the incarnation in a similar fashion. The incarnation did not change the divine nature. Instead, the second person of the Trinity simply took on a new relation, now hypostatically related to a human nature. That is, the divine nature assumed something new in relationship to itself, but it did not change internally.

Second, God does not have passions properly speaking. For a passion is passive. Simply put (as Muller will show later), God's will is eternal and is not passively dependent on his foreseeing the activity of the creature. Therefore, his will is not passive and so neither can his affections be passive passions. They cannot change.

Perhaps in this earlier section, however, Muller is showing how the Reformed made the same point without assuming the immutability of the divine will in the argument. Instead, the argument seems to be grounded in the Creator-creature distinction in terms of the creature's finite nature. Thus, quoting Edouard Wéber, Muller states that a passive passion is "the property of a subject which, through an action exerted by an exterior agent, receives a determinate quality and, in the reception, is altered by it" (310). However, "finite creatures do not alter the divine being or add new properties to it" (311).

Some may object that denying passions to God denies that God has a relationship with his creation. But Muller claims that this does not deny "relationality to God" (311). Aristotle's Categories make a distinction between quality and relation. "The denial of a particular quality…does not impinge at all on the issue of relationality" (311). And thus, God does not have passions properly speaking because this would mean that the creature changes the immutable God—and this is impossible. Instead, God's nature simply bears different relations to different creatures. And in this way, we might add, God loves Jacob and hates Esau.

In his discussion of God's immutability, we see an example of how Muller ends numerous sections of the divine attributes with the ways in which reflection on that attribute contributes to Christian piety. Following these throughout this volume, we begin to see patterns emerging. For instance, many of the attributes have implications for redemptive history and God's promises. They also show us the greatness and glory of God by comparison to the vanity of this world. And in some respects they provide a paradigm that we are called to imitate, almost an indicative/imperative relationship. Muller also includes other elements of piety that do not easily fall within these categories. However, we will focus on these as examples, showing how they are illustrated in his discussion of God's immutability.

In terms of God's redemptive historical dealings with the world, God's immutability teaches us that he is unchangeable in his love to his saints and in his wrath upon the reprobate in final judgment. This is a source of both comfort and warning. As we have seen, God's immutability is also related to his spirituality and perfection. Comfort is supplied by God's spirituality through which he is able to overcome all our spiritual enemies. And God's perfection teaches us that he is the fountain of all good things (in this life and the life to come, we might add); thus we should place our confidence in him who is able to provide us all that is truly good. In addition, his perfection provides comfort to the godly in their weakness; encouraging them that despite their weakness, God will perfect his work in them; finally perfecting them at the day of Christ Jesus.

As for the contrast between God and this world, God's immutability is contrasted to this world of change and decay. Therefore, the world is vain compared to God. And God's perfection is contrasted to the imperfection and vanity of all created things, none of which can supply our needs as God can. Thus, we are to consider all things as vanity compared to God. In a similar way, God's spirituality teaches us that we are to look to that which is invisible, longing for the day when we will see God. Perhaps, we may add, in some respects we find the seeds here of what will be later called the semi-eschatological consciousness of the New Testament.

Finally, we are called to imitate God's unchanging nature by being unchangeable and constant in our promises and in our love to God and humanity. And we are to imitate God's perfection, being perfect as he is perfect, letting patience have its perfect work in us and perfecting holiness in the fear of God. In this imitation, the Reformed scholastics showed sensitivity to redemptive history. When God appeared to Abraham, he appeared as El Shaddai, the all-sufficient one and thus the all-perfect one. And by this, God encouraged Abraham to walk before him (Gen. 17:1-2). So also God's sufficiency should make us want to walk before him as the one who is sufficient in all things. And here, we might add, we find not simply the imitation of Abraham, but a call to the saints to identify with him who is all-sufficient in Christ as he revealed himself to Abraham. In this, we begin to see some of the existential insight of Reformed scholasticism into how the divine sufficiency should stir within us the desire to trust in that sufficiency. And we see some sensitivity to the indicative/imperative structure of redemptive history. Finally, the redemptive historical note is sounded when the Reformed note that God's immutability implies that God will be faithful to his promises to come in Christ.

God's Infinity

Muller does a fine job discussing God's infinity. Reformed scholastics spoke of God's infinity in relation to space and time. God's infinity in relation to space is his omnipresence. And his infinity in relation to time is his eternity. However, the Reformed scholastics defined infinity and each of its perspectives more precisely. God's infinity is not simply a characteristic he has in relation to his creation. It is his own character per se. Thus, they distinguished between God's infinity in terms of his own inner nature and in relation to his created order. If his infinity is not his own character apart from creation, he cannot transcend creation. If he is not eternal apart from creation, he cannot transcend the temporal order. And if he is not immense inherently, he cannot transcend created special categories.

This has further implications for God's infinity in relation to creation. If God does not transcend creation, he cannot be omnipresent. As Augustine made clear, God's omnipresence implies that God's whole being is present to every place in creation. This is possible only because God transcends the creation. Any being that does not transcend the creation is contained in it. All such beings are extended in space and time. Thus, their whole essence cannot be present to every aspect of creation.

Some of the scholastics described God's infinity in relation to creation with greater precision. For instance, God's omnipresence is not only dependent upon his transcendence of space, but also his transcendence of all magnitude and multitude. As multitude is calculated with numbers, God must also transcend all numerical quantity. Neither does this change when numerical quantities are extended to infinity. It cannot: God transcends even the infinity described by mathematics. Thus, God's own infinity is not the same as the infinity of mathematics; rather, God's infinity transcends mathematical infinity.

Muller claims that the Reformed describe God's eternity as eternal duration. In support, he quotes the Leiden Synopsis: "eternity is the attribute of the duration of the essence of infinite God."[4] Here duration is to be distinguished from succession. Muller makes it clear this does not mean there is succession of time in God. There is no before or after for God himself. Following Boethius, the Reformed believed that all time is eternally present to God. Muller says that the Reformed did not teach that God is outside of time. However, when he does this he makes a clear qualification. God is not outside of time in the sense that he cannot relate to time. Here he seems to be heading off a critique laid against the Reformed scholastic view of God's eternity. It is sometimes objected that if God transcends time, he cannot relate to time. Muller is showing that the Reformed scholastics formulate their view of eternal duration to head off this criticism. God is not a remote Epicurean god. However, Muller clearly shows that the Reformed believed that God transcends the category of time when he makes the set of distinctions we have summarized above and when he equates the Reformed view with Boethius. Above all, this is the clear implication of his discussion of God's infinity which implies both the divine transcendence and immanence as it relates to space and time.

God's relationship to time is similar to his relationship to space. God's omnipresence implies that God both transcends all spatial categories and is immanent to them. So also his eternal duration means that God's eternal nature both transcends all time and is present to all periods of time. As Boethius might say, God is eternally present to all time without being contained in any of it. God's omnipresence implies that all space (while distinct from the divine nature) is contained within God's immensity. So also God's eternal duration implies that all time (while distinct from the divine nature) is contained within God's eternity. Yet just as the creation is not infinity immense, neither is time infinity eternal. God's immensity transcends space, and only as such is he immanently present to all space. So also God's eternity transcends time and only as such is he immanently present to all time.

Finally, Muller shows that even those creatures that are said to be forever (and thus by implication glorified saints) will never become eternal in the same way that God is eternal. Quoting William Jenkyn's commentary on Jude, he labels them sempiternal rather than strictly eternal, reserving the latter term for God himself.[5] Muller argues that creatures cannot possess eternity in precisely the same way that God has it. The Reformed claimed (or so we would argue) that the saints will participate in God's eternity to the greatest degree possible for creatures. Nonetheless, they distinguished the eternal life the saints will possess in glory (in which previous world history will simply be past to them) from God's unique eternal nature (in which world history in one respect remains eternally present to him, even if in another respect he should look back to it as past). Again, we see the importance of making the Creator-creature distinction at all points.

God's Will and Middle Knowledge

Muller's treatment of Middle Knowledge is superb. If only William Lane Craig (whom Muller alludes to in a footnote) would come to grips with Muller's careful analysis of this issue. Middle Knowledge was a view promoted by the Jesuit Luis Molina to defend a semi-Pelagian view of grace and thus it is sometimes referred to as Molinism. It is now advocated by Craig. According to this view, God must have a knowledge of contingent things that might occur contingently apart from his decree. Those who advocate Middle Knowledge often claim that the Reformed view of God's decrees cannot do justice to contingency in our universe. It follows, on the Molinist view, that God must look down into the future (so to speak) and see those things that will take place apart from his decree and then decree them. If he does not do this (but instead decrees them prior to foreseeing them), these things do not truly fall out contingently. This is also the case with moral agents. God must foresee their actions prior to the decree in order for true contingency to exist in the created order. This way of supporting semi-Pelagianism was adopted by James Arminius and Simon Episcopius, as it has been in our day by Craig.

Muller shows how the Reformed view of the decree is consistent with a contingent universe by carefully expounding the Reformed arguments on the subject. But before laying out his discussion, we should clarify for our readers the nature of contingency. For the Reformed, those things that come to pass by secondary causes are contingent. Only creation, miracles, the application of redemption, and the consummation come to pass apart from secondary causes. Everything else in world history is contingent.

However, those who believe in Middle Knowledge claim that the Reformed view of the decree is inconsistent with this affirmation of contingency. By way of contrast, Muller articulates how the Reformed doctrine of the decrees fits with the contingency arising from secondary causes. According to Muller, the Reformed believed that (logically prior to the decree) God possessed knowledge of every possible world with all its variations, possible histories, and contingencies. However, he only decreed one of these worlds.

In other words, if God knows many possible worlds with all their various possible cause and effect relationships, in choosing one, he has chosen a world in which contingent things take place contingently. And in this way, he both knows these contingencies before he decrees them and having decreed them, he knows they will occur before they take place.

Thus, God's knowledge of all possible worlds with all their various contingencies does justice to the contingency of the present world, even though he only chooses one of these worlds. For in choosing one of these worlds, he does not undermine the contingencies it envisions. Instead, by decreeing that world, he simply guarantees that the contingencies of that possible world will actually exist as contingencies. His decree therefore secures the existence of a contingent order.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's own view of possible worlds was largely dependent on this Reformed scholastic analysis. However, according to Muller, Leibniz held to the view that these worlds had independent consideration prior to God and it was from these options that God chose one world. This is where the Reformed disagreed with Leibniz, holding that these possible worlds find their foundation in the divine mind (they are not possible independently of his mind) and from these worlds God freely decreed one. Nonetheless, Muller points out that Rationalist philosophers like Leibniz found the Reformed arguments on this point more persuasive than the Molinist perspective.

Muller also includes a very interesting analysis of the different Reformed approaches to dealing with conditional outcomes in Scripture. Here he highlights different approaches to the implication of 1 Sam. 23:9-13, namely, that if David had stayed in Keilah, he would have been betrayed.

As for the divine will, Muller deals in detail with distinctions between the secret and revealed will of God and the decretive will (voluntas beneplaciti) and perceptive will (voluntas signi). Reformed scholastics did not believe that these later two perspectives on the divine will were contradictory because they are not directed to the same end. As an example, Muller examines how the Reformed reconciled God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac with God's secret will to spare him.

Then he shows how the preceptive will alone can be rightly distinguished in the voluntas absoluta (absolute will) and the voluntas conditionata (conditional will). God absolutely wills to act effectively in history and reveals this to his prophets. But the revealed will rests in a condition (to save men upon a condition of faith). The Arminians wrongly apply the voluntas conditionata to the decretive will. They also wrongly distinguish between the voluntas antecedens and the voluntas consequens, using this distinction to attribute fluctuating passions to God.

Ironically, the Arminians claim that the Reformed distinctions split God's will in two. But it is the Arminians who attribute to God two real contradictory wills. For they claim that God both antecedently wills the salvation of everyone and consequently does not will the salvation of everyone. And both of these wills are eternal in God. Thus God is an eternal contradiction (a la Arminianism).

Arminians also imply that secondary causality is not under God's control. However, if God is the final cause of all things, there cannot be a final cause above his will. God's will only appears to differ in relation to different periods of time. Since God's eternal will comes into different relations to different points of time, from the point of view of one time it appears that the divine will related to it comes after the divine will in its relation to a previous point of time. However, in itself, God's will is eternal, unchanging, and the final cause of all things.

Muller also expands on the distinction between God's necessary and free will, a distinction that will resonate in his discussion of John Owen's view of divine justice. According to this distinction, God necessarily wills everything that is necessary to his own nature ad intra. On the other hand, he is free to choose between alternative possibilities ad extra.[6] With reference to this freedom of the divine will, the Reformed can loosely speak of the contingency of the divine will ad extra. Of course, this contingency always depends upon the divine nature and not upon created beings themselves. In fact, some of the Reformed argue that the contingency of the divine will (insofar as it is free) is the ground of all contingency in the created order. This is an interesting observation in itself. At the same time, if true, it would reinforce the fact that the contingency of God's will cannot be grounded in the contingent order (a la Middle Knowledge) for that contingency itself is grounded in God's will, freely considered.

Muller examines the distinction between the voluntas efficiens or effectiva and the voluntas permittens or permissiva (permissive will). While John Calvin may have some questions about this distinction (according to Muller), the vast majority of Reformed theologians followed the Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, in making this distinction. Under this distinction, it must be affirmed that God accomplishes all things either by efficient cause alone or by co-efficiency with secondary causes. As a result, God's permissive will with respect to sin is allowed, but only by means of secondary causes. According to God's permissive will, he does not positively will sin. Instead, he negatively wills it. Thus, God wills only the defects, not the effects.[7] As a result, God himself does not effect sin. Rather, he permissively wills it by not withdrawing the divine concursus required for the existence of things in their accomplishment. On the other hand, in the redemption of his people, he positively works in their hearts by the power of his Holy Spirit to effect their regeneration and sanctification. As a result, God is not the author of sin.

Brian Armstrong has argued that many of the scholastic distinctions concerning the divine will made by later Reformed theologians departed from the Reformers. However, Muller points out that there is perhaps more continuity between the Reformers and later Reformed scholastics on the divine will than on the knowledge of God. Each made these distinctions not for the purpose of speculative reflection on the divine essence per se, but for the purpose of salvation. These distinctions were not an attempt to pry into the divine mysteries or to make philosophical distinctions beyond those initiated by the Reformers (contra Armstrong). Instead, in continuity with the Reformers, they defended the fully gracious nature of redemption.

As with other sections, Muller closes his discussion of the divine will with its implications for piety. Since God is sovereign in his decrees, we can trust in the heavenly Father and find salvation in him alone. Also, God's will is free and not bound to temporal things. Thus, nothing can happen to his people apart from the good will of their heavenly Father. Arminians cannot do full justice to this comfort of the saints since they believe that God's will (and thus God himself) is dependent on temporal things.

In concluding our discussion on the divine will, we note one possible reservation about one aspect of Muller's analysis. Our reservation involves one further question that might be asked about the relationship of the divine will to human history. Are things good because God so wills them or does God will them because they are good? According to Muller, the Reformed assert two sides of this coin. To us God's will is the highest rule of righteousness. But God's will corresponds to his most holy nature. As a result, Muller believes that the Reformed advocated the primacy of the will in God, placing them more in the Scotus or Nominalist camp than the Thomist camp on this point. At the same time, this does not mean (contrary to earlier scholarship) an utter arbitrariness on God's part. Nevertheless, Muller later presents arguments that do not suggest the primacy of the will, but an interrelationship between will and intellect in God.

However, we wonder if there is some ambiguity here with respect to the term "things". Are we to think of God's decree insofar as God chooses an alternative between two things, the choice between which is morally indifferent, such as whether God decrees that the New York Yankees will play on a certain day or not? Or are we to think of the ground of God's moral commandments to rational creatures, whether God will forbid adultery or not? If the choice is morally indifferent, we are to consider God's free decree. If the choice respects the moral standards his image bearers must follow (should he freely create them), then his nature compels him to prescribe certain laws for them. At the same time we ask, do not both God's free and subsequently necessary decrees (as conceived by the Reformed) fit with the primacy of the intellect in God? For God's knowledge of all possible worlds is the basis of his freely chosen decree and God's nature is the ground of his moral commandments. And even the divine commands that are not necessary to the divine nature (such as the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) are known as possibilities to the divine mind prior to the decree of the divine will.

God's Justice and Righteousness

Muller's general discussion of God's justice is very helpful. It uncovers the breadth of the Reformed conception of righteousness. God as the highest good defines the true nature of righteousness and justice. God's justice first involves God being true to himself. God's righteousness is the "universal rectitude and perfection of the divine nature" (481). Second, it involves God being true to who he is in relation to his creation as its Creator and sustainer and as the one who is the goal of the creation. In this respect, Wolfgang Musculus related God's righteousness to his power stating: "the iustitia Dei is the power by which God rightly accomplishes these ends" (477).

N. T. Wright, take note. Muller quotes John Calvin as stating that the righteousness of God involves his "faithfulness in fulfilling the promises" (479). This is not a novel development of the New Perspective on Paul.

Muller spends a good deal of time dealing with John Owen's evaluation of God's justice in the latter's Dissertation on Divine Justice. Owen deals with the question of whether punitive justice is absolute and necessary to God or whether it is free to God, obligating him to no particular response to sin. Owen argues that it is absolute and necessary to God, agreeing with Maccovius, and also agreeing (with some modification) with Sibrandus Lubbertus and Johannes Piscator. He disagrees with William Twisse and Samuel Rutherford, who held that God's justice did not obligate him to punish sin.

Owen rejected what he considered an excessively Scotistic approach to God's justice. The Arminians and Socinians are Owen's chief antagonists since they both: (1) deny Christ's full penal satisfaction for sin; and (2) claim that vindicatory justice is not a necessary attribute of God, but a free exercise of his will ad extra. However, since Twisse and Rutherford only hold to the second point, Owen believes they are orthodox. Nonetheless, he believes his disagreement with them on this point is important and Francis Turretin follows Owen in this evaluation.

Nonetheless, Owen and Turretin argue that vindicatory justice is not the proper work of God. And we may be able to summarize Muller's evaluation of this issue into two points. First, God's nature did not obligate him to execute his wrath absolutely considered. That is, God was free to create or not create creatures that might fall under his divine wrath. Thus, God might have existed for all eternity without executing his wrath and nonetheless have been completely true to his nature. However, having freely chosen to create moral creatures in a state of testing, he was obligated to punish sin should they fall. Second, God can choose to have mercy (even though the exercise of that mercy must satisfy the divine justice, contra Twisse and Rutherford). Thus, God is slow to wrath.

Owen and Turretin generally followed the Anselmic tradition, while giving it greater precision. Twisse, on the other hand, used Scotus's critique of Anselm. According to Muller, Calvin argued against Anselm that there was no absolute necessity to the atonement, but that it arose from a heavenly decree. However, the way that Muller describes Calvin's disagreement at this point suggests his similarity to Owen. For Calvin only rejected the idea that God was obligated to send Christ. But he did not reject the fact that Christ was necessary for our salvation, should God freely choose to save us. Nonetheless, Muller afterwards claims that there is a Scotistic element in Calvin's identification of the decretive will as the sole ground of the merit of Christ. However, we may ask, does the evidence support this claim? On this point, we believe we need more convincing.

Together with Dr. Muller's excellent exposition of Owen's treatise on divine justice, we voice one more reservation. Muller notes that Owen, to support his view of divine justice, appeals to Maccovius, Francis Junius, Moise Amyraut and John Cameron all in the same breath. Muller deduces from this that Owen included the Amyraldian divines (Amyraut and Cameron) among the orthodox camp, for Owen includes them with Maccovius and Junius, who are clear examples of orthodoxy. This fits with Muller's continuing claim that the Amyraldians are orthodox. But is this justified? We are not persuaded, especially when orthodoxy is defined confessionally. First, we note that a theologian is not orthodox just because he holds to an Anselmic or modified Anselmic theory of the necessity of the atonement over against orthodox theologians who reject Anselm's view. Other factors can come into play that determine one's orthodoxy. Secondly, Owen himself is not orthodox with respect to the Westminster Confession or the Helvetic Consensus, being sympathetic with Cameron and Amyraut on the Mosaic covenant. As a result, at least with respect to Westminster, Owen consciously demurred, working with a committee to develop the Savoy Declaration. Thus, according to Reformed confessional standards, the Amyraldians (who could not sign any of the above confessions) were not orthodox.

God's Holiness

As Muller notes, early Reformed theologians generally did not discuss the holiness of God separately in their systems. However, later writers dealt with it in more detail while remaining in continuity with the Reformers on its essential nature. They claimed that God's holiness is his separation from sin and the world. And in this respect, we might add, they recognized its transcendent character, by which we now recognize that it is preeminently associated with God's transcendent eschatological throne room. In addition, the Reformed argued that holiness is not one perfection, but the unity of all God's perfections in opposition to sin. And so it is related to his simplicity and spirituality.

God's Goodness and Related Attributes

Muller's section on God's goodness is helpful. God's goodness, for the Reformed, is first his essential attribute, which (like unity) is a primary perfection. Second, it is a primary characteristic of all God's relationships with the finite order. Thus, it is the primary affection of God's will. As a result, in Reformed theology, it is often found with other affections of the divine will such as love, grace, and mercy.

Muller believes that the Reformed focused on the egress of the divine goodness (the communication of the divine goodness ad extra) rather than the goodness of God's eternal nature. This suggests a volitional understanding of the divine goodness and related attributes. Thus, Muller argues that this points more toward a Scotistic approach and away from a Thomistic one.

We also note a couple of other aspects of the divine goodness. Muller mentions three kinds of good: (1) the pleasurable; (2) the useful; and (3) God as the fountain of goodness. To the reviewer, this sounds similar to the Aristotelian and Thomistic view that there are three kinds of good: the moral, the useful, and the pleasurable. Muller also notes a teleological orientation to the good, stating that God is the chief good of all creatures so that all terminate their desires in him. Here we see that the influence of Newtonian science (with its disregard for final causality) had not invaded the Reformed scholastics at this point. Instead, we recognize the influence of a modified Aristotelians on the issue of causation (whether of a Thomist or Scotist variety).

The reviewer also wonders if some of Muller's other suggestions on the divine goodness reflect a continuing Thomist concern. Earlier in this book, Dr. Muller suggests that many of the Reformed taught something which, with some modification, came to be identified with Leibniz—namely, that this is the best of all possible worlds. In other words, God's works are perfect. However, later in the book, he points to Reformed writers who state that God could have created a greater number of excellent entities, perhaps following the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. How might these two perspectives be reconciled? Muller does not appear to raise the question. Perhaps, we are lead to believe (from the Reformed scholastic point of view) that this is the best of all possible worlds, but not the greatest (or most excellent) of all possible worlds. That is, it is the best, in the sense that God's wisdom chose this above all possible worlds to be the world he would decree. Thus, it is the best in the sense that God always does what is best. On the other hand, when things are considered in terms of the goodness God has constituted in their natures, God could have created a world with a greater multitude of excellent entities. Is this how the Reformed reconciled the interrelationship of these two claims? Perhaps further research will shed light on this question.

God's Omnipotence and Majesty

Muller deals extensively with God's power, arguing that the Reformed often adopt language which suggests the Scotus distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata. Potentia absoluta is God's absolute power; what he is able to do. Potentia ordinata is God's ordained power; what God has ordained to take place. However, Muller suggests that the Reformed rejected the speculations of the late Middle Ages surrounding this distinction. Thus, they denied the claim that God could sin or make something with two contradictory qualities, as is affirmed in transubstantiation. For the latter teaches that the wafer is both bread and the body of Christ simultaneously. On the contrary, the Reformed affirmed that God could not do what is absolutely impossible to be done. Thus, he cannot do anything to limit his nature such as make a rock bigger than he can lift. As a correlative, he cannot create anything infinite. His creation must be finite.

In addition, Muller has fine sections on God's majesty and dominion, each of which flesh out many of the interrelationships between these attributes and the other divine attributes and works ad extra. Reflection on these sections will lead those meditating upon the kingdom of God to a greater appreciation of how his kingdom is grounded in his divine, eternal nature. And thus, the reader will be lead to understand more fully what it means for God to be "with us" in the coming of the kingdom.

God's Affections or Virtues and Love

The Reformed refer to the divine virtues or affections rather than the divine passions. Those who use the term virtues do so because they consider it more precise, for affections are often considered changeable in general usage.

However, none of the Reformed scholastics that Muller has examined refer to the divine passions. Passions are passive qualities. They arise first from a knowledge of the object and then terminate in the knower. They also suggest some subjection of the knower to the object. But God knows all things from eternity. Thus, his knowledge is not a passive response to things. It originates from himself and terminates in the object. Neither is God subject to his creatures in the outflow of his affections.

The Socinians (by contrast) argued that there were changing affections in God because they believed that the affections of God were grounded in their objects.

It may be asked whether this view of affections leads to a cold view of God in his dealings with men. To the contrary, argues Muller, because the Reformed believed that God's love and affections were eternal, they found their lives and hearts grounded in God's eternal unchanging affections to them in Christ. On the other hand, we may ask (though Muller does not raise this question)—are the more casual forms of worship in our own day grounded in an Arminian approach to God's affections? For the Arminian view of the divine affections must be as conditional as the Arminian view of the eternal decree.

Owen distinguishes between the works of God ad intra and ad extra, placing the affections in the latter category. However, love is both an affection of God ad extra and an inherent eternal attribute of his nature.[8] In this way, the Reformed distinguished between voluntary love of God ad extra and the natural love of God. The latter may be distinguished in three ways: (1) in the ad intra love of the Father for the Son from which the ad extra love of God for the redeemed flows; (2) in the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (according to some Reformed scholastics); and (3) in the love of the Father for the Son as the pattern of salvation. (However, we are not sure how this third point is a precisely ad intra relation.) At the same time, Muller suggests that the intra-Trinitarian relations are not the only thing that grounds God's love for himself. He argues that God's love for his own being (dealt with under the divine essence and attributes) is essential to his natural love for himself. This is in addition to the love of the Father for the Son and occasionally the Holy Spirit that binds them together (dealt with under the doctrine of the Trinity).

The Reformed also discuss the "amor voluntarius, dividing it either into two main parts, the amor benevolentiae (love of benevolence) and amor complacentiae vel amicitiae (love of delight or friendship) and then dividing the amor benevolentiae into subcategories" (566). In this way, they are in continuity with the Medieval tradition and precursors to Jonathan Edward's great work The Nature of True Virtue.

God's Grace and Mercy

For the Reformed, the grace of God is both an eternal attribute of God and a divine affection displayed in creation and redemption. As Muller states, God's grace is "one of the perfections of the divine nature" and is "a characteristic of God's relations to the finite order, apart from sin, in the act of divine condescension to relate to finite creatures" (570). The Reformed went so far as to state that "God is eternally ‘capable of manifesting his benevolence to creatures apart from any merit'—‘even if there were no creature' in existence" (570). From this point of view, God's grace is an eternal attribute and flows out from himself in the very act of creation itself.

As to its nature, Muller states that "grace is nothing else but unmerited favor; it is always opposed to merit" (571). Thus, creatures qua creatures cannot strictly merit anything before God. Muller follows this up by stating that the modern Reformed view of common grace finds its roots more in Reformed orthodoxy than in Calvin and his contemporaries. For the later Reformed scholastics more clearly articulated God's grace as his bounty extending to all creation.

As for the nature of the redemptive grace, Muller clearly articulates the Reformed view. He also notes that the Reformed argued for the forensic "imputation of Christ's righteousness" (573). Let those of the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision take note; this doctrine was fully in harmony with the view that God's righteousness involved his faithfulness to his covenant promises (noted earlier). In fact, though Muller does not say so, it is reasonable to assume that the two were mutually reinforcing. For in those promises, God pledged to impute to his people eternal righteousness.

As for God's mercy, by contrast to grace, only post-fallen humanity is a fit subject for mercy. For mercy presupposes misery in the creature. Some of the Reformed even refer mercy to an eternal attribute of God (and not simply a divine affection ad extra), insofar as God is ready to give mercy freely to creatures once they are in a state of misery.

The Reformed also dealt with the objection of the Stoics (such as Seneca) who claimed that God did not show mercy. According to Seneca, mercy would show a weakness in God for mercy implies misericordia, something that strikes the heart. That is, it implies that the one who is merciful is brought under the sway of the object of his mercy. Thus, Seneca believed that mercy was a quality of the weak, while clemency was a quality of the wise. Musculus responds by claiming that mercy does not imply a negative affection, a grief or heaviness of heart. Instead, it expresses God's goodness manifested to the sinner in his misery.

Another objection to the Reformed doctrine of mercy was voiced by the Lutherans. They claimed that the Reformed doctrine of reprobation was merciless and cruel. Muller describes Marcus Friedrich Wendelin as responding with the "infralapsarian view of the confessions". Wendelin shows that the Reformed doctrine of reprobation is God's decree to leave some in their sins, from which they already deserve eternal damnation and consequently to punish them eternally.

Contra the Arminians, the Reformed argued that justice and mercy are equal in God himself. Nonetheless, in respect to us, God is more merciful to the saved than he is just to the damned. Further, God's mercy springs more immediately from the divine nature in that it arises purely from God's goodness, whereas God's justice is a response to sin ad extra.

God's Anger and Hatred

Muller concludes this volume with a discussion of God's anger and hatred. The Reformed generally considered the language of the divine anger to be a metaphor or an accommodation to our capacities. It considers the effects of God's judgments and their relation to the divine affections. However, it does not imply the deficiencies of anger (found in disordered affections) as they are found in human beings.

The Reformed once again answered the Stoics, who objected that God was never angry with human beings since anger is a defection. Musculus responded that anger is not always a deficiency. Rather, it is an affection or virtue of God. For virtue must be angry against injustice. And sin is an injustice against the divine majesty and wrongs his creation.

At the same time, anger or wrath is not an ultimate attribute in God, but is his holiness, justice and truth in response to unholiness, injustice and falsehood among sinners. Further, God does not delight in the death of the wicked, calling them to repentance. But in the same sinner not repenting, God delights in the execution of justice toward the sinner conditionally.

God's Attributes and the Centrality of Christ

As we conclude this review, we might ask how reflection on this book might lead to greater reflection on Christ, as the Savior of his church. Here we will explore some implications implied in this volume as well as some not noted by it, but for which the book might provide further reflections.

First, we will consider Christ's divine nature; second the divine transcendence and the necessity of Christ's merit; and third, God's presence with his people in Christ.

First, let us consider Christ's divine nature. As Christ is God, so also all of the divine properties relate to Christ in terms of his divine nature. As Muller's book encourages us to reflect on the divine properties, it also calls us to reflect upon the properties of Christ. He is to be worshipped and adored as the one who is far above us, infinite and eternal, worthy of all our obeisance.

Second, the divine transcendence points to the uniqueness of Christ's merit and its necessity for our salvation.

As Turretin stated, there is no proportion between our language about God and God himself; thus, precisely univocal and equivocal language are inadequate. In other words, there is no adequation between our understanding and God's nature.

If there is no definable proportion between God and ourselves, what of our attributes can reach his? What of our holiness can reach his holiness? What of our goodness can reach his goodness? What of our best glory can reach his infinite and eternal glory? If our attributes cannot reach his, then we have nothing that we can give to him (nothing to pay to him) that can truly merit anything before him.

This implication is not missed by Reformed orthodoxy. The Westminster Confession taught that the lack of proportion between God and ourselves implied that even Adam could not properly merit anything from God in innocency. God's acceptance of his obedience in the covenant of works results only from God's voluntary condescension.

Nor are these implication missed by Dr. Muller. He points out that the Reformed rejected the distinction between distributive and communitive justice because there is no proportion between God and man (489). And, as we have noted, he articulates the Reformed view of God's eternal grace manifested in creation. As he states, this grace is always opposed to merit.

Turretin, who made the above comment on disproportionality, recognized its implications for the nature of Adam's potential ‘merit' before the fall. For Turretin, Adam could not truly have merited God's favor.[9] Instead, we might say, we label what he could have accomplished "merit" only improperly speaking by way of its analogy to the work of Christ. That is, the unique place of Adam's obedience in the covenant of works had its analogue in Christ's obedience in the covenant of grace. Nonetheless, it was not "merit" properly speaking.

Only one who is true God can obey in such a way that his obedience is proportional to the divine nature. The fact that Christ performed this obedience in his human nature is no hindrance to this fact. For though Christ performed his obedience in terms of his human nature, it was his divine person that performed these works in his human nature. Thus, the dignity and nature of the divine person who performed this work make that work proportional to the divine perfections. As such only Christ could truly merit our salvation and eschatological life. Adam may have led us to eschatological life by his obedience, yet that obedience would not have merited the blessing strictly speaking, but only by way of God's condescension to accept his obedience as the ground of our eternal blessing.

It was the Reformed qualifications to the analogy of Being that allowed them to assert this fundamental metaphysical necessity of Christ's obedience for true merit before God. Thus we might ask: was Rome so controlled by a defective model of the Analogia Entis that they failed to recognize the full significance of the Creator-creature distinction as Cornelius Van Til claimed? And was it for that reason that they saw no problem with a theology of merit? They failed to recognize the disproportion between God and ourselves and implicitly thought that we might give something to God (in some sense) that God should repay us.

Finally, let us consider God's union with his people. The careful ways that the Reformed scholastics distinguished between God and ourselves can help us to understand the boundaries within which to explain our union with God in Christ. Our union can never undermine the Creator-creature distinction. God alone will forever be truly and essentially eternal, unchanging, self-subsistent, and omnipotent. And he will always possess what are commonly called his communicable attributes in a way unique to himself and far transcending our capacities—we only derivatively experiencing them through his goodness. Nonetheless, as Muller states several times in this volume, God communicates himself in his grace. And finally in heaven, we will participate by way of communion in the perfections of God to the fullest extent possible for creatures. What is astonishing in all of this is that what we could never accomplish as creatures (true merit) has been imputed to us, namely the merit of Christ. Perhaps these two perspectives (rather than strict apotheosis) is closer to what Athanasius had in mind when he said, "he was made man that we might be made God".[10] For, he follows that by noting that in Christ's unique "achievements", we behold "the divinity of the Word".[11]

Dr. Muller's book provides a wealth of historical and theological reflection; a book that is well worth reading several times; a book that provides much to chew on and one that by grace may be the basis for further reflection on the revelation of God in Christ for the good of his church and the glory of his name. Read it, ingest it, and adore your Savior, who is the God of all glory.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Volume Three: The Divine Essence and Attributes. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. 608pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-8010-2294-4. $59.99.

[2] Muller points out that for the Reformed, strictly speaking, God is not even self-existent. For this may suggest that God causes his own existence and thereby imply a contradiction. For it may imply both that God does exist (in order to cause his own existence) and that God does not exist (in order for his existence to be caused by himself).

[3] We make this qualification because Muller earlier states that some of the Reformed did not believe that God could be discussed under metaphysics.

[4]Synopsis purioris theol., VI.xxviii.

[5] "Similarly, distinction can be made between the eternity and/or eternal duration of God, which ‘looks backward and forward' and is ‘without beginning or end,' and the sempiternity or everlastingness of things that are in a sense ‘for ever' and continually ‘look forward to that which is to come,' but which remain ‘alterable and dependent'" (359).

[6] We may note in passing that this is where Middle Knowledge gets its name. As Muller shows, it is the view that there is a middle knowledge between God's necessary knowledge (based on the divine possibility) and his free knowledge (dependent on the decree). In making only a distinction between God's necessary and free knowledge, the Reformed reject Middle Knowledge.

[7] While Muller does not raise the question, we might ask whether this fits together with a privative notion of evil among Reformed scholastics.

[8] Muller later suggests that some of the Reformed argued for the eternity of all of God's affections, while others argued that only love and joy are eternal since God directs these toward himself.

[9] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, XVII.v.7.

[10] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 54.

[11] Ibid.