JMC : The Catholic Religion / by Charles Coppens, S.J.

The Perfections of God in General.

128. By a "perfection" we mean any quality which it is better to have than not to have. The perfections of God are infinite, and therefore, as is declared by the Vatican Council, God is incomprehensible. This term, however, does not signify that we cannot know His perfections at all, but only that we cannot know them completely; for complete knowledge of an object supposes that the intellect knowing is as great as the object known. Eliu, the friend of Job whose utterances are adopted by the inspired writer, declares that God is "great, exceeding our knowledge" (XXXVI, 26); and St. Gregory of Nazianzum says that in this life our knowledge of God is a slender stream, a tiny ray from the mighty Light (Or. 28).

Since we cannot comprehend God, we cannot express all His perfections in language; this is meant when we say God is ineffable.

129. Moreover when we strive to learn the perfections of God, whether by reason, from the study of His works, or by supernatural revelation, we find that, not only is God very different from all other beings in many respects, but there is no perfection whatever which belongs to Him in exactly the same way in which it belongs to any creature. For all the words we have are primarily applied to creatures, and when we use them to designate God or His perfections, we do not take them in exactly the same sense as we do for creatures, but with a difference: we use them analogically. For instance, the very verb "to have" is not applied, to God and to man in exactly the same sense. For we say both of God and of men that they have goodness, wisdom, mercy, etc,; but while a man has goodness, etc., he is not his goodness, wisdom, and mercy -- since even without these qualities he would still be a man -- while God is his goodness, wisdom, and mercy, and all His other perfections, all being His very essence "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life", says Christ (Jo. XIV, 6). Nor are God's perfections really distinct from one another in Him, but only in the partial or imperfect views we take of Him: His goodness is His wisdom, His justice, His eternity, etc. For in God there is no real distinction whatever, except only that between the three Divine Persons, as we shall explain when we shall treat of the Holy Trinity (nn. 141-148).

130. It is very necessary to bear in mind this analogical use of words, while we now proceed to consider what we really know of God by faith, and to a less extent by reason. We are going to map out, as it were, the knowledge we have of the most simple of beings, whose perfections, as seen by us, are the most diversified. In studying man, we find obvious distinctions between, 1. His essence, that is those characteristics without which we cannot conceive a man; 2. His attributes, or qualities which necessarily flow from the essence, as his power of speech; 3. His accidental qualities, which some men have and others have not, such as health, learning, contentment, etc. In God there are no such distinctions in reality. Nevertheless, theologians give the name of metaphysical essence to that perfection of God from which we can prove all His other perfections: this is usually considered to be His necessary existence. The other perfections, viewed as flowing from this, are called Divine attributes; accidental qualities there, of course, cannot be in the necessary Being.

131. The names given to God in Holy Scripture present Him to us under various aspects; the name "Adonai" calls for some special explanation. Adonai means "The Lord". It was used by the Jews wherever a mysterious name occurs in the Scriptures which is composed of four letters, and is therefore called "Tetragrammaton". Its vowel sounds were not known except to the High Priest and a few leading men, and, through reverence, were concealed from the people. It is called by Christians "Jehova", or "Javeh"; but the true sound is unknown. The secret name was first revealed, it would seem, to Moses, when God appeared to him in the Burning Bush (Ex. III.). Moses asked: "If they should say to me 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them? God said to Moses, 'I am who am' ". It means that God is the fulness of being.

132. The Vatican Council, in 1870, defined that the following attributes belong to God: "There is one living and true God, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, omnipotent, eternal, immense, and incomprehensible; infinite in intellect and will and in all perfection; who being one, singular, absolutely simple, and unchangeable spiritual substance, is to be regarded as distinct really and in essence from tlie world, most blessed in and from Himself, and unspeakably elevated above all things that exist or can be conceived, except Himself" (Sess. 3, Ch. 1.).

133. We may class these attributes under two heads: the quiescent and the operative. The former are conceived by us as perfecting God in His modes of being, the latter in His modes of acting.

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