The Nature and Attributes of God

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

The Nature and Attributes of God

I. As Known Through Natural Reason

A. Infinity of God B. Unity or Unicity of God C. Simplicity of God D. Divine Personality

II. As Known Through Faith

A. Eternity B. Immensity and Ubiquity, or Omnipresence C. Immutability D. The Divine Attributes 1. Divine Knowledge 2. The Divine Will 3. Intellect and Will (Providence, Predestination, and Reprobation)



Having established by inductive inference the self-existence of a personal First Cause distinct from matter and from the human mind (see EXISTENCE OF GOD), we now proceed by deductive analysis to examine the nature and attributes of this Being to the extent required by our limited philosophical scope. We will treat accordingly of

• the infinity,

• unity or unicity, and

• simplicity of God, adding

• some remarks on Divine personality.


When we say that God is infinite, we mean that He is unlimited in every kind of perfection or that every conceivable perfection belongs to Him in the highest conceivable way. In a different sense we sometimes speak, for instance, of infinite time or space, meaning thereby time of such indefinite duration or space of such indefinite extension that we cannot assign any fixed limit to one or the other. Care should be taken not to confound these two essentially different meanings of the term. Time and space, being made up of parts in duration or extension, are essentially finite by comparison with God's infinity. Now we assert that God is infinitely perfect in the sense explained, and that His infinity is deducible from His self-existence. For a self-existent being, if limited at all, could be limited only by itself; to be limited by another would imply causal dependence on that other, which the very notion of self-existence excludes. But the self-existing cannot be conceived as limiting itself, in the sense of curtailing its perfection of being, without ceasing to be self-existing. Whatever it is, it is necessarily; its own essence is the sole reason or explanation of its existence, so that its manner of existence must be as unchangeable as its essence, and to suggest the possibility of an increase or diminution of perfection would be to suggest the absurdity of a changeable essence. It only remains, then, to say that whatever perfection is compatible with its essence is actually realized in a self-existing being; but as there is no conceivable perfection as such -- that is, no expression of positive being as such -- that is not compatible with the essence of the self-existent, it follows that the self- existent must be infinite in all perfection. For self-existence itself is absolute positive being and positive being cannot contradict, and cannot therefore limit, positive being.

This general, and admittedly very abstract, conclusion, as well as the reasoning which supports it, will be rendered more intelligible by a brief specific illustration of what it involves.

(i) When, in speaking of the Infinite, we attribute all conceivable perfections to Him, we must not forget that the predicates we employ to describe perfections derive their meaning and connotation in the first instance from their application to finite beings; and on reflection it is seen that we must distinguish between different kinds of perfections, and that we cannot without palpable contradiction attribute all the perfections of creatures in the same way to God. Some perfections are such that even in the abstract, they necessarily imply or connote finiteness of being or imperfection; while some others do not of themselves necessarily connote imperfection. To the first class belong all material perfections -- extension, sensibility and the like -- and certain spiritual perfections such as rationality (as distinct from simple intelligence); to the second class belong such perfections as being truth, goodness, intelligence, wisdom, justice, holiness, etc. Now while it cannot be said that God is infinitely extended, or that He feels or reasons in an infinite way, it can be said that He is infinitely good, intelligent, wise, just, holy, etc. -- in other words, while perfections of the second class are attributed to God formally (i.e., without any change in the proper meaning of the predicates which express them), those of the first class can only be attributed to Him eminently and equivalently, (i.e. whatever positive being they express belongs to God as their cause in a much higher and more excellent way than to the creatures in which they formally exist). By means of this important distinction, which Agnostics reject or neglect, we are able to think and to speak of the Infinite without being guilty of contradiction, and the fact that men generally -- even Agnostics themselves when off their guard -- recognize and use the distinction, is the best proof that it is pertinent and well founded. Ultimately it is only another way of saying that, given an infinite cause and finite effects, whatever pure perfection is discovered in the effects must first exist in the cause (via affirmationis) and at the same time that whatever imperfection is discovered in the effects must be excluded from the cause (via negationis vel exclusionis). These two principles do not contradict, but only balance and correct one another.

(ii) Yet sometimes men are led by a natural tendency to think and speak of God as if He were a magnified creature -- more especially a magnified man -- and this is known as anthropomorphism. Thus God is said to see or hear, as if He had physical organs, or to be angry or sorry, as if subject to human passions: and this perfectly legitimate and more or less unavoidable use of metaphor is often quite unfairly alleged to prove that the strictly Infinite is unthinkable and unknowable, and that it is really a finite anthrpomorhic God that men worship. But whatever truth there may be in this charge as applied to Polytheistic religions, or even to the Theistic beliefs of rude and uncultured minds, it is untrue and unjust when directed against philosophical Theism. The same reasons that justify and recommend the use of metaphorical language in other connections justify and recommended it here, but no Theist of average intelligence ever thinks of understanding literally the metaphors he applies, or hears applied by others, to God, any more than he means to speak literally when he calls a brave man a lion, or a cunning one a fox.

(iii) Finally it should be observed that, while predicating pure perfections literally both of God and of creatures, it is always understood that these predicates are true in an infinitely higher sense of God than of creatures, and that there is no thought of coordinating or classifying God with creatures. This is technically expressed by saying that all our knowledge of God is analogical, and that all predicates applied to God and to creatures are used analogically, not univocally (see ANALOGY). I may look at a portrait or at its living original, and say of either, with literal truth, that is a beautiful face. And this is an example of analogical predication. Beauty is literally and truly realized both in the portrait and its living original, and retains its proper meaning as applied to either; there is sufficient likeness or analogy to justify literal predication but there is not that perfect likeness or identity between painted and living beauty which univocal predication would imply. And similarly in the case of God and creatures. What we contemplate directly is the portrait of Him painted, so to speak, by Himself on the canvas of the universe and exhibiting in a finite degree various perfections, which, without losing their proper meaning for us, are seen to be capable of being realized in an infinite degree; and our reason compels us to infer that they must be and are so realized in Him who is their ultimate cause.

Hence we admit, in conclusion, that our knowledge of the Infinite is inadequate, and necessarily so since our minds are only finite. But this is very different from the Agnostic contention that the Infinite is altogether unknowable, and that the statements of Theists regarding the nature and attributes of God are so many plain contradictions. It is only by ignoring the well-recognized rules of predication that have just been explained, and consequently by misunderstanding and misrepresenting the Theistic position, that Agnostics succeed in giving an air of superficial plausibility to their own philosophy of blank negation. Anyone who understands those rules, and has learned to think clearly, and trusts his own reason and common sense, will find it easy to meet and refute Agnostic arguments, most of which, in principle, have been anticipated in what precedes. Only one general observation need be made here -- that the principles to which the Agnostic philosopher must appeal in his attempt to invalidate religious knowledge would, if consistently applied, invalidate all human knowledge and lead to universal scepticism -- and it is safe to say that, unless absolute scepticism becomes the philosophy of mankind, Agnosticism will never supplant religion.


Obviously there can be only one infinite being, only one God. If several were to exist, none of them would really be infinite, for, to have plurality of natures at all, each should have some perfection not possessed by the others. This will be readily granted by every one who admits the infinity of God, and there is no need to delay in developing what is perfectly clear. It should be noted, however, that some Theistic philosophers prefer to deduce unicity from self-existence and infinity from both combined, and in a matter so very abstract it is not surprising that slight differences of opinion should arise. But we have followed what seems to us to be the simpler and clearer line of argument. The metaphysical argument by which unicity, as distinct from infinity, is deduced from self-existence seems to be very obscure, while on the other hand infinity, as distinct from unicity, seems to be clearly implied in self-existence as such. If the question, for example, be asked: Why may there not be several self-existing beings? The only satisfactory answer, as it seems to us, is this: Because a self-existent being as such is necessarily infinite, and there cannot be several infinities. The unity of God as the First Cause might also be inductively inferred from the unity of the universe as we know it; but as the suggestion might be made, and could not be disproved, that there may be another or even several universes of which we have no knowledge, this argument would not be absolutely conclusive.


God is a simple being or substance excluding every kind of composition, physical or metaphysical. Physical or real composition is either substantial or accidental -- substantial, if the being in question consists of two or more substantial principles, forming parts of a composite whole, as man for example, consists of body and soul; accidental, if the being in question, although simple in its substance (as is the human soul), is capable of possessing accidental perfections (like the actual thoughts and volition of man's soul) not necessarily identical with its substance. Now it is clear that an infinite being cannot be substantially composite, for this would mean that infinity is made up of the union or addition of finite parts -- a plain contradiction in terms. Nor can accidental composition be attributed to the infinite since even this would imply a capacity for increased perfection, which the very notion of the infinite excludes. There is not, therefore, and cannot be any physical or real composition in God.

Neither can there be that kind of composition which is known as metaphysical, and which results from "the union of diverse concepts referring to the same real thing in such a way that none of them by itself signifies either explicitly or even implicitly the whole reality signified by their combination." Thus every actual contingent being is a metaphysical compound of essence and existence, and man in particular, according to the definition, is a compound of animal and rational. Essence as such in relation to a contingent being merely implies its conceivableness or possibility, and abstracts from actual existence; existence as such must be added before we can speak of the being as actual. But this distinction, with the composition it implies, cannot be applied to the self-existent or infinite being in whom essence and existence are completely identified. We say of a contingent being that it has a certain nature or essence, but of the self-existent we say that it is its own nature or essence. There is no composition therefore of essence and existence -- or of potentiality and actuality -- in God, nor can the composition of genus and specific difference, implied for example in the definition of man as a rational animal, be attributed to Him. God cannot be classified or defined, as contingent beings are classified and defined; for there is no aspect of being in which He is perfectly similar to the finite, and consequently no genus in which He can be included. From this it follows that we cannot know God adequately in the way in which He knows Himself, but not, as the Agnostic contends, that our inadequate knowledge is not true as far as it goes. In speaking of a being who transcends the limitations of formal logical definition our propositions are an expression of real truth, provided that what we state is in itself intelligible and not self-contradictory; and there is nothing unintelligible or contradictory in what Theists predicate of God. It is true that no single predicate is adequate or exhaustive as a description of His infinite perfection, and that we need to employ a multitude of predicates, as if at first sight infinity could be reached by multiplication. But at the same time we recognize that this is not so -- being repugnant to the Divine simplicity; and that while truth, goodness, wisdom, holiness and other attributes, as we conceive and define them express perfections that are formally distinct, yet as applied to God they are all ultimately identical in meaning and describe the same ultimate reality -- the one infinitely perfect and simple being.


When we say that God is a personal being we mean that He is intelligent and free and distinct from the created universe. Personality as such expresses perfection, and if human personality as such connotes imperfection, it must be remembered that, as in the case of similar predicates, this connotation is excluded when we attribute personality to God. It is principally by way of opposition to Pantheism that Divine personality is emphasized by the Theistic philosopher. Human personality, as we know it, is one of the primary data of consciousness, and it is one of those created perfections which must be realized formally (although only analogically) in the First Cause. But Pantheism would require us to deny the reality of any such perfection, whether in creatures or in the Creator, and this is one of the fundamental objections to any form of Pantheistic teaching. Regarding the mystery of the Trinity or three Divine Persons in God, which can be known only by revelation, it is enough to say here that properly understood the mystery contains no contradiction, but on the contrary adds much that is helpful to our inadequate knowledge of the infinite.



Reason, as we have seen, teaches that God is one simple and infinitely perfect spiritual substance or nature. Sacred Scripture and the Church teach the same. The creeds, for example, usually begin with a profession of faith in the one true God, Who is the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, and is also, in the words of the First Vatican Council, "omnipotent, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intellect and will and in every perfection" (Sess. III, cap. i, De Deo). The best way in which we can describe the Divine nature is to say that it is infinitely perfect, or that God is the infinitely perfect Being but we must always remember that even being itself, the most abstract and universal term we possess, is predicated of God and of creatures not univocally or identically, but only analogically. But other predicates, which, as applied to creatures, express certain specific determinations of being, are also used of God -- analogically, if in themselves they express pure or unmixed perfection, but only metaphorically if they necessarily connote imperfection. Now of such predicates as applied to creatures we distinguish between those that are used in the concrete to denote being as such more or less determined (v.g., substance, spirit, etc.), and those that are used in the abstract or adjectively to denote determinations, or qualities, or attributes of being (v.g., good, goodness; intelligent, intelligence, etc.); and we find it useful to transfer this distinction to God, and to speak of the Divine nature or essence and Divine attributes being careful at the same time, by insisting on Divine simplicity, to avoid error or contradiction in its application. For, as applied to God, the distinction between nature and attributes, and between the attributes themselves, is merely logical and not real. The finite mind is not capable of comprehending the Infinite so as adequately to describe its essence by any single concept or term; but while using a multitude of terms, all of which are analogically true, we do not mean to imply that there is any kind of composition in God. Thus, as applied to creatures, goodness and justice, for example, are distinct from each other and from the nature or substance of the beings in whom they are found, and if finite limitations compel us to speak of such perfections in God as if they were similarly distinct, we know, nevertheless, and are ready, when needful, to explain, that this is not really so, but that all Divine attributes are really identical with one another and with the Divine essence.

The Divine attributes or perfections which may thus logically be distinguished are very numerous, and it would be a needless task to attempt to enumerate them fully. But among them some are recognized as being of fundamental importance, and to these in particular is the term attributes applied and special notice devoted by theologians -- though there is no rigid agreement as to the number or classification of such attributes. As good a classification as any other is that based on the analogy of entitative and operative perfections in creatures -- the former qualifying nature or essence as such and abstracting from activity, the latter referring especially to the activity of the nature in question. Another distinction is often made between physical, and moral or ethical, attributes -- the former of themselves abstracting from, while the latter directly express, moral perfection. But without labouring with the question of classification, it will suffice to notice separately those attributes of leading importance that have not been already explained. Nothing need be added to what has been said above concerning self-existence, infinity, unity, and simplicity (which belong to the entitative class); but eternity, immensity, and immutability (also of the entitative class), together with the active attributes, whether physical or moral, connected with the Divine intellect and will, call for some explanation here.


By saying that God is eternal we mean that in essence, life, and action He is altogether beyond temporal limits and relations. He has neither beginning, nor end, nor duration by way of sequence or succession of moments. There is no past or future for God -- but only an eternal present. If we say that He was or that He acted, or that He will be or will act, we mean in strictness that He is or that He acts; and this truth is well expressed by Christ when He says (John, viii, 58-A.V.): "Before Abraham was, I am." Eternity, therefore, as predicated of God, does not mean indefinite duration in time -- a meaning in which the term is sometimes used in other connections -- but it means the total exclusion of the finiteness which time implies. We are obliged to use negative language in describing it, but in itself eternity is a positive perfection, and as such may be best defined in the words of Boethius as being "interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio," i.e. possession in full entirety and perfection of life without beginning, end, or succession.

The eternity of God is a corollary from His self-existence and infinity. Time being a measure of finite existence, the infinite must transcend it. God, it is true, coexists with time, as He coexists with creatures, but He does not exist in time, so as to be subject to temporal relations: His self-existence is timeless. Yet the positive perfection expressed by duration as such, i.e. persistence and permanence of being, belongs to God and is truly predicated of Him, as when He is spoken of, for example, as "Him that is, and that was and that is to come" (Apoc., i, 4); but the strictly temporal connotation of such predicates must always be corrected by recalling the true notion of eternity.


Space, like time, is one of the measures of the finite, and as by the attribute of eternity, we describe God's transcendence of all temporal limitations, so by the attribute of immensity we express His transcendent relation to space. There is this difference, however, to be noted between eternity and immensity, that the positive aspect of the latter is more easily realized by us, and is sometimes spoken of, under the name of omnipresenee, or ubiquity, as if it were a distinct attribute. Divine immensity means on the one hand that God is necessarily present everywhere in space as the immanent cause and sustainer of creatures, and on the other hand that He transcends the limitations of actual and possible space, and cannot be circumscribed or measured or divided by any spatial relations. To say that God is immense is only another way of saying that He is both immanent and transcendent in the sense already explained. As some one has metaphorically and paradoxically expressed it, "God's centre is everywhere, His circumference nowhere."

That God is not subject to spatial limitations follows from His infinite simplicity; and that He is truly present in every place or thing -- that He is omnipresent or ubiquitous -- follows from the fact that He is the cause and ground of all reality. According to our finite manner of thinking we conceive this presence of God in things spatial as being primarily a presence of power and operation -- immediate Divine efficiency being required to sustain created beings in existence and to enable them to act; but, as every kind of Divine action ad extra is really identical with the Divine nature or essence, it follows that God is really present everywhere in creation not merely per virtuten et operationem, but per essentiam. In other words God Himself, or the Divine nature, is in immediate contact with, or immanent in, every creature -- conserving it in being and enabling it to act. But while insisting on this truth we must, if we would avoid contradiction, reject every form of the pantheistic hypothesis. While emphasizing Divine immanence we must not overlook Divine transcendence.

There is no lack of Scriptural or ecclesiastical testimonies asserting God's immensity and ubiquity. It is enough to refer for example to:

• Heb. i, 3 iv, 12, 13

• Acts, xvii, 24, 27, 28;

• Eph., i, 23;

• Col., i, ;6, 17,

• Ps. cxxxviii, 7-12;

• Job, xii, 10, etc.


In God "there is no change, nor shadow of alteration" (James, i 17); "They [i.e. "the works of thy hands"] shall perish, but thou shalt continue: and they shall all grow old as a garment. And as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: but thou art the selfsame and thy years shall not fail" (Heb., i, 10- 12, Ps. ci, 26-28. Cf. Mal., iii, 6; Heb., xiii, 8). These are some of the Scriptural texts which clearly teach Divine immutability or unchangeableness, and this attribute is likewise emphasized in church teaching, as by the Council of Nicaea against the Arians, who attributed mutability to the Logos (Denzinger, 54- old No. 18), and by the First Vatican Council in its famous definition.

That the Divine nature is essentially immutable, or incapable of any internal change, is an obvious corollary from Divine infinity. Changeableness implies the capacity for increase or diminution of perfection, that is, it implies finiteness and imperfection. But God is infinitely perfect and is necessarily what He is. It is true that some attributes by which certain aspects of Divine perfection are described are hypothetlcal or relative, in the sense that they presuppose the contingent fact of creation: omnipresence, for example, presupposes the actual existence of spatial beings. But it is obvious that the mutability implied in this belongs to creatures, and not to the Creator; and it is a strange confusion of thought that has led some modern Theists -- even professing Christians -- to maintain that such attributes can be laid aside by God, and that the Logos in becoming incarnate actually did lay them aside, or at least ceased from their active exercise. But as creation itself did not affect the immutability of God, so neither did the incarnation of a Divine Person; whatever change was involved in either case took place solely in the created nature.


The so-called active Divine attributes are best treated in connection with the Divine Intellect and Will -- principles of Divine operation ad extra -- to which they are all ultimately reducible.

1. Divine Knowledge

Description of the Divine Knowledge

That God is omniscient or possesses the most perfect knowledge of all things, follows from His infinite perfection. In the first place He knows and comprehends Himself fully and adequately, and in the next place He knows all created objects and comprehends their finite and contingent mode of being. Hence He knows them individually or singularly in their finite multiplicity, knows everything possible as well as actual; knows what is bad as well as what is good. Everything, in a word, which to our finite minds signifies perfection and completeness of knowledge may be predicated of Divine omniscience, and it is further to be observed that it is on Himself alone that God depends for His knowledge. To make Him in any way dependent on creatures for knowledge of created objects would destroy His infinite perfection and supremacy. Hence it is in His eternal, unchangeable, comprehensive knowledge of Himself or of His own infinite being that God knows creatures and their acts, whether there is question of what is actual or merely possible. Indeed, Divine knowledge itself is really identical with Divine essence, as are all the attributes and acts of God; but according to our finite modes of thought we feel the need of conceiving them distinctly and of representing the Divine essence as the medium or mirror in which the Divine intellect sees all truth. Moreover, although the act of Divine knowledge is infinitely simple in itself, we feel the need of further distinctions -- not as regards the knowledge in itself, but as regards the multiplicity of finite objects which it embraces. Hence the universally recognized distinction between the knowledge of vision (scientia visionis) and that of simple intelligence (simplicis intelligentiae), and the famous controversy regarding the scientia media. We shall briefly explain this distinction and the chief difficulties involved in this controversy.

Distinctions in the Divine Knowledge

In classifying the objects of Divine omniscience the most obvious and fundamental distinction is between things that actually exist at any time, and those that are merely possible. And it is in reference to these two classes of objects that the distinction is made between knowledge "of vision" and "of simple intelligence"; the former referring to things actual, and the latter to the merely possible. This distinction might appear at first sight to be absolutely comprehensive and adequate to the purpose for which we introduce distinctions at all, but some difficulty is felt once the question is raised of God's knowledge of the acts of creatures endowed with free will. That God knows infallibly and from eternity what, for example, a certain man, in the exercise of free will, will do or actually does in any given circumstances, and what he might or would actually have done in different circumstances is beyond doubt -- being a corollary from the eternal actuality of Divine knowledge. So to speak, God has not to wait on the contingent and temporal event of the man's free choice to know what the latter's action will be; He knows it from eternity. But the difficulty is: how, from our finite point of view, to interpret and explain the mysterious manner of God's knowledge of such events without at the same time sacrificing the free will of the creature.

The Dominican school has defended the view that the distinction between knowledge of "vision" and of "simple intelligence" is the only one we need or ought to employ in our effort to conceive and describe Divine omniscience, even in relation to the free acts of intelligent creatures. These acts, if they ever take place, are known or foreknown by God as if they were eternally actual -- and this is admitted by all; otherwise they remain in the category of the merely possible -- and this is what the Jesuit school denies, pointing for example to statements such as that of Christ regarding the people of Tyre and Sidon, who would have done penance had they received the same graces as the Jews (Matt., xi, 21). This school therefore maintains that to the actual as such and the purely possible we must add another category of objects: hypothetical facts that may never become actual, but would become actual were certain conditions realized. The hypothetical truth of such facts, it is rightly contended, is more than mere possibility, yet less than actuality; and since God knows such facts in their hypothetical character there is good reason for introducing a distinction to cover them -- and this is the scientia media. And it is clear that even acts that take place and as such fall finally under the knowledge of vision may be conceived as falling first under the knowledge of simple intelligence and then under the scientia media, the progressive formula would be:

• first, it is possible Peter would do so and so;

• second, Peter would do so and so, given certain conditions;

• third, Peter will do or does so and so.

Now, were it not for the differences that lie behind there would probably be no objection raised to scientia media, but the distinction itself is only the prelude to the real problem. Admitting that God knows from eternity the future free acts of creatures the question is how or in what way He knows them or rather how we are to conceive and explain by analogy the manner of the divine foreknowledge, which in itself is beyond our powers of comprehension? It is admitted that God knows them first as objects of the knowledge of simple intelligence; but does he know them also as objects of the scientia media, i.e. hypothetically and independently of any decree of His will, determining their actuality, or does He know them only in and through such decrees? The Dominican contention is that God's knowledge of future free acts depends on the decrees of His free will which predetermine their actuality by means of the praemotio physica. God knows, for example, that Peter will do so and so, because He has decreed from eternity so to move Peter's free will that the latter will infallibly, although freely, cooperate with, or consent to, the Divine premotion. In the case of good acts there is a physical and intrinsic connection between the motion given by God and the consent of Peter's will, while as regards morally bad acts, the immorality as such -- which is a privation and not a positive entity -- comes entirely from the created will.

The principal difficulties against this view are that in the first place it seems to do away with human free will, and in the next place to make God responsible for sin. Both consequences of course are denied by those who uphold it, but, making all due allowance for the mystery which shrouds the subject, it is difficult to see how the denial of free will is not logically involved in the theory of the praemotio physica, how the will can be said to consent freely to a motion which is conceived as predetermining consent; such explanations as are offered merely amount to the assertion that, after all, the human will is free. The other difficulty consists in the twofold fact that God is represented as giving the praemotio physica in the natural order for the act of will by which the sinner embraces evil, and that He withholds the supernatural praemotio or efficacious grace which is essentially required for the performance of a salutary act. The Jesuit school, on the other hand -- with whom probably a majority of independent theologians agree -- using the scientia media maintains that we ought to conceive God's knowledge of future free acts not as being dependent and consequent upon decrees of His will, but in its character as hypothetical knowledge or being antecedent to them. God knows in the scientia media what Peter would do if in given circumstances he were to receive a certain aid, and this before any absolute decree to give that aid is supposed. Thus there is no predetermination by the Divine of what the human will freely chooses; it is not because God foreknows (having foredecreed) a certain free act that that act takes place, but God foreknows it in the first instance because as a matter of fact it is going to take place; He knows it as a hypothetical objective fact before it becomes an object of the scientia visionis -- or rather this is how, in order to safeguard human liberty, we must conceive Him as knowing it. It was thus, for example, that Christ knew what would have been the results of His ministry among the people of Tyre and Sidon. But one must be careful to avoid implying that God's knowledge is in any way dependent on creatures, as if He had, so to speak, to await the actual event in time before knowing infallibly what a free creature may choose to do. From eternity He knows, but does not predetermine the creature's choice. And if it be asked how we can conceive this knowledge to exist antecedently to and independently of some act of the Divine will, on which all things contingent depend, we can only say that the objective truth expressed by the hypothetical facts in question is somehow reflected in the Divine Essence, which is the mirror of all truth, and that in knowing Himself God knows these things also. Whichever way we turn we are bound ultimate]y to encounter a mystery, and, when there is a question of choosing between a theory which refers the mystery to God Himself and one which only saves the truth of human freedom by making free-will itself a mystery, most theologians naturally prefer the former alternative.

2. The Divine Will

Description of the Divine Will

(a) The highest perfections of creatures are reducible to functions of intellect and will, and, as these perfections are realized analogically in God, we naturally pass from considering Divine knowledge or intelligence to the study of Divine volition. The object of intellect as such is the true; the object of will as such, the good. In the case of God it is evident that His own infinite goodness is the primary and necessary object of His will, created goodness being but a secondary and contingent object. This is what the inspired writer means when he says: "The Lord hath made all things for himself" (Prov., xvi, 4). The Divine will of course, like the Divine intellect, is really identical with the Divine Essence but according to our finite modes of thought we are obliged to speak of them as if they were distinct and, just as the Divine intellect cannot be dependent on created objects for its knowledge of them, neither can the Divine will be so dependent for its volition. Had no creature ever been created, God would have been the same self-sufficient being that He is, the Divine will as an appetitive faculty being satisfied with the infinite goodness of the Divine Essence itself. This is what the First Vatican Council means by speaking of God as "most happy in and by Himself" -- not that He does not truly wish and love the goodness of creatures, which is a participation of His own, but that He has no need of creatures and is in no way dependent on them for His bliss.

(b) Hence it follows that God possesses the perfection of free will in an infinitely eminent degree. That is to say, without any change in Himself or in His eternal act of volition, He freely chooses whether or not creatures shall exist and what manner of existence shall be theirs, and this choice or determination is an exercise of that dominion which free will (liberty of indifference) essentially expresses. In itself free will is an absolute and positive perfection, and as such is most fully realized in God. Yet we are obliged to describe Divine liberty as we have done relatively to its effects in creation, and, by way of negation, we must exclude the imperfections associated with free will in creatures. These imperfections may be reduced to two:

• potentiality and mutability as opposed to immutable pure act, and

• the power of choosing what is evil.

Only the second need be noticed here.

(c) When a free creature chooses what is evil, he does not choose it formally as such, but only sub specie boni, i.e., what his will really embraces is some aspect of goodness which he truly or falsely believes to be discoverable in the evil act. Moral evil ultimately consists in choosing some such fancied good which is known more or less clearly to be opposed to the Supreme Good, and it is obvious that only a finite being can be capable of such a choice. God necessarily loves Himself, who is the Supreme Good, and cannot wish anything that would be opposed to Himself. Yet He permits the sins of creatures, and it has always been considered one of the gravest problems of theism to explain why this is so. We cannot enter on the Problem here, but must content ourselves with a few brief observations.

• First, however difficult or even mysterious, may be the problem of moral evil for the theist, it is many times more difficult for every kind of anti-theist.

• Secondly, so far as we can judge the possibility of moral defection seems to be a natural limitation of created free will, and can only be excluded supernaturally, and, even viewing the question from a purely rational standpoint, we are conscious on the whole that, whatever the final solution may be, it is better that God should have created free beings capable of sinning than that He should not have created free beings at all. Few men would resign the faculty of free will just to escape the danger of abusing it.

• Thirdly, some final solution, not at present apparent to our limited intelligence, may be expected on merely rational grounds from the infinite wisdom and justice of God, and supernatural revelation, which gives us glimpses of the Divine plan, goes a long way towards supplying a complete answer to the questions that most intimately concern us. The clearly perceived truth to be emphasized here is that sin is hateful to God and essentially opposed to His infinite holiness, and that the wilful discord which sin introduces into the harmony of the universe will somehow be set right in the end.

There is no need to delay in discussing mere physical as distinct from moral evil, and it is enough to remark that such evil is not merely permitted, but willed by God, not indeed in its character as evil, but as being, in such a universe as the present, a means towards good and in itself relatively good.

Distinctions in the Divine Will

As distinctions are made in the Divine knowledge, so also in the Divine will, and one of these latter is of sufficient importance to deserve a passing notice here. This is the distinction between the antecedent and consequent will, and its principal application is to the question of man's salvation. God, according to St. Paul (I Tim., ii, 4),"wills that all men be saved", and this is explained to be an antecedent will; that is to say, abstracting from circumstances and conditions which may interfere with the fulfilment of God's will (e.g., sin on man's part, natural order in the universe, etc.), He has a sincere wish that all men should attain supernatural salvation, and this will is so far efficacious that He provides and intends the necessary means of salvation for all -- sufficient actual graces for those who are capable of cooperating with them and the Sacrament of Baptism for infants. On the other hand, the consequent will takes account of those circumstances and conditions and has reference to what God wills and executes in consequence of them. It is thus, for example, that He condemns the wicked to punishment after death and excludes unbaptized infants from the beatific vision.

3. Intellect and Will (Providence, Predestination, and Reprobation)

Several attributes and several aspects of Divine activity partake both of an intellectual and a volitional character and must be treated from the combined point of view. Such are omnipotence, holiness, justice, blessedness, and so forth, but it is unnecessary to delay on such attributes which are self- explanatory. Some notice, on the other hand, must be devoted to providence and to the particular aspects of providence which we call predestination and reprobation; and with a brief treatment of these which are elsewhere fully treated this article will be concluded.


Providence may be defined as the scheme in the Divine mind by which all things treated are ordered and guided efficiently to a common end or purpose (ratio perductionis rerum in finem in mente divina existens). It includes an act of intellect and an act of will, in other words knowledge and power. And that there is such a thing as Divine Providence by which the entire universe is ruled clearly follows from the fact that God is the author of all things and that order and purpose must characterize the action of an intelligent creator. Nor is any truth more insistently proclaimed in revelation. What the author of Wisdom (xiv, 3) says of a particular thing is applicable to the universe as a whole: "But your providence, O Father, governs it", and no more beautiful illustration of the same truth has ever been given than that given by Christ Himself when He instances God's care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matt., vi, 25 sq.). But to rational creatures God's providential care is extended in a very special way, yet not so as to do away with the utility and efficacy of prayer, whether for temporal or spiritual favours (Matt., vii, 8), nor to disturb or override the efficiency of secondary causes. It is in and through secondary causes that providence ordinarily works, and no miracle, as a rule, is to be expected in answer to prayer

Predestination and reprobation

Predestination and reprobation are those special parts of Divine Providence which deal specially with man's salvation or damnation in the present supernatural order. Predestination is the foreknowledge on the part of God of those who will de facto be saved and the preparation and bestowal of the means by which salvation is obtained, while reprobation is the foreknowledge of those who will de facto be damned and the permission of this eventuality by God. In both cases an act of the intellect (infallible foreknowledge), and an act of the will are supposed; but whereas in predestination the antecedent and consequent will is the same, in reprobation God wills consequently what He does not antecedently will at all but only permits, namely, the eternal punishment of the sinner.

Many controversies have arisen on the subject of predestination and reprobation, into which we cannot enter here. But we shall briefly summarize the leading points on which Catholic theologians have agreed and the points on which they differ.

First, that predestination exists, i.e. that God knows from eternity with infallible certainty who will be saved and that He wills from eternity to give them the graces by which salvation will be secured, is obvious from reason and is taught by Christ Himself (John, x, 27), and by St. Paul (Rom., viii, 29, 30).

Second, while God has this infallible foreknowledge, we on our part cannot have an absolutely certain assurance that we are among the number of the predestined -- unless indeed by means of a special Divine revelation such as we know from experience is rarely, if ever, given. This follows from the Tridentine condemnation of the teaching of the Reformers that we could and ought to believe with the certainty of faith in our own justification and election (Sess. VI, cap. ix, can. xiii-xv).

Third, the principal controverted point regarding predestination between Catholic theologians is concerned with its gratuity, and in order to understand the controversy it is necessary to distinguish between predestination in intention, i.e. as it is a mere act of knowledge and of purpose in the Divine mind, and in execution, i.e. as it means the actual bestowal of grace and of glory; and also between predestination in the edequate sense, as referring both to grace and to glory, and in the inadequate sense, as referring particularly to one's destination to glory, and in the inadequate sense, as referring particularly to one's destination to glory, and abstracting from the grace by which glory is obtained. Now,

• speaking of predestination in execution, all Catholic theologians maintain in opposition to Calvinists that it is not entirely gratuitous, but in the case of adults depends partly on the free mercy of God and partly on human cooperation; the actual bestowal of glory is at least partly a reward of true merit.

• Speaking of predestination in intention and in the adequate sense, Catholic theologians agree that it is gratuitous; so understood it includes the first grace which cannot be merited by man.

• But if we speak of predestination in intention and in the inadequate sense, i.e. to glory in abstraction from grace, there is no longer unanimity of opinion. Most Thomists and several other theologians maintain that predestination in this sense is gratuitous, i.e. God first destines a man to glory antecedently to any foreseen merits, and consequently upon this decrees to give the efficacious grace by which it is obtained. Predestination to grace is the result of an entirely gratuitous predestination to glory, and with this is combined for those not included in the decree of election what is known as a negative reprobation. Other theologians maintain on the contrary that there is no such thing as negative reprobation, and that predestination to glory is not gratuitous but dependent on foreseen merits. The order of dependence, according to these theologians, is the same in predestination in intention as it is in predestination in execution, and as already stated, the bestowal of glory only follows upon actual merit in the case of adults. These have been the two prevailing opinions followed for the most part in the schools, but a third opinion, which is a somewhat subtle via media, has been put forward by certain other theologians and defended with great skill by such an authority as Billot. The gist of this view is that while negative reprobation must be rejected, gratuitous election to glory ante praevisa merita must be retained, and an effort is made to prove that these two may be logically separated, a possibility overlooked by the advocates of the first two opinions. Without entering into details here, it is enough to observe that the success of this subtle expedient is very questionable.

Fourth, as regards reprobation,

• all Catholic theologians are agreed that God foresees from eternity and permits the final defection of some, but that the decree of His will destining them to eternal damnation is not antecedent to but consequent upon foreknowledge of their sin and their death in the state of sin. The first part of this proposition is a simple corollary from Divine omniscience and supremacy, and the second part is directed against Calvinistic and Jansenistic teaching, according to which God expressly created some for the purpose of punishing them, or at least that subsequently to the fall of Adam, He leaves them in the state of damnation for the sake of exhibiting His wrath. Catholic teaching on this point reechoes II Peter, iii, 9, according to which God does not wish that any should perish but that all should return to penance, and it is the teaching implied in Christ's own description of the sentence that is to be pronounced on the damned, condemnation being grounded not on the antecedent will of God, but on the actual demerits of men themselves (e. g. Matt., xxv, 41).

• So-called negative reprobation, which is commonly defended by those who maintain election to glory antecedently to foreseen merits, means that simultaneously with the predestination of the elect God either positively excludes the damned from the the decree of election to glory or at least fails to include them in it, without, however, destining them to positive punishment except consequently on their foreseen demerits. It is this last qualification that distinguishes the doctrine of negative reprobation from Calvinistic and Jansenistic teaching, leaving room, for instance, for a condition of perfect natural happiness for those dying with only original sin on their souls. But, notwithstanding this difference, the doctrine ought to be rejected, for it is opposed very plainly to the teaching of St. Paul regarding the universality of God's will to save all (I Tim., ii, 4), and from a rational point of view it is difficult to reconcile with a worthy concept of Divine justice.

P.J. TONER Transcribed by Tomas Hancil

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

Taken from the New Advent Web Page (

This article is part of the Catholic Encyclopedia Project, an effort aimed at placing the entire Catholic Encyclopedia 1913 edition on the World Wide Web. The coordinator is Kevin Knight, editor of the New Advent Catholic Website. If you would like to contribute to this worthwhile project, you can contact him by e- mail at ( For more information please download the file cathen.txt/.zip.