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Of the Natural Attributes of the Deity

It is an immense conclusion, that there is a God; a perceiving, intelligent, designing Being; at the head of creation, and from whose will it proceeded. The attributes of such a Being, suppose his reality to be proved, must be adequate to the magnitude, extent, and multiplicity of his operations: which are not only vast beyond comparison with those performed by any other power, but, so far as respects our conceptions of them, infinite, because they are unlimited on all sides.

Yet the contemplation of a nature so exalted, however surely we arrive at the proof of its existence, overwhelms our faculties. The mind feels its powers sink under the subject. One consequence of which is, that from painful abstraction the thoughts seek relief in sensible images. Whence may be deduced the ancient, and almost universal propensity to idolatrous substitutions. They are the resources of a laboring imagination. False religions usually fall in with the natural propensity; true religions, or such as have derived themselves from the true, resist it.

It is one of the advantages of the revelations which we acknowledge, that whilst they reject idolatry with its many pernicious accompaniments, they introduce the Deity to human apprehension, under an idea more personal, more determinate, more within its compass, than the theology of nature can do. And this they do by representing him exclusively under the relation in which he stands to ourselves; and, for the most part, under some precise character, resulting from that relation, or from the history of his providences. Which method suits the span of our intellects much better than the universality which enters into the idea of God, as deduced from the views of nature. When therefore, these representations are well founded in point of authority, (for all depends upon that,) they afford a condescension to the state of our faculties, of which, they who have most reflected upon the subject, will be the first to acknowledge the want and the value.

Nevertheless, if we be careful to imitate the documents of our religion, by confining our explanations to what concerns ourselves, and do not affect more precision in our ideas than the subject allows of, the several terms which are employed to denote the attributes of the Deity, may be made, even in natural religion, to bear a sense consistent with truth and reason, and not surpassing our comprehension.

These terms are, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternity, self-existence, necessary existence, spirituality.

“Omnipotence,” “omniscience,” “infinite” power, “infinite” knowledge, are superlatives; expressing our conception of these attributes in the strongest and most elevated terms which language supplies. We ascribe power to the Deity under the name of “omnipotence,” the strict and correct conclusion being, that a power which could create such a world as this is, must be, beyond all comparison, greater than any which we experience in ourselves, than any which we observe in other visible agents; greater also than any which we can want, for our individual protection and preservation, in the Being upon whom we depend. It is a power, likewise, to which we are not authorised, by our observation or knowledge, to assign any limits of space or duration.

Very much of the same sort of remark is applicable to the term “omniscience,” infinite knowledge, or infinite wisdom. In strictness of language, there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom; wisdom always supposing action, and action directed by it. With respect to the first, viz. knowledge, the Creator must know, intimately, the constitution and properties of the things which he created; which seems also to imply a foreknowledge of their action upon one another, and of their changes; at least, so far as the same result from trains of physical and necessary causes. His omniscience also, as far as respects things present, is deducible from his nature, as an intelligent being, joined with the extent, or rather the universality, of his operations. Where he acts, he is; and where he is, he perceives. The wisdom of the Deity, as testified in the works of creation, surpasses all idea we have of wisdom, drawn from the highest intellectual operations of the highest class of intelligent beings with whom we are acquainted, and, which is of the chief importance to us, whatever be its compass or extent, which it is evidently impossible that we should be able to determine, it must be adequate to the conduct of that order of things under which we live. And this is enough. It is of very inferior consequence, by what terms we express our notion, or rather our admiration, of this attribute. The terms, which the piety and the usage of language have rendered habitual to us, may be as proper as any other. We can trace this attribute much beyond what is necessary for any conclusion to which we have occasion to apply it. The degree of knowledge and power, requisite for the formation of created nature, cannot, with respect to us, be distinguished from infinite.

The divine “omnipresence” stands, in natural theology, upon this foundation:—In every part and place of the universe, with which we are acquainted, we perceive the exertion of a power, which we believe, mediately or immediately, to proceed from the Deity. For instance: in what part or point of space, that has ever been explored, do we not discover attraction? In what regions do we not find light? In what accessible portion of our globe do we not meet with gravity, magnetism, electricity? together with the properties also and powers of organized substances, of vegetable or of animated nature? Nay, farther, we may ask, what kingdom is there of nature, what corner of space, in which there is anything that can be examined by us, where we do not fall upon contrivance and design? The only reflection perhaps which arises in our minds from this view of the world around us is, that the laws of nature everywhere prevail; that they are uniform and universal. But what do we mean by the laws of nature, or by any law? Effects are produced by power, not by laws. A law cannot execute itself. A law refers us to an agent. Now an agency so general, as that we cannot discover its absence, or assign the place in which some effect of its continued energy is not found, may, in popular language at least, and, perhaps, without much deviation from philosophical strictness, be called universal: and, with not quite the same, but with no inconsiderable propriety, the person, or Being, in whom that power resides, or from whom it is derived, may be taken to be omnipresent. He who upholds all things by his power, may be said to be everywhere present.

This is called a virtual presence. There is also what metaphysicians denominate an essential ubiquity; and which idea the language of Scripture seems to favor: but the former, I think, goes as far as natural theology carries us.

“Eternity” is a negative idea, clothed with a positive name. It supposes, in that to which it is applied, a present existence; and is the negation of a beginning or an end of that existence. As applied to the Deity, it has not been controverted by those who acknowledge a Deity at all. Most assuredly, there never was a time in which nothing existed, because that condition must have continued. The universal blank must have remained; nothing could rise up out of it; nothing could ever have existed since: nothing could exist now. In strictness, however, we have no concern with duration prior to that of the visible world. Upon this article, therefore, of theology, it is sufficient to know, that the contriver necessarily existed before the contrivance.

“Self-existence” is another negative idea, viz. the negation of a preceding cause, as of a progenitor, a maker, an author, a creator.

“Necessary” existence means demonstrable existence.

“Spirituality” expresses an idea, made up of a negative part, and a positive part. The negative part consists in the exclusion of some of the known properties of matter, especially of solidity, of the vis inertiœ, and of gravitation. The positive part comprises perception, thought, will, power, action; by which last term is meant, the origination of motion; the quality, perhaps, in which resides the essential superiority of spirit over matter, “which cannot move, unless it be moved; and cannot but move, when impelled by another125.” I apprehend that there can be no difficulty in applying to the Deity both parts of this idea.