Difficulty in Poythress on the attributes of God

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83r17h

Puritan Board Freshman
I have been slowly reading through the recent book The Mystery of the Trinity by Vern Poythress. It has some unique and stimulating insights about how the Trinity illuminates understanding the divine attributes. Some of these reflections in the first parts of the book were awesome to read and consider. I can see other analogies where the Trinity is helpful in illuminating a deeper understanding of the divine attributes. This is good, and something that is perhaps lacking in other places and authors.

However, I find myself confused, and I'm wondering what the thoughts of the board are on the portion of the book where Poythress critiques Turretin. It seems as though the traditional understanding of simplicity is that because the divine essence is one and simple, the attributes are ectypal, describing different aspects of how God's character works in creation and providence. Thus, the attributes are one, and not multiple parts that make up the divine essence. We make valid distinctions because God displays himself different ways and through different actions, and thus the attributes are a way for us (as finite) to know God analogically, since we cannot know God archetypally.

Poythress seems to disagree with this. On page 368-370, he gives a discussion on the distinction between different attributes, saying that "a distinction between two attributes may have its roots in a deeper distinction, namely, a distinction between two persons of the Trinity." He concludes the section with the statement "the diversity in attributes is an ectypal reflection of the archetype, the diversity in the persons."

This seems either unhelpful, or problematic. If he's saying that the root metaphysical ground of all diversity (including diversity in our theology) is the diversity of the persons, that's something. But that doesn't seem to be related to what Turretin is talking about, and doesn't really form any sort of a critique of Turretin. Turretin, as I understand (but please correct me if I'm wrong), is not discussing the metaphysical ground of all diversity, but explaining practically why we delineate multiple attributes, given that the divine essence is simple. He just leaves the metaphysical grounding of diversity (as a principle) an unaddressed topic.

On the other hand, if Poythress is trying to say that there are actual distinctions in the divine essence, and that these are the result of the diversity of persons, this seems problematic. If the view is that unity is from the essence, and diversity from the persons, wouldn't introducing diversity into the essence remove either the need for the persons as ultimate metaphysical diversity, or destroy the use of the essence as ultimate metaphysical unity? I don't think Poythress is saying this, but if he's not, then I don't understand what he actually thinks is the problem with Turretin, because Turretin doesn't seem to be making unity ultimate as a metaphysical principle (with no diversity). But since the divine essence is what is being discussed, and the divine essence is in fact, the ultimate principle of metaphysical unity, the attributes being one shouldn't be problematic.

Has anyone read this, or can help me understand Poythress' critique of Turretin? I'm not entirely sure what Poythress thinks the problem with Turretin is, and in the only two ways that I thought of understanding Poythress, the first one isn't a problem, and the second one seems to be problematic for Poythress, but not for Turretin.
 

Gwallard

Puritan Board Freshman
I have been slowly reading through the recent book The Mystery of the Trinity by Vern Poythress. It has some unique and stimulating insights about how the Trinity illuminates understanding the divine attributes. Some of these reflections in the first parts of the book were awesome to read and consider. I can see other analogies where the Trinity is helpful in illuminating a deeper understanding of the divine attributes. This is good, and something that is perhaps lacking in other places and authors.

However, I find myself confused, and I'm wondering what the thoughts of the board are on the portion of the book where Poythress critiques Turretin. It seems as though the traditional understanding of simplicity is that because the divine essence is one and simple, the attributes are ectypal, describing different aspects of how God's character works in creation and providence. Thus, the attributes are one, and not multiple parts that make up the divine essence. We make valid distinctions because God displays himself different ways and through different actions, and thus the attributes are a way for us (as finite) to know God analogically, since we cannot know God archetypally.

Poythress seems to disagree with this. On page 368-370, he gives a discussion on the distinction between different attributes, saying that "a distinction between two attributes may have its roots in a deeper distinction, namely, a distinction between two persons of the Trinity." He concludes the section with the statement "the diversity in attributes is an ectypal reflection of the archetype, the diversity in the persons."

This seems either unhelpful, or problematic. If he's saying that the root metaphysical ground of all diversity (including diversity in our theology) is the diversity of the persons, that's something. But that doesn't seem to be related to what Turretin is talking about, and doesn't really form any sort of a critique of Turretin. Turretin, as I understand (but please correct me if I'm wrong), is not discussing the metaphysical ground of all diversity, but explaining practically why we delineate multiple attributes, given that the divine essence is simple. He just leaves the metaphysical grounding of diversity (as a principle) an unaddressed topic.

On the other hand, if Poythress is trying to say that there are actual distinctions in the divine essence, and that these are the result of the diversity of persons, this seems problematic. If the view is that unity is from the essence, and diversity from the persons, wouldn't introducing diversity into the essence remove either the need for the persons as ultimate metaphysical diversity, or destroy the use of the essence as ultimate metaphysical unity? I don't think Poythress is saying this, but if he's not, then I don't understand what he actually thinks is the problem with Turretin, because Turretin doesn't seem to be making unity ultimate as a metaphysical principle (with no diversity). But since the divine essence is what is being discussed, and the divine essence is in fact, the ultimate principle of metaphysical unity, the attributes being one shouldn't be problematic.

Has anyone read this, or can help me understand Poythress' critique of Turretin? I'm not entirely sure what Poythress thinks the problem with Turretin is, and in the only two ways that I thought of understanding Poythress, the first one isn't a problem, and the second one seems to be problematic for Poythress, but not for Turretin.
If I can speak without having read the whole book, then I will, but take it with a grain of salt.

Poythress is trying to be careful, I think, with the equal ultimacy of unity and diversity, and sees an implicit, mild preference in Turretin for unity over diversity. I think this is a wide angle lens understanding of most of his critiques.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
The reason we say the attributes aren't parts is because if they were parts, they would make up God. That means God would be dependent on something else to be God.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
"a distinction between two attributes may have its roots in a deeper distinction, namely, a distinction between two persons of the Trinity."

If this is really what he means, this is bad. It means that at least one person won't have all the divine attributes, which logically leads to the conclusion that at least one (if not all) aren't fully God.

If all he means is that the distinction in the persons reveals or connotes a distinction between the attributes, then at least he hasn't committed a formal heresy. It is still a terrible way to speak.
 

83r17h

Puritan Board Freshman
If this is really what he means, this is bad. It means that at least one person won't have all the divine attributes, which logically leads to the conclusion that at least one (if not all) aren't fully God.

If all he means is that the distinction in the persons reveals or connotes a distinction between the attributes, then at least he hasn't committed a formal heresy. It is still a terrible way to speak.

That's what I was thinking. That's why I'm wondering if I am understanding him right - either his objection to Turretin isn't an objection, or it's wrong, or I've terribly misunderstood what he's saying.

He does say that attributes are represented preeminently by different persons in the same chapter, pointing to Frame's discussion of authority (omniscience), control (omnipotence), and presence (omnipresence) belonging primarily to the Father, Son and Spirit respectively. He quickly notes that they all belong to each person of the Trinity because of mutual indwelling, but still emphasizes that they belong primarily to one person, and are distinct because of reflecting the distinctions between the persons. To me, that sounds problematic, and is what makes me think he's trying to introduce diversity into the divine essence.

He doesn't say that the distinction in persons reveals a distinction between attributes, but instead says the opposite: the distinction in attributes reveals the distinction in persons. I don't think that mutual indwelling solves problems from that statement.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
but still emphasizes that they belong primarily to one person, and are distinct because of reflecting the distinctions between the persons. To me, that sounds problematic, and is what makes me think he's trying to introduce diversity into the divine essence.

That sounds like what he would say. I don't even know what it means. The divine attributes aren't "degreed properties." Whatever one has, one has 100%. To say one has property x primarily is to court disaster.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
And while I disagree with Van Til on most things, even on a Van Tillian perspective this doesn't work. Van Til said the persons exhaust the divine essence. If that's true, one person can't primarily have a divine attribute over the others.
 

83r17h

Puritan Board Freshman
Yeah, that's why I'm wondering if I am misunderstanding him. I've learned a lot from Poythress' books in the past, but this book seems wrong.

If classical theism (Turretin, etc) is correct, why is Poythress trying to critique it? If not, what exactly is the problem? I can't see how Poythress' critique makes sense, unless he is destroying unity in favor of diversity. I know he doesn't want to do that, but I can't figure out how to read him in another way where his critique of Turretin makes sense, and is actually a disagreement (as opposed to semantics).
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
I suspect he's trying to avoid the criticism of simplicity that if divine justice=God and divine mercy=God then divine mercy=divine justice, and so forth. Therefore he tries to go beyond the characterization of the attributes as "referentially identical but denotatively diverse" to cite Duby's phrase. So he starts from one place where no orthodox person will argue that distinction is not located in God, that is, the persons. If the persons can be distinct without interfering with unity, maybe the attributes can also be distinct from one another, without interfering with divine unity.

However, attributes and persons are two very different things, and arguing from one to the other might well push you into nonsense or into error.
 
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