Essential Attributes Vs Relational Attributes

, posted by Martin Glynn

What I want to say here is going to be a bit technical, so please hold your horses, but I think that this is important in terms of a particular argument that I hear from Calvinists as well as a classic argument that one hears from Atheists. This has to do with the kinds of attributes a thing can have.

Lifting Rocks

Let’s start with the Atheist argument because I think it is more familiar. It runs as follows:

  • Can God create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it?
  • If He can’t, then He is not omnipotent since this is something that he cannot do.
  • If He can, then lifting it is something He cannot do, and so again He is not omnipotent.
  • Therefore omnipotence, as an attribute, is incoherent and God cannot be omnipotent (or God cannot exist though that would require some additional premises)

Now, theologians have consistently said that the phrase “create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it” is itself an incoherent phrase, and God is not beholden to be able to do something nonsensical. However, I think many have trouble seeing how this phrase is incoherent. We can see the incoherence by understanding the difference between essential attributes and relational attributes.

Simply defined, an essential attribute is a attribute something must have in order for it to be what it is. It is an aspect of its nature. A relational attribute is a attribute that something has in relation to something else.

Let’s take a rock. Let’s say the rock is five pounds. Is this rock heavy or light? Well, quite quickly you would say that it is light. You are able to lift it readily. However, imagine you are an ant. Now is it heavy or light? Well, clearly now it is heavy. But how can this be? We are talking about the same rock. The rock didn’t change; only the situation around the rock changed. So how could a attribute of the rock be different? The simple answer, according to the definitions given above, is that heaviness is a relational attribute, meaning that it is in relation to the power of the one attempting to lift or move it. But then, what is it that makes the rock heavy or light relative to me? It’s mass. Mass is not a relational attribute but an essential one.

Now this shows us the incoherence of the argument. Creation is the forming of something’s essence. As a process, creation is merely concerned with essential attributes, and does not form relational attributes. Likewise, the act of lifting is concerned with heaviness; it is not concerned with mass (Since I also could lift a rock of any mass given properly low gravity). Thus the two verbs in the sentence are acting on different attributes (creation –> mass | lifting –> heaviness). Therefore, the two verbs are themselves completely disconnected, and one cannot make demands on the other, making the sentence incoherent. God can create a rock of any mass and lift a rock of any heaviness. Therefore He is omnipotent.

Getting Justice

Now the problem with the Calvinist argument is much more subtle, but is answered by the exact same distinction. According to certain Calvinists (admittedly not all), God is justified in creating persons with the knowledge (and I would say intention) that He must condemn them because God needs to express His justice. Justice is a defining attribute of God, and if God did not express it, then He wouldn’t be God.

Well OK, but what kind of attribute is it? How do we determine whether justice is an essential attribute or a relational attribute? Is justice part of God’s essence, or is it something God is in relation to something else? Well for that, let us return to the rock.

As you may recall, since it was two paragraphs ago, the mass is an essential attribute of a rock, since it is part of the rock’s nature, and heaviness is a relational attribute of the rock, since it is defined in relation to something else (namely the power of the lifter and gravity). How did the atheist confuse these two things? Well because any relationship involves two entities, it is therefore connected to the attributes of those two things. So with heaviness, it is connected to the power that the lifter is able to generate and the mass of the rock (and of course the gravity). However, in everyday conversation, when we talk about relational attributes, we usually assume the context. For instance, we always simply assume Earth’s gravity when talking about heaviness. Also we usually assume that the lifter is the one being spoken to, making the available power just as assumed Therefore, in everyday speech, heaviness is typically determined by the mass of the rock. Because the other referents are assumed, we think of it as a sole property of the rock even though in reality it is actually the rock’s mass expressed within a particular context. Therefore, all relational attributes are basically the expression of an essential attribute within a particular context. We can therefore identify a relational attribute if it requires something else for expression and is reducible to some essential attribute. We can also identify an essential attribute if it requires nothing external for expression.

So let us turn this analysis onto justice. Is justice relational or essential? Well, immediately we see that this almost answers itself. The Calvinists’ own argument clearly shows that justice is relational, since it claims that the unrighteous are necessary in order for justice to be expressed. Well, since all relational attributes are reducible to some essential attribute, what do we reduce justice to? Again the answer is quite clear. Justice reduces to righteousness or goodness. In other words, justice is merely the expression of God’s goodness in the context of evil, just as heaviness was the expression of the rock’s mass in the context of the ant.

So where does this leave us in terms of assessing the Calvinist argument that God created us for the expression of His justice? Well for this, we will need to turn to another attribute of God: aseity.

Now the doctrine of aseity states that God is self-existent: He can exist by Himself and has existed by Himself and He needs nothing. Thus the Latins said that God exists “a se” or ‘himself’, hence aseity. So what does this mean? Well if God exists by Himself, then the only kind of attributes He must express are essential attributes. Indeed, we can say this stronger. We can in fact say that God must be able to not express any relational attributes. To deny this is to deny divine aseity. If God ever needs to express a relational attribute, then God needs something beyond Himself. In fact theologians of typically argued that God must exist as a Trinity in order for love to be an essential attribute of His, for He needs persons to love. Therefore God must express His goodness in all circumstances, but God also must be able to not express His justice. He must be able to exist without the existence of things to enact justice towards.

Does this mean that God is not necessarily just? Of course not. God is necessarily just within the context of evil. To ask if God can be just without evil is akin to asking if God can lift a rock so heavy He can’t lift it. It is meaningless. However, to ask if God could ever not be just when evil is present is like asking if the five pound rock could be anything but heavy to an ant. Therefore it only makes sense to ask “is God just” within the context of evil, and within that context He must be because He is always good.

Therefore, considering the argument “God created wicked people for the expression of His justice”, we can draw two conclusions: one logical and one theological. First, the argument is incoherent. It is clear that justice as a concept is only valuable and meaningful in the context of evil, and cannot be used to justify the existence of evil itself. It is merely derivative of His goodness and does not require expression in of itself.

Second, the argument can make God dependent on His creation. If God must express any relational attribute, then He needs the existence of the thing it relates to, which in this case is us. What’s worse is God wouldn’t require us per se, but would require our sin. This makes God not just dependent on humanity, but dependent on sin itself. Now a Calvinist might argue that God doesn’t need to express justice, but that it is merely good for God to express justice. If that is true, then that good would have to be compared to the existence of evil itself. I fail to see how a world without justice because it is without evil is worse than a world with any amount of evil at all. Justification for the existence of evil must come from an attribute of creation itself which is not inherently evil but created for the good, such as free will. In the absence of just such a justification, Calvinism must either reexamine whether God is truly good, or better yet reexamine their Calvinism.