I was aware of K. Scott Oliphint’s teaching on God’s having covenantal properteis a few years ago. Supposedly, he is now on trial for it and the Truly Reformed, true to principle, are crying heresy. I have very little optimism that anything constructive will come out of it.
To be sure, Oliphint’s language hasn’t really helped him. But I think on the deeper issue he is correct. God has essential properties. God also has properties which are not essential. For example, the property of “being-in-relation-to-creation” is not an essential property. If it were, then we have the heresy of eternal creation. Congratulations, you are now an Origenist.
The main problem is that Oliphint’s critics identify “property” with “attribute,” and they aren’t the same thing.
But doesn’t this mean God changes in his essence? It’s hard to see how. Essences, by definition, don’t change.
I’m going to draw upon Jay Wesley Richards’ fine book on divine simplicity to illustrate some of these issues.
Essentialism: belief that so-called ‘de re’ modality is relevant to our understanding of God. It is appropriate to speak of a cluster of properties which God necessarily exemplifies and without which he would not be God, and contingent properties which he only has in some possible worlds (18 n1).
Possible Worlds Semantics
State of affairs: a possibility, actuality, or impossibility of the kind expressed by a nomination of a declarative sentence.
A possible world is a maximally consistent state of affairs.
Proposition: a meaning which one may express by a statement, sentence or utterance (55). It is not identical with a state of affairs.
If a state of affairs is maximal or complete, then it either contains or precludes every other state of affairs. A maximal state of affairs is a conjunction of states of affairs.
The definition of essence is a set of properties that an entity exemplifies (64). A property is some fact or truth about an entity in the world. In our usage we want to say that Socrates has necessary/essential properties without saying that Socrates is necessary to every possible world. We would say it like this:
“S has P and there is no W in which S has the complement ~P of P.
Property actualism states that S has no properties in worlds in which he does not exist. In other words, for God to have an essential property he must have it in every possible state of affairs. This rules out the property of creating a world. That’s a non-essential property.
Richards agrees that immutability is central to God’s essential properties. If God’s essence could change, then it couldn’t be an essential property. But does immutability entail that none of God’s contingent properties change? It doesn’t seem to be the case. If God chose not to create the world, then God has the contingent property of not creating (or creating) the world. It isn’t necessary to his nature.