God’s Attributes

God’s attributes are God’s revealed descriptions of his own nature and character. They are unique to him because he is unique.

Describing the attributes (or characteristics or perfections) of God’s being is different from describing the attributes of any other being because God the Creator has a nature completely different from that of any of his creatures. It is often easier to say what God is not than to say what he is. Many of the attributes of God are therefore expressed as negatives. For example, God is im-mortal, in-visible, im-passible, im-mutable, in-finite and so on. These words mean that by nature he cannot die, he cannot be seen, he cannot be made to suffer, he does not change, and he cannot be contained by creaturely reality. All these characteristics distinguish him from his creatures but do not tell us exactly what it means for God to exist in the way he does. The Bible also describes God in positive terms. Christian theology reflects this when we say that he is eternal, holy, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

Each of God’s attributes mutually qualify one another, so that they are never abstract or considered in isolation. For example, to say that God is “all powerful” (omnipotent) does not mean that he can do anything, but that he is not constrained by something or someone greater than himself. God cannot deny his own nature, but he can exercise his sovereign will in whatever way he chooses.

Theologians have classified God’s attributes in various ways, but these ways generally fall into two categories: attributes that describe God in himself and attributes that describe God in his relations to creatures. The former are often called incommunicable or absolute (like infinity or omnipresence), and the latter communicable, or relative (like holiness or faithfulness). Strictly speaking, all God’s attributes are incommunicable or proper to his unique nature as God. But many of them refer to God’s activity toward creatures and also have correspondences in the created order. Human beings are not divine, but in many ways we reflect his character as his image-bearers. For example, God knows and understands all things; he is omniscient. Human beings also have minds and can know many things, but in a finite way rather than in the infinite way God knows all things. Similarly, God is eternal, and he gives human beings something that we call eternal life, but our eternal life has a beginning, which his does not. It is also a gift of his grace, whereas his life belongs to him by nature.

Because God’s incommunicable or absolute attributes are difficult for us to grasp, they often come under criticism for being incoherent or otherwise problematic. For example, many theologians in modern times have had difficulty with God’s impassibility (his inability to suffer) because they think that a God who cannot suffer in his very nature is not able to understand or sympathize with those who do. To them, God must be able to enter into the experience of human suffering in order to redeem us from it. Classical theologians agree with this concern, but they say that entering into human suffering is exactly what the Son of God has done by becoming a man as Jesus Christ. The divine person of the Son took to himself our nature in order to be able to suffer and die in accordance with that nature rather than according to his impassible divinity in itself. Christian theology has always recognized that God’s attributes hold together not in our intellectual grasp of them, but in God himself.

Passages

Key Verses

Jn 1:18; 1 Ti 1:17; Ro 1:20; Col 1:15–16; Heb 11:27; Heb 6:17–18; 1 Co 15:50; Jas 1:17; Heb 13:8; Heb 4:15–16; Ps 145:7; Ps 139:7–10; Is 66:1

 Bray, G. (2018). God’s Attributes. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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