A Summary of the Incommunicable Attributes of God

God’s incommunicable attributes are most often criticized as being a philosophical or metaphysical corruption of the biblical understanding of God. But whenever such metaphysical claims have been rejected, they are replaced by others no less metaphysical. While we should never assume that the God of the Bible is identical with the “God” of classical philosophy, we must also recognize that every doctrinal account of God’s identity and character will include metaphysical claims. The question is not whether we have an ontology of God’s being and attributes but whether our ontology is biblically faithful.

A.Simplicity
God is noncomposite: he is simultaneously all that his attributes reveal. This does not mean that his attributes cannot be distinguished from one another, but that none of them are separable from God or carry a greater or lesser importance for his character. God is eternal even when he acts in time. He is not more holy than merciful, or more loving at some times than he is righteous at other times. He is holy even in showing mercy, and righteous in demonstrating his love. All that God is, is what he will always be; and in all his activity God is self-consistent.

B.  Self-Existence (Aseity)
God exists and acts apart from any external dependence. While God is perfect without us, he freely and generously creates and relates this creation to himself. Creatures exist in constant dependence on our relation to him. Independent of creaturely limitations, he can be trusted to bring about his sovereign purposes on behalf of his people (Ex. 3:14–15). Some—like open theists—criticize this doctrine as a Stoic ideal of detached self-sufficiency, lacking the mutual drama between God and the world seen in the Bible. Many want to deny any difference between God in himself and God as he reveals himself to us. In such ontologies of “overcoming estrangement,” God and the world are inherently related and mutually dependent. Yet God’s freedom from creation does not preclude but undergirds the very possibility of his true freedom for creation. God’s aseity marks the fundamental divide between biblical faith and all forms of pan(en)theism. At the same time, the (Stoic) deism characteristic of an ontology of “the stranger we never meet” is overturned by God’s free decision to enter into relationship with the world he has made. While the Stoic sage desires to sever his dependence on the world of which he is necessarily a part, the independent God desires to bring dependent (and sinful) creatures into communion with himself.

C. Immutability
God is unchangeable. Perfect and complete in himself from all eternity, he has no “potential” to be realized; any change would be toward imperfection. This does not mean God is static or inert; rather, he is wholly active in the fullness and completeness of his own being and cannot become more or less who he is. God is unchangeable, and so he is reliable in his judgments and promises. While his being and character do not change, his activity (energies) is manifold and freely determined. Many modern theologians who understand God’s being as “becoming” in history have challenged God’s immutability by appealing to the incarnation: “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). But the eternal Son’s assumption of human nature in the unity of his person in no way constitutes or diminishes the character of his divine nature. It is crucial to avoid two extremes: either that God is detached, unfeeling, unresponsive, or that he acts and feels and responds in the very same ways we do. Though God genuinely responds, he cannot be overwhelmed by surprise; though he truly experiences opposition, he is not overcome; and so on. The total witness of the Bible requires that we affirm both: there is real change, partnership, and conflict between God and human beings, but not within God’s inner being.

D. Impassibility
Unlike the caricature of much contemporary criticism, God’s impassibility is not unresponsiveness or emotional apathy but immunity to suffering. God’s emotional experience and responsiveness in free relation to the world are always analogical. On one hand, we must deny that God is untouched or unaffected by creaturely suffering, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow, love nor hate; on the other hand, we must affirm that God is Lord—never the passive victim, but always the free and active Judge and Justifier. To avoid the extremes of utter detachment and mutual dependence, we should keep in mind the following five points regarding God’s immunity to suffering.

  1. We must avoid a false choice between either God’s necessary relatedness to the world or the world’s unrelatedness to God.
  2. It is crucial that impassibility is an essential attribute of the triune God; though the persons engage in relationships with the world, their divine nature is not by itself the subject of action and response.
  3. We must recognize that God speaks to us analogically—in terms adequate to our understanding rather than adequate to his being.
  4. A Christian doctrine of God should supplement causal categories with (Trinitarian) communicative analogies; God is not simply Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but the Father who speaks to us in his Son by the Spirit.
  5. We must beware of allowing a theology of the cross to become a theology of glory; a theology of “the suffering God” may inadvertently lead to a legitimization of suffering and evil, since these are said to be an integral part of God’s very being.

E.  Eternity and Omnipresence
Eternity and omnipresence refer to God’s transcendence of time and space, respectively. God’s eternity is his existence above or beyond time, simultaneously possessing the fullness of his boundless life and eternally encompassing the whole of creaturely (temporal) life. Some hold that God is sempiternal, existing within time but without any beginning or end. Biblically, however, it seems time itself is a creaturely category—like space—attributable to God only in an analogical sense referring to his transcendence of it (e.g., Ps. 90:1–4). Properly understanding God’s eternity (and the limits of our understanding in the face of this mystery) is related to the meaning of his omnipresence: it is God’s transcendence of space that brings the deepest assurance of God’s presence in all places (e.g., Ps. 139:7–8). God’s presence with his people indicates, not his spatial absence somewhere else, but his covenantal commitment to be with us to save and to bless. God is “omnitemporal” in the same way; he comprehends all times and is active within time, because he is not contained by it.

(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Six)

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