A Summary of the Communicable Attributes of God

God’s communicable attributes are those that belong to God alone but are also predicable of creatures in an analogical sense.

I. Omniscience and Omnipotence: God’s Knowledge, Wisdom, and Power
God is all-knowing. Our knowledge is partial, ectypal, composite, and learned, but God’s is complete, archetypal, simple, and innate. God’s knowledge and wisdom are true (logically as well as ethically) because God is truth. God’s knowledge is consistent with all his other attributes; he knows independently, eternally, and unchangeably, in harmony with his wisdom, power, and faithfulness. God’s knowledge of creaturely existence and history is exhaustive because he has decreed all things from the beginning and works all things according to his will (Eph. 1:11).

A. Free Agents and the Infinite-Qualitative Distinction
Debates over divine and human freedom often share a problematic assumption that “freedom” is the same sort of reality for God and for humans. Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians (especially open theists) are both wrong in supposing there is only one “freedom pie” that must be apportioned between God and us. “Freedom” is analogically rather than univocally applied to God and humans: God has all the freedom appropriate to him as God, and we have all the freedom appropriate to us as (fallen) creatures who live and move and have our being in God and his sovereign, good purposes Just as in the paradigmatic examples of Joseph’s slavery in Egypt (Gen. 50:20) and the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:23), God’s free decree does not take away human freedom or moral responsibility but establishes it.

B.  Sovereignty and Omniscience
God knows our thoughts completely, but his are inaccessible to us apart from accommodated revelation—and his way of knowing transcends us entirely. On one hand, Scripture teaches that God has predestined the free acts of human beings; on the other hand, God manifests himself as a genuine partner in human history. God genuinely invites the whole world to salvation in his Son yet effectually calls and gives faith to all and only those whom he has elected from eternity. Though God’s revealed purposes are sometimes thwarted or changed, his unchanging purposes (the “secret things” of God, Deut. 29:29) cannot fail.

C. Sovereignty and Omnipresence
Because God is Trinity, he acts not only upon creation externally but also with and in it—not only causing but winning and effecting real creaturely willing and consent. A biblical view of God’s sovereignty must recognize the following three correlatives.

  1. Only when we see that God is qualitatively distinct from creation can we see that he is free to be the Creator and Redeemer, while we are free to be creatures and the redeemed.
  2. Only when we understand God’s sovereignty in light of his simplicity can we avoid the notion of divine despot, with an absolute will unconditioned by his intrinsic character.
  3. We must always bear in mind that in every exercise of will and power, God is not a solitary monad but Father, Son, and Spirit; sovereignty is not brute force or unmediated control.

II.       Goodness, Love, and Mercy
God’s knowledge, wisdom, and power are inseparable from his goodness, love, and mercy. God is independent in his goodness and love and thus is free to be good to all he has made and to love even his enemies. We can never pit God’s love against his other attributes, idolizing “love” in a way that marginalizes God’s sovereignty or goodness (including his righteousness, holiness, and so on). The clearest witness to the complete consistency between all God’s attributes is the cross. If God’s love could trump his other moral attributes, the cross represents the cruelest waste. Rather, what makes God’s love so comforting is that it is unconditioned by anything in us, expressed out of satisfied abundance rather than lack or fear. While God is not free to be unmerciful, he is free to decide whether he will have mercy on some rather than others—this is, after all, the opposite of every sinner’s just deserts. Indeed, grace is not something (else) that God gives but God’s own redeeming favor shown to the undeserving on account of Christ.

III.     Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice
At the same time that God is good, loving, and merciful, he is holy—distinct from all creatures in his being, majesty, and ethical purity. The merciful character of God’s holiness reveals his movement toward impure creatures in covenant love, setting apart a holy people for himself. In the Old Testament righteousness is both a forensic and relational term—a “right relationship.” Although God’s righteousness is intrinsically related to his mercy (since he is just and the justifier of the ungodly), his righteousness cannot be collapsed into his mercy. As the revelation of his moral will (law), God is perfectly righteous to condemn all as transgressors; as the revelation of his will to save (gospel), God is perfectly just to forgive and redeem through faith in Christ. In both cases, God upholds his righteousness.

IV.     Jealousy and Wrath
Like his mercy and grace, God’s jealousy and wrath are displayed only in response to an offense. God does not need to show mercy or wrath in order to be who he is, but these are the responses we should expect from God who is good, holy, and just. The doctrine of analogy again proves fruitful in considering God’s jealousy and wrath, which carry almost entirely negative connotations in our human experience. Instead of denying these clearly biblical attributes of God, we must reinterpret our understanding of according to how God has described himself to us. God’s wrath always expresses his wisdom and love, which have been spurned and transgressed by those whom he created to love. God who is holy, righteous, and loving must exercise wrath against sin, injustice, and hate. The unique lordship of YHWH is a constant theme in Scripture, as is God’s jealousy for his name, his glory, and his people’s covenantal allegiance. God’s jealousy must be understood in light of his exclusivity: God is God alone. In us, jealousy is often a form of coveting that which is not really ours; in God, jealousy is a form of protecting his character and his people, which are both precious to him.

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

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