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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- We must avoid a false choice between either God’s necessary relatedness to the world or the world’s unrelatedness to God.
- 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.
- We must recognize that God speaks to us analogically—in terms adequate to our understanding rather than adequate to his being.
- 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.
- 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)
Yesterday I was able to give introductions to two courses I am instructing this 2105 spring semester; Theology Proper and Anthropology and Historical Books for the B.Th. students at Faith Theological Seminary. After giving two hours plus of introductory material to these courses, and hearing a number of moans and groans on why such material needed addressed I was reminded of one of FTS’s own M.Div. graduates, Francis A. Schaeffer’s who wrote on theological study,
It is naive to discuss the theological questions as theological questions until one has considered what truth means to the one who is making the theological statements.
After spending time explaining how God is describe within theology three ways; The via negationis: A via is a “road” or “way.” The word negationis simply means “negation,” which is a primary way we speak about God. In other words, we describe God by saying what He is not. The via eminentiae, “the way of eminence,” in which we take known human concepts or references to the ultimate degree, such as the terms omnipotence and omniscience. The via affirmationis, or “way of affirmation,” whereby we make specific statements about the character of God, such as “God is one,” “God is holy,” and “God is sovereign.” (HT: Summary Taken from Everyone’s a Theologian). I find it common within Baltimore that most of my students rather discuss what they think about theology then actually taking the time to learn what the Scriptures declare for them to know about theology. Maybe, if they, like most evangelical churches today took the time to study what they claim to believe than discussing unnecessary questions, they would have actually come to asking the right questions that they need to be addressing? Then again, why not waste your time and thoughts, for there is far worse things that you could be doing, or not. Maybe, just maybe presuppositionalism does has a place in theology.