Basics of the Reformed Faith: God’s Attributes
Much indeed can be known about God from creation. We know that God is eternal, all-powerful, and good (cf. Romans 1:20). Yet, whatever we learn about God through nature (general revelation), will always be limited by the very nature of revelation through finite created things. In addition, such revelation is inevitably corrupted by human sinfulness (Romans 1:21-25). Therefore, whatever sinful people learn about God through nature will be grossly distorted, and ironically, ends up serving as the basis for all forms of false religion and idolatry–a theme developed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-32. John Calvin was absolutely right when he spoke of the minds of sinful men and women as “idol factories” (Institutes, I.11.8).
Since sinful human curiosity often leads finite men and women to speculate about God’s hidden essence, it is important to remind ourselves that God condescends to reveal himself to us in his word (i.e., Scripture), in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the word of God, we find a number of divine “attributes” (or perfections) ascribed to God. So, rather than speculate about God’s hidden essence, we must worship and serve the God who reveals himself to us through his word.
Christian theologians have long struggled to explain how it is that certain of these divine perfections belong to God alone, while others are also ascribed to humanity since we are created in God’s image. The former attributes are most often identified as “incommunicable” attributes because these particular attributes cannot be “communicated” by God to his creatures, precisely because we are finite creatures. The latter are called “communicable” attributes because they are in fact communicated to humanity, though in finite measure due to creaturely limitations, and only by analogy. As we take up these divine attributes, we must keep in mind that these are perfections which God alone possesses in all their fulness, and they reveal a great deal to us about God’s divine being.
When we speak of God’s incommunicable attributes we may think of things such as divine simplicity (God is an infinite spirit and not the sum of different parts–cf. John 4:24). Because God is “simple,” his attributes can be said to be identical with his being. God is also self-existent (aseity). He is in no sense dependent upon anything outside himself for his existence, his glory, or his purposes. We can also speak of God as “eternal.” He alone is without beginning nor end. God now is. God always was. God forever will be.
One way Christians have spoken of a number of these attributes is to use the “way of negation.” That is, since we are finite and sinful creatures who depend upon God’s revelation of himself to truly know anything about him, it is much easier (and safer) for us to say what God is not, rather than struggle to state what an infinite and eternal God truly “is.” These are attributes with which every Christian is familiar.
God is said to be “immortal,” because he, unlike us, is not “mortal.” This is but another way to say that God is eternal. He does not live or die as we do–he is life itself. We may also speak of God as “invisible” because he (unlike us) is pure spirit and not visible to the human eye. But this also means that God fills all creation with his perfections. We speak of God as “immutable” because he does not change–as to his essence, or as to his purposes. And then we may speak of God as “impassable.” Unlike his creatures, God is independent from the world he has made, and his divine essence is not subject to external influences (like suffering or passions), although the persons of the Godhead are indeed affected by the actions of his creatures. Take, for example, the fact that we know that God loves us because his Son Jesus suffered and died for our sins (1 John 4:10).
The so-called communicable attributes are important to mention as well. These perfections include those attributes which begin with the prefix “omni” to distinguish the way in which we as creatures possess these attributes from the absolute fulness in which God possesses them. These include omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, as well as other attributes designated without the “omni” prefix, such as goodness, love, mercy, holiness, righteousness and jealousy.
Although our knowledge is finite and limited (because we are finite and limited creatures), God is said to be omniscient–he knows all things. Although we exercise creaturely power and freedom, God alone is properly said to be all-powerful and therefore sovereign over all things. Although we occupy both time and space, God transcends all such spatial and temporal limitations. He alone is omnipresent. Men and women can demonstrate goodness, love, mercy, etc., as a reflection of being created in the image of God, who possesses these same attributes without limits or measure, unlike the way these attributes are manifest in us.
Since this is how God has revealed himself to us in his word, it is vital that we not speculate about these divine perfections, nor attempt to ignore them when they expose our creaturely limitations. Rather, we worship and adore the God who reveals himself through such wonderful perfections.