Thursday, June 30, 2016

What Is God Like - Incommunicable Attributes

(For the workshop attendees from our Green Lake conference.)


Why this study?

         It’s about knowing God better… who God is.

         Knowing who God is helps us…  How?

The Attributes of God.

         What is an “attribute?”

         What is an essential attribute?

QUESTION – Let’s begin by naming attributes of God.

         Make a list on the white board.

         Communicable attributes      Incommunicable attributes  

There are “communicable attributes” of God, and “incommunicable attributes” of God.

Communicable attributes are those attributes of God that God shares or “communicates” with us. (E.g., God’s wisdom.)

Incommunicable attributes are those attributes of God that God does not share or “communicate” with us. (E.g., God’s eternity; God’s omnipresence)

A.V. - How do we come up with the attributes of God?

         A.V. - Two sources:


         Perfect being theology

The concept of God is underdetermined by the biblical data.

That is, the biblical data do not always make it clear how we are to understand God’s attributes.

For example, the Bible affirms clearly that God is eternal, but it doesn’t make clear whether this means that God is infinite throughout all time or whether God transcends time all together. The biblical data is underdeterminitive with respect to how we grasp or understand divine eternity.

A.V. - Scripture guides us in seeing what God has revealed about himself.

The concept of God enunciated by St. Anselm as the greatest conceivable being (or the most perfect being) has guided our theological reflection upon the raw data of Scripture so that God’s biblical attributes are to be conceived in the greatest possible way – in a way that would serve to exalt God’s greatness.

So when the Bible says, for example, that God is all-powerful or that God is all knowing, we should take this attribute to the greatest possible degree that we can and that is coherent – to say God is omnipotent and omniscient and to construe these attributes in ways that would exalt God’s greatness.

A.V. - God is an infinite-personal God.

Insofar as God is infinite, there is a great chasm that separates him from everything else in all creation including man, animals, and inanimate life. God stands alone as the infinite being.

On the other hand, insofar as God is personal, man (as made in the image of God) finds himself on God’s side of the chasm that separates him from all of the rest of creation which are not persons.

This is in contrast to the gods of many other religions in the world. For example, the gods of Greco-Roman mythology were certainly personal beings, but they were not infinite. The god of Eastern pantheism like Hinduism and Taoism is infinite but this concept of god is not personal. What the Bible says is that God is both infinite and personal.

Incommunicable attributes of God

A.V. - God’s Independence

This means that God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him joy.

This is sometimes called God’s self-existence, or his “aseity.” (From the Latin a se, meaning “from himself.”)

Aseity comes from the Latin words a se which means “by itself” or “in itself.” The idea here is that God exists a se; he simply exists in himself. Or, as I put it here on the outline in English, God is self-existent.

          Discuss “aseity.” Does it make sense to you?

 Acts 17:24-25 - 24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

No one, or nothing, made God.

God did not create human beings because he was lonely.

“If this were true, it would certainly mean that God is not completely independent of creation. It would mean that God would need to create persons in order to be completely happy or completely fulfilled in his personal existence.” (WG, ST, 161)

Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God

 God’s independence is seen in his self-designation in Ex. 3:14 – “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’”

God’s being is something totally unique.

It’s not just that God does not need the creation for anything. God could not need the creation for anything.

Grudem – “God exists in a fundamentally different order of being. It is not just that we exist and God has always existed; it is also that God necessarily exists in an infinitely better, stronger, more excellent way.”

W. L. Craig - Aseity or self-existence is even stronger, even more robust an attribute than simply existing independently of other things.  Aseity means that God exists by a necessity of his own nature. That is to say, it belongs to God’s very nature to exist. He doesn’t just happen to exist and happen to be independent of everything else. Rather, God exists by a necessity of his own nature.

Wayne Grudem – “The difference between God’s being and ours is more than the difference between the sun and a candle, more than the difference between the ocean and a raindrop, more than the difference between the arctic icecap and a snowflake, more than the difference between the universe and the room we are sitting in: God’s being is qualitatively different.”

If God’s nature is possible – if it is logically possible for God to exist – then he exists. He exists by a necessity of his own nature.


         Discuss and explain.


God is eternal

God’s aseity entails God’s eternity.

If God exists by a necessity of his own nature then it is impossible that God would ever fail to exist, and therefore that he could come into being or go out of being. If God exists by a necessity of his own nature then he will exist permanently without beginning or end. That is to say, he will be eternal. God’s attribute of being eternal is entailed by his aseity.
God’s eternity means this: God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.

This is sometimes called God’s “infinity.” To be “infinite” is to be unlimited. Time does not limit God.

This is related to God’s unchangeableness. If God does not change, then time does not change God. Time has no effect on God’s being.

For example, God never learns things or forgets things. That would mean a change in his perfect knowledge.

The passing of time does not add to or detract from God’s knowledge: he knows all things past, present, and future, and knows them all equally vividly.

God is timeless in his own being.

         Ps. 90:2 - Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Job 36:26 - How great is God—beyond our understanding!
    The number of his years is past finding out.

Rev. 1:8 - “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Jesus, in John 8:58 – Before Abraham was, I am.

Exodus 3:14 – I AM WHO I AM suggests a continual present existence.
Job 36:26 which says, How great is God—beyond our understanding! The number of his years is past finding out.

The Scriptures seem to teach that God existed before time began.

Jude 25 - to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.


God’s Unchangeableness

This means that God is unchanging in his being, perfections [= essential attributes], purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations.

         This attribute is also called God’s immutability.

Scripture attests to this.

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
           and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
    and they will be discarded.
27 But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.

Malachi 3:6 – God talks about his qualities of patience and mercy, and says, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.”

James reminds his readers that all good gifts come ultimately from God “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)

God is unchanging with respect to his being and with respect to his perfections (that his, God’s attributes or the various aspects of his character).

God is unchanging with respect to his purposes.

Ps. 33:11 – “The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.”

God claims through Isaiah that no one else is like him in this regard:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
          I am God, and there is no other;
           I am God, and there is none like me.
10 I make known the end from the beginning,
    from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
    and I will do all that I please.’
11 From the east I summon a bird of prey;
    from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose.

What I have said, that I will bring about;
    what I have planned, that I will do.

Here is what J. I. Packer says.

1.    God's life does not change. That is to say, God exists forever and he neither matures nor regresses. God is permanent, eternal, never begins to exist, never ceases to exist, and as Packer says he neither gets better or gets worse. He neither matures nor regresses. He has a perfect permanent life.

2.    God's character does not change. God's mercy, love, faithfulness, justice never change. God's moral qualities are essential to God. Although he may deal with people in different ways, they will all be consistent with his fundamental moral character which is immutable.

3.    God's truth does not change. That is to say, the word of the Lord endures forever. God's revelation to us stands secure. Obviously, that revelation progresses from the old covenant into the new covenant as further truth is unfolded. But God's word is trustworthy and true and therefore can be relied upon.

4. God's ways do not change. Again, God certainly does deal with people in different ways. He dealt with the people in the old covenant in a different way than he deals with us. There was a system of animal sacrifices and temple worship in the old covenant that is done away with now. But I think what Packer is saying is that God, in the ways he deals with people, is consistent in dealing with men. He punishes sin consistently. He bestows grace freely. It is not as though God is capricious or changing in the way he deals with people. His different ways will be expressions of that deeper consistent way of dealing with human persons – punishing sin and unrighteousness and awarding or bestowing grace and forgiveness freely.

5. God's purposes do not change. God's plans are from eternity past with full foreknowledge of the future. Nothing catches God by surprise. He doesn't need to change his plan or adjust with mid-course corrections because his plans are set from eternity past. Therefore there is simply no need to change. Indeed change is ruled out in virtue of his full foreknowledge of the future. So God's purposes and plans are unchangeable.

6. God's Son does not change. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”


God sees all time equally vividly.

Ps. 90:4 - A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.

Persons like you and I remember recent events more vividly than we remember past events.

In Ps. 90:4 we are told that God remembers past events like they just happened yesterday.

Grudem – “All of time since the creation is to God as if it just happened.

2 Peter 3:8 – With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

This means that, from God’s perspective, any extremely long period of time is as if it just happened. And any very short period of time (such as one day) seems to God to last forever.

Thus, God sees all events past, present, and future with equal vividness.

God relates to time in a way that we do not and cannot experience. God’s experience of time is not just a patient endurance through eons of endless duration, but he has a qualitatively different experience of time than we do.


God is omnipresent

God’s omnipresence can be defined like this: God does not have size or spatial dimension and is present at every point in space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.

God is fully present everywhere.

God is unlimited with respect to space.

Jer. 23:23-24 - “Am I only a God nearby,”
declares the Lord,
    “and not a God far away?
24 Who can hide in secret places
    so that I cannot see them?”
declares the Lord.
    “Do not I fill heaven and earth?”
declares the Lord.

Ps 139:7-10 - Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

God does not have spatial dimensions.

         1 Kings 8:27 – Heaven and earth cannot contain you.

God is not a localized deity, like the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

         God says, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

God does not live in a localized building.

The fact that God is everywhere present should encourage us in prayer no matter where we are.

The fact that no place can contain God should discourage us from thinking there is some special place of worship that gives people special access to God. God cannot be contained in one place.

This does not mean that there is some really big space, bigger than the universe, where God is. This makes the mistake of thinking of God in spatial terms, or size.

         God is a being who exists without size or dimensions in space.

Also, this is not pantheism, the false teaching that everything is God, or that God is everything.

God is present everywhere in creation, but is also distinct from creation.

God’s omnipresence means: we can contact God at every location. No matter where we are we can call upon God and he is there.

It also means: We should practice the presence of God. We should be aware and constantly conscious of his presence with us.


The unity of God

God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times.

         This is also called God’s “simplicity.”

Grudem – “When Scripture speaks about God’s attributes it never singles out one attribute of God as more important than all the rest. There is an assumption that every attribute of God is completely true of God and is true of all God’s character.

For example, John can say that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and then a little later say also that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). There is no suggestion that part of God is light and part of God is love, or that God is partly light and partly love. Nor should we think that God is more light than love or more love than light. Rather it is God himself who is light, and it is God himself who is also love.” (Grudem, ST, 178)

God’s whole being includes all of his attributes: he is entirely loving, entirely merciful, entirely just, and so forth. Every attribute of God that we find in Scripture is true of all of God’s being, and we therefore can say that every attribute of God also qualifies every other attribute.

Each attribute is simply a way of describing one aspect of God’s total character or being. God himself is a unity, a unified and completely integrated whole person who is infinitely perfect in all of these attributes.



Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. This is arguably the best systematic theology book there is. Grudem’s chapters 11, 12, and 13 are on the attributes of God.

William Lane Craig, Click on ‘Media.’ Click on ‘Defenders Podcasts.’ Click on ‘Doctrine of God.’ See especially transcripts/podcasts 5 ff.

J.I. Packer, Knowing God.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker. This book is about the creativity of the Trinitarian God, and how God communicates to us his creativity.

A.W. Tozer, The Attributes of God.

A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy.