To talk about God is not as easy as it might seem at first. Most of what we know about him is revealed in the Bible. Traditionally, theologians have called what God reveals about his own nature the attributes of God. The word “attributes” means inherent characteristics. God’s attributes are divine characteristics that are “built in,” so to speak. They are there as part of God’s very nature, rather than being something that God somehow learned or was added to him.
We shall begin with a category of God’s attributes that are called absolute attributes. They are called that, because they have to do with God in his essence, or being, apart from his creation. Later we will be discussing God’s attributes in relation to his creation. But first it will be helpful to look at them apart from his relationship to the created order.
The first of these that we want to mention is the idea that God is One. 1 Cor. 8:4 puts it in almost those exact words, “there is no God but one.” Of course, any religion that believes in only one God would agree with this. Even those religions that believe in many gods tend to believe that there is a “chief” or “head” god; for it is more or less universally acknowledged that there can be only one supreme authority.
As you know the Bible reveals that there are three persons in the one God. We Christians call that the doctrine of the Trinity, which we will take up in the next essay. But the Bible is clear. There is only one God.
Second, God is spirit. Jesus made the spiritual aspect of God clear, when he taught, as recorded in John 4:24, those exact words, “God is spirit.” That is, in his own nature apart from his decision to become incarnate, God is non-material.
And third, the revelation is equally clear that God is a person. That is, in contrast to the impersonal Hindu Brahma, God is a person who relates to other persons, even within the Godhead itself. That truth is a major thrust of the doctrine of the Trinity, which again, we will take up later.
Not only is God in relationship within his own being, he also enters into relationships with his created beings. The Bible has many texts that express God’s personal relationship with both heavenly and human beings. In the case of human beings, God relates to us both by acting in the world, and by speaking his word to explain his actions.
Fourth, not only is God a spiritual, personal being, he also is Life. That is why Jesus declared: “The Father has life in himself” (Jn. 5:26). God is the source of all life and of all meaning in life, both physical and spiritual.
In addition, fifth, the first epistle of John tells us that God is light. In 1 John 1:5 we read, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Of course physical light is not meant. He is speaking metaphorically.
Light and darkness are symbols of good and evil. And in this contrast between light and darkness in respect to God’s nature, we see how God is the epitome of all that is right and good in contrast to that which is wrong and evil. God is light.
Again, sixth, I John expresses for us the fact that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Now in the Greek language this love that expresses the character of God is not eros, which is sensual love. Nor is God’s character expressed by phileo, which is love between good friends or relatives. Rather God’s nature is agape, which is love that totally gives itself to the object or objects of its attention.
Now if God is a person who is life, light and love, we see clearly why Scripture claims, seventh, that he is good. God is neither evil nor capricious. Rather he is absolutely good.
Next, eighth, God is holy. As Lev. 11:45 plainly states it, “be holy, for I am holy.” We have more to say about this attribute later in the essay.
Now we are ready to take up several other absolute attributes of God that tend to be more philosophical in nature. For example, ninth, the Bible implies that God is self-existent. To be self-existent means that God is independent of all other existence, and thus he is controlled by nothing or no one. As Acts 17:24-25 says: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.” God is independent; he is self-existent; and nothing can end his existence.
The technical term for this independence is a tenth absolute attribute, transcendence. If something is transcendent, it exists totally apart from a given realm of reality. God is transcendent, because he exists apart from, and is totally independent of, the world.
On the other hand, if something exists within a given realm of reality, the technical term for that is an eleventh absolute attribute called immanence. Classical theology always has insisted that God is immanent, as well as transcendent. That is, although God is totally independent of his creation, he is not locked out of it. God can and does occasionally act within his creation: to make a revelation, or to work a miracle. This is the immanence of God.
Now we come to a group of attributes, the twelfth through the fifteenth, which are somewhat interconnected. In one way or another they all have to do with the boundlessness and limitlessness of God. This characteristic is expressed by the terms eternal, immense, immutable, and perfect. We cannot deal with these in detail; indeed there are philosophical controversies that swirl around them that we do not want to get into. So we will just touch on most of them.
The first attribute in this group that I want to discuss is the idea that God is eternal. For most thinkers this is a way of saying that God is both everlasting and timeless. He is eternal in the sense of being everlasting, of enduring forever. And he is eternal in the sense of being timeless. There are no temporal limits on God.
Another attribute of God in this philosophical cluster is called immensity. When we ordinarily think of immensity, we have size in mind. If something is immense, it is huge. But there is more than size involved in this theological use of the term.
It really has more to do with space. As I Kings 8:27 puts it: “behold, heaven and earth cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” In other words, the main idea of immensity is that God cannot be localized.
Still another attribute in this cluster is immutability. If something is immutable, it doesn’t change. So to say that God is immutable is to say that he is changeless. However, one must be careful about how this attribute is understood. It does not mean that God is always rigidly the same in an impersonal sense.
Many people interpret Hebrews 13:8 which says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” as though Christ were an absolutely impersonal being, completely rigid in every way, never changing in any way whatsoever.
But God’s nature as a person who interacts with other persons, who can be disappointed with creatures he created, who can change his mind, etc. means that God does change in some ways. He is immutable, but not in an impersonal sense.
Immutability, properly understood; and Heb. 13:8 properly interpreted, refers to the fact that God never changes in essence. He always is God. He never stops being God. Furthermore his actions always are in harmony with his essence and attributes as God. That is, God never acts out of character.
God also is perfect. Of course this attribute in a sense is the source of all the others. Nothing is wanting in God’s being. He is perfect in an absolute sense.
All of these attributes that we dealt with to this point have been absolute attributes. A second major group of God’s attributes are called relative attributes, because they have to do with God’s relation to his creation, rather than with his essence apart from his creation.
The first of these is omnipresence. God is all-present. This simply means that God is present everywhere with his entire being. That is, when God makes himself accessible to human beings, or any higher intelligent beings, he is fully accessible to them, no matter where they might be.
A second relative attribute is omnipotence. God is all-powerful. Here again we must be careful how we understand this attribute. To say that God is all-powerful does not mean that God can do absolutely anything. There are some things God cannot do because he is God. For example, he cannot do anything that would cause him to contradict himself.
I remember well when a college a professor asked us, “Could God make a stone so big that he couldn’t carry it?” And then he asked us, could God commit suicide? Being a naive type, those questions almost blew my mind for a time, because I had always thought of God’s being able to do absolutely anything.
But I soon realized that God, because of his very nature, cannot contradict himself or his nature. He cannot make that which is true, untrue. Therefore such questions as, “Could God make a stone so big that he could not carry it?” and “Could God commit suicide?” are meaningless. God cannot make a stone too big for himself to carry, because of his nature as immense. He cannot be localized in space. And God cannot commit suicide, because of his nature as life.
To say that God is omnipotent is to say that God is not subject to any limitations of his power outside of himself. He can, of course, choose to limit his own power; indeed he has done exactly that in some ways, human freedom being the prime example.
A third relative attribute is omniscience. God is all-knowing. This attribute is extremely important because it has to do with God’s knowledge of contingent events. Contingent events are those which are liable, but not certain to occur. That is, contingent events are those which are not predetermined by God. They are events that are dependent on the free will decisions of angels, humans and any other truly free creatures that may exist.
This attribute brings us to the problem of God’s foreknowledge. The question is, how can God foreknow the occurrence of contingent events without causing them to happen? There are three basic views. First is the Arminian view. A Methodist theologian named Pope put it this way: “It is not the divine foreknowledge that conditions what takes place, but what takes place conditions the divine foreknowledge.” God, because of his position outside of time, dwells in an eternal present; and he simply knows everything without any relation to time. He doesn’t really foreknow anything. He simultaneously knows everything.
The second view of God’s foreknowledge of contingent events is the Calvinistic. Here we can quote Calvin himself: “He [meaning God] foresees future events, only in consequence of His decree that they should happen.” As you can see, this is deterministic. That is, God determines everything that is to happen. In the end there are no contingent events.
The third view of God’s foreknowledge of contingent events is called the Socinian. In this view God doesn’t know what will happen ahead of time. The problem with this is that it destroys biblical prophecy. God many times revealed to the biblical prophets events that were to occur in the future; and they happened just as revealed.
There is a third major category of God’s attributes. We have looked at the absolute and relative attributes of God. The third category is made up of his moral attributes. The moral attributes are two that we already have studied as absolute attributes. They are God’s holiness and love. But now we are going to look at them from a different perspective.
As absolute attributes, we already have seen that they have to do with God apart from his creation. However as moral attributes, they have to do with the way God governs the intelligent creatures in his creation. There may be other attributes that we could discuss in relation to God’s moral character. But whatever those might be, it is certain that they would boil down to these two, holiness and love.