The Attributes of God
The Attributes of God are the character traits of God as they are revealed to us in the Scriptures.
The following article considers the character traits of God as they are classically distinguished between communicable and incommunicable divine attributes, i.e. between those character traits that are significantly reflected in human persons and those that have virtually no reflection in human persons. Two particular recent criticisms of the incommunicable attributes of God are considered. The final part of the article considers the thematic threads in the Bible that focus upon core divine actions in the history of God’s redeeming purposes: God’s glory, God’s holiness, God’s lordship and God’s love.
Introduction: The Communicable and Incommunicable Attributes
The Attributes of God refers to the character traits of God as they are revealed to us in the Scriptures. The mystery of God as triune (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is wedded to the conviction that God is personal and displays his character in all of his actions. Insofar as we come to know God in and through his actions and words as recorded across the breadth of Scripture, God is described as possessing certain characteristics or attributes. The descriptions are held with a high degree of humility recognizing the infinite distance between God as Creator and ourselves as creatures. However, we also have confidence in those descriptions since God has chosen to disclose his identity and purpose to us across the Scriptures in ways that we can understand.
Across the Old Testament the names of God give very strong clues as to God’s nature. These names often signified both the otherness (transcendence) of God and also his nearness (immanence). God could be known by his name, but his name(s) was unlike any other name. God character was manifest in both directions.
As a result of this distinction, reformed theology has often distinguished the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. There were certain characteristics or attributes of God which could more readily be understood and which in some sense were shared by both God and humans. There were also other kind of characteristics or attributes of God which were not as readily understood because they belonged to God alone. So for example, divine compassion is a communicable attribute of God because it is a characteristic with analogies in human compassion, though human compassion in some sense pales in comparison with divine compassion. On the other hand, God’s immutability (i.e., that God never changes) is not a characteristic shared with humans. Humans are always undergoing change. God does not change. In this regard, the incommunicable attributes of God are mostly known by the differences with human.
The incommunicable attributes attempt to explain the ways in which God is not like the world he has created. God is fundamentally different from his creatures. God is not bounded by time and space, nor is God ever divided in his motivations. There is an asymmetric relationship between God and his creatures. In everything creatures are dependent upon God, but in no instance is God dependent upon his creatures.
Criticism of Incommunicable Attributes
There has always been a small group of individuals that have resisted the description of any of God’s characteristics as incommunicable, believing that this would imply that philosophical speculation would be the only way to know these sorts of attributes. The criticism simply works on the assumption that if a divine attribute is genuinely incommunicable it could not be reflected nor understood by human creatures. Therefore the only way to posit these sorts of attributes would be by means of speculation (so goes the criticism). However, Scripture as the genuine Word of God, communicates to us in intelligible fashion the ways God is like us and the ways God is not like us. It is the Bible and not merely speculation, that is the source of distinguishing the manner in which God is both similar to and radically different from his creatures.
In the present times, one of the traditional incommunicable attributes, the impassibility of God (viz., that God does not suffer) has come under considerable criticism, in large measure because (it is wrongly assumed) that the lack of suffering entails the lack of emotion – either of delight or of sorrow. However (so the criticism goes) God often delights in the good of his created order, and also sorrows over the corruption of his creatures and therefore (so the criticism goes) God cannot be impassible. In response to these sorts of criticisms, it should be said that the impassibility of God has not been understood by the church across the ages as implying that God has no emotions, but simply that God does not suffer in his divine nature.
The communicable attributes of God serve as reminders that as different as God is from the world, God has created humans to reflect him in some respects. Humans are “images” of God as the opening chapter of the Bible reminds us (Genesis 1:26-27). God stamps his human creatures with the imprint of many of his own characteristics. We relate to God because God is personal, in some sense similar to the manner in which we are personal beings. Our ability to love is a (dim) reflection of the all-consuming love of God. We know in part, while God knows everything. Human’s possess a moral nature rooted and grounded in the One who is perfectly moral in every way. All of these human characteristics are related by analogy to the very character of God.
Thematic Threads of Divine Attributes Across the Bible
While the communicable/incommunicable distinction helps us get a handle on the ways in which humans are like and unlike God, it does not do full justice to the way in which God reveals himself across the Scriptures. Scanning the Bible, the most prominent descriptions of God focus on his glory, his holiness, his lordship, and his love – not primarily in reference to how they are similar to or different from humankind, but rather as the core descriptors of God acting in and across redemptive history. These descriptors illuminate the character of God by being emphasized time and again whenever God acts in intense and powerful ways as recorded for us in Scripture.
God’s glory is a reference to the visible manifestation of God as God. Glory is less like a single attribute of God than it is an internal motivation for everything God does in Scripture. It is the goal towards which all divine actions are oriented. It is a primary experience of all those who come into God’s presence. Glory is experienced by humans as brilliant light, overwhelming greatness, infinite grandeur and indescribable delight and terror all at the same time. Instances of God’s glory shines throughout the Scripture: in the encounter with Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3), in Ezekiel’s vision of the throne room (Ezek 1) and climatically in the coming of Jesus (Luke 2).
The holiness of God reflects both God’s moral purity and his absolute moral distance from a fallen world. God is the ground of all morality. God is absolutely good and pure and righteous and just in his very nature. But God’s holiness does not easily translate into conventional standards of human conduct at many times. His holiness is often inscrutable and mysterious. God’s holiness is experienced as dangerous and overwhelming. Holiness is the only adjective used of God in the three-fold formula – “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Isa 6; Rev 4). One of the great ironies in Scripture is that holiness points at the essential moral distance between God and fallen humanity in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, God the Spirit, who bridges this moral chasm and sets up residence in the human heart is known as the Holy Spirit. God’s holiness both separates but also bridges this enormous moral gulf between the Creator and the creature.
The lordship of God points at the myriad of ways that God exercises his power and authority over creation and across human history. The sovereignty of God carries the connotation not only that God’s power is without limit, but that he has all proper authority to exercise that power as he sees fit. It is the reminder to us that God is the creator who calls everything into being by his Word, and who also calls the dead to life by that same Word. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He is the beginning and the end. He is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings (1Tim 6; Rev 17).
God’s love is inseparable from these other characteristics. It is not the case that sometimes God is holy and at other times God is love, nor sometimes God is just but at other times God is merciful. God’s love runs through all that God is and does. His love is not merely an emotion. It is the enduring commitment of God to his unholy people manifest most clearly in the offering his Son as a sacrificial substitute who died on their behalf in order that they might be declared innocent and gain adoption as children of God. The love of God is active and costly. It is also strong. Nothing can separate God’s people from God because of the character of his love for them.
We know God is the Loving Lord because he has acted this way towards his covenant people. God’s glory and holiness are experienced as overwhelmingly positive inside the covenant relationship he establishes with his people. God’s people are to reflect these traits in their own lives and communities because of this covenant relationship. It is God’s glory they are to seek, not their own. They are to treasure the holiness of God while reckoning with their own unholiness. God is lord of history and the lord of their lives. God’s people love because he has first loved them. In each of these ways, the divine attributes manifest in Scripture serve as a powerful reminder that the God of the universe is both radically different from us, and also radically committed to us. Remarkable indeed!
- Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker, 2019)
- Matthew Barrett, “Don’t Domesticate God with Words”
- Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, Banner of Truth Trust, 1979
- Kevin DeYoung, “Theological Primer: Divine Infinite”
- Paul Helm, Eternal God (Oxford University Press, 2010)
- Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith, (Zondervan, 2011) chapters 6 & 7
- Thomas Morris, Our Idea of God (InterVarsity Press, 1991)
- J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1973)
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 2
- Erik Raymond, “The Cross Displays the Attributes in Perfect Harmony”