On the Attributes of God

There is no greater topic to write or reflect upon than that of God himself: his nature, his character, and his person. As our creator and eventually as our judge, he is the one whom every one of us has to deal with. No more important task faces us than to know him and know his aright.

As Charles Spurgeon put it (incredibly when he was just 20 years old): “The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of the child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.”

Of course the aim is not just mere knowledge about God, but to actually know God. As J.I. Packer wrote in his now classic 1973 volume, Knowing God, “A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of knowledge about Him.”

Drawing on insights from the book of Daniel, Packer says there are four effects the knowledge of God can have on us: “Those who know God have great energy for God… Those who know God have great thoughts of God… Those who know God show great boldness for God… Those who know God have great contentment in God.”

One way in which theologians seek to understand and systematise the biblical data on the nature of God is to speak of his attributes. A divine attribute is a quality or characteristic which expresses God’s nature. When we speak of the divine attributes, we are not just describing what God does, but defining who God is.

As Millard Erickson says, “It is better to conceive of the attributes of God as his nature, not as a collection of fragmentary parts nor as something in addition to his essence. Thus, God is love, holiness, and power. These are but different ways of viewing the unified being, God.”

Some have preferred to speak of God’s perfections instead of his attributes. This is most appropriate, and in some ways better describes the nature and character of God. As Robert Reymond puts it, “I prefer the word ‘perfections’ over the word ‘attributes’ since their referents in God are intrinsic to him and not ‘items’ that are assigned to him.”

Karl Barth also speaks of the perfections of God in his Church Dogmatics. He puts it this way: “God lives His perfect life in the abundance of many individual and distinct perfections. Each of these is perfect in itself and in combination with all the others.”

Scripture of course lists many attributes of God, and various listings of these have come up with different numbers, names, and so on. John of Damascus in the 8th century listed 18 distinct attributes of God. Aquinas listed only eight, while the Westminster Confession offers no less than 27 different attributes.

These have often been classified in various ways. It is common to contrast God’s moral attributes (eg., holiness, love),  with his non-moral attributes (eg., eternity, aseity). Somewhat related to such a distinction is the immanent and transcendent distinction, or the communicable and non-communicable.

In all three cases the first terms refer to attributes which God shares with us, while the second refer to attributes which are unique to God alone. Other classification schemes have been offered, and all of them may have varying degrees of usefulness.

A question often arises as to whether one attribute of God might be considered to be the greatest, or the overarching attribute. As Geoffrey Grogan asks, is there “any attribute so definitive of God’s essence as to control our understanding of all the others?”

Many have sought to argue so, and a leading contender for this would be God’s love. It is of course a sensible choice, given texts like 1 John 4:8, 16, but there is no clear consensus on this. If I had to single out just one divine attribute as having pre-eminence, I would opt for God’s holiness, based on the biblical data.

Many theologians have argued for this. In his magisterial 1853 work, The Existence and Attributes of God, Stephen Charnock stated that “this attribute hath an excellency above his other perfections”. Although not necessarily claiming it to be the most important attribute, R.C. Sproul certainly gives it high marks in his very important 1985 volume, The Holiness of God:

“The one concept, the central idea I kept meeting in Scripture, was the idea that God is holy. . . . Today I am absorbed with the question of the holiness of God. I am convinced that it is one of the most important ideas that a Christian can ever grapple with. It is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity.”

However tempting it may be to single out one divine attribute, we may be on safer theological ground to simply argue that all attributes are supreme, all reflect who God is, and all are fully perfect reflections of who he is. Thus no one single attribute is paramount or absolutely fundamental.

John Frame nicely makes this case: “Rather than making any single attribute central, classical theology teaches that all of God’s defining attributes are ways of describing his simple essence. So God’s attributes are not parts or divisions within his nature, but each attribute is necessary to his being. Each is essential to him, and therefore his essence includes all of them.”

Or as Donald Bloesch puts it, “In our delineation of the attributes or perfections of God, we must guard against singling out any of them as giving an exhaustive definition of who God is. If we say that God is exhaustively love, we are then neglecting his holiness and righteousness….

“On the other hand, it is possible to magnify the holiness and majesty of God to such a degree that his love is relegated to secondary significance. It is interesting to note that the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines God as ‘a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’.”

Herman Bavinck concurs: “Scripture contains many names whereby God is indicated, but never speaks about the being of God in the abstract, and never emphasizes one of God’s attributes at the expense of the others. Now the one, then the other attribute is placed in the foreground, but a perfect harmony exists among them all. Scripture strives to do full justice to each of God’s perfections.”

The problem is so often today we do just this very thing: we select one or a few attributes and run with them to the expense of his other attributes. Perhaps the most common expression of this problem today is the emphasis on the love and mercy of God, over against his holiness and righteousness.

I have written about this often. We do no good to the God we seek to represent if we try to isolate a few attributes and play them against his other attributes. When we do this we slide into error, if not outright heresy. Those who minimise his wrath and justice for example can easily slip into heterodoxy, such as a denial of the biblical doctrine of hell.

So the Christian’s job is to proclaim the whole counsel of God, and that means proclaiming the entirety of his nature, with all his attributes given their proper due. To select just one or a few, and to ignore the others, is to do injustice to God’s word, and more importantly, to do injustice to God himself.

Of course emphasis will be determined by context. If it is true that so much of the current church is perhaps leaning too far in the direction of the goodness and mercy of God, then a counter-weight may be needed to get things back into biblical balance.

Given how influential modern movements such as the emergent church and openness theism have become, with their seeming over-emphasis on divine love, then perhaps more on God’s holiness, righteousness and justice will need to be stressed. Of course if one is ministering in a place where only God’s wrath and justice get a hearing, then the emphasis on love and mercy may be the order of the day.

We must seek to keep the whole counsel of God in the spotlight, as Paul said in Acts 20:27. Pastors, teachers and Christian leaders especially need to keep this in mind. It is too tempting to get into an unbalanced position because we give our listeners what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.

So let’s again emphasise the nature and character of God in our preaching and teaching, including all the attributes or perfections ascribed to him in God’s word. This will be a job we will never exhaust, but it is one which must be at the constant forefront of all we say and do in our work for him.

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7 Replies to “On the Attributes of God”

  1. “John of Damascus in the 8th century listed 18 distinct attributes of God. Aquinas listed only eight, while the Westminster Confession offers no less than 27 different attributes.”

    What are we to make of this wide disagreement over his attributes? That an attribute of God is that he has not made his attributes known to Man clearly and unambiguously?

    John Snowden

  2. Thanks John

    Systematic theology, as the name implies, seeks to systematise and classify the various bits of biblical data into orderly units and categories. Whenever that is done one can come up with differing conceptual schemes, classification schemes, names, and so on.

    Secular philosophy for example would face the same problem, with differing classification schemes, differing terminology, differing conceptual units, and so on. While there may well be some commonly-agreed upon definitions and formulations, often writers will use different terms or concepts to talk about similar things. So partly it is just a reflection on human diversity and perspective, and every area of human knowledge can have this problem.

    Also it is partly due to the fact that we are all fallen, finite and fallible, so none of us will have a perfect handle on any form of knowledge, or any sort of conceptual understanding. Presumably if we were all perfect in knowledge, we would all come up with the same knowledge, same understanding, same conceptualising, etc.

    And in this case, it is often just a matter of differing judgments or terms. It is usually just a judgment call, eg., should one consider the righteousness of God and the justice of God to be two separate attributes, or perhaps two aspects of one attribute, or two different ways to discuss the same attribute, etc? So different classification schemes may come up with slightly different ordering, numbering, naming, etc., but usually the lists have a high degree of common ground. It is not as if they are all radically different from each other,or in radical disagreement, as you ask. Indeed, there is usually a fair degree of overlap, common ground and unanimity in the various listings.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Acts 20:27 that you mention Bill is a challenge to all who would preach or teach regularly. That’s a huge task, yet one we should be setting to with enthusiasm. The large number of “attributes” some ascribe to God is one indication of how difficult it is to get our finite minds around the nature of an infinite being. Yet the Scriptures incredibly do a great job of that. It is a lifetime of study for any dedicated preacher or teacher.
    John Symons

  4. Bill, You have rightly brought us back to the knowledge of the living God; ‘that we might know Him, the power of His resurrection, the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to His death.’

    Recently in our home church four of us, a CPA, a theologian and two medical practitioners studied the attributes of God, namely:
    His triunity, His omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, holiness, faithfulness, loving-kindness and accessibility. It was the first time many ‘mature’ believers had considered these majestic themes.
    Our web site surprised us when Russian federation, after 70 years of strangulating Communism listed hundreds of hours on these themes.

    Will our beloved nation (and USA) endure torturous years to awaken us to our need of knowing God?

    Harrrold Steward

  5. Bill, may I bring to the notice of particularly those in children’s ministry, the fact that my wife Cheryl (an ex YWAM’er) has been writing teaching materials (including songs), on the character attributes of God for some 35 years. The results of her endeavours are available for free download to those in developing countries. Please visit http://www.beaconmedia.com.au
    Paul Reid

  6. Thanks Bill. God is the Gospel. ‘Christ too suffered for our sins once for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to GOD.’ 1 Peter 3:18
    Clive Skewes

  7. Thanks Bill. So much depth in what you wrote. Thanks! Once when I was full of anxieties and crying out to the Lord for help and peace, the Lord spoke to me and said: “do an ABC of My characteristics”. I instantly knew what He meant and so I started to see those attributes of our Triune God as follows:
    A: He is Almighty, the Alpha and Omega, etc.
    B: Beautiful, Bread of Life, Bright Morningstar etc.
    C: Comforter, Counselor, Covenantmaker
    D: Deliverer, The Door,
    E: Eternal God, Everlasting Father
    Etc. etc.
    I could easily go through the whole alphabet, except the letter X. (The Cross?)
    The peace that filled me by just seeing the depth and application of those attributes/characteristics was unbelievable. Knowing Him is eternal life. (John 17:3 my words).
    Evangeline Rykes

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