In the 1987 classic movie The Princess Bride, there’s an exchange between Vizzini, the film’s antagonist, and his henchman Inigo Montoya, in which Vizzini states, “He didn’t fall?! Inconceivable!” to which Montoya responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Our goal is to not be like Vizzini. We want to be clear on several key terms related to Scripture’s teaching on God’s attributes, so that we worship Him as He wants to be known—not as we make Him out to be in our own minds and thoughts.
The attributes of God are those characteristics or qualities of His Trinitarian nature that are critical to a virtuous understanding of His essence. These spiritual perfections are shared by all three members of the Godhead and reveal what constitutes Deity (Col. 2:9; theotetos). These are not aggregate parts of God, since He is not a compound being. He exists in simplicity as an indivisible being. His attributes are therefore not portions in His nature—they describe Him as He is. Remembering this will help us not to elevate one attribute above another, which would contradict God’s simplicity (e.g., His love over His righteousness). It would also contradict God’s unity, which brings to the fore the idea that His nature is one essence in perfect simplicity. There is only one essential truth in the universe, and He is both an absolute and personal God (Isa. 44:6–8).
The unity and simplicity of God suggests an indivisible being, which brings to the fore God’s immutability. He is unchanging and unchangeable in His nature (Ps. 102:25–27; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17) and in His plan (Ezek. 24:14; Phil. 1:6). God is constant—but what about those passages that suggest God changes His mind (Ex. 32:14; Isa. 38:1–8; Jonah 3:4–10)? There are likely figures of speech involved in these narratives. In addition, the stories are framed in a contingent way—a condition is present that, if met, would change the originally stated prediction. Thankfully, God can always be trusted in regard to what He has said He will do.
These three attributes—simplicity, unity, and immutability—are part of the traditional listing of divine attributes not shared with humanity. Another is aseity, which means that God is self-existent, uncaused, and the only necessary being. We get a glimpse into this in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who i am.’” It is in His nature to exist, as the “to be” verb suggests. God’s aseity or independence gives us confidence that He is the ultimate source of everything (Rev. 4:11)—and as the only self-existent being in the universe, all other claimants are not worthy of our ultimate affection or devotion (John 5:26; Ps. 94:8–11). This theological term supports a load-bearing idea, the Creator-creature distinction. Indeed, most aberrant views of God merge these two ideas at some point.
God is also infinite, which means He has no limitations. He has no beginning or end. Time or linear sequencing of activities do not bind Him (Ps. 90:2). In regard to space, He is present everywhere at the same time. This is also described as omnipresence, the infinity of God in relation to space (Ps. 139:7–12). In relation to knowledge, God’s infinity is described as His omniscience: He has perfect and infinite knowledge of everything, including actual and potential events (Ps. 147:4–5; Matt. 11:21). In relation to power, God’s infinity is described as His omnipotence: “He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3 nasB; see Isa. 40:10–31). He is able to do whatever He wills. This power operates within the limits of, or in harmony with, His nature (Matt. 3:9; 26:53). The assurance for us here is that nothing is too hard for the Lord to accomplish if He wills it. These “omni” statements also remind us that God is without material substance and free from all temporal limitations. A body localizes, but as spirit God is everywhere (John 4:24).
Other divine attributes revealed in Scripture are parallel to human experience in some way. God’s wisdom indicates He uses the best possible means to accomplish His eternal purposes (Ps. 104:24). This attribute functions in conjunction with His omniscience; it is through His wisdom that He judges righteously and applies His infinite knowledge to bring ultimate glory to Himself (Rom. 2:2; 1 Tim. 1:17). God is also holy—transcendent, set apart, and morally pure in His nature (Ex. 15:11; Isa. 6:1–5; 1 John 1:5; Rev. 4:8). He is the highest good, exalted above His creation.
Though utterly transcendent, God participates in the lives of creatures who are marred by sin and injustice (Hab. 1:2, 5, 12). This reminds us that God is also immanent; He relates to and is involved in creaturely existence. Isaiah 57:15 keeps God’s transcendence and immanence in balance: “For this is what the high and exalted One says . . . I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit” (nasB). Many aberrant views of God today overemphasize either God’s transcendence or God’s immanence. Our goal should be to keep both truths in balance.
God’s love is an attribute where He delights in His own perfections, in humanity as a reflection of His image, and in all He has created (Isa. 63:9; John 3:16; Acts 14:17; 1 John 4:8, 16). It first indicates an intra-Trinitarian love the persons of the Trinity have for one another (John 3:35; 14:31), sometimes expressed by the Spirit’s activity in the world (John 15:26; 16:14; Gal. 4:6). God’s love does not negate His holiness; as with His other attributes, these two function in harmony within His being (Deut. 32:4; 1 Tim. 1:5). Further, God’s attribute of goodness, which reflects His loving concern for His creation, cannot be ignored (Acts 14:15–17). His goodness is directed toward our conformity to the image of His Son, such that anything in our lives may be understood as for our good (Rom. 8:28–29).
“Praying” God’s attributes is a way for us to keep our perspective during times of suffering and anguish. We can gather the Scriptures that refer to God’s justice, His righteous dealings with His creation, read and meditate on them, and then allow them to inform our prayers. For example, if you are overwhelmed by an unjust situation, reading Isaiah 30:18 or 61:8 can renew your perspective. If you wonder why the circumstance has occurred, meditate on Job 34:12: “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice.” Praying and meditating on God’s attributes helps us to know God as He’s revealed Himself, rather than as we define Him in the midst of our troubles.
by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner
Theology can be intimidating, full of big words and lofty ideas. Yet theological terms aren’t just for professors to argue about in the...
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