In the opening post of this series http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2023/07/post-1-doctrine-of-god-map-to-explore.html, we laid out a "map" of the doctrine of God. We have journeyed thus far in our study,
I. The existence of God in posts 1-5.
II. The knowability of God, posts 6-7.
In today's posts we shall introduce, define, categorize, and give examples of God's attributes.
What are God's attributes?
Wayne Grudem notes about God's character and attributes in his book "Systematic Theology", page 185,
"When we come to talk about the character of God, we realize that we cannot say everything the Bible teaches us about God's character at once. We need to decide which aspect of God's character to discuss first, which aspect to discuss second, and so forth. In other words, we need some way to categorize the attributes of God."
It is here we understand that when we refer to "God's character", we are talking about God's being and attributes. We mustn't think of God's being as seperate from His attributes, but instead understand that God's being is acted out, relayed, and truly the substance of His attributes of perfections. To flesh this point out some more, consider the definition of attributes given by James P. Boice in his "Abstract of Theology", page 65,
"The attributes of God are those peculiar virtues that mark or define the mode of His existence or which constitue His character".
W.G.T. Shedd in Volume 1 of His Dogmatic Theology (the term "dogmatic" is an older term for what is called today "systematic theology") describes God's attributes in this helpful way,
"Divine attributes are modes either of the relation or of the operation of divine essence."
Shedd's point here is that when I am focusing on one of God's attributes, say His "love", I am not dealing with a part of God. Rather, I am dealing with the totality of God as He is, by nature, the loving God. God doesn't just merely "have love", He is love (1 John 4:8). This operating of God's being applies to all of His attributes, and how they work together. God's attributes of holiness and love, for example, tells me He is a lovingly holy God and a holy loving God. He cannot be loving without being holy and vice-versa.
Categorizing God's attributes.
Shedd, Boyce, Grudem, and most theologians group God's attributes into two categories.
First, there are what are referred to as "incommunicable attributes", meaning they are unique to God and generally not shared in common with creation in general and human beings in particular.
The second category is that of "communicable attributes", which is to say, according to Grudem, "those attributes which God's shares or communicates with us".
To illustrate, if I catch a cold from someone, such a disease is said to be "communicable", meaning I take on (have communicated) the virus, its symptoms, and pathology. On the otherhand, my recent appendectomy is incommunicable, meaning that my family members will not also have appendicitis because I had mine.
What are some examples of incommunicable and communicable attributes?
I like how Wayne Grudem handles these two categories, since in many other systematic theologies, the two are treated as hard and fast categories. Grudem notes the following,
"However, upon further reflection we realize that this distinctions (incommunicable and communicable attributes), although helpful, is not perfect. This is because no attribute of God is completely communicable, and there is no attribute of God that is completely incommunicable."
When we look at God's holiness for example, this perfection of God speaks to God's transcendence, that is, how He operates outside the system of creation, is its source, and is beyond the limitations of time and space. We see this aspect of God's holiness in Isaiah 6, where the thrice holy God is beyond the heights and access of the angelic hosts crying out His name, as well as the prophet Isaiah who is well aware of his uncleaness before God.
Truly holiness is what sets God apart from all other beings. Yet, we also know too that God calls His people "to be holy, as I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16). The title given to God's people in the Old Testament and New Testament is that of "saints", which quite literally means "holy ones" (see the opening of 1 Corinthians 1:1-2).
It is apparent that Grudem's point makes sense of such attributes as holiness being in some cases "incommunicable" and in other cases "communicable".
The Westminister Confession of Faith devotes its second article to what it calls "Of God and the Holy Trinity". In the opening paragraph, one of the most beautiful descriptions of God outside the Bible is given, listing off some of God's attributes. The edition I consulted here https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-westminster-confession/#Chapter%20II
"There is but one only, (Deut. 6:4, 1 Cor. 8:4–6) living, and true God, (1 Thess. 1:9, Jer. 10:10) who is infinite in being and perfection, (Job 11:7–9, Job 26:14) a most pure spirit, (John 4:24) invisible, (1 Tim. 1:17) without body, parts, (Deut. 4:15–16, John 4:24, Luke 24:39) or passions; (Acts 14:11,15) immutable, (James 1:17, Mal. 3:6) immense, (1 Kings 8:27, Jer. 23:23–24) eternal, (Ps. 90:2, 1 Tim. 1:17) incomprehensible, (Ps. 145:3) almighty, (Gen. 17:1, Rev. 4:8) most wise, (Rom. 16:27) most holy, (Isa. 6:3, Rev. 4:8) most free, (Ps. 115:3) most absolute; (Exod. 3:14) working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, (Eph. 1:11) for His own glory; (Prov. 16:4, Rom. 11:36)".
Interested readers who want to dig further may see what the Westminister Confession of Faith's portrayal of attributes look like when arranged under the categories of "communicable" and "incommunicable" by seeing the endnote at the end of this post here.1
Wayne Grudem has listed out how he categorizes God's attributes in his systematic theology. I find it instructive that when comparing lists among theologians, we can have a way at least to approach a study of the Divine attributes in an orderly and devotional way.
Grudem's list of incommunicable attributes:
Now notice the list of incommunicable attributes given,
1. infinite in being and perfection,( Job 11:7-9; 26:14).
2. a most pure spirit, (John 4:24).
3. invisible, (1 Timothy 1:17).
4. without body, parts, ( Deut 4:15-16; John 4:24 with Luke 24:39).
5. without passions, (Acts 14:11, 15).
6. immutable, (Mal 3:6; James 1:17).
7. immense, (1 Kings 8:27; Jer 23:23-24)
8. eternal (Psa 90:2; 1 Tim 1:17).
9. incomprehensible, (Psa 145:3).
10. almighty, (Gen 17:1; Rev 4:8).
11. most wise, (Rom 16:27).
12. most holy, (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8).
13. most free, ( Psa 115:3).
14. most absolute, (Exodus 3:14).
15. working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will (Eph 1:11) for his own glory (Prov 16:4; Rom 11:36).
The second paragraph of the same article mentions other incommunicable attributes. I'll comment briefly on some of these.
16. God hath all life (John 5:16, i.e. the immortality of God).
17. All glory, (Acts 7:2, i.e. God's glory refers to how He makes His character visible to our sight).
18. Goodness, (Psalm 119:68, which could be incommuicable, unique to God, but which is also shared with us in a communicable way).
19. Blessedness ( Rom 9:5; 1 Tim 6:15, this attribute of God speaks of the enjoyment He has in being God, the source of His own pleasure).
20. In and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, (Acts 17:24-25, also called "independence" or "Divine Aseity", meaning God exists in and of Himself, without dependance on anything).
As noted above already, some of these are totally incommunicable (for example, God alone is immutable or unchangeable, eternal, infinite in being and perfection). Whereas some others can be somewhat incommunicable and communicable (such as most wise in an incoomunicable way and human beings capable of exercising wisdom in a communicable way).
The Westminster Confession goes on in its section on God's attributes by listing what we know as "the communicable attributes",
1. most loving, (1 John 4:8,16).
2. gracious (Exodus 34:6-7).
3. merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).
4. the rewarder of them that diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
5. and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, (Nehemiah 9:6-7
6. hating all sin, (Psalm 5:5-6)
7. and who will by no means clear the guilty, (Exod 34:7; Nahum 1:2-3).
The Westminister Confession presses on describing what all God does in creation, providence, and redemption. This gives us at least a sampling of many of the attributes of God we read of in Scripture.