Tuesday, September 21, 2010

God's Attributes--part2

God’s attributes get classified in a lot of different ways. I suppose it is inherent to human nature to lump things together (remember Jr. High biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species…?). Maybe it’s a way to enhance our memory. Ultimately, I find these classifications unhelpful and unnecessary. But more about that later.

I wish I knew who started this classification business. Books about God’s attributes almost universally skip over the development of the thought and classifications which I would find fascinating. So maybe I’ll write a book on it myself.

Somehow over the course of time, different folks starting using different terms. I have neither an accurate nor exhaustive understanding of which terms and systems came first and which ones were a later nuance of an older system. Most systems use only two categories. My guess is that the oldest classification system is the one preferred in the Reformed tradition which refers to God’s attributes as either “communicable” or “incommunicable.” We can find it in the Belgic Confession of 1561. In Article 8 we read of the Trinity’s “incommunicable properties”.

While those are lofty terms, they have a rather simple meaning. A “communicable” attribute is one that God has “communed” or “communicated” or given to man; whereas an “incommunicable” attribute is one he has not. Common examples are that God’s omniscience (all-knowing) is an “incommunicable” attribute since humans are not all-knowing; and that God’s mercy is a “communicable” attribute since most humans show mercy (to some degree).

Other systems use different terms to describe basically the same thing: namely there are some attributes of God that only He possesses and there are other attributes of God that humans share. Those systems use the following terms: Transient/Intransient; Transitive/Intransitive; Moral/Non-moral; Transferable/Not Transferable.

Donald Macleod, in his book Behold Your God, observes that,
None of these [classifications] has much to commend it and certainly none is to be regarded as authoritative. Scripture nowhere attempts a classification... All the suggested classifications are artificial and misleading, not least that which has been most favoured by Reformed theologians - the division into communicable and incommunicable attributes. The problem here is that these qualities we refer to as incommunicable adhere unalterably to those we refer to as communicable. For example, God is "infinite, eternal and unchangeable" (The Shorter Catechism, Answer 4) and these are deemed to be incommunicable properties: and God is merciful, which is deemed to be a communicable property. But the mercy itself is "infinite, eternal and unchangeable" and as such is incommunicable. The same is true of all the other so-called communicable attributes such as the love, righteousness and faithfulness of God. One the other hand, to speak of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence as incommunicable is equally unsatisfactory. If we remove the prefix omni we are left simply with power, knowledge and presence, all of which have analogies in our own human existence. (p. 20-21)

I agree. Just because certain words get that wonderful little prefix “omni” doesn’t mean that we should negate that God’s other attributes are possessed by Him in perfect form. While God’s “omni-love” or “omni-forgiveness” sound awkward, we must remember that while we share with God a certain quality, He always possesses it in perfection, humans in imperfection. So, every attribute is transferred by God to His creatures in some fashion. Some we can enhance (mercy, love, forgiveness, for instance); others we cannot (eternality, for example).
Other systems use:
Theological/Biblical: words not found in the Bible versus those words that are found in the Bible

Positive/Negative: the positive being those which ascribe perfections to God, and the negative those which deny imperfections.

Essential/Dynamic: essential attributes relate to God’s being—who He is; dynamic refers to what He does (sometimes called Absolute/Relative).

Categories: Metaphysically (Self-Existent, Eternal, Immutable); Intellectually (Omniscient, Faithful, Wise); Ethically (Holy, Righteous, Loving); Emotionally (Jealous; Patient; Compassionate); Existentially (Free; Omnipotent); Relationally (Transcendent; Immanent).

All of these systems ultimately aren’t too helpful. A few trips on the Bible bus and you’ll get a pretty good handle on terms that come right out of the Bible itself and those that come out of a theology book. And, with just a little background in language, one quickly understands words that are defined either positively or negatively.

What ultimately matters is that we know God. To know Him we must study the Bible—the record of His own self-revelation. AW Pink, in his work The Attributes of God, says it well:
“A spiritual and saving knowledge of God is the greatest need of every human creature. The foundation of all true knowledge of God must be a clear mental apprehension of His perfections as revealed in Holy Scripture. An unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshipped.

It is my hope that you know God in a personal way. Not in the abstract. He is not a philosophical contemplation. He is “the God of all flesh” and He is to be known, worshipped and obeyed. Studying His attributes is the best way at doing this.

List of Attributes
(not exhaustive)

The Omnipotence of God
The Omniscience of God
The Omnipresence of God
The Simplicity of God
The Transcendence of God
The Aseity of God
The Condescension of God
The Wisdom of God
The Eternality of God
The Greatness of God
The Unity of God
The Personality of God
The Veracity of God
The Sovereignty of God
The Wisdom of God
The Incomprehensibility of God
The Infinitude of God
The Impassibility of God
The Invisibility of God
The Immanence of God
The Immutability of God
The Immortality of God
The Love of God
The Goodness of God
The Grace of God
The Mercy of God
The Compassion of God
The Patience of God
The Faithfulness of God
The Forgiveness of God
The Joy of God
The Holiness of God
The Righteousness of God
The Wrath of God
The Vengeance of God
The Jealousy of God
The Justice of God

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