How Do We Talk About God: Classifying His Attributes

We can only say anything about God because we must say something. One of the most common ways of speaking about God is to discuss his attributes- those truths of God’s existence that He has reveled to us. Generally, God’s attributes are placed into one of two groupings. Some of those groupings (and the men who use them) are:

Incommunicable Communicable Grudem, Berkhof, Bavinck, Shedd
God is great God is good Erickson
Perfections of the Divine Freedom Perfections of the Divine Loving Barth, Weber
Deus absconditus (hidden God) Deus revelatus (Revealed God) Luther
Constitutional Personality Chafer
a se (in Himself) pro nobis (toward us) Photios
ousios (essence) energeia(energy, operations) Palamas
theologia economia  
Absolute/Immanent Relative/Transitive Strong
natural moral  
absolute relative  
original derived  
intransitive transitive  
Light Love 1 John
One For Us Romans

Of course, all such discussion and classifications are carried out in the knowledge of our inadequacy to the task and the very impossibility of it.

“An actual division of the attributes of God is not conceivable. Therefore every ordering has the actual intent of making indivisible (yet distinguishable) factors evident.”  (Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, vol. 1, p. 428)

“…God and his attributes are one. The attributes cannot be considered as so many parts that enter into the composition of God, for God is not, like men, composed of different parts. Neither can they be regarded as something added to the Being of God, though the name, derived from ad and tribuere, might seem to point in that direction, for no addition was ever made to the being o God, who is eternally perfect.” (Lois Berkhof, Systematic Theology New Combined Edition, pp. 44-45)

“…the attributes are so interrelated and interdependent that the exact placing of some of them is difficult if not wholly impossible. It is evident that no feature of Systematic Theology has occasioned more confusion and disagreement among theologians than has the attempt to order the category of the divine attributes.” (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 189)




Nothing can be compared to God. Everything demonstrates Him.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?

To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? …remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me…

Isaiah 40:12-18, 25; 46:5, 9

Herman Bavinck writes, “For precisely because God is pure being—the absolute, perfect, unique, and simple being—we cannot give a definition of him. There is no genus to which he belongs as a member, and there are no specific marks of distinction whereby we can distinguish him from other beings in this genus.”

God is unique. There is no other. Because of this, there is nothing or no one to whom God can be compared. Yet because of this, God can only be known by comparison. What a marvelous paradox! Because God is unlike all else, the only true sui generis, he can only be known by comparison to things we do know. We know God analogically. We know God through the comparisons reveled to us in his Word and in his world. Because God wants us to know him, he speaks to us in terms we can understand.

Therefore Scripture states that God has:

A face (Ex. 33:20, 23; Isa. 63:9; Ps. 16:11; Matt. 18:10; Rev. 22:4)
Eyes (Ps. 11:4; Heb. 4:13)
Eyelids (Ps. 11:4)
Ears (Ps. 55:3)
A nose (Deut. 33:10)
A mouth (Deut. 8:3)
Lips (Job 11:5)
A tongue (Isa. 30:27)
A neck (Jer. 18:17)
Arms (Ex. 15:16)
Hands (Num. 11:23; Ex. 15:12)
Fingers (Ex. 8:19)
A heart (Gen. 6:6)
Intestines (Isa. 63:15; Jer. 31:20; Luke 1:78)
Feet (Isa. 66:1)

God is a:
Husband (Hos. 2:16)
Father (Deut. 32:6)
Judge, king, lawgiver (Isa. 33:22)
Warrior (Ex. 15:3)
Builder and architect (Heb. 11:10)
Gardener (John 15:1)
Shepherd (Ps. 23:1)
Physician (Ex. 15:26)

But the realm of humanity is not sufficient, for God is also compared to:
A lion (Isa. 31:4)
An eagle (Deut. 32:11)
A lamb (Isa. 53:7)
A hen (Matt. 23:37)
The sun (Ps. 84:11)
The morning star (Rev. 22:16)
A light (Ps. 27:1)
A lamp (Rev. 21:23)
A fire (Heb. 12:29)
A fountain (Ps. 36:9; Jer. 2:13)
Food, bread, drink (John 6:35, 55)
A rock (Deut. 32:4)
A refuge (Ps. 119:114)
A tower (Prov. 18:10)
A stronghold (Ps. 9:9)
A shadow (Ps. 91:1; 121:5)
A shield (Ps. 84:11)
A road (John 14:6)
A temple (Rev. 21:22)

The Lord reveals himself in these ways to us, for us. So we are not afraid to say:
The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God (Exo 15:2)
The LORD Is My Banner (Ex. 17:15)
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer (2Sam. 22:2)
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup (Ps. 16:5)
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps. 18:2)
The LORD is my shepherd (Ps. 23:1)
The LORD is my light and my salvation…The LORD is the stronghold of my life (Ps. 27:1)
The LORD is my strength and my shield (Ps. 28:7)
The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. (Ps. 118:14)
The LORD is my portion (Ps. 119:57)
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam. 3:24)
The LORD is my God. (Zec. 13:9)
So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Heb 13:6)

All his works declare his praise for all his works demonstrate who he is. Not fully, nor completely, nor essentially. But it is enough to overwhelm the believing heart with wonder. It is enough to draw us onward in passionate pursuit knowing we can never have enough. Our thirst is slaked by increasing our desire for drink. So the yearning heart presses on through the glorious blinding light into the thick darkness where the glory dwells. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.