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)

 

 

 

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On Knowing and Worshiping God; Great Expectations; and False Humility

But someone will say, “If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then do you discourse of these things?”

So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, would you have me go away altogether hungry?

I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which says, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 6, 5

To paraphrase a bit of Bohoeffer, there is a costly grace in worshiping God. It is grace that calls us to worship God. But it is costly to worship God.

God is worthy of perfect worship. But the sensitive worshiper knows even man’s best is not worthy of God in his glory. I don’t know how many flocks Abel worshiped the Lord with. Did he have ever occasion to ponder, “Last year’s flock was a little better than this year’s.” In one sense man can never really offer “the” best, but only “his” best.[1] God, in His grace, covers even the purest of our offerings and makes it fit for Him.

I am not sure pure worship is found by the one seeking perfect worship. The one loving worship more than God is not worshiping God. Widow’s mites always have more value than spare doubloons.

But it remains true that “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The Lord accepts widow’s mites, not tycoons’. When someone has a suspicion that God might deserve or expect a bit more in corporate worship, it is not the time to revert to Adam’s, “The woman…” or Aaron’s, “You know the people…”

As far as I know, the first and second greatest commands have not switched rankings in the polls.

God calls us to worship him with our best. Pastors should do the work of elevating the congregation’s idea of what our best should and can be: always better, even if it is never good enough.


[1] Thinking musically, if we were really concerned to offer God “the” best, shouldn’t we have come up with a text for the third movement of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio already?

Graeme Goldsworthy on God’s Attributes

God has been revealing himself within the whole process of biblical history. His character is not presented as a series of abstract ideas, such as holiness, omnipotence, righteousness and so on. Rather, God reveals himself in the midst of his deeds that he himself interprets by his Word. From his activity as creator, judge, covenant-maker and redeemer, we learn the meaning of words like, holy, almighty and righteousness as they apply to God.

(Graeme Goldworthy, According to Plan, 189)

It may seem to be cutting things a little to fine, but the distinction is an important one. God is not defined by his attributes. God defines his attributes.

Perhaps one of the reasons “God is love” is so often misused is because many people wish to define “God” by their (mis)understanding of “love.” God’s word, and God’s actions described and demonstrated in his word, define the true meaning of love.