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The Incommunicable Attributes of God

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What is in a Name?

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Chapter Six: God: The Incommunicable Attributes

“As God’s essence is hidden and incomprehensible,” Calvin observes, “his name just means his character, so far as he has been pleased to make it known to us.”

There is nothing more important than knowing God. -John Frame, The Doctrine of God
John 17:3 NASB95
“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
Ps.
Psalm 10:4 NASB95
The wicked, in the haughtiness of his countenance, does not seek Him. All his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
Our message to the world must emphasize that God is real, and that he will not be trifled with. He is the almighty, majestic Lord of heaven and earth, and he demands our most passionate love and obedience. - John Frame, The Doctrine of God
Reformed Dogmatics Chapter 2: Names, Being, and Attributes of God

1. In what does the importance of the names of God lie?

In this, that God through them draws our attention to the most important attributes of His being. This being is so rich and comprehensive that we need to have some benchmarks in order to understand the rest. God’s names are not empty sounds (like the names of people), but they have meaning and contribute to our knowledge of God.

Genesis 1:1 BHS/WHM 4.2
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Exodus 3:14 NASB95
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
Exodus 3:14 BHS/WHM 4.2
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃
The New American Commentary: Exodus 2. Revelation of the Name Yahweh (3:13–15)

The name should thus be understood as referring to Yahweh’s being the creator and sustainer of all that exists and thus the Lord of both creation and history, all that is and all that is happening—a God active and present in historical affairs.

On one hand, the revelation of God’s name is a sign of transcendence, measuring the gulf between God’s majesty and the human servant.

On one hand, the revelation of God’s name is a sign of transcendence, measuring the gulf between God’s majesty and the human servant. Misusing God’s name required the death penalty under the old covenant (Ex 20:7; Lev 24:16). Nevertheless, this name is also a sign of God’s immanence, having been given to his people as a pledge of his personal presence, to be invoked in danger and praised at all times.

Exodus 20:7 NASB95
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
Leviticus 24:16 NASB95
‘Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.

The point is frequently made that the Lord (Adonai) is our LORD (Yahweh) and vice versa.

The New Testament reveals a similar pattern. As the narratives generate doctrines, the doctrines give rise to doxology and are even expressed in the form of praise, as in 1 Timothy 1:17: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” As spirit (Jn 4:24), God is unavailable to human investigation apart from his own initiative and mediation.

Nevertheless, out of love for his creatures, God condescends to our finite capacity by selecting analogies that are appropriate but nevertheless fall short of his majesty.

Incommunicable Attributes

As we will see, it is these attributes of the way of negation that are most frequently challenged as a supposedly later corruption of biblical theology by pagan (Greek) metaphysics. However, it is not only later theologians but the apostle Paul as well who use the alpha-privative prefix, referring to God, for example, as immortal (aphthartos) and invisible (aoratos) (1 Ti 1:17; cf. 6:15–16).

While it is true that much of the language related to theology of God studies comes in Greek philosophical expressions, it would be a mistake to think that the substance of those studies is unduly influenced by or anchored in Greek thought.

Divine Simplicity

As human beings, we are complex and compound creatures. That is, we are made up of various parts. However, God is simple and spiritual. On the one hand, this means that God is not the sum total of his attributes but is simultaneously everything that all of the attributes reveal. On the other hand, each of these attributes identifies a different aspect of God’s existence and character that cannot be reduced to the others. This latter point is especially important, given the tendency of recent critiques to identify this doctrine with an extreme view that denies any real difference between attributes.

How would you rank the various attributes of God?
Answer: we cannot rank the attributes of God or make one more essential that then other.
Apologetic scenario: Kenosis Theology says that God emptied himself in the sense that he laid aside some of his divine attributes in order that he might truly become human. In his defense of that theory, Stephen T. Davis, in his book Christian Philosophical Theology, posits the view that God has essential and non-essential attributes. Explain what this means and evaluate the claim.

God is not the sum total of his attributes but is simultaneously everything that all of the attributes reveal.

One implication is that we cannot rank God’s attributes or make one more essential to God than another. God is love even when he judges; he is holy and righteous even in saving sinners; he is eternal even when he acts in time.

God’s simplicity in no way p 229 limits the diversity evident in his works, but stipulates that in all of God’s activity he is self-consistent. In every act, God is the being that he is and will ever be.

There is no genus of “deity” of which the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a species.

Although we cannot help but talk about his immutability, then his goodness, then his love, we should not imagine that God is composed of these various attributes. Rather, God’s existence is identical with his attributes.

y
Exodus 9:14 NASB95
“For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth.
Isaiah 46:9 NASB95
“Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me,

God’s goodness, love, omniscience, and holiness are simply who God is. I would still be human even if I lacked judgment or enterprise, but God would not be God if he did not possess all of his attributes in the simplicity and perfection of his essence.19

There is NO conflict in God.

Simplicity reminds us that God is never self-conflicted. In God’s eternal decree, even in the most obvious example of possible inner conflict (namely, the cross), justice and mercy, righteous wrath and gracious love, embrace. Just where we would expect to see the greatest inner conflict within God, we read that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Co 5:19). At the place where the outpouring of his wrath is concentrated, so too is his love. Neither overwhelms or cancels out the other. God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26, emphasis added). At the same time, simplicity does not (in the Reformed view, at least) eliminate the difference between attributes. Love, justice, goodness, and other attributes are not mere synonyms but are “conceptually different in God himself.”

Apologetic: God is a God of love. Therefore, he would not send anyone to hell for eternity if they are living the best life they know how.
How might this “God of love” approach be guilty of violating the second commandment regarding idolatry?
How does divine simplicity contradict Arminianism?
God cannot limit himself. This is derived from certain forms of Hegelian kenosis.

God is never free to be not-God. None of his attributes can be suspended, withdrawn, diminished, or altered, since his attributes are identical with his existence.

The denial of this attribute is often motivated by a broader criticism of God’s immutability, impassibility, and eternity, as we will see. It is not surprising that some critics of simplicity go on to deny God’s spirituality. There is but a short step from the denial of at least this minimal affirmation of simplicity to the denial of God’s infinity (i.e., divine transcendence).24

Divine Aseity - Self Existence

The term aseity comes from the Latin phrase a se, meaning, from or by the self. [Frame, Systematic Theology]
Among the Reformed this perfection of God comes more emphatically to the fore, though the word “aseity” was soon exchanged for that of independence. While aseity only expresses God’s self-sufficiency in his existence, independence has a broader sense and implies that God is independent in everything: in his existence, in his perfections, in his decrees, and in his works. [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics]

Before we speak of God relating freely to creatures and entering into human history as Lord and Redeemer, our starting point is God’s aseity (“from-himself-ness”), or independence from the world. It goes without saying that a dependent deity would be involved with the world. What is remarkable is that the triune God—self-existing, perfect, and independent—would nevertheless create and enter into covenantal relationships with creatures in freedom and love.

Karl Barth properly stressed the point that the God who is God without us has nevertheless determined to be God with us. Freedom from creation is the ground of God’s freedom for creation.

Psalm 115:3 NASB95
But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.
Isaiah 46:5 NASB95
“To whom would you liken Me And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?
Isaiah 40:28 NASB95
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable.
Romans 11:35–36 NASB95
Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

God’s independence from the world is a necessary correlate of his glory

Psalm 145:3 NASB95
Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.
1 Kings 8:27 NASB95
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!

This doctrine has tremendous practical value. If God were not free from creation, we might pray for him, but not to him. We would have no confidence that he could overcome evil or rescue us from death. Yet God’s freedom for creation—even for those who are not only finite but sinful—is the presupposition of our hope in Christ. God does not need time, but he freely enters it; he does not need a house, but he builds one anyway. All of this is for our benefit, out of God’s zeal to dwell together with finite, embodied creatures in covenant. That God freely does this in creation, without any inherent need, is a testimony to his unfathomable goodness. That he continues to do this even in relation to the unfaithful covenant partner is a measure of his unsearchable grace.

Immutability

God is non-changeable. There are no potentialities in God.

Complete and perfect in himself from eternity to eternity, God has no potential that is not already fully realized. God cannot be more infinite, loving, or holy tomorrow than today. If God alone is necessary and independent of all external conditions, fully realized in all of his perfections, then there is literally nothing for God to become.

Psalm 102:25–27 NASB95
“Of old You founded the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. “Even they will perish, but You endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. “But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end.
Malachi 3:6 NASB95
“For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
2 Timothy 2:13 NASB95
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
How do we explain certain texts that indicate God has changed his mind about certain things?

Thomas Wienandy explains that according to the patristic account, “God is unchangeable not because he is inert or static like a rock, but for just the opposite reason. He is so dynamic, so active that no change can make him more active. He is act pure and simple.”

Exodus 32:10–14 NASB95
“Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Jonah 3:10 NASB95
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

“According to Socinians, Pelagians, Arminians, and Rationalists, God is changeable not in his being but in his will.” Taking a further step, “Gnosticism and Pantheism (Fichte, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann, etc.)” deny God’s immutability in being, representing God “as eternally becoming.”

This panentheistic paradigm has been revived more recently in various projects ranging from open theism and the work of such creative theologians as Jürgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson to process theology.

The incarnation is a good case study to explore the objection to divine immutability.

Yet the surprising announcement that we meet in the gospel is that the eternal Son became flesh without losing any of his divine transcendence in the process.

What are the consequences of divine mutability?

All of this is simply to say that God always remains infinite and transcendent even in the finite and immanent forms of his self-revelation.

We do not know what God has p 241 predetermined in his eternal counsels, but we do know that in his conditional promises (for example, to our first parents before the fall and to Israel at Sinai) there are changes in the course of God’s dealings with his people. It is not with respect to God’s being, character, or hidden decrees but with respect to the history in which these decrees are executed that we encounter instances of reversals in God’s revealed plan.

Just as we must resist collapsing the distinction between God’s essence (ousia/dynamis) and his energies (energeia), we must carefully distinguish God’s hidden counsels from his revealed will. In 1 Samuel 15:11, for example, God regrets having made Saul king, and yet in verse 29 we read, “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Neither God’s nature nor his secret plan changes. Rather, it is God’s revealed plans that change. The judgment that he has warned that he will bring on the people is averted—precisely as God had predestined before the ages in his secret counsel. The dynamic give-and-take so obvious in the history of the covenant must be distinguished from the eternal decree that Scripture also declares as hidden in God’s unchanging and inaccessible counsel (Eph 1:4–11).

These are not two contradictory lines of proof texts to be divided up between rival camps. Rather, there are two lines of analogy acting as guardrails to keep us on the right path. There is real change, partnership, and even conflict in covenantal history and therefore between God and human beings, but not within God’s inner being. Just as God can assume our flesh without altering his divine nature, he can relate the world of becoming to himself without surrendering his fully complete and fully active being.

Impassibility

Impassibility means “immunity to suffering.”

God cannot suffer. The historical-theological context of this concept is its emphasis on the sovereignty of God.
Acts 17:24 NASB95
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;
James 1:17 NASB95
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way 2. Evaluating the Doctrine of Impassibility

Yet with this important distinction, we are able to say that while God’s energies (acts) may sometimes be affected by creaturely action, God’s essence and decree do not change.

On one hand, we must avoid the conclusion that God is untouched or unmoved by creaturely suffering

On the other hand, God is the transcendent Lord of the covenant who is never a passive victim but is always the active judge and justifier.

First, the false choice to be avoided is that either God is related to the world (in the technical sense, as needing the world for his existence) or the world bears no relation to God.

God delights in the work of his hands, in our fellowship with him, in our worship, and in the love and service we render to our neighbor. Yet God needs none of this for his own fulfillment.

Second, it is crucial to bear in mind that impassibility refers to God’s essence rather than to the particular persons who share it.

Third, we must again recognize that God speaks to us in terms adequate to our understanding rather than adequate to his being.

Fourth, a Christian doctrine of God must supplement causal with communicative analogies that are more in keeping with Scripture’s own testimony to God’s performative speech.

Fifth, we must beware of allowing a theology of the cross to become a philosophy of glory.

Although their common essence does not suffer, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit open themselves up to a covenantal relationship with free creatures. Affected by the world, they are not affected in the same way as we are because they are not the kinds of persons that we are.

Eternity and Omnipresence

If we knew exactly what eternity is, we would be eternal—in other words, God. Therefore, it is critical here to remain within the bounds of Scripture: its explicit statements, and legitimate inferences from those statements. God is praised because “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90:2), celebrated because he is “enthroned forever” in his Sabbath glory (Ps 102:12).

Psalm 90:2 NASB95
Before the mountains were born Or You gave birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
Ephesians 3:21 NASB95
to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.
Psalm 102:12 NASB95
But You, O Lord, abide forever, And Your name to all generations.
Jeremiah 23:23–24 NASB95
“Am I a God who is near,” declares the Lord, “And not a God far off? “Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the Lord. “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the Lord.

Even when God is present in a particular place for us, in peace, he remains omnipresent in his own essence; the same is true of his eternity. The God who is eternal (essentially) is active within time (energetically).

1 Timothy 1:17 NASB95
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
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