THE NATURE AND ATTRIBUTES OF GOD
We are ready now to find out from the Scriptures the mode of God's being.
Two expressions will suffice to indicate the nature of God.
1. GOD IS A SPIRIT.
We have these exact words from the mouth of Jesus in John 4:24. This statement means that God is purely, wholly, and only a spirit. A spirit may inhabit a body, but a pure spirit does not have or regularly inhabit a body; for Jesus said again after His resurrection: "A spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have" (Luke 24:39). Consequently, man is never spoken of as being a spirit while he inhabits the body. He is said to possess a spirit, but, when his composite nature is described, he is said to be a "living soul" (Gen. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:45) rather than a spirit.
This brings us to consider those passages of Scripture that ascribe to God such bodily parts as eyes and ears, and hands and feet. In view of what has been said already, it is plain that these passages are to be taken in a figurative and symbolic sense. Such representations are known theologically as anthropomorphisms.
Robert Young, author of "Analytical Concordance to the Bible," says: "Human feelings, actions, and parts are ascribed to God, not that they are really in Him, but because such effects proceed from Him as are like those that flow from such things in men."
On the other hand, there are other passages that are explained by A. H. Strong as follows: "When God is spoken of as appearing to the patriarchs and walking with them, the passages are to be explained as referring to God's temporary manifestations of Himself in human form-manifestations which prefigured the final tabernacling of the Son of God in human flesh" (Systematic Theology, p. 120).
The personality of God is involved in His spirituality, and hence is not treated as a separate characteristic.
By the statement that God is one, we mean to affirm His unity in the full sense of that term. We mean that there is but one God, and we also mean that His essence is homogeneous, undivided, and indivisible.
That there is but one God is taught by Deut. 6:4; Isa. 44:6; John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:4; 1 Tim. 1:17. And it is irrational, moreover, to assume the existence of a plurality of gods, when one will explain all the facts. Also the passages which represent God as infinite and perfect (cf. Psa. 145:3; Job 11:7-9; Matt. 5:48) are indirect proofs of His unity; for infinity and absolute perfection are possible to only one. Two such beings could not exist for each would limit the other.
That the essence of God is homogeneous, undivided, and indivisible is a necessary inference from the fact that He is a pure spirit. All that we know about spirit compels us to believe its essence to be simple and uncompounded.
J. P. Boyce gives the following three reasons for affirming the unity of God in the sense that we are now discussing it:
"1. Because composition (or a putting together) involves possibility of separation. But this would involve destructibility, and changeableness, each of which is inconsistent with absolute perfection and necessary existence.
"2. Composition involves a time of separate existence of the parts compounded." And this would necessitate a time when the parts existed separately, and, therefore, a time when God did not exist, or, "when He existed imperfectly, having not yet received to his essential nature the additions subsequently made; all of which is inconsistent with absolute perfection and necessary existence.
"3. If the parts have been compounded, it has been done by some force from without, or has been a growth in His nature." And both of these ideas are "inconsistent with absolute perfection and necessary existence."
However the unity of God does not preclude His trinity, and His trinity is in no way inconsistent with His unity. The trinity, as we shall see more clearly later, consists of three eternal distinctions in the same being and in the same pure essence, which distinctions are presented to us under the figure of persons.
II. THE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD
"The term 'attribute,'" says J. M. Pendleton, "in its application to persons or things, means something belonging to persons or things. The attributes of a thing are so essential to it that without them it could not be what it is; and that is equally true of the attributes of a person. If a man were divested of the attributes belonging to him, he would cease to be a man, for these attributes are inherent in that which constitutes him a human being. If we transfer these ideas to God, we shall find that His attributes belong inalienably to Him, and, therefore, what He is He must ever be. His attributes are His perfections, inseparable from His nature and constituting His character" (Christian Doctrines, p. 42).
J. P. Boyce says: "The attributes of God are those peculiarities which mark or define the mode of His existence, or which constitute His character. They are not separate or separable from His essence or nature, and yet are not that essence, but simply have ground or cause of their existence in it, and are at the same time the peculiarities which constitute the mode and character of His being" (Abstract of Systematic Theology, p. 65).
"The attributes of God," as defined by A@ H. Strong, "are those distinguishing characteristics of the divine nature which are inseparable from the idea of God and which constitute the basis and ground for His various manifestations to His creatures. We call them attributes, because we are compelled to attribute them to God as fundamental qualities or powers of His being, in order to give rational account of certain constant facts in God's self-revelations" (Systematic Theology, p. 115).
It is common to divide the attributes of God into two classes. This aids both memory and understanding. To these divisions various pairs of names have been given, such as communicable and incommunicable; immanent and transient; positive and negative; natural and moral; absolute and relative. The two latter classifications have been adopted for these studies.
1. ABSOLUTE ATTRIBUTES.
The absolute attributes of God are those that have respect to His being independent of His relationship to anything else.
God's being is underived. His is a self-caused existence. His existence is independent of everything else. The self-existence of God is implied in the name "Jehovah," which means "the existing one," and also in the expression "I am that I am" (Ex. 3:14), which signifies that it is God's nature to be.
The eternity of God, which falls in the second class of attributes, also implies His self-existence. If God has existed forever, then His existence is a necessary, underived, self-caused existence. Self-existence is a mystery that is incomprehensible to man; yet a denial of it would involve us in a greater mystery. If there is not in the universe some self-existent person or thing, then the present order of things came into existence out of nothing without cause or Creator. They could not have been the product of mere energy, for energy is the property either of matter or of life. And since science has proved that matter is not eternal, we are left to assume an eternal, and therefore, a self-existent person as an explanation of the present order of things.
Note the following statements:
"By the immutability of God is meant that He is incapable of change, either in duration of life, or in nature, character, will, or happiness. In none of these, nor in any other respect, is there any possibility of change" (J. P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology p. 73).
Immutability is implied in infinity and perfection. Any change, either for the better or for the worse, implies either prior or subsequent imperfection and finiteness.
The following passages teach specifically the immutability of God's will: Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Job 23:18; Psa. 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 46:10; Heb. 6:17.
The foregoing passages give us positive and absolute declarations. All passages that represent God as repenting, such as Gen. 6:6,7; Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11; Psa. 106:45; Amos 7:3; Jonah 8:10; and those that seem in any way to imply or suggest any change in the purposes of God, must be explained in the light of them. These latter passages contain anthropomorphisms.
Commenting on Ex. 32:14, A. W. Pink says: "These words do not mean that God changed His mind or altered His purpose, for He is 'without variableness or shadow of turning' (Jas. 1:17). There never has been and never will be the smallest occasion for the Almighty to effect the slightest deviation from His eternal purpose, for everything was foreknown to Him from the beginning, and all His counsels were ordained by infinite wisdom. When the Scripture speaks of God's repenting, it employs a figure of speech, in which the Most High condescends to speak in our language. What is intended by the above expression is that Jehovah answered the prayer of a typical mediator."
And in regard to such passages, J. P. Boyce says: "It may be stated that these are merely anthropopathic expressions, intended simply to impress upon men His great anger at sin, and His warm approbation of the repentance of those who had sinned against Him. The change of conduct, in men, not in God, had changed the relation between them and God. Sin had made them liable to His just displeasure. Repentance had brought them within the possibilities of His mercy. Had He not treated them differently, then there would have been a change in Him. His very unchangeableness makes it necessary that He shall treat differently those who are innocent and those who are guilty, those who harden themselves against Him and those who turn toward Him for mercy, with repentant hearts" (Abstract of Systematic Theology, p. 76).
We must in like manner understand all allusions which seem to indicate a succession of emotions in God. All emotions in God exist alongside each other at the same moment, and have done so from all eternity. He has been always pleased with righteousness and displeased with sin. And He has from all eternity known of all righteousness and sin. Sin exposes man to God's displeasure. Righteous subjects him to God's pleasure. Passing from God's displeasure to His pleasure is brought about by a change in man and not in God. The sun melts wax. But if the wax could be changed to clay, the sun would harden it. Would that represent any change whatsoever in the sun?
Prayer does not change God. It changes us and the things and circumstances with which we have to do; but it does not change God. We shall never have the right attitude toward God so long as we think of prayer as a means of getting God to do things that He did not intend to do. So far from prayer changing the will of God, we must pray according to His will if we expect to get an answer. John tells us: "This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us" (1 John 5:14). It is the Holy Spirit that causes us to pray (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6), and it is to the Holy Spirit that we should look for leadership in the things we pray for (Rom. 8:26). Prayer, then, is the work of God in our hearts getting us ready for the most profitable use and grateful enjoyment of His blessings. It is His own key, with which He unlocks the flood-gates of the river of His blessings. In God's wise counsels before the foundation of the earth He ordained prayer as one of the means for the accomplishment of His will. Prayer no more changes God than the faith of the repentant sinner changes God. Both are simply means in the working out of God's eternal and immutable purpose.
The holiness of God is His perfect moral and spiritual excellence. God is perfectly pure, sinless, and righteous in Himself. Holiness is the ground of all other moral attributes in God. The holiness of God was typified by the immaculate dress of the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies.
R. A. Torrey says: "The entire Mosiac system of washings; divisions of the tabernacle; divisions of the people into ordinary Israelites, Levites, Priests, and High Priests, who were permitted different degrees of approach to God, under strictly defined conditions; the insisting upon sacrifices as a necessary medium of approach to God; God's directions to Moses in Ex. 3:5, to Joshua in Josh. 5:15, the punishment of Uzziah in 2 Chron. 26:16-21, the strict orders to Israel in regard to approaching Sinai when Moses was talking with God- these were intended to teach, emphasize, and burn into the minds and hearts of the Israelites the fundamental truth that God is holy, unapproachably holy. The truth that God is holy is the fundamental truth of the Bible, of the Old Testament and the New Testament, of the Jewish religion and the Christian religion" (What The Bible Teaches, p. 37).
The following passages of Scripture are the principal ones that declare the holiness of God: Josh. 24:19; Psa. 22:3; 99:9; Isa. 5:16; 6:3; John 17:11; 1 Pet. 1:15,16.
The holiness of God causes Him to abhor sin, and, therefore, gives rise to His justice, which we shall consider under relative attributes.
2. RELATIVE ATTRIBUTES.
The relative attributes of God are those that are seen because of God's connection with time and creation.
(1) This means that God had no beginning and that He can have no end. It also means that He is in no way limited or conditioned by time. A. H. Strong says: "God is not in time. It is more correct to say that time is in God. Although there is logical succession in God's thoughts, there is no chronological succession" (Systematic Theology, p. 130).
God sees events as taking place in time, but from all eternity those events have been the same to Him as after they have taken place. Eternity has been described as follows: "Eternity is not, as men believe, before and after us, an endless line. No, 'tis a circle, infinitely great--all the circumference with creation thronged; God at the center dwells, beholding all. And as we move in this eternal round, the finite portion which alone we see, behind us is the past; what lies before we call the future. But to Him who dwells far at the center, equally remote from every point of the circumference, both are alike, the future and the past" (Murphy, Scientific Basis, p. 90).
The omnipresence of God is beautifully and strikingly declared in Psa. 139:7-10 and in Jer. 23:23,24.
Those passages that speak of God as being present in special places are to be understood as referring to God's special and transcending manifestations. Thus He is spoken of as dwelling in Heaven, because it is there that He makes the greatest manifestation of His presence.
From all eternity God has possessed all knowledge and wisdom. John declares that God "knoweth all things" (1 John 3:20). God's omniscience may be argued from His infinity. Everywhere in the Bible He is pictured as an infinite being. Thus His knowledge must he infinite. Omniscience may also be argued from immutability. If God changes not, as the Scripture declares, then He must have possessed all knowledge from the beginning; for otherwise He would be learning all the while, and that would of itself constitute a change in Him and would necessarily lead to even more manifest changes.
Moreover, the necessity of omniscience on the part of God may be seen from Eph. 1:11, which says that God "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." Only an omniscient being could work all things after the counsel of his own will.
It will be seen from the foregoing discussion that God's omniscience includes perfect foreknowledge. From eternity God has known all things that have come to pass and all things that shall yet come to pass. Moreover He foreknew from eternity all things that would have come to pass if He had not prevented them. He has ever known exactly what things would have come to pass if His immutable purpose had been different from what it is at any point.
The basis of God's foreknowledge of all things that come to pass is His own purpose. God could not have known that a thing would come to pass unless it had been certain to come to pass. God's eternal, immutable purpose is the only scriptural basis for the certainty of future events.
As to the manner in which God knows all things, perhaps we cannot do better than to take a brief quotation from J. J. Rousseau, as found in a "A Savoyard Vicar" (Harvard Classics, Vol. 34, p. 267): "God is intelligent; but in what manner? Man is intelligent by the act of reasoning, but the supreme intelligence lies under no necessity to reason. He requires neither premise nor consequences; nor even the simple form of a proposition. His knowledge is purely intuitive. He beholds equally what is and what will be. All truths are to Him as one idea, as all places are but one point, and all times one moment."
God possesses all power. In Gen. 17:1 God declares: "I am God Almighty." The title "Almighty" is applied to Him over and over in the Scripture. This title signifies that He possesses all might or power. Again we read in Matt. 19:26: "With God all things are possible." Many other passages declare God's omnipotence.
The omnipotence of God does not mean, of course, that He can do things that are logically absurd or things that are against His will. He cannot lie, because the holiness of His character prevents Him from willing to lie. And He cannot create a rock larger than He can lift; nor both an irresistible power and an immovable object; nor can He draw a line between two points shorter than a straight one; nor put two mountains adjacent to one another without creating a valley between them. He cannot do any of these things because they are not objects of power. They are self-contradictory and logically absurd. They would violate the laws that God has ordained, and thus cause God to cross Himself.
By the veracity of God is meant His truthfulness and faithfulness in His revelation to and dealings with His creatures in general and His redeemed people in particular.
Love is used in different senses in the Bible when attributed to God in His dealings with His creatures. Sometimes it refers to mere goodness in bestowing natural benefits upon all men (Psa. 145:9; Matt. 18:33; Luke 6:35; Matt. 5:44,45). God's redeeming love, on the other hand, is sovereign, discriminating, and particular. He says: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have a hated" (Rom. 9:13). And of God it is emphatically declared: "Thou hatest all workers of iniquity" (Psa. 5:5).
The justice of God is taught in Gen. 18:25; Deut. 32:4; Psa. 7:9-12; 18:24; Rom. 2:6.
It was the justice of God that made it necessary for Christ to die in order that men might be saved. The justice of God makes it impossible for God to let sin go unpunished. The death of Christ made it possible for Him to be just and yet the justifier of believing sinners. (Rom. 3:26).
The salvation of believers is an act of grace toward them; yet it is an act of justice to Jesus Christ who died in the stead of all who will ever believe.