How to Think About His Attributes
Does theology serve doxology? It ought to. God means to be worshiped, but not in ignorance. He wants to be known and enjoyed and praised for who he is. This is why he doesn’t just demand the worship of his creatures but first reveals himself to us so that we might know him and therefore delight in him. Theology, our study of God, serves doxology, our worship of God.
Jonathan Edwards, known for both his Reformed orthodoxy and his creative expression of it, helps us with a fresh way to approach God’s attributes, in service of our worship. From a few basic truths — God is simple, God is incomprehensible, God is happy, and God creates — we see more of what God is and, by his grace, are freed to marvel at him even more.
Begin with the statement, “God is simple.” Understanding divine simplicity is not simple; it’s complicated. Think of it this way: created things are made up of parts; we can break them down into things more fundamental than they are. A person is composed of body and soul. We can distinguish what you are (your essence) from the fact that you are (your existence). We can distinguish things that are essential to what you are (like being a rational creature) from things that are non-essential or accidental (like having red hair). We can do the same sort of composition with all sorts of attributes and qualities.
Divine simplicity essentially says, “God is not like that.” That is, he is not composed of parts. You can’t break him down into things that are more fundamental than he is. There is nothing behind God that makes God what God is. He simply and absolutely is. Even his old-covenant name revealed to Moses at the burning bush, testifies to this: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
A popular theological way to express divine simplicity, both in Edwards’s day and our own, is “everything that is in God is God.” In other words, God doesn’t have attributes in the way that you and I have attributes. He’s not composed of attributes or qualities or excellencies or perfections. Whatever God has, God is.
Now, this is difficult for us to comprehend. That’s why theologians also say that God is incomprehensible. Simplicity and incomprehensibility go hand in hand. Because God is simple (and we are not), we can’t comprehend him. That is, we can’t wrap our minds around him. Our knowledge of him is always creaturely — finite, limited, and partial.
Of course, we can know him, because he reveals himself to us. And he reveals himself to us in ways appropriate to our creaturely limitations. To put it simply, God speaks human to humans, and humans always speak about God according to our way of conceiving. We can know God truly, though not fully.
Not only is God simple and incomprehensible, God is also happy. In fact, he is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably, and independently glorious and happy. He is free from all need, wants, and lack.
This happiness is infinite happiness in himself. From all eternity, God has perfectly beheld and infinitely rejoiced in his own essence and perfections. He has known himself with perfect clarity and loved himself with perfect delight.
Thus, God has always beheld a perfect, full image of his perfections. This image is so perfect and full that a second person stands forth in the Godhead. In other words, God’s knowledge of himself is so rich that by eternally thinking of himself, a second person is eternally begotten. This is the Son of God, the image of the invisible God and exact imprint of his nature (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3), the eternal Word who is with God and is God (John 1:1), the eternal Son who is always at the Father’s side (John 1:18).
More than this, the eternal and mutual love between Father and Son is so rich and full that this love stands forth as a third person in the Godhead. In other words, God’s love for himself is so rich that by loving and delighting in himself, a third person eternally flows forth from the Father and the Son. This is the Holy Spirit, the breath of the living God (Psalm 33:6), the supreme joy and delight of God in God (Luke 10:21), the infinite river of his eternal delights (Psalm 36:8).
And each of these persons is truly and fully God. The whole divine essence truly and distinctly subsists in each, and yet there is only a single, simple divine essence. This too is incomprehensible: one glorious and happy God eternally subsisting in three distinct persons.
Thus far, we have spoken of the simple, incomprehensible, and triune God as he is in himself. The triune God lives in himself, knows himself, and loves himself, and thus possesses unchangeable happiness in himself. But the living and triune God did not remain by himself. In his perfect freedom, he chose to communicate himself outside of himself by creating the world from nothing.
With the creation in view, we can now speak of God in himself and his triune being (as we’ve done above), as well as God in relation to his creatures. This relation to his creatures generates a myriad of attributes, perfections, and excellencies, according to our human way of conceiving. Thus, God’s “absolute (or real) attributes,” as Edwards calls them, flower into God’s “relative attributes.”
In this way, we may now speak of God’s power, which is simply the fullness of divine being in relation to the things God does and can do. God’s wisdom is simply God’s own knowledge directed to finding appropriate means to accomplish God’s purposes. God’s love for his creatures is simply God’s love for himself as it is brought in relation to the creatures who reflect and image him.
This flowering of relative excellencies continues as God creates, sustains, and governs the world. God’s faithfulness is his love as it bears upon the promises that he makes. God’s righteousness is his knowledge and love as they rightly order and structure reality in fitting proportion, according to the proper value of every created thing. God’s mercy is his supreme love for himself as it encounters weak, pitiable, and broken sinners. God’s wrath is this same supreme and holy love as it collides with stubborn, stiff-necked, and idolatrous rebels.
Again and again, God’s absolute excellencies — his being, his knowledge, and his love — are brought into relation to all aspects of the world, its creatures, and its history, and thereby generate God’s relative excellencies, according to our way of conceiving.
Many of these relative excellencies identify the perfection of qualities that we know in and from creation. Thus, as creatures, we come to know goodness in the world and then follow this created goodness back to the God who is the Supreme Good. So with wisdom, majesty, mercy, grace, faithfulness, justice, power, and other positive relative excellencies. We see the creaturely echoes of these divine properties all around us, and we follow them back to their ultimate source, where they dwell in their fullness and eminence.
On the other hand, some of God’s relative excellencies are “negative attributes.” If “positive attributes” take creaturely goods and trace them back to their infinite divine origin, negative attributes take creaturely limitations and deny that God is limited in this way. Consider the negative terms that we ascribe to God: infinite, immutable, eternal, and the like.
Each of these speaks of God by denying to him some creaturely property. Divine infinity denies that God is limited and finite as creation is. Divine immutability denies that God changes the way that creation does. Divine eternality denies that God is bound by time. Divine ubiquity (or omnipresence) denies that God is limited by space. Even the two attributes that began this essay — simplicity and incomprehensibility — are negative attributes, the first denying that God is composed of parts, and the second denying that the infinite God can be contained by the finite mind of man.
God’s attributes aren’t merely qualities that he happens to have. They are essential to him. They are our descriptions of his being, his essence, his very nature, his God-ness. Because he simply is who he is. Everything in God is God.
God is light — pure, simple, white light. God is. God knows. God loves. More specifically, God is himself, God knows himself, and God loves himself. He is the triune God, absolutely full and happy in himself.
Then, this God, the living God, freely creates the world. And when he does, the pure, simple, white light of his being, knowledge, and love shines through the prism of his creation. The white light is refracted into all the colors of the rainbow, as God himself is brought into relation to every aspect of the world he has made. This refracting is what enables us to know him. The flowering of God’s relative excellencies in creation is so that clay pots can have some idea of what the Potter is like. Like Moses, we see the glory of God “from the back.” We grope and we strain and we labor to find words to describe our Lord, who is God and there is no other.
And then, wonder of wonders, this God — infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; simple, incomprehensible, and happy — does the unimaginable. The God who lacks every creaturely limitation freely chooses to clothe himself with such limitations, uniting his infinite and eternal being to finite and temporal human nature.
If the excellencies of the simple, incomprehensible, and happy God blow our minds, how much more when this God takes on flesh and dwells among us? And not only dwells among us, but loves among us, suffers among us, dies among us?
The heights of God’s absolute and relative attributes, and his positive and negative attributes, lead us to the depths of his love as the Son comes down from heaven for us and for our salvation. The glorious excellencies of his deity are united to the diverse excellencies of his humanity so that, in Christ, the full range of perfections, both human and divine, are united in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is worthy of all worship.
And so, our theology — careful, rigorous, and detailed — leads to doxology — full, overflowing, and abounding with joy.
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