The Attributes Of God.
We have already called attention, in our two previous articles, to the great difference of opinion among Reformed theologians with respect to their treatment of the names of God. The late Dr. Bavinck, we noted, comprehends everything, including the attributes of God, under the one concept, “Name of God”, and speaks of: Proper Names, Essential Names, Personal Names. Calvin has no distinction. The late Dr. A. Kuyper distinguishes between names and attributes, but does not confine himself strictly to this distinction. He distinguishes between the essential names of God and His proper names. This vast difference of opinion is understandable. The concept, “name”, in Scripture, is of great importance. Indeed, God’s name is His self-revelation, is the living God revealed. It, therefore, need not surprise us that the attempt has been made to comprehend everything under the concept: name of God. It is surely true that the essential as well as the proper names of God, and also His attributes, reveal the living God unto us. For reasons stated in our previous articles we prefer to distinguish between the proper names of God and His attributes.
In the light of the foregoing, it need not surprise us that, when confronted with the treatment of the attributes of the Lord by Reformed theologians, we are confronted by and encounter the same wide difference of opinion. To this we will presently call attention. Also this wide difference of opinion is understandable. Any attempt to classify the attributes of God, to arrange the virtues of the Most High, must ever be incomplete, defective. This is simply due to the fact that God is one, the God of infinite simplicity, who cannot be divided or classified.
The term “Attributes” As Such.
The concept “Attributes of God”, is called in the Holland: Eigenschappen Gods. Neither term, attribute or “eigenschap”, is happily chosen. This is due, in the first place, to the fact that neither term is very expressive. The word “attribute” is defined as a property or quality ascribed to a person. As such it is used in connection with the attributes of God. The word “eigenschap” refers literally to something which belongs to or is peculiarly characteristic of a person. Roth words are merely formal, do not say anything, do not declare, e.g., what kind of property or quality is attributed to God, or what is peculiarly characteristic of the living God.
Secondly, neither term is Scriptural. The Word of God does not speak of “attributes” or “eigenschappen”.
Thirdly, Scripture uses words which are infinitely richer in thought than these terms which are most commonly used and to which we have become accustomed. The Word of God, e.g., speaks of His “wonders” in Ps. 105:2: “Sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him: talk ye of all His wondrous works.” In the Holland we read: “Zingt Hem; spreekt aandachtelijk van al Zijne wonderen.” The Holland version speaks literally of “wonderen” or wonders. The original Hebrew uses a word here which emphasizes the thought that something is separated, distinguished, and that it is in that sense wonderful, great, extraordinary, which stands alone and is worthy of all admiration. In Psalm 27:4 we read of His “praise” or “heerlijkheid”: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in His temple.” In 1 Peter 2:9 we read of “praises” or “virtues”, “deugden”: “Rut ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.” The virtues of the living God are the Divine perfections of the Lord whereby Scripture ascribes unto him the ability or power or energy to be what He is, the alone living God. And the word “praise” occurs in Is. 43:21: “This people have I formed for Myself; they shall shew forth My praise.” Quite obviously, therefore, the Scriptural expressions are richer in meaning than the words “attributes” or “eigenschappen”; these words tell us that God’s “attributes, eigenschappen” are perfections, are wonderful, are glorious, are beautiful, are indeed worthy of all our adoration. Their manifestation is indeed the Divine purpose of all things.
And yet we continue to use the word “attribute”. This is due to the fact that its place in Dogmatics, the systematic knowledge of the truth, has been established. It is very hard to break a tradition of long standing. It is as common to speak of the “attributes” of God as it is to speak of Christ’s states of humiliation and exaltation. The very mention of the word “attributes” reminds us instantly of the perfections or wonders of virtues or praises or beauties, etc., of the living God. For this reason we retain the term “attributes”, if only we bear in mind that this term refers to all the glorious perfections of the living God.
The Knowledge Of The Attributes Of God To Be Determined By The Scriptures.
Attempts have been made in the past to reason from the known to the Unknown to attain unto knowledge of the Creator. The line or course of reasoning has proceeded from the creature to the Creator. Some have applied what is called the Rule or Law of Causality. According to this rule they have concluded from the creature to the Creator, from the law of cause and effect round about them to the supreme cause of all things (this reasoning reminds us of the cosmological proof which is adduced in support of the existence of God), from the observation of the government in this world to the idea of a God who rules over all. Others have applied what is known as the rule or negation. Doing so, we remove from our idea of God all the imperfections of the creature, and determine who and what is by contrasting Him with the creature. God, then, is what the creature is not. The Lord is, therefore, incomprehensible, eternal, infinite, independent, changeable, composed of various parts, comprehensible. The rule of negation leads us unto knowledge of God by contrasting Him with the creature. And finally another rule which has been applied to attain unto knowledge of the living God is known as the rule of eminence. Following this law, we ascribe unto the Lord the most eminent perfections which we discern in the creature. We, then, proceed from the assumption that what we find in man, the effect, must also apply to the Lord, the cause. We assume, then, that the Lord created the creature, made man in His image, reflected Himself, therefore, in man. Hence it must follow that whatever perfections we find or discern in the creature must necessarily exist perfectly and eternally in the living God. This is, therefore, known as the rule or eminence.
Proceeding along these same lines, namely, the attempt to attain unto the knowledge of God by reasoning from the known to the unknown, others have attempted to attain such knowledge of the Lord either empirically or pragmatically. Empirical knowledge of God is knowledge of the Lord which is based upon our experience. We, e.g., experience in our lives the need of a God. We are dependent and needy creatures, who cannot help or support ourselves, and are strictly dependent upon another. This is a fact which can hardly be denied. We are dependent upon the sunshine and the rain and cannot control either. We stand helpless over against the devastating forces of “nature” round about us, such as the high winds and the lightning and are unable to control and shackle these powers. We cannot combat successfully the powers of disease and death, are helpless in the midst of these forces of corruption and destruction. The need and desperate plight of the creature is undeniably a universal phenomenon. From this universal law men have drawn the conclusion that the Lord must be the all- and self-sufficient Creator. We feel the need of such a mighty and all-sufficient Creator; hence, such an all-sufficient Creator must therefore exist. Viewed logically, however, does not this argument destroy itself? If the creature be needy and dependent, why, then, can I not conclude that also the Lord of that creature must be needy and dependent?
Pragmatic knowledge of God is knowledge of the Lord which is based upon our observation of what He does, His works. Pragmatic knowledge of things or persons is knowledge based on our observation of what they do. Hence, we observe the Lord in all His works round about us and conclude therefrom the identity of the Lord. God acts as He is. His works are, therefore, a revelation of Himself. Consequently, we can attain unto the knowledge of the Lord by observing Him in all the works of His hands.
These methods of attaining unto knowledge of God err in that they do not proceed from the Word of God. They ignore the self-revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures. They certainly ascribe too much ability to man to rise to the knowledge of the Most High. What will invariably be the result if the knowledge of God depends upon the creature’s ability or effort to attain unto or determine that knowledge? Man is of himself a hater of the Lord and of his neighbor. He loves himself and seeks exclusively the things which are below. Man is a liar, has turned his back upon the living God, and will most certainly corrupt and distort and falsify the knowledge of the Lord. He will change the glory of the uncorruptible God into the corruption and shame of the corruptible creature. He will make a god to suit himself, will make a god as he would have him be. History abundantly verifies this. The heathens, once having rejected the living God (originally, as at the time of Cain, e.g., these “heathens” did not bow the knee before gods of wood and stone), made themselves gods after the dictates and desires of their own heart. And the modern church world of our day is full of this knowledge of a god which exists as man would have him be. Man, then, does not exist for the sake of and unto the glory of the living God; on the contrary, “God” exists for man and in behalf of the improvement and betterment of this present evil world. This “God”, however, does not exist, except in the heart and mind of the natural man.
Moreover, apart from the fact that man cannot of himself attain unto the knowledge of the true God, it is also a fact that there is no complete knowledge of the Lord apart from the Holy Scriptures. There is apart from the Scriptures no knowledge of the Lord as the God of our salvation. Indeed, it is true that the works of God’s hands reveal unto us God’s power, wisdom, and eternal Godhead. It is also true that Christ and the eternal and heavenly kingdom of our God is revealed or portrayed symbolically in all the things round about us. However, these symbols round about us we understand only in the light of the Word of God. And apart from the Scriptures, the Lord is revealed unto us and before us as a God of wrath and righteous indignation. Death and vanity is the all- important language of the creature and the works of God’s hands. Hence, I again ask: What would be the invariable result if the knowledge of the Lord depended upon our ability to attain unto that knowledge? To ask this question is to answer it. In the first place, we would never attain unto the knowledge of the Lord as the God of our salvation. God is revealed as that God of our salvation in Christ Jesus, and He has been revealed in the Scriptures. And it is only in the light of the Word that we understand the speech of the works of God’s hands as a mighty symbolism of the heavenly and eternal kingdom of God in Christ Jesus. And, secondly, the natural man would surely corrupt the revelation of the Lord in harmony with the darkness and foolishness of his evil heart.
We may safely conclude, therefore, that we cannot and do not determine who and what God is. Knowledge of the Lord does not proceed from us unto God but from God unto us. We do not ascend unto the knowledge of the Lord, but the Lord has condescended to make Himself known unto us. The line does not run from us to God but from the living Lord to us. Knowledge of God is based upon self-revelation, the Lord’s revelation of Himself.
Various Classifications Of The Attributes Of God.
Some have classified the attributes of God as essential or natural and ethical attributes of the Lord. The essential or natural attributes of God are all those which pertain merely to His existence as an infinite and rational Spirit. They are, e.g., His self-existence, simplicity, infinity, etc. The Lord’s moral or ethical attributes are all those which pertain or belong to Him as a moral being. Among the latter can be classified such virtues as His truth, goodness, mercy, holiness, righteousness, etc. The objection to this classification is that all the attributes of the Lord are necessarily natural or essential and ethical. The so-called essential virtues of God are necessarily ethical, spiritual, and His so-called moral attributes are necessarily essential or natural. God is holiness, righteousness, goodness, truth, mercy. God is His attributes and for this reason all His virtues are, of course, essential.
Another classification of God’s attributes is that of absolute and relative. The former belong to the essence of God as considered in itself and the latter view the divine attributes of the Lord as: self-existence, immensity, eternity, whereas the latter class would include: omnipresence, omniscience, etc. This division of the divine perfections, however, seems to proceed on the assumption that we can have some knowledge of God as He is in Himself, entirely apart from the relation in which He stands to the creature. Yet, is such knowledge of the Lord possible? Are not all the perfections of the Lord relative, so that we have knowledge of the Lord only because of the relation in which He stands to the creature. Yet, is such knowledge of the Lord possible? Are not all the perfections of the Lord relative, so that we have knowledge of the Lord only because of the relation wherein He stands to us and has revealed Himself unto us?
A third classification of the divine attributes is that of affirmative and negative. An affirmative attribute of God is one which expresses a positive perfection of the divine essence. The Lord’s omnipresence and omnipotence are, e.g., classified as affirmative attributes. The latter, on the other hand, express an attitude which denies all defect or limitation to God. Among the latter we may include virtues such as: immutability, infinitude, incomprehensibility, etc. We may lodge the same objection against this classification as against that of the Lord’s absolute and relative attributes. Are not all the attributes of the Lord affirmative and positive? Is not the Lord all His virtues? And does this not imply that He is, affirmatively and positively, all His perfections and attributes?
A fourth division of God’s attributes is that which has been submitted by Hodge (late professor of Systematic Theology in the Theological Seminary of Princeton, New Jersey). He first of all mentions those attributes which equally qualify all the rest. All the virtues of the Lord are characterized by infinitude (that which has no bounds), absoluteness (that which is determined, either in its being, or modes of being or action, by nothing whatsoever without itself). This also includes immutability. Hodge also speaks of the Lord’s natural attributes. With this distinction he refers to the fact that God is an infinite Spirit, self-existent, eternal, immense, simple, free of will, intelligent, powerful. A third classification of Hodge is that of the Lord’s moral attributes. God, then, is a Spirit infinitely righteous, good, true, faithful, etc. And, finally the late professor of Princeton speaks of the consummate glory of all the divine perfections, the beauty of God’s holiness. The undersigned is also of the opinion that the virtue of God’s holiness occupies a unique place among the perfections of God. Which perfection of God is more prominently mentioned in Holy Writ?
The late Dr. Bavinck discusses the attributes of God under the concept: God’s essential names, but distinguishes the latter as incommunicable and communicable attributes. And he has the following distinction: Incommunicable (Asceitas, Infinitas, Immutabilitas, Unitas-Independency, Infinity, Immutability, Unity, Communicable (God as Spirit, God as Light, God as the Holy One, God as Sovereign).
The late Dr. G. Vos distinguishes between Incommunicable and communicable attributes of God and does not hesitate to call this distinction the best.
John Calvin, the great Reformer of Geneva, has no distinction.
The late Dr. A. Kuyper proceeds from the image of God as the Principle of Division, and distinguishes between the virtues of God “per anti-thesis and per syn-thesin”.
Incommunicable And Communicable.
The classification, Incommunicable and communicable, is practically the same as the division of the late Dr. A. Kuyper. His “virtues per anti-thesin” defines the attributes of God as in contrast with the image of God in man. These are: Eternity, Omnipresence, Simplicity, Unity, Infinity, Immutability, Immensity, and Sovereignty. And his “virtues per syn-thesin” view the attributes of God from the viewpoint of their agreement with the image. They are the divine virtues of intellect, will, and power.
We, too, follow the distinction: Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes. On the one hand, it cannot be denied that every classification must necessarily be imperfect and defective. Secondly, this division proceeds from the Scriptural idea of the image of God in man. It can surely not be denied that this idea of the image of God in man is Scriptural. The Word of God mentions it literally. Thirdly, this classification has been most commonly adopted in the systematic knowledge of the living God, Dogmatics.
The division, incommunicable and communicable attributes, should be clearly understood. We define the incommunicable attributes of God as those attributes which can be ascribed to the Lord alone. And we define the communicable attributes of God as those virtues of the Lord whereof we have a creaturely reflection in the creature. However, this division can be fairly easily understood if we only distinguish properly. Fundamentally and strictly, all the virtues of the Lord are incommunicable. God, we know and confess, is His virtues. It lies, therefore, in the very nature of the case that all the perfections are incommunicable, cannot and are not imparted to the creature. To assert this would imply the identification of the living God with the creature. Just as the Lord cannot impart Himself to the creature, so also He cannot impart His perfections to that creature. God is and remains God. God is wise, good, righteous, etc., in an absolute and wholly unique sense of the word. When, therefore, we define the communicable attributes of God as those divine perfections whereof we find a reflection in the creature, we must ever bear in mind that the creature merely reflects these virtues and that in a definitely creaturely measure. Bearing this in mind we repeat: God’s incommunicable attributes are to be ascribed only to the Lord, whereas the communicable perfections are reflected in His people. God alone is independent, simple, one, infinite, immutable. The creature can also be wise, good, merciful, righteous, etc., but according to the measure of the creature. God is good, wise, righteous, merciful, etc., as God; we, through the grace of God can also be good, wise, merciful, but strictly as creatures.