This article was written to accompany the ‘Knowing God’s Character‘ hangout.
“The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.” (C.H. Spurgeon)
- If someone asked you to describe God in a sentence or two, what would you say?
- How much do you think we can know about God? And from where does that knowledge come?
God Is Unknowable
This is perhaps a strange place to start when considering the character of God, but if you want to know God truly, you need to begin by recognizing that in many ways, He is quite unknowable. Or at least certain things about Him are beyond our ability to know.
“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3)
“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (Psalm 147:5)
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’” (Romans 11:33-34)
Since God is infinite and we are finite, it follows that we are incapable of fully understanding Him. And as the verses above suggest, we are particularly unable to fully understand His thoughts and His wisdom.
This is what theologians mean by the ‘incomprehensibility of God.’
But as Wayne Grudem points out, here,
“Incomprehensible is used with an older and less common sense, ‘unable to be fully understood.’ This sense must be clearly distinguished from the more common meaning, ‘unable to be understood.’ It is not true to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is true to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively.” (Wayne Grudem – Systematic Theology, p.149)
If you’re anything like me, not knowing something fully can be a deeply frustrating experience. I like to understand things, and if something feels far too difficult for me ever to grasp, then I tend to feel irritated and give up; if I can’t know it fully, why bother to know it at all?
But when the Biblical writers, in passages like Romans 11 or repeatedly in the Psalms, reflect on the unknowability of God, they do so in a way that expresses wonder and worship rather than irritation.
The incomprehensibility of God is important for at least two reasons:
- If God were fully knowable, He would not be worthy of my worship. If I could fully know God, then He would be finite and I could be potentially greater and more knowledgeable than Him. Affirming His incomprehensibility also affirms my own humanity.
- The incomprehensibility of God invites us into relationship.To be honest, my finitude is such that it is not even possible for me to know everything about anyone. Even someone with whom I am as intimately acquainted as my wife! I will never fully know her thoughts and experiences. And yet her incomprehensibility makes me want to get to know her better. Rather than being a barrier to relationship, incomprehensibility furthers the desire for relationship. If so with another human, how much more with God!
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Job 38-42:6
- How does this declaration from God make you feel about Him and about yourself?
…Yet Also Knowable
“From the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9-10)
If God were fully unknowable, then Paul’s prayer for the Colossians would be rather misguided and more than a little useless! Yet Paul expected the Colossians to grow in their knowledge of God, which suggests that God is indeed knowable!
In fact, the Bible depicts God as being a relational being who created mankind to be in relationship with Him, who defines Himself as Love (1 John 4:8), and who will one day enable us to know as fully as He knows us now (1 Cor 13:12).
So when we think about the character of God, we must affirm both His knowability and His unknowability. We can know about Him in part, but not in full.
As the theologian Herman Bavinck wrote:
“God’s incomprehensibility does not deny his knowability, it requires it and affirms it. The unsearchable riches of the Divine Being form a necessary and important part of our knowledge of God.” (Herman Bavinck – Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II)
Another way of expressing this is to say that whilst we cannot know God fully, we can know Him truly. That is, all that Scripture tells us about God is true: He is Love (1 John 4:8), He is light (1 John 1:5), He is just (Rom 3:26), and so on. But to claim such things does not mean that we can grasp the full extent of his love, light, or justice.
In fact, part of the problem with describing God is that our concepts of love, light, justice etc. simply don’t measure up when compared to Him. It will not do to compare God to others, for He is truly incomparable. As Isaiah puts it:
“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isaiah 40:18)
His character defies our linguistic and conceptual abilities. So when describing God, the advice of Ecclesiastes is wise:
“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why do you think it is important to affirm both the knowability and the unknowability of God?
- Do you tend to think of him as being more knowable or unknowable? How does this affect your Christian life?
The Attributes of God
When thinking about the attributes of God, it is common for theologians to break them down into two categories: communicable attributes and incommunicable attributes.
Incommunicable Attributes are those which God has, but which He does not share with humans.
Communicable Attributes are those which God has and which he shares with us.
THINK IT THROUGH
Consider the following examples. For each, identify the attribute that it talks about and then suggest whether you think it is a communicable or incommunicable attribute.
- Psalm 100:5
- Psalm 102:25-27
- Job 12:13
- Jeremiah 23:23-24
- Deuteronomy 4:31
- 1 John 4:8
- Psalm 90:2-4
- Acts 17:24-25
Did you find that an easy task? If you found it difficult at all, why do you think that was the case?
I don’t know how you found that exercise. I suspect that it was not as clear-cut as you might have hoped, and it may be that you were quite unsure about some of the attributes in particular.
If you found it difficult, I sympathise! The distinction is a helpful one, insomuch as it draws important distinctions between God and man, but it is a somewhat artificial division.
The truth is that some of the attributes that are classically labelled incommunicable, do get shared with us in some way.
For example: God alone has life in Himself (John 5:26) – He depends on nobody else for existence. This sounds pretty unique! Yet He has also granted the Son to have life in himself (5:26) and the Son has the words of eternal life (6:68) and gives life to whomever he will (5:21). Whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life (3:15-16, 36), which is abundant (10:10) and is like water that quenches thirst and food that satisfies deep hunger (4:14; 6:27, 33, 35, 48, 51, 53, 54).
So is ‘eternal life’ an incommunicable attribute, or is it a communicable one? The answer is not entirely clear! Perhaps there is a sense in which these attributes are incommunicable this side of eternity, but we may become more like God in these ways when we are in the new creation.
Or another example: 1 John 4:8 speaks of God being Love. Is that a communicable or incommunicable attribute? Well, one’s immediate reaction would probably be to call it a communicable attribute – God is Love, His love transforms us and we become more loving as a result. But notice the difference there. We do not embody the attribute in the exact same way that God does. We may become loving, but only He remains the perfect standard of Love. Human love is never the same as divine love, since God’s love is original and ours is derivative.
All that is to say that the communicable/ incommunicable distinction is helpful insomuch as it reminds us both how different we are from God, and yet how He also empowers us to imitate and become more like Him. But we should be wary of pushing it too far, since it is not a division that Scripture explicitly makes.
That said, it would be good to consider some of the attributes of God, and in so doing I will broadly follow the typical division of communicable and incommunicable attributes.
Here are a number of attributes, which are typically considered to be incommunicable. For each, I have included a definition (taken from Wayne Grudem) and some corresponding verses. Read the verses and write down any thoughts about what light they shed on the definition, and whether or not you feel that the definition is actually an accurate representation of God’s character.
“God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him glory.” (Grudem, p160)
- Acts 17:24-25
- Job 41:11
- Psalm 50:10-12
- John 17:5, 24
- Isaiah 43:7
- Ephesians 1:11-12
- Revelation 4:11
- Isaiah 62:3-5
- Zephaniah 3:17-18
“God is unchanging in his being, perfections and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations.” (Grudem, p163)
- Psalm 102:25-27
- Malachi 3:6
- James 1:17
- Psalm 33:11
- Isaiah 46:9-11
We will return to this question of God’s unchangeableness in another article. But the following quote from Bavinck is helpful:
“The doctrine of God’s immutability is of the highest significance for religion. The contrast between being and becoming marks the difference between the Creator and the creature. Every creature is continually becoming. It is changeable, constantly striving, seeks rest and satistfaction, and finds this rest in God, in him alone, for only he is pure being and no becoming. Hence, in Scripture God is often called the Rock.” (Herman Bavinck – The Doctrine of God, p149)
“God has no beginning, end or succession or moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividlt, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.” (Grudem, p168)
- Psalm 90:2-4
- Job 36:26
- Revelation 1:8
- 2 Peter 3:8
- Isaiah 46:9-10
- Galatians 4:4-5
- Acts 17:30-31
“God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places.” (Grudem, p173)
- Jeremiah 23:23-24
- Psalm 139:7-10
- 1 Kings 8:27
- Isaiah 66:1-2
- Acts 7:48
- Amos 9:1-4
- Psalm 16:11
“God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times.” (Grudem, p177)
The ‘unity’ of God is sometimes also referred to as the ‘simplicity’ of God, meaning that He is not composed of separate parts, but that every part of his being includes all other attributes. Consequently, every attribute qualifies every other attribute, and we cannot play one off against another. For example, compare 1 John 1:5 and 4:8.
THINK IT THROUGH
For each of these attributes, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why is this an important attribute of God? What would happen if this were nottrue of him?
- Why is it important to realise that God has this attribute in a way that I don’t? And how does that affect the way I think about our relationship?
The communicable attributes are attributes that are true of God and which can be shared with us.
Doctors talk about communicable diseases: that is, diseases that can be transferred from one person to another by proximity. Spend too long with a person who has a communicable disease and you’re going to get sick too!
In the same sort of way, the communicable attributes of God get transferred to us by proximity. The more time we spend with Him, the more His character rubs off on us. We will look more in another article at how we become like God.
Various theologians break down the communicable attributes into different categories, but for our purpose here, let us just look at two categories.
There are certain attributes of God that could best be described as mental attributes. They have to do with the workings of His mind.
An example would be knowledge or wisdom. God’s knowledge is vastly greater than ours. It is perfect and all-encompassing. (Job 37:16; 1 John 3:20). He knows everything about the depths of himself (1 Cor 2:10-11) and everything about the very depths of us (Psalm 139:1-2, 4, 16; Matt 6:8; 10:30). His knowledge is too great for us to know (Psalm 139:6) and yet we are exhorted to grow in our knowledge, and in particular our knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18).
In fact, if you read 1 Corinthians 2, Paul argues that God’s wisdom, which was previously hidden, is now revealed to us. And since we have the Spirit of God we can know things about God we wouldn’t know otherwise. So Paul is able to marvel, ‘who can know the mind of God?’ before then affirming ‘but we have the mind of Christ’ (v16).
Many of the communicable attributes of God are best described as moral attributes; attributes that have to do with His integrity and moral goodness.
For example, Scripture affirms that God is good (Psalm 100:5; 106:1; 107:1) and even that no-one but God is truly good (Luke 18:19). And yet, we are also instructed to do good in imitation of Him and as we are shaped by his word (Galatians 6:10; Luke 6:27-35; 2 Tim 3:16-17).
The same could be said of a range of other moral attributes. For example: mercy, grace, patience, holiness, justice, or truthfulness.
Read Galatians 5:16-26. The fruit of the Spirit is a list of attributes that are ultimately true of God, but also become true of us as we walk by the Spirit. For each of the characteristics, write down how it is demonstrated in the character of God (with some verses, if you can think of them) and what it might look like for it to be demonstrated in your life to a greater degree.