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The Attributes of God

Last month we looked at the unity and diversity of God, the reality that the one God eternally exists as three distinct persons. He is triune. Each person of the godhead is made of the same God stuff, the stuff that makes him God. Additionally, in order to describe God, we need to describe his attributes, to describe what God is like. Attributes is a word that we don’t use too much, but the concept is familiar to us in everyday life. Attributes are like the characteristics or traits of something. The challenge of speaking of what God is like is in finding a suitable comparison. Comparing God to anything seems to diminish his awesomeness. Anything we compare God to is less than God by definition, unless, of course, we compare him to himself. That would seem to be somewhat redundant though. God is like himself. Well, yes of course he is. If he was unlike himself then he wouldn’t be God, right?

So what are God’s attributes? There’s a number of ways in which we can describe his characteristics, but the most common way to describe them is to group them into two different categories—his communicable and incommunicable attributes. Our familiarity with this idea comes in the realm of healthcare. We have most likely heard of communicable diseases. A communicable disease is a disease that you can catch from another person. Through the simple act of swapping spit, sneezing on a co-worker, or exchanging bodily fluids, one can share the disease with their unwitting partner. How nice! Sharing is good right? So, an incommunicable disease is a disease that is not transmitted from one person to another. There’s some heavy hitters in this list, things like cancer, heart disease, etc. As hard as these things can be, it is nice that we can’t share them with each other. So God’s communicable attributes are his attributes that we, as his image-bearers, can demonstrate as well. We can share in his communicable attributes, though always to a qualitatively lesser degree. In these ways, we can be like him. His incommunicable attributes, on the other hand, are his and his alone. We can’t touch them. They are unique to the one, true God. In this sense, we are not and cannot be like him.

His communicable attributes are love, goodness, mercy, justice, righteousness, faithfulness, holiness, patience, wisdom, graciousness, kindness, omnipotence, omniscience, sovereignty, etc. His incommunicable attributes are infinitude, simplicity, eternality, self-existence, omnipresence, immutability, impassability, transcendence. Each of these is worthy of deep meditation. Take some time to think them through with a Bible in your hands. A future article will provide brief descriptions of each attribute, but there's no need to wait to start your own investigation.

Naturally, we tend to gravitate toward the attributes of God that we prefer. I said at the outset of this series that we have a nasty habit of wanting to make God in our image. This tendency shows its nasty head even in so-called “bible-believing” circles where we focus on the aspects of God that appeal to us. If we like fluffy, cute kittens and ignore the fact that they are insatiable hunters that kill more creatures than any other domesticated animal, then we could be prone to focusing on God’s love and kindness and not his justice, jealousy, and wrath. God can become kind of soft and cute in our eyes. One the other hand, if we prefer austere authority and power, then God’s sovereignty and justice can become our preference to the detriment of his love, compassion, and mercy. We have to be on guard against these tendencies. God’s attributes are not like pizza toppings that can be plucked off or moved to the side if they are not pleasing to our taste buds. God’s attributes are a total package, an all-inclusive reality. One author clarifies this point, "We do not worship any divine attribute; we worship the personal God who is simultaneously the being that his attributes indicate." We can either have God as he is or we cannot have him at all.

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