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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Incommunicable Attributes of God

Published Monday, July 16, 2007 By Michael S. Horton

As great Christian minds have scoured the Scriptures they have been able to discern a number of God’s attributes-that is, characteristics affirmed by God as belonging to his nature. These fall into two categories: communicable and incommunicable. The former are those attributes that humanity can share with God as his image bearers (e.g., holiness, relationality); the latter are those attributes that belong to God alone (e.g., omnipotence, immutability). Especially as so many of these incommunicable attributes are coming under attack in our day, it is useful to review briefly the biblical basis for these incommunicable attributes:

Self-Existence and Self-Sufficiency

First, God is self-existent and self-sufficient. One of the oldest questions in philosophy, and perhaps the most frequently asked theological question among children is: “Who made God?” The question is based on the dilemma as to whether there is anything in the universe that is eternal. If we say that nothing that we see could have come into existence without a cause, we eventually work our way back to God himself. So, who caused God to be? Aristotle insisted that God was the First Cause, the eternal being who causes all things to exist but who himself is uncaused and uncreated.

While these notions became increasingly trapped within Greek philosophy, the Scriptures do affirm the basic thrust of Aristotle’s point. It is impossible for us to grasp fully God’s self-existence because we do not have any analogous reference point in ourselves or in the world. For us, everything is in some way the product or effect of something else. However, when God revealed his name to Moses, there was no question that God’s self-existence and self-sufficiency were not only true, but that God’s whole nature could be summarized this way.

From the burning bush (itself a symbol in that it burned but was not consumed), God called to Moses, and in the course of conversation the patriarch asked, “Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you'” (Ex. 3:13-14).

Far better than any philosophical speculation, God’s own self-disclosure of his name offers the clearest expression of his self-existence and self-sufficiency. “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to him?” (Is. 40:18). When it comes to God’s incommunicable attributes, there is no analogy of being. We cannot point to another self-existent and self-sufficient person and say, “That is what God is like.”

Paul declared in Athens that, unlike the gods of Greek mythology, the true God is “not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). God did not create us because he was lonely or because something was missing in himself. He enjoyed the eternal company of inter-trinitarian fellowship, each person of the Godhead contributing inexhaustible pleasure, joy, and delight. He created out of strength, not weakness; out of abundance, not lack; out of an excess of joy, not because he was unfulfilled.

Immutability

A second incommunicable divine attribute is immutability. A mutation is a change from one thing to another. To attribute immutability to God is to say that he never changes. Many modern theologians have attacked this and related attributes (such as impassibility) as owing more to Greek philosophy, with its celebration of static, unchanging, perfect being, which opposes growth and evolution. But is this really the reason for centuries of Christian commitment to this teaching?

First, Greek philosophy has never been united on immutability, although surely Plato and the disciples of Stoicism exercised an enormous influence over Western thought. It must be acknowledged that some formulations of such attributes do sound much more like philosophical speculation than biblical self-disclosure, but Scripture does indeed declare that God is immutable: he never changes.

The divine name, “I AM WHO I AM,” not only points to God’s self-existence, but also to his changeless character. He did not say, “I AM BECOMING ABSOLUTE BEING,” as Hegel and many modern philosophers and theologians would have preferred. The Psalmist notes that while God changes the ancient heavens and the earth as a nurse changes diapers, he himself does not change: “They will perish, but you will endure; yes, they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak you will change them, and they will be changed. But you are the same” (Psalm 102:26). In fact, the word “same” here is the Hebrew name translated in Exodus 3 at the burning bush: “I AM.” Thus, the qualitative distinction between God and all that he has made is measured by the fact that everything changes, while he remains what he has always been and will always be.

God declares of himself, “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6). He says Israel can take comfort in this (v. 7). After all, if he did change, he would certainly have broken his covenant with his disobedient people and consumed them with fire by now! Paul refers to the nations as exchanging the glory of a changeless, perfect God with that of a changing, imperfect deity (Rom. 1:22). That is, after all, the point of God’s immutability. If he is changing in his very essence and being, it suggests that it is possible for him to move from imperfection to perfection, from a lack of knowledge to fullness, from a lack of love or mercy to a plentitude of grace, from a lack of power over a particular situation to a victory over rival forces. These points, Paul asserts, are the products of Greek idolatry rather than the Christian confession of “God the Father Almighty.”

There are, of course, passages that suggest that God does change. For instance, we read of God “repenting” that he had ever created humanity. This expression is used in other places as well. Similar questions could be asked of the Scriptures that speak of God’s coming and going, judging and forgiving, condemning and then showing mercy when the people turn to him. Do these not clearly indicate change? Of course, they do. But what kind of change? In each of these cases, there is a change in God’s relation to his creatures, but never is change ascribed to his being. Although he himself does not change, his voluntary involvement with creatures who do change means that his actions in this ever-changing realm of history can only be described for us in these terms.

When Scripture, therefore, speaks of God repenting or changing his mind, we are forced to one of two conclusions. Either we can say that Scripture contradicts itself, which is impossible for those of us who take it as God’s own self-disclosure. Or we can say that God is speaking in anthropomorphisms, as if he were a human being.

God often speaks this way so that we will understand him, the way a parent speaks to a child. For instance, when the Scriptures speak of coming under God’s wings for refuge (e.g., Ruth 2:12), we understand the author to be describing a truth about God in a way that is not literally true. God is not a giant bird, and the author does not expect us to believe that he is one. Even though it is said in a context of historical narrative rather than poetry, it is intended as a figure of speech, the way America is referred to as a melting pot. The reality is that God is tender and covers us with his saving mercies as if he were a bird. Because God’s changeless character is not something that we find in ourselves, he appropriates rich metaphors and similes from the natural world and everyday experience in order to help us know him.

Omniscience and Omnipotence

Third, God is omniscient and omnipotent-that is, he knows everything and he has power over everything. We may know some things and have control over others, but God’s wisdom and power know no limitations. God does not have to arrive at knowledge through reason or observation. Rather, he possesses all knowledge in himself in every moment (Job 37:16). God’s knowledge is not like ours, either in content or in mode. In content, it is perfect and infallible: God cannot possibly err in his knowledge of what will come to pass. In mode, it is immediate and intuitive. In other words, unlike us, God does not arrive at an item of knowledge. He knows the end from the beginning in one act of reflection:

Remember the former things of old, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure…. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass” (Is. 46:9-11).

Scores of biblical passages relate God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of creatures. Prophecy rests on the belief in God’s foreknowledge: “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Is. 42:9). Furthermore, God not only knows the future; he controls the future. His omniscience and omnipotence are in perfect harmony. In fact, it is because he has decreed everything that comes to pass that he knows the future in every detail. Hardly a passive spectator, merely knowing future acts of his creatures, God is actually the active architect of history. He is “God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” Even the results of a throw of the dice are determined by God already in every case (Prov. 16:33).

The prophecies of Scripture rest on this assumption: that God not only knows the past, present, and future in every detail, but that he does so precisely because he has decreed the end from the beginning according to his own secret counsel. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (Q/A 7). Paul writes, “In [Christ] we have also obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…” (Eph. 1:11).

If this is true, how can humans have any free agency? This has been the question that has puzzled theologians and philosophers for ages. Yet, God seems to think that it is enough for us to know that he is sovereign and that we are responsible. God always gets his way, but in such a manner that human agency is not undermined or destroyed. While Scripture does not seem to resolve this mystery, some theorists choose to reject either divine sovereignty or human agency. This option for either position is not available to us, however tempting it may be.

It is actually God’s unlimited sovereignty that makes human decisions and activity both meaningful and possible. If God had not planned the future in every detail, there would be no reason to believe that his promises would be fulfilled, that salvation would triumph over destruction, or that life would gain victory over death. Our actions take on meaning because they are part of a larger plan that we ourselves do not even comprehend.

God can work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28) only because he has control over every variable in the equation. This should comfort us in the realization that there is nothing that happens purposelessly or meaninglessly, even though it may seem that way to us. To know that there is a point to it all, even if we do not yet know how particular pieces of the puzzle fit, is a great assurance when life’s storms reach our shore. Those who reject God’s providential control over every event do not thereby gain freedom, but find themselves in slavery to some form of determinism: chance, fate, the power of others, or their own self-will.

Omnipresence

Another incommunicable attribute of God is his omnipresence. God is everywhere and fills the whole universe. After all, he is spirit and is not limited to a particular spatio-temporal place. It is difficult for us to conceive of God as a person when he is not really like any person we have ever known, so we project images of God that more nearly reflect our own relatives.

In the popular imagination, for instance, God is sometimes viewed as “the man upstairs,” a grand old patriarch with a long white beard. But God is different from any person. Just as he does not possess a physical body (apart from the Son’s incarnation), God is present everywhere. Thus, according to Romans 1 and 2, God’s invisible attributes of power and majesty are everywhere on display. This means that we must outgrow the popular image of God as located in a particular place “up there,” remote from this world. God is as present on the streets of New York as he is in the highest heavens. There is no place where God is not. Even in hell, God is present in judgment.

In spite of the curse of the fall and our own sinfulness, we know that God exists. But this sense of his universal presence sometimes becomes an occasion for us to turn away from the true God and to worship ourselves through the idols of our imaginations, hearts, minds, and hands. Because of this sense of God’s universal presence in the beauty of nature, we identify God with the creation, confusing the Creator and creature. But the Christian faith insists-against those who push God out of this world (deists) and against those who regard him as indistinguishable from it (pantheists) or indwelling it somehow (panentheists)-that the God who is present everywhere is nevertheless distinct from the cosmos which he has made. Our minds must be restrained here, for this is where explanations give way to humble adoration of God’s mysterious hiddenness.

  • Michael S. Horton


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