“God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” This succinct definition from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 4) provides a sound place to begin our consideration of the nature of God to help us avoid inaccurate concepts and notions. In our day, many define God as an impersonal “higher power” or an unknowable “intelligent designer.” Others think of God in human terms—something like a larger version of themselves. However, the true and living God is neither an impersonal or unknowable force or a physical being. He is the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God in all His perfections. God is the sovereign Creator and sustainer of all things. God is both incomprehensible and knowable. Christians recognize that God has made Himself distinctly known through the revelation of His Word. The transcendent God reveals Himself in Scripture—by His names and attributes—to be eternally self-existent in all His perfections.
There are numerous ways that Christian theologians have sought to describe the being and nature of God. For example, Anselm—archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109)—in his Proslogion memorably defined God as “that [being], than which nothing greater can be conceived.” In apologetics, this phrase begins what has come to be known as the ontological argument. It is a logical and philosophical explanation of God’s essence that explains one aspect of the being of God. The being and power of God are displayed in all creation, so we can know something about God by means of general revelation (Ps. 19:1–2; Rom. 1:19–20). However, when we consider God’s nature, we are dependent on God’s revelation of His names and character given by special revelation in the Scripture for a full, though never comprehensive, understanding of all that God is.
In the Old Testament, God reveals Himself to His people by proclaiming to us His names. All these names reflect something of the character of the one true and living God. As R.C. Sproul rightly explained, “the most basic affirmation the Scriptures make regarding the nature of God is that He is one.” As such, He is distinguished from all the other gods of the nations. As Psalm 96:5 states, “All the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” He will not share His glory with another. This one God reveals Himself as Elohim (God), El Elyon (God Most High), El Shaddai (God Almighty), Yahweh (His personal name), Adonai (Lord), and Yahweh Sabaoth (Lord of Hosts). A revelation of the names of God in the Old Testament often accompanies some special (usually redemptive) work or act of God. For instance, throughout the book of Job, God reveals Himself as El Shaddai—the Almighty God. When God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush—to prepare Moses to deliver Israel from their bondage in Egypt—He did so by declaring His covenant name, Yahweh. He is “I am who I am,” the eternally existing and unchangeable God who keeps covenant with His people from generation to generation (Ex. 3:14). When God again revealed Himself to Moses on the mountain, He proclaimed His covenant name, Yahweh, together with His attributes: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6–7). The special revelation of the names and the attributes of God highlights His character in such a way that His people can rightly worship and serve Him.
Reflecting on the attributes God has revealed in Scripture, the members of the Westminster Assembly formulated the following careful definition of God in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. (WCF 2.1)
When approaching the subject of the attributes of God, Reformed theologians have highlighted the importance of the aseity and simplicity of God. In his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos defined aseity as “that attribute of God by which He is the self-sufficient ground of His own existence and being.” God never becomes something other than what He has been from all eternity. God never develops. He is eternally independent, being dependent only on Himself (Isa. 40:13; Rom. 11:34). This truth about God has massive implications both for how we speak of Him and for how we worship and serve Him. God doesn’t stand in need of anything (Ps. 50:10–12).
God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things, both visible and invisible, who has no need of the creature. We cannot add anything to God. God is free to do as He pleases, and He always does according to the good pleasure of His own decretal will (Eph. 1:11). God did not need to create the world. He did so freely out of His eternal wisdom. Thus, God voluntarily made all things, and He voluntarily reveals Himself, being bound by no external force or person to do so. God desires to display His grace and mercy, together with His wrath. Therefore, He ordained a world in which He could reveal His attributes to His image bearers. Vos explained: “God’s attributes are absolute. In other words, the ground for them resides in His being, apart from the existence of the world, although we must admit that we could not conceive of some of them in action (e.g., grace and mercy) if the world did not exist.”
Simplicity carries with it the idea of the indivisibility of God. God does not possess a certain quantity of love. God is love (1 John 4:8). There is no limit to God’s holiness. He is holy (Lev. 19:2, 20:7, 26, 21:8; Ex. 19:6; 1 Peter 1:16). God is never in short supply of His attributes. In fact, it is right for us to say that God is His attributes. His wrath harmonizes with His love inasmuch as His wrath is fueled by His love for His own holy and righteous character. God’s love is holy love. It is loving for God to exercise His justice on the wicked. However, God also acts in holy love toward the elect by removing the wrath they justly deserve by pouring it out on Christ when He became a curse for them on the cross.
Although theologians have sought to categorize God’s attributes in a diversity of ways, the most commonly accepted division is between communicable and incommunicable attributes. Communicable attributes are those characteristics that God chooses to share with image bearers in some measure. For instance, God is righteous and human beings can be righteous in a manner that is similar to how God is righteous and yet not identical with it. Out of His own fullness, He makes His people righteousness. This is a communication by way of analogy. The difference between righteousness in God and the righteousness that He shares with men and women exists in the infinitude of God and the finitude of man. God’s righteousness is not derivative. Righteousness in man is always derivative.
Incommunicable attributes are those characteristics of God that He cannot and will not share with His creatures. God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. He is also omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (everywhere present), and omnipotent (all powerful). These attributes are part of what it means for God to be transcendent—distinct from and Lord over creation. God remains distinct from the creature; otherwise, He would cease to be God.
What can we know about God? That’s the most basic question of theology, for what we can know about God and whether we can know anything about Him at all determine the scope and content of our study. Here we must consider the teaching of the greatest theologians in history, all of whom have affirmed the ‘incomprehensibility of God.’ By using the term incomprehensible, they are not referring to something we are unable to comprehend or know at all. Theologically speaking, to say God is incomprehensible is not to say that God is utterly unknowable. It is to say that none of us can comprehend God exhaustively.
Reformed theologians . . . self-consciously see the doctrine of God as informing the whole scope of Christian theology. That’s one of the reasons why Calvinists tend to focus so much on the Old Testament. We’re concerned about the character of God as defining everything—our understanding of Christ, our understanding of ourselves, our understanding of salvation. We turn to the Old Testament because it’s one of the most important sources that you find anywhere in the universe on the nature and character of God. Reformed Christians tend to take the Old Testament very seriously because it’s such a vivid revelation of the majesty of God.
God operates according to the law of His own nature. That is to say, God never acts in such a way that would contradict His own holiness, His own righteousness, His own justice, His own omnipotence, and so on. God never compromises the perfection of His own being or character in what He does.
God is the ultimate Being. Before there was a universe, there was God. He exists independently of matter and sequence of time. God transcends space and time. He is not limited by spatial considerations (He is everywhere in His fullness continually). Nor is He locked into the present in any way. It is not strictly accurate to say that before the universe was created there was ‘nothing,’ for this, too, is a spatial and temporal idea: before the created universe existed, there was God. Theologians speak of God’s immensity, infinity, and transcendence to describe this and our minds race at the thought of it, unable to take it in. All we can do is acquiesce and worship.