April 07, 2020

The Communicable Attributes of God

Barry Cooper
The Communicable Attributes of God

There’s a good way of wanting to be like God—and a very bad way. Today, Barry Cooper identifies the ways we can, and ought to, imitate God.


There’s a good way of wanting to be like God. And a very bad way.

Genesis 3 is an example of a very bad way of wanting to be like God. Part of what prompted Eve to reach out and eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the serpent’s promise that if she did, she would become “like God.”

It was a lie, of course. Tragically, that desire to be “like God” proved to be Adam and Eve’s undoing.

And yet, when you read Ephesians chapter 5, the Apostle Paul seems to be actively encouraging Christians to try and be like God. It quite clearly says, “Be imitators of God.”

So which is it? Are we forbidden from seeking to be like God, which is what Genesis chapter 3 seems to imply, or are we commanded to be like God, as it says in Ephesians chapter 5?

The answer is: both. We’re forbidden from trying to be like Him in one sense, but we’re commanded to be like Him in another. Or to put it another way: there’s a good way of saying “I want to be like God,” but also a bad way of saying the same thing. And that’s because God has what theologians call communicable attributes but also incommunicable attributes.

There are some ways in which we can never be like God—and we should not try to be. These are His incommunicable attributes. I’m thinking here, for example, of God’s omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and so on. When we try to be like God in those ways, it never ends well. Think about the people who built the Tower of Babel, or King Nebuchadnezzar, or Adam and Eve.

But there are other ways in which we should try to be like God. Because we are made in God’s image, there are certain ways in which we are positively designed to reflect Him—ways in which we must seek to reflect Him if we want to please Him and flourish.  

These ways that we can be like God are called His communicable attributes. Now, usually when we talk about communicable attributes, we’re talking mainly about God’s moral qualities. I’m thinking here, for example, of God’s goodness, God’s justice, His love, mercy, truthfulness, wisdom, and so on.

These are things we ought to be imitating, although of course, there will always remain a distinction between God and us. No one is good like God is good. No one loves like God loves. No one is wise to the infinite extent that God is wise. But still, as Ephesians 5 says, we should try to imitate these qualities.

When you think about it, though, we often get these two things completely back to front. Rather than trying to imitate the communicable attributes of God, we try to imitate the incommunicable ones. Many of us want to be as powerful as God, but relatively few of us want to be as merciful as God, as good as God, or as truthful as God.

We try to be like God in ways we should not and try not to be like God in ways we should.

One more thing. If you and I are supposed to imitate God’s moral qualities, His communicable attributes, we need to imitate them as He reveals them to be, not as anyone else defines them.

Think about love, for example. We don’t get to call something “love” if it bears no relation to what God says is love. Because by definition God is love, as it says in 1 John chapter 4. That means, if we want to know what love is, and imitate it, we must look to Him—rather than the poor facsimiles of love we tend to see all around us.

Ultimately, we must imitate the kind of love we see—not on advertising hoardings, or in romantic comedies, but in God, who perfectly defines and demonstrates what love really is.

As Paul says in Ephesians chapter 5, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

So, those are the communicable attributes of God: those ways we can be, and ought to be, like God.