We know what it’s like to be a human being. We know that we can only ever be in one place at the one time. We know that one day we’re born without us even having any say in it. And then another day we’ll die. But what about God? What’s he like? That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology.
(the following transcript may contain errors)
(the following transcript may contain errors)
You and I know what it’s like to be a human being. We know that we can only ever be in one place at the one time. We know that one day we’re born without us even having any say in it. And then another day we’ll die.
But what about God? What’s he like?
That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology.
Last time we began looking at the doctrine of God. In this episode we’re beginning to think about the nature of God. What are the attributes of God in his very being?
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I’m a pastor, theologian, writer, and Bible college lecturer. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
What Can We Say About the Nature of God?
What can really say about the nature of God?
Throughout the history of the church people have grappled with that very question. It’s a problematic topic in some ways, because as Zophar says to Job,
“Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? (Job 11:7 NIV)
Zophar is, of course, right. By definition it’s impossible for us as humans to probe the limits of who God is and what it’s like to be God.
As the theologian, Louis Berkhof writes,
The Being of God is characterized by a depth, a fullness, a variety, and a glory far beyond our comprehension….
But to say that we can’t understand God completely is not to say that we can’t understand anything about God at all.
As Paul says in Romans 1, even creation tells us something about God’s eternal power and glory. But the place where we come to know accurately about God is in the Bible. In the Bible God has revealed to us insights into who he is and what he is like.
The knowledge that the Bible gives us is partial, but it is nevertheless true.
So, too, as Luther pointed out, the knowledge that we have of God does not describe so much what he is, but it describes the qualities or the characteristics of God. That is, we can say something about what he is like but we can’t really describe his essential being.
There are lots of attributes that people have used to describe God.
One famous list comes from the 8th century theologian, John of Damascus. Or Jono of Damascus as I like to call him. He described God as,
uncreate[d], unbegotten, imperishable and immortal, everlasting, infinite, uncircumscribed, boundless, of infinite power, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, without flux, passionless, unchangeable, unalterable, unseen
So, too, theologians have often organised them in different ways.
In this and the next few episodes we’re going to consider them under the headings of the nature of God and the character of God. The nature of God refers to the “non-moral” attributes of God and relate more to the being of God. While the character of God refers to the “moral” attributes of God and describe more what he is like to relate to in personal terms.
The attributes I describe here follow closely the list given by the theologian John Feinberg in his book on the doctrine of God, No One Like Him. That book would be a good place to go if you want to dig into these more deeply. Feinberg lists 11 non-moral attributes of God and 9 moral attributes of God. We’ll look at the moral attributes of God this time and next time. And then we’ll consider the character of God in a couple of episodes time.
The 11 non-moral attributes of God that he lists are: aseity (or self-existence), infinity, immensity and omnipresence, eternity, immutability, omnipotence, sovereignty, omniscience, wisdom, unity and simplicity.
First, is what theologians often call “aseity” but a more helpful term is self-existence. Self-existence refers to the idea that God depends on no one else for his existence.
In the last episode we saw that God just is. As Jesus says in John 5, he has life in himself. He says,
For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. (John 5:26 NIV)
So too, Paul says in Acts 17,
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:24–25 NIV)
Everything is dependent on God. And God is dependent on nothing.
The next attribute is eternity. God is eternal. He has always existed and will always exist. There was never a time when he didn’t exist.
There are lots of passages that speak about that.
For example, Psalm 90 says,
Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2 NIV)
Or Psalm 93,
Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity. (Psalm 93:2 NIV)
Or Psalm 102,
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end. (Psalm 102:25–27 NIV)
Habakkuk 1:12 says,
Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. (Habakkuk 1:12 NIV)
In Revelation 1 we read,
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8 NIV)
In Hebrews 7 it describes Jesus saying,
Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life…he remains a priest forever. (Hebrews 7:3 NIV)
Or again in chapter 13,
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8 NIV)
So, too, God’s characteristics are described as enduring forever. For example, Psalm 111:3 says,
Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. (Psalm 111:3 NIV)
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children… (Psalm 103:17 NIV)
The eternity of God is also bound up with the name that he gives to Moses: “I am”. He always was and always will be. As Jesus says to the religious leaders,
“Very truly I tell you…before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58 NIV)
Jesus is not just saying that he existed before Abraham. He’s saying that, as God, he has always been: he just is.
In thinking about the eternity of God, one question that arises is whether God is eternal simply in the sense that he has always been and will always be, or whether he is eternal in the sense that he is outside time. That is, is his eternity temporal or atemporal eternity.
In truth, the Bible doesn’t really tell us. Some passages might seem to.
So, for example, 2 Peter 3:8 says,
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. (2 Peter 3:8 NIV)
But as John Feinberg points out, all the verse is saying is that God perceives time differently to us. It does not explain why he perceives it differently to us.
Similarly, in Psalm 90:4 we’re told,
A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:4 NIV)
Again, this verse only tells us how God perceives time, not how he relates to it. A thousand years might just seem like a day because it’s next to nothing in the scale of eternity.
That said, my cautious inclination is to think that God’s eternity is temporal. But it’s important to be clear what that means. It all depends on how you think about time. God clearly doesn’t exist within time understood as the spinning of the earth on its access. Neither does God exist within time understood as in modern physics as the oscillations of the cesium-133 atom. But it could still make sense that within God himself is a notion of sequence. That is, it may be that time is not a limitation that is imposed on us because of our creatureliness, but that time (as we experience it, anyway) is actually a reflection of the character of God.
That would certainly make sense of the fact that always within the Bible order matters and things taking place in time matters. That is, the nature of our relationship to God changed after the cross. The sins left unpunished were dealt with, the Holy Spirit was poured out. God’s interaction with us is always historical and depends on certain events having taken place.
Nevertheless, the Bible’s lack of detail on the subject of how God relates to time suggests that we ought to be careful.
I’m often surprised how many people seek to answer riddles in the theology by noting that God sits outside time. But not only does the Bible not speak clearly to that issue, the Bible also doesn’t encourage us to seek to answer theological questions by observing that God is outside time. If that was a profitable way of reflecting on God’s engagement with the world, the Bible could have set us that example, but it doesn’t. And that ought to urge us to be cautious.
The Bible also describes God as omnipresent, or present everywhere.
So Psalm 139 it reflects on the fact that it is impossible to escape God or to end up somewhere where God can’t reach us. It says,
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7–12 NIV)
An idea that is related to omnipresence is what is known as God’s immensity. So in 1 Kings 8, at the commissioning of the temple, Solomon says,
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (1 Kings 8:27 NIV)
It’s not simply that God can reach everywhere, but his being is such that he cannot be contained by space.
Moreover, those two ideas come together in Jeremiah 23, which says,
“Am I only a God nearby,” declares the Lord, “and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the Lord. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:23–24 NIV)
The reason there’s no place that we can go where God cannot find us is because God’s is present in every place. He is omnipresent.
And yet, the presence of God is also a more complicated idea than that too.
There are clearly times and ways in which God is especially present. So God can say to Moses in Exodus 33,
My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. (Exodus 33:14 NIV)
Or David can write,
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51:11 NIV)
So, too, Jesus says,
Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:23 NIV)
where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20 NIV)
So, too, when Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden on account of their sin, they are driven from the presence of God. And Cain, after murdering his brother, goes out from the Lord’s presence and lives east of Eden, according to Genesis 4:16.
There is a sense, then, in which God is present everywhere, but he is present in special ways in certain places and with certain people.
John Feinberg distinguishes between God’s ontological presence and God’s relational presence. That is, God is present everywhere in his being, but his relationship to the creation and the people varies in respect of how we stand in relation to him through Jesus—whether we are his enemies on account of our sin, or his children on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our place.
For example, it’s a mistake to say, as people sometimes do, that hell is a place where God is absent. Rather, hell is the place where God is present in judgement. Whereas the new creation is the place where God will be present with his people in love, grace and mercy.
God is also omnipotent, or all-powerful.
The biblical expression for that is “almighty”. In the New Testament, picking up on a word that is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament, God is called, pantokratōr, which literally means all-mighty.
But whether using that word or other words, time and again in the Bible God is described as being all powerful.
Paul says in Romans 1,
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen…. (Romans 1:20 NIV)
Or Job says,
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2 NIV)
So too, Jesus says to his disciples in the Great Commission,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (Matthew 28:18 NIV)
So too Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 19,
With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26 NIV)
Paul describes Jesus as,
far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:21 NIV)
Isaiah 14 says,
For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27 NIV)
Or Isaiah 43,
Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43:13 NIV)
So, too, in Hebrews we’re told that Christ upholds all things (Heb 1:3), and in Colossians that “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).
But in saying that God is almighty and all powerful, we also need to be careful to clarify exactly what we mean by that. Can God do absolutely anything? Can he, for example, sin? Can he die? Can he create another God?
Importantly, the Bible also tells us that some things are impossible for God.
God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:18 NIV)
if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself. (2 Timothy 2:13 NIV)
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; (James 1:13 NIV)
In other words, omnipotence does not refer to God’s power to do anything at all, but God’s power to do anything and everything that is consistent with his nature and character. But far from being a limitation that is actually the perfection of his power.
Related to God’s omnipotence is God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty refers to God’s control over everything. That is, not only is God all powerful, but everything that that takes place, takes place within his will and purpose.
For example, theoretically, God could be all powerful, but choose at points, not to exercise that power. God could, perhaps, have created the world and then let it run and decided not to intervene. That view is referred to as deism. We came across that in the last episode. In deism, God is like a watchmaker who makes the watch and then lets it run. But that’s not the view of God that the Bible presents.
Another view is that while God is all powerful, perhaps, he limits the use of his power so as not to crush human free-will. That view is often described as Arminianism, referring to famous proponent of that view Jacob Arminius, who was around at the time of the Reformation.
But the Bible presents God as being in control of everything with his purpose and will standing, in some way, behind all that happens, even our decisions.
Paul writes in Ephesians,
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…. (Ephesians 1:11 NIV)
Or Psalm 115 says,
Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. (Psalm 115:3 NIV)
Or Psalm 135,
I know that the Lord is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods. The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths. (Psalm 135:5–7 NIV)
Or Job says of God,
I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2 NIV)
So, too, God’s plan, purpose and power stand behind even our human acts and human decisions.
Paul says in Acts 17,
‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:28 NIV)
Proverbs 16:9 tells us that,
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. (Proverbs 16:9 NIV)
Salvation, too, is grounded in God’s choice rather than human desire or effort. Paul says in Romans 9,
For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. (Romans 9:15–16 NIV)
Finally, even evil is not outside God’s control. Famously Joseph says to his brothers in Genesis 50, that while they intended their actions for evil, God intended their actions for good.
How the sovereignty of God fits within human responsibility and also with evil is a complex subject that we’ll return to in a few episodes time when we look at providence or God’s control over the world.
But for the moment it’s helpful simply to note, that not only is God all powerful, but he is sovereign over all things, everything that happens flows in someway from his purpose and will. Moreover, whatever God chooses to do is unconstrained. No one compels him to do one thing or another. His decisions are his own and arise from his own plans and motivations.
God is self-existent, eternal, omnipresent, all powerful and sovereign.
And while those attributes might seem at face value a little bit complicated at times or even a bit dry, they’re really important for us to understand. That’s because they each of them impacts the way we relate to and trust God.
God’s self-existence means he is utterly reliable. He depends on no one else. Therefore, we can always depend on him.
God’s eternity means that God never goes away. He is not like family and friends who one day will die. Unlike them, God will never leave us nor forsake us.
God’s omnipresence means, as we saw from Psalm 139, that we can never escape God and no one and nothing can ever take us somewhere that God isn’t with us.
God’s omnipotence means that nothing we face is beyond God’s power.
And his Sovereignty means that whatever happens, God is working all things together for the good of those who love him.
Far from being academic, understanding the nature of God is deeply, deeply practical.
That’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology.
Join me next time as we think the rest of the non-moral attributes of God: omniscience, wisdom, immutability, infinity, unity and simplicity.
Please join me then.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958), 42.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 43.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 41, 43.
 See Gerald Lewis Bray, The Doctrine of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 81.
 John Damascene, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, vol. 9b, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), 6.
 John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 263.
 Feinberg, No One Like Him, 288
 Theses examples are taken from Feinberg, No One Like Him, 294.
 Feinberg, No One Like Him, 294.