The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

July 24, 2014

The Incommunicable Attributes of God

Basics of Christian Faith: God
By: 
Jonathan Rice

What is Christian doctrine? And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?

Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.

These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief monthly posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.


In this series about Christian doctrine, we’ve been surveying the core biblical teachings of Christian faith. In the previous piece, we introduced the attributes of God and those attributes’ division into the categories of “Incommunicable” (qualities possessed by God alone, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and transcendence) and “Communicable” (qualities that both God and we possess, such as love, knowledge, and mercy).

Biblical scholars disagree among themselves about the categories of God’s attributes and whether such separations are helpful at all. But for our purposes here, we’ll assume that the division between Incommunicable Attributes and Communicable Attributes is beneficial for our understanding of Christian doctrine.

A Short List of the Incommunicable Attributes of God

The list of God’s Incommunicable Attributes is long. So we’ll only introduce a few of those attributes here:

Sovereign

God is the Supreme Being of the universe. God precedes and is “above,” as it were, all things. And everything that exists is under God’s rule and authority. Since God is sovereign, we cannot praise ourselves for our salvation. Indeed, everything in our lives is a gift from God.

Look at the life of King David. He strayed from God’s will and suffered much, but he still trusted in God’s sovereignty, and God used David to bless people. Our believing God is sovereign gives us confidence that all things in our lives will work for good, despite our suffering.    

Omnipotent 

God is the most powerful Being in all existence, able to accomplish his will, though unwilling to do anything contrary to his nature. We have a divine helper who enables us to persevere. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Our believing God is omnipotent gives us strength, for we are not alone in our weakness.

Omniscient

God knows everything of the past, present, and future. God knows everything actual and potential. Not only does God know all things; God also cares about everything and everyone.

The book of Proverbs tells us, “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). Our knowing that God is omniscient gives us peace when facing life’s uncertainties. Our believing God is omniscient assures us that God knows us and loves us. 

Omnipresent

God is always present in all places. But God is not in all things, a concept called pantheism. Christian theology has traditionally asserted that the person of God and the nature of created things are distinct: God is not in a tree or in a drop of water. And God is not in a person—until that person is born anew of God’s Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. This claim that God’s Spirit is not within all humans until they are born anew through God’s self-initiated act contradicts the religious concept that we are sparks of the divine, potential deities. Biblically speaking, we are all created in the image of God, but we are not little gods.

The psalmist speaks of the omnipresence of God when he writes, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10). Our believing God is omnipresent gives us the joy that God is with us always.

Transcendent

God transcends all creation and is unknowable apart from his self-initiated revelation. What we know about God comes only through God’s revelations, both general and special. (For more about the general and special revelations of God, see the previous post “What Is the Bible?”)

The first words of the Bible record that the transcendent God created the heavens and the earth, which is described as a formless void covered by darkness. Then God said, “Let there be light. . . . And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:3-5). God stands above and outside creation. And all that God creates is good.

Our believing God is transcendent gives us the understanding that our Creator is not limited by the natural laws of this world. God can do miracles.

Immanent

God is active in this world and in our daily lives. God cares about every aspect of our existence and invites us to welcome his guidance, grace, and love.

Speaking of Jesus Christ, Paul wrote to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. . . . He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).

Jesus, the very person of God, walked on this earth. Today, God’s Spirit is among us, present in his people, immanent and active among the nations, changing the world. Our believing God is immanent in this world gives us assurance that God is with us, despite the evils and sufferings we see in daily life.

Immutable

God is complete and perfect. Therefore, God does not need to mature or grow better at being God. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Our believing God is immutable gives us the certainty that our world is essentially meaningful, for God is unchanging in his person and will not act unjustly.

Infinite

God is unlimited. As Jesus said, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). We are created with great potential for growth, individually and in community. Our believing God is infinite gives us faith that our lives have a larger purpose than our years on earth.  

Eternal

God is not confined to three-dimensional space or time. God never had a beginning; God will never have an end. The psalmist says of God: “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.  They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away; but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Psalm 102:25-27). Since we are created in the image of the infinite God, we have an eternal destiny. Our believing God is eternal gives us eternal hope.

A Right View of God

These Incommunicable Attributes of God give us a biblical notion of the divine Being we worship as Christians and help us discern between the biblical God and the idols of this world.


Jonathan Rice is an editor with InterVarsity. 

Image by Laura Li-Barbour.

Comments

These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. How can you say this in light of the situation the world is in today. A sound understanding of Christian doctrine is more important than ever before. When we have people who claim to be Christian but can not even explain the basic beliefs, I believe we need Theologians and Pastors to spend more time on the basic Doctrine of God and less on the social aspects of the church.

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