By Jonathan Rice

The Attributes of God

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.

Who is God? Is God personal and in any way like us? Does God have qualities of character, personality, and temperament? Such questions have occupied Christians since the beginning of the church.

Today, with the pluralization of Western societies and our ever-increasing awareness of religions unlike those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we’ve a great need to understand both Christian theology and what other religions teach. Why bother? Well, since Christ calls us to love people, our understanding other people’s religious beliefs demonstrates care for them. But more importantly, Christ calls us to spread the gospel among all nations. So our helping people learn what the Bible says is an act of discipleship.

Since the first century of the church, Christians have thought systematically about the nature of God and, over time, made a list of the divine attributes. According to the early Church Fathers, some of the attributes of God are omniscience, omnipotence, goodness, and love, to name but a few.

By the Middle Ages, theologians had said we deduce God’s attributes by:

  1. Causality, in which we infer God’s attributes from our observations of the natural world (for instance, the stars tell of the glory of God)
  2. Negation, in which we remove from our concept of God all imperfections (for instance, people sometimes tell lies, but God always tells the truth)
  3. Eminence, in which we ascribe to God the noblest qualities of humanity (for instance, people sometimes express love; therefore, God is perfect love)

You’ve probably noticed that none of these three methods of deducing the attributes of God rely solely on biblical revelation. Causality, Negation, Eminence—each rely on human reason. So consider this: If these rational methods alone comprise, say, the flying buttresses that brace our theology, we might rightfully be accused of importing humanism to prop up church teachings. And we could be accused of portraying God as no more than humanity writ large.

To keep from projecting our imperfect human image into the heavens, we need to discover God’s attributes through more than human reason. We need the self-disclosure of God.

The Revelation of God’s Attributes

Christians have historically believed that God has taken the initiative to reveal his divine nature and attributes through the natural world, the events in human history (particularly the history of the Jewish people), the person of Jesus Christ, and the Bible. When balanced together, these means of God’s revelation offer us a complete but not exhaustive knowledge about God. And when thinking theologically, keeping our interpretations in balance—particularly when those interpretations present a paradox—is not unwise.

As I see it, some of the most horrendous evils in human history were caused by unbalanced thinking about the nature of God—witness the gruesome human sacrifices of the Incas, the Egyptian worship of animals, the oppression of the Hindu caste system, the wrathful judgments of the Salem witch trials.

It’s not always obvious, but it’s true that we behave in accord with what we believe. So despite the postmodern notion that behavior precedes belief, we can see that people mostly act in ways that express their beliefs about God.

To avoid following a path of theological error, we need a way to attain reliable knowledge about God. Through the Bible we see who God truly is. Through God’s self-disclosure in Scripture, we discover the attributes of God.

How are these attributes of God classified? While Christian theologians have differed among themselves about the classification of God’s attributes, most of these theologians have agreed about two general categories, called Incommunicable Attributes and Communicable Attributes. In the next blog post in our “Basics of Christian Faith” series, we’ll look at the Incommunicable attributes of God.

Jonathan Rice is an Editor with InterVarsity.

Image by Laura Li-Barbour.

Read more on the basics of the Christian faith:

What Is the Bible?

The Authority of the Bible

Interpreting the Bible, Part 1

Interpreting the Bible, Part 2

How to Apply Biblical Truth to Our Daily Lives

Or check out these Bible studies on the attributes of God.

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