To somewhat preface the subject of theology proper, I want to define it. Theology proper is the search to understand the attributes of God. It is the doctrine of God. The doctrine of God is deep and has many categories. When we start in theology, we need to begin with God, because unlike popular belief, man was made in God’s image and not God made in man’s. What I mean by that is that all of Scripture points us to God, and not toward humanity. We like to use clichés, such as, “The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity,” but that simply is not true. All of creation and all of God’s Holy Writ point to God, and glorify God, and never any aspect of the creation alone. Any kind of benefit that comes to the creation is only dedicated to that created thing because in so dedicating, it also brings glory to God.
As the first chapter, we’ll examine a little bit of preliminary knowledge into the attributes of God. From there, in the second chapter, we’ll examine the doctrine of the trinity. After that, we’ll examine some of the attributes that are associated with God’s humility. In our fourth chapter, we’ll consider Christology, then Pneumatology, and then wrap it up in chapter six with examining God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.
In order to introduce the subject of the attributes of God, I think we need to define what attributes even are. To say that God ‘is loving’ is to claim that this is one of His attributes. But how exactly do we define such a word? I personally define the attributes as core characteristics. This is what God is in His essence. There are many attributes that are “attributed” to God, yet are not truly attributes. One prime example of this would be God’s infinitude. To say that God is infinite is quite an illogical statement. What does that even mean? If we were to say that God is infinite, therefore He is omnipresent, then we have mistaken the translation of such a word. Infinite cannot be a mathematical term when applied to a being, so to say that God is infinite is to say that He is “infinitely” what He is. Yet, why do we need to make such terms? God is what He is, and He is not anything else. Anything that God is, He is in His very essence. So to say that God is “infinitely loving” seems to me a redundancy.
The much more logical way of expressing this would be to simply point out that God is the very essence of these things, and that outside of God there cannot be any of these attributes. In making such a statement, we cancel the necessity of making terms like “infinitude.” There are other things that are attributed to God that He simply does not call Himself. An example of this would be “immutability.” This is merely a technical way of saying that God never changes. We need to define our terms, because to take verses like Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8) as God being immutable seems to me irrational. God doesn’t change in His core nature; this is true. Yet, from this it is too easy to then say that God never changes His opinion. But if we’re to be honest, we find that God does change His opinion.
When on Mount Sinai, Moses prays for the Israelites who have just sinned. God says that He will kill them all and make Moses into a nation. The question then is pressed: Is God truly free to make such a decision? If we say that He is, then we must confess that God has the ability to change His plans and purposes. If we say that God was not able to make such a decision, then we must conclude that God would never have even done so, regardless of whether He spoke it. If we choose the second option, we’re now in a place where we need to reexamine some of our understanding of what it means that God is not a man that He should lie. He might not lie, but apparently He would be willing to deceive Moses for the sake of a ‘test’. Yet, if we were to say the first option is true, it seems like we’re indicating that God does not have any forethought or foreknowledge. It says in Isaiah that God expresses the end from the beginning – He has foretold His work. How, then, can we claim either the first or the second option?
There is, of course, a third option. This option says that God was free to choose however He desired for His eternal purposes to pan out, and that He made that choice before the foundations of the world were laid. Once the foundations of the world were laid, God then was “stuck” with whatever would pan out. Calvinists would use this to say that God actually planned out the whole course of history, whereas I’m much more interested in the idea that God would have foreknowledge, yet allow human freewill. In a sense, God knows exactly what will happen before it happens, and He thus knew before Israel sinned that they would sin, but He is also relational and allowed Israel to reject Him by their own choice. Therefore, God has emotion and reacts. Yet, that God is less sovereign because of humanity’s freewill. God’s sovereignty is shown all the more apt because He is able to be sovereign even when mankind has option to go against His eternal plan.
This, of course, is only the beginning of a very long debate. What I desire to focus upon in this writing is more along the lines of where God gets His attributes. It is my opinion that every single attribute can be traced back to God outside of the Bible. That is to say that Scripture is the authority by which we understand these attributes, and yet it is also from an outside source that we can conclude all of these. God has revealed Himself to us, and in that revelation has made Himself known as He is. Therefore, we know His attributes because He has revealed Himself. And how exactly has He revealed Himself? God has given the revelation of Himself in three distinct ‘persons’, yet all in one being. He is the Triune God, and from that trinity He is fully expressed in every manner.
The way that we can better understand God as a trinity is actually not by studying the Scripture. As true as it is that we need to study, and as true as it is that if we do not study that we will not understand, our meticulous analysis of God’s Holy Writ needs to be accompanied with an outworking of what it says. We must obey the Word of God. We can’t even stop there. We must work it out among the other believers. Christ Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that we would be one, as He and the Father are one. The last phrase tells us the definition of the first phrase, and therefore helps us to understand how God can be one, but at the same time the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
In our outworking of this particular command – to love one another – we experience God in a completely distinct manner. Without this we are destined to continually “believe in” the Trinity, but “not understand” the Trinity. How many times have you heard that phrase? Our understanding of the Trinity does not come from our careful breakdown of the Scripture via philosophical mechanism. It comes from being in relationship to this Trinity. Our relationship to God is most concretely experienced when we attach ourselves to the Body as the Bride of Christ. That attachment is more than a mere adjoining. Until we can truly say that we are one as He is one, we have not come to the place that we can adequately describe the Trinity.
I have also found that some seem to think that when I speak on the attributes of God that I am speaking on the character of God. In a sense this is true. But in a larger sense, I am not. When we ask the question, “What is God like?” we are asking two different questions. The first is what I’m writing about: God’s attributes/characteristics. The second I do not address in this volume: God’s character. The two are interwoven, and so to speak on the one without touching the other is impossible. Attributes are defined simply as “the defining factors of who God is.”
There are many things that we can attribute to God. God is love. God is mercy. God is just. God is righteous. God is holy. Many attributes are not spoken of in this volume. The reason for this is simple: how can you possibly exhaust God? One of the things that I’ve tried to do is narrow down the field of attributes. Some attributes come from others, and some attributes are a given because other attributes are true. For example, to say that God is eternal would mean that He never changes. It would also say that He is timeless. It would also lend to that God is transcendent.
Lastly before we commence, I want to address one issue that we should all intuit, but we don’t all follow it. Our understanding of God must come from God and not a preconceived idea of god. We all have our own bias as to what God should be like. We all have our own bias to what these different attributes of God are to be like. But if we come to God with these preconceived notions, we might actually make an idol for ourselves and call it Jesus instead of worshiping Jesus. The harshest rebuke that I have ever found in Scripture was against Israel. God said, “You thought I was one like yourself,” Psalm 50:21. What a shame it would be for us to have all the necessary tools to know God as He in fact is, and yet have this pronounced over us at the end of the age. The necessary tools are twofold: Scripture and revelation. God has made Himself known through His word. We must wrestle with the Bible. But we don’t wrestle intellectually alone. We wrestle through the second necessity: God’s Holy Spirit.
These two things are what we must appeal to when we desire to know God as God. We both know Him through study of His word, and we know Him through experience of the indwelling of the Spirit. God speaks to us. He reveals Himself to us through the dealings of our daily lives. Neither should be elevated above and over the other. Both should conform to one another. If there is a direct conflict between the way that we view God from His dealings with us and what the Holy Scriptures say, then we must check ourselves to make sure that we are indeed in the faith.
For this introduction, I desire to examine a few brief aspects of God. This will be something preliminary to our understanding of God as Triune, and thus it is in the introduction. Some have called these things “attributes” of God, but I would rather examine these various subjects simply as descriptions about God. The slight variation is everything. These aren’t necessarily who God is in the very core of His Being, but rather understandings that we know to be true simply because the Scripture says so, or because philosophically it can be no other way.