What is the nature of God? What is he like? This post will be taking a brief look at the nature of God, seeking to get an overview of his nature and character. The Bible will be our primary guide to understanding who God is and his attributes. But even with the help of the Bible we will be limited in what we can know and understand about God. We are finite beings seeking to understand the infinite. Anything approaching complete understanding is not possible for us.
The Attributes of God
There are a number of ways that the study of God’s attributes is approached. One of these is to divide them into communicable and incommunicable attributes. Communicable attributes are those that humans may also have, although to a lesser extent. Incommunicable attributes are those that are unique to God alone. This organization is purely an issue of convenience and does not reflect their importance or value.
God is spirit. He does not have physical form or limitations. He is not limited by physical place or time. John 4:24 most clearly expresses this attribute, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
God is self-existent. His name “I Am”, in Exodus 3:14, indicates that he is not dependent on anything else for his life, he is self-existent. That is unlike any other life that we know; all of the rest of us are dependent on him for life. This attribute is often called aseity.
God is simple. At first glance we might question this as an attribute. After all, we are complex beings, and he is infinitely greater than we are. But simplicity here does not mean a lack of greatness. It means that all of God’s attributes are fully merged in his nature; he is fully unified. While love and anger are both attributes of my humanity, they are distinct from each other and at times are at odds with each other. That is not the case with God. His love and his anger at sin are not two distinct attributes that are at odds with each other, sometimes demonstrating one and at other times demonstrating the other. God’s love, holiness, mercy, and wrath, while distinct attributes from a human perspective, are all fully integrated and merged in the divine nature.
God is infinite. God is without any limits.
- In relation to space. Jeremiah 23:23-24 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.” We could call this attribute omnipresence.
- In regards to time. Psalm 90:1-2 says, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” This is actually a part of omnipresence; God is everywhere in both time and space. We also see this as God being eternal.
- In relation to knowledge. Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This attribute is also call omniscience.
- In regards to power. Matthew 19:26 says, “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” This attribute is generally called omnipotence. Over a hundred time in the Scripture, God is referred to as God Almighty, another reference to his omnipotence.
God is unchanging. In Malachi 1:6 God says, “I the Lord do not change.” And in James 1:17 we are told that God, “does not change like shifting shadows.” God is at least unchanging in his nature and in his plans for his creation. He does not have to change his plans because of anything I might do. This attribute is oftentimes called immutability.
God is sovereign. God answers to no one and is free to do whatever he chooses with his creation. In Isaiah 46:10 God says “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” As humans, God is not obligated to do anything for us. Nothing we can do will put him into our debt.
God has personhood. He is not some great cosmic force, but has personality, is self-consciousness and capable of having relationships. That God is a person, not a human, is at least partially expressed by having a name. In Exodus 3:13-14 Moses asks God for his name and God responds with “I Am”. Only one with self-awareness can identify himself with a name. Repeatedly throughout scripture you also see God interacting with people, often expressing a desire for relationship with people.
God is holy. He is set apart, or distinct, from all of creation. In Leviticus 11:44 God says, “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” He is holy, and calls on us to share in that holiness. Some would label this as an incommunicable attribute, but it is listed here because he does call on us to also be holy as he is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
God is righteous. Psalm 71:19 says, “Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens.” God does what is right and commands us also to do what is right. Repeatedly in the Old Testament his law is praised as being righteous. And in the New Testament, God’s righteousness is given to those who surrender to him.
God is truthful. What he says and does is in accordance with truth. 1 Samuel 15:29 says, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.” We can count on him to do what is right. And we can depend on what he has told us in his word.
God is faithful. He is dependable and keeps his promises to us. In Numbers 23:19 we find, “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”
God is love. 1 John 4:16 says, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” God is not loving; he is love. Love is sharing of oneself with another, and God does this for us. John 3:16 expresses this with, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God is gracious. Grace is God’s unmerited favor given to an undeserving people. Ephesians 2:6-7 says, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
God is merciful. He has compassion on a poor and helpless people. Romans 9:17, speaking about God’s gift of righteousness, says, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
God is wrathful. Most of us today don’t like the idea of a wrathful God; it seems so contrary to love, grace and mercy. Yet both testaments have numerous references to God’s wrath. Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness”. His wrath is reserved for those who reject his grace and mercy.
God has all of these attributes in full measure. He is not a little of this and a little of that. But he is each of these to the fullest amount possible. As expressed above, these attributes are in complete union and harmony with each other. God is the standard for all of these attributes. We do not judge God’s love based on some external standard. Rather he is the standard by which we can judge love. And the same applies to all of God’s attributes.
The Trinity is a uniquely Christian doctrine, teaching that there is only one God, but in three persons. The Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Bible, but is implicitly proclaimed throughout the New Testament. It is worth taking the time to look at the scriptural evidence to support the concept of the Trinity. How did we come to our current understanding of the Trinity. And what are some common analogies used to describe the Trinity.
The Shema, in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 begins with “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” When Jesus is asked for the greatest commandment, Mark 12:28-30, he replies by quoting this portion of the Shema. This affirms that, at least for Israel, and Jesus, that there is only one God; they are monotheistic. James 2:19, 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, and 1 Timothy 2:5-6 also affirm that there is only one God.
Father: Jesus talks about his Father often, and the other New Testament writers used this term for God as well. In Matthew 6:26 the Father feeds the birds of the air while in v.30 God clothes the grass of the field. In this passage Jesus is using God and Father interchangeably. The Father, distinct from the Son, is God.
Son: In John 10:30 Jesus says that he and the Father are one. They are distinct, and yet in some fashion are one. Philippians 2:5-9, in speaking of Jesus, Paul says “who being in very nature God”, affirming that Jesus is God. John 1:1-3; 14, Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 all speak of Jesus as being God.
Holy Spirit: In John 14:16 Jesus tells his disciples that the Father would send to them another advocate, the Spirit of truth. The ‘another’ in this passages indicates one who is like Jesus; this Spirit of truth is also God. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 Paul tells us that we are God’s temple, while in 1 Corinthians 6:19 we are the temple of the Holy Spirit; God and the Holy Spirit are synonymous here.
Three in Oneness
In the baptismal formula in Matthew 18:19-20, we are told to baptize believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Note the singular ‘name’ here rather than names. We are to baptize in the name of the one God in three persons.
In 2 Corinthians 13:14 Paul says, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” All three parts of the trinity are included here without any indication of rank and in a different order than in the Matthew quotation. If they are all equal, then the order does not matter.
The orthodox position of the Trinity is that God is one being, of one substance, with three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, and yet of one substance. They are all three eternal and uncreated. Ontologically they are equal, even though functionally for the purpose of our redemption, the Son and The Holy Spirit are submissive to the Father.
This understanding of the Trinity was slow in developing and resulted mostly from the need to separate the orthodox position from heresies that were abounding in the early centuries of the church. The Council of Nicaea, in 325, produced the Nicene Creed which was modified in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople. This creed has been accepted as the orthodox position by Roman Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox churches.
Modalism teaches that there is only one God who appears to us as either Father, Son or Holy Spirit. While they are all the one God, God is only one of them at any one time. For instance: the Father is active in creation; the Son in redemption; and the Spirit in our sanctification. Oneness Pentecostalism is a current example of this heresy.
Tritheism teaches that the three persons of the Trinity are actually distinct gods, although sharing the same substance. Mormons practice a form of tritheism, believing the Father, the Son and the Spirit are distinct individuals.
Arianism teaches that Christ is the first and greatest of God’s creations, that he has a beginning and is not eternal. The Nicene Creed was developed primarily in response to Arianism. Jehovah’s Witnesses today proclaim a version of Arianism.
As humans, we struggle with trying to understand the concept of the Trinity. In an attempt to understand the Trinity we have developed a number of analogies, but all of the analogies fall short and many of them are actually supportive of one of the heresies listed above.
The analogy of the egg postulates that the Trinity is like an egg, which has three parts; the shell, the yoke and the white. This is actually a form of tritheism, since the three parts of the egg are of different substances, unlike the triune God whose persons are of one substance.
The analogy of water is another attempt to describe the Trinity. Water can be a solid, a liquid or a gas; one substance in three different forms. Yet this is actually a form of modalism; the water can only be in one of these states at a time.
I am a father, a husband and a son; three distinct roles yet one person. The problem with this is that I function in a single role at a time; to no one am I more than one of these roles. That makes this a form of modalism.
The only analogy I know of that comes close is from the world of physics. Light is both a particle and a wave, depending on how you look at it. That is challenging to understand, at least for me, but physicists assure us that it is the case. In the same way that the Trinity has a single essence with three simultaneous persons, so a single photon of light has two simultaneous states.
Ultimately I know of no simple analogies that adequately describe the Trinity. It is not really understandable to us finite creatures and is simply a matter of faith. The Bible, while not explicitly teaching the doctrine, does affirm this doctrine, and so we accept it by faith. God is one in three persons.
The Will of God
The will is what we call the ability to choose, think, and act voluntarily. This is a characteristic of humanity but it is much greater with God. God, as a person, has the ability to choose, think and act free of any constraint beyond his own nature. Complicating the understanding of God’s will, is it’s relationship to the will of his creatures, in particular humans. God has created humanity and given us some measure of will and the freedom to exercise it. But does the exercise of my will interfere with God’s will; is my will limited to act only within the will of God, or can my will act in ways that are contrary to God’s will. There are God fearing Bible believing Christians today who sit on both sides of this question.
I believe that Scripture indicates that I am able to act in ways that are contrary to God’s will. Throughout the pages of the Bible, from the fall, the flood, and the history of Israel we see over and over mankind resisting God’s will and exercising their own instead. But if I can resist God’s will, does that make me stronger than he is? Some people take it that way, and would respond by denying that humanity can actually resist God’s will. But in the same way I allowed my children to exercise, within limits, their own wills, even when contrary to mine, so God allows us to exercise our wills in ways contrary to his. It does not mean I am stronger. It means that God is allowing me some freedom.
Those who accept that human will can resist God’s will tend toward seeing God’s will from two different perspectives. The first of these is God’s antecedent will. This describes God’s will prior to human will and is illustrated by 2 Peter 3:9 where God is said not to want anyone to perish. God’s antecedent will is that all people be saved. But our human will is allowed to resist God and as a result God’s subsequent will is what happens as a result of our resistance. John 3:16-18 is clear that those who continue to resist God’s offer of salvation in Christ are condemned, who those who accept it experience eternal life. But these distinctions in the will of God are only from the human perspective. God’s will is not divided or at odds with itself or any part of his nature.
Immanence and Transcendence
There are two additional attributes of God to examine. Immanence and transcendence deal with God’s interaction with the creation.
God is not a part of his creation; he is outside of it. This is what is meant by transcendence. Most of the gods of mythology are not transcendent, they are a part of the natural world. Zeus was powerful and ruled over the gods and humanity, but he was still contained within this universe. The gods of Mormonism are also not transcendent; they did not create the universe and are contained within it. The gods of Hinduism and New Age are also not transcendent, being one with the physical universe.
But the creator of the universe is transcendent to it; he is distinct from the universe he created. The transcendent God is not bound by any restrictions imposed on his creation, such as time and space. Transcendence is both a logical reality as well as affirmed by the Bible. Isaiah 55:8-9 tell us that God is wholly unlike us, while the attributes for infinity above list some of the passages that indicate his freedom from the constraints of the creation.
While transcendence refers to a God who is outside of the creation, immanence refers to a God who is involved with the creation. The god of deism is transcendent, but is not immanent; he does not get involved in the working of the creation and in the lives of people. The God of Christianity though is immanent; he is present in the creation, active in history, and working to create a people he can call his own. Jeremiah 23:23-24 and Acts 17:27-28 refer to God’s immanence. Even more vivid is the example of the incarnation, God taking on human flesh and living among us.
God’s immanence is particularly significant for us. A deistic god is pretty much indifferent to what happens within creation. But God is intimately concerned about accomplishing his purpose in creation. He is active in our lives, and we can have a relationship with him that is beyond intellectual acknowledgement.
Questions about the Nature of God
There are many questions that people raise about the nature of God and some of the more common ones are addressed below.
Can God make a rock so big he cannot lift it? Can God make a square circle? These are some of the questions people ask when trying to refute the omnipotence of God. But when you look a bit closer at them you see they fall into the category of logical impossibilities. If I were to make a square circle, I would actually have a square. Making an impossible to move rock is a bit trickier. In essence it is asking if a limitless God can make something (a big rock) that would limit himself (unable to pick up). But this is logically impossible; how could a limitless being create limits for himself?
God and Time
I am a finite being and bound by time and space; I can only be in one place at a time, and can only be in the current moment. For me the past is gone and the future has not yet happened; only the current moment actually exists. I can remember or read about things that have happened before the current moment and I can guess what will happen in the future, either because in my experience it always has (the sun appearing in the sky every day) or because I am planning on it to happen. But I have no certainty.
But what about God? We believe God to be transcendent, distinct from the creation and not bound by time and space. We also believe him to be omnipresent; there is no place in the universe that he is not. God is also omniscience, knowing all things. But is his omnipresence and omniscience limited only to space at the current time? Or does it span all of time as well?
We would generally answer that God is omniscience in regards to time; that he knows everything that will ever happen over the life of the universe. But how does he know the future? Some would say that he knows it because it is operating according to the plan he laid out before creation. Everything that happens is according to his plan, or will. Others will say that he knows the future because he is smart enough to know everything and so can predict what will happen tomorrow, and next year, and a million years from now. And his predictions are so certain as to be absolute.
But is God omnipresent in regards to time? In other words, is he currently in the age of the dinosaurs as well as in the age of the Jetson’s? It would be easy to say no to this, since the past and future don’t actually exist. But is that true for one who is outside of time, for whom time does not proceed along in a linear fashion? There are a trio of passages in the New Testament that may give us some insight about this.
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. – Ephesians 1:4 NIV
This passage says that God chose me before creation. Before the moment of creation, God already had knowledge of me and had chosen me to be a part of his plan; to be holy and blameless in his sight. Did God only have intellectual knowledge? Or did he also have relational knowledge?
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. – Romans 8:29-30 NIV
In this passage we see that those God had known prior to creation were also predestined to be like Christ, were also called, were justified, and were glorified. As a Christian I can see that God has predestined, called and justified me; those things have happened in my past. But glorification is something I look forward to; yet it is in the past tense here. God has glorified me. God is not in time: my past, present, and future are all now to him. So while glorification may be in my future, Paul can easily describe it as something that, along with my predestination, calling and justification, all happened when God foreknew me; prior to creation. It is not something God knew would happen, but something that did happen.
He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. – 2 Timothy 1:9-10 NIV
This final passage adds clarity to the above when Paul affirms that God’s grace was given to me before the beginning of time, prior to creation. From my perspective this happened 45 years ago. But from God’s perspective it happened long before that; although the terms before and after are meaningless to one outside of time. To him it is all just now.
Time is an integral part of the creation that controls my earthly existence. But it does not impact God. And that provides a third possible response to God’s knowledge of the future: he is there. He can see my future, not because he has planned it out, or because of his predictive ability, but because he is there. In every moment of my life, past, present, and future, God is there. It is not that he was with me and will be with me, but that he is currently with me, even at the end of my life.
Because God is currently in every moment of time, he knows every choice and action I will ever make. And I can, within limits, freely make choices that have no impact on his knowing the future. How? Because he is in the future, seeing me make those choices as well as the consequences of them. And, if that is a valid picture, then it would seem that omniscience and human free will are not really in conflict.
Open Theism is an attempt to explain how God knows the future. And they do this by denying that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future. In Open Theism, God cannot know the choices humans will make prior to the making of those choices. If he did know them, then the people really didn’t make a real choice. In other words, the future can only be known if it is pre-determined. And that is not compatible with human free will. So, while God can know some of what will happen in the future, he can know nothing that humans impact.
This brings up some rather interesting, and damning ideas. If God does not know the future, it is possible for him to make a mistake, directing me to do something that doesn’t work out as expected. God may need to back up and try again sometimes. It also makes it hard for me to trust him for my future. Afterall, if he doesn’t know what is coming, how can he be an adequate guide for my life. He is really just guessing, and while his guesses may be better than mine, they are still just guesses.
Is the God of the Old Testament also the God of the New Testament?
Many people who read the Bible will note that the God of the Old Testament appears to have a different character than the God of the New Testament. Old Testament God is kind of grouchy, smiting people who do not follow his instructions and commanding genocide against whole people groups because they worship other gods. In Numbers 31:15-18 you have God instructing Israel to take vengeance on the Midianites because of their attempt to seduce Israel. But this vengence did not include virgin girls, who could be taken as slaves or maybe wives. In Deuteronomy 20:10-18 instructions are given for going to war against the inhabitants of Canaan, and it is not pretty, including genocide of multiple tribes of people, showing no mercy to them.
On the other hand, New Testament God loves everyone and wants us all to know him. John 3:16 says that God loves the world and gave his Son in order to rescue us. In Matthew 5:48-43 Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can we reconcile this with God’s instructions concerning the Midianites?
So what do we make of this seeming difference between the Old and New Testaments? Are they referring to two distinct Gods? It is tempting to take this approach and downplay the Old Testament. After all, isn’t the Old Testament the Jewish Bible and of secondary importance to Christians? Indeed it is the Jewish Bible, but it was also the Bible of Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers. And nowhere can we find Jesus or any of the New Testament authors trying to correct the image of God presented in the Old Testament. He was their God and they embraced him without reservation. So it would appear that what we today view as a distinction in the nature of God between the Old and New Testaments is only apparent and not actual.
When we look deeper we will discover than the messages between the testaments is not as clear cut as one might initially believe. In Leviticus 19:34 God gives instructions for the people to love the foreigners who were dwelling among them; quite a contrast to the instructions for genocide found elsewhere in the Torah. And in the New Testament, references to the wrath of God being poured out on unbelievers are common.
But that still does not explain the passages giving instruction for genocide, both for the tribes living in Canaan when Israel entered the land as well as the Amalekites who had attached Israel during their exodus from Egypt. Did God actually command the Israelites to do this? Or did Israel just do it and then justify it by claiming it is what God wanted them to do? If the Bible is inerrant, whether strictly or soteriologically, then we have to admit that the message presented is at least one that God was OK with.
It could be that the establishment of Israel as a nation was a special time in history and it was necessary to remove these peoples who would corrupt the fledgling nation. There are problems with this approach as well, so it is probably best to just admit ignorance on this question and not get bogged down by it.
Does God Change His Mind
There are a number of times in the Bible where God appears to change his mind, including Genesis 6:6 where it says that God regretted making humans. Exodus 32:14, where God relents from his plan to destroy Israel after the golden calf incident, is another. Did God really change his mind? Was Moses actually able to offer God a better alternative than his original plan? Open Theism proponents would say that he did, that God recognized he had make a mistake and was correcting it. But why would a God who is truly omniscience ever need to change his mind. He would have known from prior to creation what was going to be happening and already determined from then how he would respond.
Rather than God actually changing his mind, these passages speak from a human perspective; God only appeared to change his mind. The passage in Exodus is really a lesson about prayer. If God does not change his mind and already has everything planned out, then what value is there in prayer? Can prayer change things? Moses’ prayer to God concerning Israel did indeed change how God reacted to the golden calf. But the omniscient God knew from creation what Moses’ prayer would be and had already taken it into account. It appeared like God had changed his mind, but in reality he acted as he had planned from eternity past. However, had he foreknow that Moses prayer would be different, his response to Israel would likewise have potentially been different.
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- The Trinity
- God, Time, and the Future
- The Attributes of God
- Musings about God: Foreknowledge or Foreordination
- The Sovereignty of God
- What God is Like
- How Big is God