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THEOLOGY > God > God's Essence > The Question of Attributes 


To speak of God’s attributes is to speak of God’s essence—they are one and the same—they are inseparable. God’s essence is what His attributes are; the attributes comprise the essence and belong to the essence. To change the attributes is to change Deity, because the attributes are identical to the intrinsic essence of God.

The attributes and the essence are indivisible and cannot be distinguished. Between God’s essence and God’s attributes a distinction is not to be made, for “the whole essence is in each attribute, and attribute in the essence” (Shedd, DT, I, 334). Substituting the word “definition” for “essence,” Clark writes: “The attributes constitute the definition of God” (Trinity, 77). Hoeksema is very concise and definite: “God is His attributes” (RD, 58), and “He is all His attributes” (RD, 85). In other words, God is His essence, and His attributes constitute His essence.

The attributes are the properties of the one God; they did not develop but have always been identical to God, the sum of them being equal to God. The attributes cannot be added to or subtracted from; they are constant and permanent. They do not change because God does not change. If the attributes were to change then the essence would change, but God cannot change; change in God would reveal that God is not God.

The essence is known through the attributes, attributes which are acknowledged by man because of God’s Self-Revelation to man, that is, the attributes are not mere concepts that have arisen from man’s reason. They are not characteristics that are applied to God as a result of man’s reflections upon Deity; rather it is Revelation (see: Revelation), not human imagination, that explains man’s knowledge of the attributes. Man’s knowledge of God originates with God, not man. Theism is not anchored in an evolutionary process that has become more reflective and refined with the passing of time.

What has been revealed by God of Himself is accurate (Truth), therefore, we can know something definite, something that is truthful and reliable.  But, though we know something definite, we do not even know fully that which we know to be definite. The heights and depths of the implications of each attribute cannot be reached by the mind of man. We do not have exhaustive knowledge of God, but we do have true knowledge.

This true knowledge, however, cannot be fully grasped. God is love—simple to say but who would dare assert that he knows the full meaning of those three words? “Can you search out the deep things of God?” (Job 11:7); the answer is obvious. Man, because he is man, is incapable, in an ultimate sense, of understanding God.

But man can know God. To the degree that knowledge of the attributes is possible is the degree to which the believer can know God. Knowledge of the attributes constitutes real knowledge of God’s essence. The knowledge is not full, but it is real knowledge (Truth about God) that accurately corresponds to God’s essential essence. In other words, our knowledge of God is not conditional upon the manner in which He has revealed Himself. The attributes reveal what or who God is in Himself and are not merely what God is in His relationship to man.

The believer does not know God to be holy because God has revealed Himself as holy; rather, because God is holy, He has revealed Himself as holy. Therefore, man’s knowledge of God as holy corresponds to what God actually is—God is holy. Man’s knowledge of God as holy is true knowledge. The believer cannot exhaust the concept of holy, but to know that God is holy is to know something real or accurate about God; it is to know part of the Truth about God. The knowledge of God’s holiness is absolute in the sense that it is accurate, and the knowledge is relative in the sense that man cannot fully comprehend the multi-dimensions of holiness. We know, but we know in part!

It should not be thought that the essence of God is exhausted or fully presented when the attributes or qualities of God that are revealed in the Scriptures are delineated. It may be possible that there are attributes of God that He has not deemed it wise to reveal to man or that man is not capable of receiving at this time. Indeed, there may be attributes of God that man will never know, even in the glorified state.

Can it be known that all of the attributes of God are revealed in Scripture? Perhaps there are dimensions of God’s essence that will only be revealed to the believer in eternity, because only then will the believer be capable of receiving the additional knowledge of who or what God is. But even then full knowledge will not be attained. If there is to be future knowledge of God’s essence that has not been currently revealed, it is important to note that the future knowledge will not contradict present knowledge. Is it possible that the believer’s knowledge of God will be continually increasing in eternity?

One final observation is needed. No one attribute is more important than another; there is no priority when it comes to the attributes, no rank of superiority. All of the attributes together equal the one God. Since God is one, and therefore indivisible, the attributes of God cannot be divided nor separated. Together they form the Whole; remove one attribute and the Whole does not exist. Each attribute is essential, and each is related. For instance, God’s love is a holy love, and God’s holiness is a loving holiness. And God’s holy love is omnipresent and omnipotent. Discussing the attributes one at a time does not imply that the order in which the attributes are discussed is significant.

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