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Attributes of God - Communicable Attributes

This reflection series has, with the exception of God’s goodness, focused on the incommunicable attributes of God. Incommunicable attributes are the sole possession of God. Though we are made in God’s image, we do not reflect his infinity. Though we are made in his likeness, we do not reflect his simplicity. But, because God made us in his image and after his likeness, we do reflect some of his attributes, like goodness, in our character in varying degrees. These attributes are called communicable because they are able to be shared. God is the perfection of these attributes, so anything we know about them comes from God’s revelation of his own character. With that in mind, we will consider only two broad categories of God’s communicable attributes: intellectual and moral.

In Scripture, God identifies attributes that have been communicated to us but are mere reflections of His perfection. In Isaiah, he says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9). Many centuries later, Paul would declare the superiority of God’s wisdom and knowledge when he wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). These passages of Scripture declare the superiority of God’s intellectual attributes, which we will consider now.

As noted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s thoughts can be understood as his knowledge and his wisdom. God’s knowledge is complete and immediate because he is timelessly eternal and immutable. If God were able to increase his knowledge, he would change, but “there is no variation or shadow due to change” in God (James 1:17). Though Pastor Donny addressed God’s omniscience in an earlier reflection, it’s worth drawing out an implication here as well. Since God knows all things and nothing can be hidden from God, any system of belief that seeks to give God’s creation any degree of autonomy in decision making threats to undermine God’s perfect knowledge. That is to say, any way in which God’s knowledge is dependent on human actions strikes at the vital teaching that God knows all things. His knowledge cannot be perfect and independent if it is dependent, even hypothetically, on the thoughts and decisions of his creation. The interplay between God’s knowledge and our actions is mysterious, but “we affirm both free will and omniscience as an article of faith without professing fully to understand it.”[1] Perhaps that is because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and we cannot ascend the heavens to get into God’s mind.

Another aspect of God’s intellectual attributes is his wisdom. That there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom is familiar to us. An approximate way to describing the difference between these aspects is the difference between being book smart and street smart. Or, as Bavinck puts it, “Knowledge is theoretical; wisdom is practical and goal-oriented. Knowledge is a matter of the mind apart from the will; wisdom, though a matter of the mind, is made subservient to the will.”[2] So, in general, we can say that the craft of knowledge is wisdom (see Prov 3:19-20).

Turning to the second category of communicable attributes, we learn from Scripture that God is the perfection of moral attributes. A few weeks ago, I wrote about God’s goodness, which is vitally connected to his patience, mercy, and love. Only God is good and only God is love. We merely strive to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect in goodness, mercy, and love.

But that’s not all that can be said about God’s moral attributes. Just as God is good and He is love, so also He is holy, just, and true. In the Apostle John’s first letter, he coordinates these moral attributes together. He writes that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). John indicates that God’s light is his holiness, which is contrasted with the darkness of sin. Only those who walk in the light rather than darkness have true fellowship with God (vv6-7). He then contrasts our deception with God’s truth (v8). Finally, John reminds us that God, as light, is just when He forgives us our sins on account of the blood of Jesus his Son. So, John brings these three moral attributes together. God is light, so He is holy; there is no deception in God, so He is true; God forgives sins on account of Christ’s sacrifice, so He is just. All of this John explains because it brings our joy to completion (v4).

What is the benefit of reviewing the communicable attributes of God? Primarily, it gives us another occasion to bring glory to God. But there is another reason. In Christ, “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19). As such, Christ is the embodiment of God’s perfect communicable attributes. Since God has predestined to conform us to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29), our reflection on God’s communicable attributes gives us a picture of what it means to be truly human.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:179.

[2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:203.

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