Attributes of God: Christian Concepts

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In the tradition of Christian theology, an attribute of God is a perfection predicted of God in a formal, intrinsic, and necessary way as one of many defining characteristics. These perfections, first discovered as they are reflected in the created universe, are such that their objective concept can be disengaged from all their finite modes of realization, enabling them to be attributed to God as pure perfections within God. Such perfections are numerous and logically interconnected. One among them is given ontological priority as grounding all the others and is understood as the formal constituent of the divine nature; the others, derivative from it, are what are strictly called attributes. Historically, there have been many candidates for the former: goodness (Christian Platonism), being as act (Thomas Aquinas), infinity (Duns Scotus), radical intellection (John of Saint Thomas), omniperfection (nominalism), spirit as Geist (Hegel), radical liberty, love, and so forth.

The multiple formalities taken to be attributes are understood as characteristic of God in a way proper to himself, that is, one that transcends all finite modes in which any perfection is found realized in the cosmos. The formalities, as divine, remain unknowable in themselves. Thus, the "knowledge act" on which such predication is based is always analogical or symbolic in kind. This is clearest in the understanding that the many divine attributes are all really identical with divinity and so with each other, but that a formal distinguishing of them is demanded by the inadequacy of human thought in its finite mode of knowing God. Thus, the justice of God really is his mercy in the order of his own being, but both the formalities of justice and mercy are ascribed to him in the human finite order of knowing. The distinctions between the divine attributes, in other words, are distinctions of reason. It became customary to categorize these attributes in various ways, the most significant of which distinguishes entitative attributes from operative ones. The former characterized God in his very being (goodness, eternity, infinity, etc.); the latter characterize his necessary relationship to any world he might summon into being and are grasped by reason as the divine knowing and loving. These latter are attributes only insofar as they are necessarily in God. Thus, love is a divine attribute in that the Christian cannot conceive of God as nonloving, but the termination of that divine activity at this or that creaturely good is not an attribute but something freely chosen by God.

The doctrine concerning the divine attributes originated with the early Church Fathers and continued to develop, with its main architectonic lines unchanged, until the Enlightenment; it was not, for example, matter for dispute between the parties to the Reformation. Obviously, it is a theological construct rather than a direct matter of faith; that is to say, it is the product of reflection upon what God has revealed rather than the immediate content of that revelation. The self-revelation of God articulated in both Old and New Testaments (i.e., the Jewish and the Christian scriptures) is not any metaphysical account of God's essence and its defining characteristics, but a narrative of God's saving history with first Israel, and then, through Jesus Christ, with the world at large. Thus, the Bible offers no doctrine of divine attributes but rather an account of the attitudes God has freely chosen to adopt toward his creatures, his free decisions in the events of revelation and saving grace. In this light, the traditional teaching on the divine attributes assumes something of the character of a natural theology, in the sense that such teaching is neither revealed in a direct of formal way nor immediately derived from what is so revealed, but rather results from rational reflection upon a presupposed concept of what constitutes God's inmost nature. But the illation from characteristic activity to underlying nature or essence is a valid one logically, that is, the manner in which God freely chooses to relate to his creatures is disclosive of what constitutes his nature and attributers. Thus, there is a natural theology operative in the doctrine on the attributes, but it is not one which serves as a criterion for interpreting the Bible. Rather, the very converse is true: the New Testament confession of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ controls any subsequent determination of the attributes of God postulated theologically.

Inherent in the theism wherein the above understanding of the attributes is developed is a strong emphasis on God's transcendence of the world, without any denial of his simultaneous immanence therein. From the time of Hegel and Schleiermacher (in the mid-nineteenth century), emphasis begins to shift to the immanence of God. Classical theism is now confronted with a pantheistic notion of God (in which the world is God's unfolding of himself), or a panentheistic one (in which God and world, without being identical, are correlates each necessary to the other). Insofar as this movement gains momentum, it undercuts the traditional doctrine on the attributes by focusing not only on what constitutes God absolutely, but equally on what constitutes him relatively, that is, insofar as he is determined contingently by creatures. This approach has been adopted notably by process theology, which finds its inspiration in the thought of Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Here, "becoming," rather than "being," is the ultimate category, and God is only partially described in terms of absolute attributes he cannot lack (divine nature as primordial); the full description includes also God's limited but actual determination of his own nature in his action upon and reaction to the world (divine nature as consequent). Differing from this but sharing in some of its basic intuitions are various theologies following the modern stress upon subjectivity and self-consciousness. These tend to historicize the reality of God, viewing it more as event than as being: as the power of the future (Wolfhart Pannenberg), or the promise of a new future (Jürgen Moltmann). Here, the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament especially are translated, not into a metaphysical scheme taken over from Greek rationalism, but into the categories of universal history. In such thought, the attributes of God are not done away with but are relativized historicallyfor example, God is no longer characterized as eternal but as infinitely temporal.

See Also

God, articles on God in Postbiblical Christianity, God in the New Testament.


The most thorough coverage available is in the series of articles under Dieu by various authors in vol. 4 of the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, edited by Alfred Vacant and Eugène Mangenot (Paris, 1911). Another extensive study can be found in W. T. Davison's article "God, Biblical and Christian," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 6 (Edinburgh, 1913). The biblical data are well covered in Karl Rahner's "Theos in the New Testament," in Theological Investigations, vol. 1 (Baltimore, 1961). For the thought of the Church Fathers, the best available single work is G. L. Prestige's God in Patristic Thought (1936; reprint, London, 1952). A contemporary defense of the classical teaching is to be found in H. P. Owen's Concepts of Deity (New York, 1971); a more critical treatment by Richard Swinburne is The Coherence of Theism (Oxford, 1977). An expanded treatment of the above article can be found in chapter 6 of my Knowing the Unknown God (New York, 1971). For the alternative to classical theism known as process thought, see Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality (New York, 1929), part 5, chap. 2, "God and the World."

New Sources

Boff, Leonardo. Trinity and Society. Translated by Paul Burns. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1988.

Carman, John Breasted. Majesty and Meekness. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1994.

Clark, Kelly James, ed. Our Knowledge of God. Dordrecht and Boston, 1992.

Gunton, Colin E. Act and Being. London, 2002.

Hughes, Gerard H. The Nature of God. New York, 1995.

Nnamani, Amuluche Gregory. The Paradox of a Suffering God. New York, 1995.

William J. Hill (1987)

Revised Bibliography