Systematic Theology I - Lesson 14

Attributes of God

Beginning of the discussion of the attributes of God's character, and how the discussion is organized.

Bruce Ware
Systematic Theology I
Lesson 14
Watching Now
Attributes of God

Doctrine of God

Part 4

V. Attributes of God (part 1)

A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God

1. Classification of Attributes

2. Need for Methodological Balance in the Doctrine of God

  • An introduction to theology, answering the questions of what is EST (Evangelical Systematic Theology), why study EST, and how it relates to other theological disciplines.

  • Introductory issues of how to do EST and the criteria for assessing theological formulations.

  • Issues of cultural Christianity, and the evangelical position of "contextualized normativity."

  • Begins with a discussion of the background to the discussion (Pelagius, Augustine, Council of Carthage, and semi-Pelagianism), and then a discussion of Luther, Calvin, Arminius, the Synod of Dort and the Five Points of Calvinism.

  • Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and their views of Israel and the church

  • A discussion of these three positions and the key figures in each (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, von Harnack; Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr; Carnell, Henry, Graham)

  • The beginning discussion of revelation and the specifics of General Revelation

  • A continuation of the discussion of revelation with an emphasis on Special Revelation, moving into the topic of Inspiration (definition and key passages).

  • A survey of the recent debate, defining inerrancy (including the relationship of hermeneutics and inerrancy), and its relationship to authority.

  • The definition of illumination, why it is necessary, and how we come to know truth. The critceria for canonicity is then discussed and why the canon is now closed (i.e., why no more books would be accepted into the Bible).

  • Why there is a need to know God, and "theism" (arguments as to whether there is a God or not).

  • Can God be known? The Doctrine of the Trinity (Scriptural basis; historical background; Monarchian heresies)

  • Continuation of the discussion of the Trinity and the church's rejection of Monarchianism

  • Beginning of the discussion of the attributes of God's character, and how the discussion is organized.

  • The related doctrines of God's self-sufficiency and his love. (The lecture begins in the middle of a sentence but not much content is missing. Point V., subpoints 1 and 2 were covered in lecture 14. See Outline tab.)

  • God's incommunicable attributes are those that he does not share with us: self-existence; self-sufficiency; infinity; omnipresence; eternity

  • Completes the discussion of God's incommunicable attributes by discussing immutability, the doctrine that God does not change.

  • Discussion of those attributes of God's character that he shares (to some degee) with his creation, beginning with his intellectual attributes (omniscience).

  • A continuing discussion of God communicable attributes, both intellectual (Omnisapience; truth) and moral (goodness; love).

  • Continuation of the discussion of God's communicable moral attributes (love, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness, justice) and the attributes of God's rulership (freedom; omnipotence).

  • The Scriptural teaching and issues related to this central question

  • Hyper-Calvinism, Process Theology, Arminianism, and Calvinism

  • Concluding discussion on Calvinism

  • An introduction to the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of humanity's origin (Adam and Eve)

  • Theories on the structure of the human soul (Monism, Dichotomy, Trichotomy) and the transmission of the soul (Creationism, Traducianism).

  • Sin is one of the most foundational and significant topics in Scripture. The doctrines of salvation and sanctification are meaningless without an accurate understanding of sin. The Old Testament teaches both the personal and corporate aspects of sin. New Testament teachings include the essence of sin and total depravity.

  • The facets of the Fall, theories of Original Sin, and God's triumph over sin

What value is there to attempt to know the unknowable or to try to understand someone that, by their own description, is beyond our understanding?

Even though we cannot know everything there is to know about God, there are some things you can know because he has revealed them to you. You can develop a systematic theology as you contemplate what you experience in nature, what you can read in the Bible and what you can know from history. This will give you insights into who God is, how you can have a relationship with him, and how you will live your life differently. Dr. Ware begins by giving you a systematic theology definition and explains systematic theology teachings and concepts that you will find in systematic theology books. He also helps you to learn both the inductive and deductive approaches in assessing various criteria so you can determine for yourself the validity of any theological position.

Some of the first lectures in Dr. Ware’s Systematic Theology I give you the core theological positions of major movements like Calvinism, Arminianism, Covenant, Liberalism and Neo Orthodoxy and help you compare and contrast their different perspectives. Also, since the Bible is the primary source for determining your systematic theology, Dr. Ware defines and explains key terms like inspiration, revelation, inerrancy, illumination and canonicity. God’s existence and attributes make up a major part of this class. The final lectures in Systematic Theology I focus on what the Bible teaches us about humans and sin.

The study of systematic theology is a mixture of science, art and faith. Join Dr. Ware as he leads you in understanding the core teachings of Scripture in a way that help you articulate your systematic theology, deepen your relationship with God and live out your life as a changed person.

This is the first of a two semester class on systematic theology. We recommend the book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem as a companion book for this class. Dr. Grudem also wrote an abridged version entitled Bible Doctrines that includes discussion questions that are helpful for using in a small group/classroom situation. 

Dr. Bruce Ware

Systematic Theology I


Attributes of God

Lesson Transcript



IV. Trinity in Unity


A. Scriptural Monotheism

B. Scriptural Trinitarianism

    1. Scriptural Affirmations of the Triune God

    2. Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity

        a. Christological Background

        b. Monarchian Heresies

        c. The Church's Rejection of Monarchianism

            1) Rejection of Modalism

            2) Athanasius' Opposition to Arianism

            3) Council of Nicea (325)

            4) Council of Constantinople (381) Additional comments.

The first comment.

At this Council the question of the deity of the Holy Spirit was the key issue after settling the issue of the deity of Christ. After this and after Augustine there was another council that met in 589. It was regional one, so it was called a Synod. The Synod of Toledo (not in Ohio, I think it must be in Spain). It was regional, not an ecumenical, full church council. At this Synod of Toledo the Nicean Creed, the statement concerning the Holy Spirit, was modified to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; this is known as the Filioque addition to the Creed (derived from the Latin, filios meaning "son", and que meaning "and"). The Western Tradition that we follow goes through the Latin Church, which changed the Creed to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church of Eastern theologians (the Cappadocians were Greek), formulated the third article of the Nicean Creed which said, "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father." The Eastern Church and the Western Church split over this. It has never yet been healed. One of the major theological rifts between the Eastern Church and the Western Church is whether or not we should affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (Eastern Church), or the Father and Son (Western Church, Latin). We are in the tradition of the Western Church.

Why was there such a big rift? In the West, there was more a sense that the Father begets the Son, and then the Father and Son together bring forth the Holy Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit proceeds from Father and Son. In the mind of the Western Church theologians this fits better the relationship among the persons of the Trinity. There is a dependence relationship of the Son on the Father, but likewise there is a dependence relationship with the Holy Spirit not just on the Father but on the Son as well. It is reflected better in indicating that whereas the Son is begotten of the Father only, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son together. In the East they see more of a symmetry between the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit. They would see these as parallel realities. They think that the Western model demotes the Holy Spirit into a position of insignificance. Whereas the Eastern model that they hold puts the Holy Spirit at an equivalent place of importance, as it were. In the Eastern Tradition there is more emphasis throughout Church history on the role of the Holy Spirit in their community. I think it is partly owing to the fact that they don't see the Holy Spirit as always promoting the priority of the Son.

In my own view, we already talked about the issue of whether eternal begetting or eternal proceeding makes sense, the Western model is the preferred model as it relates to the relationship of the members of the Trinity with one another. I do think that there is good reason to see a hierarchy in the Trinity. That is a word that you hardly hear used anymore because it has such negative connotations. If it is true of God, it ought not have negative connotations. It is our egalitarian impulse in our culture that despises a word like "hierarchy." But it is an awfully good thing that there is hierarchy; parents are over children; God is over us. There is hierarchy. Hierarchy is a good thing. Authority and submission are good thing; we need to be people who embrace authority instead of following the lead of our culture in bucking it all the time. It is so worldly, so secular to buck authority. It is so God-like to accept legitimate authority and yield to it. There is hierarchy in the Trinity, and it seems to be in this order; Father, Son, Spirit. There are really some significant implications of it when we come to Christology and Pneumatology (the Doctrine of the Spirit) and how this works out.

The second comment.

There is a movement today among some Western theologians to adopt a Cappadocian (Eastern) understanding of the Creed. Part of what motivates this I think is good; part of what motivates this is to emphasize the role of the Spirit. Although I don't think the Holy Spirit wants to be emphasized apart from the Son. Part of the motivation is right; we have neglected the Holy Spirit in the 20th century; it is kind of the century of the Holy Spirit. It is really true; the Holy Spirit has been the forgotten member of the Trinity. I think that is true. Thank the Lord for the 20th century with all of its problems attended to it, nonetheless, emphasizing for us once again the role of the Spirit. You have to ask biblically, does the Holy Spirit want to be emphasized in sort of a front and center stage position? According to John 16 Jesus said, "when the Spirit comes he will not speak on his own initiative; what he hears from me he will speak; he will glorify me." Part of the impulse is a good impulse, but it is acted out in the wrong way.

Furthermore, the worst place that it is acted out, the worst example where you see the independence of the Spirit from the Son shown is in theologies of inclusiveism. Inclusiveism is the view that people can be saved by contact with God's saving revelation in creation or in world religions apart from any knowledge of Christ whatsoever. They are still saved on the basis of Christ's death, according to inclusivists, but it is a Christ of whom they know nothing. They will find out one day in heaven; this is how I was saved from sins; this is how my sins were forgiven; it was by the death of this Jesus I had never heard of. They hold that salvation is still in Christ alone, but people don't need to hear of Christ to be saved. Where does this saving revelation come from? The Holy Spirit is bringing to people a saving revelation of God but is not bringing to them knowledge of Christ. This is being argued by Clark Pinnock who is advancing all kinds of dangerous, unbiblical and unacceptable views. It is sort like Clark Pinnock just has a market on producing yet another dangerous, unbiblical, wrong view. It is not that everything he holds is wrong, but the things he is most noted for in the past decade or so are in this category. One of them is this inclusiveism view. Part of what supports his inclusiveism is the notion that we need to distinguish the role of the Spirit from Christ and see the Spirit bringing saving revelation without any knowledge of Christ, without any revelation of Christ, the Holy Spirit can bring saving revelation. So people out there in the hinterlands or in other religions can be saved without knowing about Christ.

Amos Yong who teaches at Bethel College is another strong advocate of this view. By the way Greg Boyd who is one of the greatest promoters of Open Theism has resigned his teaching position at Bethel College. So he is no longer teaching there which is, in my judgment, a blessing. But don't take that to mean that we won't see any more of Greg Boyd because he is doing this primarily so he can do more speaking and writing. I think we will see quite a bit of him and hear quite a lot of him. Amos Yong is still there, and he is a strong inclusivist and holds this same theological view that Clark Pinnock does. He is having some influence in the Pentecostal Movement.

Question from class.

What is the content that the Holy Spirit is giving? I can't tell you because there is no saving content. But what they claim is that the god that you might learn about in some other religions, the Holy Spirit has worked to preserve sufficient truthfulness about God that though you are Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim that you could bow to the true God and acknowledge your own sinfulness and need and be saved. In creation the Holy Spirit could witness in your heart to a Creator before whom you are dependent and guilty and move in your heart so that you would bow to him and be saved. We will talk more about this when we get to the Doctrine of Salvation because I think it is one of the issues we, as ministers and Christian leaders, need to be as clear on in the culture we live in today. The push even within Evangelicalism is toward an inclusivist view. It is a much kinder, gentler view than the truth that people have to hear the Gospel of Christ to be saved. What does Romans 10 say?

Rom 10:13 Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved." Rom 10:14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? Rom 10:15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!"

There is a compelling case for what the Church has long held and that is exclusiveism. It is not only that Jesus' death is the basis by which any person is saved; it is the Gospel of Jesus that people need to hear in order to be saved. That is what the Bible teaches.

One of the revisions of the Trinity has to do with this inclusivist model. That chapter that I mentioned to you which I have written on the Trinity that is coming out in a book that Eric Johnson is editing called God Under Fire talks about this as one of the issues that is being faced these days.

V. Attributes of God

A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God

It is important to talk about how we approach the study of God, what type of methodology we should employ. Some things we can agree upon at the outset as Evangelicals. We are going to agree that we can accept God's revelation of himself in doing this; the Bible will be normative, the only final authoritative source. Having said that we are going to learn of God from the Bible. But is there way to approach what Scripture teaches about God that will either help or hinder a full and accurate understanding of who he is? Most theologians have felt there are some things we can do with this.

1. Classification of Attributes

Most theologians have felt there are some things we can do with this. One thing that has been proposed is that the attributes of God can be classified in certain kinds of categories. When I present my formal study to you on the attributes of God, I am going to use a classification system that I think helps with this. Here are some of the ones that have been proposed.

Transcendent and Imminent Attributes

There are attributes of God's transcendence and attributes of God's imminence. What does Transcendence mean? It is God's distance, his otherness, his being apart from us, other than us. It is who God is in his majesty and greatness that exists apart from relationship to us. Imminence would refer to what? His nearness. It is God's attributes that express his being near at hand, intimate, close, compassionate, kind, caring, providing, protecting. This is a helpful distinction in the attributes of God. For example I think it is utilized in Scripture to great advantage.

In Isaiah 57:15 you have this marvelous statement.

Is 57:15 For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, "I dwell on a high and holy place,

Look at what is being said, "high, exalted One, One who lives forever, whose name is Holy. I dwell on a high and holy place." "Holy" means different, one of a kind, unique, separate from. Obviously transcendent is being emphasized.

Is 57:15 "And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit, in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite."

Here God's imminence is shown; he is close at hand, near, comforting, strengthening, helping.

This is a very helpful distinction in terms of what each emphasizes, and it is also helpful in understanding that God in his imminence is the God who is transcendent and marvel. It ought to make us marvel that there is an Isaiah 15:57b. Once you have said, "I am the high and exalted One, my name is holy;" once you have said that God is so great, majestic, glorious, independent, rich, and full, then marvel that you go on to read, "and I am with the contrite, the lowly, to revive the spirit of the contrite." It is incredible.

Another example of the categorization of these attributes is in Isaiah 66:1,2.

Is 66:1 Thus says the Lord, "Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. Where then is a house you could build for me? And where is a place that I may rest?"

Those are good rhetorical questions. What is the answer to them? Where is the house you could build for God? Nowhere. Don't think, Israel, that I dwell in the Tabernacle or I dwell in the Temple as if that contains me.

Is 66:2a "For my hand made all these things,

Anything you use, my hand made them, God says. I am bigger than anything out there you could use to make a place for me.

Is 66:2a "For my hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being," declares the Lord.

Remember how this began; heaven is my throne, the earth is my footstool. This is transcendence. The whole picture is to emphasize how big, immense, awesome, great, and majestic God is.

Is 66:2b "But to this one I will look,

We ought to say, why? This is incredible that he would look. We live in an age of entitlement thinking. We are all entitled. What is the one thing that you and I have absolute rights of entitlement for? What is one thing, as we stand before God, and we have absolute rights of entitlement; what is it? Damnation, judgment, Hell; that is it. We don't have a right to a breath of life. In our culture we think we are entitled. God loves you and our response is, "Of course he does; I am me, I am self actualized and I have esteem and live as the center of the universe, that is the way I was raised. After all he made me because he was lonely and I am helping him out. It is a good thing I am here to help this poor lonely God out because he is all by himself and wanted a friend and here I am." Then we translate that into Christian service. Isn't it such a great thing for God that I am a preacher, that I am a counselor, that I a missionary; where would God be without my contribution? We are so skewed in our thinking. We make God the beggar, when we are. We make ourselves the all sufficient giver when he is. It is called idolatry. We think we are entitled. Look how great we are; look how wonderful we are; look how fully actualized we are; at least in process, I am working on it. Look how much esteem I am beginning to build up of myself and working on these things real hard. I am very important and God knows that, so of course he loves me.

Instead we ought to hear God loves us and then marvel. Grace ought to be amazing, but it isn't. It is expected in our culture, but not from the Bible. When we come to Is 66:2b "But to this one I will look." Why would he? That, in my judgment, is close to being fully unanswerable. I think that there is something that we can say, but it is much more complicated than you think. It doesn't have anything to do with our inherit value.

Is 66:2b "But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word.

This is one very helpful categorization of God's attributes that I think is borne out in biblical teaching. God is both other than us; he is great, awesome, distant, remote, in himself, perfect, and sufficient; and he is intimately involved in every life, every moment of human existence, every aspect of his creation, intimately involved, caring, providing, protecting, and holding every atom together. I think that is what Colossians 1:17 means. "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col 1:17). Why don't atoms blow apart? Why don't electrons and protons spin out of orbit? To my knowledge physicists don't have any answer to that question, and I think theologians have for a long time. God holds it all together. That is how intimatly he is involved in creation.

Absolute and Relative Attributes of God

I don't care for this nomenclature a whole lot; personally and I don't use it in teaching. It is trying to get at something very similar. There is a sense in which God has attributes that are absolute and in himself, and there are other attributes that are involved in relationship. That is what it means by relative, not relative in the sense of they can come or go or they mean different things at different times. It is not that sense of relative but more in the sense of in relationship.

In Se and In Re

There is a Latin phrase "in se" and "in re" that you will come across in theological writings that are meant to communicate a similar kind of idea. God is in himself, "in se"; he is in himself triune, sufficient, omnipotent. He is "in re", in relation to us caring, loving, and judging or whatever the case may be. I think that these are legitimate distinctions.

Greatness and Goodness

Millard Erickson tries to capture this with the terms greatness and goodness. You know what he trying to get at, but every good attribute of God is great. Isn't grace great? Isn't love great? Isn't mercy great? Every great attribute is good. There is no attribute of God that isn't morally pure, good. It suffers in that sense that it tends to separate things that have to be held together on both sides. In terms of trying to make a point, it can do that. Attributes of God's majesty, holiness, and power would constitute God's greatness. Attributes of God's mercy, forgiveness, and presence would constitute goodness.

Natural and Moral

Natural would have to do with capabilities like power, wisdom, and knowledge. Attributes that characterize what God can do. Whereas moral attributes have to do with the center moral nature of his being. Goodness, love, justice, righteousness, and holiness would be moral attributes. I find this to be similar to greatness and good. Every moral attribute is natural. Every natural attribute has moral connotations attached to it. It makes a point, but it can be almost as misleading as helpful.

Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes

This is the classification which I will use. In terms of analysis of the attributes, I find this most helpful. What it is saying is that there are certain attributes that are not communicated to us. You have to understand what communicated means. It does not mean that they are not revealed, otherwise how would we know about them? This doesn't mean that they are not said to us or made known to us and communicated in that sense. Rather, it is that we do not share in any part of that attribute. There is no creaturely finite expression of that attribute. It is distinctively divine. For example, self-existence is an incommunicable attribute. God alone possess self-existence. We do not share in finite measure in self-existence. Our existence is contingent and dependent and derivative; God alone has existence within himself.

Whereas communicable are attributes of God which he communicates. By that I mean, he shares in substance, shares in kind, those attributes with at least a portion of his creatures. There is a finite representation of those attributes. God is love; that is a communicable attribute, and we are called to love. God is wise; that is a communicable attribute, and we are called to be wise. God is merciful, and we are called to merciful. There are these communicable attributes which express truths about God, but in finite measure they may also be true, to some degree, of his creation as well.

2. Need for Methodological Balance in the Doctrine of God

In my judgment I have come to the realization that there is real need in the Doctrine of God for what might be called methodological balance. It is easy to so emphasize one side of any of those categories we have there, of the attributes of God, that the other corresponding side is given less attention than it ought to be. It is easy to see this worked out practically. Someone could emphasize so much the holiness of God, the justice of God, the righteousness of God, and the judgment of God that compassion, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness is hardly accounted for. What a fearful thing to live with a theological view in which God is wrathful, and that is prominent, but merciful you don't hear much about. On the other hand, that is not the problem with our culture today. That might have been the problem fifty years ago, and there have been portions of the church where the excess has been on that side. Today it certainly is not that way. We have an imbalanced view of God because if there is one thing that God is out there on the streets, it is love; God is love. What love means is defined by the culture, not by the Bible. Love is accepting and tolerant and never judgmental; God would never judge anyone. We can emphasize one side of God.

One lesson we can see in this is you can distort even the one thing you say about God and make it wrong and you have missed the other side. In the history of the church this has been a huge problem. I did my doctrinal dissertation on the Doctrine of God and ended up focusing on divine immutability, an attribute where a lot of the issues on the Doctrine of God came together. In reading these treatises from the early church on through on the Doctrine of God I discovered that there was such a tendency to emphasize one polarity, one side of the attributes of God and neglect or minimize the other. In the history of the church the prominent side has been the transcendence of God. In the early church there was such a concern to uphold God's greatness, supremacy, his Godness, and his separation from anything finite and creaturely. For example, it was said of God that he cannot change in any respect what so ever. That is what immutability was for the early church and basically was through much of the church. Is that true? Why did they want to hold immutability, that he cannot change in any respect whatsoever? Because change either involved a change for the better or change for the worse. I read this over and over again in the early theologians. If God changes for the better then that means that he wasn't really perfect before. If he changes for the worse, he is not perfect anymore. So in either case you don't have God, so he can't change. It never occurred that it was possible to change in a way that doesn't involve better or worse. There is another kind of change that can be true. We will talk about this when we get to immutability.

Another example is emotion. What do emotions do to us? They lead us to rash action; road rage is a good example of emotion at work. So God must not have emotions.

What about time? God cannot be involved in time, they said. This was critical. The early church adopted a view of the eternity of God in which God is timeless because temporality is the necessary medium for change. It is senseless to talk about change without change occurring in a context of time. Think of painting a bedroom; you change it. It used to be yellow, and now it is blue. You painted the bedroom; you changed it. That means at one time it was yellow, and at another time it is blue. You have to have time to make sense of change. So eliminate time and you eliminate change.

Don't jump ahead and think that Dr. Ware doesn't think God is eternal; don't draw conclusions yet. I am just laying out for you what some of the issues were for the early church. There was clearly an emphasis on transcendence that resulted in imminence being very difficult to account for. Once you have said that God is timelessly eternal, absolutely immutable, passionless, and impassable, and then you say he relates to us; what does this mean? So it became very difficult to account for that. This is a front burner issue in Evangelicalism today; these issues that we are talking about right here. Much of my own work has been in areas related to this. The next class is probably the single most important class that I teach in seminary will be next. It is so precious and so wondrous that I, at one and the same time, can't wait to take you through this and on the other hand, I am fearful to do so because it is too precious to be spoiled by me or by you. We need to see that there needs to be methodological balance in talking about God. We need to elevate both sides, but in the right way. I am going to illustrate this to you by looking at two attributes of God.