The Nature of God

May 23, 2023

Evangelicals (especially Calvinists) like to define the attributes of God, most of which can also be called perfections:

  • Omnipotence—God is all powerful. God can do anything except that which is logically inconsistent (e.g., making a rock so heavy that they1 cannot lift it2) or inconsistent with God’s perfect nature (e.g., lying).
  • Omniscience—God knows all that occurs in creation, including all of our thoughts. God knows all truth.
  • Eternality—God has always existed. In fact, God existed before time, if before time is even a thing.3
  • Transcendence—God (or parts of God) exists outside our reality and is unconstrained by it or its physical laws. God is not contained by any kind of reality but rather contains4 or surpasses reality.5
  • Immanence—kinda the opposite of transcendence. God is intimately part of our existence (while simultaneously transcending it). Like I said, difficult concepts.
  • Non-contingency—God is the source of all creation and relies on nothing else for existence. God was not made and cannot be destroyed.
  • Perfection—This can refer either to God’s general perfection (i.e., the perfection of each of God’s attributes) or to God’s inviolable goodness. God is good, all of God’s actions are good, and God enacts good for all of creation.

As interpreted in much of Evangelical thought, these attributes can lead to viewing God as a maximum entity rather than a loving, personal being, and a major theme of (good) theology is to nuance God’s attributes to avoid conflicts or inconsistencies. A key point is the meaning of perfection—does it simply mean infinite or maximal, or is more about wholeness? For instance, classical theology takes God’s non-contingency to mean that God is absolutely immutable6 or unchanging, but this robs God of any ability to feel. An immutable God cannot feel our pain or desire a relationship with us. How can this square with a belief in God’s mercy or love? A God who can’t feel or respond to our pain is hollow and barren, hardly worthy of our worship.

  1. I try to avoid pronouns for God. “He” would limit God to strictly male characteristics or consign women to be merely subsets of men, and if one takes male pronouns to represent the neuter as well, that is usage we are rapidly abandoning. If we are made in the image of God, I believe that implies that God’s nature encompasses all possible characteristics of humanity, sin excepted. ↩︎

  2. Once again, self reference is the root of all (logical) evil. ↩︎

  3. See also: Transcendence

    This is yet another way language trips us up—if time is created, and “before” is a time-bound concept, then how can anything be “before time”? Sometimes God is described as existing in an eternal present. A friend and former pastor told me that if he ever pursued a doctoral degree, then his dissertation would be on how God is presented in scripture as both in and out of time, and that understanding which metaphor was in play in a given passage could resolve a lot of confusion. ↩︎

  4. The idea that God both contains and transcends creation (Creation +) is called panentheism. This differs from pantheism, which posits that that God is simply the sum of all reality. If I’m going to go with a transcendent and non-contingent God, panentheism seems like a logical approach. It’s also hard to conceive of, unless we are somehow contained in the metaphorical womb of God. YAIM (Yet Another Inadequate Metaphor). ↩︎

  5. Transcendence is a hard concept to get into words—this definition is from Wikipedia, the poor man’s Encyclopedia Galactica:

    In religion, transcendence is the aspect of a deity’s nature and power that is completely independent of the material universe, beyond all known physical laws. This is contrasted with immanence, where a god is said to be fully present in the physical world and thus accessible to creatures in various ways. In religious experience, transcendence is a state of being that has overcome the limitations of physical existence, and by some definitions, has also become independent of it. This is typically manifested in prayer, rituals, meditation, psychedelics and paranormal “visions”.

    It is affirmed in various religious traditions' concept of the divine, which contrasts with the notion of a god (or, the Absolute) that exists exclusively in the physical order (immanentism), or is indistinguishable from it (pantheism). Transcendence can be attributed to the divine not only in its being, but also in its knowledge. Thus, a god may transcend both the universe and knowledge (is beyond the grasp of the human mind).

    Although transcendence is defined as the opposite of immanence, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some theologians and metaphysicians of various religious traditions affirm that a god is both within and beyond the universe (panentheism); in it, but not of it; simultaneously pervading it and surpassing it. ↩︎

  6. Immutability implies exteriority, meaning that God is not affected internally by any of their relationships. Humans are interior, in that relationships with others, including God, change us. Mind you, I see the idea of God’s exteriority as really problematic. ↩︎

Ken Tryon @ArtGeek