God Is… (Part 1)

How do you think about God? If you had to describe God to someone, how would you go about it? What attributes would a divine being possess? Typically God’s being is communicated in relational terms but do we know what God is like? Rather than turn to the Bible, could you talk about God with someone who is pondering the existence or character of God?

Let’s define our terms carefully, which is always important when having a cogent and convincing discussion. An attribute is a property or feature that describes a quality or function of a thing that is either essential to its existence or nonessential to its existence. Sometimes philosophers think of this distinction as essential versus accidental properties. Essential properties make a thing what it is fundamentally. Accidental properties, on the other hand, are “optional.” A thing or being could still be what it is essentially without possessing certain accidental or nonessential properties. Take human beings, for example. We are both metaphysically complex (having many parts, material and immaterial, such as body + soul) and we are metaphysically rich beings having multiple immaterial properties (e.g., reason, emotions, volition). God, however, is not a metaphysically complex being (having many parts), but he is a metaphysically rich being (having many attributes). I suppose we could say God has many properties, but not many parts. Thus God, unlike humans, is no ordinary being. I said all this to illustrate that we must be careful not to confuse what we are as humans with what God is as divine. He is entirely unique on the metaphysical scale!

Now, in thinking about what God is we could say, along with many others, that God’s attributes can be grouped into categories. Consider the following taxonomy:

Category Attributes
Metaphysical self-existent, eternal, unchanging, omnipresent
Intellectual omniscient, faithful, wise
Volitional free, authentic, omnipotent
Emotional detests evil, patient, compassionate, jealous
Ethical just, merciful, loving, morally perfect
Relational transcendent, immanent

Exactly how is the being of God related to the attributes of God?

First, the via negativa (or what God is not)…

God is not a being plus attributes as in… God is not a being with attributes as in…

Instead, God is a being in attributes and the attributes are in God’s being. In other words, God would not be what he is without possessing each and all of the properties listed. Each attribute of God, therefore, is an essential attribute.

Consequently, God exists as a simple, indivisible being. He cannot exemplify properties independent of himself, nor is he a composition of individual parts. All of God’s existence consists of one integrated, eternal being expressing himself in various “attributive” ways. He is completely loving, just, holy, merciful, jealous, wise, etc. All of God’s being exemplifies all of his attributes perfectly 
and completely all of the time. Moreover, every attribute 
is qualified by every other attribute. For 
instance, God is mercifully just and 
justly merciful. Not one of his attributes 
is laid aside in order to express any other. 
Every activity of God is conditioned by 
all of his attributes simultaneously. God’s
 entire being is in each attribute and each
 attribute is in God.

What could it mean to call God a simple, indivisible being? When we say “God is x” we are not talking about the parts of God.

“The reason why a nature is called simple is that it cannot lose any attribute it possesses, that there is no difference between what it is and what it has, as there is, for example, between a vessel and the liquid it contains, a body and its colour, the atmosphere and its light 
or heat, the soul and its wisdom. None of these is what it 
contains; the vessel is not the liquid, nor the body the 
colour, nor the atmosphere the light or heat; nor is the 
soul the same as its wisdom.”
— St. Augustine

God is “indivisible” because he has no attributes 
that can be distinguished from himself and because 
something divisible “is not absolutely one, but in a 
sense many and other than itself” (St. Anselm).

My next post in this series will unpack some of the attributes of God.

4 thoughts on “God Is… (Part 1)”

  1. Thanks, Shawn and Louis, for reading.

    Seems to me the trait lacking the most attention is the one most important….divine simplicity. As for reading….surely Aquinas, Paul Helm, and Tom Morris just to name a few.

  2. What an excellent post! Great diagrams! I look forward to the rest of the series. I think I know your answer to this but thought I would ask any way–do you think there is one attribute which is more fundamental than the others? Some today think that “God is love” defines God in a more fundamental way than, say, that God is just. Secondly, as Shawn points out divine simplicity has fallen on hard times. Who would you recommend reading as an advocate of that position?

  3. Ah, I love the topic of Divine Simplicity. It seems that there are not very many schools that teach a course dedicated just to this topic. Good stuff, Paul, I look forward to the rest of the articles in this series.

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