At risk of discrediting myself from the very beginning of this study, I will offer a quick confession: The Hobbit is my least favorite of Tolkien’s Middle Earth writings. Don’t misunderstand me. I still enjoy that book a great deal; it just happens to be the one I like the least. Nevertheless, I mention The Hobbit because there is a scene that seems to describe my hope for this study quite well.
Bilbo and his dwarven companions entered into the massive forest of Mirkwood, in which evil has been spreading. The tops of the trees blot out the sun, making their journey dark and suffocating, and the giant spider descendants of Ungoliant didn’t help matters either. Eventually, lost and desperate, the dwarves help Bilbo climb a tree so that he can look out over the canopy. Upon sticking his head above the trees, the brightness of the sun blinds Bilbo for a moment, but then he is quickly refreshed by the sight of butterflies and the cool breeze upon his face.
Like Bilbo and company, times of crisis and confusion can leave us feeling lost and desperate to the see the sun. Often what we need most desperately is to pause, breath deeply, and stick our heads for a moment above the treetops. During this nearly worldwide shutdown caused by COVID-19, the news revolves around almost nothing else, and such a vacuum can easily make us either panicked or calloused about the spread of the virus. So during this study, I want us to poke our heads above the trees to see the sun and feel the breeze. I want us to bask in the perfect and unchanging nature of the one, true and living God, the God who is three-in-one, Father, Son, and Spirit. I pray that this study will extend significantly past this period of social distancing, but we will hopefully study with thankful and worshipful hearts the God who is our light.
Each of the following studies will conclude with discussion questions to either work through with others or to answer in a journaling format. Before launching into the actual study of God’s attributes, here we will introduce our study by asking two essential questions: 1) What is an attribute of God? and 2) How can we know God?
WHAT IS AN ATTRIBUTE OF GOD?
John Feinberg writes, “In speaking of someone’s or something’s attributes, we refer to the characteristics or qualities that express their nature.” God’s attributes, therefore, are qualities or characteristics of God that express His nature, His essence or being. An attribute of God is a truth about who God is, of who He has revealed Himself to be. His attributes are lens through which we are able to comprehend something of God’s incomprehensible divinity.
Fittingly, John Frame calls God’s attributes “perspectives on his whole being.” Thus, to speak of God’s attributes does not mean speaking about parts of God but rather God Himself, only from different angles. This means that God is not partially merciful and partially wrathful; instead, He is perfectly both. Both are windows by which we are able to glimpse the nature of God.
Regarding God’s attributes, we should also note the warning of Robert Letham:
Moreover, the attributes are not abstract qualities, existing in their own right and somehow independent from God. Rather, God himself defines these qualities. There is no entity called “love” floating around in the cosmos, by which God is measured; on the contrary, love is to be understood in the light of who God himself is.
Love, along with God’s other attributes, is defined by God, not the other way around. Being love, we can rightly state that God’s love is love. He is love to the uttermost, and all of our conceptions of love must conform to Him.
This also brings us to another point that we must make: as we discuss God’s attributes, many of them are not exclusive to God. Being formed in God’s image, we are capable of love, mercy, grace, patience, wrath, goodness, etc. Such attributes are called communicable, while God’s incommunicable attributes exclusively describe Him (i.e. immutability, aseity, and omnipotence). Yet even with God’s communicable attributes, God Himself is that attribute in its highest degree and purest form.
I will conclude this question with the words of A. W. Tozer:
The divine attributes are what we know to be true of God. He does not possess them as qualities; they are how God is as He reveals Himself to His creatures. Love, for instance, is not something God has and which may grow or diminish or cease to be. His love is the way God is, and when He loves He is simply being Himself. And so with His other attributes.
HOW CAN WE KNOW GOD?
If we come to know something about God through His attributes, what then is the means by which we can study God’s attributes? Paul told the Romans that God reveals at least two aspects of His nature to all people. First, we know God as the Creator through our being and partaking of His creation (Romans 1:19-20). Second, we know God as the Lawgiver because of the moral law that He has placed within every human’s heart (Romans 2:15).
Yet beyond these two acts of general revelation, we also know that God has spoken by special revelation to humanity and, particularly, to His people. Hebrews 1:1-2 describes God’s means of speaking as follows: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Though God has communicated to us in a variety of ways, Jesus Christ, His Son, is the definitive revelation of who God is. As the author of Hebrews goes on to say, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (v. 3). Likewise, Paul wrote to the Colossians about Christ, saying, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15), which is also what Jesus affirmed of Himself: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). To know Jesus is to know God.
But, of course, we can only come to know Christ by the Scriptures. Jesus as the incarnate Word of God is revealed to us through written Word of God. Being “breathed out by God,” God speaks to us through the words written by God’s prophets. In fact, Peter says that the Scripture’s writers “were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Thus, in order to know God, we must know Him through Christ and the Scriptures. This must be the standard by which we judge whether what we say of God is true or false.
But even with Scripture as our definitive source of authority, we must be careful in how we approach the Bible for studying God and His attributes. Particularly, we must be diligent to conform our view of God to the view of Scripture itself. For instance, consider how Feinberg describes the biblical writers’ presentation of God:
Biblical authors paint a rich and full picture of the grandeur of God. Their description of his attributes reveals not only who God is but also what we can expect from him and what he expects from us. We must not only examine how the biblical writers describe God but also see how they use the truth about God’s person to comfort, exhort, warn, and encourage God’s people. Seldom does a writer mention divine attributes as though he were writing a mere list of God’s characteristics. Rather, he appeals to a divine attribute as a basis for addressing some need of God’s people.
The knowledge of God should indeed “comfort, exhort, warn, and encourage” His people. This means that knowing God is the most practical, applicable, and worshipful study that we can ever embark upon. As Jesus told us Himself while praying to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom your have sent” (John 17:3). Life everlasting is knowing God and His Son, Jesus Christ. To know God more is a search for infinite treasure, to find our souls’ utmost delight. As our vision of God’s glory grows, we will increasingly obtain greater clarity for why “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” will one day cry with unified voice of praise, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13)!
- What is an attribute of God (not an example but a definition)?
- In what ways are God’s attributes similar to and different than our attributes?
- By what means can we know God?
- Can we ever know God fully?
- In general, how do the Scriptures speak of God’s attributes?
 John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 233.
 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 388.
 Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 155.
 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (HarperOne, 1961), 37.
 Feinberg, 233.