The Doctrine of God (Part 1)

May 07, 2007     Time: 00:40:13

We are going to turn to a study of the doctrine of God for the next several lessons. I am very excited about this section because this is really when we come to the very heart of Christian theology – what we believe about God, who he is, and what he is like.

In his marvelous book Knowing God, J. I. Packer opens with these words from the sermon of Charles Spurgeon on the morning of January 7, 1855. Spurgeon said,

It has been said that ‘the proper study of mankind is man.’ I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.

This is the subject to which I want to also invite you during the next few lessons.

The knowledge of God is really the key to all of life. Packer, at the conclusion of his book, writes the following:

We have been brought to the point where we both can and must get our life’s priorities straight. From current Christian publications you might think that the most vital issue for any real or would-be Christian in the world today is church union, or social witness, or dialogue with other Christians and other faiths, or refuting this or that -ism, or developing a Christian philosophy and culture, or what have you. But our line of study makes the present-day concentration on these things look like a gigantic conspiracy of misdirection. Of course, it is not that; the issues themselves are real and must be dealt with in their place. But it is tragic that, in paying attention to them, so many in our day seem to have been distracted from what was, is, and always will be the true priority for every human being—that is, learning to know God in Christ.[1]

The knowledge of God is really the end of human existence. It is what life is all about. It is the knowledge of God that will lift God’s people from the doldrums of spiritual mediocrity to the cutting edge of life-changing and world-changing power. Daniel 11:32 says, “the people who know their God will display strength and take action.” So the knowledge of God should be the number one priority for everyone of us here.

But here we need to make an important distinction. There is a tremendous difference between knowing God and knowing about God. Knowing about God primarily is a matter of information. Knowing God involves first hand personal experience. To illustrate: suppose that by divine foreknowledge I could tell someone of you who is, say, a single young man not yet married all about the girl of your dreams that you are going to marry some day. Suppose I could tell you everything about her: what she looks like, her likes and dislikes, her strengths and weaknesses, her talents, her intellectual abilities, her spiritual maturity. You would know all about her, and yet would you say that you knew her? Well, not at all. There would not be any personal relationship between you and her. In fact, you might even say, “Wow! Is she going to be my wife? I can hardly wait to get to know her!” So, you see, you would know all about her but as yet you would not really know her. Someday, though, she will walk into your life and then you will learn to know her. It is the same way with God. We can know a lot about God and yet not really know God or know him well.

In this class through the study of Christian doctrine, I can help to teach you a lot about God.[2] But unfortunately my ability to help you to truly know God is very limited. It is up to you to do the knowing. Nobody else can do this for you. To return to our illustration, if I could by divine revelation tell you a lot of information about your future wife that you are going to marry, still I could not give you that intimate personal relationship with her. You’d have to do the loving and the caring and the building yourself. It is exactly the same with God. I can give you a lot of information about God so that you can know more about him but only you can learn to know God for yourself.

Having made that distinction, nevertheless it is helpful to know something about someone if you are really trying to get to know that person personally. It is helpful to know, for example, if he has a poor self-image which causes him to react to you in a certain way. It is good to know if he can be trusted with a secret. If we hear that he is a loyal and dependable friend, then it will be easier for us to want to get to know him and commit ourselves to him. It is the same with God. Once we really understand what God is like then I think it will change our lives. When we grasp God’s love we will be drawn to him in return and we will love him in response. When we truly understand God’s holiness then we will turn away from our sins with loathing and we will reverence God with awe. When we understand God’s aseity, we will fall on our faces in humility. When we see God’s power, then we will have the confidence to go forth for him in triumph and in work for the Lord’s Kingdom. When we learn about God’s omniscience then we will stop depreciating ourselves and will learn to accept ourselves rightly as God accepts us. So you see, I think the knowledge of God can be very helpful in coming to know God.

Who is this God then that reveals himself to us in the Bible? He is the infinite, personal God. If you will look at the diagram that illustrates the dual-character of God as the infinite God and the personal God. Insofar as God is infinite, he is utterly unlike everything else in all creation. There is a huge chasm as it were between God and the rest of the created world. God alone is infinite. Then on the other side of this chasm are man, animals, plants, and inorganic material. All of these are common in sharing finitude in opposition to God who alone is infinite. But God is not only infinite, he is also a personal God. Insofar as God is personal, man is on God’s side of the chasm because man is created in God’s image and is therefore also personal. Then there is a chasm separating God and man from the non-personal creation – animals, plants, and inorganic materials. God is both infinite and personal as the diagram illustrates.

This is almost unique among the world’s religions. For example, the gods of ancient Greece and Roman mythology were certainly personal beings but they were not infinite. They were clearly finite gods. All of their weaknesses and foibles were testimony to that. On the other hand, the gods of the Far East (such as gods in Hinduism or Taoism) are at the ultimate scale infinite but they are not personal. They are just a sort of infinite absolute or principle that is not really and truly a person. But the God of the Bible is both infinite and personal. He is the infinite, personal God who has revealed himself to us.

What we want to examine are the various attributes that God has in virtue of his infinity and in virtue of his personhood. What we will start off with are those attributes of God which are his in virtue of his being an infinite being.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes God as spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Let’s examine together more closely what God is like insofar as he is an infinite being.[3] In one sense, all of God’s attributes could fall under this heading because God is infinite or unlimited in all of his attributes. But we want to examine here those which are his not specifically in light of his being a person. We want to look at those attributes that are God’s which are not his personal attributes. The distinction that I am drawing here is similar to one being made by classical Reformed theologians between what they called the incommunicable and the communicable attributes of God. The incommunicable attributes were those attributes of God which found no commonality in human beings. The communicable attributes were those attributes that were shared in some degree by both God and man. We want to look first at those non-personal, or incommunicable, or infinite, attributes of God.

A lot of times you hear people in our culture say something like this: “You can’t know anything about God. If God does exist, you can’t say anything about what he is like.” For such people, God is just sort of a characterless force or a principle or something. But they cannot say anything about what God is really like. You cannot describe the attributes of God. In reality, however, I believe that such a God would in fact be a non-entity. He wouldn’t be real at all because anything that exists in reality has certain properties or attributes of some kind that describe it and make it what it is. Thus, a thing that had no properties would literally be non-existent. It would be nothing because it would have no descriptive properties to make it the thing that it is. The 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach made this point, I think, very effectively. This is what Feuerbach wrote:

A being without qualities is one which cannot become an object to the mind; and such a being is virtually non-existent. Where man deprives God of all qualities, God is no longer anything more to him than a negative being. To the truly religious man, God is not a being without qualities, because to him he is a positive, real being. The theory that God cannot be defined, and consequently cannot be known by man, is therefore the offspring of recent times, a product of modern unbelief. . . . On the ground that God is unknowable, man excuses himself to what is yet remaining of his religious conscience for his forgetfulness of God, his absorption in the world: he denies God practically by his conduct, – the world has possession of all his thoughts and inclinations, – but he does not deny him theoretically, he does not attack his existence; he lets that rest. But this existence does not affect or incommode him; it is a merely negative existence, an existence without existence, a self-contradictory existence, – a state of being, which, as to its effects, is not distinguishable from non-being. . . . The alleged religious horror of limiting God by positive predicates is only the irreligious wish to know nothing more of God, to banish God from the mind.[4]

Feuerbach’s point is made very effectively. The claim that God is indefinable and has no attributes or properties is really a product of unbelief. It is a product of someone who wants to know nothing of God and not to be inconvenienced by a God who has a real positive existence and therefore impact in his life.

So God, as an infinite being and a positive reality, must have some attributes; must have some defining properties. The question is: what are they? What is God like? Here, fortunately, God has not left us to our own ingenuity to work out by our own cleverness and intelligence what he is like. Rather he has revealed himself to us in his Word. That is why we have studied first of all the doctrine of revelation before we turn now to the doctrine of God. The Bible is the story of God’s acts in human history, revealing to us what God is like.[5] So it is to the Bible that we should turn to discover what God is like. I want to look at four of the infinite attributes of God specifically over the next several lessons. Under each attribute, we will do first an analysis of the attribute and then we will do secondly an application to our lives – what significance this attribute of God has to us in practical Christian living. First we will analyze the attribute, and then we will look at an application.

As we analyze these various attributes of God, we want to do two things. First we will see what the Scripture has to say about it. We will look at the raw biblical data about this attribute. Then we will do what I call a systematic summary in which we will reflect theologically and philosophically upon the raw data of Scripture and try to formulate some coherent understanding of what this attribute of God is so as to understand what God is like.

Let’s look at that first attribute of God which is his insofar as he is an infinite being, and this is God’s self-existence. Sometimes this is called God’s aseity, which simply means “through itself.” To exist ase is to be self-existent. Let’s take a look first at some of the Scriptural data on God’s self-existence. Here I would invite you to take out your Bibles and to look up the passages with me as I read them.

First, Revelation 4:11:

“Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for thou didst create all things,
and by thy will they existed and were created.”

Here the author of Revelation says that all things have been created by God. They exist by his will and were produced into being by him. So God alone would simply exist. He would be self-existent; everything else would be created by God.

Look also at Isaiah 40:17-23, 28a:

All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
The idol! a workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
He who is impoverished chooses for an offering
wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skilful craftsman
to set up an image that will not move.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nought,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

. . .

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Here Isaiah compares the gods of paganism to just grasshoppers, insects. There is nothing before God, he says. God and God alone is the creator of everything on Earth and to the ends of the Earth.

So the Scripture indicates first and foremost that God is the creator, the source, of reality for everything other than himself. Moreover, God not only created the world but he also preserves it in being. Nehemiah 9:6:

And Ezra said: “Thou art the Lord, thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and thou preservest all of them; and the host of heaven worships thee.

Here, Ezra says not only that God has made everything in the heavens and on Earth, but also that he preserves them in being.[6] So God not only created the world, but he also preserves the world in being.

Thirdly, the Scriptures indicate that God is the source, the sustainer, and the goal of all reality outside of himself. For example, look at Romans 11:36. Paul says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.” God is the source, the sustainer, and the goal of all reality outside of himself. You might compare in this regard Hebrews 2:10 which speaks of God as “he, for whom and by whom all things exist.” God is the source, the sustainer and the goal of all reality outside of himself.

Fourthly, the Scriptures indicate that God just exists. Psalm 90:2 says,

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.

So before God brought forth the world, the universe, from everlasting to everlasting God just exists. We might compare in this connection Exodus 3:14 where God reveals his name to Moses as “I AM that I AM.” God just exists. He is the great I AM.

It is interesting that all of these qualities are ascribed to Christ. For example, 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, Paul says,

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Here both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are described in almost identical terminology. God [inaudible] from whom are all things and for whom we exist. Jesus Christ is described as through him are all things and through whom we exist. So Christ is also thought of as being the source and sustainer of all reality.

Also, look at the Gospel of John – John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

Here the Word, or the pre-incarnate Christ, is said to have been with God, he was God, and then all things were made through him. So he alone is self-existent; everything else exists through him. Hebrews 1:1-3a:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.

Notice here it says that Christ is the agent through whom God created the world, and moreover it says he upholds the universe by his word of power. So Christ is not only the creator but he is also said to be the sustainer of the universe in being.[7]

Finally, Colossians 1:15-17. Speaking of Christ, Paul says,

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Once again Paul says very clearly that Christ is the cosmic creator of everything, not only in the physical realm but also in the heavenly and spiritual realms. And in him all of these things hold together. He not only brought them into being, but he sustains them in existence throughout their being.

That is some of the scriptural data concerning God’s self-existence. He is the source of all reality outside himself, he not only created the world but he preserves it in being, he is the source, sustainer, and goal of all reality outside himself, God just exists, and finally, all of these qualities are applied to Christ in his cosmic role.

Let’s turn to a systematic summary of this data. How can we make sense out of this attribute of God.

I think what we want to say is that God is a self-existent being. All finite reality depends upon him for its creation (that is, its coming into being), for its present existing (its continuing to be), and its future being. In other words, all of finite reality is shot through with a radical dependence upon God. Things that exist are radically contingent upon God for their being. To give an analogy, it is the way persons and things in a dream depend upon you not only for their creation but for their continuing reality in your dream. The moment you awake, in an instant they are annihilated. The instance you awaken and cease to dream, those inhabitants of your dreamworld vanish into non-being.

Now look, I am not saying that all of reality is just a dream in God’s mind. I am just using this as an analogy or an illustration. The world is real; it is not a dreamworld. I am not saying that. But I am saying that in the same way that that dreamworld is radically contingent upon your sustaining it in being so that you could awaken in an instant and it would be annihilated, in the same way the universe and all of finite reality is radically contingent upon God for its being. Would he cease to think about it, it would vanish in an instant. God could annihilate it in an instant simply by ceasing to hold it in mind before his consciousness.

So all of reality outside of God is radically dependent in its being. If there were no God, there would be no universe. But if there were no universe, God wouldn’t be affected in any way. In other words, nothing can make God cease to exist. On the contrary, everything else is dependent upon him. So God’s non-existence is impossible. It is impossible for God not to exist. He is a self-existent being on which everything else depends for its existence.

This attribute of God helps to solve two apologetic problems that are often raised about the existence of God. First, it is very often said by certain atheists that if God is a being then he is just one being among others. There is nothing special about God. This is what, for example, the Canadian atheist Kai Nielsen of the University of Calgary says. If God is a being then he is just like one more marble in the collection. There is nothing special about God. I’ve even heard unfortunately some Christian theologians buy into this line by saying that if God is infinite being then nothing else can exist besides God, so God would have to be everything.[8] I think this attribute of self-existence exposes the error in this thinking. It is not true that if God is a being then he is just one more being among others. Rather, there is a radical dichotomy within the realm of being. God alone exists necessarily – through himself. Everything else exists contingently – in dependence upon God. So within the realm of reality, within the realm of being, there is a radical dichotomy between necessary being and contingent being. Necessary being belongs to God alone. Everything else has merely contingent being. Therefore, it is not true that if God is a being he is just one among others because he is radically different than all the other beings that exist. They are all contingent beings. They have existence from another; namely, from God. They are radically dependent in their being upon another. Whereas God and God alone exists necessarily and through his own self.

The second problem, I think, that this helps to solve is the old question: where did God come from? I’ve often heard non-Christian students ask this question in a sort of smug way as though this were unanswerable. Well, it is not unanswerable at all! In fact, the question (once you understand this attribute of God) becomes pointless. God is self-existent and therefore he didn’t come from anywhere. Only contingent beings have to have causes. But to ask what is the cause of a self-existent being is an incoherent question. It is a meaningless question. It is like asking: why are all bachelors unmarried? Well, a bachelor by definition is an unmarried man. So by definition a bachelor is unmarried. It would be foolish to ask: why aren’t there any married bachelors around? In the same way, it is simply foolish to ask: Where did God come from? By definition, as a self-existent being, God exists necessarily and non-contingently and therefore he has no cause. So the self-existence of God has further implications. It implies, for example, that God has no beginning to his existence. If God ever began to exist then he wouldn’t be self-existent. So from the self-existence of God, the eternality of God follows. God has no beginning and no end of existence. He depends upon nothing and therefore he cannot have any cause. God cannot not exist. His non-existence is impossible.

So the next time somebody asks you, “Where did God come from?” Ask them, “Well, if there is no God, where did the universe come from?” You see, the atheist has to believe that the universe is self-existent, unless he is prepared to say that the universe just popped into being uncaused out of nothing. It is ironic, I think, that the atheist thus has to ascribe to the universe attributes of God. He has to in effect divinize the universe in order to escape the problem, “Where did the universe come from if there is no God.” It is interesting that that is exactly what Paul says in Romans 1:20-23 that unbelievers wind up doing. They wind up denying the attributes of God and ascribing them to the universe itself. Paul says in Romans 1:20-23,

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

Paul then says in verse 25, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!”

So the irony is that by denying the self-existence of God, non-believers and atheists wind up ascribing self-existence to the universe itself and thereby, as Paul says, worshipping and serving the creature rather than the creator who alone is self-existent and necessary in his being.[9]

What application does all of this have to our lives? Let me just mention three things.

First of all, I think it implies that God ought to be our ultimate concern. The theologian Paul Tillich defined God as “the object of ultimate concern.” Since God is the ultimate being, he ought to be our proper, ultimate concern. To substitute anything else in God’s place is therefore literally idolatry. It is interesting that many of the passages in the Scriptures on the notion of God as self-existent come in the context of a condemnation of idolatry such as the passage we read from Isaiah 40. Because to put anything in God’s place as one’s ultimate concern is idol worship. If I were to ask, “How many idolaters are here in the class this morning?” we probably wouldn’t see too many hands raised. But suppose I were to ask you, “What is your ultimate concern in life?” What would you have said? If it is anything other than knowing and serving God then I think you are worshipping a lesser God. You are putting something in the rightful place of God as the self-existent one, our ultimate concern.

The second application – this attribute implies that in the most absolute sense, he is Lord. Everything else depends upon him. He depends upon nothing. He is Lord. Therefore, in our lives we need to depend upon the one who depends upon no one. We are dependent beings, but we shouldn’t try to depend upon one another. Other people will fail you. Rather, we need to depend upon the one who depends upon no one.

Finally, thirdly, God’s self-existence excludes our selfishness. Self-existence is synonymous to the property of independence. That is what it means to be self-existence – independent. That is really what Satan and man want. We want to go our own way. We want to be independent. We want to exist on our own rather than upon independence of God. When we go our own way we challenge God’s I AM with our own self-hood. Selfishness, I think, seems natural to us until we truly understand who God is. When we understand God’s self-existence then I think we can see how utterly stupid it is for the creature to raise his heel against his creator upon whom he depends moment-by-moment for his very existence. It is the ultimate exercise of folly for the creature who depends upon the creator for every heartbeat, every successive breath, to oppose his own self-hood to God’s self-existence. In the book of Job 42:1-6 we read the following:

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that thou canst do all things,
and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees thee;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

Once Job understood the mightiness and the greatness of God, the majesty of God, Job saw that his own arrogance was folly and he repented in great humility and self-depreciation. Similarly, I think God’s self-existence, once we understand it, will exclude our selfishness.

That is a summary of God’s attribute of self-existence with its application. God should be our ultimate concern, in the most absolute sense he is Lord, and God’s self-existence excludes our selfishness and independence of God.

Next time we will turn to another of God’s infinite attributes. We will talk about the eternity of God.[10]

[1] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), p. 314.

[2] 4:55

[3] 10:04

[4] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 1841

[5] 15:03

[6] 20:10

[7] 25:00

[8] 30:02

[9] 35:01

[10] Total Running Time: 40:13 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)