Doctrine of God (part 1)

March 15, 2010     Time: 00:34:05


I. Attributes of God: A. Introduction . . . I. B. God as Infinite 1. Introduction.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 1


We come now to a new section in our survey of Christian doctrine. We previously were going over the Doctrine of Revelation, and we looked at general revelation and special revelation. We have now brought that discussion to a close. Today we are starting on a new section called Doctrine of God.

As we begin a new section, it is good to remind ourselves of the purpose of the Defenders class and of our class verse. Our class verse is 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do this with gentleness and respect.” Our purposes in this class are three fold: (1) to train Christians to understand, articulate, and defend basic Christian truths; (2) to reach out with the Gospel to those who have not yet come to know Christ, always being ready to give a defense to anyone who should ask a reason for our hope; and (3) to be an incendiary fellowship of mutual encouragement and care.

In his morning sermon of January 7, 1855, the British minister Charles Spurgeon opened with these words:

It has been said that ‘the proper study of mankind is man.’ 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. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. . . . No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God. . . . But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe. . . . Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity. . . . It is to that subject that I invite you this morning.

It is to that same subject that we will now turn our attention.

The knowledge of God! When you think about it, this is really what life is all about: the knowledge of God. J. I. Packer in his marvelous work Knowing God writes as follows:

What were we made for? To know God. What aims should we set ourselves in life? To know God. What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. John 17:3, “This is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment than anything else? The knowledge of God.

The knowledge of God should be the number one priority of every Christian believer.

Knowing About God and Knowing God

But here a very important distinction needs to be made. There is an important difference between knowing God and knowing about God.1 Knowing about God is primarily a matter of information, but knowing God involves a first-hand personal experience. To give an illustration, suppose that you were single and I was somehow able to tell you all about the guy or the girl of your dreams that someday you are going to marry. Suppose I could tell you what she looks like, her likes and dislikes, her strengths, her weaknesses, her intellectual abilities, and her spiritual maturity. You would know all about her. And yet, would you really know her? Clearly, not at all! You would have a lot of information, but there wouldn’t be any personal relationship between you and her. In fact, you might say, “Wow, I can hardly wait to get to know her!” There is a clear difference between just knowing about someone and actually knowing that person. When that girl walks into your life, you will not simply know things about her, you will begin to know her.

It is exactly the same with God. We can have a lot of information about God, we can know a lot about God, and yet still not know God very well, or maybe even at all. In this kind of a class, my ability to help you know about God is considerable; but I can’t really help you a lot to know God personally. That is something that you have got to do for yourself. To return to the illustration, suppose that by divine revelation I could tell you about the person you are going to marry. Still, I couldn’t give you that intimate, personal relationship with her. You have to do the loving and the caring and the building yourself. It is just the same with God. I can tell you a lot about God, so that you know more about God. But only you can really come to know God for yourself. It is you who are going to have to spend the time with God, building and nurturing that intimate relationship of knowing him.

You might then ask, “Why is it even important to know about God, if that is not really the priority in life?” Very simply, it can be very helpful to have information about someone if you want to get to know that person personally. For example, if you learn that someone has a poor self image, that is going to be a very important piece of information in knowing that person and understanding how that person acts and reacts to you. Or if you know that somebody can be trusted with a secret, then that is going to give you confidence to confide in that person as a reliable and loyal friend. 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 unconditional love, then we will be drawn to love him in return. When we truly comprehend God’s holiness, then we will turn away from our sins with loathing and will reverence God with awe and trembling. When we understand God’s aseity, or self-existence, then we will fall on our faces before him in humility and worship. When we see God’s power, then we will go forth for him in confidence and triumph. When we learn about God’s omniscience, then we will quit depreciating ourselves, and we will learn to accept ourselves rightly, as God accepts us. Having knowledge about God can be very valuable in learning to know God personally.

The Infinite-Personal God

Who is this God, then, that reveals himself to us in the Bible? In short, he is the infinite-personal God. According to the Bible, God is both infinite and personal. Insofar as God is infinite, he is utterly unlike all the rest of reality. A great chasm separates God from the rest of reality, whether man or animals or plants or the inorganic material world.2 All of these are finite, created things and utterly distinct from the infinite God. But insofar as God is personal, man stands on the same side of the chasm with God because man is created in the image of God and is therefore a personal being. And on the other side of the chasm stands the rest of the physical created world (animals, plants, and inorganic material). The God that the Bible describes is a God who is both infinite and personal. [see Figure 1].

Figure 1 - Infinite-Personal God

In so conceiving of God in this way, the Judeo-Christian tradition is quite unlike the rest of the world’s religions. For example, the pantheistic religions of the Orient, such as Hinduism, conceive of God as infinite, but not personal – he is just the Absolute, some sort of undifferentiated principle, but not a person. By contrast, in the religions of Greece and Rome that were fashionable during the time the New Testament was written, the gods and goddesses were personal beings (Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, and all the rest were certainly personal beings). But they were finite, humanoid supermen and women cavorting about. They weren’t infinite beings, but they were personal. In contrast to both of these, the Scripture teaches that God is both infinite and personal.

What we want to do is to begin by looking at those attributes of God which are his in virtue of his infinity, and then we’ll look at the attributes of God which are his in virtue of being a personal being.

Let’s talk first about God’s attributes insofar as God is an infinite being. The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes God as “a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” We want to examine what it means to speak of God as infinite in this way. In one sense, all of God’s attributes could be described in terms of God’s infinity because as belonging to an unlimited being they all share in God’s infinitude. But what we want to focus on here are those attributes of God that he has that are not in virtue of being personal (that is, not a reflection or implication of his being a personal being).

By way of introduction, a lot of times you hear people today express skepticism about knowing anything of God’s nature or attributes. They will say you can’t know anything about God. If God does exist, then he is totally unknown. You can’t say what God is really like. For these people, God is just a sort of blur, a kind of impersonal force or something. They don’t think you can really talk meaningfully about the attributes of God because God is just a blank, a sort of mysterious question mark, even if he exists. In contradiction to this, such a being would in reality be a non-entity. If it were really the case that God had no attributes at all, he wouldn’t exist. It would be a non-entity. Anything that exists in reality objectively (that is, something that still exists even when you are not there; it exists independently of your mind) has attributes or properties that make it what it is rather than something else. A God who had no attributes would be simply non-existent. It wouldn’t be anything at all.3

The 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach made this point when he wrote the following:

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

I think that was well put by Feuerbach!

So God, as an infinite being, must have some sort of attributes or properties that make him what he is rather than something else. The question then is, what are these properties? What are the attributes that go to make up God’s nature? Here God has fortunately not left it up to us to work it out by our own ingenuity what he is like. Rather he has revealed himself to us in his Word, which is why we began with the Doctrine of Revelation. The Bible is the storybook of God’s revealing acts in history, his self-revelation in the history of the world and particularly of the nation of Israel, telling us what he is like. So it is to the Scriptures that we must turn in order to discover what God is like. What I want to do is to look at four of God’s infinite attributes as taught in Scripture. Under each one, what we will do is first look at an analysis of the attribute, looking at the Scriptural data in support of that attribute. Then we will summarize it, and finally we will look at its application to our lives – what difference does it make that we have such a conception of God, that God possesses the attribute that we are discussing?


Question: Before you continue, can you discuss what you mean by “infinite,” since later on you will talk about how an actual infinite is illogical.

Answer: When we talk about the concept of infinity, I think there are two ways to conceive of it. One would be what I would call a quantitative concept. This would be the concept of infinity that plays a role in mathematics. In mathematics, for example, if you talk about the set of natural numbers {0, 1, 2, 3 ...}, the number of elements in this set is infinite in this quantitative sense. The number of elements in the set is an infinite number. What that means is that there is an infinite number of definite and discrete members in the collection. To say it is quantitative is to say that there is a certain number of definite and discrete elements in the collection. By contrast to this, we could think of infinity as a qualitative notion.5 As a qualitative notion, infinity would not be a collection that is composed of an infinite number of definite and discrete elements. So, for example, if we talk about God’s love as “infinite,” what we mean is that it is unconditional, it is boundless; but we don’t mean that it is somehow made up of a collection of definite and discrete parts which are infinite in number. The love of God’s being infinite is not a quantitative notion. Or when we talk about God’s moral perfection and his holiness and we say he is infinitely good or holy, again that is not a quantitative notion. We don’t mean that there are units of holiness, and God has an infinite number of these units. It is more a qualitative infinity. So when we talk about infinity with respect to God, we should use the word as a qualitative notion. In fact, in one sense, there really isn’t a separate attribute of God called “infinity.” As you will see, we will not study any attribute of God called “infinity.” Rather this is simply an umbrella term that really describes all of God’s various attributes: his love is boundless, his holiness is perfect, his omnipotence means he is all-powerful, his omniscience means that he knows all truth and believes no falsehoods. If you were to take away God’s holiness, omnipotence, omniscience, aseity, and all the other attributes, it is not as though there will be some attribute left over called “infinity” that he would still have. Rather this is a qualitative notion that describes all of God’s attributes in the way he has them in this sort of boundless fashion. I hope that is clear. This will become more important later on when we talk about whether or not the series of past events is infinite or not, or had a beginning.

Question: Talking about God’s infinite qualities, does God have any qualities that are not infinite such as his anger against certain peoples?

Answer: I don’t think that it is as though God has finite qualities as opposed to infinite qualities. As I said, I think you can think of all of God’s qualities as infinite in the sense I am using the word. It might be more accurate to make this division between God’s personal attributes and non-personal attributes. When I talk about these attributes like self-existence and so forth, I am saying that these are attributes that he has not in virtue of being a person. But we will talk about things like his love when we talk about his personal attributes. But clearly his love is infinite, so in that sense he is infinite in every respect.

Question: What about his existence within the temporal world? I remember you talking some time ago about him being infinite and then becoming temporal.

Answer: This gets into the notion of God’s eternity, and that will be one of the attributes that we talk about. I think what we’ll want to say with respect to eternity is that God’s existence is permanent, that is to say, he never began to exist, and he never will cease to exist. In that sense, he is infinite. But how he relates to time will be controversial and will require some teasing out in order to try to understand it. If time had a beginning at creation and God entered into time at that moment, then God has existed for only a finite amount of time, about 13.7 billion years. But that doesn’t mean he began to exist because he existed without time in the state of being alone without creation. God exists without time even if he exists in time with creation. We will talk about that more later on, but I think we can still say his existence is infinite in the sense that it is permanent: he never began and will never cease to exist.6

Question: (inaudible) . . . almost exists outside of time, but he never really entered into it?

Answer: I want to save this discussion until we get to the attribute of eternity. We are going to talk about this in considerable detail, and certainly the classical understanding of God in Christian theology has been that God exists outside of time, that he is timeless. It is not as though he endured through an infinite number of times and then decided a finite time ago to create the world. That is typically not the view that Christian theology holds. It typically holds to God’s timelessness, that he transcends time. But we will talk more about that later.

Question: How do we answer the Gnostic claim about God being created by Sophia or some other Godhood?

Answer: There are two levels on which this kind of question could be answered. The reason we started with Doctrine of Revelation in this class is so that we have an authoritative source of teaching about God. What you would do is show scripturally that these Gnostic heretics were and are mistaken in thinking that there is some other principle or being beyond God. This is what the church fathers like Irenaeus did in attacking these Gnostics. As Christian apologists, on the other hand, I think we can give some arguments for thinking that God has these sorts of attributes and that we have to get back to a sort of ultimate, uncreated being who is personal and transcends time and space and so forth. So those would be the ways I would try to deal with those kinds of people. On the one hand scripturally and then on the other hand you can give some philosophical arguments, too.

Question: Would it be right to say that once a person is conceived, we do have a starting point, but from then on we are an infinite creature?

Answer: This is a good question. Here we have to make a different distinction with respect to infinity. I talked about quantitative versus qualitative notions of infinity, but even within quantitative infinity, there is another distinction to be drawn between what is called an actual infinite and what is called a potential infinite. An actual infinite would be a collection, like the set of natural numbers, which has a number of elements in it that is greater than any natural number. The set of natural numbers is actually infinite, the set of all points in space is actually infinite, things of that sort. But potential infinity is the notion of an indefinite collection. This would be a collection which is never actually infinite, but it is growing toward infinity as a limit. For example, if I divide the distance between the corners of this podium in half, and then I divide it in half again, and then in half again, that can keep on going forever – and infinity will be a limit which I will never reach because there will only ever be a finite number of divisions. But it goes on forever. It goes on ceaselessly. In that sense, you could say it is potentially infinite. I would say with respect to human beings who begin to exist at a point in time at the moment of conception but who will live forever because they have a soul that will live in connection with the resurrection body forever, that they will live for potentially infinite time into the future. They will never be an actually infinite number of years old. Given that they began to exist, at any time if you ask them, “How old are you?,” the answer will always be a finite number, no matter how far into the future you go. But they will just go on forever – infinity is just a limit that you approach but you never get to.7

Question: How did the term “infinity” get applied to the Christian God – my understanding is there is no word for infinite in Hebrew, and the Greek word for infinite is not used in the New Testament. But the word began to be used in the early creeds.

Answer: I really can’t say, historically, when the word “infinite” first began to be applied to God by church fathers. I strongly suspect it would be under the influence of Greek philosophy which had conceptions of God or the One as being beyond all finitude and aptly described in that way. So this would be one example of the contribution of philosophy to Christian doctrine. As we will see, Scripture is often underdeterminative with respect to these attributes of God. By that I mean that they don’t make it entirely clear how we are to conceive of a particular attribute of God. For example, the Scripture says that God is eternal; but does that mean that he has existed for infinite time and always will? Or does it mean that he is timeless? The Scripture isn’t altogether clear on that. The Scripture refers to God as “almighty,” “all-powerful;” it says he can do anything. But what does that mean? How do you cash that out? I think here philosophy can help us to cash out some of these attributes of God in ways that will exalt and magnify God. I would say that we ought to construe these attributes, like God’s being all-mighty, or all-knowing, in the strongest possible terms that we can because God is the greatest conceivable being and only retreat from that if we are forced to. The doctrine of God’s infinity is something that is rooted in Scripture; as we will see it affirms things like his all-mightiness and his all-knowingness, his all-presence, his creating everything outside of himself. Then it will be up to us to try to systematize that to make sense of that attribute, and in so doing I think we will bring in some of these philosophical concepts.8


1 5:00

2 10:01

3 14:56

4 Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 1841

5 20:02

6 25:10

7 30:35

8 Total Running Time: 34:05