As man pursues the ordering of the world and his very nature, there is a natural limit to what he can discover about his origins. Beyond him is his creator supreme, who has supplied to him vitality, intellect and ability, and the world in which he exists. But man is not capable of discovering or understanding the creator’s great mysteries alone, and so the Creator God saw it that it was good to reveal to man some of God’s nature through His inspired Word. We, therefore, undertake the task of discovering the divine nature by studying the Word that was revealed to us, and by the faculty of our reason and intellect, so that we may draw closer to Him.
In Jeremiah 32:17, the writer states that God has “made the heavens and the earth by[His] great power and by[His] outstretched arm!” The breadth and depth of the power of God are so far beyond our comprehension that the mere thought of His nature and being overwhelms our intellect. When we speak of God, then, we must speak about His nature and attributes using analogies, which are the same way in which he reveals Himself to us. He is called our “shield” (Ps 28:7) and our “rock” (Deut 32:4). Of course, he is not literally these things, but they are meant to evoke a sense of who He is. Similarly, we often speak about God with the language that we would describe humans. He is not human though, and so to speak of Him this way is to communicate about aspects of his nature or his attributes in such a way that we can gain some sense of his “person”, a term derived from the Latin persona, which has the sense of a “mask”1.
The Creator God identifies Himself in Scripture to Abram as “God Almighty.” (Gen 17:1) This declaration of omnipotence is essential to understanding and establishing His ability to complete the scope of work we attribute to God, but it must further be defined to escape the contradictions and errors man has tried to ascribe to it. Often these errors take the form of a logical contradiction, such as “Can God make a rock that he cannot pick up?” Thus, the concept of divine omnipotence requires further clarification to be useful. To this end, William Ockham describes the omnipotence of God using the framework of His two powers; The ordained power of God and the absolute power of God. God possesses an absolute power which gives Him the ability to do all things, yet as He makes choices, He becomes self-limited by them. Having made the heavens and the earth, He cannot then choose not to make them. Thus, God operates by His ordained power, which prevents Him from some things while His absolute power remains established.
If God is almighty and the sole author of all of creation, how can we explain the presence of sin in the world? If God created all things, do we count among his creations the very nature of evil? By bestowing free will upon man, God left to man the ability to decide his own path. While man might have a multitude of options at every turn in his life, the decision is ultimately between the choice of God or self. Sin is the result of man’s choice to turn away from God. So then if choosing sin is the opposite of choosing God, sin and the evil that it brings into the world are not of God, but of man’s choice. Augustine of Hippo characterizes sin as a defective choice or action, which comes from nothing, and so is certainly not a product of God2.
If we can ascribe omnipotence and goodness to God as evidenced in His Word, and further order them via the reason of man, how can we know that these attributes have not changed, nor change in the future? How do we know of God’s steadfastness? The inspired words written by the prophet Malachi, found in Malachi 3:6 state “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” By His own word, God proclaims Himself to be unchanging. Moreover, He declares his name to Moses as “I AM,” not as a riddle, but as a declaration of his steadfast and unchanging nature. Thus, God himself, through His Word, assures us of His immutable and impassible nature.
The implications of this attribute for humanity, especially in the contemporary context of a century of world wars and prolific human suffering, are incredibly relevant. If God is incapable of change, what does that imply about His ability to suffer along with or because of man? It holds to reason that a God who is almighty and steadfast cannot be susceptible to pain or suffering as we understand it. If God were vulnerable to the concept of suffering, then God could not be considered as immutable, as this vulnerability would suggest that he could become more perfect or less perfect3.
Theologians have wrestled with understanding how God can be love and yet not partake in the suffering of those he loves. It is a core misunderstanding of God’s love that is the culprit, which is born of a human sense of love being projected onto wholly-other God. God’s love instead manifests itself not as an emotion, but as life, being, and truth4 and is the force which “fill[s] all creatures, according to their capacities, with his bountiful superabundance and excessiveness” 5. Our imperfection denies us the complete understanding of God’s love and its intersection with his unmoving nature, yet He has seen to reveal to us in Scripture that these seemingly contradicting attributes are both parts of his nature.
It is not too much to say that the beliefs of Christianity rest on the truth of these attributes. If God is not all powerful, then we must question His ability to enact His promises to man. If God is not all good, then we must question His self-representation as such in and thus the validity of Scripture. If God is not steadfast and unchanging, and furthermore affected by suffering because or with us, we must question His motives for creation and redemption. Ultimately these attributes of God define the basis of Christian understanding, and while many have challenged, and continue to challenge, the exactitude of these attributes, they have ultimately stood the tests of time and rationality.
- Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 178. ↩
- Augustine of Hippo, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Augustine of Hippo on the Relationship Between God and Evil,” in The Christian Theology Reader, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 172. ↩
- Spinoza, Benedict, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Benedict Spinoza on the Impassibility of God,” in The Christian Theology Reader, (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 160. ↩
- Hart, David Bentley. “NO SHADOW OF TURNING: On Divine Impassibility.” PRO ECCLESIA, n.d.: 195. ↩
- Augustine, De Trinitate VI.x 11, CCL 50: 241-42. ↩