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Basic Christianity, Part Three: What Is God?
December 11, 2003
A study of Christianity must depend on an understanding of God, for without God there is no Christianity. In this article we will learn about God – what He is and how we know about Him. Of all the topics we will examine in this series, this may well be the most incomprehensible. An exhaustive examination of God could fill many libraries, so please realize this study will barely even scratch the surface of what God is.
In defining God we run into the problem of which to introduce first, The Bible or God. I have decided to introduce God first and then the Bible. Much of what we know about God we learn from the Bible, but The Bible can only be understood with an understanding of God. While we acknowledge this appears to be circular logic, we will move forward for the time-being and discuss this seeming contradiction at a later time.
First we will examine how we know about God, then what God is by examining his attributes and finally at who God is by examining His characteristics.
How Do We Know About God?
God has revealed Himself to humans in two ways. The first way is known as “Natural Revelation.” The word “natural” speaks about nature, so the first way God has revealed himself is through nature – through what He has created. Since we cannot see God, to learn about Him we must see Him indirectly in what He has made. For example, if I am a being that God created, I can learn something about God by looking at myself. Similarly I can learn about God from nature. I see that the universe is orderly and not chaotic and this teaches me about God’s character. If God created the universe, I can deduce that He is a God of order and not chaos. Similarly, I can learn from nature that God loves beauty and variety.
The second way God has revealed Himself is through “Special Revelation.” This includes speaking directly to humans and speaking to humans through the Bible. Much of what we learn about God is contained in The Bible. We will examine this book more closely in an upcoming article, but for now it is enough to know that The Bible tells us much about God that natural revelation does not – who He is, what He has done and how He interacts with humans.
While every human being has experienced God’s natural revelation, not every one has experienced His special revelation.
What Is God
So how does one define what God is? This is certainly a task I do not feel adequate to perform, so I will turn to what I believe is the most complete definition I have seen. Though it was written several hundred years ago in about 1646, in my estimation it has never been surpassed in terms of accuracy and completeness. I will present the definition and then speak about each part.
God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
We will now turn to an explanation of this definition.
God is a Spirit. We must confess that there is a mystery here which we cannot fully understand as we do not fully know what a Spirit is. What we acknowledge in saying that God is a Spirit is that He does not have any material substance. Like our minds or our souls, He exists but cannot be seen or touched. By confessing that He is a Spirit, we acknowledge that He is not the only Spirit and that there are other beings that are spirits.
God possesses two types of attributes, those that communicable and those that are incommunicable. Communicable attributes are those that God can and has given to other beings. His incommunicable attributes are those that are His alone. First we will examine three attributes that are God’s alone.
In all of creation only God can claim to be:
Infinite. Christians often use the word “omnipresent” to describe God. What this means is that there is no physical beginning or end to God. He is everywhere. He does not have physical form and is not restricted to being in one place at a time. God is present in all places at all times.
Eternal. Just as God has no physical beginning and end, so He has no chronological beginning and end. God has always existed and will always exist. We can say that He exists beyond time and is not subject to time.
Unchangeable. God does not change. He does not grow or learn. His plans for people and for the universe have not changed and never will change.
The remainder of God’s attributes are communicable in that He has provided them to humans and to other beings. However, this does not necessarily mean that humans possess these attributes to the same extent as God. God’s communicable attributes are “modified” by His incommunicable attributes. For example, Because God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable, His wisdom must be infinite, eternal and unchangeable. His justice must be infinite, eternal and unchangeable. Humans, on the other hand, possess wisdom, but not infinite, eternal and unchangeable wisdom. Our attributes are limited where God’s are unlimited.
Being. God’s first characteristic is that He exists. He has life and reality. He is a being. God’s being, as we have learned, is infinite, eternal and unchangeable.
Wisdom. God’s second characteristic is His wisdom. God can always discern what is true and right. He is incapable of being fooled or making a wrong decision.
Power. God’s third characteristic is that He is powerful. God has the ability to perform and act effectively. He is able to bring into action or existence anything He desires.
Holiness. God’s fourth characteristic is His holiness. God’s very nature is pure and He is incapable of performing or tolerating any sort of evil.
Justice. God’s fourth characteristic is His justice. God is always fair and morally right. He will never make an unfair or incorrect judgment.
Goodness. God’s fifth characteristic is His goodness. Everything God is, says, does and brings into existence is good.
Truth. God’s sixth characteristic is His Truth. God is perfectly faithful in all He has said and is incapable of telling a lie. Whatever God has said is true and whatever He has said will happen in the future will come to pass.
What God Cannot Do
There is only one thing God cannot do, and that is to deny His nature. Were He to deny His nature, He would not and could not be God. For example, because He is infinitely, eternally and unchangeably holy, He could never do anything that was less than perfectly holy.
This concludes our brief definition of who God is. As I indicated at the beginning of the article, a thorough examination would require far more time then we can devote to it. Yet this explanation is sufficient for our purposes and allows us to move to our next topic. In our next article we will introduce the concept of the Trinity.