( skip to main content )

Publications: Articles - Theology

A description of the so called Idiothtes (Properties) of God, their source and their Theological Validity

Introductory Remarks

God, in His very 'nature' is ineffable and inexpressible. God, 'who has made darkness His secret place' is beyond the finite conscience of persons. St Gregory Palamas writes that "the super essential nature of God is not a subject to speak of or think or even contemplate, for it is far removed from all that exists and more than unknowable - incomprehensible for ever."1 However, God who is a hidden God also reveals Himself. Through His natural (ordinary) and supernatural (extraordinary) revelation, He has disclosed Himself to humanity in so far as humanity is capable of receiving this revelation.2 Therefore God is, at the same time totally inaccessible and really communicable to the created world. One is thus compelled to recognize in God an ineffable distinction-in-unity between His essence and His energies. The former refers to the nature of God, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable and the latter being the divine operations of God where God reveals and communicates Himself to creation. The energies of God make manifest to creatures those things that can be known of God. (to; gnwsto;n tou' Qeou'.).3

The so called ijdiovthte"4 (features) of God are an attempt to describe in anthropomorphic terms the limitless ways that God relates to the world through His energies. The energies of God reveal the names of God - that is, that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, just and eternal. These are innumerable since God cannot be limited and bound by the ways that He wishes to relate to His created world. In its study, Systematic Theology has sought to classify the so called features of God in three areas - the attributa, (ta; prosovnta) (attributes) the proprietates (ta; ijdiwvmata) (hypostatic properties) and the praedicata (ta; kathgorhvmata) (predicates).

The Features of God

The 'ijdiovthte"' or features of God are the expressions of the relation that God has with the created world. Since God has made Himself known to us, humanity has dared to attempt to express the silence of God in poetry, doxology and liturgy. The Fathers of the Church attempted to penetrate the darkness of inaccessibility by the fingerprints that God revealed in His divine economy ad extra (towards the world). St Basil affirms that: "no one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy."5 The economic manifestation of the Divine into the world allows for an expression of this relationship to be described. Eventhough it is imperative that the mystery of God be safeguarded nevertheless since He revealed Himself, this description is permissible and theologically valid.

When talking of the so called ijdiovthte" of God one has to keep in mind that one's thought and conscience is conditioned by certain limits - that one has been placed on earth at a certain time and space - which cannot be overcome. One is not able to overcome this relativity - one only tries to formulate in one's conscience those things pertaining to God in order to become familiar with the truth of the Trinitarian dogma. In their quest to arrange the features of God, theologians, especially in the West, began to logically define which of the features were primary, secondary or original and derived. In their attempt to construct a system, the Scholastics posited two ways in which to determine the features of God - the via causalitatis and via negationis. By the way of causality humanity, having experienced perfection relatively by perceiving the created world around, would ascribe to God the highest degree of perfection. By the way of negation all the imperfections seen by humanity would be removed from the idea of God, being inconsistent with the idea of a perfect being. According to that principle, God was assigned qualities such as being infinite, immortal and incomprehensible. However these theologians wanted the most basic, the most substantial and the most original concept for God upon which the other features depended.

Some wanted the begin with the idea of God as being love, others that He was primarily a personal being while others still stressed absoluteness to be the source. However these attempts, in isolation from one another were not able to offer every possible relation of God as described in the Bible and in the language of Revelation. Since God's relationship with the created world is limitless, therefore so will the features be limitless and not one alone can become adequate to express all others. Therefore the only possibility to approach the features of God is to accept the classification as a conventional solution and that none of the three attributes can be accepted as the source from which all the others are derived.

Three Types of Features

Systematic Theology has employed three terms in its search to classify the features of God - the first being the attributes. The (prosovnta) attributa are those qualities of God that the Bible describes - that is that God is holy, just, and a eternal for example. These attributes of God have been divided into natural, logical and ethical attributes. Under the natural attributes three things are implied: that He is ever - present, eternal and almighty. Under the logical attributes, all - knowledge and all- wisdom. Under the ethical attributes, holiness, righteousness and love. All the three are interrelated and arise since the finite being of humanity is not able to grasp the substance of God as a unique oneness. It follows therefore that the classification is conventional.

The natural attributes derive from the natural characteristic that God is absolute. They are ascribed to God from humanity's conception of the creation with God being beyond time and space therefore timeless, infinite and independent. The central focus for the logical and the ethical is the characteristic that God is a personal being. Furthermore the ethical attributes give witness to the order and harmony of the moral life of humanity, both in strengthening the ethical values in life and in love as the compassion and mercy of God.

Secondly, the term (ijdiwvmata) proprietates, is employed when describing the ijdiovthte" of God, to underline the distinction of the three persons - the threefold differentiation in God's outward inner life6. Thus the three persons are distinct from one another, yet united each possessing the fullness of the Divinity. Thus according to St Gregory the Theologian, "the Godhead is undivided in separate Persons."7 The Father is to be distinguished from the other Persons inasmuch as He eternally begets the Son and emanates the Holy Spirit; the Son is to be distinguished in that He is begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit in that He proceeds from the Father. Thus, the hypostatic attributes of the Three Persons are as follows: the Father - His unbegotteness (ajgevnnhton) and paternity; the Son - begotteness (gennhtovn) and sonship; and the Holy Spirit - procession (ejkporeutovn) or "ekpempsis". St Gregory the Theologian affirms that the “characteristics of the Father is His unbegetteness, of the Son, His birth and of the Holy Spirit His procession.”8

The (kathgorhvmata) praedicata are those features which „characterize‟ God as subject operating (ejnergou'nta) in concrete situations. It follows from this classification that God is called upon as creator, judge and life - giver.

The Relation with the Essence of God

The question arises, after having described the different ijdiovthte" as to the nature of the features, their relationship with the essence of God and to what extent they adequately describe the essence of God. Consequently, the problem arises as to the validity of the features of God. Two extremes arose in the quest for an answer to this dilemma. Some theologians, wanting to safeguard a homogenous relationship of the features of God with their expression to the created world, affirmed that the features reflected the inner essence of God and that they were real distinctions in the essence of God. Others, stressing the simplicity and incomprehensibility of the essence of God believed that the features of God were objective and irrespective of His relation to the world (Nominalism).

However both these positions held are false and ultimately lead to heresy. The acceptance that God's essence is composite - made up of many 'compartments' - clearly differs from the essential and foundation truth that the essence of God is simple. St Athanasius asserts that "oujk e[sti poiovth" ejn tw'/ Qew'/. JAplh' ga;r oujsiva oJ Qeo;"."9 However the other assertion that the qualities of God are theoretical imaginations - only fictitious - is non - Biblical and non - Patristic and ultimately leads to the heresy of Docetism. If the ascribed qualities of God are only theoretical and metaphorical then the meaning of Revelation becomes corrupt, the religious feeling is minimalised and faith is deprived of all truth.10

These features ascribed to God are neither theoretical nor objective. Instead, they are concrete realities not in the essence of God but outside. St Basil expressed that "we know God from His energies, and not from our relationship to His essence. For God's energies descend upon us, but His essence remains unapproachable."11 The features of God are not distinctions in the simple essence of God but they express the relationships of the simple
essence of God to the diverse and various created world. The truth is approached when one accepts the middle path to both extremes. That is, that the ijdiovthte" of God do correspond to the essence of God but do not comprise of separate compartments in His essence.12

Concluding Remarks

From the above, it is clear that the features of God are expressions of His relation to the created world through His energies. An attempt has been made by theologians in the past to classify these qualities in order that the mysterium tremendum might somehow be approached. The calling of the theologian today is to use these various qualities which have been described and classified, with caution in order to persuade the whole created world - those outside of Christianity - into the experience of the new joy of the life in Christ Jesus ; to proclaim this to all for the glory of the living God and the salvation of the world (mysterium salvificum).

Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew‟s Greek Orthodox Theological College


1. 'Theophanies' P.G., 150, 937 A.
2. According to Irenaeus, "No man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught by God; that is God cannot be known without God: But that it is the expressed will of the Father, that God should be known. Adv. Haer. IV, 6, 4. P.G. 36.364.
3. cf. Rom. 1. 19.
4. The term ijdiovthte" which Systematic Theology has employed in the texts is not a successful term. The term ijdiovthte" is derived from the Greek word i[dion which translates as 'my own.' However everything belongs to God - one cannot affirm that only certain things in the created world are His and not others. In the Divine Liturgy we read "ta; Sa; ejk tw'n Sw'n soi; prosfevronte"" There are no private qualities of God. A more successful term, rather than ijdiovthte", would be GNWRISMATA of God since it is from these that we recognize that God is in our midst. (The term GNWRISMATA was first suggested by Archbishop Stylianos in his lectures in Dogmatic Theology). This paper will therefore use the word 'features' to designate the Greek term 'ta gnwrivsmata'.
5. Kallistos Ware,The Orthodox Way, 27
6. The term 'ijdiovthte"' is applicable when one speaks of the proprietates since we are stating the unique ‘quality’ and the economy ad extra of each Person of the Trinity.
7. St Gegeoy the Thelogian, Sermon 31, 14. P.G. 36, 149.
8. Oration 25, 16 P.G. 31, 609.
9. Letter to the African Bishops, 8. P.G. 26. 1043.
11. Epistle 234,2.
12. Archbishop Stylianos, Lectures delivered to students of Systematic Theology at St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College.

< Back to the articles list