Publications: Articles - Theology
The Characteristic Features (Gnwrivsmata) or Attributes of God
God, in His very essence is beyond all understanding, inexpressible, uncreated, uncircumscribed, unfathomable and unchangeable - to name only several of the many divine features ascribed to God by the fathers.1 The uncreated essence of God is 'entirely other' from all other created 'natures' in that in that it is not partial or incomplete like everything else in the created world. Only God, for example, is a 'being' that exists eternally, is uncreated and in fact is the absolute fullness of being and life. Yet God who is beyond all categories of being and existence has made Himself really known throughout the ages as the 'I am who I am' who lives, who has spoken and acted in the world, and continues to do so. God has totally disclosed Himself in a personal way to the world through His 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary' revelation. For this reason, Orthodox theology recognises in God an ineffable distinction-in-unity between His essence, which will forever remain unknown and His energies, through which God personally reveals Himself to the created realm.
With such a distinction in mind, Christian theology has sought to depict the limitless ways that God communicates with the created world by the expression 'divine attributes'. That is to say, the theological notion, 'attributes of God' has traditionally been used by Christian theology to depict those characteristic features or divine qualities of God, which the human person has experienced and expressed resulting from the inexhaustible ways that God continues to relate to the world personally through His energies. The reason that God's attributes are innumerable is that God cannot be limited and bound by the infinite ways that He might wish to relate to the created world. It must be stressed that in no way do the 'attributes of God' indicate the essence of God but rather, they refer to God's relationship towards the world and in particular to human beings. That is, the attributes of God, in Orthodox theology can be identified with the uncreated energies of God.
Now, systematic theology has sought to classify these qualities of God in terms of attributes (attributa), such as omnipresence, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, holiness and righteousness; secondly there are those qualities which underline the unique characteristics of each Person within the life of the Holy Trinity. The Father alone, for example is said to be unbegotten (ajgevnnhto") while the Son is 'begotten of the Father before all ages' (gennhtov") as is recited in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed; and the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father (ejkporeutovn). These hypostatic attributes are designated by the term properties (ijdiwvmata - proprietates). The third classification signifies those qualities of God which characterise Him as a Subject operating in concrete situations, these being called kathgorhvmata (praedicata). It follows from such a categorization that God is experienced to be Creator, Judge and Life-Giver. Even though it is imperative to be mindful of the 'divine simplicity' of God, a description of the various attributes is permissible and theologically valid as a means for the human person being initiated into the unfathomable mystery of God. Our attention in this article will be turned specifically towards the attributes of God which have been conventionally divided into natural, logical and ethical attributes.
The Natural Attributes
By the attribute of omnipresence, God is acknowledged as being everywhere present. In the prayer 'Heavenly King Comforter…[Basileu' Oujravnie Paravklhte. . .]' the Church claims that God is 'present everywhere and filling all things'. By omnipresence is also meant that God cannot be confined by the limitations of time or space as all created beings are. Such an understanding of God's omnipresence is witnessed in many Scriptural passages – Psalm 138 being very familiar to all:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Ps 139:7-10).
Clearly this passage shows that God does not act in the world from a distance (actio in distans) but has continual and constant koinonia with the world. And so, there is no part of creation from where God is absent.
Being a spiritual and immaterial 'being' God is not limited by any spacial considerations as all created beings are. In His answer to the Samaritan woman, Jesus said that: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (Jn 4:24). That is, being spirit, God is not bound by materiality so as to be confined by concrete space. According to the prophet Jeremiah with regards to God's omnipresence, we read:
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24).
Therefore any theory which would put God outside the cosmos is not espoused by Orthodox theology. Consequently, in an manner which transcends human understanding, God is totally and really present simultaneously in all places at the same time as is expressed by St John Chrsysostom: "You fill all things, o my God. You are everywhere present, not in part, but totally in all."2 Finally, in agreement with Nietzsche on this issue, the Church too would claim that "God is found everywhere and always, and we can never escape His presence."3
The eternal quality of God basically denotes the fact that God cannot be confined by any temporal categories since He has no beginning (ai>vdio") or no end (ajteleuvthto"). Everywhere in the Bible God is described as "the eternal God" (Gen 21:33); "the one who inhabits eternity" (Isa 57:13); "from eternity to eternity you are God" (Ps 90:2); "the eternal king" (1Tim 1:17); "the alpha and omega" (Rev 1:8). Just as He is beyond space but still everywhere present, so too is He beyond time yet still present in every instant of it. And so, Christian theology would claim that God is included in time without being part of it. According to Androutsos, time is the moving of things which have a concrete beginning and an end.4 However, God is eternal not only because He is without beginning and without end, but also since He is present in every temporal movement in such a way that all things are continually present for God. Time in relation to eternity is an instant in which there is no transition from present to past, or future to present. Indeed for God, as is seen in St Peter's second general letter: "one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Pt 3:8). From this it follows that there can be no temporal considerations which could speak of a tomorrow, past or future in relation to God.
In considering the eternal quality of God, some fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa understood by this that God could not be subject to any temporal succession since in God three is neither a predecessor nor any successor. Therefore God's eternity expresses the fact that in God there is no beginning, no end and therefore no succession or change in His being. In the book of Revelation, God is depicted as the one "who is and who was and who is to come" (Rev 1:4). The book of Hebrews expresses this explicitly when it writes that Christ is "the same yesterday and today and forever." (Heb 13:8). In describing God's unwavering and immutable nature, the blessed Augustine used the image of tree on the edge of a flowing river to illustrate the relation of God's unchanging and eternal character independent of the flow of things in time.5
Accordingly, the eternity of God is ultimately founded on the immutable (i.e. changeless – ajnalloivwto") nature of God. That is, there can be no variation in His essence because unlike all created matter which grows and changes, God does not. God is simply abiding existence, complete all at once. Indeed, even though it may seem that God changes as He acts in the world, this however does not introduce any change in God's essence since it only appears to us that God has changed. For example, one of the physical characteristics of light is that it is constant; yet to some who enjoy its presence it appears as a welcoming phenomenon yet to others who abhor it, it appears inimical. And so, the eternal quality of God ultimately indicates what Deuteronomy says of God: "For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever" (Deut 32:40).
Omnipotence is the attribute which describes God's divine greatness and inestimable power. God's divine and almighty power is attested throughout the entire Scriptures: "Our God is in the heavens; he had done whatsoever he has pleased" (Ps 115:3); "holy Lord God almighty" (Rev 4:8); "I am the almighty God" (Gen 17:1); "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made. He commanded and it stood fast" (Ps 33:6). Also after Jesus had spoken about riches and salvation, the disciples asked him, "who then can be saved?" to which Jesus replied: "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26). Clearly the Bible makes it clear that God can do all things, not being dependent on any power outside of Himself since His power is infinite. God's omnipotence is primarily witnessed in the creation of the world out of nothing and in His continual involvement in the world by personally providing, preserving, maintaining, governing and caring for it. A most familiar verse from Psalm 77 makes this point clearly: "What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples" (Ps 77:13-14). It is precisely for this reason – that is, God's greateness - that theology ascribes to God the attribute of omnipotence. Orthodox theology also claims that God's omnipotence is intimately related to His divine will. Consequently, this means that God does not do all that He can, but only whatever He wills. In this regard the classic phrase from St
John of Damascus is pertinent:
God does what He desires, but does not desire all that He can do; He can destroy the world, but does not want to.6
This statement indicates that God's power is not exercised apart from His will. Being personal, God does not exercise His power mechanically as if it were a blind force. That is to say, God will not do anything, which is inconsistent with His divine essence. For example, God will not lie as this is attested in Heb 6:18: "it is impossible that God would prove false"; nor can He be deceived (cf Job 13:9) or die (cf 1Tim
6:16). Far from being seen as a weakness, this aspect of God's almighty power is its greatest accomplishment.
In reflecting upon this a little further, it also has to be noted that God will not do something which may imply a logical impossibility - it would be absurd to ask if God could create a 'square triangle' or a 'circle with corners'. Since such absurdities involve a logical impossibility they are therefore in reality nonentities and consequently they do not constitute any limitation or denial of power on the part of God. In the words of Theodoret:
To be unable to do something of this sort (for the eternal to come into being at a certain time, the uncreated to become created, the infinite to become finite) is not a mark of weakness, but of infinite power.7
Since God's will is not arbitrary, God does not set out to do anything which is contrary to His nature. He could, for example, destroy the earth, but does not will to do so. From this, we see that the assimilation of God's divine power with His will, was for Theodoret not a sign of weakness, but precisely a sign of God's infinite power.
In the next issue of the Voice we continue with the logical and ethical attributes of God.
By Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Cf for example, St John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith, 1.3.
2. Homily on the Psalms, 138, 2. PG 55, 413.
3. Nietzsche, Lehrbuch der Evangelischen Dogmatik, 393 cited in C. Androutsos, Dogmatics of the Eastern Orthodox Church, 55.
4. Cf Androutsos, Dogmatics, 56.
5. De Vera Religione, 49 and Confessions 11.16.
6. Orthodox Faith, 1,14. PG 94, 860D-861A.
7. Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Eran. Dial., 3. PG 83, 232.S