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The Characteristic Features (Gnwrivsmata) or Attributes of God
Part III

Introductory Remarks

Having examined the natural and logical attributes of God in the previous issues of the Voice of Orthodoxy, this article looks at the third group, the so-called ethical attributes which are said to 'characterise' God – that is, His holiness, righteous and love.

Ethical Attributes

God's Holiness

If the natural features of God betray His almighty power, and if the logical ones manifest His knowledge and wisdom, then the ethical attributes are said to reveal God's ultimate perfection. In addition they indicate the order and harmony of the Christian life by providing the ethical norms by which each person can live. Now, with regards to God's ethical attributes of holiness and righteousness, Christian theology claims that, in God these are to be understood in an absolute sense - that is, God is all-holy and all-righteous. Being holy [etymologically the term connotes absolute separation from the world1], God stands entirely outside anything imperfect, unclean and sinful. On the contrary God is always totally identified with goodness and love. In this way, God's divine will is in absolute harmony with His divine essence. St Cyril of Alexandria wrote: "He is holy by nature, in contrast to human persons, who are not holy by nature, but by participation, struggle and prayer."2 God's righteousness, on the other hand, refers to the way that God enacts His holiness in the world and hence is an expression and necessary element of His holiness. That is to say, that in no way could God ever tolerate evil or injustice.

God's holiness is expressed throughout the entire Scriptures: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts" (Is 6:3); "For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Is 57:15); "Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendour, doing wonders?" (Ex 15:11) and "Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness (Ps 89:35). From this we see that God's holiness cannot be conceived in all its depth and richness for it will forever transcend any human notions of holiness. And yet, the Levitical law admonished the Israelites to seek this divine attribute: "I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev 11:45). This illustrates that only God is holy – this is expressed well in the divine Liturgy just before Holy Communion, "one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ" – and that human persons could never achieve holiness without the grace of God who calls His people to be holy.

In the New Testament, God's holiness is also emphasised. Jesus Christ called His Father holy when He was praying for the unity of the faithful: "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one" (Jn 17:11). Several verses later, Christ also prayed that God may "sanctify them [the apostles] in the truth" (Jn 17:17), in this way setting them apart from the world so that they could share in, and continue Christ's sacred ministry to the world. Consequently, the Lord is called holy not only because He is separated from all evil, but also because He is essentially holy and His will is totally identified towards doing good, and being holy, in this way giving the world an example to follow. That is to say, God wills nothing else except holiness and goodness. It naturally follows from this that God cannot be attributed with the any form of evil, which exists in the world. This is clearly stated in the general epistle of James: "No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one" (Jas 1:13). This again demonstrates that God cannot but will that which is inherently holy and good.

God's Righteousness

Being holy, God is also totally righteous within Himself and in His relationship towards the world. If by the attribute of holiness God was shown to be absolute goodness, by His righteousness God actively upholds and administers His goodness to the world. As such, the attribute of righteousness expresses the manifestation of God's holiness towards His creatures. In reflecting upon God's relationship with the world, the Psalmist wrote: "The Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face" (Ps 11:7). Being righteous and therefore creating laws and bestowing His grace upon all, the Lord revealed His precepts for the world to follow. And in His dealings with the world, God has always acted righteously: "The Lord is just in all his ways and kind in all his doings" (145:17); "He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the people with equity" (Ps 9:8). Consequently, the righteousness of God does not only include the fact that He is a righteous lawgiver but also that He is a righteous judge.

God's righteousness will particularly be revealed in the last days during which the Son of Man will come in glory to "reward [ajpodwvsei] everyone for what has been done" (Mt 16:27). From this we can see that God's righteousness ultimately expresses His desire to make the entire world "participants of the divine nature" (2Pt 1:4). Besides, the very reason for the Church's existence is to bestow, here and now, a foretaste of the definitive gift of God's intimate koinonia in His eschatological kingdom. For this reason the Church has rightly been described as a graced communion for the salvation of the world and the glorification of God.3 In his letter to Timothy St Paul expressed his deep longing for the 'crown of righteousness' to be bestowed upon him by the 'righteous judge' in the age to come:
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2Tim 4:8).

Far from perceiving God's righteousness in terms of punishment, St Paul eagerly awaited God's righteous judgement since He saw this as an expression par excellence of God's love upon him and upon all those who longed for God and His righteousness. Elsewhere in the New Testament God is said to be "the almighty" whose "judgements are true and just" (Rev 16:7). Such an understanding was totally in line with Jesus who said: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled" (Mt 5:6; cf Mt 6:33). Consequently, we see that the attribute of God's righteousness is closely related to God's overflowing grace and active love and must therefore not be understood in punitive terms.

Now, regarding God's righteousness, it has to be stated that God does not punish transgressors and recompense the obedient. From all the above, it would be more faithful to the Scriptures to affirm that whilst the unrighteous perceive God's righteous actions in terms of punishment, the faithful understand these as acts of love and mercy for the ultimate salvation of the world. That is to say, God's righteousness, which is "all in all" is joy and bliss to the righteous and torment and unhappiness to the wicked. In the age to come, it will not be the case that God will forever punish the wicked; rather His same presence will bring refreshment on those who love the Lord and torment to those who persist in evil. It is only in this way that St Paul’s teaching found in 2 Thess 1:9 - “they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction from the presence (or face) of the Lord" – can be reconciled with God's righteousness and absolute goodness.

In addition, the Orthodox teaching is very clear in its teaching that even though unrighteousness exists in the world today, God, anthropomorphically speaking "can do nothing about it" but instead uses it for good – that is to discipline, cleanse, instruct and even transform unrighteousness for the deliverance of His people. As such, God is evermore present in such instances working for the salvation of the world. Psalm 34 makes this point very strongly:
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:15-18).

Far from being seen as a form of castigation, God's righteousness is the greatest expression of God's presence and love. It is in this regard that St Paul was able to say that the, "law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 5:20-21).


The crown of all God's attributes is His love. Love is that divine attribute by which God moves outside of His inner life in order to bestow His goodness, grace and compassion upon the world and especially upon human persons making them, in this way, partakers of His beatitude. Since God is absolute love and absolute goodness He wishes to share freely all that He is and has with the world for no other reason than to promote the wellbeing and happiness of the created realm. However, God is not love only in His relation to the world but is eternally that way, even before the world was created. The inner life of the Godhead is love since the three Persons continually dwell in one another in a movement of reciprocating love – the term used in theology to depict this movement of love is 'perichoresis'. It is precisely for this reason that St John the Evangelist said that "God is love" (1Jn 4:8). Accordingly, it becomes clear that the quality of love is so significant that all other attributes are bound together and summed up in this attribute. In addition, the Scriptures make it clear that only in loving can human beings come to know and experience God: "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (1Jn 4:16).

The references in the Scriptures regarding God's love are too numerous to enumerate at this point since God's loving actions towards the world are infinite. However certain passages can be highlighted from both the Old and New Testaments which make God's love clear. The Wisdom of Solomon for example, highlighted God's love for the world when it wrote: "for you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it" (Wis 11:24). In sharing by grace all that God is by nature, He could not possibly impart upon the world anything but goodness, affection and benevolence. God's love extends to a) the animal and plant kingdoms: "You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing" (Ps 145:16); "The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God"(Ps 104:21); b) to all people without bias: "so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Mt 5:45) and "yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy" (Acts 14:17). Upon this standard, God's love towards His creatures is without measure.

God's ultimate expression of love was demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ and the divine provision for the world's salvation. The Gospel according to St John made this point clearly:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16).
Not only did God bring the world and the human person into existence from non-being (cf 2Macc 7:28) but, also in the fullness of time, willed that the human person be incorporated into the body of Christ – through Christ's incarnation - in this way giving the human person the ability of becoming god-like (cf 2Pt 1:14). In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the human person's calling to 'deification' betrays nothing other than the intense love of God to share everything He is by nature, by grace with the entire created cosmos. Accordingly, for many fathers, God's descent out of love, especially in the Incarnation and kenosis of the only-begotten Son of God offered the created order the capability of ascending towards the divine by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way, God's ineffable love opened up the way for human nature to participate in the eternal and divine life of God. It is precisely for this reason that many fathers interpreted the Incarnation of the Logos not as a simply consequence of the fall, but as the fulfilment of the original loving will of God.


From the above, we have seen that the attributes of God are expressions of His relationship with the created world through His energies. Even though an attempt has been made by 'theologians' throughout the centuries to classify and distinguish these qualities in order that the tremendous mystery (mysterium tremendum) might somehow be approached, God's essence remains simple and therefore cannot ultimately be divided into different attributes. Ultimately God transcends all human comprehension. Nevertheless, in establishing a relationship with the created world, which He created out of nothing (ex nihilo), God did give human persons the ability to express their relationship with Him. It is for this reason that the attributes ascribed to God are never exhaustive of His inner being, but are nevertheless real in so far as they remain true signs of His personal presence among the world through His energies.

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


1. Perhaps the word 'holiday' originated from the term holy in so far as it originally would have implied a day which was to be separated from all other days. In the Old Testament the temple was referred to as holy since it was entirely separated from the world. In addition, the people of Israel were referred to as holy in the Old Testament because God set them apart from the rest of the nations.
2. St Cyril of Alexandria, Mystical Catechism, 5,19. PG 33, 1124.
3. Archbishop Stylianos, Lectures delivered in Ecclesiology at St Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College, 2005.

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