In his theological summary of Christian doctrine, Our Reasonable Faith, Herman Bavinck provides a number of illuminating points about the attributes of God—namely, their incommunicable and communicable attributes. Here are some of Bavinck’s observations listed under ten points.
1. The Language of incommunicable and communicable is most effective in holding together God’s transcendence and immanence.
The effort to take account of all the data of Holy Scripture in its doctrine of God, and to maintain both His transcendence of and His relationship to the creature, led the Christian church to make a distinction very early between two groups of the attributes of the Divine being. these two groups were variously designated from the early church on. The Roman church still prefers to speak of negative and positive attributes, the Lutheran of quiescent and operative attributes, and the Reformed churches of incommunicable and communicable attributes.
At bottom, however, this division amounts to the same thing in all of these churches. The purpose for each of them is to insist on God’s transcendence (His distinction from and His elevation above the world) and on God’s immanence (His community with and His indwelling in the world). The Reformed names of incommunicable and communicable attributes do better justice to this purpose than the names which the Catholics and the Lutherans employ. The insistence on the first group of attributes saves us from polytheism and pantheism; and the insistence on the second group protects us against deism and atheism. (134–35)
2. Elohim and Yahweh (Jehovah) approximate the transcendence and immanence of God.
Just as the incommunicable attributes come to expression well in the name Elohim, meaning God, so the communicable attributes come into their own in the name Jehovah. . . . Jehovah is the God of the covenant who, according to His sovereign love, has chosen His people and made them His own. Thus, while the name Elohim, God, points to the eternal Being in His sovereign elevation above the world, the name Jehovah, Lord, affirms that this same God has voluntarily revealed Himself to His people as a God of holiness, grace, and faithfulness. (137–38)
3. The incommunicable attributes include independence, immutability, simplicity, eternity, omnipotence, and unity.
The incommunicable attributes . . . are peculiar and proper to Him alone, are not found in creatures, and cannot even be shared with creatures. For all creatures are dependent, changeable, composite, and subject to time and space. But God is independent, in the sense that He is determined by nothing and everything else is determined by Him (Acts 17:25 and Rom. 11:36). He is unchangeable so that He eternally remains the same, and all variableness and turning are owing to the creature and the relationship in which the creature places himself over against God (James 1:17). He is simple, not composite, wholly free of all compounding of spirit and matter, thought and extent, being and properties, reason and will, and like components, and all that He has also is pure truth and life and light (fn: Ps. 36:9; John 5:26; and 1 John 1:5). He is eternal in that He transcends time and yet penetrates every moment of time with his eternity (Ps. 90:2). And He is omnipresent in that He transcends all space and yet bears up every point of space by His almighty and ever-present strength.
Moreover, it is clear that the oneness and unity of God is directly connected with the incommunicable attributes. God is the one God and the only God only if no one and know that they can be what is alongside of Him or under Him. And only if He is independent and unchangeable, eternal and omnipresent can He be the God of our unconditional faith, of our absolute trust, and of our perfect salvation. (136, 137)
4. The communicable attributes include life, spirit, conscious, will, power, wisdom, goodness, holiness, patience, grace, love, mercy, good will, etc.
God exists. He is the true God, and He lives, now and in eternity. And it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb.10:31).
As such a living God, who is pure life and the fountain of all life (Ps. 36:9 and Jer. 2:13), He is also Spirit (John 4:24), without body, even though all kinds of physical organs are ascribed to Him (Deut. 4:12, 16). Hence, no image, likeness, or similitude can be made of Him (Deut. 4:15-19). He is invisible. As Spirit He has consciousness, perfect knowledge of Himself (Matt. 11:27 and 1 Cor. 2:10), and in and through Himself He also has perfect knowledge of everything that is to be or happen in time, no matter how hidden or small it may be. As Spirit He has will, and by means of it He does all that pleases Him (secret will or counsel), and determines what must be the governing norm of our conduct (revealed will or commandment). And as Spirit, finally, He has power, by means of which, notwithstanding any and all opposition, He executes what He has planned and because of which nothing is impossible to Him.
But this knowledge or consciousness, this will and power, are not arbitrary : they are in all their parts ethically determined. This comes to expression in the wisdom which in the Holy Scripture is ascribed to God, and by means of which He arranges and directs all things according to the purpose which He has set for them at creation and recreation.‘ And this moral reality comes to further expression in the goodness and grace, on the one hand, and in the holiness and justice, on the other, which are attributed to God. He is not merely the All-wise and the All-mighty: He is also the All-good and the Alone-good (Matt. 5:45), and He is perfect and the source of all that is good in creatures (Ps. 145 :9). This goodness of God spreads itself out over the whole world (Ps. 145:9 and Matt. 5:45), but varies according to the objects on which it is directed, assuming, as it were, various forms. It is called longsuffering or forbearance when it is manifested to the guilty (Rom. 3:25), grace when it is manifested to those who receive the forgiveness of sins (Eph. 2:8), and love when God, out of grace towards his creatures shares himself with them (John 3:16 and 1 John 4:8). It is called loving-kindness or mercy win this goodness of God is manifested to those who enjoy his favor, and good will or good pleasure when the emphasis falls on the fact that the goodness and all its benefits are a free gift. (140–41)
5. The incommunicable and communicable attributes complement one another.
[We must] remember that the two groups of incommunicable and communicable attributes do not stand alongside of each other in total separation. But the force of the distinction must not be lost either, and the thrust of that distinction is that God possesses all of His incommunicable attributes in an absolute way and to an infinite and therefore incommunicable degree. It is true that God’s knowledge, wisdom, goodness, justice, and the like, have certain characteristics in common with those same virtues in His creatures, but they are peculiar to God in an independent, immutable, eternal, omnipresent, simple — or, in a word, in an absolutely Divine way. (135)
6. The incommunicable attributes of God are what “make” him God; the communicable attributes are what make God “knowable”.
It remains true that we need more than these incommunicable attributes. What good would it do us to know that God was independent and unchangeable, eternal and omnipresent, if we had to do without the knowledge that He was compassionate and gracious and very merciful? It is true that the incommunicable attributes tell us about the way in which all that is in God exists in Him; but they leave us in the dark about the content of the Divine Being. . . .
[The communicable attributes] tell us that this God who is so infinitely exalted and sublime nevertheless also dwells in all Hs creatures, is related to all His creatures, and possesses all those virtues which in a derived and limited way are also proper to His creatures. He is not only a God afar off but is also a God nearby. He is not only independent and unchangeable, eternal and omnipresent, but also wise and mighty, just and holy, gracious and merciful. He is Elohim not only but also Jehovah. (137)
7. The incommunicable and communicable cannot be divided in God; he is all of his attributes.
We as human beings can make a distinction between the being and the attributes of people. A human being can lose his arm or his leg, or, in a state of sleep or illness, lose consciousness, without ceasing to be human. But in God this is impossible. His attributes coincide with His being. Every attribute is His being. He is wise and true, not merely, good and holy, just and merciful, but He is also wisdom, truth, goodness, holiness, justice, and mercy. Hence He is also the source and fount of all the attributes of man. He is everything that He possesses and is the source of everything that creatures possess. He is the abundant source of all goods. (135)
8. The incommunicable attributes protect us from man-centered views of God, namely pantheism and polytheism.
There a quite a few observers who deny all religious worth to these incommunicable attributes and see in them nothing but metaphysical abstractions. But quite the opposite is proved by the fact that any sacrifice of these distinctions immediately opens the door to pantheism and polytheism. (136)
9. The communicable attributes of God are so numerous it would take all of creation to speak of God.
The communicable attributes are so numerous that it is impossible to sum them all up here and to describe them. If we should want to treat of them adequately, we should have to make use of all those names and images and comparisons which the Holy Scriptures use to give us some idea of who and what God is for His creatures and, specifically, for His people. For Scripture, as we indicated in passing, ascribes such organs of the body as eyes and ears, hands and feet, and the like, to God. It transfers such human awarenesses, emotions, passions, decisions, and actions to Him. It refers to Him with the names of such offices and vocations as are found among human beings, calling Him king and lawgiver and judge, warrior and hero, husbandman and shepherd, and man and father. It calls upon the whole of the organic and inorganic world to help make God real to us, and compares Him with a lion, an eagle, a sun, a fire, a fount, a shield, and so on. And all of these ways of speaking are an effort to help us know God and to leave a deep impression of the all-sufficiency of His being. We human beings need the whole outside world for our spiritual and physical existence. For we are poor and weak in ourselves and we own nothing. But all this that we need, according to soul and body, for time and eternity is without exception available to us — original, perfect, infinite — in God. He is the highest good and the overflowing fountain of all goods. (139)
10. The incommunicable attributes of God make the communicable attributes of God preeminent, not to mention possible.
The two kinds of attributes are therefore not in conflict with each other. We might say that the first serve to illumine and reinforce the others. Consider, for example, the love of God. We would not be permitted to speak of it, nor could we speak of it, if the attribute which men call love were not in a sense an impression (ectype), image, or likeness of the love that is present in God. There should be a certain correspondence between the Divine and the human love, or else all of our thinking and speaking of the love of God were a hollow sound. But this similarity is by no means an identity. The purest and strongest love among men is but a very weak reflection of the love which is in God. And that teaches us to understand the incommunicable attributes. From them we learn that in God love far transcends the love of creatures. For the love in God is independent, unchangeable, simple, eternal, and omnipresent. It does not depend upon us, nor is aroused by us, but flows, free and pure, from the depths of the Divine being. It knows no variation, neither falls nor rises, appears nor disappears, and there is not even the shadow of turning about it. It is not merely a property of the Divine being alongside of other properties or attributes, and never gets into conflict with these others, but it also coincides with the Divine Being himself.
God is love, He Himself, wholly and perfectly, and with His whole being. This love is not subject to time and space, but stands above it, and comes down out of eternity into the hearts of the children of God. Such a love is absolutely reliable. Our souls can rest in it in every need, including death itself, and if such a God of love be for us, who can be against us? And the same can be said of all of the communicable attributes. There is in God’s creatures a faint likeness of the knowledge and wisdom, the goodness and grace, the righteousness and holiness, and of the will and the power which are proper to God. All that is transient is an image. The things that are seen came into being out of the things that are not seen (Heb. 11:3). But all those attributes are present in God in an original, independent, unchangeable, simple, and infinite way. (138–39)
Wonder of wonders, when we consider the attributes of God—incommunicable and communicable—we are assisted in knowing, loving, worshiping, and imitating the God in his image we are made.
To that end, let us continue to seek God first and to know and adore the glorious attributes of God. For in knowing God truly, we are protected from error and impelled to worship God more fully.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds