What Are the Attributes of God?
The term 'attributes of God' refers to qualities describing God, or characteristics of the divine nature, as God has revealed them to us in Scripture. For example, this incomplete list of divine attributes in the Bible:
- eternal (in and beyond time, without beginning or end) - Psalm 90:2
- gracious (giving beyond measure, from love) - 1 John 4:8
- holy (sinless, and opposed to sin) - Leviticus 19:2
- immutable (unchanging) - Malachi 3:6
- just (fair, and intent on making justice) - Deuteronomy 32:4
- merciful (overflowing with active compassion) - Psalm 145:9
- omnipotent (unlimited power) - Genesis 17:1
- omnipresent (everywhere at the same time) - Jeremiah 23:24
- omniscient (knowing all) - John 21:17
Why Speak of the Attributes of God?
The Orthodox churches speak often about God being "ineffable" and "incomprehensible" (words from John Chrysostom's Divine Liturgy). That means God is so beyond our ability to think or describe that our minds get boggled even when we begin to try. So that leaves a lot of room for not only awe and wonder, but questions. Theologians have always taken pock shots at these divine attributes, even in the earliest days of the Church. (For instance, in what way can God be unchanging in Exodus 32:14?) In their own way, so do regular folks, just by the way they live their lives and face life's tough situations. Our acts of daily living raise questions about the very hallmarks, effectiveness, and character of God. For instance:
- "How can a loving and merciful God let my baby suffer and die !"
- "Why would an unchanging God do things differently because of my prayer?"
- "If God is present everywhere, where is he now that I'm so abandoned and alone?"
- "If you're so gracious, God, then why are your followers saying you've condemned me?"
- "If God is so just, why do my people live in such poverty?"
- "If God knows all, then why didn't he take action to stop that car from hitting my brother?"
- "How can a God who is beyond time be involved in each moment of my life?"
- "How could an all-powerful God be so powerless during the Holocaust?"
Will God Get Mad If We Wonder?
God doesn't get upset at these questions, and it's not a sin to ask them - even in anger. They get at the heart of the mysteries of faith, justice, daily life, and even of existence itself. To speak of a characteristic of God is to say something about God's own nature, and the only things we know about it are what God has shown and told us in Scripture, as shown to us through Jesus. We have the information that really matters, more than enough to live by, yet we're still dealing with something beyond our abilities to describe or understand - which means that, when pushed far enough, even the most truthful of the words, descriptions, images, and theologies we use to describe God will go awry or miss the mark. How do these divine attributes play out in the Divine personality? How do they interact? What brings about each facet of God's character? These questions defy simple answers. Even the words we use for divine attributes are intimidating: omniscient, immutable, omnipresent, omnipotent. We don't say or even think such huge things in daily life. To folks who make a typical effort to understand the divine attributes, it just shows how God is far beyond the reach of our minds. To people who look deeper, the attributes of God point us to how divine attribute definitions succeed or miss, so we can get closer to the core mystery of what lies behind them -- the awesome character of God.
The honest truth is, though, that our questions about the character and attributes of God also reflect in our own questions about humanity. For instance, every question about a gracious God of peace who allows war is, even more, a question about the leaders who give the orders to fight wars, the war apologists who propagandize war, the generals who strategize war, and each soldier who pulls the trigger or throws the grenade -- each and all of whom are humans with the freedom to decide whether to do it or not, but pressure each other to do it. We are made in the image of God, not in arms and legs, but in that we can create and destroy, love and hate, think and choose. God's character is to choose not to be certain ways, and we have less consistent and less pure versions of that ability. Because we live in God's image, God's traits are too relevant for us to ignore.