God’s Communicable Attributes by Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
God’s communicable attributes are knowledge, creativity, love, holiness, forgiveness, and rational thought. Man can share in the communicable attributes whereas the incommunicable attributes; he cannot.
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical evidence, commentary evidence and confessional support for the purpose of glorifying God in how we live.
Note: These studies arise from my personal Bible studies. I learned long ago to write my studies down to share with others. Some of these studies have very little of my comments. These studies represent my approach to studying a text of Scripture or topic. May God be glorified always!
Definitions from two sources:
Those attributes of God that He shares with humans, although in a limited way, such as his love, goodness, justice, and knowledge; those attributes of God that are to be imitated in our lives. *
Communicable Attributes of God - can be possessed by people. **
If something is communicable, it can be transferred to others. In the Scriptures listed below, God can do all of the following in His flawlessness or perfection. By God’s common grace, a man can also but not perfectly.
Ability to be Creative
“And Moses said to the children of Israel, See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship.” (Exodus 35:30-33)
Ability to Forgive
“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Ability to do Good
“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)
Ability to think Rationally
“For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16)
To Be Holy
“As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance:
But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
Ability to Love
“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (1 John 4:8, 10-11)
Selections from Chapter 18: The Communicable Attributes of God by Cornelius Van Til:
God is unlike man; he has “incommunicable” attributes. God’s also like man; he has “communicable” attributes. God is transcendent above but also immanent in man. As man is created by God and is like him it is right to say that God is like man.
In the first place we speak of the spirituality of God. God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth In saying that God is a Spirit we do not think of some vague generic concept of spirituality of which God is one particular instance and man another God is the absolute Spirit. He is the self-contained Spirit. He does not need materiality over against himself in order to individuate himself. He is the self-individuated Spirit.
Of this spirituality man, created as he is in the image of God, carries within him a faint replica. It cannot be said of man that he is a spirit. Man is a physico-spiritual being. We do not mean by this that man is a physico-individuated being in the sense that something spatio-temporal is his basic principle of individuation God as self-contained Spirit is man’s ultimate principle of individuation. God has created each individual man just as he in his inscrutable counsel has determined. But God has created man a physico-spiritual being.
It goes without saying that all forms of materialism are set aside in the notion of God’s spirituality. He who in any sense thinks of the spatio-temporal world as a non-created entity does despite to the spirituality of God To think of the spatio-temporal world as non-created is to think of God at best as a correlative to this spatio-temporal world. Then God is reduced to the spiritual aspect of a spirito-material reality. It is in this way that idealistic philosophy thinks of the spirituality of God. And it is in this way that modernistic theology also thinks of the spirituality of God. When it speaks much of spiritual values it means merely that there is somehow, beyond the visible aspect of the universe, another aspect which is spiritual.
It is only if we see clearly that God is the self-contained spiritual being that we can worship him aright. To worship spiritual values of some nondescript sort is not to worship God in spirit and in truth. Nor can one be said to be spiritual if one meditates frequently on nondescript higher things of life. We may legitimately use the phrases “high things of life” and “spiritual values” if only we can be clear in our minds that for us these things are what we call them only if they are what the self-revelation of the self-contained spiritual God wants them to be.
In connection with the spirituality of God we may also speak of the invisibility of God. When Scripture ascribes bodily organs to God this is no doubt to be taken figuratively. God alone is immortal and invisible. Jesus does say that he who has seen him has seen the Father also, but this only corroborates the contention that by “seeing God” is meant a spiritual seeing. No one saw Jesus’ divinity except insofar as it was expressed in his human nature. Bavinck points out that, under the influence of Pseudodionysius, the false notion of the vision.
Dei per essentiam as a possibility for ultimate human attainment entered into Christian theology. Scholastic theology indulged its speculative tendency when it spoke of a lumen gloriae by which man is supposed to be lifted out of his creatural limitations in the life hereafter in order that he may have a large measure of insight into the very being of God.
Attributes of the Understanding
We are told in Scripture that God is light and that there is no darkness in him at all (1 Jn 1:5). He dwells in light that no man can approach unto (1 Tm 6:16). Bavinck says: “In this appellation there is included the idea that God is fully conscious of himself, that He sees through the whole of His Being, and that there is nothing in His Being that is hid to His consciousness.” Or again, “There is and can be in God no darkness, He is altogether light, He dwells in light and is the source of light.” Or yet again: “God is eternal and pure being. And His eternal knowledge has nothing less than that full eternal essence for its object. Being and knowledge are coterminous in God.” In contrast to this an Arminian theologian, C. Norman Bartlett says, “His subconscious perfections flower out into conscious self-recognition through the activities involved in the shaping of more or less refractory material into an ever closer resemblance to the divine original.”
God’s knowledge of himself may further be spoken of as necessary knowledge. He himself exists as a necessary being His knowledge of himself is therefore necessary in the sense that it is knowledge of himself as a necessarily existing being. And it is because God has this full and extensive knowledge of himself necessarily, and therefore exhaustively, that he also has a comprehensive knowledge of all possibility beside himself. That possibility itself depends upon God’s plan with respect to it. God is free to create what he pleases. This knowledge that God has of all possibility beyond himself may therefore be called the free knowledge of God. It is in this way that we may keep a rigid and clear distinction between God’s knowledge and his power.
Because God’s knowledge is to be thought of as analytical we reject what is usually spoken of as the mediate knowledge of God. It is contended that in the case of certain circumstances, God’s knowledge depends upon certain conditions which are to be fulfilled by man. So, for instance, in 1 Samuel 23:11, when David inquires of the Lord whether the men of Keilah would deliver him to his enemies if he remained among them, it seems that the Lord’s answer depends upon a condition over which he has no control. Or again, when Jesus said that if the mighty works that he did elsewhere had been done in Tyre and Sidon these cities would not have been destroyed, it seems as though there is a condition over which he had no control. Against this notion of mediate knowledge, Hodge rightly contends that there is no other category beside that of the possible and the actual and that God controls both completely. God’s fore-ordination controls whatsoever comes to pass. If God had to wait for events to happen independently of himself before he could know them, he would be a finite God. His knowledge would then be inferential.
The same objection also holds against the Arminian notion that God’s knowledge may be separated from his fore-ordination. This would mean that events take place in this universe independently of the plan of God. God’s knowledge of such events would be inferential, post-eventum knowledge. There is no third alternative. Either one thinks of God as the wholly self-conscious being for whom there are no brute facts, or one makes God dependent upon brute facts. It is on the basis of his own decree with respect to the world that God has full knowledge of the world.
If we keep this biblical notion of the knowledge of God before us, we shall think of human knowledge as analogical of God’s knowledge. And only if we do this can we have a truly Christian apologetic. Arminianism, with its salvation on the basis of foreseen faith, and Roman Catholicism, with its semi-Pelagian doctrine of human freedom, rest their thinking upon a false notion of divine knowledge. Accordingly, they are not able to offer an effective argument against idealist philosophy when it reduces the personal God to an abstract a priori principle which needs as its complement an equally ultimate a posteriori principle. This has become newly apparent in the writings of C. S. Lewis, C. Norman Bartlett, and John Thomas.
In connection with the knowledge of God we should mention the wisdom of God. It is much praised in Scripture. God is set forth as the One who uses the most effective means for the accomplishment of his one inclusive purpose. We may contrast the Christian and the non-Christian notion of the idea of wisdom. The Christian notion of wisdom depends upon the notion of the self-contained God. Because of his self-contained and necessary knowledge he can, when he chooses, create a universe, and create this universe just as he wants to create it. This is, therefore, “the best of possible worlds.” God’s wisdom is displayed in it. Man can understand something of it if only he will think God’s thoughts after him.
The Moral Attributes of God
From the intellectual we turn now to the moral attributes. First we deal with the goodness of God. Here, too, we should distinguish between what God is in himself and what he is with respect to the created universe. God is, first of all, good in himself. There is none good but one (Mk 10:18). Goodness is not a mere attribute that must be attached to God as a subject, but God is goodness. In him, ideas and being are one. It is for this reason that God must be self-centered in all his moral deeds. He cannot seek anything beyond himself as the final end of moral action. When God expresses his goodness to his creatures he does so ultimately for his own sake.
When God’s goodness manifests itself to the utterly undeserving it is called grace. We cannot speak of the question of grace fully. That is a matter to be discussed in soteriology. We merely speak of it here as a manifestation of the goodness of God. Only he who believes in the God of the Scriptures, the fully self-conscious God, the God in whom being and idea are coterminous, can really do justice to the biblical notion of grace. If one does not believe in the God of the Bible one must hold that not all goodness is ultimately dependent upon him. Then not all evil is an offense against the goodness of God. And if sin is not exclusively an offense against the goodness of God then grace can, at best, be a sort of fellow-sympathy on the part of God for beings that are somehow not as fortunately situated as he.
It is only if we think concretely of God that we can also think concretely of the things of the created world. And therefore we can think scripturally about the much-disputed doctrine of” common grace.” If we think concretely of the question, we see at once that the term “common” is really applicable only in a very loose sense to the idea of grace. God’s attitude toward the saved and the unsaved can at no point be strictly common. It is well that we begin at this point, God always regards the reprobate as reprobate. When, therefore, he gives to the reprobate certain gifts in this life, of which they are undeserving, and these same gifts (as, for instance, rain and sunshine) also come to the saved, we cannot conclude that, with respect to rain and sunshine. God has the same attitude toward the believer and the unbeliever. When we speak of the attitude of God toward unbelievers we must take into consideration the total picture of the unbeliever’s relationship to God. Thus the gifts of rain and sunshine to the believer are the gifts of a covenant God who has forgiven the sins of his people, and who knows that his people need these gifts. In a similar way, the gifts of rain and sunshine to unbelievers are gifts to those whom God hates, and are given because they too have need of those things to fulfill the purpose that God has with them God gave Pharaoh life and ability to rule, that he might be able to do that for which God had raised him up.
The Holiness of God
In discussing the holiness of God, we may again begin at the point of his self-sufficiency. Moses says in Exodus 18:11: “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” In 1 Samuel 2:2, Hannah praises God as she says, “There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.” Thus the holiness of God rests in his incomparable self-existence. God does not have holiness, but is holiness. The prophet Amos brings this out in these words: “The Lord God hath sworn by his holiness, that, lo, the days shall come upon you, that he will take you away with hooks, and your posterity with fishhooks.” The Lord could not swear by his holiness if his holiness were not identical with himself.
By the holiness of God we therefore signify God’s absolute internal moral purity It is naturally to be expected that when this attribute of God expresses itself in the revelation of God to man, it requires his complete purity. This complete purity in man consists in the complete dedication of man’s moral activity to the moral glory of God. Negatively, this will need to express itself as separation from sin.
The Righteousness of God
With the righteousness of God we signify the internal self-consistency of the divine being. God is a law unto himself. He is the absolute self-existent personality and therefore, at the same time, absolute law. God does not have law, but is law. His self-conscious activity regards with absolute complacency the internal rightness of relationship between the various aspects of multiplicity that are found within the divine being. He cannot and does not tolerate any subordination of any one aspect of his being to any other aspect of his being. The attributes and the persons of God are all on a par.
This self-contained consistency expresses itself in the created world by maintaining created consistency among men. There is, of necessity, a negative and a positive aspect to this expression of the righteousness of God among men. God distributes justice among men and will finally distribute complete justice among them. He punishes injustice and rewards justice. But if God is to reward justice there must be justice. And among sinners there is no justice. There is, to be sure, a measure of civil righteousness among men. But this proceeds from the “old man” within them which they have not been able to subjugate fully. Men may do that which is right because at bottom they know they are God’s creatures, but to the extent that they live up to their own self-consciously adopted principles they are wholly unrighteous. If there is to be any justice in a world of sinners, it must therefore be given to them. It must be a gift of the grace of God. And those to whom God, by his grace, gives righteousness he rewards with greater grace. He visits their sins upon them; that is, he chastises them, but in the end he rewards them for the righteousness which is theirs by grace, with still more grace.
Thus the consistency that is found in the believer is correspondent to the consistency that is found in God. This consistency in the believer consists in willingness to think God’s thoughts after him, in willingness to do God’s will after him, and to feel God’s feeling after him. If the Christian realizes this, he will find it to be his duty to maintain, as far as he can in himself and in his fellow men, a correspondence of the human consistency to divine consistency. He will seek the maintenance of God’s laws for men everywhere and at all times, in ways that are themselves in accord with those laws. He will not hesitate to intimate to men that the natural consequence of their inconsistency is the eternal separation from the consistent One. Nor should he fail to point the weak and wavering to the fact that for the righteous there ariseth eternal light.
Attributes of Sovereignty
As the self-existent being God wills himself as his own end. He rules himself in the sense that he is altogether self-ruled. This is not to be taken nominalistically. God cannot exist otherwise than he exists. His will does not act independently of his nature. His will wills his nature as his nature comes to expression in his will.
The Revealed Will
With respect to the revealed will, also called the “will of command,” we may remark as follows; God’s revealed will is the rule given to his rational creatures by which they are to regulate their lives. The revealed will of God tells us what we must do while the secret will determines what God does, whether through man’s agency or not. What, we ask, is the relation between these two?
God’s Power or Omnipotence
God’s power should not be identified with his will, although God’s will implies power to accomplish what he wills.
God’s omnipotence does not signify that he can make a lie true, that he can sin. There is no absolute power in God that works in contradiction to his perfections. God is the source of possibility. What is possible is determined by God’s nature. The very question whether God can do the impossible is impossible. It has no meaning unless it be first assumed that there is such a thing as impossibility apart from God. Now if there is such an impossibility, God is not God, so that the question drops. On the other hand, if there is no such impossibility, that is, if God is the source of possibility, the question is answered before it is put: i.e., then God does not want to break an impossibility. He would be denying himself, which he tells us he cannot do. Nm 23:19, 1 Sm 15:29, 2 Tm 2:12, Heb. 6:18, Jas 1:13, Jas 1:17 (1)
An important qualification when studying God’s Attributes”
“Theologians have chosen different approaches to describing the attributes of God. The most common in Presbyterian circles has been the distinction between communicable and incommunicable attributes. The former are attributes that God and man can share in common, the latter attributes that they do not share. But in on sense there are no communicable attribute. Human love at its best is analogues to divine love, but it is not the same thing, for God’s love is original and ours is derivative from his. On the other hand, no attribute of God are entirely incommunicable, for we are his image in a comprehensive sense. Our love, at its best, is the love of God imaged in our own lives. So in presenting the attributes of god, Scripture does not emphasize the contrast between communicable and incommunicable.” (2)
The communicable attributes of God, which He shares with His creatures, are finite or limited on our part. For example, when we talk about God’s Holiness, it is perfect, but our holiness is never perfect, except in Christ.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Philipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company 1974). pp. 233-262.
2. John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2013), 232.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
And at: https://carm.org/
The Communicable Attributes by Louis Berkhof
Communicable & Incommunicable Attributes of God by Richard L. Pratt Jr. https://www.monergism.com/communicable-incommunicable-attributes-god