Theology Proper: Just Who Is God Anyway?

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

the immeasurable one

If someone asked you to describe an automobile, it should not be too hard to do. You need merely describe it using common traits of autos, like make, model, chassis type, color, engine type, transmission type, or even the VIN number. We define things based on their similarity or dissimilarity with other things.

We define people the same way. We may say a man is tall, which means that in comparison to other people, his height is greater than the average height. Age, height, hair color, weight, race, regional accent and general build are often traits that are used to describe or define persons in order to identify them. These categories are useful because people have these differences that make it easy to compare them with other people.

But what if there were a person who was so unique that he could not be compared with any other person on the planet? What if there was a person who could not be described by age, because he always existed, and always will? What if there was a person who had no corporeal expression, so that his height, weight and appearance could not normally be seen or heard? Such is the case with the God of the Bible. All the normal means of expression and measurement do not apply to him.

In fact, one of the traditional ways for theologians to describe God has been to use negative statements. In other words, God is described by pointing out who and what he is not. He is immeasurable, immutable and immortal. Or, to put it in one word: He is infinite. Scientists sometimes speak of space as being infinite, but only because they lack the means of measuring its immensity. The evidence from Scripture reveals that God is infinite by nature. Even if it were possible to measure the vastness of space, God’s measurements would still be outside and beyond it.

For explanation purposes, we theologians sometimes convert these negative statements into positive ones. In doing so, we sacrifice accuracy, but we do so in order to express our faith in the One we are trying to define. The positive definitions of God’s being that result from this conversion are that God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent.

 

omnipresent

To say that God is omnipresent is to ascribe all the space in the universe to him. It “means both that God is not a finite object in space and time besides other objects, and that no finite object, space, or time can exclude God.”[1]  It is, of course, not possible for human beings to verify that statement scientifically. Not only is it impossible for us to verify God’s presence in any particular space, it is also impossible for the human race to be everywhere if we could observe him. We are defined by our limits, and that prevents us from accurately describing one whose presence is unlimited.

We depend, then, on the evidence of God’s creation and the special revelation of the Bible to affirm this faith statement about God. Since God created everything that exists in all space, it is not unreasonable to assume that he also exists in all that space. One of the differences between the Christian faith and that of the animists is that our God is not limited geographically. We see him as beyond creation, because he brought all creation into being, and providentially rules over it.

The biblical evidence for this faith statement is abundant.  Psalm 139 laments that God is inescapable, but eventually concedes the fact, and seeks God’s scrutiny and guidance. In Jeremiah 23:23-24   God asks, “Am I a God at hand, … and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Here we find a helpful distinction: while some people are aware of the existence of a lot of places, even if they have never been there, God is actually present everywhere at the same time. His omnipresence is not just an extension of his omniscience.

This can be true about God because he is not limited to a corporeal nature. Jesus made this clear when he told the Samaritan woman that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It is not just that God lacks a body, but that he lacks the need for a body, since his essence is not defined as ours is. Human beings have spirits, which need bodies to animate, and without which they cannot function. God’s is spirit, and his “body” is the universe.

The implications of God’s omnipresence are awesome. We can be assured of his conscious presence when we gather in his name regardless of the size of the gathering – even if it’s just two or three people (Matthew 18:20; Luke 24:36). Even if we do not feel that presence, it is there. Even if we do not worship as others expect us to, we have not prevented God’s presence. We cannot. There is no place in the universe that is truly God-forsaken, thus we can be assured that he is always with us (Joshua 1:5; Isaiah 41:10; Matt. 28:20). God listens to the prayers of his people no matter where they are. His “calling zone” is not limited (Jeremiah 29:12-14; Matt. 6:6) because his presence is not limited.

omniscient

God’s awareness is just as extensive as his presence. He knows all things, even the future, just as well as the past. When Christians, Jews and Muslims affirm that God is omniscient, we are saying that he does not have limits to his capacity and consciousness that his creatures have. The attribute of omniscience “describes God’s infinite mind in terms of the intuitive, simultaneous and perfect knowledge of all that can ever be the object of knowledge. It relates to the eternal cognizance of the actual and to the possible and the contingent.”[2]

Human beings, for example, are capable of learning and growing in awareness, but are limited by factors such as brain capacity, availability of data and functionality. God has no such limits. He has a complete grasp of everything that is happening now, and an equally complete memory of everything that happened last year on this date, and next year, and next millennium.

Once again theologians are left with the necessity of using approximate and negative language to describe this attribute of God, because there is no other being equal to God when it comes to knowledge. We do not say that God is omniscient because there is a pool of omniscient beings with which he can be compared. It is just as much a statement of our own limits as it is of God’s lack of limits. So we are forced to prove this assertion the same way we proved the assertion of God’s omnipresence. We appeal to God’s revelation of himself in his Word.

The Bible reveals that “the LORD is a God of knowledge” (1 Samuel 2:3). He is “perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16). “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.  … his understanding is beyond measure.” (Psalm 147:4-5). He announces the hidden things that we have not known (Isaiah 48:6). He “knows what is in the darkness” (Daniel 2:22).

God challenges his rivals to prove their omniscience by revealing the future or explaining the past (Isaiah 41:21-23). He laughs at the absurdity of putting one’s trust in a mute idol who cannot prove that it is even conscious, while God can prove that he is aware of all things. He challenges his people to remember that he has predicted the things that are now, showing that he alone deserves allegiance (Isaiah 48:3-5).

The concept of omniscience is baffling to human beings, and always has been. As the psalmist says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). It is far easier to deal with a lesser deity, who does not know all things, so can be tricked into complying to my will by a well-placed insincere prayer, or a charm or ritual to which he must comply, so that I get what I want. But that is not the way God works. He sees both the deed and the motive. He hears both the words and the thoughts behind them.

Since God’s awareness is unlimited, our approach to him must be an open one. We dare not hide who we are with flowery words, or empty praise, like the Pharisee did in Jesus’ story:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 ESV)

Jesus used this story to teach the kind of attitude we should have as God’s creatures. As we humble ourselves, we assess correctly our position in God’s universe, but when we exalt ourselves (even when we do it with left-handed complements to God as the Pharisee did) we are being dishonest. This dishonesty about ourselves tilts the scale so badly that it reflects upon our view of God. We end up telling God “what a lucky God you are to have me on your side.”

The God of the Bible sees through that hypocrisy and self-delusion. He knows the real score because he knows all things. It is his nature to know the whole truth, while his creatures know only in part (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12).

 

 

omnipotent

Believers are also drawn to extremes when attempting to describe God’s power. His ability is unmeasurable, infinite. He is omnipotent. Since everything that is was created by him, it stands to reason that there are no limits to his power.

Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who has made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you (Jeremiah 32:17 ESV).

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:34-37 ESV).

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:24-26 ESV).

With God there is nothing that is harder or easier. The only things he cannot do are the things he will not do, that is, things that are against his nature. His “will is never exercised except in perfect harmony with all the other attributes of (his) great and glorious being.”[3] He cannot sin, lie, self-destruct, or do anything that would result in his not being who he is. He himself is a constant.

The Name of God

Perhaps this is the reason that he introduced himself to his estranged people in such a peculiar way:

“Moses said to God, ‘If I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is his name?” ― what should I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM that I AM.” And he said, “You must say this to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “You must say this to the Israelites, ‘The LORD ― the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob ― has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’” (Exodus 3:13-15 NET).

With a confusing mix of Egyptian gods as a background, the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt needed proof that the God who promised to deliver them was different. God’s covenant name ― Yahveh[4] ― accentuates that difference. It screams “I am the One who has always existed and always will. It speaks of One who is not bound to the limits that all other beings are, One who is infinite, unmeasurable.

I believe it was this same name that Jesus referred to when he commanded his disciples to make more disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). The three persons of the trinity are equally infinite, each part of the same Godhead, thus they all share the same name. It is this unmeasurable nature that makes God unique. All other gods have a beginning (as spirits originally intended to serve Yahveh). All other gods have limited knowledge and power. Our God is the “I AM,” who has no limits and no peers.

 

the immutable one

James said that with God “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). He was drawing attention to another attribute of God: immutability. When we affirm that God is immutable, we are affirming (positively) that he is consistent; he acts and responds the same way that he always has. James made this affirmation about God to dissuade his readers from thinking that God was bringing trials upon them to do evil. Instead, he wanted them to realize that temptations come from within us, but remaining steadfast (imitating God’s immutability) will lead to “the crown of life” (James 1:12).

Although God acts and moves through history, making his mark upon the lives of all his creatures, he still remains transcendent. His essential nature and attributes do not change. By his grace he changes us, but we do not change him. If he were changeable, it would mean destruction for God’s people (Malachi 3:6). But he is consistent with himself. He can be trusted when no one else can.

It was this consistent nature that set God apart from all the other gods of the ancients. For the Canaanite, for example, a sure harvest this season might cost an extra goat from his flocks this season, or it might cost the life of his child. His gods were fickle; he could not depend on them. For the Israelite, what God wants is clear: it is codified in the law of Moses for everyone to know. It was not left to the whim of the latest shaman to reinterpret. This fact was meant to bring stability into the Israelite’s life.

This stability came with a price. Since God cannot be changed, neither can he be manipulated. He cannot be bought off by a bigger offering, or enticed by a louder chant.  He does not respond to magic words or magic charms. He is in control and remains in control. He does not relinquish that control to even those who have faith in him. He remains omnipotent. The ancient Canaanite could never accept such a God.

The modern world is filled with people who have the same disposition. They do not mind religion as long as they get to set the standards. They want a God that they can trust to be good when they want good done, but who looks the other way when they do evil to others. They are happy to sing about God the savior, but want nothing to do with God, the judge. They want a god who can tell them that they are the fairest of them all, and that everyone else is too.

The God of the Bible offers salvation and judgment. He can save believers precisely because it is his judgment from which we need salvation. His attributes are consistent, which is another difference between him and his creatures.

One distinction between man’s attributes and God’s attributes is that, whereas man has characteristics added or subtracted from Him, God does not. A man can be joyful as a child and sorrowful as an adult. A man can be faithful as an employee and unfaithful as a husband. God, on the other hand, never loses or gains any attribute of his person.[5]

 

This consistency serves as a rock of refuge for believers. As we face the difficulties associated with living life this side of eternity, we are assured that the rules of the game do not change. Life is determined not by blind chance, but by an immutable Person.

Although this attribute of God is encouraging, it also suggests some questions that the thinking Christian should consider. Even if they pose no serious problem to our faith, dealing with them may help us to answer objections from nonbelievers, who might question the reality of God. There are three such questions:

 

1) If God is unchanging, how can he affect history?

Some have suggested that God’s transcendence means that, although he exists, he chooses not to have an impact upon the world that he created. Since he does not change, he limits the effect his presence might have on the cosmos by remaining at a distance, and simply observing. This view reverses the import of transcendence, since it emphasizes the unchanging nature of creation, rather than the creator. It is popular among those who resist the concept of miracles, because their worldview can get along without them.

Immutability speaks to the power of God, and does not limit his ability to affect his creation. It suggests that God interacts with the universe, but that, in the final analysis, that interaction does not alter anything he does or anything that he is. He can affect the course of history, or the course of my life, or yours, because he is sovereign over all things. If he chooses to have mercy on a sinner, it is because he is compassionate and merciful by nature ― the transaction has not changed his essential nature. If he chooses to raise up one nation and put down another, he is acting within the parameters of his omnipotence. He never encounters a situation that forces him to act outside his nature.

His nature, however, is one of consistent intervention. The world is what it is because he keeps stepping into the mix and muddying his hands, so to speak. What appears to some to be a well-oiled simple machine that requires little maintenance, is actually a complex group of inter-acting systems that require constant tweaking and intervention.

2) If God is unchanging, why offer salvation to all?

If some see a problem with an unchanging God who changes history, others see a problem with an unchanging God who changes personal destiny. They suggest that it is unfair for God to offer salvation to all when he knows who will respond to that offer and who will not.  He therefore knows that some (indeed many) will never take advantage of his grace, will never repent and display faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Yet he insists on proclaiming “whoever will” even though he knows only the elect will.

For those who see a disconnect here, one way to resolve the problem is for God to make a divine exception to his own nature: he must limit his sovereignty in the area of personal salvation. This will enable anyone who desires to be saved to accept Christ. W. E. Best sees this as an application of deism in the realm of soteriology.[6] It seeks to solve the sovereignty/free will debate by assuming that God makes the concession to human sovereignty in just this one particular area.

Yet, when we look at what the Bible says about salvation, we see that God has not abdicated his role in this process. He does more than just set up an option, sit back and wish as people get close, then fall away. He sends his Holy Spirit and causes people to be born again into his kingdom (John 3:3, 5). It is an intervention. It is another one of those maintenance miracles that God does so often, we are tempted to think of them as normal.

We live in a world in which God is active, and constantly seeking the lost, and transforming them by the power of his Holy Spirit. This is the kind of God we have. It is not a God who is at the mercy of his creatures. He is immutable. He does not surrender his attributes even to accomplish what he wants.


3) If God is unchanging, is there hope for those who have not heard the gospel?

A third challenge, related to the second, is the notion that God would be unfair to provide only one chance for people to respond to his grace. There are some who see history as a series of dispensations, in which God acts differently, and expects different things from those who belong to him. To some, believing that God is changing helps to soften the impact of a world who largely neglects him. There is always the possibility that God has a “plan b” that will include those who are not responding well to this plan.

The problem is that such thinking has (once again) reduced God to an observer, when the Bible implies that he is the prime mover. For the sake of a “wider hope” the view requires that we reject the present hope. Our present (and only) hope is in the grace of God, who sovereignly brings the lost to himself through his Son. The fact that he is immutable should lead us to use all our resources to bring the dying world to Christ, because only he is the answer. When the next age dawns, it will be Christ’s age. The changes we will see will not reflect a change in who God is. Instead, they will reflect a more clear revelation of the immutable God we worship today.

{This article is excerpted from Jeff’s book An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,  which is available electronically in Kindle format. He also maintains a weblog (blog) with the same name, in which each chapter of the book has been posted.}

[1]Owen C. Thomas, Ellen K. Woodra, Introduction To Theology. (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2002), 103.

[2]Allan Coppedge, Portraits of God.  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 132.

[3]Martyn Loyd-Jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible. (Wheaton, Ill.: Good News Publishers, 2003), 67.

[4]The name Yahveh ( hwhy ) is believed by many to derive from an ancient form ( hwh ) of the common verb “to be,” ( hyh ) although Beitzel argues that the etymological presupposition is not proven, and the name may have been used in Exodus 3 as an example of paronomasia (See Barry J. Beizel, “Exodus 3:14 and the Divine Name: a Case of Biblical Paronomasia,” Trinity Journal 1 NS (1980) 5-20).

[5]Jeremy Cagle, Just The Simple Truth: The Attributes of God. (www.justthesimpletruth.com/pdfs/03-theattributesofGod.pdf).

[6]W. E. Best, The Impeccable Christ. (Lafayette, Ind.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, Inc., 1971), 69.

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