Divine Attributes

Divine Attributes

In honor of Good Friday, a follow up to last week’s theology post seems in order.

Previously we defined what theologians mean by God: the necessary, self-existing uncaused Being that is the ultimate source of all contingent being.

Having established God as the uncaused, necessary Being, we can conclude to a number of His divine attributes.

Here are the attributes of the godhead with which readers are most likely to be familiar, in no particular order.

Infinity

In theological terms, infinity refers not to unrestricted extension in space or number, but means that God’s perfection is unlimited, and that He possesses every possible perfection to the highest extent.

God’s infinity necessarily follows from His self-existence. If any other being could place an external limitation on God, then God would in that regard be dependent on that being. He would thus be contingent, therefore not self-necessary, and therefore not God.

Nor can God limit himself, since His existence is His essence, and a change in His mode of being would require a change in His nature, which would render Him not God, which as a self-contradiction, is impossible.

Omnipotence

Probably the most well-known of God’s attributes but also the most misunderstood. Omnipotence does not mean that God can “do anything”, e.g. create a rock so big He can’t lift it. It means that He is free from any limitation on the exercise of the powers proper to His nature.

That said, the range of God’s power excludes only what is self-contradictory, such as the rock above, a four-sided triangle, etc. The intrinsic inability of the impossible to exist is not a limitation on God’s power, much as being flightless does not limit a penguin’s natural powers.

God’s omnipotence logically follows from His infinity. There can be no limitation on the exercise of His powers because such a limitation would constitute contingency and result in a self-contradiction.

Eternity

Another often misunderstood divine attribute, eternity as attributed to God does not mean that He exists on a timeline extending perpetually into the future and the past. It means that God transcends time and dwells instead in an ever-present now.

Due to God’s eternity, any mention of Him acting in the past or future tense is made only by analogy–there is no was in God. This divine attribute is attested in Sacred Scripture with the revelation of the Divine Name, “I Am.”

Again, we inexorably conclude to God’s eternity from His infinity, since the self-necessary Being cannot be limited in time any more than He can be limited in power.

Omnipresence

In light of the divine attributes we’ve already covered, God’s omnipresence needs no elaborate explanation. Since God is not limited in time, He’s not limited in space.

God’s omnipresence does not contradict His eternity. Though not limited in time, He coexists with it, just as He, though infinite, coexists with finite beings.

To say otherwise would be to claim that necessary and contingent being–i.e. cause and effect–are mutually exclusive, which is absurd.

Omniscience

It should go without saying at this point that the infinite Being cannot be limited in knowledge. For the same reason that God’s power cannot be contingent on any other being, He must derive His perfect knowledge solely from Himself.

Failure to understand God’s omniscience poses a stumbling block to many philosophical and theological laymen. God is not like a man atop a high tower afforded a longer view by His superior vantage point. Nor is He like a man at the end of time looking back over the historical record.

God’s knowledge is not dependent on any creature, nor is it mediated by senses. Instead, God knows all things causally and from all eternity by virtue of His status as First Cause.

Consider a cellist publicly performing a new composition. The audience only knows the song through the mediation of their sense of hearing. The composer, however, knows the piece more intimately since he wrote the sheet music. This analogy is imperfect, because regarding omniscience, God didn’t simply write the sheet music, He is the sheet music.

These are just a few of the divine attributes. To be precise, they’re really artificial delineations of God’s singular, infinitely simple nature split into separate categories for easier human understanding. Theologians are, by necessity, blind men groping an elephant. But we do know that the subject of our inquiry is there, and our investigations can obtain some truth, however incomplete.

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