The following is the fourth lecture on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Q: What is God?
A: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
In the last lesson of the Westminster Shorter Catechism we considered the third question which inquires as to what God’s Holy Scriptures principally teach. With this lecture we reviewed how during the reformation, man’s humanistic teachings had foisted themselves on God’s precepts and thus abraded the depository of true doctrine, namely the Church. We examined how Wycliff, Huss, Luther, and Calvin exerted themselves, by God’s grace, to purge the Church’s doctrinal depository of such adulterated theology with the reformation’s unblemished exposition of all the Scriptures. The reformation doctrine contrasted itself to that of the humanist liberalism with the tenant of Scripture’s revelation being authoritative over that of man’s humanistic dogmas. Scripture was first principally revelatory of God and not man. We appraised Scripture principally second being revelatory of God’s law and not the humanist’s decree. We denied the sin of the knowledge of good and evil, namely, the humanist intent to give moral law unto himself, and positively affirmed God’s revelation of Himself and His law for man. Our next systematic inquiry leads us to the Catechisms next question. Since the Scripture’s principally teach who God is, who then is God? In this lesson we will observe several attributes of God. It is important to understand for something rightly to be associated as an attribute of God, it must have first subsisted among the Trinity and second been dynamically demonstrated in their union. Among God’s attributes there are two theological classifications. Communicable and Incommunicable. The communicable attributes of God are those attributes which God has shared with us non-God image-bearers and the incommunicable being those which he cannot share due to the limitation of our being.
SPEAKING IS READING
In AD 383, a young Latin rhetoric professor from Rome was living in Milan and under the tutelage of the city’s wise bishop, Ambrose. Bishop Ambrose was prestigious teacher of the Christian faith, much aged with wisdom and knowledge. Moreover, Ambrose was recognized among his pupils as a fastidious reader. This young professor from Rome remarked how his mentor could read, and at that, read in a most remarkable manner. “When he read”, said the student of Ambrose, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue was still… Often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading in silence, for he never read aloud.” This account is the first recorded instance in Western Literature of the now common method of silent reading. The young Latin Professor from Rome who was a student of this remarkable, mysterious Ambrose was none other than St. Augustine. In Augustine’s day reading was always executed out loud. It was assumed that if you were not speaking the text, you were simply not reading the text. But when St. Augustine witnessed the sheer wonderment of his mentor sitting with an open book while silently scanning it as he would a landscape view, he was dumbfounded. Naturally, today we find St. Augustine’s bewilderment simple and foolish, especially of a rhetoric professor. “You don’t have to read out loud, this is a puerile methodology for children! Silent reading is of course the standard form of polite and proper study.” Yet we have the same thought pattern dilemma with God. “I must see God, feel and hear Him for His existence to be real and recognized by me. Who would believe in anything less?” The common dismissal of “Seeing is Believing” is just as foolish as “Speaking is Reading” was in Augustine’s.
Speaking of St. Augustine, our young Latin rhetoric professor from Rome, an oft employed method of his teaching was called “Via Negativa”, that is to say, “Way of Negation.” With this technique, rather than defining what a particular object was, one would first define what the particular object was not. In faithfulness to St. Augustine’s practice of “Via Negativa” I would commence this lesson with a few observations of what God is not. Firstly, He is not who you think he is. The God of the Scriptures is not the selfsame god which our post-christian society recognizes today in its humanist philosophy. Now when I say philosophy, it means not exclusively an academic discipline, it also includes an individuals world-view. In this sense of the word philosophy, all are philosophers because all have a world view. Christians, although, have been disposed to place a spurned dichotomy between philosophy and religion. Lauding ourselves for not being intellectuals we perpetuate the disaffiliation of philosophy to our theology. Nonetheless, as Dr. Francis Schaeffer observed, philosophy and religion fundamentally confront the same enigmas. “Philosophy and religion” wrote Schaeffer, “do not deal with different questions, though both give different answers in different terms. The basic question of both philosophy and religion are questions of being, that which exists; man and his dilemma, that is, morals; and how man knows.”
It can be observed as a rule that both the philosophical answer and religious answer to who God is, is altogether dependent upon one’s view of origins. Humanism claims our origins to be chaotic by well timed chance and therefore definitively “impersonal.” This humanist philosophy of impersonalism has besmirched itself upon the Christian doctrine of God. Thus now, the Christian may not declare, like the humanist, that our origins were determined by that of chance and time, but they would concede rather that the universe was indeed created by a god, yet an impersonal one. That this god of the universe does not exist as a person, but is rather a being of no personality who does not involve himself or show any certain concern in the affairs of men. This religious philosophy of humanist descent may answer the first enigma of being, namely, the philosophical branch of metaphysics, but it gives no desirable answer to the dilemma of absolute morals. Both impersonal philosophy and impersonal religion cannot have absolutes. Chance and time are not the author of morality and an impersonal deity is also a dissolute one. As soon as you attempt to bring order to a universe of chance, or morals to an indifferent deity, impersonalism is no longer self consistent. As Dr. Schaeffer astutely wrote, “If you begin with an impersonal, you cannot then have some form of teleological concept.” Teleological meaning, an explanation of a phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than its hypothesized causes.
Humanism and liberal Christianity have riposted this self-inconsistency is with a semantic answer of what Schaeffer termed as, “Paneverythingism.” This, “Paneverythingism” Dr. Schaeffer attributed liberal theology, is much more civilized than the barbaric worship that admits all is god. Rather, in the more unique sense of the word, it signifies a god that admits all worship. Thus, liberal theologians have evolved god from an impersonal deity, to that of a mystical and romantic one, that they may give an answer to man’s moral dilemma. This impersonal god can now be detached from the world’s moral, physical, or environmental calamities, while being romantically tolerated to everyone’s personal worship and obedience. Liberal impersonalism teaches of man’s impersonal god. Liberal “Paneverythingism” teaches of man’s personalized god. Liberal “Paneverythingism” like Impersonalism, comes down to a religious excuse for believing in a god unseeable. Both the liberal’s religious answer and the humanist’s philosophical answer deny, limit, or control the existence of an unseen deity. “Seeing is Believing” is just as ridiculous as “Speaking is Reading.”
GOD IS SPIRITUAL
God’s spiritual and invisible Incommunicable attributes are the simple answer of why God is unseeable. No excuses necessary. To state it “Via Negativa”, God cannot be physical. God cannot be material because God can have no physical limitations and no spatial location such as we do. A physical, visible deity cannot be a holy God, spiritual God, an invisible God, an infinite God, an eternal God, or an unchanging God. The second commandment in the decalogue forbids us to degrade the image of God with the likeness of any image. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Ex. 20:4. Any creature like references to God in Scripture are to be considered as only anthropomorphisms (Language which speaks of God in human terms.) Theophanies in Scripture, solely consist of God employing various visible forms to be compatible with the bodily senses of his people. Ultimately, God’s spirituality is essential to his holiness. He is not supremely holy if his being fails to be altogether different from and transcendent of every other mode of existence. To define it positively, God exists as a being not consisting of corporeal matter, has no autonomy or size, our external senses are not compatible with His being, and our existence or that of any other is incomparable to the supremacy of His. Finally, you cannot worship something which is in any capacity like yourself. Which is why we worship God not with the imaginations and physical inventions of men, but rather in spirit. “God is Spirit; and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.” Jn 4:24. As Joseph Morecraft wrote in his masterful Volume 1 of “Authentic Christianity: An Exposition of the Theology and Ethics of the Westminster Larger Catechism”, “We are to conceive God, under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, as He has revealed Himself in the Bible – in His perfections, His works, and supremely in His Son, Jesus Christ.”
GOD IS BOTH INFINITE AND PERSONAL
God’s incommunicable attribute of infiniteness has two expressions. First, God is not subject to any limitations or finite in any capacity. Second, God is infinitely superior to anything other than Himself. On this point we seemingly reach the impasse of impersonalism. How can a God who is both infinitely not like us and infinitely superior to us be capable of relating to us? The Psalmist recognized this paradox. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the sone of man that you care for him?” Man is as much comparable to God as a worm is, in that both can’t be contrasted. The notion of God regarding man would be just as ridiculous as His regard for a worm. Schaeffer illustrates this contrast intensely, “On the side of God’s infinity, there is a complete chasm between God on one side and man, the animal, the flower and machine on the other. On the side of God’s infinity, He stands alone, He is absolutely other. He is in His infinity contrary to all else. He is differential from all else because only He is infinite. He is the Creator; all else was created. He is infinite; all else is finite. All else is brought forth by creation an so all else is dependent and only He is independent. This is absolute on the side of his infinity. Therefore on the side of God’s infinity man is separated from God as is the atom or any other machine portion of the universe.” This is the gruesome reality of an infinite being. Absolute impersonalism. Absolute segregation. If we were to conclude the attributes of God on this point one could understand the rejection of God by humanists or the mystifying of God by liberals. But praise be to God it is not the arrangement. Only the one true God of the Scriptures is both an infinite and a personal God. Schaeffer continued to write, “But on the side of God being personal the chasm is between man and the animal, the plant and the machine. Why? Because man is made in the image of God… This is really down in the warp and woof of the whole problem. Man is made in the image of God, and therefore on the side of the fact that God is a personal God he chasm stands no longer between God and man, but between man and all else. But on the side of God’s infinity, man is separated from God as the atom or any other finite of the universe. So we have the answer to man being finite and yet personal.”
GOD IS ETERNAL
The doctrine of God’s eternality is more than His existence being infinite in the category of time. That is to say, God’s relationship to time is not a mere endurance through eons of endless duration. Paul Washer wrote in his workbook entitled, “The One True God”, “The eternality of God does not simply mean that He has and will exists for an infinite number of years, but also that he is timeless and ageless, always existing and never changing.” Just as God’s spirituality means He exists without reference to space, His eternality also means He exists without reference to time. No beginning, no end, no succession of moments in between, or progress from one state of existence to another. This attribute is also annexed to his infinity. God is not limited by the space of time but his realization encompasses all of time, whereas we only realize the moment we are in. This attribute is also annexed to his spirituality. The fact of God’s immaterial existence precludes any initiation of his existence. As God’s spirituality does not exist in the realm of physical space and therefore with space, time. As Wayne Grudem observed in his work on Systematic Theology every period of time never ceases to be “present” in his realization and consciousness. Thus, God sees and knows all events, past, present, and future with equal vividness. “But do not overlook this on fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” 2 Pet. 3:8. This does not prohibit God acting through various ways in different points of time. The clearest illustration of this is His sending His son, “In the fullness of time.” God exists not in time, but over it. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were born, or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” Ps. 90:1-2.
GOD IS UNCHANGEABLE
“For I, the Lord, do not change.” Mal. 3:6. God is one, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” “But you are the same, and your years have no end.” Ps. 102:27. This attribute by its very title is, “Via Negativa.” The positive term for this attribute is the immutability of God. As much as our society celebrates change, the reality is change is a limitation of finite beings. We cannot control change. Change preludes need for desired betterment, weakness to undesirable state, and subservience to a superior force or being. Weather, age, and governments change us. We can never maintain our existence to perfect permanence. We can imitate sempiternity but not qualify this attribute. Although change is not a limitation to which God is subject. Unlike us he can never improve, or deteriorate, or adapt. Because firstly, unlike us, he is in a state of absolute perfection. Second, because God has no natural force or being over Him to manipulate or coerce His state of existence. His existence is immutable and His acts are infallible. An interesting observation of God’s immutability is its relation to his infinity. The reality of an infinite being is there can only be one. There is no room in any sphere for two infinite beings of different essence. Thus, if there were one inconsistent aspect of the essence of God which changed from the original his infinity would be self contradicted and void. Furthermore the eternality of God is annexed to His immutability. An eternal being who changed would cease to be eternal. Change is a limitation of time, energy, and space, all of which God is not subject to.
GOD IS WISE
“Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.” Ps. 147:5. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his ways!” The Catechism writes it very beautifully when it states that God is not merely wise, but rather, his wisdom is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. Wisdom is the attribute of God according to which He, for the highest glory, purposes whatever comes to pass and, for the highest glory, what will bring it to pass. As Dr. Morecraft wrote, “God’s wisdom is His ability to use His knowledge and power to accomplish His plans in a way that brings the most glory to Himself and the most benefit to His people. Wisdom without knowledge is impossible. Without power it is pathetic. Power without wisdom is terrifying. And knowledge without wisdom is useless. In God, boundless knowledge and boundless power are used by His boundless wisdom for the accomplishment of all His plans, thus making Him worthy of our greatest admiration and fullest trust.” The council of God’s wisdom has displayed itself for the highest glory in the work of creation, His acts of providence, and the redemption of His people. Wisdom is communicable to us, although not to an infinite degree such as God qualifies. It is important to remember that wisdom is intrinsic or inherit in the nature of God. Wisdom is not to be understood as a commodity in God’s disposal. Wisdom neither, is to be recognized as an end in itself. God is wisdom, therefore with wisdom comes God and with God comes wisdom. Wisdom cannot be disaffiliated with God. Thus, when you receive more of wisdom, you receive more of God’s holiness to be not wiser, but holy. “For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding. He layeth up sound wisdom for the righteous.” Prov. 2:6-7.
GOD IS ALMIGHTY
God is not unable to take effective action in anything and over anything of his own council and initiative. Of all God’s attributes, this is most slighted by various doctrines taught and believed in our day. A God limited in power would be as repulsive as to say God is limited in holiness, love, or wisdom. But again, it is God who is infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably almighty in bringing whatsoever He wills to pass. God’s infinite power and actions are qualified by his other attributes. Can God build a rock to big for him to carry? Can he create another deity? Can he make an emotional tree? Can he design a square triangle? The answer to these absurdities is He wouldn’t. God would not act out of character, He would not change, and furthermore He would not do meaningless, absurd, self-contradicting actions. An interesting observation is since God is infinite, he has never been exerted to his uttermost. That is a fearful, awing thought. As great as creation and redemption was an act, it did not exhaust or diminish His power. The attribute of God’s omnipotence is annexed to all his other attributes. William Shedd illustrates, “God’s wisdom would be empty without the power to exercise His plans. His mercy would be feeble pity, if He had not power to come to our relief. His justice would be no more than a scarecrow without power to punish. His promises would be empty without the power to fulfill them. God’s omnipotence is His arm by which all His perfections lay hold if they would act.” God is not merely almighty to do all but He is almighty over all. We are all objects of His power. Stephen Charnock has written, “The blessed in heaven, that are out of the reach of punishing justice, are forever maintained by power in that blessed condition; the damned in hell, that are cast out of the bosom of entreating mercy, are forever sustained in those remediless torments by the arm of power.” “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” Jer 32:17.
GOD IS HOLY
As some of you may know I enjoy “Collecting words” as I like to coin it. Every book I read, every conversation I have, every talk-radio I listen to, every song I hear I like to copy down new words I come across onto my growing list simply titled, “New Words List.” I’m coming up on my one year anniversary of starting this “New Words List” and I have already topped 1,070 words. Some people mistakenly think when they see my list of new words that I am really quite smart. Maybe they can’t quite read the title, but what they fail to comprehend is these are words I don’t actually know. I should try changing the title of my list to be “Via Negativa”, like, “1,070+ Words I don’t Know.” if it would help get the point across. Anyways, as I was researching the holiness of God I came across a new word to me, sorry, I meant to say a word I didn’t know. It is a remarkable word. It isn’t even recorded in the Oxford dictionary like Rex Murphy’s favorite word, Chalcentrous. It has an incredible definition. R.C. Sproul stated there wasn’t any other word like it in the English language that captured the otherness of God. Most surprising to me of all, it’s small enough to get away with on a scrabble board. The word is aseity. The Aseity of God is a definition coined by theologians and Christian philosophers such as St. Augustine. It comprehensively means “self-existence.” The philosophy of aseity affirms that God contains within himself sufficient cause for his own existence while being Himself uncaused. Aseity depicts God as absolutely other than us, He is self-existent, without cause from outside himself, without dependance or origination from another, without sustenance from another, existing by his own energy, maintained by his own cause, defined by his own meaning. (Excellent proof that introverts are more godly than extroverts.) In that sense of the word we can understand what God means when he states, “I am who I am.” The first and foremost meaning of the term holiness refers to God’s otherness, His aseity, His transcendent majesty, His august superiority. The second sense of the word is with regards to His purity or separation from all else. The first is a relational quality, in that he is totally unrelated to anything other, and the second is a moral quality, in that he is completely separate from any evil. With regards to the first meaning of the term holiness, God is not merely quantitatively different, the same but greater, but furthermore qualitatively different, altogether completely different. It is no wonder the psalmist can only describe holiness as being “beautiful.” Most all the theologians I have read stated that God’s holiness is the culmination of all His attributes. I am not sure what difference it makes, but I would state that God’s holiness is rather the fountain from which of all His attributes proceed. Holiness is an intrinsic attribute, both ontologically and logically necessary for God’s aseity. From God’s holiness emanates all the glories of God and his attributes. Holiness is a communicable attribute to us, not in the sense of transcendence, but rather that of purity and separation.
GOD IS JUST
“His work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” Deut 32:4. There are two aspects of God’s justice we must understand. The first is in relation to His righteousness. God is intrinsically righteous in and of himself according to His wisdom. There is no moral proceedure, no law concept to which God is held accountable outside himself. God is moral, righteous, lawful, and just inherently. William Shed wrote, “God is not under Law, nor above Law. God is law. He is righteous by nature and necessity.” Once more, God’s righteousness is infinite, transcendent to any other standard and surpassing to all others. Negatively, God’s righteous is not substandard. Secondly, God’s righteousness is eternal. It’s relevance it not limited by time. Thirdly, it is unchanging. God’s righteousness is the unwavering measure of justice. The second aspect of God’s justice is judgment. Morecraft defined this facet of justice well, “God’s judgment or justice is His discrimination against evil and for good, growing out of his righteousness, plus the vindication of his name, covenant and moral order, which leads to the destruction of the wicked and the salvation of the righteous.” It is important to recognize that judgement is a consequential attribute to God. Firstly, God must judge to establish Himself as a righteous standard and not a righteous suggestion thus contradicting his omnipotence. Second, God must judge to preserve and maintain His holiness by repress ing those who would oppress his righteous standard. For where the law ends tyranny begins and God alone is almighty. Without judgement God’s righteous standard would be more of a righteous suggestion and contradict his omnipotence. It is a fearful thought to consider that the God’s judgement in the destruction of the wicked is also infinite, eternal, and unchanging. Contrastingly, it is awing to comprehend the infinite, eternal, and unchanging salvation of the righteous.
GOD IS GOOD
The goodness of God means that God is our highest good, just as God is are most excellent wisdom. To achieve goodness we must receive God. To do goodness we must reflect God. An interesting observation of all these attributes is their spiritual nature. God’s wisdom and goodness are spiritual in nature, not gained or recognized by physical conventions. Furthermore God’s goodness is infinite, exceeding all else, eternal, without end, and unchanging, without variation or deviation. Once again I turn to St. Augustine, “God is the supreme good – in Him alone is everything which all creatures need and seek to obtain. He is the one unto whom all creatures strive to attain, whether consciously or unconsciously; He is the object of every one’s desire. And the creature finds no rest except in God and in Him alone… Let God be all in all to Thee, for in Him is the entirety of all that Thou lovest.”
GOD IS TRUE
The two dimensions of this attribute are truthfulness and faithfulness. Truth is defined by first by God’s being, His inherent attributes. Second by God’s words, the special revelation of himself. Third by God’s works, the general revelation and decrees. Fourth and finally by God’s thoughts, His knowledge and wisdom. This is a qualifying attribute of all God’s other attributes. Meaning, it is true that for God to be God he must be spiritual, eternal, and unchanging in his being wisdom, power, holiness, and justice. To state it differently, only God is the perfect idea of what the true God should be. The reality of this reality being circular does not prohibit it from being ontologically and logically necessary. To be truthful we must act according to God’s will, think His thoughts, and speak His words. Negitvely, whatever is contrary to God’s will, God’s words, and God’s thoughts is untrue and lies. God is the final standard of truth. God’s faithfulness is His always performing of His covenant promises. Such promises as the Edenic, Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants. God’s faithfulness is infinite, eternal, and unchanging. Like the communicable attributes of holiness, wisdom, power, justice, and goodness, truth and faith are spiritual and gotten by the getting of God.
There is both much more that could be stated on these attributes, and still yet many, many more attributes left unspoken. I hope we have seen something of the Aseity of God, Who is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. I trust also we have seen who God is not. That God is not a spirit to be excused from being personal to His image-bearers. That God is not limited in any sphere, aspect, capacity, or degree of transcendence and perfection. That God is not subject to the eons of time and space. That God is not subject to need, weakness, or subservience to change. That wisdom cannot be disaffiliated with God as a simple commodity . That God is not limited in power to do what He has willed to accomplish. That God is not comparable, dependent upon, or like any other. That God is not apathetic or morally neutral. That God is not a substandard measure of goodness. That God is not a substandard of truth or unfaithful. The result of our study of the attributes of the Aseity of God should result in our awe in the beauty of His holiness. Wherein us (As sinners out of a true sense of our sins, and apprehension of the mercies of God in the cross of Christ) do (With hatred of our sin, and desire for our highest good in God) turn from our sins to God with full purpose to strive after His holiness with renewed obedience empowered by His grace.