Systematic Theology – Paterology (6) – Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes

SystematicSystematic Theologians love categories. It helps us take complex and often times scattered ideas, and structure them in manageable and approachable ways. Before we dive into God’s attributes, we have to talk about two of those categories: Incommunicable and Communicable.

Incommunicable Attributes

There are certain attributes which are unique to God. Only a person/hypostasis who possesses the divine nature has these attributes. While all of God’s attributes are fundamental to who and what God is, the incommunicable attributes are especially important for us to pay attention to. The primary reason this is the case is not because they are MORE fundamental to who and what God is (we will find out with our first incommunicable attribute why this is the case), but because they are incredibly important heuristically.

Since only God possesses these attributes, we know that whenever we see a person who bears these attributes, that this person is necessarily God. This becomes important for us when we get to Christology and Pneumatology. These characteristics are never shared with creatures, even analogically, and only God can properly be described by these terms (when used in their technical sense).

While there is occasionally disagreement on what particularly is an incommunicable or communicable attribute, the following are generally agreed upon:

  • Simplicity – As infinite spirit, God is not made up of different parts; his attributes are identical with his being.
  • Aseity – Self-existence
  • Immutability – Unchangableness
  • Impassibility – Incapacity for being overwhelmed
  • Eternity – God’s transcendence of time (1)

Over the coming weeks, I will discuss each of these attributes and explore how they are significant for our understanding of who God the Father is.

Communicable Attributes

Other attributes that God possesses he has shared, or communicated, to his creatures. While it is true that these attributes may be predicated of some animals, and certainly of angels, we are primarily discussing these attributes in reference to how they are communicated to humans.

However, just like our knowledge and speech about God is always and only ever analogical, so also is our possession of these attributes. When we say that God is wise we do not mean the same thing as when we say that humans are wise. A not inconsequential difference is that God’s attributes and God’s being are identical. We will discuss this more in depth in a future post, however it is an important thing to remember at the outset. While a human may have wisdom… God is wisdom. While a human may be powerful… God is power. Furthermore, whatever God is, he is as Creator. Whatever we are, we are as creatures.

The generally agreed upon set of communicable attributes are as follows:

  • Wisdom – The power to discern truth from error and righteousness from unrighteousness, and to make deliberate choices that eventuate in good rather than evil
  • KnowledgePossession of truth, including contingencies; in God’s case, knowledge of all things from eternity – including the free acts of creatures
  • Power – Ability to act as a free agent; in God’s case, comprehensive freedom as Lord of all
  • Holiness – As glory is a weightiness (significance), holiness is a separateness from all unrighteousness and injustice; for God, it is both an ontological uniqueness and an ethical purity
  • Righteousness – Similar to justice, righteousness is integrity; in God’s case, an inability to sin
  • Justice – Conforming desires, actions, and judgements to the standard of truth rather than expediency, favoritism, or personal advantage; in God’s case, absolute commitment to what is right and to judging transgressors
  • Jealousy – In God’s case, a love for his people that zealously binds them to himself, over against both the involuntary servitude and voluntary embrace of other lords
  • Wrath – In God’s case, the righteous and holy response to transgression
  • Goodness – Faithful to his own character, God also seeks the welfare of his people
  • Love – Favor toward and regard for the other; mutually interdependent in the case of human beings, but utterly free of reciprocity in God’s case
  • Mercy – God’s favor toward those who deserve wrath(2)

Omni, Omni, Omni

Now, you may have noticed that the famous Omni attributes were not present in that list. This was not an oversight. While different theologians address these differently, placing some in the communicable, and some in the incommunicable… I am of the opinion that these attributes actually straddle the line. In some ways, they are communicable, and in other ways they are not. I shall address them first before moving on to the others. Beyond that, we will see that the three classic Omni attributes are interrelated in a way that makes it untenable to treat some in one way, and some in another. The three attributes are:

  • Omnipresence – God is fully present in all spatial and non-spatial locations
  • Omniscience – God fully and completely knows all truths and possible truths
  • Omnipotence – God is utterly unrestrained in his capacity to actualize whatsoever he wills

(1) Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 74
(2) Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 83