Who is God? This question is not a new one. But we should not let the ancientness of the question, the number of times this question has been asked, the variants of answers given, nor the multiplicity of answers convince us that it is a question without an answer. It can be answered. It has been. There is an answer to who God is, and it is found in his holy word.
As Christians, we are uniquely privileged to answer the question who God is and what he is like with confidence, for our God has revealed himself to us in the Bible. In Scripture, God has told us about himself, shared with us the contours of his divinity, expressed his character in ways we can understand and articulate, and has, in essence, given us the answer to our foundational question.
And the fact that he has done this tells us something about him already—he desires to be known! As we explore who God is like, we are bound to run up against two realities that could discourage us in our theological journey: 1) the mysteries of God that we cannot fully understand in our human limitations, and 2) the complexities about God that, though understandable to the human mind, feel overwhelmingly big for ours.
Theologian (because yes, you already are one!), when you bump up against either of these boundaries, remember that your God desires to be known and has made himself known to you in his word. He does not sit aloof in heaven, tapping his foot disappointedly because you cannot wrap your mind around his holiness. He is not evasive, trying to escape your understanding as if responding to your watchful eye with a game of divine Whack-a-Mole. Foundational to the Christian faith is this reality: The question of who God is has an answer because God is a God who desires to be known. In fact, he has given us everything we need to love, worship, and enjoy him in this life.
The Attributes of God
Our answer to the question of who God is lies within the pages of Scripture. There, we find a plethora of descriptions and examples of certain realities at play in God’s character; theologically, these are called “attributes.” When we ask who God is or what he is like, we’re really hounding after his attributes: What are the contours of his character? What qualities make him who he is? What features belong to his divine being? Is he mean or kind? Is he fickle, fair, or friendly?
After grappling with all that the Bible says about God, theologians separate these attributes into two lists: communicable and incommunicable. Let’s start with communicable.
The communicable attributes of God are those in God’s character that we have unique access to as humans made in his image. These attributes are “communicable” to us in that they can be transmitted to us, or shared with us; they are characteristics that belong to God that can also belong to us. For example, God is merciful and he calls us to be merciful; God is just and he commands us to live justly. These are the things that allow the Bible to say we bear God’s likeness in certain ways.
But there are also attributes of God that belong to him alone. These aspects of his character and nature are “incommunicable” to us as humans. We do not possess them, and we never will simply because we are not God.
An example of an incommunicable attribute is his omniscience, or his all-knowing nature. God alone has all knowledge and wisdom within himself; he neither commands nor expects us to become like him in this way. Similarly, God is self-sufficient; he relies on no one and nothing to sustain his divine self, and the same could never be said for you and me. These attributes do not communicate to our human nature, and he does not share them with us; they are God’s incommunicable attributes, and they are what allow the Bible to also say there’s no one like him.
In short, you could say the communicable attributes connect us to God, while the incommunicable attributes set him apart from us, drawing the line between creature and Creator. On one hand, considering the communicable attributes, it is clear we are like God to a degree much like a child bears the image of his parent. On the other hand, considering the incommunicable attributes, it is clear God is something (Someone) entirely different than we are.
God has an entirely other nature and is a being to which he can only compare himself. These, his incommunicable attributes, limit our view and emulation of him. So if you find yourself puzzling at his immutability or wondering at his omnipresence, then you’re in the right frame of mind; it’s impossible to wrap our minds around the entirety of who God is.
Yet, God is not unknowable. We are invited, by the power of God’s Spirit, to grow in his communicable attributes. Though we know not the experience of being a limitless being and cannot even comprehend what it means that God is eternal, by his good design, we are invited to live in what we will come to know as the “economy of the household of God” and therein learn to mirror his communicable attributes.
Excerpted with permission from Fix Your Eyes by Amy Gannett. Copyright 2021, B&H Publishing Group.