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STUDIES ON GOD’S ATTRIBUTES
By Davis W. Huckabee
THE RELATIVE ATTRIBUTES OF GOD
Heretofore in our study of the attributes of God, we have considered those generally considered Absolute or Immanent, by which is meant those that respect God's relations to Himself: His life, personality, will, self-existence, immutability, unity, plurality, truth, love, holiness and wrath. We now come to consider the second class of God's attributes, namely His relative or transitive attributes. These have to do with His relations to the creation. We must not be misunderstood about these relative attributes: they do not require a creation to exist, for they all existed in God before there was a creation, but they manifest God's character as a blessing to His creation.
We have to conceive of God as existing, with essential powers of a personal spirit, before we can begin to attribute to him modes of activity and qualities of character. The necessary powers of a personal spirit are not attributes, but compose the Being who possesses the attributes. Thus the affectional nature is not an attribute, but love is. The power of knowing is not ranked as an attribute, for a spirit would not be a spirit without the power of knowing; but omniscience, which is a mode of exercising the power of knowing, is an attribute of God. [W.N. Clarke, Outline of Christian Theology, pp. 75-76.].
God was God before there ever was a world, and had all the attributes of His nature, but He now reveals these attributes as a part of Himself as He works for the good of His creation. There are many things about God that man could not even suspect about Him until God reveals Himself in a particular relationship in which those things became prominent. This is why man by nature has such extravagant ideas about God. His ideas come from his own depraved mind, and so they do not even approach the truth about God, as is seen in all the pagan religions. Only by a Divine revelation of the character of God can man have any right ideas about Him.
But perhaps someone will object that many of the ancient philosophers had some right views about God. True, but they drew these correct ideas from one the three revelations that God had give of himself—creation, conscience and His commandments. We all realize that the Word reveals God to man, but we must also remember that Psalm 19:1 also declares that the creation testifies of God's glory. This is the testimony of Romans 1:19-20. And Romans 2:13-15 suggests that the conscience in man also makes him accountable to God, even though it is not a perfect guide to follow in all things. The conscience is only a judge, but like human judges, it can only judge rightly on the basis of an objective standard of right and wrong, and that standard is the Word of God.
These facts are all based upon the truth that God reveals Himself to man in His different relationships that He sustains to His creation, so that man, though he may be in the darkest regions of the dark continent, is without excuse before God. These revelations of God's character, we call His attributes, and while we desire to study these in the most systematic and orderly fashion possible, yet we may at times almost be guilty of artificiality in our divisions of them. In regard to this problem, it is said:
There is a certain justification for this distinction in the fact that some qualities are more fundamental in our thought of God than others, but in practice it is difficult to carry through without artificiality... It is simpler, as well as more in accord with the usage of modem psychology, to regard the word "attribute" as a comprehensive term, including everything which can be affirmed about God but the bare fact of his existence, and to see in the doctrine a complete statement of all that is essential in the Christian idea of God. [W. Adams Brown, Outline of Christian Theology, p. 101.].
This division that we now undertake—God's relative attributes—will have to do first of all with God's relation to time and space, and so, will deal with the attributes of Eternity and Immensity.
There are numerous Scriptures that could be cited in proof of God's eternal Being. The following are a sample: "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God," (Ps. 90:2). "But thou, O Lord, shalt endure for ever, and thy remembrance unto all generations... But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end," (Ps. 102:12, 27: He is called "everlasting God," "the eternal God," "The King eternal," etc., in several places, (Gen. 21:33; Deut. 33:27; Isa. 40:28; Jer. 10:10; 1 Tim. 1:17). There an interesting reading carried by four or five of the oldest manuscripts of Jude 25f, but it not in the King James Version. It says of God: "before all the age, and now, and to all the ages," which would be equivalent to the statement in Psalm 90:2, and an absolute declaration of God's eternity of being. So this is an evident truth whether it appeared in the original language of Jude 25 or not.
Strictly speaking, there is a difference between eternity and everlasting, for that which has no beginning or ending alone is eternal, but everlasting may be said of something that has had a beginning, but which shall never have an ending. However, it must be said that the translators have generally used both these terms to render the same Greek and Hebrew words.
Eternity, properly so called, is that which is without beginning and end, and is without succession, or does not proceed in a succession, of moments one after another; and is opposed to time, which has a beginning, goes on in a succession, and has an end: it is the measure of a creature's duration, and began when creatures began to be, and not before, and is proper to them, and not eternity, which only belongs to God. [John Gill, Body of Divinity, pp. 45-46.].
Here again we are brought face to face with something of which man has no experience, and he finds it all but impossible to even imagine what eternity of being would be like, for everything that man knows of, is limited in time. The eternity of God is another of those facts that must be accepted by simple faith because God has declared it to be so. God's past eternity of being is harder to conceive of than His future eternity of being.
When we say that we shall live forever, we can understand how a life once begun may never be completed. But it is difficult to conceive of a life which goes back equally forever as one may go forward. The past is always completed, and as completed, must be measurable. That which has been by succession of moments or days must have had some first day or moment with which it began. We can form no other conception of it. [J. P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, p. 69.].
Time has been defined as duration measured by successions (Strong, ibid, 276) and by W. Lee Rector as "a measured portion of eternity," but in the light of what has been said above of eternity, it may be questionable whether this is an appropriate definition of time. However, we all experience time, and its succession and duration, but we will all have to enter into eternity to have any just comprehension of what it is. It is sufficient that the Lord has declared Himself to be eternal.
The eternity of God is also intimately associated with His other attributes, as we have already observed. Indeed, Exodus 3:14, which we considered under God's self-existence, also is suggestive of His eternity, and the very meaning of the tenses used in "I AM THAT I AM," reminds us of the alternate reading of Jude 25f. Because God is not limited by either time or space, His eternity almost amounts to an eternal "now," as the following suggests.
The attribute of self-existence suggests that of eternity, or it may be said that the two attributes are suggestive of each other. For if the causes of God's existence are in Himself, reason will admit that those causes have been in operation from eternity; and if He is an Eternal Being, then He must be self-existent. There is no past, present, or future with God so far as His knowledge is concerned, but an eternal "now." [Emery H. Bancroft, Elemental Theology, p. 41.].
The practical aspect of this attribute of God is seen in that "eternity" is the same word that is used to describe the life that the believer has through faith in Jesus Christ. And it is the same word that describes the duration of punishment for those that reject the redemption that Christ has wrought, (John 5:24; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). This contradicts the annihilationists that say that the unsaved simply cease to exist at a point in time. The destruction is everlasting; i.e., it is never completed, nor does this word ever mean annihilation. The different universalist and restorationist groups, who hold that eventually every fallen creature of God—men, angels and even Satan Himself—will eventually be brought back into a right relationship with God, deny this absolute meaning of "eternal." And, because it is derived from the Greek word aion, that sometimes means "age," they claim that the word only means "age-lasting." But this Greek word is the strongest in that language for manifesting unlimited time, and it is used in contrast to that which comes to an end, so that it has the meaning of "eternity," or "everlasting." None but heretics have ever denied this to be the meaning of it.
In reference to man and his existence, the Scriptures speak of two, and only two atones, or ages; one finite, and the infinite; one limited, and one endless; the latter succeeding the former. An indefinite series of limited aeons with no final endless aeon is a Pagan, and Gnostic, not a Biblical conception... The present age, or aeon, is "time;" the future age, or aeon, is "etc [W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 682-683.].
This contrast between these two "ages" is seen in such texts as Matthew 12:32 (where "world" is literally "age"); Ephesians 1:21 (same thing); and in places such as Ephesians 3:21 where eternity is spoken of as literally "unto the age of the ages." That is, eternity being that one unlimited age that is the consummation of all the limited ages that preceded it. This is also to ignore the common Biblical way of intensifying a word to its utmost degree simply by doubling the word itself. And in Mark 10:30 this distinction is even designated by the terms "time" for the present age, and "age" or "eternity" for that which is to come.
The word eternal is used in two senses in the Bible: figuratively, as denoting existence which may have a beginning, but will have no end, e.g., angels, the human soul; literally, denoting an existence which has neither beginning nor ending, like that of God. Time has past, present, future; eternity has not. Eternity is infinite duration without any beginning, end, or limit—an ever abiding present. We can conceive of it only as duration indefinitely extended from the present moment in two directions—as to the past and as to the future. [William Evans, The Great Doctrines of the Bible, p. 35.].
Thus, if the word "eternal" or "everlasting" is sometimes used in such a way as not to imply absolute beginning or endlessness, it is only because it is used figuratively. i.e., it means that whatever is said to be eternal is to continue as long as is possible for its constitution to allow it to do. But the blessedness of our hope is that our salvation is to endure as long as we do, for it is, like God, eternal. The horror of hell is that it too shall last as long as sinners last, evermore exacting torment upon them for their sinfulness. (See Dan. 12:1-3).
The second attribute that we will consider in this present study is God's Immensity. We frequently use the term "immense" as meaning large, or huge, but originally the term meant unmeasured, limitless, infinite, for the prefix—im puts the root word mensus, to measure, in the negative. It is in this original sense that we use this of God and especially in regard to His relations to space.
By this we mean that God's nature (a) is without extension; (b) is subject to no limitations of space; and (c) contains in itself the cause of space... Immensity is infinity in its relation to space. God's nature is not subject to the law of space. God is not in space. It is more correct to say that space is in God. Yet space has an objective reality to God. [A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, pp. 278, 279.].
This will relate to God's attribute of omnipresence, which we will study in due time. Solomon recognized this truth when he asked in 1 Kings 8:27: "Will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" This is also implied in Isaiah 66:1; Jeremiah 23:24; Acts 7:48-50; and Job 11:7-9.
Contrary to all the manmade deities, which were always recognized and acknowledged to be local in nature and power, the true God fills all the creation, yet is not confined to it. Another profound mystery that is beyond man's widest conception, for it defines God's existence as something infinitely beyond man's experience, knowledge and even imagination.
By immensity we do not mean that God is unrelated to space. We mean rather that God is not a spatially extended being. He is not confined to or limited by space. Spatially extended objects and the relations of these objects to each other in space are seen and known as real to the mind of God. But he is not confined in space nor does he include space in himself as if he were a greater space including a less, a larger circle outside of a smaller one. His immensity means rather that his mode of existence is not spatial or extended, and that he is not subject to the laws of space. [E.Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, p. 225.].
This glorious attribute means that because God is not confined by space in any way, nor is He limited as to locality, He is ever near to His people in their times of need. "A very present help in trouble," (Ps. 46:1). What a comforting attribute is this of God's immensity. This attribute was implied in the words of a poet of the past in a poem entitled;
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death,
His mercy underlies.
And so beside the Silent Sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
—John Greenleaf Whittier
God, in His immensity, fills all creation, yet is confined to none of it, and therefore He is never restricted as to where He can be. But there is another attribute that is the counterpart of God's immensity, and which must not be overlooked lest we miss another important aspect of truth. God is also transcendent, which is to say that though He is characterized by immensity—He fills all creation—He is not confined to it, but transcends it all.
God never can distinguish himself to our consciousness from his finite creation if we try to explain his action by means of an exclusive doctrine of the divine immanence. The immanence of God is a great and important truth. The Scriptures everywhere recognize it. But the transcendence of God is equally important. God's transcendence is involved in his personality... When we assert the omnipresence of God we mean that God is not confined to any part or parts of the universe either in time or space. He is not present in this or that point in space and absent from some other; nor in this or that moment of time and absent from some other. But he is present in all his power at every point of space and every moment of time. When we speak of the divine immanence we mean this indwelling of God in space and time. When we speak of the divine transcendence we assert that God is not limited by time and space. God's indwelling in the world is not necessary, but free. He is not in the world as a substance, or physical principle, or law, but as a free personal spirit. [E. Y. Muffins, The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, pp. 139, 225.]
He is thus always available at all times for the needs of His people, but this is to deal with His omnipresence. It is interesting to observe how that the Divine attributes are each one distinct and interact with one another, yet without contradicting one another. The following distinction is made between God's immanence and His omnipresence.
Some make a distinction between the omnipresence and the immensity of God. This distinction will be sufficiently denoted by the following words: "When we call his essence immense, we mean that it has no limit; when we say that it is omnipresent, we signify that it is wherever creatures are." [Dick's Theology, Lecture 19]. We can imagine remote tracts of space where creatures are not and have never been, but God is there. In those places the doctrine of his immensity is exemplified, but we, for obvious reasons, are more interested in his omnipresence. He is emphatically present wherever his creatures are. We are lost in wonder in contemplating this fact. [J.M. Pendleton, Christian Theology, p. 48.].
God's immensity and omnipresence suggest that not only is He everywhere in His creation, but He observes all that goes on, and so controls all that nothing can come about but what He decrees to allow. And He judges all that is attempted contrary to His revealed will. Is your life in harmony with the will of God? If not, how can you hope to succeed against God?
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