Attributes of God

In talking with people, I’ve found myself very often having the same conversation about the attributes of God, so I thought it prudent to just write the things out that I’ve been saying. What follows will be a list of the attributes of God in monotheism. There actually is no standard authoritative list of these attributes given that these attributes are commonly contemplated by those of differing religions and philosophical predilections who don’t regularly engage in dialog. That said, however, there is most certainly a very solid and common core of such attributes owing to the philosophical heritage held in common by the world’s monotheistic religions. Often such lists are built around a handy number, such as seven in the case of Christianity or Judaism, but I have found it practical to work with ten attributes divided into three groups. The first group consists of three attributes: aseity, singularity, sapience. These are arrived at via logical observation requiring no prior presumption other than that existence has a first cause or Prime Mover. Therefore I call them the primary attributes. The second group relies heavily on the idea that for the first cause to be the first cause, it cannot be affected by anything else, so I call them the ordinal attributes. They are: simplicity, immutability, and impassibility. The final group takes into account the first two groups, and deals with God’s infinite nature. I call them the omni attributes. These are the attributes that armchair philosophers of religion tend to be the most familiar with. They are: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. I will generally treat these attributes in the order mentioned previously. Finally, this essay defines God as the Prime Mover, or the Supreme Being, and as such, should be considered a part of the cosmological argument. So with this introduction stated, I will just move into a simple listing of each attribute and the description of how the attribute is derived.

Primary Attributes

Aseity: the attribute of aseity simple means that the entity in question exists a se, or exists in itself. That is, it does not derive its existence from anything else. It stands to reason that since we are here, SOMETHING simply has to be able to be here. Many postulate that the universe simply exists a se, but this is impossible, as the universe is a composite that derives its existence from that which composes it. More on that when discussing divine simplicity. Others maintain that a never-ending chain of causation exists, therefore there is no need for anything to exist a se. However, if such were the case, the infinite chain of causation would exist a se. So even if one advocates for infinite regress of causation, the is no avoiding the fact that since we exist, something must simply be able to exist without deriving its existence from something else. In theology, we call that thing God. That is, we identify one thing that simply exists, upon which all contingent beings derive their existence. This is in fact the only reasonable conclusion if one admits the absurdity of an infinite and beginningless causal chain. Either everything just exists, which we know to be false because everything we see derives its existence from something else, or something just exists that causes the various contingent beings to exist. The latter is the only logical conclusion. Defining God as the Prime Mover requires that God possess this attribute.

Singularity: So there are a few different ways to arrive at this. The simplest and easiest to explain assumes the presence of the attribute of omnipotence. However, I stated that these primary attributes do not assume the truth of the attributes in the other groups, so I will offer additional explanation. For clarity’s sake, though, I’ll start from an assumption that God is omnipotent. Omnipotence means having all power, or having power over everything. Obviously there cannot be two beings that have power over everything. At most, each would have power over everything except the other. Having power over everything except one thing doesn’t qualify as omnipotence. Imagine two guys yelling to each other, “I have power over everything!” Obviously they don’t have power over each other, else one would have made the other shut up. So there can be only one omnipotent being. Further, though, there can be only one Prime Mover. The Prime Mover is the first cause, the thing that caused everything else. Again, if there were two such causes, at most each would be the cause of everything except the other thing that caused everything. So not only can there be only one omnipotent being, but there can be only one first cause or Prime Mover. Finally, there can be only one Supreme Being. The Supreme Being is something that is greater than all other things. So if we organize everything from the least to the greatest, we will be creating a chain of all things from least to greatest. At the one end of the chain there will be the one thing that is lesser than everything else, and at the other end there will be the one thing that is greater than everything else. If there are two such things, then first, they must be absolutely identical, and second, neither would be the greatest. At best they would be greater than everything except the other thing that is greater than everything. So there can be only one omnipotent being, one first cause, and one Supreme Being. Now it should be noted that this singularity does not prevent the Supreme Being from having many attributes or manifestations. More will be said about this when discussing simplicity below.

Sapience: I’m using this term as a general equivalence to being alive or conscious, specifically with reference to having will or desire. For substantiation, we make the initial observation that things do things because they are forced to do those things, or not because they are forced to do those things. All inanimate things that do things do these things because they are forced to do them by nature of what they are. They don’t have any choice. The first cause cannot have been forced to cause anything because at the cause of the first effect, there was nothing present other than the first cause that could force the first cause to cause anything. So, a cause either has the choice to cause or not to cause something, or it doesn’t have a choice to cause or not to cause. All inanimate things do not have a choice to cause or not to cause. Inanimate causes only produce effects because they must. In other words, there was nothing around to force the first cause to cause anything, so then the first cause would not have caused anything unless it wanted to cause something. Volition requires sapience. Only sapient beings have volition. Therefore the first cause is sapient.

Ordinal Attributes

The ordinal attributes assume that if God is the Prime Mover or the first cause, then nothing can cause God. It should be noted at this point that causation has both a generative and formative component. That is, when a cause produces an effect, it not only causes the effect to be, but it causes the effect to be what it is, or to be the way it is. Therefore these attributes don’t so much point out that God cannot be created by anything, but are really more about the idea that God cannot be altered by anything.

Simplicity: The first of these attributes is probably the most misunderstood and misused in theology. The key to understanding divine simplicity, and to pondering it in a profitable way, is to approach the subject very conservatively. If one allows simplicity to state merely what it states without inadvertently applying numerous derivative interpretations, the attribute is quite logical and straightforward. Failing to do so very frequently invites numerous logical traps that result in contradiction. So then stated, the first cause must be simple, that is, the first cause cannot be a composite of parts that make it what it is. If a being has parts, those parts determine what it is, and therefore they cause it to be what it is, so then the first cause is not really the first cause. The being in question would not be the first cause, but its parts would be the first causes, and as determined above, there cannot be more than one first cause. So then its parts would simply be causes, one of them possibly being the first cause, but in any case, the being in question would simply be just another being existing within reality, just another link in the chain of causation. However, it is important to understand that an attribute or an expression is not a part. A part, as we understand it here, is a component element that causes a thing to be what it is. A being with many attributes or expressions is not caused to be what it is by those attributes or expressions. Those attributes are merely descriptions of the way the being is. They don’t cause the being to be what it is. The being causes the properties that are described by the attributes. Many have taken divine simplicity to mean that God must be in every way indivisible. However, God can be divided into merciful and just, for example. A being that is utterly indivisible is utterly unable to be contemplated. This overreaching understanding of simplicity has been used to disqualify Christianity as monotheism because Christianity holds that God has three means of recognition: the persons of the Trinity. Some say that these persons are parts. However, these persons are descriptions of God, so they are not components that make God what he is. If God cannot be recognized by three persons such as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then he also cannot be recognized by three characteristics such as love, mercy, and justice. If that were the meaning of simplicity, then simplicity would prevent God from being recognizable at all. This is not the position of any religion. The fundamental point of describing God as simple is to establish that he is not caused, and particularly that he is unaltered. But if simplicity causes so much confusion, why do we have it? What is its importance? There are two benefits of retaining this doctrine that I have identified. First, many simply pose the question, how do we know the universe doesn’t exist a se? Why can’t we just call the universe the Prime Mover? Well, the universe is clearly composite, and it is caused to be what it is by its constituent elements. It’s just not accurate to call the universe the Prime Mover because it is very clearly caused by everything that exists within it in addition to whatever started it. Further, simplicity is very helpful to establish the Prime Mover, what we are calling God, as something absolutely unlike anything that we have seen. We have no observational experience with any simple being. Even a quark is not truly simple, as it exists within time and space and therefore is caused to be what it is by time and space insofar as time and space enable it to have the attributes that it has. The universe cannot be the uncaused cause, and a quark cannot be the uncaused cause. In fact, nothing that even remotely resembles anything that we see can be the uncaused cause, as nothing in our universe, and indeed the universe itself, is truly simple. Therefore the attribute of simplicity helps to establish God as beyond the universe and material existence. He is not some dude sitting on a cloud with a quiver of thunderbolts. He is the primordial simplicity that derives all things.

Immutability: This is another attribute that is frequently misunderstood or misused. Many have said that God cannot actually do anything because to do something would be a change in God. If all of the ordinal attributes speak fundamentally about the inability to alter God, immutability is the most flatly direct statement of this. One also hears people say that God cannot treat anyone differently, as God would be changing his behavior. However, immutability simply means that nothing can change God. God can change his activities, but he cannot be forced to make any change by anything exterior to himself. If that were the case, then whatever changes God would actually cause God to be what he is, so then God would not be uncaused, and would not be the Prime Mover. Like simplicity above, it is important to understand that this attribute specifically seeks to say that God cannot be changed by any thing, but it does not require that the concept of change to be divorced from God altogether. To do so would make any interaction with God meaningless. God can be pleased with Abel’s sacrifice and then be displeased with Cain’s sacrifice. This difference of treatment, a change of sorts, in no way touches upon God’s immutability. There is nothing that can change God from being pleased with Abel’s sacrifice. If that were the case, then whatever changed him would cause him, and he would no longer be the Prime Mover. God can, however, do different things at different times, treat different situations differently, etc.

Impassibility: The example of God’s pleasure at Abel’s sacrifice brings us to the last of the three ordinal attributes, as impassibility is merely a particular expression of immutability. To understand it, one must understand the concepts of passion and suffering. These two words are related concepts that hearken to the same Greek root. Originally, the idea of suffering was merely to experience something by surprise. It then diversified to the idea of being overcome by an experience – a passion. Then further, it came to mean the experiencing of something unpleasant – suffering. It’s from this relation of concepts that we have the term “passion of Christ”. It really means the “suffering of Christ”. The attribute of impassibility, that God does not suffer, should only be understood to mean that God is not surprised by anything, and particularly that God is not overcome by any experience. God can indeed experience the unpleasant. How many times in the words of the prophets does God say, ‘come on guys. You’re breaking my heart. You’re pissing me off.”? To say that God does not feel, or experience, or suffer misery or displeasure is to utterly betray practically every page of scripture, for those interested in the bible, and in a general sense makes God into some kind of lobotomized being from the planet Vulcan. This notion is wholly incompatible with the idea that divinity is revealed by a crucifixion. To say that God is impassible does not say that God does not experience. It merely says that God is not surprised by that experience, and God is not controlled or altered by that experience. God can only experience that which he creates. There can be nothing except what was caused by the first cause. If there were something out there that God was unaware of, that he experienced, that produced an effect on him that he was unable to resist, then he would not be the first cause. He would be caused to be what he is by that experience. This sense and only this sense apples to impassibility.

Omni Attributes

These “omni” attributes are quite often passed around the internet as an off-hand description of what is meant by God in monotheism, but they should really only be considered after the above six attributes, as they are heavily derivative from them.

Omniscience: If God is sapient, then God must be able to know things. Knowledge is defined as cognition of experience. Further, if God is impassible, that is, if God is unable to be surprised or altered by experience, then God must already know everything that he experiences, and in fact he must know everything that is able to be experienced. Therefore, God must be omniscient. For those interested in the bible, I point out that this attribute does not contradict any statement of scripture. Many would say that because God asked Adam where he was in the Garden of Eden, scripture depicts God as not being omniscient. However, often these questions are rhetorical questions with God already knowing the answer, but further, the statements pertaining to God in scripture are always referring to whatever person (means of recognition) of God that they are dealing with. That is, just because a particular means of recognition might not know something at the particular manifestation of that means of recognition during the particular event described by scripture does not mean that God in his absolute and ineffable self does not know the thing. Other means of recognition most certainly do know the thing. That is, on the one hand, God walking around in the Garden of Eden may have known where Adam was and have just been asking as a way to get Adam’s attention. But even if God as recognized by a supernal being walking around in the Garden of Eden truly did not know where God was, this does not prevent God as recognized as an omnipresent spirit from knowing where Adam was. In short, a lack of omniscience displayed in some particular context by some particular manifestation or means of recognition of God does not mean that God is not omniscient. God appears in ways that are recognizable to us, in ways that we can relate to. All of the encounters with God in scripture are variously limitations of and analogs to God as he is to himself. This does not mean that the encounters and descriptions must be explained away as inaccurate. It simply means that, as explained above, the immutable God does appear differently in different contexts to convey different things.

Omnipotence: If God is not alterable by anything, God must have the power to not be altered by anything. This itself means that God at the very least has more power than anything else. But further, God as the cause of all things, meaning the definer as well as creator of all things, must have the power to do so. Therefore, God must have all power that there is. This meets the definition of omnipotence. There is, however, a distinction to be made between having all power the power that there is, and infinite power. Deriving from the attributes above, it is necessary that God has all power, and is therefore omnipotent. However, to ascertain whether God’s power is infinite, we turn to observation and probability. At the outset, we can observe that as the immutable first cause, there is nothing present that can limit God’s power. So God is, and God is unlimited. This makes a strong case for infinite. Further, when we observe our universe, we note that the greater detail with which we observe anything, we observe greater intricacy. We tend not to observe things getting simpler as we scrutinize them in greater detail. We often observe them getting more complex! As mentioned above, a truly simple thing has never been observed. This leads one to infer that the probability that creation itself is infinitely complex is rather high. So then, the lack of limitation imposed on the Prime Mover as well as the seemingly unending complexity of observed reality makes a strong case that “all knowledge” and “all power” is synonymous with “infinite knowledge” and “infinite power”.

Omnipresence: A body is, according to Aristotle, that which is bounded by planes, or that which possesses a surface. This correlates quite closely to the notion that an embodied thing is something which exists locally in time and space. All local entities are limited by their perspective, and their experience is filtered by that perspective. Because their experience is limited to particular character and distinguished from the entities themselves, they are unable to know everything that they will experience, and they are in fact surprised by their experiences, and as a result, their experiences define them and cause them to be what they are. This violates the many assertions that must be true of the Prime Mover that have been described above. God cannot be caused by anything, so cannot be defined by any experience he has, so he cannot be surprised. He therefore cannot be confined to any one locality of time or space. He must be everywhere. This is what we call omnipresence.

Omnibenevolence: It looks like I will end this essay with a bit of mystery. Not that omnibenevolence is particularly complex or baffling, but to know what omnibenevolence is, you have to know what benevolence is, and you have to know a huge number of concepts that I really don’t have place to explain here, and shockingly, people tend not to understand. Further, an assertion that God is good begs for an explanation of the existence of evil. In short, love is the dedication to the other above the self, and good is when a system functions with all elements in harmony, that is, when all elements love each other. Omnibenevolence fundamentally says that God is all good and all loving. The substantiation of this assertion is manifold. First, the creation has never spontaneously stopped because God wasn’t in the mood to keep everything together. He has been utterly and unwaveringly devoted to the existence of the creation since he created it. That’s a lot of love. Second, an omniscient being would know that good works, while evil (lack of good, lack of harmony) doesn’t. Being good would simply be a matter of pragmatism for an omniscient being. It actually stands to reason that a sapient being that didn’t want to be good would have at some point decided to break himself down, and with that, creation would have gone the way of the dodo. A being that did not want to be good wouldn’t have wanted to create anything that worked in the first place. Finally, the lack of limitation that can be placed on the immutable God indicates a lack of limitation on his goodness. All of these indicators indicate that God is indeed omnibenevolent. So then, as has been postulated by philosophers from Epicurus to Hume: when then is evil? Our world does contain evil, and many have addressed the existence to evil, including myself in my essay “the Solution of Evil”. Because these answers are elsewhere, I cannot fully explain why an omnibenevolent being has exposed us to evil. In short, this can only be the case if the evil to which we are exposed in this life and in this world serves a good purpose in some sort of a system that extends beyond this life and this world. In other words, God is necessarily good, and this necessitates that there is more than this life and this world. An omnibenevolent being cannot simply create a world like this and only a world like this, where everything breaks down and becomes nothing. This world must simply be a piece of a greater whole from which it largely walled off. And so with that, we’ve essentially concluded the existence of an afterlife, of a heaven and/or a world to come, and many such related things. These things are not the purview of this essay, and so for this reading they shall leave us with a bit of mystery.

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