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How are we to conceive of and classify the attributes of God?

(1)       The Lutheran model

According to Francis Pieper, Lutherans opt for one of two approaches: (1) quiescent and operative attributes or (2) negative and positive attributes. "Those who have employed the first classification define as quiescent those attributes in which no effect upon, and no relation to, the world is implied, but which are conceived as remaining within the Godhead and being apart from the world, such as eternity, simplicity, infinity" (I:435). Operative attributes is the term for all those divine attributes which denote an operation on, or a relation to, this world, such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, justice, mercy" (ibid.). Negative attributes include "unity, simplicity, immutability, infinity, immensity, eternity," in other words, the imperfections of creatures cannot be ascribed to God. All those attributes found in man but which are ascribed to God in higher degree or in an absolute sense are known as positive attributes such as life, knowledge, wisdom, holiness, righteousness, truth, power, love, goodness, grace, mercy. Pieper's own list thus appears as follows:

Negative Positive
Unity Life
Simplicity Knowledge
Immutability Wisdom
Infinity  Will
Omnipresence  Holiness
Eternity  Justice

(2)       Arminian-Wesleyan

H. Orton Wiley (Christian Theology [Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1940], I:320-92) uses a three-fold classification: (1) the absolute attributes are those which belong to God apart from his creative work, such as spirituality, infinity, eternity, immensity, immutability, perfection; (2) the relative attributes are those arising from the relation between Creator and creature and require the existence of the creation itself: omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, wisdom, goodness; and (3) the moral attributes which are proper to the relation between God and the moral beings under his government: holiness, love, justice, righteousness, truth, grace.

Thomas Oden (The Living God [San Francisco: Harper, 1987], I:50-51) classifies the attributes in terms of primary ("those attributes that belong to God's essence apart from God's creative work"), relational ("those that arise necessarily out of the relation of God with the created order"), interpersonal ("those that arise out of personal and interpersonal analogies, inasmuch as the revelation of God is personal, and human beings, the recipients of revelation, are persons"), and moral ("those that arise necessarily out of the relation of personal beings capable of goodness and moral activity").

Primary attributes - Aseity, Independence, Necessity, Oneness, Simplicity, Immensity, Eternality, Incomparable Aliveness


Relational attributes - Omnipresence, Omniscience, Prescience, Foreknowledge, Wisdom, Omnipotence


Interpersonal attributes - Divine Selfhood, Personal Agency, All-Experiencing One, Congruent in Feeling, Sensibility, Emotivity, Affection, Spirituality, Invisibility, Freedom, Will


Moral attributes - Moral Purity, Holiness, Righteousness, Justice, Benevolence, Integrity, Congruence, Veracity, Faithfulness, Persistence, Love, Grace, Mercy, Forbearance

(3)       Reformed

Ronald Nash argues that an "essential" or "necessary" attribute is one that God could not lose and continue to be God. "Many of the predicates applied to God denote not attributes or essential properties of God but nonessential properties that relate God to His creatures. Relational properties like 'creator', 'ruler', and 'preserver' do not denote divine attributes. A property like 'being Lord of Israel' is likewise a nonessential property. It is logically possible that God might not have had this property. He might never have created Israel, or Israel might never have accepted Yahweh as its God. Being Lord of Israel is not essential to the being of God" (Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God [Zondervan, 1983], 16).

Most refer to the incommunicable and communicable attributes of God. The former are those to which there is nothing analogous in the creature. The latter are those to which the properties of humanity bear some analogy. Yet, as A. A. Hodge notes, in a certain sense all God's attributes are communicable:

"God is infinite in his relation to space and time; we are finite in our relation to both. But he is no less infinite as to his knowledge, will, goodness, and righteousness in all their modes, and we are finite in all these respects. All God's attributes known to us, or conceivable by us, are communicable, inasmuch as they have their analogy in us, but they are all alike incommunicable, inasmuch as they are all infinite" (Outlines of Theology [London: Banner of Truth, 1972], 137).

Here is Louis Berkhof's (Systematic Theology) list:

Incommunicable  Communicable 
Self-existence Spirituality
Immutability Intellectual Attributes
Infinity Knowledge
Perfection Wisdom
Eternity Veracity
Immensity Moral Attributes
Unity Goodness
  General benevolence
  Attributes of Sovereignty
  Sovereign will
  Sovereign power

Millard Erickson (Christian Theology) refers to attributes of Greatness and attributes of Goodness.

Greatness Goodness
Spirituality Moral Purity
Personality Holiness
Life (self-existence) Righteousness
Infinity Justice
Immensity/omnipresence Integrity
In relation to time Genuineness
Omniscience/wisdom Veracity
Omnipotence Faithfulness
Constancy (immutability) Love