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New City Catechism 2.2

Question 2: What is God?

Answer: God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through him and by his will.

The second sentence of the catechism’s answer lists a number of God’s attributes. Notice how the attributes “eternal,” “infinite,” and “unchangeable” are used as modifiers for all the others. God’s power and perfection are eternal, infinite, and unchangeable, as are goodness and glory, his wisdom, justice, and truth.

Theologians have long distinguished between what are called “incommunicable attributes” of God and “communicable attributes” of God. The incommunicable attributes are ways of describing God that are completely unique to him. They do not apply to creatures, and thus are “incommunicable,” or unable to be shared with us, or else we ourselves would be God. God alone is eternal, meaning that he is beyond time itself. Time is a difficult concept to define, but at minimum we can say that it is a way of experiencing reality that necessarily involves change. As one who is outside of time (eternal), God is above all the change and fluctuation that we know as creatures. God is also infinite, meaning he is without any limitation. As creatures, we are limited by definition. God is also unchangeable, or immutable, for if he were to change in any way, he would either get better or worse, but that is impossible for the One who is supreme over all. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

Communicable attributes, on the other hand, are ways of describing God that are, in some sense, able to be reflected in us because we are made in God’s image, and God created us to show forth something of his character. The catechism mentions God’s power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Although we cannot exemplify any of these characteristics in the same way that God does, there is some analogy in us to the divine reality for each one. For example, human beings are stewards of various levels of power in this world. We are called to deal justly with others. We are commanded to speak truth. In all these ways and many more, we have been created to reflect the character of God.

One final thought about God’s attributes: although we as creatures may possess a given attribute or lack a given attribute, God does not “possess” attributes, as though these attributes were things outside of him that he might or might not measure up to. On the contrary, God himself is the supreme standard for all that is love, all that is power, all that is wisdom, all that is goodness. God does not merely happen to be good. Goodness itself is defined in reference to him. This is because God is not composed of different attributes like so many parts. Each attribute simply is God, viewed from our creaturely perspective from a certain angle. This is known as the doctrine of God’s simplicity, and it is fundamental to the biblical teaching that God is absolutely supreme over all.

Suggested passage for family or personal reading: 1 Timothy 1:17. What does each word in this verse tell us about who God is? How should we respond to him?

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