What Is the Nature of God?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg / Dr. John Weldon; ©2005
God is not some unknowable, impersonal divine essence, such that our own personalities ultimately become an illusion. Nor does “He” or “It” or “She” manifest through our alleged “higher consciousness” so that God and our true self are one. In this article, the authors explore the doctrine of the Trinity, and list some of the attributes of God revealed in the Bible.

What Is the Nature of God?

God is not some unknowable, impersonal divine essence, such that our own personalities ultimately become an illusion. Nor does “He” or “It” or “She” mani­fest through our alleged “higher consciousness” so that God and our true self are one. God is not the universe itself nor is the universe His body (pantheism, panentheism). God is not the originator of all religions (syncretism) or an eter­nally hidden deity who is perpetually unknowable, unapproachable and indescrib­able (mysticism). God is not unipersonal or monistic.

One God in Three Persons—the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Trinity is not a symbol of various religious, metaphysical or psychological concepts, nor is the Trinity tritheistic (three gods) or exist in three different modes or aspects (modalism). The doctrine of the Trinity was never derived from ancient pagan religions. In fact, the only rational explanation of the Trinity is divine rev­elation.

Among all religions that have ever existed, the Christian concept of God is entirely unique, for in the totality of religious history, there is only one concept of an infinite-personal triune God. While every religion fits one of the preceding (or related) descriptions, no other religion has a Trinity. Divine revelation accounts for our knowledge of the Trinity. Indeed, the biblical concept of the Trinity is at once so unexpected and complex, and yet so practical, that it could never have been invented by men in its biblical formula. For example, only the existence of the biblical Trinity logically explains the unity and diversity in creation. Only it explains both the human personality and the many triune manifestations in na­ture (man as body, soul, spirit; space as height, width, length; time as past, present, future; matter as energy, motion, phenomena; family as man, woman, offspring; and so on). (See also Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent.)

In the following material we will document that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity and therefore no other concept of God. It is important to note here that the Bible teaches both monotheism and trinitarianism. It teaches a monothe­istic view—that there is only one true God—and a trinitarian view—that this one true God exists eternally as three Persons. This “triunity” of God was defended from earliest times as Christian theologians and apologists carefully safeguarded both the unity of God against tritheism and maintained the respective deity of the three Persons of the Godhead. As Gregory of Nyssa stated in his letter to Ablabius, “To say that there are three gods is wicked. Not to bear witness to the deity of the Son and the Spirit is ungodly and absurd. Therefore one God must be confessed by us according to the witness of Scripture, ‘Hear Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord’ (Deut. 6:4), even if the word ‘deity’ extends through the holy trinity.”[1]

There Is Only One True God

The Bible does not teach any form of tritheism or polytheism, as in the Mor­mon faith, but that there is only one true God from all eternity. As Jesus taught: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:5).

The following scriptures prove there is only one God:

… the only true God… (John 17:3)
there is no God but one (1 Corinthians 8:4)
there is but one God, … (1 Corinthians 8:6)
For there is one God… (1 Timothy 2:5)
This is what the LORD says… “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6)
I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God (Isaiah 45:5)
I am the LORD, and there is no other (Isaiah 45:6)
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me (Isaiah 46:9)

God Is a Trinity or Triune

Simultaneously, this one true God has revealed that He is three Persons, or centers of consciousness, within one Godhead. Because the concept cannot be fully comprehended does not mean the doctrine is irrational or cannot be accu­rately defined. A good definition of the Trinity is provided by noted church histo­rian Philip Schaff:

God is one in three persons or hypostases [distinct persons of the same nature], each person expressing the whole fullness of the Godhead, with all his attributes. The term persona is taken neither in the old sense of a mere personation or form of manifestation (prosopon, face, mask), nor in the modern sense of an independent, separate being or individual, but in a sense which lies between these two conceptions, and thus avoids Sabellianism on the one hand, and Tritheism on the other. [Sabellianism taught that God was one person only who existed in three different forms or manifestations; tritheism refers to a belief in three separate gods.] The divine persons are in one another, and form a perpetual intercommunication and motion within the divine essence. Each person has all the divine attributes which are inherent in the divine essence, but each has also a characteristic individuality or property, which is peculiar to the person, and can not be communicated; the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten, the Holy Ghost is proceeding. In this Trinity there is no priority or posteriority of time, no superiority or inferiority of rank, but the three persons are co-eternal and coequal.[2]

The biblical doctrine of the Trinity is vital to understand because it concerns who God is, which is essential for having a proper realization of the nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To understand the Trinity is to understand God as He has revealed Himself to be. To misunderstand the Trinity is to fail to understand who God is.

This is important because if we are to worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24), as Jesus commanded, we must know and worship the one true God as He really is. To fail to do this is to fail to know and worship God, and this cannot bring Him glory. Thus, those who reject the Trinity, by definition, deny the nature of God. Without a biblical theological formulation about God, heretical views arise. This in turn can lead to rejection of the one true God and the worship of a false God. And if the Bible is clear on anything, it is clear that faith in a false God cannot save people from their sins. Jesus Himself emphasized the importance of having an accurate knowledge of God when He said, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

In his Christian Theology, Christian theologian Millard J. Erickson offers six points that must be included in a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity (the following is the authors’ paraphrase of Erickson’s points):

1. There is only one God
2. Each Person in the Godhead is equally deity.
3. The threeness and oneness of God constitute a paradox or an antinomy—merely an apparent contradiction, not a genuine one. This is because God’s threeness and oneness do not exist in the same respect; that is, they are not simultaneously affirming and denying the same thing at the same time and in the same manner. God’s oneness refers to the divine essence; His threeness to the plurality of persons.
4. The Trinity is eternal—there have always been three Persons, each of whom is eternally divine. One or more of the Persons did not come into being at a point in time or at some point in time became divine. There has never been any change in the essential divine nature of the triune God. God is, and God will be what God has always been forever.
5. The function of one member in the Trinity may for a time be subordinate to one or both of the other members, although this does not mean that that member is in any way inferior in essence to the others. Each Person of the Trinity has had, for a period of time, a particular function unique to Himself. In other words, the particular function that is sometimes unique to a given Person in the
Trinity is only a temporary role exercised for a given purpose. It does not repre­sent a change in His status or essence. When the second Person of the Trinity incarnated and became Jesus Christ, He did not become less than the Father in essence, although He did become subordinate to the Father functionally. In like manner, the Holy Spirit is now subordinated to the ministry of the Son (John 14-16) and to the will of the Father, but He is not less than they are. Certain examples may illustrate this. A wife may have a subordinate role to a husband, but she is also his equal. Equals in some business enterprise may elect one of their number to serve as head or a chairperson for a period, with­out any change in rank. During World War II, the highest ranking member of an aircraft, the pilot, would nevertheless carefully subordinate his decisions to the bombardier, a lower ranking officer.
6. Finally, the Trinity is incomprehensible. Even when we are in heaven and fully redeemed, we will still not totally comprehend God, because it is impossible that a finite creature could ever comprehend an infinite being. Thus, “Those aspects of God which we never fully comprehend should be regarded as mysteries that go beyond our reason rather than as paradoxes which conflict with reason.[3]

Prior knowledge of the Trinity, especially in its theological formulation, is not necessary for a person to be saved. But once saved, it is vital for Christians to know the true nature of the God who has so graciously pardoned them. This explains why the Church has always recognized the importance of a proper understanding of God and maintained that those who reject the scriptural view of God, as long as they do so, cannot be saved. Consider Dr. Schaff’s comments about the Athanasian Creed:

[It] begins and ends with the solemn declaration that the catholic [universal] faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation is the indispensable condition of salvation, and that those who reject it will be lost forever. This anathema [divine curse], in its natural historical sense, is not merely a solemn warning against the great danger of heresy, nor, on the other hand, does it demand, as a condition of salvation, a full knowledge, and assent to, the logical statement of the doctrines set forth (this would condemn the great mass even of Christian believers); but it does mean to exclude from heaven all who reject the divine truth therein taught. It requires everyone who would be saved to believe in the only true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one in essence, three in persons, and in one Jesus Christ, very God and very man in one person.[4]

As Vladimir Lossky once put it boldly, “Between the Trinity and Hell there lies no other choice.”[5] Only personal bias or ignorance can explain cultic attempts to deny the biblical Trinity. It is significant that even some Unitarians who reject the Trinity still confess it is a biblical teaching based on “its obvious sense, its natural meaning” as found in Scripture. These words of George E. Ellis, a nineteenth-century Unitarian leader, illustrate the biases of anti-trinitarian groups and liberals who refuse to accept the Trinity on personal, not biblical, grounds. Ellis con­fesses, “Only that kind of ingenious, special, discriminative, and in candor I must add, forced treatment, which it receives from us liberals can make the book teach anything but Orthodoxy.”[6] No less an authority than the great Princeton theolo­gian B. B. Warfield pointed out that the doctrine of the Trinity “is rather every­where presupposed” in Scripture.[7] This is, for example, clearly demonstrated in Edward Bickersteth’s fine work, The Trinity.

The Attributes of God

Although we cannot fully understand God, we still can know Him. We know Him through a personal relationship of faith and through a study of what the Bible teaches about His nature.

God may be described in terms of attributes. An attribute is an inherent characteristic of a person or being. While we cannot describe God in a comprehensive way, we can learn about Him by examining His attributes as revealed in the Bible.[8]

What follows is not a comprehensive list of the attributes of God, but it should serve well as a starting point for your own study:

God is:

Spirit (God does not have a physical body)— John 4:24: “For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”
One (A simple—not compound—being)—Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
Personal (He can be known; He can and does have relationships with people)—John 17:1–3: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son so he can give glory back to you. For you have given him authority over everyone in all the earth. He gives eternal life to each one you have given him. And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.’”
Trinitarian (While He is One, He is expressed in the “persons”—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Ghost).)—2 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.”
Omnipotent (All-powerful)— Jeremiah 32:17: “O Sovereign LORD! You have made the heavens and earth by your great power. Nothing is too hard for you!”
Omnipresence (Everywhere present)— Psalm 139:7-10: “I can never es­cape from your spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.”
Omniscience (All-knowing)— Psalm 139:1-4: “O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my every thought when far away. You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment you know where I am. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD.”
Transcendent (Distinct from the universe) — Acts 17:24-25: “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need there is.”
Immanent (God is near)— Deuteronomy 4:7: “For what great nation has a god as near to them as the LORD our God is near to us whenever we call on him?”
Incomparable/Incomprehensible—2 Samuel 7:22: “How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you—there is no other God. We have never even heard of another god like you!
Invisible (cf. Spirit)—John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. But his only Son, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart; he has told us about him.”
Inscrutable (Beyond human understanding)—Is. 40:28: “Have you never heard or understood? Don’t you know that the LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth? He never grows faint or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding.”
Immutable (Unchangeable)—Malachi 3:6: “I am the LORD, and I do not change”; James 1:17: “Whatever is good and perfect comes to us from God above, who created all heaven’s lights. Unlike them, he never changes or casts shifting shadows”; Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Unsearchable—Romans 11:33-34: “Oh, what a wonderful God we have! How great are his riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods! For who can know what the Lord is thinking? Who knows enough to be his counselor?”
Infinite (Without known limits)—1 Kings 8:27: “But will God really live on earth? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built!”
Eternal (Transcends time and temporal limitations)—Psalm 90:2, 4: “Before the mountains were created, before you made the earth and the world, you are God, without beginning or end,… For you, a thousand years are as yesterday! They are like a few hours!”; 2 Peter 3:8: “But you must not forget, dear friends, that a day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.”

In addition to the above list, the Bible also tells us that God is:

Good—Psalm 118:1: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.”
Holy (completely separate from evil, absolutely pure)— Psalm 5:4-6: “O God,you take no pleasure in wickedness; you cannot tolerate the slightest sin.
Therefore, the proud will not be allowed to stand in your presence, for you hate all who do evil.”
Righteous (morally perfect)—Zephaniah 3:5: “But the LORD is still there in the city, and he does no wrong. Day by day his justice is more evident, but no one takes notice—…”
True— Hebrews 6:18: “So God has given us both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can take new courage, for we can hold on to his promise with confidence.”
Loving—John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”[9]

NOTES

  1. “Gregory of Nyssa Ablabius,” in William G. Rusch, trans. and ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 149, 151-52.
  2. Philip Schaff, ed., rev. by David S. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes—Vol. 1: The History of the Creeds (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983). The Greek term was transliterated by the authors.
  3. ”Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986, one vol. edition), pp. 337-338.
  4. Schaff, ed., Creed, pp. 39-40.
  5. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (1957), p. 66.
  6. In E. Calvin Beisner, God in Three Persons (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1984), p. 25.
  7. Ibid., p. 26.
  8. Ronald F. Youngblood, general editor; F.F. Bruce and R.K. Harrison, consulting editors, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary [computer file], electronic edition of the revised edition of Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Logos Library System, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1997, c1995.
  9. Some portions of the above list are taken from Statement DA275 “The Attributes of God” from Christian Research Institute, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA.

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