How Do We Understand God and His Attributes?
By Vern S. Poythress

A lot of Bible readers may be puzzled hear that there is a debate in the academic world about the attributes of God, that is, about the characteristics that belong to Him. “What?” they say. “Why would there be a problem? We already know God. We know because the Bible tells us.”

Knowing God

Yes, we do know. Here are some verses:

Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 7:12; all quotations are from the ESV)

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17)

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

We can add more verses. The character and attributes of God were already made known in the Old Testament. When Jesus Christ came, He gave us the climactic revelation about God:

All things have been handed over to me [Jesus Christ] by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:27)

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. …. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

So why would there be any debate among Christ’s followers about who God is?


When people try to probe more deeply with questions about God, difficulties can come to the surface. Let us consider some of them.

1. God is infinite. God is mysterious. Yet we say that we know Him, that we know who He is. Do we know quite what we are saying? How deeply do we in fact know Him

2. God is Trinitarian. God is three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Do we understand this reality? Do we understand it completely? The people who claim to understand it completely are heretics. All of them produce a distorted view of God, because they try to put their own minds on the same level as God and make Him conform to the limits of their own conceptions. Humility is necessary.

There are difficulties also that can arise in considering particular attributes or characteristics of God.

3. God is unchangeable (Psalms 102:25-27). How can He remain completely the same and also do distinct things at distinct times? He brings the people of Israel out of Egypt and later causes them to conquer Jericho. How can He hear and respond to our prayers?

4. God is independent of the world (Acts 17:25). How can He be independent and yet make the world and interact with it?

5. How can the Bible say that God was “angry” (Deuteronomy 4:21) or that He “regretted” (1 Samuel 15:35; Genesis 6:6), or that He was “grieved” (verse 6)? Are not such things unworthy of God’s greatness?

These difficulties are challenges.

Living with Mysteries

We find one aid from the Bible in its exhortation to humble ourselves before God, to stand in awe of Him. When God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, one of the products is humility. Many Christian believers become content to live with mysteries. Content with the mysteries, they can give simple answers to the four difficulties above.

1. For God to be infinite means that He is not limited. Therefore, He can make himself known. And He does.

2. God makes it known in the Bible that He is one God and three persons. We accept it.

3. Because God is unchangeable, He is always able to act in harmony with His unchangeable character.

4. Because God is independent, because He is all-sufficient, He has the sufficiency of being able to act in the world. He does not “need” anything but Himself in order to act.

5. Descriptions of God show what He does by analogy with what happens with human beings. But in these descriptions God is not subject to the limitations that we may find with human beings.

None of these answers dissolve the mysteries. The answers mainly reaffirm that God is God. Because He is God, He is able to be and do all the things that the Bible says about Him. We do not understand completely. But we can trust God about the things that we do not understand completely.

Analogies with Human Beings

When we study the Bible in more detail, we may note specific ways in which the Bible describes God. In the Bible God uses language about Himself that also, in other contexts, can describe human nature and human activities. One example of this kind of things is found in difficulty No. 5 above. It concerns language about anger, regret, and grieving. Such language aptly applies to human beings. But does it apply to God?

Let us begin with something not quite as difficult.

God loves us in Christ. The word love is a word that can also be used for human love. In fact, the first and second great commandments both require us who are human beings to love.

The more we understand the depths of who God is, the more we will be stirred up to praise Him.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

Our love is not infinite like God’s love. But when the Holy Spirit empowers us, we can genuinely love. Our love reflects God’s love. In fact, God’s love empowers us to love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The Bible also says that God speaks (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, etc.; Psalms 33:6). “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). As human beings, we can speak too. And we do. Our speaking is not all-powerful, like God’s. Our speaking is not the ultimate standard for truth. But our speech, when it is truthful and upright, does imitate God’s ability to speak. According to Genesis 2:19-20, Adam gave names to the animals. Naming is a kind of speaking. The background for Adam’s work is the work of God in Genesis 1. God gave names to the light and the darkness (Genesis 1:5) and to other things that He made (verses 8 and 10). When Adam gave names to the animals, he was reflecting God’s ability to name things.

One key verse in Genesis 1-2 is found in 1:26:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness ….

Man is like God in any number of ways. But it is also clear in Genesis 1-2 that God is the sole Creator and absolute ruler. Man is not. Man is a creature. We see both similarities and dissimilarities when we compare God and man.

This principle helps us when we deal with difficulties No. 1-5, listed above. We can use the analogies that God gives us in comparing Himself to human beings. At the same time, we know that each analogy is limited, because God is not a human being. Numbers 23:19 says:

God is not man, that he should lie,

  or a son of man, that he should change his mind.

Using Analogy to Deal with Difficulties

We can explore whether the analogies between God and man help us with the difficulties.

1. How do we know God who is infinite, while we are finite?

We are made in His image. So we think about Him in a way that reflects His knowledge of Himself. The reflection is on a finite level, but still true.

2. God is Trinitarian. He is one and three.

By analogy, the human race is one race, with many persons. This analogy is inadequate, because human persons can be separated from each other, while the three persons of the Trinity share one divine nature. Each is God. They can be distinguished from each other, but not separated.

3. God is unchangeable. How does He act?

Let us consider an analogy. A human being who is mature does not change much in his character. Precisely because of who he is, in his character, he will act according to his relatively unchanging character. A truthful man will speak the truth.

The analogy is not perfect, but it can help us by illustrating how a kind of stability or unchanging character actually supports diversity in actions in the world.

4. God is independent of the world. How can He make the world?

Among human beings, the person who is most secure and most mature is best able to act in a way not dependent on many things around him. An adult acts with more effectiveness than a young child who is still dependent on his parents. This is an imperfect analogy but still helpful. God is completely independent, and so also completely competent to act as He pleases.

5. How can the Bible say that God was “angry,” or that He “regretted,” or that He was “grieved”?
Let us consider the comparison with human anger. Human anger is frequently unrighteous anger. Someone is enraged because of a personal affront, and perhaps he lashes out by hitting the person who insulted him. The enraged person is out of control.

Now God is not out of control. Nor is His anger ever unrighteous anger, because He is perfectly righteous. Even among human beings, there is such a thing as righteous anger. If our souls are righteous, it is also fitting that we react with anger to unrighteousness. The anger of a righteous person is in harmony with his righteousness. If he were not angry in response to unrighteousness, it would be a defect. This analogy is not perfect, but it helps us understand how God’s anger can be analogous to human anger. The Bible’s language describing God is fully appropriate. We must only remember the additional principle, that “God is not man” (Numbers 23:19). His character and His activity are not on the same level as human character and human activity. There is always mystery for us.

Analogy in the Use of Words

The examples about analogy also show us something about how God crafted language and crafted words when He gave us language. Words can be used in more than one context. And the context colors the force of the words. For example, consider the word love. When we say that God loves us, we should not think that God is exactly like a human being who loves us. Human love would still be a finite love. God’s love is infinite love. It is love on the level of the Creator. But still, because we are made in the image of God, God’s love is genuinely analogous to human love. We may say that our human love reflects the reality of God’s love. God’s love is the original love. Ours is the finite copy. A copy shows things about the original. But the copy is still distinct from the original. The two kinds of uses of the word love are not on the same level.

The Trinity

The ultimate source for every human language is the Trinity. God is the source of everything, including all the languages of the world. God is the original speaker. We saw this originality of God illustrated in Genesis 1. But John 1:1 shows us something even deeper than the speaking of God to create the world:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1 makes it clear that this eternal Word has come into the world. He “became flesh” (verse 14). He is Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. He always remains in relation to God the Father (verse 18).

John 1:1 indicates that there is an eternal speaking. God the Father speaks the Word eternally, even “in the beginning,” before He created the world. All human ability to speak imitates this original divine pattern.

We are touching here on the biblical teaching on the Trinity. The Trinity is mysterious. It is the ultimate mystery. But still it helps us to see that it is the ultimate basis and origin for the subordinate mysteries that we have considered.

For example, we have appealed to the biblical teaching about man being in the image of God. But there already existed an image, even before God made Adam:

He [the Son] is the image of the invisible God. …. (Colossians 1:15)

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. …. (Hebrews 1:3).

The second person of the Trinity, the Word, is also the eternal image of God.

So there is a pattern in God, from the beginning, to explain how it can be that man was made in the image of God. This pattern within God also is the foundation for the distinction between God and man. God is God, while man is the image of God, distinct from God. This distinction has its basis in the original pattern in God. The Son, who is the image, is distinct from God the Father, whose image He is.

Is this mysterious? Of course it is. But observing the pattern in the Trinity actually helps us understand that we will never dissolve all the mysteries in involved in man’s relation to God. Mankind can know God, in imitation of the fact that the Son knows the Father (Matthew 11:27). Mankind can hear God speak about Himself, in intelligible language, in imitation of God’s eternal speaking in the Word.


The more we understand the depths of who God is, the more we will be stirred up to praise Him.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,

    or who has been his counselor?”

“Or who has given a gift to him

    that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

Vern S. Poythress is a distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for 44 years. His book “The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God” (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2020) was published recently.

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