Why Omni? The Attributes of the Infinite God

            Since God is a se or independent in his existence, perfect, simple, and infinite, then he must have all good attributes without measure and without weakness. These foundational doctrines of God’s nature form the foundation of the more familiar attributes such as omniscience and omnipresence. The omni—ness of God is the result of his perfection, infinity, and simplicity. Since God is without composition, then the divine nature is indivisible. Since God’s simple nature is infinite, then God is infinite in every way in which he might be described. Finally, God’s simple infinity is also perfect. Therefore, it is only logical to expect God to be omnipresent, omniscient, and omni benevolent. These “omnis” are present in everything God does because they describe everything that God is.

            Without the foundational doctrines of classical theism, the more well-known doctrines of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence can be misunderstood, reinterpreted, or even rejected. Modern theologies have demonstrated what happens when classical theism is rejected. The “omni” doctrines are questioned and redefined in such a way that God is no longer self-existent, omniscient, or omnipotent. The God of modern theism is often a God who has only communicable (shared) traits with the creatures, but this is not the God of Scripture.

What Sort of God Should We Expect?

Premodern and Modern Expectations

            Before the modern era, the doctrine of God began with the assumption of his simplicity, his infinity, and his perfection. Theologians would begin their study of God with these doctrines as foundational to the remaining study. During the Enlightenment, the study of the doctrine of God changed methodologically and the doctrine of God itself began to be downgraded. Beginning in the Enlightenment, scholars believed that all beings must be relational, experience life, and have a future goal in order to be real. God, to be considered real by post-Enlightenment theologians, must therefore experience, learn, and be moving toward a goal.

            With these presuppositions and practices, the traditional doctrine of God maintained by classical theism was modified or cast aside or forgotten. In the 1960s theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg sought to move beyond the traditional doctrine of divine transcendence so that human free will could be more firmly established. Pannenberg, for example, wrote “An existent being acting with omnipotence and omniscience would make freedom impossible.”[1] For these theologians, God’s eschatological purpose provided the framework for understanding all theology. This paradigm is nearly opposite to that practiced by all theologians before. Instead of beginning with the God who is the I AM, these theologians were on the trajectory to understand theology by what God will be with his creation. In this way, God must, above all, be relational and purpose driven.

            It seems that this modern theological methodology robs the theologian of God’s transcendent holiness. If one begins with experience and free will as the two grounding theological principles, then God’s nature will necessarily become more creaturely. This creatureliness will become necessary to theologian focused on free will and experience because the doctrine of God will be formulated on what the theologian has experienced and his ability to maintain his utter freedom before the God of Heaven.

            Previous theologians and those who practice classical theism, began with the nature of God as the starting point to studying God. This methodology is better suited to examine and highlight the transcendent holiness of God. This methodology is demonstrated when God proclaims his name (his nature) as “I AM” (Ex. 3:14-15). It seems that this methodology is also implied as God exists and then is able to speak the creation into existence by his Word. This classical methodology does not exclude what can be learned of God through human experience. He is, after all, the God who sees.  

God’s Self-Revelation

In the very beginning, Scripture begins with the God who makes everything that is made (Gen. 1:1). Since God was before creation, the question of what God was and is without creation must be pursued. The nature of God is implied by creation (Rom. 1:20). Aquinas argued that God’s existence and something of the nature of God can be discovered by use of natural theology.

Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called a priori, and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration a posteriori; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us. When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us[2]

This knowledge of God is derived from cause and effect. Since all creation is contingent, God must be the first, the uncaused, and the sufficient cause which then is the standard of all else. Aquinas went on to argue for God’s existence by the argument from motion, from efficiency, from possibility and necessity (it is impossible for there not to be a first cause, so it is impossible for God not to exist), from gradation (there must be good if goodness can be measured), and from the governance of the world.

The I AM

            Aquinas then is ready to move into his discussion of the nature of God. God, he has already shown, is the ultimate first uncaused cause. He is therefore a se or existing without cause. God is the I Am (Ex. 3:14-15). He eternally has been the I AM. He will never be was or will be. Gregory of Nazianzus explained, “For Was and Will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is Eternal Being.…For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great Sea of Being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily.”[3] God does not depend on anything for his existence. Every created thing is contingent upon something and ultimately contingent upon God. God however, exists without any dependence upon anything. Acts 17:24-25 explains that it is God’s aseity that allows him to give life and breath to all things without depending on anything for existence.

Divine Simplicity, Immutability, and Perfection

Yahweh, the I AM, then must then be simple or uncomposed or else the divine nature would depend on the union of some properties. God’s simplicity is necessary because God has no body, because God can have no potentiality if he is a se and the necessary and efficient cause of all created existence, and because God is the greatest or “most noble” of all beings. God must be simple to provide the answer to these needs. If God is not simple, then he would have to take many forms to be superior to all things in creation. If God has potential in himself, then he must be able to add something to himself or to take something away from himself or to grow in some way. If God has a body, then he is not spirit or omnipresent and again must depend upon something for the creation and care of that body. God is simply simple in is essence. All that is in God is God. God is not something that contains attributes. Rather God is his attributes. Aquinas said, “Since God then is not composed of matter and form, He must be His own Godhead, His own Life, and whatever else is thus predicated of Him.”[4]

This uncomposed and a se God must also be unchanging (Mal. 3:6). Since God is simple and the Creator, he must be the fulness of life or (actus purus “pure act”). There can be no potential for something else in God because God is perfect fulness.  How could the independently existing and simple God ever change? What could be altered in him? Any alteration in God would result in there being a different God and the necessary cause of the universe would be removed. Not only would God be changed, but the foundation of creaturely existence would be gone.

            This God must also be infinite and perfect. If there is a limit to God, why has God not achieved or actualized that perfection yet? Is God unable to meet that goal? God is the source of all things (Gen. 1; Rev. 4:11; Jn. 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Rom. 11:36). If God is the source of all things, then God must be infinite if he is to supply all things with existence. If God is the source of all things, then God must also be perfect goodness. Otherwise, there would be no standard of goodness. He is life. Furthermore, this infinite and perfect God must also be the very definition of wisdom. The divine wisdom must be inseparable from the other attributes of God as well. There is nothing that exists which escapes the knowledge of God. He eternally knows every word that will be spoken (Ps. 139:4) and every hair of every person (Lk. 12:7).

If God is this, then God must be…

            The non-communicable attributes of God are the result what is typically affirmed of God by classical theists. Some theistic personalists have redefined the non-communicable traits as different traits which are sometimes displayed by God. For classical theists, the non-communicable traits are obvious since they are logical result of the God who is simple, perfect, and infinite.  Pannenberg illustrates how the non-communicable traits are tied together. He wrote:

Omnipotence and omnipresence are very closely related and are also closely related to God’s eternity. As all things are present to God in his eternity, and he is present to them, so he has power over all things. His omnipresence for its part is full of the dynamic of his Spirit. No power, however great, can be efficacious unless present to its object. Omnipresence is thus a condition of omnipotence. But omnipotence shows what omnipresence by the Spirit actually means. In the process the full concept of omnipotence corresponds again to the structure of the true Infinite, and this full concept is actualized only by the trinitarian life of God.[5]

All the non-communicable attributes are inseparable because of divine simplicity and each of the attribute is without limit (omni) because of God’s infinity. The non-communicable attributes are necessary for the God who is perfect, infinite, and simple. As John of Damascus said, “True reason teaches us that the Divinity is simple and has one simple operation which is good and which effects all things, like the rays of the sun which warm all things and exercise their force in each in accordance with the natural capacity of each, having received such power of operation from God who created them.”[6]

Why God Is As He Is

Why God is Omnipresent

            God revealed his own omnipresence in Scripture. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place” (Pr. 15:3). He fills heaven and earth (Jer. 23:24). God is inescapable (Ps. 139:7). Omnipresence is the relation of God’s infinity and simplicity to created space. “Infinity in the sense of not being confined by space is synonymous with God’s omnipresence.”[7] In other words, God must be present at every created space because God’s nature is infinite. Creatures are, by definition, not omnipresent. Bavinck said “space and location are attributes of all finite beings. It is implied as such in whatever is finite. Whatever is finite exists in space. Its limited character carries with it the concept of a “somewhere.” It is always somewhere and not at the same time somewhere else.[8]

Why God is Omnipotent

            Omnipotence, likewise, is the infinity of God applied to God’s capabilities. Jesus said, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Bavinck rightly said, “Scripture nowhere sets bounds to God’s power.”[9] All power belongs to God (Ps. 62:11). God does “great and unsearchable things without number (Job 5:8).

There is no limit to God’s power except for the limits imposed by weakness. Since God has no weakness in his morality, he cannot be tempted or do that which is not good. Evil is the depravation of good and in God there is no lack. God’s omnipotence is expressed as sovereignty.  

            As the omnipotent God he “reigns forever and ever” (Ex. 15:18). He is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 1:17). God’s power is over all. His power or sovereignty is not in competition with human freedom. Divine power and human power operate on two different planes of existence. God has given a certain sovereignty to his creatures (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 115:16). Without overruling creaturely freedom, God works his will (Phil. 2:12-13).

            God’s power and its relation to creatures (sovereignty) has been the source of much debate over the centuries. To help us grasp the relationship of God’s power and human power, it is important to remember that the two powers are on different planes of existence and therefore are not competitive in the same way that two powerful people might be. Michael Horton listed the following items which are necessary to understand God’s sovereign power.

  1. First, only when we recognize that God is qualitatively distinct from creation can we see that God is free to be the creator and redeemer, while we are free to be creatures and the redeemed.
  2. Second, only when we understand God’s sovereignty in the light of his simplicity—that is, the consistency of his willing and acting in accordance with his other attributes—can we avoid the notion of a divine despot whose sovereignty is unconditioned by his own nature.
  3. Third, we must always bear in mind that in every exercise of his will and power, God is not a solitary monad but the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Father always wills and acts in the Son and by his Spirit, as well as through contingent agency. Therefore, God’s sovereignty cannot be conceived as brute force or control[10]

God’s purposes will not and cannot be thwarted. However, God has given his creatures a measure of their own sovereignty so that they can exercise their own will. The Lord has not left his creation to function mechanistically. Humans area not like dominoes that have been arranged and pushed to fall at the whim of the higher being. Instead each of the dominoes have been created and arranged by God (Dan. 4:35; Acts 17:26-28; Js. 4:15), but each of these dominoes has also been given a measure of sovereignty (Gen. 1:28; 13:11, Josh. 24:15) so that they make real moral choices with real moral effects.

God’s power and his sovereignty (the exercise of power) is not constrained by anything except by God’s own nature. The divine power is always good because God’s will is always good. Finally, God’s will is never coercive. God’s people come to him freely (Ps. 110:3). Still, even as God’s people come to him freely, this must also be seen as a gift of God (Js. 1:17). Human power or human sovereignty (the exercise of the human will) is constrained both by human nature and the temptations common to mankind. God’s sovereign power is total, but that power allows for human freedom. Humans exercise their freedom in response to God and/or in response to temptation and their own love for sin.

Infinitude, Perfection, and God’s Non-Communicable Traits

            Since God’s nature is simple and infinite, all God’s attributes are in fact, the single divine essence experienced in different ways. “Because God’s attributes are identical with his essence, God not only loves; he is love (1 Jn 3:1; 4:8, 16). God loves absolutely and without any compulsion from the object of his love (Mt 5:44–45; Jn 3:16; 16:27; Ro 5:8).”[11]

God’s nature is displayed in his creation. God must be a se, simple, infinite, and perfect if creation is to exist. As a test case Colossians 1:17 will be examined to display the relation of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence to the divine ontology affirmed in classical theism. Colossians 1:17 teaches that “he is before all things and in him all things consist.” Here the Scriptures teach that God is before all things. This is true logically, metaphysically, qualitatively, and in rank. The Christian doctrine of God taught in Scripture is, therefore, against the doctrine of God taught by pantheism. That God is “before all things” affirms his holy transcendence.

            Then Paul wrote “in him all things consist” (Col. 1:17). If all things hold together by him, then he must be omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. How else could creation exist and be held together by God if he were not omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. Paul links the divine ontology with creation’s existence and maintenance. Creation is because God is and makes creation to be.  

            God’s nature is also exposited in Christ. Christ is both the beloved of God and God’s gift of love to humanity. Again the simple perfection of God is on display. Barth summarized this relation when he wrote: “If God’s love is what is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ Himself is the revealed love of God, there is an end of the divorce between God’s grace and holiness, and there remains to us only the recognition and adoration of Him who is both gracious and holy: gracious as He is holy and holy as He is gracious.”[12]

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Speaking About God in the Face of Atheist Criticism,” in The Idea of God and Human Freedom, trans. R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 109.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q.2 a.3 s.c.

[3] Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38.7 in “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 346.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q.3 a.3 resp.

[5] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991–1998), 415–416.

[6] John Damascene, De Fide Orthodox 1.10

[7] Bavinck, RD 2:164.

[8] Bavinck, RD 2:166.

[9] Bavinck, RD 2:245.

[10] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 265.

[11] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 265.

[12] Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), II.1.367.

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