An attribute is also called a perfection. It is amazing. God can never improve or get worse. He is who he is, period.
Don’t feel frustrated if you have to read this post several times before it “clicks.”
In general terms, an attribute, divine or otherwise, is a property, characteristic, proper quality.
“Proper” here means belonging particularly to someone or something, e.g. eternality belongs only to God; it is strictly limited or proper to God.
An essential attribute
It is a property, characteristic, or proper quality that is essential to God. Many theologians do not use the term attribute, but prefer perfection. They have a point.
The divine attributes or perfections are not accidents or incidental things that inhere in and are separable and can be withdrawn from God. Rather, the divine attributes or perfections are the essence of God himself.
God is not a composite being, as if he had a body, soul, and spirit, but he is pure spirit. Therefore the attributes are not parts of God. But since they are identical in their divine nature, they are also identical with each other. They are unified by God. So one attribute is not better or worse or more important than the other. All God’s attributes are his essence. Without one, he would not be God (but a demi-god or a pagan god).
Next, nothing is prior to God and his essence and existence are inseparable, so his attributes are identical with his existence.
His attributes or perfections are not distinct from each other or from the divine essence. But they are predicated of God.
An accidental attribute
It is an incidental property of a thing. It is attached to a thing and can be withdrawn from it without substantial change or alteration. It is contingent.
Human example: What is the essential nature of a human? It cannot be this or that hair or eye color. If they vary, then his essence does not cease. They are accidents. He can exist without them.
In contrast, in God, his attributes are not incidental, but essential. If an attribute like love or justice were withdrawn, then he would not be God (he would be a demi-god or something). His existence and attributes are identical to his existence.
What do theologians say?
We focus on God’s attributes.
Every attribute is identical with God’s being. God is what he has. When we speak about creatures, we distinguish variously between what they are and what they have; e.g. a human being remains a human being even though he has lost the image of God and has become a sinner. But when we speak about God, we must maintain that each of his attributes is identical with his being. God is all light, all mind, all wisdom, all logos, all spirit, etc. … Whatever God is, he is completely and simultaneously. God has not properties but is merely is essence, God’s properties are really the same as his essence: they neither differ from his essence, nor do they differ materially [relationally] from one another (Doctrine, p. 121, emphasis original)
John Frame: “Nor is he [God] made up of substance and accidents, because there are no accidents in him. Since God has no accidents, everything in him is essential to his being, in a sense, his essence.” (Systematic, p. 429).
Millard Erickson is clear about God’s and man’s attributes:
The attributes are permanent and intrinsic qualities, which cannot be gained or lost. Thus, holiness is not in this sense an attribute (permanent, inseparable characteristic) of Adam, but it is of God. God’s attributes are essential and inherent dimensions of his very nature. (p. 236)
All of his attributes = his essence = his existence.
It is better to conceive of God’s attributes as his nature, not a collection of separate parts or an addition to his essence. Thus, God is love, holiness, and power. These are simply different ways of viewing the unified being, God. God is richly complex, and these conceptions are merely attempts to grasp different objective aspects or facets of his being” (ibid.).
They are God’s alone, with a caveat.
Examples of ones that humans cannot have, but only God does:
Self-existence (God does not depend on or need anyone or anything)
Simplicity (pure spirit, without parts)
Eternity (humans have a beginning; God does not. He transcends time; humans do not)
Omnipresence (he transcends space, and he is everywhere, but not confined to or in nature).
Those attributes or perfections are called incommunicable because we do not share in them. However, we can still share these attributes in a small, faint sense, so the “incommunicable” attributes do not have a high wall built around them. That’s why some theologians don’t use the categories communicable or incommunicable. But we do here, just for convenience.
And then there are attributes that are communicable with us, since we are created in his image. Here are samples:
Knowledge, wisdom and power;
Goodness, love, and mercy;
Holiness, righteousness, and justice.
How do they differ in us than in God?
In God, those attributes exist with absolute perfection. If they did not, but he needed to improve, then he would not be God. He would be imperfect. (He would be a Greek god.)
But his mercy shown to us when needed is perfect, unchanging, and complete. We humans, on the other hand, can improve or get worse. Sometimes we are merciful, other times we are not when it is needed.
As to the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Spirit have all these attributes, essentially, in their nature, not haphazardly or inconsistently or part-time (accidentally).
So God’s attributes are not parts or divisions within the Godhead … but each attribute is necessarily to God’s being. But each attribute is necessary is necessary to God’s being. Each is essential to him, and therefore his essence includes all of them. God cannot be God without his goodness, his wisdom, his eternity. In other words, he is necessarily good, wise, and eternal. None of his attributes can be removed from him, and no new attribute can be added to him. (429).
To sum up, in God, these attributes or perfections or characteristics are essential to his existence, and they are perfect, without diminishment or inconsistency; in us humans they are parts; some attributes in some people are lacking, others strong, others weak—they are not essentially human.
What are some illustrations of God’s attributes?
Let’s look at some illustrations or figures of how attributes work. (They are adapted from Grudem, pp. 178-79)
First, each small circle is an attribute like justice, eternity, love, holiness, omniscience (all knowing), wisdom, and so on. Here God’s attributes are depicted as a mere collection:
That illustration does not work because they have no unity within one Being, God. They are not ingredients in a recipe.
In the next illustration, God is the big circle, and they are added and attached to God’s being:
This illustration falls short because God is all his attributes; they are not add-ons.
Here is a better illustration. Let’s say the three horizontal lines represent God’s love.
Next, let’s say the vertical lines represent God’s justice:
Let’s keep going. The diagonal lines represent wisdom:
Finally, the other set of diagonal lines represent his holiness:
We could go on with the other attributes, but the point has been made.
Each one qualifies the other. God is completely and absolutely and simultaneously loving; he is completely and absolutely and simultaneously just; he is completely and absolutely and simultaneously wise; and he is completely and absolutely and simultaneously holy. He never sheds one or gains another. He is completely and absolutely and simultaneously all his attributes. And they are contained within the One or Unitary God.
The three lines remind us that the Son and the Spirit share the same divine attributes in their essence—but don’t take it too far, because two lines are shorter than the other! (A square would have worked better if that was the purpose of this post.)
Yet this raises an important question. If God is one and indivisible, how can there be three? Answer: God is one and indivisible in his being and essence, but he is three persons—”being and essence” and “persons” are different terms and realities. So there is no contradiction.
So how can I know God better?
You can know better because you can distinguish between him and you. You are filled with accidental properties—the colors of your hair, skin, and eyes; your height and girth (which changes!). You have many of his attributes, but in weak and imperfect forms or expressions.
But God has no accidental properties in him. He is who he is. He does not change in his essence or being; you do. He is the Creator; you are the creature. You worship him; he does not worship you.
You know God better because you see the distinction between you and him. You need more of God to let his character grow and develop in you.
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
What a Divine Attribute Is