Omni: All of God's Attributes
The attributes of God help us to properly revere and live in awe of him. Sadly, many church leaders have failed to teach their parishioners about God's personal traits. This leads many people into the error of anthropomorphism, the shaping of a nonhuman entity with human characteristics. This word also refers to the mascots of sports teams, military units, and colleges. However, God is neither a mascot nor an idol. The prophet Isaiah warned, "The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. . . . They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand" (44:13, 18). On the other hand, theologians list five primary attributes for God, all charged with the Latin prefix omni- ("all"): omnibenevolence, omnificence, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. Though the number of God's attributes varies by writer, all of them fit into one of the following descriptions:
Omnibenevolence: God Is All-Good
The word omnibenevolence literally means "wishes good to all." To define God as "all-good" means that he always intends and carries out actions that benefit his creation. Steadfast love (agapē; G26) is one of his omnibenevolent characteristics, meaning that God's compassion for living things is always perfect. John son of Zebedee wrote, "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:8). Conversely, pagans believed their gods to be emotional and arbitrary, even omnimalevolent—wishing harm to all. For example, the Ephesians worshiped the Greek fertility idol Artemis to ensure they did not have famines and droughts (cf. Acts 19:27). In his Psalms, King David testified, "The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings" (145:17). We have the assurance of salvation because God does what he promises (cf. John 3:16-18; Rom. 10:9). If he did not, God would be random and capricious. He has total freedom, as Isaiah wrote, "Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand" (64:8). However, God limits his freedom out of love for us, even sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross in atonement for our sins (Phil. 2:5-11). God communicates clearly what he expects from us, and he will honor his promises if we obey his commandments (cf. Heb. 5:8-9; 11:6).
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) wrote, "While some things are moved by an eternal unmoved mover and are therefore always in motion, other things are moved by a mover that is in motion and changing, so that they too must change. But the unmoved mover, as has been said, since it remains permanently simple and unvarying and in the same state, will cause motion that is one and simple" (Physics 8.6). For Aristotle, this "unmoved mover" was not an entity with personal attributes, but simply a force like gravity. However, James of Jerusalem did describe God as a type of unmoved mover with personal attributes: "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (1:17). To say that God is an "unmoved mover" means he is always reliable in every way. God keeps the scientific laws of the universe intact, and likewise holds us to fair and absolute moral laws without exception. The writer of Hebrews said, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (13:8). This makes God both simple and immutable—unable to change or be changed.
God is holy and righteous, as both concepts are implied in the doctrine of omnibenevolence. These words mean that God is both materially set apart—sacred—from the universe he created, as well as morally separate from it. "Holy" is the only adjective that scripture qualifies three times:
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory (Isa. 6:3).
Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come (Rev. 4:8).
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul listed God's moral characteristics as a model for us to follow: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8).
Omnificence: God Is All-Creating
To define God as omnificent requires both cataphatic and apophatic methods. Simply put, we must be willing to say what God is and what God is not, respectively. The word omnificent means "all-creating" without limits. In Genesis, God created the entire universe "out of nothing" (Latin: ex nihilo), which makes his power expansive. Everything he made was primordially "very good" in accordance with his omnibenevolence (cf. Gen. 1-2). However, there are things God cannot do! To begin with, he did not create evil, nor can he sin—he is impeccable. God cannot make something against his divine nature, nor can he exceed himself. No, God cannot make a rock so big that even he can't lift it! Why? Because God cannot and will not ever stop being God (cf. Mal. 3:6). He does not tempt us, nor is he able to lie to us (cf. Num. 23:19; James 1:13; Titus 1:2). God is omnificent when he forms things consistent with his divine nature and total goodness. King David declared, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1).
Omnipotence: God Is All-Powerful
The Latin word omnipotentia means "all power." God is almighty and powerful in everything that he does according to his divine nature (cf. Ps. 115:3; Isa. 55:11), and nothing is too hard for him (cf. Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:17). God does not depend on anyone or anything, but exists fully within himself—the doctrine of aseity (Latin: a se, "from oneself"). When Paul of Tarsus testified in Athens at the Areopagus, he described God's aseity: "The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:24-25). Paul went on to speak of God's transcendence and immanence, that he is both far away in the heavens and close to us where we live on earth (Acts 17:26-31). Although God calls all of us to repent (v. 30), his sovereign power allows him to use even our wicked choices for his purposes (cf. Gen. 45:5-8; Exod. 4:21 [Rom. 9:17]; Ps. 105:24-25; Rom 9:18; Acts 2:23). He is both universal and everlasting, with neither a source nor a conclusion (cf. Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13).
In his power, God builds nations, allocating their land, resources, borders, and installing their leaders (cf. Isa. 44:28; Acts 17:26). He not only directs the entire course of human history, but also our personal lives. Moreover, God forms our bodies in our mothers' wombs (Ps. 139:13-16). He can and only use his powers for good, giving us faith and eternal life (Eph. 2:8-10; Acts 13:48). Jews often begin their prayers with "Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe," acknowledging that God's reign is universal (cf. Lam. 3:37-38; Rom. 8:28; 11:33-36 [Isa. 40:13; Job 41:11]; Eph. 1:1).
El Shaddai (H410; H7706) is one of the most well-known titles for God, meaning "God Almighty." When the Hebrew patriarch Jacob blessed Joseph to lead one of the twelve tribes of Israel, he said, "[I bless you] by the God of your father, who will help you, by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb" (Gen. 49:25). Paul was the only New Testament writer to use the noun Pantokratōr (G3841), the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew title El Shaddai. He did so to translate El Shaddai when quoting from the prophet Samuel (2 Cor. 6:18; cf. 2 Sam. 7:14; 7:8). The noun Pantokratōr includes the words pan ("all," G3956) and krateō ("to rule" or "to prevail," G2902). Because Jesus is one with God in tri-unity with the Holy Spirit (cf. John 10:30; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 8:6), he rightly called himself Pantokratōr nine times in Revelation. The most striking one is: "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (Rev. 1:8). Incidentally, the translators of the King James Version rendered Pantokratōr once as "omnipotent" at Rev. 19:6: "I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth."
Omnipresence: God Is All-Present
In Latin, omnipraesentis means "to be in all places" at the same time. A psalmist once asked God, "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (Ps. 139:7-10). Simply put, there is nowhere to go that we may escape God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). The Spirit of God permeates everything in the world. He is present in all locations at all times without beginning or end. God is absolutely infinite, existing in time and place without being confined to them. Moreover, God presented himself in the burning bush to Moses, in pillars of cloud and fire during the exodus, and in the discernible Shechinah (H7931) glory which filled the Holy of Holies (Exod. 3:1-3; 13:21; Ezek. 9:3). The incarnation of Jesus in flesh and blood also refers to God's omnipresence, as the prophet Isaiah called him Immanuel, "God with us" (7:14). In his gospel, John wrote, "And the Word became flesh and lived [eskēnōsen; G4637, "tabernacled"] among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). Jesus also claimed God's omnipresence for himself when he said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matt. 18:20). He was rewording this common Jewish lesson: "If two sit together and there are words of Torah spoken between them, then the Shechinah abides among them" (Mishnah, Avot 3:3). Yes, Jesus was claiming to be the visible omnipresence of God himself!
God's omnipresence does not mean he is substantially or essentially part of the material world, nor does he intersect with it. Theologians name these respective concepts pantheism and panentheism. Simply put, the Spirit of God is not part of the universe or found in trees and rocks. Paul said, "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made" (Rom. 8:20). He was alluding to God's omnipotence and omnipresence, known to us by the things we see in our world. Interestingly, Peter wrote, "Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature" (1 Pet. 1:4). The Greek Orthodox refer to the process of sanctification as theōsis, to become like God. However, becoming like God actually pertains to us regaining the "image of God" (Latin: imago Dei) that we lost in the fall of Adam and Eve. We cannot become gods in the pantheistic or panentheistic senses, as this was Satan's lie in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:5). We may discern God's presence when we pray or worship, but his omnipresence will always elude us this side of heaven. In Revelation, John testified, "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb" (21:22-23). The Shechinah glory will fill the New Jerusalem, and we will forever see God's omnipresence in the age to come.
Omniscience: God Is All-Knowing
The Latin word omniscientia means "all knowledge." Scientia is the etymological root of our word "science." That said, God considers all matters important, from an animal's welfare to the number of hairs on our heads (cf. Matt 6:26-30; 10:29-30). Psalm 139, which the editors of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) label "The Inescapable God," is the go-to Bible passage to learn about God's omniscience. It highlights God's intimate knowledge of us wherever we may go. The psalmist acclaimed, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it" (v. 6). God knows us anywhere and everywhere: to the heavens and outer space, in the grave and the ocean depths, in the world's furthest reaches, and even in the darkest of places (vv. 7-12). He foreknew our gestation in our mothers' wombs, and the entirety of our lifespans (vv. 13-16).
In Proverbs, King Solomon wrote, "For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding" (2:6). He pursued the knowledge of God (1 Kgs. 3:9-12), a knowledge that most of us find unsettling. Even in our theological debates about predestination and free will, we often try to answer this dilemma by limiting God's knowledge—especially his foreknowledge. He foreknew the crucifixion of Jesus (cf. Acts 2:23). Likewise, Paul said, "For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family" (Rom. 8:9). In the same letter, Paul wrote, "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (11:2a). Why does God's omniscience bother us more than his other attributes? Because it means our free will is not as consequential as it seems to us. We stand naked before God like Adam and Eve, who ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:7-11). His omniscience is our greatest primeval and contemporary fear. Nevertheless, the Molinist doctrine of middle knowledge (Latin: Scientia media) should give us some relief. In his middle knowledge, God orchestrates events in our lives that look like free choices, but are really a slew of options of which he already foreknows the outcome of each possibility. Indeed, it is God's foreknowledge of every possible world that shows us the extent of his omniscience.
We employ the word theology, the "study of God" (Theos; G2316; logos; G3056), as a broad range of topics that both directly and indirectly relate to God himself. However, the particular study of God the Father is called patriology, which relates to the studies of Christ Jesus ("christology") and the Holy Spirit ("pneumatology"). The most controversial patriological doctrine is impassibility, which means that God is "unable to experience pain or suffering." This is the main reason Rabbinical Jews today reject Jesus as their Messiah. In their very strict idea of nontrinitarian Jewish monotheism, a suffering deity is both pagan and absurd—it is an anthropomorphic one. Because we Christians do worship Jesus as God who once suffered death and pain, impassibility only applies to God when he does not limit it himself. Even Jesus' apostles found his passion on the cross an embarrassment to their Jewish heritage. For example, Peter once rebuked Jesus, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you" (Matt. 16:22c). However, there is a hypostatic difference between the Father and the Son, meaning they communicate properties (Latin: Communicatio idiomatum) while sharing the same essence (think DNA). However, they do not have the same physical experiences. The Father is the spiritual form of God, and the Son is the material one. This was the reason Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).
The prophet Isaiah foresaw the passibility of God the Son. Rabbinical Jews claim his passage about the "suffering servant" is about the nation of Israel. However, a plain reading of Isaiah 53 makes this impossible. Isaiah wrote, "They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although
he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth" (v. 9). Given the full Old Testament history of Israel, especially the Prophets (Hebrew: Nevim; H5030), it is clear that it does not and will never meet this criteria. Isaiah's "suffering servant" is righteous (v. 11c) and impeccable, attributes that belong to God alone. Only Jesus "was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth" (v. 7). In summary, God is simple in that he has substance, but does not have any accidental or unnecessary traits. He is Spirit, and we can only know things about God that scripture attributes to him.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you have given us grace at this time, with one accord to make our common supplications to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his name you will grant their requests. Fulfill our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come, life everlasting. Amen.
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