Throwback Thursday: Augustine on the Attributes of God


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Augustine made a very important clarification concerning the attributes of God. He noted that God’s attributes are not characteristics added to who he is, nor do they function as separate parts to compose what is the essence of God. We are tempted to separate God’s attributes. We separate his love from his justice. We separate his sovereignty from his mercy. God is not a conglomeration of multiple characteristics. Instead, each attribute is true of the totality of who God is. So, his divine attributes cannot be separated. This is not Greek mythology. We do not have a god of love and a god of justice; a god of sovereignty and a god of mercy. We have one triune God. And the complexity of this one true God is something to marvel at. God is. This is made clear in Exodus 3.

However, this does not mean that it is wrong to discuss God’s attributes separately, as long as we view them as not being separate pieces that make up God. In the words of Gregg Allison, “[E]ach attribute is true of the totality of God’s essence.” You cannot separate God’s attributes from his essence. But however artificial discussions of God’s attributes as separate parts may be, it is always helpful to marvel at each characteristic of God. It is a good thing to learn about who God is in this way. And the great theologian, Augustine, was one of the best at praising this God in all his splendorous attributes. Allow the ever-speaking Augustine to exult in God before you. Learn from the way he speaks to and of God.

I encourage you to use some of this language when you pray. Note the beautiful contrast. Praise God as you read:

Most high, most excellent, most powerful, most all-powerful; most compassionate and most just; most hidden and most near; most beautiful and most strong and stable, yet not contained; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud…always working, yet ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. You love but do not burn [with passion]; you are jealous yet free from worry; you repent but have no regrets; you are angry yet peaceful; you change your ways but leave your plans unchanged; you recover what you find, having never lost [it in the first place]; you never need anything, but you rejoice in gain; you do not covet, yet you require usury [your stewards to return interest to you]. In order that you may owe, more than enough is given to you; yet who has anything that is not already yours? You pay off debts while owing nothing. And when you forgive debts, you lose nothing.

Resources:

Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg Allison (pp. 213-214)

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