In this series of posts I am going to write about God. “Wow! That is revolutionary for a theology blog: thanks for being so specific, Michael!” Slow down, you are already wearing me out. We are going to talk about God, but I want to focus on something that I believe is the most neglected aspect of theology proper (the formal doctrine of God) in the church today. This is a serious charge, but I don’t think I am overstating it. We will see . . .

I don’t want to deal with who is God; neither do I want to deal with what God has done. Here, I am going to focus on the “what” of God. What is God? In other words, what, essentially, makes God, God. What characteristics must a being have to be called “God”? Personality? Goodness? Activity in our lives? Power? Grace? Or could God lack these things and still be God in the proper sense? What does God have to be to be God?

This might sound rather unspiritual and beyond our ability when dealing with the ineffable (that which is incapable of being expressed), yet I contend that it is essential and should be among the prolegomena (“first words”) in the study of theology proper. What I mean by this is that if you don’t get this right, all other questions about God will suffer to a great degree. This will in turn affect your view of everything, from Christ to morality, from inspiration to eschatology, and much more.

(Stay with me . . . I will explain as we move forward. One step at a time.)

By the time this study is finished, I believe that we will have discovered that many of our understandings and concepts about God do not really qualify for the title. In other words, some people’s views of God lack essential qualifying properties for God to bear the name “God.” This is prevalent among Christian cults and other world religions.

However, I must preface these strong propositions with a confession: I don’t believe a person must have a perfect concept of God to be in a true relationship with him. This is a matter of discipleship, essential as it may be.

In short, I will be arguing for what is called “Classical Theism,” something that has been under heavy attack the last couple of decades. As usual, I will try to help you understand why those who are straying from the classical theistic tradition are doing so and why I believe they have taken a wrong turn. I will also join them in the challenge of classical theism at one point, so be ready.

Let me start by putting forth three ways that we can think about God. Or better, three points of reference to our theology that guide us in our definition of God.

#1 An ontological point or reference (What is God?). The ontos of something is its essence or “stuff” it is made of. This describes the essential properties that the object must have. For example, the essential characteristics of a chair to qualify for “chairness” is not its color, height, or even what it is made of, but its ability to, with stability, hold an individual while seated. Therefore, it must have a seat. Classical theism believes in many ontological points of reference with regard to God (most of which will be defined and defended soon), e.g., God is eternal, God is transcendent, God is immutable (unchanging), God is simple (exists without reference to time, space, or matter), God is a se. We will continue this in further posts. Hang tight.

#2 An historical point of reference or point of action (What has God done?). This describes what someone has done in history to establish who they are now. With regards to God: God created the world out of nothing, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to the promise land, God sent His Son to die for the sins of man, Christ rose from the grave, etc.

#3 A personal or relational point of reference (Who is God?). This describes personality characteristics. With regards to God: God is sovereign, God loves the world, God is gracious and forgiving, God is offended by sin, God brings about His will, God provides for His people, God comforts us in times of trouble, etc.

To use me as an example (to further illustrate): you may say you know me; here is your description:

#1 Ontological (What am I?): Michael is a male. He is corporeal (space bound). He is a human being (i.e. I am not a bot!). He exists in time. He has a will of his own. He is conscious of his existence. He is dependent for his physical existence on many things including parents, food, water, and protection from harm. He has a body and spirit, etc.

#2 Historical (What have I done?): Michael became a Christian when he was young. Michael rebelled against God for many years. He got married in 1997. He went to seminary in 1998 at Dallas Theological Seminary and focused on New Testament Studies. He fathered four children. Michael has often contributed to the Parchment and Pen blog. He is currently working on a project called The Credo House, etc.

#3 Personal (Who am I?): Michael wants to be a good father and husband. He loves superheroes because he (secretly – or not so secretly) thinks he is one. He desires a 2010 Camaro that he will never get. He loves to teach theology to educate the church. He has a heart for those who struggle with their faith.

Of these three, in the discussion of God, we are talking about the first. In other words, I don’t believe that anything in #2 or #3 are characteristics that God must have in order to have the title. The first is the “what is God” of this series.

More soon . . .

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    17 replies to "What is God (1)"

    • C Michael Patton

      Nick, no theological grounds. It is not really economic either (as you can get a basic with 305 hp for pretty cheap). It is availability right now!! They are 500 on back order.

      Yes, I am one of the final five.

    • rey jacobs

      Although you don’t mention the word Omniscience, classical theism clearly teaches this. I am wondering, however, if you can find a statement anywhere in the Bible where God says “I know everything” or “I am all-knowing.” We find where the disciples confess to Jesus “Now we know that you know all things” and Peter “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” But where does Jesus ever say “I know everything”? Jesus actually confesses ignorance of when his second coming will be. So, where does God Himself, either before or after the Incarnation actually profess Himself to be Omniscient? Certainly saying “I declare the end from the beginning” does not actually amount to omniscience, whereas “I will go down and see if they have done altogether according to the outcry against them, and if not, then I will know” does absolutely amount to a confession of non-omniscience. It is further interesting that God says “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” because thoughts by very definition cannot be had by someone who knows everything. If you know everything, you don’t ever think because you already know. Thoughts are the processing of new information in order to derive knowledge from that information. An all-knowing God would, therefore, be a God with no thoughts, for he who knows all thinks none. But God professes thoughts, which implies an ability to learn. In the absence of a direct statement by God to the effect “I know all things” this must be seen as decisive in favor of him not having truly literal omniscience but only relative omniscience.

    • Lisa Guinther

      Michael, I personally would go for a classic ’69 with a 425 and go bracket racing! But that is really not in God’s good and perfect will *sigh*

      On the topic of Omniscience, I’ll probably get my butt kicked but tell ya what, I’ll try.

      Scriptural examples…Ephesians 1:4 “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…” That denotes an “all knowing”, seeing all ends. And in the back half of Revelations 13:8 (KJV) “…Of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. To which you can back-track to Genesis 3:15 with the reference to the woman’s seed…God’s grace in action (not some kind of cosmic plan B). And in another tack…Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans that I have for you (how does He know?) So ultimately it does come down to an area of faith; to truly believe that God “…knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32) Then you can truly “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer, and supplication make your requests known to God, and [then] the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hear and mind in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 6-7)

      So, how’s that?

    • Phil McCheddar

      Hi Michael

      Sorry for being dense but I don’t understand the point of asking what characteristics God must have in order to have that title. And I don’t see how we can answer that question anyway. Yahweh has revealed himself as having certain characteristics. But since there are no other gods and since there is no blueprint or prototype of what a genuine god should be like, why don’t we concentrate on learning what Yahweh actually de facto is and then loving & worshiping him for that?

      Another point, you said you don’t believe that anything in #2 or #3 are characteristics that God must have in order to have the title. But there is something fundamental about the nature of Yahweh that can only be known and understood by taking #2 into account. Jesus’ incarnation and ascension means there is now a man in heaven sharing in the divine being. So something about the ontological nature of God has changed for ever. The eternal, immutable God changed fundamentally at a point in time following the earthly life of Jesus.

    • Nick

      Michael. I think this is great. Too long, the church has been neglecting Systematic Theology. We wouldn’t have as many people become Mormons or JW’s from Christian churches if we knew our own doctrine better.

    • Phil McCheddar

      Hi rey jacobs

      You said: Thoughts are the processing of new information in order to derive knowledge from that information. But that makes people sound like machines! Isn’t it also true that thoughts may be the processing of old information in order to gain pleasure from that information? (“Oh happy day that fixed my choice on Thee, my Saviour and my God!” etc.)

      What do you mean by relative omniscience? Isn’t someone either omniscient or not all all?

      Regarding the statement: “I will go down and see if they have done altogether according to the outcry against them, and if not, then I will know”, I agree that at first glance it seems as if God is admitting he is not omniscient. But there are other plausible explanations for this curious statement. See for example Matthew Henry’s commentary.

      If God is not absolutely omniscient, how can he ever judge mankind with absolute fairness?

    • Matt Dowling

      I appreciate the undertaking of this series. A scholar in the Stone-Campbell tradition (where I find myself) recently echoed the same comment you just made: we have a woefully insufficient doctrine of God. My ears perked up. Now they’ve perked up again when you’ve asserted the same deficiency. As a brand-new seminary student, it would be greatly helpful for you to list some bibliography references you’ve encountered as you proceed along the series.

    • rey jacobs

      Lisa, God knowing everything we need and his own plans certainly does not amount to knowing everything. Those are but subsets of literal everything.

      “If God is not absolutely omniscient, how can he ever judge mankind with absolute fairness?” (Phil McCheddar)

      Exhaustive knowledge of the past, but not the future. And even here, as the incidents of the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorra show (“the LORD came down to see the city and the tower” Gen 11:5 and “let us go down and see if they have done altogether according to the outcry against them” Gen 18:21) God must rely on an extensive spy network of angels whom he knows he can trust because he initially took to independently verifying their accounts Himself as in these two stories.

      If I am a heretic for suggesting this, then so is He Himself for suggesting it in his own inspired book of Genesis, I say anticipating the objection.

    • Clearly Rey has never heard of the language of accommodation…

    • rayner markley

      I believe in the language of accommodation, but it puts us on a slippery slope indeed by allowing us to interpret in a way that’s convenient for us.

      It would seem that God’s powers must be greatly beyond ours, yet one wouldn’t need to be absolutely omniscient or omnipotent to originate this finite universe or manage it. However, I expect this series is about Biblical theology, that is, what does the Bible say about God, and is not concerned with what secular philosophy may contribute.

    • Jay

      “I declare the end from the beginning” does not actually amount to omniscience, whereas “I will go down and see if they have done altogether according to the outcry against them, and if not, then I will know”

      It seems to me, and I may be wrong, if you look at this statement other than in accommodating language one would have to believe God is down here everywhere and always in order for Him to know anything about His creation. To de-void God of omniscient would take away His sovereignty. How would God know fully and without a doubt He is sovereign? In fact how would He even know for sure He’s God? How could He trust his “spy network of angles” without being omniscient?

      Yes it is true Jesus says in Matt. 24:36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone”. How can the Father know if He doesn’t know the end from the beginning? Does He constantly need to come down and check things out first to know if it’s time or is Jesus statement also a statement of the Father’s omniscient’s? God is not a corporeal being with physical eyes to see and ears to hear. One might assume from some of the statements to this blog He is. I don’t know how someone could read Isa. 46, especially 46:10 and not come away with an omniscient God; unless maybe they believe Isaiah was a false prophet.

      Any way,……….that’s my two cents.

    • rayner markley

      Interesting that God’s spy network of angels includes Satan the accuser, as we see in the story of Job.

      Anyway—God’s essence may be just an idea that we have created. We see around us things of various quality—good better best, smart smarter smartest, strong stronger strongest, etc.—and we carry that way of thinking to its ultimate point. In theory God must be the ultimate and therefore any quality He possesses is in the ultimate degree. We think nothing can be moderate with Him, only pure and perfect; otherwise, there is room for something else to be greater.

      That way of thinking may be our human way of thinking, for we see many times in scripture where God seems to be caught in the same dilemmas and restrictions that we are. In the course of doing good, He also causes evil. He repents of previous actions. He demands our perfect righteousness yet tolerates widespread unrighteousness.

    • Jason C

      My view is that God knows all true propositions, and consequently by a process of elimination knows which propositions are false.

      God presents as an evidence that would justify Israel’s allegiance to him, that he (unlike other gods) pronounces what will be from ages past. For example the naming of Josiah and Cyrus and describing their works hundreds of years in advance of their births.

      From a scientific view time began with the universe, and whatever brought the universe into being would itself be timeless. A timeless being would be aware of all time simultaneously allowing exhaustive knowledge of the future as well as the past (although without needing to control that ‘future’) because that future would be – to that timeless observer – exactly the same as the past.

      From the timeless viewpoint the Calvin/Armenian debate is essentially meaningless.

      In places such as telling Abraham that he was going to see if Sodom’s evil was as great as reported God was initiating the dialogue that would see Lot spared. At the Tower of Babel, there is an element of mockery in the people claiming to build a tower to the heavens and God turning round and saying ‘let us go down and see what they are engaged in’.

      Rayner, the dialogue between God and Satan does not indicate any shortage of knowledge on God’s part. Indeed, the general tone is that God knew that Job would be justified at the end of his trials. It does lead to questions about why Satan would pit himself against God’s foreknowledge; but then Satan is the accuser, perhaps that’s just his job. It may be that Satan doesn’t believe in God’s foreknowledge either.

      One of the qualities that God doesn’t need to possess in order to be God is the desire to regularly interfere in human affairs. That said he would have to possess the ability to do so. No one who believes in God can reject the possibility of miracles.

    • rayner markley

      Jason: ”My view is that God knows all true propositions, and consequently by a process of elimination knows which propositions are false.’

      Does that sound like a computer? A computer doesn’t really ‘know’ anything; it simply has a store of propositions that it can compare with any proposition that it encounters. Knowing in a human sense implies the ability to determine true or false by using experience and rational processes. Further, knowledge of right and wrong is a different kind of thing from knowledge of true and false. It doesn’t seem to make sense to speak of omniscience concerning moral issues.

      Regarding the point in Job, if God sometimes assumes a role in which He pretends not to know, how would Satan know what God really knows? Satan, not being omniscient, has to find out from experience just like the rest of us.

    • Jason C

      God commands, it is right.

      Also, God isn’t human. Didn’t you know that. 😛

      Also, never underestimate the power of the rhetorical question. 😉

    • rayner markley

      God isn’t human, but God and we have the same image, so we share a lot. One such essential thing is life. God is alive and so He must be active; He cannot sit still. One wonders what He will be doing after all the affairs of this universe are wrapped up. Will he sit around absorbing praises or will He embark on another project? Maybe with a role for us.

      (Michael needs to come in with part 2 before we get ourselves into more trouble.)

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