Bob Enyart, in a debate with James White, discussed the attributes of God. You may have heard of them: impassibility, immutability, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. These are some of the most common character traits attributed to God. However, I don’t think any of these attributes have true scriptural backing, and actually create dissonance with God’s self-revelatory act of incarnation.
These attributes are known as the “Omnis” and the “Ims.” These statements about God are quantitative and answer questions about “How much?” or “How little?” (“How much power?” “How little change?”) Let’s start by looking at each “Omni” and “Im.”
Omniscience: God knows everything. Why not get things started with a bang? I believe that God knows everything that can be known, but as the future is not among that which can be known, God doesn’t know it.
I realize this is a strong and controversial assertion; however, it invites some analysis. My first reason for this belief is that King Jesus himself makes a statement that seems odd if he indeed knew the future: “Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son.”
The second reason is God’s love. Love is responsive. It evolves, grows, and changes based on the interaction between the lover and the object loved. While the interests, plans, and goals remain the same, the “how” changes and shifts. I believe that God’s foreknowledge operates in a similar way. He knows the endgame and is working towards that end. The endgame is a world that is reconciled. How he gets it to that point can shift and change.
In Jeremiah 18, God tells the prophet to visit a potter and watch him in action. The point of this image is often lost in theological studies. God is not saying that the potter has complete authoritative control over the clay and that the clay must submit to the potter.
If you’ve ever taken a pottery class, you’ll know that clay is a stubborn thing and you often end up with something quite different from your original vision. If you set out to make a vase, you’ll get a vase, but getting the clay to that point requires you to be patient and willing to allow the clay to force you to change your approach multiple times as you mold it.
Which brings me to the next attribute.
Immutability: God never changes. I understand that this brings comfort, but it flies in the face of so much that we see in the Bible. How many times have we seen God repent, change his mind, promise to change his mind about something, etc.? In one scene God says that his creation is good. A few chapters later, God decides to wipe out humanity because he regrets creating them.
God is about to destroy the nation of Israel when Moses speaks up and asks God to stay his hand. God tells Assyria that he is going to destroy them unless they change their ways, in which case he won’t bring about the destruction he has planned.
One example after another of God changing. And then the ultimate change—he became a man named Jesus.
You might wonder how you can trust a God who is as capricious as this. The Bible doesn’t say that all those revelations of God are the final authority on who God is. That’s Jesus, and last I checked, he’s pretty trustworthy.
Omnipresence: God is everywhere. Fair enough. But I would rather interpret this as God’s presence is in all places felt. As C. S. Lewis posits, hell is the absence of God’s presence, which is what people who end up there wanted to begin with: to be away from God’s presence.
This is an example of where these ontological statements don’t contradict scripture. However, I want to take a quick moment and say that we should be careful in our approach to scripture. Taking a statement about God’s ontology and then imposing that on the Bible isn’t a good practice. For example, if we say that God is immutable, and then come across verses that contradict that statement, we end up either tossing those verses or, as is a common practice, reinterpreting those verses to fit immutability. In other words, we might say that a verse is using that image of God changing as a way to describe something else because it couldn’t possibly mean that God changes.
Omnipotence: God is all-powerful. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”
Bonhoeffer’s statement seems ridiculous, contradictory even. How could God be powerless? Wouldn’t that make him “un-God”? The thing about God is that he is constantly running up against our preconceived notions of him. His kingdom is one that is contrary to what the world’s system looks like, and what we might expect of God will likely be quite the opposite of what God actually is.
After all, he died on a cross. Could there be anything more ungodlike than that?
Impassibility: God does not experience any emotions. I’m sorry, what? Didn’t Jesus weep when he saw the people around him mourning Lazarus’s death? Didn’t God grieve over Israel’s rebellion? If these are mere anthropomorphisms, how can we trust any description of God in the Bible? Didn’t the psalmist write about God’s laughter?
Why is emotion so important? Because for God to be relatable, he would have to experience what we experience. How can we expect to relate to a God who has no concept of what we feel?
But I believe God is dynamic. While he can certainly possess all knowledge, perhaps he chooses not to. He is clearly quite powerful, but maybe he sets that power aside. He may not be governed by emotions, but what if he chooses to experience them just as we do?
I think, in our desire to keep God awe-inspiring, we actually make him unattainable. The narrative of the Bible, however, is the story of a God who desires to be known.
Enyart posits a different set of attributes to describe God: living, personal, relational, good, and loving. Not only are these attributes more in line with who God reveals himself to be in Scripture, but they serve to draw us toward him and paint a picture of a God who is truly worthy of our praise, love, and trust.
If King Jesus is indeed the final and complete revelation of who God is, I am far less inclined to describe him as possessing the “omnis” and the “ims,” and I am far more inclined to call him, as St. John did, the God who is love.