Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus, II Gesu ceiling, Rome, 1679, Giovanni Battista GaulliLet’s talk about the nature of God. This is probably my favorite thing to talk about in all of theology. This is because, within the nature of God, all answers reside as to the understanding and knowledge of who God is, why the world is as it is, why humans are as they are, and why spirituality functions as it does.
If you were to think of one ultimate aspect of God, of how he is by nature (his attributes), what would you choose? God is love? God is good? God is all-knowing? Of all the attributes of God that the Bible has revealed, is there one that is the highest? In other words, is there an attribute that serves as the ultimate and necessary foundation for who God is as a being, from which all his other attributes spring?
Maybe you think this is a silly question. Maybe you think God is too incomprehensible for us to be able to define him in such a way. Maybe so. But maybe not. What understanding of God or ourselves could such a task reveal?
I appreciate how the Apostle Paul worked so hard for the sake of the gospel and believers,
that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:2-3)
God desires that we understand him, and in expressing himself in the person of Jesus Christ, he has basically said, “Here I am. Come and know me. All I am is right here for you to discover.”
And just a few verses later, Paul tells us,
For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9).
So, what attribute of God serves as the ultimate and necessary foundation for who God is as a being, from which all his other attributes spring? What is God’s most fundamental aspect of his essence?
At the end of a nasty dispute with the Pharisees about Jesus’ nature and message, Jesus drops the truth bomb of all truth bombs about who he is:
So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:57-58).
To my ears, this statement travels back all the way to before Jesus’ incarnation, when the Word was with God and was God (John 1:1-2). The attribute of God that serves as the ultimate and necessary foundation for who God is as a being, the most fundamental aspect of the essence of God, is that he exists. I am. More specifically, that he is self-existent.
That God is self-existent means that his being is not derived from anything or anyone outside himself (this is technically called the aseity of God). God is self-derived, self-sufficient, existing only of himself. The most fundamental aspect of anything, including God, is that it exists. If there is no existence, there is nothing.
In order for us to understand anything at all about God, who he is, how he behaves and functions, his thoughts, will, and desires for his creation, it begins with the fact that he exists. All other attributes that describe God as he exists in himself have their basis in his self-existence (including that God is spirit, that he is one, that he is infinite, eternal, righteous, and immutable (that he does not change)). We first understand that he is before how he is. We first understand that he exists, and then we can understand the who, the how, and the why of his nature, and what it means for us as his creation.
So, what does this tell us about God? What treasure do we unearth by understanding that his self-existence sits as the most fundamental aspect of his nature?
God must be good. Because self-existence is the most fundamental attribute of his nature, he must uphold himself in his own existence. Life and living are his nature. If God creates anything, this fundamental aspect of his nature must express itself in a similar way toward his creation. The goodness of God has as its foundation the self-existence of God, because God is life. He must therefore express this goodness to his creation, upholding life and all that goes along with it, because it is his nature. His goodness is what expresses itself in love to whatever he creates. This is why God is good, and could not by any other way. Goodness is life, and the upholding and prospering of such.
Further, God’s goodness as a necessary aspect of his self-existent nature is the foundation for all morality. Morality has as its root the concept of goodness, and not harm, toward all life. Because humans are made in the image of God, we inherently recognize morality as having to do with how we treat one another. It is therefore impossible to consider that morality can exist without God. It is because God exists that his goodness creates the concept of morality for all of his creation. God upholds all life; this is why it is said,
“In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27),
[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).
Because we understand the fundamental attribute that God is self-existent, we also then can understand why he is as he is, his goodness, and why his goodness expresses itself in love toward his creation. We understand where right and wrong come from, and why morality must exist. God could not be any other way. Therefore, his nature is what defines true morality. Morality could not be any other way, and it has to do with God’s goodness in upholding life and doing no harm.