Yesterday, i had the privilege of delivering my first Shorter Catechism lesson. These teaching opportunities are given to the deacons of our church as part of our continued officer training. The lessons have to be within five minutes, with the time gradually lengthened as we get more comfortable with teaching and learn to express ourselves concisely and precisely.
I thought I would post my lesson here for those who are new to Reformed Theology, as it might serve you as an introduction of sorts to some of the doctrines expressed in our Reformed standards.
Last week with Question 3, Deacon JP shared with us that the first thing the Scriptures principally teach us is what we are to believe concerning God. Here in Question 4, the Westminster Divines expand on that by asking, “What is God?”. And they answer, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”
Rather than trying to tackle all of these attributes in such a short time, i want us to consider why the divines worded the answer the way that they did.
Notice that instead of writing the attributes in an uninterrupted list, they break the attributes into two groups by inserting the words “in his”, and treat the first group as adjectives and the second group as nouns. Why do they do this?
When we look at the first group of attributes – namely that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable – we see that these are characteristics that are totally unique to God. These are what Reformed Theologians typically call the Incommunicable Attributes; that is, attributes that God does not share with us.
But when we look at the second group of attributes – his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth – we see that these are characteristics that can be found in man as well. For this reason, Reformed theologians have typically called these the Communicable Attributes; that is, attributes that God shares with us.
Our first observation then is this: There are two types of attributes – Incommunicable and Communicable.
Secondly, I want to draw your attention to the preposition “in”. This word is used to convey a relationship between the two groups of attributes. What is that relationship?
The Divines want us to understand that it is not just that God has being, for example, but that God is infinite being, God is eternal being, and God is unchangeable being. Likewise, God has infinite wisdom, God has eternal wisdom, and God has unchangeable wisdom. And so on….
Our second observation then is this: Even in the communicable attributes, there is still a clear distinction that is made between God and man. These communicable attributes, as they are found in man, do not exist to the same extent and degree that they are found in God.
Because of this, some scholars have argued that it seems pointless to even distinguish between two types of attributes. Sometimes you’ll hear a neo-orthodox scholar say something like, “God is wholly other.” But a denial of distinction is problematic. The Scripture itself reveals God in ways that are Incommunicable and Communicable. For example, the Psalmist says in Ps 147 that God’s understanding is “infinite”, something that could never be said of man’s understanding. Here, we see the Incommunicableness of God. Yet, we also find statements like the one from Paul in Ephesians 5.1 where he says that we are to “imitate God.” How is that even possible if there is nothing about God that man can imitate? Obviously then, according to Scripture, there are ways in which we can resemble God to a degree and there are ways in which we can not resemble God at all.
By their careful and intentional wording of Answer #4, the Westminster Divines help us in avoiding two extremes:
First, by making a distinction between two types of attributes, the Divines show us that there is indeed a point of contact between God and man; without which we could have no communication with God.
Second, by pointing out that even in those communicable attributes there is always a distinction made between God and man, we never make the blasphemous mistake of blurring that distinction in our imitation of God.