Just for Catholics

NAMES AND ATTRIBUTES OF GOD

We cannot understand God fully because he is infinite and we are mere specks of dust. ‘Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable’ (Ps 145:3). No man will ever plumb his wisdom. ‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it’ (Ps 139:6). A ‘god’ who is thoroughly understood is nothing but an idol of human imagination. The true and living God is exalted above the heavens, well beyond the reach of our mind.

All the same we must assert that God can be known. Though we can never delve completely into the depths of the Infinite, still we may truly know our Creator. Our knowledge of God must always be limited, yet it can be genuine and sufficient to satisfy the thirst of the human soul. Indeed we are invited to ‘Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near’ (Isa 55:6).

Who, then, is the true and living God? We can begin to answer this question by considering the divine names and attributes (personal characteristics) by which God is revealed.

Divine Names

About 2500 times in the Old Testament, God is called by the titles El and Elohim (translated ‘God’). The basic meaning of this title is the ‘Mighty One’ or ‘Powerful One’. Elohim is the plural of El (emphasizing his majesty); however, Elohim is still used with verbs in the singular since God is one. God’s power is shown in his work of creation (Gen 1:1); his government over all the world (Isa 54:5); his mighty deeds among his people Israel (Deut 8:14; Ps 68:7), and in his judgment (Ps 50:6). El is also combined with other titles. El-Shaddai is mentioned mostly in the times of the patriarchs (Gen 17:1); it means ‘God Almighty’. El-Elyon signifies ‘God most high’ (Gen 14:19).

Another title, Adonai means master, lord, ruler (Gen 19:2; 40:1; 1 Sam 1:15); it is translated ‘Lord’ and it expresses the ownership and authority that God exercises over mankind.

The name Yahweh (derived from the four consonants YHWH, sometimes known as the Tetragram) is found about 6000 times in the Hebrew scriptures. The significance of the name Yahweh, by which God revealed himself to his people Israel, was particularly spelled out to Moses (Ex 3:14; 6:3). The name means ‘I am’; it testifies to God’s eternal self-existence and perfection. God is what he ever was and what he ever will be; there was no time when he was not. He is the eternal ‘I am’!

YHWH is rightly translated LORD in our English Bible, according to the pattern set by New Testament writers. For instance, the prophet Joel wrote, ‘Whoever calls on the name of Yahweh shall be saved’ (Joel 2:32). In Romans 10:13, the apostle Paul quoted this verse, applying it to Jesus. He translated Yahweh by the Greek word Kurios, meaning Lord.

Yahweh is linked with other titles: the Lord God (Gen 2:7); the Lord Provides (Gen 22:14); the Lord Heals (Ex 15:26); the Lord Sanctifies (Lev 20:8); the Lord of Peace (Judges 6:24), and the Lord of Hosts (Isa 1:24).

In the New Testament, the most common titles are God (in Greek, Theos, the equivalent of the Hebrew Elohim), used especially of God the Father; and Lord (in Greek, Kurios, the equivalent of Adonai and Yahweh), used especially of the Son.

To know the name of God means to know God as he revealed himself (and not simply the pronunciation of the word). Praising his name is virtually the same as praising him; when his name is dishonoured, he is dishonoured. God is provoked when his name is profaned: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain’ (Ex 20:7). But God’s beloved children earnestly seek to praise and glorify him, as Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be hallowed.’

Divine Attributes

The divine attributes are the qualities and characteristics of God.

God is personal; he is not simply an impersonal force or energy, as imagined in Eastern pantheistic religions. God thinks, chooses according to his will, loves and hates. He speaks to us, and we to him; he enters into and maintains a personal relationship with people. He designates himself ‘I am’ (Ex 3:14), and we address him with familiar titles such as ‘Father’.

God is spirit (John 4:24); consequently he is invisible (Heb 11:27), and does not have a physical body like us (Luke 24:39). Scripture speaks about ‘the eyes’ and ‘the hands’ of the Lord, but evidently such language is figurative.

God is independent; he is self-existent and does not need anything or anyone. We are dependent on God for every moment of our existence, but God has life in himself (John 5:26). ‘Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things’ (Acts 17:25).

God is immutable, that is, he does not change. He is ever the same in all his perfections. He cannot become more, or less, wise, holy and good. He is infinite in power; he does not grow weary, and he cannot become more powerful than he is. ‘For I am the LORD, I do not change’ (Malachi 3:6).

God is eternal and is in no way limited by time which is itself part of his creation. God knows no beginning and will have no end. ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God’ (Ps 90:2).

God is omnipresent. Being present everywhere, he is not limited by space. ‘Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there’ (Ps 139:7, 8).

God is omniscient; he knows everything. He does not need to learn anything; he is never forgetful. He knows himself and all his creation perfectly. ‘Known to God from eternity are all His works’ (Acts 15:18). God knows us perfectly: ‘O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways’ (Ps 139:1-3).

God is good. ‘For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You’ (Ps 86:5). ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). He is merciful, delivering sinners from their just condemnation; he is gracious, granting them blessings they do not deserve.

God is holy; he is distinct from all creatures and exalted above them in infinite majesty and purity. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ (Isa 6:3). God is morally perfect. ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).

God is righteous. He is always perfectly just and never guilty of the slightest injustice. ‘The LORD is righteous in all His ways’ (Ps 145:17). His law is the expression of his righteousness, rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience.

God is faithful. ‘God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Num 23:19). His children can rest assured that he will perform all his promises and lead them to final glory. God ‘will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8, 9).

God is sovereign; he possesses absolute power and authority, and exercises total control over all his creation. He acts exactly as he desires; nobody can annul his will or frustrate his intentions. He ‘works all things according to the counsel of His will’ (Eph 1:11). ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’’ (Dan 4:34, 35).

God is omnipotent, that is, almighty, all-powerful. He is able to do whatever he wills. ‘I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You’ (Job 42:2). In him we enjoy absolute security. ‘He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty’ (Ps 91:1).

Adoration

This is the true and living God -- infinite and perfect in all his attributes! Being proud and sinful, the natural man cannot and will not bow before his Maker in adoration and obedience. Though the first commandment warns against having other gods other than the true God, man has come up with other ‘gods’, less than the true God, fashioned according to his imagination.

May God give us grace to know him in his majesty, that we may know him in truth, trusting and loving him with all our hearts. God alone can open our eyes and reveal his glory to us.

‘Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones; give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness’ (Ps 29:1, 2).

© Dr Joseph Mizzi. 2008. Permission is given to reproduce and distribute this article in any format provided that the wording is not altered and that no fee is charged. Please include the following statement on distributed copies: Copyright Dr Joseph Mizzi. Website: www.justforcatholics.org. Used by permission.