Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

ST002/7 Technical Terms.


Technical Terms and their relative meanings.

A short parenthesis is probably necessary at this point before proceeding further in our consideration of the Godhead. There are one or two rather technical terms which are frequently used in theological works and discussions which require a brief word of explanation.

Substance and Essence.

These words were very common in older theological discussions but have not been so much used in recent years. They denote the fact of the objective reality of God, i.e. that He has real substantial existence apart from man and is not merely the creation of man`s subjective mind.

"Essence" denotes energetic being and refers to the sum total of God' s perfections and essential being. "Substance" denotes the latent potentiality of being, the underlying ground of God`s infinite activities. "Substance" is used more in discussions concerning the nature of the Trinity.

Subsistence and Hypostasis.

"Subsistence" is a Latin word, and "hypostasis" is Greek. They are the equivalent of each other and both come from words meaning the same in their respective languages — literally, that which stands under or is the foundation. One was used in Latin speaking Christianity and the other in Greek speaking Christianity.

They both have the meaning "person" and are used particularly to denote the distinction of persons within the ultimate substance of the Godhead. (Note — It was this difference of language in early Christianity which was the underlying reason for the large amount of disagreement and discussion on some important points in the early Church.)

Essence and Attribute.

"Essence" refers to the underlying reality of the very nature of God, whereas the "attribute" denotes that which is soon, manifest or cognizable of God's nature or essence. The relationship between the two will be discussed later.

Attribute and Predicate.

"Predicates" and "Attributes" must be carefully distinguised. "Predicates" are qualities affirmed of God which are not essential to His being, such as creatorship. "Attributes" on the other hand are essential, distinguishing characteristics without which God would not be God. "Predicate" is a wider term. "Predicates" may vary but not "attributes".

The Attributes of GOD.

A .H.Strong in his "Systermatic Theology" defines the attributes as follows — "The attributes of God arc those distinguishing characteristics of the Divine Nature which are inseparable from the idea of God and which constitute the basis and ground for His various manifestations to His creatures.

We call them attributes because we are compelled to attribute then to God as fundamental qualities or powers of His being, in order to give rational account of certain facts constant in God's self—revelation." (Tol.l.p.244).

Berkhof doubts the value of the term "attributes" and thinks properties" is better as referring to characteristics which are proper to God and God only. He prefers still more the terms "perfections" or "virtues" but adds "with the distinct understanding, however,that in this case the term
"virtues" is not used in a purely ethical sense" (Systematic Theology p.52).

This is not an easy subject for the finite mind, and if we are going to maintain a right conception of God, there are certain points which must be borne in mind when considering the attributes of God and their relationship to His being,

  1. We must avoid the extreme of considering the being of God as merely the sum total of His attributes, in other words that "God is a composite being made up of different elements". This tends to divide the character of God according to His attributes and to think of His holiness as one part of His character as against His justice as another part."The infiniteness of God is present in each attribute. The whole of God is in His justice, the whole of God is in His holiness. This explains why the attributes exist in the character of God in perfect harmony, for the essence of God is in each and all." (Bowie). God is attribute in Essence, not attribute and Essence.
  2. We must likewise avoid the other extreme of over simplifying the attributes to preserve the unity, in other words, conceiving of God as, in Himself, absolute simplicity with no other distinction of qualities or powers, and the attributes as merely names of ideas which we have concerning Him. This tends towards pantheism. The attributes are objective reality. Martensen states it correctly when he says that the attributes are "not human modes of apprehending God, but Godts mode of revealing Himself."
  3. The relationship between God's nature and His attributes can be clarified further in the words of Miley, "Being and attributes are separable in abstract thought, but inseparable in reality."
  4. While God can only be truly known through personal, spiritual contact, yet a study of His attributes enlarges our thought of God and deepens our love for Him and trust in Him. Therefore the chief value of this study is that it helps to preserve the idea of God from being indefinite and corrupt.
  5. It must constantly be kept in mind and needs to be repeated that attributes have no existence apart from the nature of God, nor can the Being of God have any reality apart from His attributes. Quotation from W.N.Clarke will perhaps help — It is important to remember that attributes do not make up the being of God.

On the contrary, we have to conceive of God as existing, with the essential powers of a personal spirit, before we can begin to attribute to Him modes of activity and qualities of character. The necessary powers of a personal spirit are not attributes. Thus, the affectional nature is not an attribute but love is. The power of knowing is not ranked as an attribute, for the spirit would not be spirit without the power of knowing; but omniscience, which is a mode of exorcising the power of knowing, is an attribute of God.

Will is not an attribute, but a necessary power; but holiness is an attribute of God for it is the quality of character by which all action of His will is determined. God exists as a personal spirit, and His attributes belong to Him or inhere in Hire."
(Outlines of Christian Theology pp.75,76.)

< back to previous page >

©2008 Church Education Trust