God in His Essence and Attributes

J. N. Darby.

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What is fundamental in speaking of attributes, is inherent in the very term itself. It is not the being in its essential nature, even though always found there, but what is rightly attributed to the being as such; and in speaking of God this is not without importance; and the difference will be found very simple. Attributes are relative; hence God, who is absolute, cannot be spoken of as being the attribute itself. It is only a character which belongs to Him. God is something in Himself. But He is also something in relationship to other things when they exist or are supposed to exist. The attributes may be a necessary consequence of what He is, and I suppose in God always are, but they are not what He is Himself.

Further, no attribute can be rightly appropriated to God, which removes Him from His place as God, in necessary and absolute supremacy. The Being to whom I attribute it is gone if I do so. God cannot be the object of judgment, or He has wholly lost His place as God; yea, he who judges sets himself up in His place, and puts God in subjection to him. Evidently He is thus no longer God. Cicero says in the de Officiis, "Quasi material . . . subjecta est veritas." Now this evidently God can never be, for my mind is here supreme, and God subject to it. This is at once the pride and the folly of man. This is what modern Rationalism (and I suppose the mind of man has always so acted) calls the supremacy of conscience, by which revelation and everything else is judged of. But if conscience, as my action and judgment, is supreme, there is no God at all. A God who is not alone supreme, is no God.

Has man, then, no thought of God at all? Not so. He cannot judge by his mind, but he has the knowledge of good and evil - conscience. It may be corrupted, perverted, hardened, but he makes the difference of right and wrong. Scripture shews us he got this by the fall, and so as under sin. Still it brings in God, saying "The man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil." It is not a law, a rule from without, imposed, but what is intrinsic (in man). He says, That is a good thing, that a bad one; and he concludes at once, God cannot approve a wrong thing, nor condemn a good thing. A man may, from passions, education, habit, have a very wrong measure of right and wrong; and demon-gods may make him put evil for good, and good for evil; but he makes the difference, and the sense of right or wrong in itself leads him to attribute right to God, and not wrong. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

2 But this right and wrong is connected with obligation, and is measured by relationships. I owe to a father, a husband, my neighbour, what belongs to that relationship: so to God. That is, the unperverted sense of right and wrong puts God in His place, does not judge Him. It is not an idea formed, but a relationship recognised, and hence subjection. Thus Adam lived in peace before the fall. Divine supremacy and authority was there, and owned, and then with knowledge the relationship was transgressed.

But supposing this sense of right and wrong in man, and that it is connected with the relationships in which we stand, I do hold that God loves righteousness and hates iniquity, because I intrinsically know right and wrong, but right and wrong being apprehended in the relationship, God is supreme to my mind; that is the first of rights. He is God, as much as my father is my father, and I own subjection to Him as God. I do say, He must be righteous, for that is the expression of acting on what is right and good in the relationships in which He has placed others, as far as consistent with supremacy and righteousness. But this is not supremacy of conscience, as if I were judge, and my measure of right and wrong, or my discernment of it perfect; but that I do conclude from right and wrong abstractedly to right in God, but at the same time to supremacy and perfection as the point I start from. One must not confound the measure of right and wrong with the sense of it. To speak of the supremacy of conscience, is to assume that its measure is perfect and adequate, not obligation under it. When I judge God or any one, I take a measure to judge by, and may misjudge from the state of my own mind. That is not conscience. Conscience with God recognises authority also over it, and supreme authority, or God is not recognised at all, and that is simply atheism. What these modern infidels claim - is to make their consciences the measure of right and wrong. This is false and grossly pretentious, and destroys the nature of God, and right as regards Him.

But we have already got into the discussion of relative qualities in God. This is what supposes other things besides the absolute being. If God is righteous, though He be so, He must be so towards others; it is relative. There are two words applied to God, which reveal His nature - Love and Light - and only these two. They affirm what He is in nature - not any attribute. Love is goodness, but in supremacy; for, in its abstract nature goodness is identified with supremacy, for it must be free. It is in this it is different from desire, even when it is a holy desire.

3 Love is used, I know, in human language for desire, in the best and most amiable sense. But though the same word be used in the sense of an inferior to a superior, or even an equal, this is in connection with a motive - is moved.

But love, as goodness itself, is blessed in itself and free in its actings, unless want or misery draw it out; but it has not a motive which characterises it by its object. This is always the case in desire, even when it is in no way evil, but has the character of affection. In ordinary desires it forms so far the character; money, power, pleasure, give their character to the man who seeks them; but though love be used as to them, it is evidently in a lower sense, and, where desires are, the desired object so far rules over us. Where love exists in a divinely-formed relationship, it is, or may be a just affection. I say, "may be," because it may run into a mere desire and be idolatry, and the relationship falsified. But when rightly in exercise, save as man in certain aspects represents God, it looks up, and characterises the person in the affection. It is conjugal, filial, and the like. A husband and a father in certain respects represent God in those relationships, and so far it partakes of what He is. But in the closest relationship where it is not this, it has the character I speak of: "Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."

But God suffices to Himself, and goodness makes Him infinitely happy in Himself. For goodness is happy if it has no object, though happy in goodness when it is exercised towards one. Hence it is free, because it suffices for itself. Hence though, in certain relationships, man may be the image of God, yet as he cannot suffice to himself, and so be free and sovereign, he is not said to be love, though he is to walk in it. He is as to any right state subject and recipient. The divine nature is in the Christian, and he loves; still "we love because"!

4 But we are light in the Lord. The purity of nature which belongs essentially to God is made ours in the new man; as far as it acts in us it manifests everything around us in its true character. Christ was love in the world, and the light of the world. He is the measure of both for us. It is a blessed thing that the two essential names of God should be the expression of the new man in us; only, as we have seen, we are not said to be love. But that which is the nature of God characterises us, and makes us to enjoy Him, and to act according to that character here through grace.

These, as I have said, are not attributes. Attributes are ideas which we attach to God in connection with what is outside Himself, though belonging necessarily to Him as God. He is omnipotent, omniscient, supreme; even righteous, holy; these, though more connected with His nature, are relative terms. I must think of God's dealings and claims to call Him righteous. He judges of something when He is righteous, only it affirms He always judges right. To call Him holy, I must think of evil which He rejects. Hence He is not called righteousness and holiness, but righteous and holy. What He says is truth, but He is not truth. Truth is what is rightly affirmed of something else. But God is not affirmed of something else. We can say Christ is the Truth, because He does tell exactly what everything is - what God is, perfect man is, and by contrast what evil man is, what the world is, who is its prince. Through Him all is exactly brought out in its true character. Hence we say, God in Himself is absolutely Love and Light - the last expressing perfect purity (invisible in itself), and manifesting everything as it is before God, and shewing the way before us: and God is righteous, holy, omniscient, omnipotent, supreme, and the like - all of which are relative terms - the former moral, the latter natural attributes.

Righteousness is perfectness in, or consistency with the relationship in which anyone stands; evil and good being known. Holiness, the aspect of heart, which intrinsic purity of nature bears towards other things, according to their character. We may speak of things as holy when entirely set apart to God, and separated from all profane use; but properly it applies to persons expressing their abhorrence of evil and delight in that which is pure and good. God is holy in Himself, abhorring evil and delighting in what answers to His perfect nature. The creature can only be holy as separated to God in what He is in His perfectness, because its nature can have no true and perfect object but Him, and its object gives its character to a nature in a creature, and holiness is the expression of a nature, not the obligation of a relationship. We are holy as far as every movement of thought answers to the impress and character of God, having Him for its object. Anything taken up in itself, apart from Him, is necessarily independency and sin. So far God is set aside. We have no object which makes the heart right but Him. Although we cannot leave God out as the author of, and as giving authority to, the relations in which we stand; yet, as we are placed in certain relationships, righteousness has somewhat more extensive range, though as a sanction God must be brought in. But whenever a relationship owned of God exists, it is unrighteous not to act up to it: not to be faithful to obligation in it.

5 Now God, as righteous, maintains judicially every obligation which any relationship imposes on us. But first and above all, relationship to Himself according to His supremacy and moral nature; this is the basis and stay of every other. Only Christianity has brought out a second and more perfect measure of this. It recognises what is due from man according to the measure of man, his obligations in the place he is in towards God and his neighbour. Of this the law is the perfect measure, God making allowance for ignorance of the measure.

But besides this, God Himself has been perfectly glorified by the blessed Lord. All that He is, where sin gave occasion to the full revelation of all that He is, has been glorified in Christ, and a new ground of relationship formed according to what He is, based on what Christ has wrought. Hence man is in the glory of God, and God's righteousness is displayed in that.

Judgment is based on the actual obligations founded on the relationship in which man is. Acceptance goes much farther, and is according to the worth of the Lord's work; we are made the righteousness of God in Him. But God in righteousness maintains all the relationships in which man stands according to His will.

It is well also to distinguish between the righteousness of God in government, and the immutable character of God, according to which we must stand before Him, if in His revealed presence. His revealed requirement of righteousness forms, with long patience exercised on His part, through goodness, the basis of His righteous government, never to be fully revealed until Christ comes; partially displayed in Israel, where needed to maintain the recollection of it everywhere; and in a signal way in the flood which closed the old world.

6 But standing before God fully revealed, supposes not our obligations to Him in government exercised to maintain His authority, and the natural sense, or revealed rule of right or wrong, but fitness for His own presence. This is in Christ only. This is fully revealed in Christianity alone, and wrath from heaven in connection with it; Rom. 1:1-20.

When I speak of what is holy, it is not judicial authority, as in the case of righteousness, but what purity of nature abhors and rejects, or delights in. Righteous and holy are the attributes which attach themselves to the moral nature of God and His supreme authority.

But there is that in God, the sense of which is with difficulty lost in man, though he be without God in the world. This has turned the sense of a being above himself, perfect in knowledge and power, a Supreme Being, into what is the fruit of imagination or servile dread - Mythology and Fetishism. The visible powers of nature were deified, because a God was wanting for the heart. The legends of ancient days were turned into myths of the gods. Terror told of a revengeful power, and a world of retribution loomed to an unsatisfied conscience. Man would animate planets, because they moved without him: he would have poetical lusts in superficial and self-satisfied Greece; more calculated sobriety in Egypt, a sunny south of gods, and northern immensity of giants, and storms, and mountains in Scandinavia; or seek to solve the mystery of good and evil in Ahriman and Ahurmazdha in Arva, or revel in monstrous reveries in India. Cruelty and poetry might divide the world under the name of gods, but behind all there was everywhere Tertullian's "Testimonium animae naturaliter christianae," an "unknown God" - a Brahm, the origin of all things, a primeval source or power.

In Fetishism - degraded into a dread of some terrible unknown power, which priests used for their own purposes; in more cultivated religions, kept as the secret mysterious knowledge belonging to them, or to the initiated only, while the vulgar were kept in play with the more convenient everyday materials of popular mythology - the gods and goddesses of nature and imagination; yet still, though inconsistently, clothing them with attributes and powers which, if true, could only belong to one supreme God. And this was so true, that each local mythology had this twofold character, and that, even to particular cities.

7 In India, in the sects of Vaishnavas and Saivas, and one supreme God above the rest, the idea of God, and attributes of supremacy, omniscience and omnipotence, ran through all, however confused and inconsistent. These attributes were symbolised, too, as in the winged bulls, and lions, and men of Assyria - symbols recognised in Scripture; with this immense difference, that in heathen symbols, save in the vague idea of divinity, God was thought of no further than the attributes or symbols.

In Judaism, these formed but the throne of a known God who sat above them; the clearest expression, on the one hand, of the mind of man losing itself without God in knowledge it could not retain or carry, and on the other, of the clearness of the revelation which made one true God known.* Supremacy, omniscience, omnipotence, attach themselves necessarily to our idea of one God the moment the thought takes a definite form, and the attributes involved in them are not lost in mythological associations.

{*See the beginning of Ezekiel: God was seated above these figures. The extreme perverseness, and I must add, superficiality of man's mind and infidelity are shewn in Max Muller's "Science of Religion," and such-like works, licensing and promoting mythology, because it had the thought of God behind it all, as if it were the expression of it; whereas it was the gross departure of man's mind, when he had it, to degrade the idea of God when he had departed from Him; and that in connection with the basest defilement and cruelty, so that God in His true nature and conscience were alike lost - morally gone - though neither could be destroyed.}

In heathenism, where these activities are attributed to subordinate energies, the one original God was mere abstract, inert godhead - abstract existence.

In India, sole existence, sometimes springing into activity of thought and desire, all which became creation, including the gods, and was Maia, or Illusion, and returning into abstract godhead again, when Brahm's occasional activity ceased.

Modern Materialism does little more than substitute scientific activities of nature for poetical activities, and is worth about as much; for after all, we must want a cause. Phosphorus may put activity into the brain, not moral thought; but what puts activity into phosphorus, or gives it this mental character? Indeed, wherever I find a regular difference in a like agency, I find a difference-maker! The tubers of a plant, which convert the elements of the same soil into a geranium or an oak, force on me the conviction of design and mind.

8 I do not connect omnipresence and eternity as attributes with God, not because they may not, in an ordinary sense, be said to be so; and Scripture itself so speaks practically, and it always speaks practically, because truly; but that in our minds they are connected with time and space, which do not apply to God. There is no time when God is not; no place where His eye and hand, to use human language, are not. "I AM" is the proper expression of His existence. While time rolls on "I am" remains unchanged, and when time has rolled away "I am" subsists the same. It can hardly be called an attribute. This being understood, we may speak of eternal as a natural attribute of God.

As to omnipresence, God has no more to do with space than with time. He has created all things in a way apprehensible thus to us. In this creation nothing escapes Him. He is, morally speaking, omnipresent. He is not of, or in it, but pervades it. He is "through all"! He upholds everything, as He creates everything. He is not morally concerned in any motive (save as working in man in grace), but not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him.

Omnipotence is involved in this - the power to do whatever it is His will to do. Omniscience is involved in it also. Did not God know all things, He could neither know what to do rightly, nor judge morally. Supremacy is involved in our very idea of God as one, and active in power. They are inherent in our idea of God, and (when once the heathenish additions of what are confessedly imaginations are removed) cannot be separated from the idea of God. That which it is important to get fast hold of is, that there is a will in God. No moral being can be without it; a will guided by righteousness and holiness, and to which omnipotence and omniscience are subservient, but which is the source and origin of all that exists outside Himself, not of its state, for moral beings have a will, but of its existence.

He is a Creator. I do not say that simple existence can be proved to be a matter of creation by logical deduction. But simple existence is an abstraction. Man sees trees, planets moving; in a word, evidence of design, and that, which has been so often argued, involves a designer. The distinct knowledge of a Creator is a matter of faith. Yet if man does suppose the abstract existence of matter without a cause, he violates the first principles of necessary thought. He is accustomed to see man form many things out of comparatively formless matter, so he has an idea of this latter. But if he begins to think of why anything existed, he cannot avoid the thought of a cause. Why, implies it? and I can say Why? and it is my nature to say Why? I am so constituted as to look for a cause. I may not be able to define cause,* nor can I conceive creation; but I cannot conceive, on the other hand, a thing existing without it. My mind may be inert, and so far take what exists as I find it; but as soon as it is in activity, it looks for why a thing exists. The same thing proves I cannot know a first cause, but only that there must be one. I cannot conceive a thing existing without a cause, therefore I say there must be one. But a first cause means what exists without one. That is, I cannot conceive it. Hence, too, I cannot conceive creation, though I know there must be a Creator. It is merely saying, I am a creature, and must think in the order of my being.

{*A cause, I apprehend, is power producing from a will working somewhere. I say "somewhere," as school-men speak, there is a "cause causata," and "causa causans."}

9 Goodness or love, omniscience and omnipotence, involve in them perfect wisdom; only all this supposes a God, with a free will to exist, before any attribute can be assigned to Him. If not free to act, omniscience and omnipotence are simply null.

One class of philosophers - unable as we are, in the nature of things as creatures, to conceive a creation (for the creature must think in his own order, that is, creature order; he can no more have an idea of creation than create - power is not in him), judges "Ex nihilo nihil fit."* For him it is true; but it is only the great fallacy, common to philosophy, of taking our capacity of thought and action as the measure of what may be, which is simply absurd. It is our measure as to power, be it of thought or action; we must think or act according to our nature, and can think no more as to forming ideas. But it is wholly false if it deny the consciousness of what is above us and applicable to us receptively. We may be acted on mentally and physically by that which is no possessed power in us. Active power or capacity for it is not the measure of receptivity.

{*Out of nothing, nothing is made.}

10 Further, I may negatively be conscious of the necessity of a thing of which I can form no idea, because it is beyond my order of being. Thus I naturally ascribe an effect to a cause, a power producing it. I see a thing becomes, begins to exist, as it is before me; I at once ascribe it to some cause. I am so formed as to suppose a why? It cannot be without some cause. It is not a formed idea of what the cause is, but the conviction that there must be one. It appears to me as an effect, and effect contains the idea of a cause in it. Hence I believe in creation. Not that I form an idea of it, but that negatively it cannot but be.

I have already said, the nature of the proof demonstrates that I cannot form an idea of the thing proved in itself. But there is clearly seen eternal power and godhead. And here note that creative power involves eternal power, for all begins by creation, and all creation begins. But what creatures must be, that is, exist absolutely without a beginning. "I am," therefore, or absolute existence, is the one just revelation of God as such.

We have thus one personal God - "I am," supreme, absolutely free, omniscient, omnipotent, wise, the Creator. These are, so to speak, natural attributes; moral ones are righteous, holy, good; known to man not by ideas or thinking, which is impossible, for then man's mind would be at least the equal of God, that is, He would not be God at all; but by conscience, or the knowledge of good and evil, the proofs in the creation around us of creative power and wisdom, and in spite of the undeniable, utter degradation of man, in corruption and violence, and the monstrous deities into which he had merged it, the idea of God, the abiding sense of unity, supremacy, absolute godhead, everywhere found.

If Jupiter be suckled by a goat in Crete, the idea of supremacy remains. If Krishna lives with the milkmaids, in time he is an incarnation of Vishnu, and Vishnu is Brahm, the rest Maia or Illusion. The gods are mortal; God is not. It may be Bathos, or Silence, or as unknown as you please, when the feeble mind of man tries to have a formed idea; but before it acts, behind the gods of imagination or lusts or fears, there is not only godhead, but one God. The Manitou of the Indian, the eternal being before Ahurmazdha, was active for good, or Ahriman, to spoil his work.

11 And remark here, that where ideas flow from a relationship in which we exist, which belongs to our nature in its original constitution, it may be by thinking and imagination, education, habit in religious things, priestcraft, be perverted, falsified, degraded (and the mind with it), or reasoned against from the inadequacy of the mind to master it as an idea; but the roots of it are in the nature. To have it falsified, there must be something to falsify. "Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret." Hence, prone as the human mind is to indulge its imagination, stop short of God whom it fears, and have gods and idols which it can manage after its own lusts and thoughts, yet, when the truth of the relationship is brought out, the soul recognises it.

The unity, supremacy, omniscience, omnipotence, of God, and our responsibility to Him, are owned, when divine revelation has brought them out, as the only truth, by all. I do not mean by that, that the mind of man cannot or does not seek to disprove it, and have no God at all, because it does not like one, does not like responsibility, and likes to be supreme - at least to have no one above it. But this is an effort, and an effort whose effects never last with the masses; that is, with man according to nature - an effort, too, always connected with oppression or violence and profligacy, as in the fall of the Roman Empire and in the French Revolution. Morality must disappear; for there can be no morality without responsibility, and responsibility without God is impossible. For to whom am I responsible if there be not one above me? Responsibility refers to relationship, and all relationship, even human, is founded on relationship to Him. Without Him self-will acts; each one will have his own, and man becomes a mixture of the devil and the brute, or is kept down by power because it must be, or worse; while power in result will cultivate superstition, because of its sway over men's minds. And, indeed, where faith or revelation does not give a true sphere outside self, man cannot rest in self, and he will make a false one. Hence, under Satan's power, the religions of the world.

Revelation, in making known the true God, meets - not the knowledge, but the wants of the human mind. It is the witness of its own truth, because it meets and clears out those springs in the soul which were the subjective adaptation to the relationship in which it stood in truth with God; and the objective revelation perfectly meets them, fits in, and so far God is known.*

{*Hence, where revelation exists, God is owned where there is no true conversion. Hence the superiority morally of Protestantism (which owns the true revelation, and uses it personally) to Popery, which has set up a mythological system of saints, etc., and established a priesthood, which is always, and must be, if God be not known directly and immediately. In Protestantism the conscience has to say to God immediately as revealed: in Romanism not - the priest is a director.}

12 If we take Scripture, we find there the attributes of God - the one true and only God - shine out, and in every page, with unclouded lustre. He is one, supreme, the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things; knows all things. If we go to heaven, He is there; to hades, He is there (Jer. 23:24); can do all things. His eye and presence are everywhere; He is the eternal God; He is righteous and holy ; His goodness is over all His works. The cravings of the heart of man are met with the clearest and fullest revelation of God. I refer to the Old Testament, because there God, as such - the one true God - is fully and specially revealed in contrast with idols and man's imaginations. It is its special, direct revelation, with the law of His mouth - though promises and prophecies accompany it.

The New fully confirms it, I need not say; but there is a much fuller revelation in the Father sending the Son for the accomplishment of His ways in grace, and this characterises it. He does not give a revelation, He is revealed. Hence, though of course the attributes remain true, it is not attributes which characterise it, but what He is - light and love; righteousness and holiness necessarily coming in - but His own. Not the requirements of man's for Him, which quite alters the character of them as revealed. In the Old we could say, "The righteous Lord loveth righteousness." "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Now, He - Christ - is our righteousness; we are made the righteousness of God in Him. It is in the New Testament we find God revealed in Christ as light and love, and we, "light in the Lord," and partakers of the divine nature, have to walk in the light, and know, through the redemption that is in Christ, that perfect love that casts out fear.

This is more than attributes, as we have said, though it confirms, is in a certain sense the source of, and makes us to know them all, and give each its own and full place.