Aseity, a study in God’s Incommunicable Attributes

Aseity, a study in God’s Incommunicable Attributes by Jack Kettler

The incommunicable attributes of God are those that belong to God alone. For example, such attributes as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence are incommunicable. These attributes are distinct from God’s communicable attributes such as knowledge, creativity, love, forgiveness. Man can share in the communicable attributes whereas the incommunicable attributes, he cannot.

In this study we will focus on God’s Aseity. How can aseity be defined?

God’s perfection whereby he is self-sufficient, self-existent and independent, existing “from himself”; his possession of life in himself so that he needs nothing from anything outside of himself, but rather is the source and sustenance of everything that exists.*

The aseity of God is His independent, self-existence. It is another word for His non-contingency. If God is self-existent and depends on nothing else for His being, then He is necessarily without cause and eternal. **

Aseity comes to English from the Latin. God’s aseity is the attribute of independent self-existence. God’s eternality (never-ending, everlasting) and immutability (unchangeable) are connected to His aseity. God’s existence has no source other than itself. God is not dependent on any part of creation for His existence. Before the creation of the space time universe, God had existence. He is self-existent!

From Scripture, God’s Aseity is seen in the following verses:

“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” (Exodus 3:14)

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” (Psalm 90:2)

“Thy throne is established of old: thou art from everlasting.” (Psalm 93:2)

“I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations. Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.” (Psalm 102:24-25)

“Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, mine Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction.” (Habakkuk 1:12)

“For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.” (John 5:26)

“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” (Acts 17:24-25)

“For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

“Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Revelations 4:11)

An Old Testament passage from Barnes’ Notes on the Bible on Psalms 93:2 we learn:

Thy throne is established of old – Whatever might occur, the throne of God was firm. That could not be moved. It had been set up from all eternity. It had stood through all the convulsions and changes which had occurred in the universe; and it would stand firm forever. Whatever might change, that was immovable; and as long as that is unchanged we have a ground of security and hope. Should “that” be moved, all would be gone. The margin here is, as in Hebrew, “from then:” but it means “of old;” from the most ancient times; that is, from the period indicated by the next clause, “from everlasting.”

Thou art from everlasting – From all eternity; thou hast always existed; thou art ever the same Psalm 90:1. (1)

A New Testament passage from Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on John 5:26 we learn:

(26) Hath he given to the Son.—Better, gave He to the Son also.

Life in himself.—The Son has spoken of the dead hearing His voice and living, but this giving of life to others can only be by one who has in himself an original source of life. This the Father has, and this the Son also has. To the Son in His pre-existent state it was natural, as being equal with the Father. To the Son who had emptied Himself of the exercise of the attributes which constituted the glory of that state (comp. again Philippians 2:6 et seq.), it was part of the Father’s gift by which He exalted Him exceedingly, and gave Him the name which is above every name. It was, then, a gift in time to One who had possessed it before all time, and for the purposes of the mediatorial work had relinquished it. It was a gift, not to the Eternal Son, but to the Incarnate Word. (2)

From Herman Bavinck we learn more about aseity:

“We begin our discussion of God’s attributes, therefore, with aseity or independence, a fact more or less recognized by all humans in the very definition of “God.” If God is to be truly God, he must be sufficient unto himself. He is dependent on nothing, he needs nothing; rather, all that exists depends on him. He is the only source of all existence and life, of all light and love, the overflowing fountain of all good (Ps. 36:10; Acts 17:25), the Alpha and the Omega who is and who was and who is to come (Isa. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; Rev. 1:8). He is the perfect, highest, the most excellent being, “than whom nothing better can exist or be thought.” All being is contained in him. He is a boundless ocean of being. “If you have said of God that he is good, great, blessed, wise or any other such quality, it is summed up in a single word: he is (Est). Indeed, for him to be is to be all these things. Even if you add a hundred such qualities, you have not gone outside the boundaries of his being. Having said them all, you have added nothing; having said none of them, you have subtracted nothing.”32 Roman Catholic and Reformation theologians follow this Scholastic affirmation, with the Reformed eventually coming to prefer the term “independence” over “aseity.” While aseity only expresses God’s self-sufficiency in his existence, independence has a broader sense and implies that God is independent in everything: in his existence, in his perfections, in his decrees, and in his works. Accordingly, while in the past theologians mostly used the name YHWH as their starting point, in later years God’s independence occurs most often as the first of the incommunicable attributes.33 We must conceive of God’s independence not only as God having being from himself but also as the fullness of being, the inclusion of other perfections. They are given with the aseity itself and are the rich and multifaceted development of it. It is this attribute that vividly and plainly marks the immeasurable distinction between the Creator and creature. There is, nevertheless, a weak analogy in all creatures also of this perfection of God. Pantheism, indeed, cannot acknowledge this, but theism stands for the fact that a creature, though absolutely dependent, nevertheless also has a distinct existence of its own. Implanted in this existence there is “a drive toward self-preservation.” Every creature, to the extent that it shares in existence, fears death, and even the tiniest atom offers resistance to all attempts at annihilating it. Again: it is a shadow of the independent, immutable being of our God.” (3)

In summary of our studies on God’s incommunicable attributes, the reader will benefit immensely from the following:

The Divine Attributes by Gordon H. Clark

ATTRIBUTES, THE DIVINE. The divine attributes are, in the language of ordinary conversation, simply the characteristics or qualities of God. As water is wet and fire hot, so God is eternal, immutable, omnipotent, just, holy, and so on. Perhaps these divine characteristics are quite numerous; but usually it is only the more comprehensive terms that are discussed.

Beneath this simplicity lurk some of the most intricate problems and some of the most futile discussions ever attempted by theology. Taking their start from Aristotle’s confused theory of categories, theologians have analyzed God into an unknowable substratum, called his substance or essence, on the surface of which lay the knowable attributes, much like a visible coat of paint on a table-top that could never be seen or touched. Luther and Calvin made a great advance when they buried this scholastic rubbish, though it has been dug up more than once since.

ASEITY is a barbarous Latinism to indicate God’s absolute independence. He depends a se, on himself. He is self-existent. Sometimes, on the assumption that every reality must have a cause, God has been said to be the cause of himself. In this case he would also have to be the effect of himself; but the terms cause and effect must be stretched beyond any ordinary meaning, if only a single reality is in view. It would be more intelligible to say that God is the necessary Being — a phrase used in the ontological argument for God’s existence. In some imaginary polytheistic system there might be several self-existent beings and no creation ex nihilo; but in its biblical context the aseity of God and the doctrine of creation are inseparable. Certainly creation ex nihilo presupposes God’s self-existence.

The ETERNITY of God also seems to be involved in his aseity. The two appear to be in reality the same thing. If God does not exist in virtue of some external cause, but is self-existent, he could not have come into being; for it is inconceivable that a pure nothing should suddenly generate a self-existent God. Furthermore, if time is a function of the created mind, as St. Augustine said, or a function of moving bodies, as Aristotle taught, and is therefore an aspect of the universe, it follows that God transcends temporal relationships.

IMMUTABILITY follows upon aseity and eternity. Time and change are together denied of God. “They shall be changed, but thou are the same” (Heb. 1:12). If self-existence should change, it would become dependent existence; eternity would become time; perfection imperfection, and therefore God would become not-God. Cf. Num. 23:19, Ps. 33:11; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17.

INFINITY is hardly different from the preceding. Infinite means unlimited. What is self-existent must be unlimited. Infinite has sometimes meant indefinite or imperfect, from which is has been concluded that an infinite God could not have the limitation or definiteness of personality. This ancient usage is not what is intended. God is not the vague “boundless” of Anaximander; he is thoroughly definite. Etymology to the contrary, his definite attributes are in-finite. Nothing limits his power, wisdom, justice, and so on.

OMNIPOTENCE means that God can do all things. See the entry on GOD. Sophistic objections are sometimes brought against divine omnipotence by raising pseudo-problems. Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Can God draw a square with only three sides? These questions involve self-contradictions, are therefore meaningless, and set no real problem. With omnipotence should be joined sovereignty. God is the Supreme Being.

OMNIPRESENCE, Ubiquity, and Immensity refer to God’s relation to all space. To put it simply, God is everywhere. Cf. Ps. 139:7. Instead of saying God is everywhere in the world, it might be better to say that everywhere in the world is in God; for “in him we live and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The difficulty is that God is not an extended, spatial being; God is a Spirit; and the preposition in cannot be used in its spatial sense. There are non-spatial senses: note the second in in the preceding sentence. Omnipresence therefore means that God knows and controls everything. It hardly differs from omnipotence.

OMNISCIENCE means that God knows all things. Why should he not? He made all things and decided their history. He works “all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11).

Theologians have argued whether these attributes are really distinct and differ in God, or only seem different to us. Both positions have been defended. Some theologians have tried to straddle the question by saying that the attributes are not really different, nor merely apparently different to us, but are virtually different. It is hard to attach a meaning to such a vague expression. The short account above might suggest that the attributes are not only the same in God, but with a little thought they appear to be the same to us too.

Distinguished from these previous attributes, sometimes awkwardly named the natural attributes, is a second set called the moral attributes: WISDOM, JUSTICE, HOLINESS, GOODNESS, and the like. Neither group has a logical principle of derivation, and therefore there is no fixed number. The moral attributes are not too easily defined, but are better described by the scriptural passages that refer to them. With respect to wisdom one might cite: “The Lord is a God of knowledge” (I Sam. 2:3); and “His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). As for justice: “All his ways are judgment, a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut. 32:4); and “to declare at this time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Holiness is sometimes thought of as a synonym for justice and righteousness; it has also been given a root meaning of separate, from which the inference has been drawn that holiness is not an “attribute” but an effect of the attributes: the attributes separate God from all else.

At first sight these moral attributes seem more distinguishable among themselves than the natural attributes are, and still more distinguishable from the natural attributes. Yet justice is easily interpreted as a particular form of wisdom, and this merges with omniscience. Similarly righteousness is an expression of God’s sovereignty in maintaining the divine legislation, and this is an exercise of power and knowledge. The unity of the attributes therefore is a thesis that cannot be thoughtlessly dismissed. (4)

In closing, John 8:58 has much to say about Christ’s aseity. A short entry from Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary captures this perfectly:

58. Before Abraham was, I am—The words rendered “was” and “am” are quite different. The one clause means, “Abraham was brought into being”; the other, “I exist.” The statement therefore is not that Christ came into existence before Abraham did (as Arians affirm is the meaning), but that He never came into being at all, but existed before Abraham had a being; in other words, existed before creation, or eternally (as Joh 1:1). In that sense the Jews plainly understood Him, since “then took they up stones to cast at Him,” just as they had before done when they saw that He made Himself equal with God (Joh 5:18).

hid himself—(See on [1814]Lu 4:30). (5)

God is self-existent as the Scriptures declare:

“They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.” (Psalms 102:26-27)

The goal of this study is to help us magnify the Lord God for his marvelous grace that made us children of God through no merit of our own. It is my prayer that this goal has been attained.

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Nothing in us caused or merited this supreme act of love on God’s part!

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Notes:

1. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Psalms, Vol. 5 p.1514.

2. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, John, Vol.1, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 419.

3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker), pp. 186-187.

4. Everett F. Harrison, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House. 1960), pp. 78-79.

5. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 1047.

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)

“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com

For more study:

* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/

** CARM https://carm.org/what-is-the-aseity-of-god

The Aseity (Self-Existence) of God https://www.monergism.com/topics/god%E2%80%99s-attributes/aseity-self-existence-god

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