Who God Is
Let’s explore how various attributes of God are displayed in his truthfulness. “Attributes” of God are terms describing who he is. He is eternal, infinite, transcendent, good, loving, and so on. When we consider God’s truthfulness, we can see that it goes together with many other attributes. His attributes are on display in his truthfulness.
There is an underlying general principle here, related to simplicity. As we have seen, divine simplicity means that God cannot be divided up. Subordinately, it implies that his attributes cannot be divided up, so that we could place distinct attributes into neatly separated bins. We cannot cut out one attribute at a time, and consider it in isolation from everything else that God is. In fact, each attribute describes the whole of God, not just a part of him. If so, it also describes every other attribute, because all the attributes belong to who God is.
Truth is one attribute of God. So in this attribute it ought to be possible to see the other attributes, all of which belong to truth.
Let us begin with simplicity. Each attribute corresponds to some truth about God. It is true that God is omnipresent (everywhere present). It is true that God is eternal. It is true that God is unchangeable. Each of these truths is in the environment of the others. We cannot have one without the others. If by attributes we mean permanent features of God’s character, they all belong together, because they all belong to the one God. This inherent “belonging together” is another way of describing simplicity. It is equivalent to saying that God is simple. Or, because we are using the attribute of truth, we may say that truth is simple. That does not mean that there is only one formulation of truth. But it does mean that all the formulations belong together, each formulation having the attributes of God and belonging to the unity that is in God.
We may see one effect of this unity if we reflect on the fact that no truth can be thought about or discussed in total isolation from everything else. For example, for it to be meaningful to say, “God is omnipresent,” we have to have a sense of what it means to be present. And within the created world, his presence is a presence everywhere in space.
The next attribute is omniscience. God knows all things. We have said that God is truth. So he is all truths together. Since he is personal, he knows himself, and knows all truths. For example, he knew everything about David while David was still in the womb: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). He knows the words that we will speak before we speak them: “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (v. 4).
God is absolute. By this we mean that he is not dependent on anything outside himself. This attribute is closely related to simplicity. There is nothing in back of God on which he might be dependent. We can confirm this attribute if we think about the way in which we experience contact with the truth.
We are dependent on the truth. It makes an absolute claim on us. We might think that at least some truths are dependent on the world. Consider a particular case: Oak trees, like other trees, reproduce according to their kind (Gen. 1:11–12). That is a truth about oak trees. Naively, it might appear that this truth depends on the prior fact that oak trees exist in the world. So is this truth dependent on the world? To be sure, it is a truth about the world. And we as human beings do come to know about it because of God’s word in Genesis 1:11–12 and also because there are oak trees that we can observe. But what is the origin of the truth? The origin is in God, not in the world.
In thinking about the eternity of truth, truth exists even before the world existed. God had a plan (Isa. 46:9–10; Eph. 1:11) for the world. In his plan, he knew beforehand everything that would take place. So he also knew all truths. The truths about oak trees precede the oak trees. The oak trees are dependent on the truths, rather than the reverse.
The fact that the truth about various things precedes the things in the world has other implications. It means that the things in the world are held by the truth about them, rather than the truth being held as an idea subordinate to the world. When we focus on human knowledge, there are respects in which our knowledge is subordinate to the world, because we have to find out about the world. For example, I know that there is an oak tree in my front yard because the oak tree is there. The oak tree precedes my knowledge about it. But God’s knowledge is different. God’s knowledge about the oak tree precedes the oak tree. God planned for the oak tree to be there. That is why it is there. So truth in the mind of God precedes the oak tree.
So, in thinking about truth, we affirm aspects about how God governs the world. We are finding out about God, not merely about the world. Any truth about the world that we find is a truth that exists in God. So the world is subordinate in this way to the truth.
Truth, then, is omnipotent. The world is always, everywhere, thoroughly and perfectly subordinate to the truths in God:
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?” (Dan. 4:35)
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come? (Lam. 3:37–38)
Though there may be some truths that we evade at first, we find that, at a foundational level, truth is good. And it is good for us. If we have mistaken ideas about truth, we have mistaken ideas about the world. And these mistaken ideas may lead to disaster.
We may consider again a simple example. We cannot fly through the air and defy the law of gravity just by wishing we could. If we do not know this truth, we may imagine that we can fly through the air, and we injure ourselves by trying. It is good to know that we cannot will ourselves to fly through the air, because it protects us from disaster.
It also protects us from disappointment. It is good that there is an oak tree in my front yard. It is good because God creates good things. The oak tree is good. And it is good because the oak tree can be an occasion for me to admire God and praise him for what he has made.
Since God is a God of truth, God is good.
6. The Will of God
If God is good, God also wills what is good. He desires what is good. So he approves of the truth. The truth is what God wills. God’s having a will is one of his attributes. We may once again use the oak tree as an example. The oak tree is there because it was part of the truths in God’s plan that he planned for the oak tree to be there. He also willed it to be there. He desired it to be there.
Since God is a God of truth, God is good.
In our fallen condition, in rebellion against God, we do not deserve to receive the truth. So when truth comes to us, it comes as a mercy. The fact that we have some truth at all reflects the fact that God is merciful. People in rebellion against God can become so confused that they doubt the existence of the world. They might think that the oak tree in my front yard is only an illusion of an oak tree. God has rescued me from this delusion in giving me a conviction that the oak tree is there. Though sane people tend to take for granted such truths about the world, those truths are a gift. Each of us could have been insane.
We know deep down that the proper response to the truth is to love it. This should be taking place in the level of humanity, in our human response. But because we are made in the image of God, our human response reflects on the creaturely level something about God. What is God’s natural relation to the truth? God is loving, and he loves the truth.
Each particular truth, such as 2 + 2 = 4, fits the facts. When we come to the moral dimensions of personal action, this sense of “fitness” includes the fit evaluation of human persons, acts, and attitudes. “Righteousness” is moral fitness. Righteousness in the setting of a human court may also include attention to punishments for wrongdoing. The punishment has to fit the crime. “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obad. 15).1 Righteousness is the truth about the evaluation of moral acts. God is a God of truth. So he is also a God of righteousness. “Righteous are you, O Lord, and right are your rules” (Ps. 119:137).
Holiness is closely related to moral absoluteness, which we mentioned above. Truths make absolute moral claims on us. And by transcending us, they show that they have the holiness of God. Consider a comparison. The living creatures in Revelation 4 stand in the presence of God. They are holy, reflecting the holiness of God. Truths are in a sense even more in the presence of God, because they are in his mind. They are therefore holy. They manifest the exalted purity of God.
We may look at it another way. Truth is by nature not contaminated with error. Truth may be mixed with error in our own minds and our apprehensions. But truth itself is true and not erroneous. It is uncontaminated. That is to say, it is pure. Holiness is the word to describe the perfect purity of God. The truth about the oak tree in my front yard is pure, within God’s mind. The oak tree in this respect displays the holiness of God.
The attributes of God displayed in the truth are glorious. The fitting response is to praise God and to serve him. You may ask what truths God has brought to your attention today, and how they display his glory.
- Vern S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (1991; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), ch. 9.
This article is adapted from Truth, Theology, and Perspective: An Approach to Understanding Biblical Doctrine by Vern S. Poythress.
His almighty power makes it possible for him to reach out to us in love and to save us from our sins. This is why the attributes of God matter.
God’s unity of simplicity means that God is one with himself, selfsame and indivisible in his being and operations, and God is not composed of parts.
Most of us take God’s attributes for granted and seldom think about them specifically. They may be hard to fathom, but they matter greatly for our relationship to him.
How should we understand God in his fullness—both near to us as our Father and yet above and beyond us as our Creator?