God in His Essence and Attributes

By: J N Darby

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?”

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.

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”!

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.