Divine Aseity

“Life in and of Himself”

Introduction: Two Categories in the Study of God

Following the recent article, “The Proper Name of God: Yahweh,” we continue in the actual study of God himself. We now know that God exists, and not only that, but he also exists differently than creatures. He not only lives, but also has life in himself (John 5:26), is Life itself (14:6), and gives life to all (Acts 17:25). Because of who God is and how he is, he is thus different than creatures. This differentiation is most clearly seen in his attributes and triunity––two massive categories in the study of God. The former category does not pertain to a deeper reality or lower foundational layer of the trinitarian persons. Instead, “these categories are aspectival, not partitive. The triunity of God refers to the entirety of God’s nature, while the attributes of God also refer to that same entirety albeit from a different angle or aspect.”[1] The following series of articles will cover the attributes of God, then, after this series, we shall discuss God’s triunity in another series of articles.

Incommunicable Attributes

When most people think of God’s attributes, they think of the attributes of love, justice, or mercy etc. While those are true attributes of God, those are communicable attributes––attributes shared analogically with humans, for surely humans show love, justice, and mercy, but they do so in an analogical (related but imperfect and incomplete) way. Here, when we speak of the attributes that wholly differentiate God from creatures, we are speaking of the divine perfections or incommunicable attributes of God. These perfections, or incommunicable attributes, are incommunicable in that they are unique to God and to God alone. They distinguish God from creatures and thus, “cannot be understood to be true, even analogically, of creatures.”[2] These distinctive attributes often include: aseity, immutability, impassability, infinitude, and simplicity. This particular article focuses on the attribute of aseity––God’s life in himself.

Thesis

A theological thesis shall represent and guide all that follows: Aseity is God’s life, namely, it is his life in, of, and from himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. This attribute signifies that God is independent, self-existent, and self-sufficient in himself and therefore he does not have lack nor does he need anything outside of himself.

An Important Note on the “Ordering” of the Incommunicable Attributes

Before we give an exposition of the incommunicable attributes, a clarification for the order of our presentation ought to be given. We shall begin with the perfection of divine aseity. In doing this, we do not mean to rank this as the highest or most important attribute of God. Rather, because of our limited knowledge and capacity of understanding God, we find it easier to contemplate the incommunicable attributes by beginning with aseity.

From this, we shall end with divine simplicity (God’s oneness and indivisibility). This, however, is not to say that the perfection of simplicity is the least important of the others. Rather, we end with simplicity because it will help us understand how all the other incommunicable attributes relate to each other. In other words, it will help us explain who God is in all of his attributes. Thus, we begin with aseity because the other divine perfections logically, from a human standpoint, flow forth from it, and we shall end with divine simplicity in this series of God’s attributes because it deals with how all the divine perfections relate to one another.

Aseity: “Life in Himself”

The first logical implication from God’s absolute existence is that God is not dependent on another being, that is, he is a se­––he has the attribute of aseity.[3]  “Aseity refers to God’s self-existence or independence from creation.”[4] God has no external source, necessity, origin, or cause. Hence, God is one without lack, being fully self-sufficient for and in his own existence. Aseity, therefore, indicates that in absolutely every respect God is uncaused, underived, and wholly original. Simply speaking, God’s aseity indicates that he has no need outside of himself.

However, speaking in this manner (using negations) does not fully capture the doctrine of aseity. John Webster comments, “Aseity is not to be defined merely in negative terms, as the mere absence of origination from or dependence upon an external cause. If this is allowed to happen, then a subordinate characteristics (God’s ‘not being from another’) comes to eclipse its primary meaning (God’s ‘being in and from himself’).”[5] This means that “in theology aseity is a positive material concept, determined by the particular form of God’s self-expressive perfection.”[6]  Therefore, aseity is not a merely comparative concept (though it indeed distinguishes God from creatures). What Webster is getting at is this: aseity is not merely a negation, saying what God is not. Rather, it indicates something real about God’s identity. What then is aseity? “Aseity is life: God’s life from and therefore in himself.”[7] This then means that God’s life can be understood as inseity. “God is not merely the unconditioned, but is within himself an unrestricted fullness.”[8] This life in and from himself is not something held only by the Father, but with respect to the divine essence, the Father, Son, and Spirit are a se.[9] Aseity is simply triune. Aseity is God’s life in, of, and from himself in the inner trinitarian relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. John 5:26 shows this well: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” We must say, along with Webster, “aseity is therefore the eternal lively plenitude of the Father who begets, the Son who is begotten and the Spirit who proceeds from both.”[10] Aseity, therefore, is much, much more than an absence of external causation or origination. God is one who is wholly self-sufficient who is in and of himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. He is one who is autotheos (God-of-himself).

A note on what aseity is not should be mentioned. Some may consider aseity is “self-causation” (causa sui) “he is his own cause.” However, this terminology, “cause,” treads dangerous waters. Webster helps wonderfully here:

“Talk of God as his own cause cannot easily cohere with teaching about divine eternity or immutability, since it appears to introduce an actualist concept of God’s ‘coming-to-be’ as the result [of] some causal process. Further, it imperils divine simplicity introducing distinctions between cause and that which is caused, or between potentiality and act, by attributing potentiality to God, undermine the all-important identity of essence and existence in God…. By suggesting that God produces himself, it seems to require the possibility of God’s non-existence as a kind of background to his being. In effect, a God who is his own cause lacks an integral element of perfection.”[11]

Since God is perfect (as Exodus 3:14 indicates), he has no need or potential. Put positively, since God is perfect, he is completely full and is wholly (i.e., fully) realized, he is reality to the fullest, complete actuality. Therefore, there was not a time that God was “caused,” since he already was (“I AM WHO I AM”). God is in and from himself as indicated in his eternal, divine, intratrinitarian (inner) relations.[12]

From a logical standpoint, aseity is of such high importance because it is so closely connected with the reality that God is. It can be said this way: Exodus 3:14–15 indicates that God is the God who is, namely, he absolutely exists. To absolutely exist, one must have life. Moreover, one who absolutely exists must have life in himself or else he could not say, “I am who I am,” for if he did not have life in himself, he would say, “I am who ‘X’ made me to be and thus, I have life from ‘X.’” Therefore, since God says, “I AM WHO I AM,” he must be a se­­––independent and self-sufficient for his own existence, without lack or need. He is one who is fully realized in himself.

Conclusion

The doctrine of divine aseity indicates that God is life in himself. An important note on the doctrine of creation here seems fitting. This attribute, aseity, does not lock God up in himself, but as we will see in due time, it frees him to give life to creatures. That is, it is a foundation for the divine act of creation. Hence, there really are two parts to aseity: “God is from himself, and from himself God gives himself.”[13] God’s perfection of “life in himself” is prevalent and issued in his work of creation, but we will get into that later.

The ectypal description of God’s being does not stop here. If God is a se––he has life, and this life is in and of himself––he must be immutable––unchanging. We will cover God’s immutability in the next article in the systematic theology category.




* Much thanks to Zack Melvin for being the first reader of this article, originally written for a co-authored essay with him titled: “The Doctrine of God: Divine Attributes.”

[1] Michael Allen, “Divine Attributes,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 58.

[2] Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 74.

[3] It is fitting to begin with the aseity of God because one can draw the other incommunicable attributes from it. Bavinck even says that aseity “may be called the primary attribute of God’s being” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 4 vols., ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–2008], 2:124).

[4] Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 76.

[5] John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology vol I. God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 19.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 19. Emphasis original.

[8] Ibid., 160.

[9] Ibid., 20. The Father is the only person who is, according to person, a se. Begetting and spiration are forms of God’s aseity (ibid., 20­–21).

[10] Ibid., 160.

[11] Ibid., 22-23.

[12] This will be expounded in the divine triunity section.

[13] Ibid., 19. Emphasis original.