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Characteristics vs. Attributes: Demystifying Lectures 3 and 4

Every now and then you find an answer that is extremely satisfying almost in a thirst-quenching kind of way.

I was perusing Lectures on Faith again with my copy I carry to church and I was again confronted with Lectures 3 and 4 and how they address God’s characteristics and attributes. There are six of each in their respective lectures and there seemed to be some redundancy as it pertained to mercy and truth appearing on both lists.

As I pondered this, I thought about why there was even a need to differentiate between characteristics and attributes since they seem to mean the same thing. Here is how they are defined in the Webster’s 1828 dictionary:

Characteristic: That which constitutes a character; that which characterizes; that which distinguishes a person or thing from another.

Attribute: That which is attributed; that which is considered as belonging to, or inherent in;

I had a hard time understanding the difference between the two, they seem to both be indicating that characteristics and attributes were both qualities that belonged to something.

It wasn’t until a little digging that I found a fantastic answer on the website Quora.com that I’d like to share:

The terms ‘attribute’ and ‘characteristic’ are often used interchangeably, and you shouldn’t worry too much about the distinction. The philosophical distinction is this:

  • An attribute is a derivative aspect or feature of something.
  • A characteristic is an intrinsic part of the nature (character) of something.

So in the generic religious sense of the Lectures Of Faith, ‘mercy’ is a characteristic of God, because it is part of the very nature of God; but ‘justice’ is an attribute of God, because it is a manifestation in the world that derives from characteristics like mercy.

That last part of the last sentence feels a bit off, I wouldn’t say that justice is derived from mercy. I would correct his statement by saying, “but ‘justice’ is an attribute of God, because it is a manifestation in the world that derives from characteristics such as God being a God of truth and no respecter of persons.” but I digress.

With these definitions, we can infer that Lecture 3 is trying to tell us something about the intrinsic part of who and what God is. Lecture 4 then would be explaining what is made manifest to us from God, precisely because he is those things.

The six attributes listed in Lecture 4:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Faith (power)
  3. Justice
  4. Judgment
  5. Mercy
  6. Truth

are all manifested to us because of God’s characteristics which are:

  1. he is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness.
  2. he changes not.
  3. he is a God of truth and cannot lie.
  4. he is no respecter of persons.
  5. he is love.

This helps to clarify to me some of what the lectures are trying to teach. If we understand the Holy Spirit to be the Mind of God, then it becomes clear that God’s characteristics are those that he wishes for us to embrace as well. By repentance and reception of the Mind of God (the gift of the Holy Ghost) our own dispositions can be changed by degree to where we begin to become one with our creator.

I’ll continue this in my next post.