God is a se

Paul, in Romans 1:20, tells us that there is something which he refers to as God’s divine nature. That is, there is something unique to God and about God that cannot be said of any other being. There is a Godness to God, what philosophers and theologians would call God’s essence (or an even more fun word to use, His quiddity - the whatness of God). Consider how Paul in Galatians 4:8 says that when we were unbelievers, we “were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” You can call yourself a god all you want, but there’s something about your essence and nature that belies the truth.

So what is God’s Godness? Humility pushes us to listen to God to find this answer since God in his transcendent incomprehensibility is infinitely beyond our limited capacity (much less, our fallen capacity) to grasp at knowing God ourselves. Again, quoting Paul, “For what can be known about God is plain to [all humanity]... who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1 verse 19 and 18, respectively). We need God to speak and speak in such a way that His word not only penetrates our unbelief but also creates within us true belief. And praise God, He is not silent.

As Luke records for us the words of Paul, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:24, 25). In other words, what sets God apart from all other beings is his independence. Properly, he is not dependent upon anything else (or anyone else) for his being. That’s the Godness of God. Notice how Paul emphasizes God’s creative power: He made the world and all things and He gives to all life and breath and all things. But God himself, says Paul, does not need anything. His essential independence requires that he is not even in need of his being. He simply is.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this is when God reveals to Moses his own name – a name, by the way, which God has not received from anyone else. This is the name God has Himself chosen and which he’s been pleased to reveal. Thus, it tells us a lot about who and what God is as God knows Himself. In Exodus 3 God reveals himself to Moses as “I Am who I Am.” First, the way in which God discloses this name, out of a burning bush and yet the bush was not being consumed, testifies to the nature of the name. Fire, in order to be, is dependent upon fuel to burn. Not so here. Here is a fire which is burning but is in no need of a bush to burn. The fire, as such, has being independent of the bush. The name then which God reveals from out of the burning bush is tied to this image of independence. “I Am who I Am.” His being is His being and
He does not need anything outside of Himself in order to be.

Theologians have long referred to this perfection as God’s aseity, from the Latin a se, or “from himself.” The idea is that God’s existence is his essence. All other creatures exist by way of a Creator – they came into being by way of another Being, and therefore their existence is dependent and thus not a part of their essence. They do not have ens per essentiam, that is, being that exists by virtue of its own essence. This can only be said of God for God alone is a se – of Himself.

This does not mean, of course, that God caused his own being. There was no moment where God came to be. No, as Francis Turretin writes, “True eternity has been defined by the Scholastics to be ‘the interminable possession of life - complete, perfect, and at once.’"[1] God’s aseity is indistinguishable from his eternality and immutability. He is unchangingly and infinitely and eternally alive! Pure Being and Pure Actuality.

 Dutch theologian Petrus Van Mastricht puts the matter clearly when he says, “[God] does not exist from any other... He is the absolutely first being, or the one utterly independent of any other prior cause: of an efficient cause from which he would exist, of a material cause from which he would have been formed, of a formal cause through which he would be what he is, and of a final cause to which he would have been directed. This is what he wanted to signify to Moses as he asked him what his name was, that is, his essential name, when he responded, ‘I am who I am.’”[2]

As the Psalmist leads us in worship, we’re reminded that “Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God" (Psalm 90:2). We can somewhat get at the idea of God’s independence and aseity by asking two simple questions which have two provocative answers. First, we should ask “where was God before he created the heavens and the earth?” And the right answer to that is nowhere. Not in the sense that He did not exist – no, He most certainly did. But in the sense that there was no there-ness to speak of. Before God created space and distance, there was just God. God wasn’t anywhere since there was no where or there to speak of. There was just God. Secondly, we can ask (in a grammatically absurd way) “When was God before he created the heavens and the earth?” And again, the answer is illuminating. Properly speaking there was not a few seconds before God created the heavens and earth. There was no cosmic hourglass counting down the moments to when God would begin creating, since there was no time to speak of as yet. Again, there was just God who existed in His eternal and infinite present; life in Himself; the Great I Am.

These questions get us closer to the (mysterious) reality that, properly speaking, nothing preceded or came before God – not even space and time! As God Himself states the matter to Job in Job 41:11, “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” The ESV translates the word קדם as “first given to me” but it could also be translated as “preceded” or “come to be in front of.” As James Dolezal notes, “the idea is that no one has gotten out in front of God... so that He is now indebted or obligated to that person.”[3]

Perhaps we should conclude with a clear confession of Aseity but one which drives us even deeper into mystery and awe. Jesus himself confesses God’s aseity when he says that “the Father hath life in himself” (John 5:26). Jesus is clear: God (the Father) is dependent upon no one else for his life and being. This is aseity 101. And we also see throughout the Gospel of John Jesus claim this for himself in his seven “I Am sayings,” so that we have good grounds for applying aseity to all three persons of the Trinity, not just the Father, as is confessed in chapter five.

Still, in the full context we see Jesus state that just “as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” What does this mean then for the Son and the doctrine of aseity? The language of being granted life throws many off, but it ought not to. Here we see divine aseity touch on the doctrine of innascibility, a theological term which means the Father is from no one, the source without source, and as such is what distinguishes Him from His Son, who, as the Nicene Creed has it, is God from God and Light from Light. Here then the doctrine of aseity intersects with the very important doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. While the Son is begotten, the Father is unbegotten, and yet both Father and Son and Spirit are Eternally and Immutably One (and Simple) so that though there is a divine order and taxis between each Person and their relation, there is not derivative Being in such a way that any one person is not independent nor a se. John Webster notes how these distinctions highlight the "identity of the Father in relation to the Son" but by no means connote "the Father's elevation over the Son as a superior principle from which the Son is a derivative emanation."[4] God, in His Triune glory, is eternally a se.

Oh the wonder of who and what God is and that he has granted us access to know Him and adore Him! As Augustine meditated on God’s aseity and independence he was led to craft one of the most beautiful prayers in Christian literature as he sat in astonishing wonder of His God. “Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and "leading" the proud "to be old without their knowledge" (Job 9:5); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching, even though to you nothing is lacking; you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free from anxiety, you "repent" (Gen. 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and yet remain tranquil. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15:7); you are never avaricious, yet you require interest (Matt. 25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (1 Cor. 4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss. But in these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say."[5]

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, III.10.6.

[2] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical Practical Theology: Faith in the Triune God, vol. 2 (Reformed Heritage Books, Grand Rapids MI, 2019; trans. Todd M. Rester, ed. Joel R. Beeke, Michael T. Spangler) p. 82

[3] James E. Dolezal, All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Reformed Heritage Books, 2017), p. 13

[4] John Webster, God Without Measure, vol. 1 (T&T Clark, 2018), p. 31

[5] St. Augustine, Confessions, 1.4 (4)


Stephen Unthank