Doctrine in the Local Church: Aseity
Divine aseity is one of those doctrines that church members probably have never heard of before. And to be fair, it’s not one that’s usually heralded from the pulpit. Nevertheless, this perfection of God carries fundamental theological weight and a multitude of implications since we’re speaking of the very essence and existence of God. My task is this series is to put forth an answer to the following question: “How does the doctrine of divine aseity shape the life of the local church?” The hope is to encourage pastors and church members with a lay-level introduction to important classical doctrines showing why they matter for their local church congregation.
A Working Definition
Aseity should be qualified and defined first positively, then negatively. Aseity derives from the Latin a se, ‘of oneself’ or ‘from oneself.’ The material description of God’s aseity, then, is fundamental. The contrasts between God and creatures are not determinative of what is said about God; moreover, Christian theology is not dominated by God’s function vis-a-vis creatures, but by the divine self-enactment and the manifestations of God’s life.
Thomas makes this clear in his discussion of the term ‘life.’ God needs nothing from another (Ps 50:12-13; Acts 17:24-28). He stresses the divine self-movement or operation from Oneself: “living is not an accidental but an essential predicate.… As God is His own very existence and understanding, so is He His own life; and therefore, He so lives that He has no principle of life.” As God is complete and full in Himself, He is the only being abundant in life and blessing and thus able to govern and sustain history. Click To TweetSelf-existence is what God is communicating through Old Testament authors when they speak of God’s eternality (e.g., Exod 3:14; Ps. 90:2). As God is complete and full in Himself, He is the only being abundant in life and blessing and thus able to govern and sustain history.
William Ames notes well, “God in his sufficiency and efficiency are the pillars of faith, the prompts of comfort, the incitements of piety, and the surest marks of true religion.” In the most pure and absolute sense, God is. The divine name given by God in Exodus 3:14 demonstrates his essence as “the Existent One. All being is contained in Him. He is a boundless ocean of being.” He is the being in whom there is no becoming. Bavinck says, “God is exclusively from himself, not in the sense of being self-caused but being from eternity to eternity who he is, being not becoming.” It is because God is, He is timelessly and perfectly who He is. There is nothing in God that He lacks or needs.
Further, God is life in Himself in the most excellent manner. In God, essence and existence are inseparable; the life of God belongs intimately and irreducibly to what God is that God is. Essence and existence are the same in God. Benedict Pictet highlights the difference between God and creatures: “The life of creatures is distinct from the creatures themselves, but the life of God is the very essence of God.” God is His own life. In creatures, everything is given, essence and existence.
As God is the self-existent being, or life itself, He is qualitatively different from creation. His very essence, His plentiful life, prevents Him from changing or moving via an external force. “God’s very nature is to be, and so true is this that, when compared with him, all created things are as though they had no being … [God] is true being, unchangeable being, and this can be said of him alone. He is being, as he is also goodness, the good of all things.”As God is the self-existent being, or life itself, He is qualitatively different from creation. His very essence, His plentiful life, prevents Him from changing or moving via an external force. Click To TweetHe is not inactive or inaccessible or motionless. Rather He is, and because He is, He is maximally alive. He is the fountain of life, in whom light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
In other words, God is the only being who has no potential nor potency. He is fully actualized and fulfilled in and of Himself. As He is being itself, He bestows life actus purus. There is no incompleteness within God because He is absolutely perfect in Himself. God’s self-existence is therefore necessary for creaturely existence. John of Damascus said, “Being himself very light and goodness and life and essence, inasmuch as He does not derive his being from another, that is to say, of those things that exist: but being Himself the fountain of all being to all that is, of life to the living, of reason to those that have reason; to all the cause of all good.”
This is the beautiful mystery of the one true and living God. In His absolute self-existence, He is incomprehensible yet knowable, inaccessible yet immanent, indescribable yet self-revealing. In His pure, self-existent activity, there is no shadow of change. There is no beginning nor end. He is timeless and immutable. This is the thrust of divine aseity: His fullness of being, His plentitude of life, His absolute self-existence.
In Your Light Do We See Light
Now, aseity might be the most complex perfection of God for a number of reasons, namely because we’re thinking about GOD’s self-existence, and aseity gives logical basis for the other perfections (i.e., God is incomprehensible because he is, God is infinite because He is, God is immutable because He is.) This is the thrust of divine aseity: His fullness of being, His plentitude of life, His absolute self-existence. Click To TweetWe are being brought up into the holy of holies through Christ our mediator and in the Spirit our sanctifier. Indeed, aseity is the starting point for the sinner’s worship or denial of God. Psalm 53:1 “The fool says in his heart that there is no god.” The wise person recognizes his creatureliness and depends on God. We are derived and dependent beings. That is, not only are we needy of God but our very existence comes from God. Thus, in our derived or dependent existence, we mediate on the One who is existence itself.
It is a false dichotomy to pit theology and practical Christianity against one another. Indeed, the Christian life is contemplating God and all things in relation to God. In fact, contemplating the perfection of God is the most practical thing you can do and living virtuously is the most theological thing you can do. Which is why Paul concludes Romans 11 with the excellency of God’s infinite being: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” I want to briefly reflect on three categories in which divine aseity shapes the life of the local church.
Heavenly: Praise and Gratitude
Psalm 36:9 paints the disposition and approach of the Christian life in relation to God. He is the fountain of being, for only in his unapproachable light do we see light. We are and we are God’s because He is and His life is the light of men. As we are brought in and caught up into the Triune God, we follow Scripture’s speech through praise and gratitude. God, who is the self-existent fountain of life, has shown his people grace and mercy beyond measure for that is who he is: the infinite one who abounds in steadfast love. Click To TweetThese actions of praise and gratefulness come in response to the fountain of life that overflows in abundance of majesty, love, and holiness.
Further, these actions of praise and gratitude come about through Scripture’s superlative speech of God. Many have noted this, but when Scripture speaks of God, it is in the superlative way (such as Gen. 14:118; Neh. 9:5; Ps. 95; 145; Micah 7:18-20; Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Tim. 6:15). Scripture speaks of God in the superlative degree because he dwells in eternity; he is the high and holy One. While we may use excessive or exaggerated language to describe how good Joe’s KC BBQ is, Scripture’s language about God is no exaggeration. Scripture speaks in this way because God is worthy of this kind of speech. He deserves to be praised and spoken of in this way.
This God, who is the self-existent fountain of life, has shown his people grace and mercy beyond measure for that is who he is: the infinite one who abounds in steadfast love. As such, our response should be that of Psalm 9:1-2, “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.”
Virtuously: Imitation and Love
We think and act rightly under the disposition that all things are “from him and through him and to him.” He is the great good and the giver of good gifts, namely our being ransomed from futile ways with Christ’s blood and sealed by His Holy Spirit. God’s gift of participation, making sinners anew in Him, is us becoming what he is through the way, truth, and the life. Click To TweetThus, having been born again to a living hope through participation and union with Christ, we imitate God in Christ by preparing our minds for action, being sober-minded, and being holy as we are called holy.
Remember, the dichotomy between theology and practical Christianity is a false one. With Holy Scripture as the center and teacher, we become preoccupied with God by loving God through imitation (Eph. 5:1) and participation (2 Pet. 1:4). Following Thomas, Christopher Holmes suggests that the key to virtuous living is charity. “God’s goodness, his abundant character, is the premise.” Here, Psalm 34 and Colossians 1:9-14 are being exercised. “Virtue facilitates knowledge that leads to love…A life rich in theological virtues is not so much interested in describing God. Description, as with knowledge, is fulfilled in love—or, you could say, perfected in contemplation.”
As the principle of all things, God works in us what he is timelessly and in perfection. The imitative and participative life of the Christian is located in the church. God’s gift of participation, making sinners anew in Him, is us becoming what he is through the way, truth, and the life. We live like Jesus, the last Adam and elder brother, in faithfulness and trust in God. The happiness of God that dwells in infinitude is gifted to us and makes us happily complete.
Confidently: Defense and Declaration
Paul’s purpose in writing 1 Timothy was that “you may know how one out to behave in the household of God, the church of the living God, the pillar and buttress of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15) Paul is communicating a deeper reality than just moral instruction; he’s communicating a holistic manner of life, a guiding disposition toward living. And this disposition is constructed via their relation to and confession of the mystery of godliness (the Word who took on flesh and conquered death for us and our salvation). As Christians are radically changed, they now have a double responsibility to be a pillar and buttress of the truth. The church is the household of God to defend the truth against the storms of false doctrine (buttress) and to hold the truth up high so that it is proclaimed to the nations (pillar). We must hold the truth of the mystery of godliness firm and high because the church is God’s providential means to convey the magnitude, excellence, and nonnegotiable veracity of Christ Jesus in whom was life and the life was the light of men.
 John Webster, “God’s Perfect Life,” in God’s Life in Trinity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 35.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia 18.2-3
 William Ames, Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1968), 84
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2, 151.
 Ibid., 152.
 Herman Bavinck posits a standard and straightforward definition of aseity: “By this perfection [God] is at once essentially and absolutely distinct from all creatures God is exclusively from himself, not in the sense of being self-caused but being from eternity to eternity who he is, being not becoming. God is absolute being, the fullness of being, and therefore also eternally and absolutely independent in his existence, in his perfections, in all works, the first and the last, the sole cause and final goal of all things.” Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 152.
 Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology II.iv.5, cited in Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 374.
 Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, vol. 6:192; Ps 134(135): 3 (New York: New City Press, 2004).
 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 9 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 1.
 Christopher Holmes, A Theology of the Christian Life: Imitating and Participating in God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 127.
 Ibid., 130.