Thursday, 1 February 2007

Ten propositions on the divine perfections

by Kim Fabricius

1. In speaking of God’s perfections rather than God’s attributes I pay homage to Karl Barth’s doctrine of God. When we speak of God we must speak in superlatives. As Tina Turner would put it, God is “simply the best.”

2. And “better than all the rest”? But there is no comparison: Deus non est in genere. Yet because God has revealed himself to us in Jesus of Nazareth, “the knowability of God” (Barth), we may speak of God in human language. Because, through the Holy Spirit, the prayability of God, there is an analogia fidei, theological predication is possible. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) is correct – “Between the Creator and the creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude,” which “is one of the great bulwarks against idolatry in the western ecclesiastical tradition” (James Alison); nevertheless veri-similitude there is. There is truthful speech about God, and it is the church’s vocation to speak it, such that to remain silent, or to withdraw into apophaticism, would be strategies of disobedience, ingratitude, and indeed of idolatry itself. So too would any explication of the divine perfections that does not issue from the doctrine of the Trinity, which, as Moltmann rightly insists, “is a critical doctrine of God in a specifically Christian sense.”

3. Two more points of prolegomena. First, the words we use to speak of God are not inadequate, nor are they only contingently related to God, rather (with Wittgenstein) they are grammatically related to God, they define what we mean by “God.” Rush Rees: “Winston Churchill may be Prime Minister and also a company director, but I might come to know him without knowing this. But I could not know God without knowing that he was the Father and Creator of all things. That would be like saying that I might come to know Churchill without knowing that he had a face, hands, body, voice or any of the attributes of a human being.” As the late D. Z. Phillips explains: “The point could be put by saying that … ‘creator’, ‘grace’, and ‘love’ are synonyms for God.” And the point could be expanded by saying that the God’s perfections are not merely adjectival, they are both nouns and verbs: God does not merely have his perfections, he is and does his perfections.

4. Second, although the words we use to speak of the divine perfections are not inadequate, they become adequate only as their meaning is re-defined as God discloses himself to us in scripture. Obviously certain dictionary definitions, and not others, constitute a necessary point of departure in speaking of God – God is righteous, not deciduous! – but the nature of God’s righteousness, as sui generis, cannot finally be determined by ordinary usage or extrapolation, but only by God’s own interpolation. New wine bursts old skins. We may speak of a semantic baptism in which our words are crucified and raised. The classic example is Luther’s hermeneutical breakthrough precisely over the term δικαιοσύνη in Romans 1:16-17, when the tormented Reformer came to see that the scholastic understanding of God’s righteousness as “active” and punitive must give way to an evangelical understanding of God’s righteousness as “passive” and saving.

5. We now turn first to three classical divine perfections, which seem to me to be the three most misunderstood. First, God is all-powerful. Does God’s omnipotence mean that he can do anything that is not logically contradictory? Does it make theological sense, for example, to say that God is more powerful than Satan? It does not. There are different kinds of power, and divine power and demonic power are incommensurable. Nor does it make sense to say that God has chosen divine over demonic power, as if God’s will were primary and his nature secondary (the nominalist fallacy). On the contrary, God’s nature is the grammar of God’s will, which is a Wittgensteinian way of saying that God’s being and acts are one. God is love (I John 4:8) – that is the defining divine perfection – and God is love from tip to toe. God’s only power is the power of love, in which there is no domination, coercion, or violence. Such is the imminent perichoretic, self-giving, non-rivalrous love of the Trinity, economically embodied in the cross (and, as Luther said, crux probat omnia). “Omnipotence,” T. F. Torrance urges, “is what God does, and it is from His ‘does’ rather than from a hypothetical ‘can’ that we are to understand the meaning of the term. What God does, we see in Christ.” Rowan Williams suggests that the mess we often get ourselves into here comes from the tendency to picture God as having a human psychology only bigger. It is the same tendency that opens the Pandora’s boxes both of Calvin’s “horrible decree” of double predestination and of “the evils of theodicy” (Terrence Tilley).

6. Second, God is all-knowing. Does God’s omniscience mean that God is a divine know-it-all? Does God know the future? If the answer is Yes, how do we avoid determinism or fatalism, and what happens to human freedom and prayer? If the answer is No, has God heard the joke about the open theist? I find this discussion a barren one. Maybe I’m just stupid. But maybe what we have here is a kind of theological antinomy, questions to which the answers are neither Yes nor No but, according to Robert Persig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “Mu,” such that we have to “un-ask” the questions. Indeed a question like “Does God know all there is to know about motorcycle maintenance?” simply makes no theological sense. Perhaps we can begin to sketch a meaningful account of the divine omniscience by citing Cranmer’s great Collect for Purity, which speaks of the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.” Pannenberg refers to God’s inescapability. I would want to refer to the biblical concept of the divine wisdom, or, better, the logos, incarnate in Jesus, who knows us (John 6: 6), knows God (John 7:29), knows everything (John 21:17)

7. Third, God is omnipresent. The jaws of pantheism yawn. I will not enter! I rather like Daniel L. Migliore’s take on the subject: “The truth of God’s omnipresence is that God is present everywhere but everywhere freely present. God is present when and where and how God pleases. God is present to all creatures and in all events, but not in the same way.” What about the universe as the body of God? The maw of panentheism opens. I will not enter it either! Rather say the universe is in God. Above all, God is in Christ who descended to the depths, ascended to the heights, and fills the cosmos with his presence (Ephesians 4:7ff.). The wise God who is “acquainted with all my ways,” whose “knowledge is too wonderful for me,” is also the spacious God whom the Psalmist asks rhetorically, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:3-7). But there is no place for paranoia or claustrophobia: we cannot hide because “God,” as Robert Jenson puts it, “as boldly as possible, is roomy.”

8. Is God impassible? Jüngel: The cross “has destroyed the axiom of absoluteness, the axiom of apathy, and the axiom of immutability.” Yet this classical divine attribute is perhaps not without value in its insistence that God’s action is never reactive or determined by anything other, rather God is “detached,” not stoically but in the desert fathers’ sense of detachment, which, as Rowan Williams observes, is “not a strategy of disengagement, but the condition for serious involvement with the world, unfettered from the fears and projections of the ego.” Likewise God’s eternity is not a disengagement from time. Rather “The true God is not eternal because he lacks time, but because he takes time”; indeed “His very identity is set by what he does in time” (Robert Jenson) – particularly around AD 30. God, in a word, is not constrained, God is free, free even from the constraint of freedom, and therefore free to bind himself to humanity in Jesus Christ. Inside the doctrine of the divine impassibility is the doctrine of the libertas Dei trying to get out.

9. And what of the divine transcendence? God’s transcendence is God’s Wholly Otherness (Barth). But just as infinity is bad infinity if it stands in contrast to finitude rather than taking finitude into itself (Hegel), so too God’s transcendence is bad transcendence if it stands in contrast to God’s immanence rather than taking immanence into itself. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “God’s ‘beyond’ is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life.” Or as the later Barth himself came to understand, God is transcendent precisely as Immanuel, as God-with-us in the history of Jesus. This history is God’s mystery.

10. Finally, the glory of God, the “sum of all divine perfections” (Barth). God is beautiful, radiantly beautiful. Again, however, Christologically re-defined, and therefore (unsurprisingly) counter-intuitive and counter-cultural: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Indeed in John’s Gospel, the glory of Jesus is focused precisely in the cross: Christ is “drop-dead gorgeous.” Nor is the resurrection a make-over but rather the revelation of the hidden glory of the crucified. But “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6) – it is true that it is but the trailer of the feature to come at the eschaton, when indeed we ourselves “will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (I John 3:2), the “light of hyper-glory that the saints behold” (Gregory of Palamas). Ultimately, as we are drawn into the very triune life of God through the doxological work of the Holy Spirit (II Corinthian 3:18), we ourselves will share, pari passu, in the divine perfections.


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