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The Doctrine of God - Part A: The Nature and Attributes of God

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SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY I

UNIT 3: THE DOCTRINE OF GOD

PART A: THE NATURE AND ATTRIBUTES OF GOD

OUTLINE

I.                    Biblical Foundations.

A.                  The Nature of God

1.                   Does God exists?

2.                   What type of God is God?

a.                   Transcendent.

b.                   Immanent.

c.                   Spirit.

d.                   A Unity.

e.                   A Trinity.

B.                  The Attributes of God.

1.                   The Incommunicable Attributes.

a.                   His infinity.

b.                   Self-existence.

c.                   Immutability.

2.                   The Communicable Attributes.

a.                   Holiness.

b.                   Love.

II.                  Historical Developments.

A.                  God as Transcendent and Immanent.

B.                  God's Incommunicable Attributes.

1.                   Eternality and Omniscience.

2.                   God's Immutability.

C.                  The Trinity in Church History.

III.                A Contemporary Theological Formulation.

A.                  The Nature of God.

1.                   Recapturing the transcendence of God.

2.                   Defending the trinity of God.

A.                  The Attributes of God.

1.                   Giving a Relational Definition to the Incommunicable Attributes.

2.                   Holding Love and Holiness Together.

                                                          SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY I

                                                      UNIT 3:  THE DOCTRINE OF GOD

                                         PART A. THE NATURE AND ATTRIBUTES OF GOD

We come now to the topic of theology proper, the doctrine of God.  It is perhaps the determinative doctrine for Christian life and ministry, for you cannot lead people beyond your own personal knowledge and experience of God.  However, what we study here can only be the beginning.  I will offer information about God; it will only become knowledge of God as it becomes part of your heart, shapes your thinking and worship and adoration, and as it is validated in your obedience.  For, in matters of God, knowing must lead to doing.  So let us study not only with our minds, but also with our hearts and spirits, and with the commitment to live out what we learn in our lives.

We will study the nature, the attributes, and the works of God, but due to length, will divide our study into two parts.  First we will look at God's nature and attributes, two topics that naturally fit together.  Then we will examine God's works.  We will study the individual persons of the Godhead separately later, so remember that we are now studying God, and that all we learn is true equally of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes we think that the God we study in the Old Testament is the Father.  But that is not true.  "Father" is overwhelmingly a NT name for God.  What we study in the OT is God: Father, Son, and Spirit equally.  They share the same nature and attributes and are all involved in the works of which we shall speak.

Some treatments of God begin with the question of God's existence and look at the various proofs (or better, arguments) for God's existence that have been developed throughout the history of philosophy.  Others begin with definitions of God.  Though we will consider both, we will begin with neither.  We will begin with the Bible and note that the Bible does not define God, but describes Him.  It particularly describes His actions, and explains what they mean.  Let us begin where the Bible begins:  Genesis 1.

I.  Biblical Foundations.

A.  The Nature of God.  We need to begin this study with several caveats, or warnings, in mind.

First, it would be very useful, if it were possible, to wipe our minds clean, begin with Genesis 1:1, read all the way through the Bible, with only one question on our minds:  what is God like?  If we read every passage with that question in mind, and constructed our mental picture of God based on the whole of Scripture, I think we would develop the fullest and most accurate idea of God.  We would know what elements stand in the foreground, and what elements are less emphasized, or are in the corners and background. 

Of course, we do not have time to do that in class, but I encourage you to do so for your own edification.  I hope you would wind up with something similar to what you hear in these class sessions, but I am sure it would be much more clearly nuanced and memorable.


A second problem we encounter at the beginning is one of terminology.  We are going to speak of God's nature and then God's attributes.  The problem is that it is difficult in many cases to define what is an attribute and what is part of God's nature.  That is why virtually every theologian has a slightly different division of the elements of God's nature and the list of God's attributes.  Clearly both are involved in the Christian concept of God.  My intent is to consider under the area of God's nature the Christian conception of God in relation to other major conceptions.  We deny atheism, deism, pantheism, polytheism, and unitarian monotheism.  We affirm trinitarian monotheism.  Then under God's attributes we will consider further what this trinitarian God is like.  But I will admit that there are certainly some of God's attributes that are essential to His nature and parts of His nature that could be considered attributes. 

A third caveat has to do with even the possibility of knowing God's nature and essence.  Is God not too far above us?  Is He not essentially incomprehensible?  We revert here to our discussion of the adequacy of language to communicate something of God.  We do not have nor can we communicate univocal knowledge of God, but neither is our language equivocal, meaning nothing definite.  Rather, we can make meaningful analogical statements about God based on His self-disclosure.  We cannot know God exhaustively, but we can know Him truly, for He has taken the initiative to reveal Himself, and has constructed us in such a way that we can know Him.

Finally, I want to repeat the warning that we cannot proceed with this study in a purely academic, scientific way and hope to know God.  This study, above all others in this semester, must be doxological, conducted in a reverent atmosphere of worship.

Let us begin at the beginning, Gen. 1, for it is striking to note how many key aspects of the nature of God are revealed in the first three chapters of Scripture, Gen. 1-3.  Let us start with the first verse of Scripture and the first question we all have about God.

1.  The first question: Does God exist?  The first grand division of opinions about God revolves around the answer to this question.  It divides people into theists, atheists, and agnostics.

You have already encountered in Erickson some discussion of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, and I do want you to be acquainted with them.  The major arguments are:

-the cosmological argument (cause and effect)

-the teleological argument (design implies a Designer)

-the moral argument (moral law implies a Lawgiver)

-the ontological argument (existence is implied in the idea of God; developed by Anselm).


There is some Scriptural support for the cosmological and teleological arguments (Acts 17:24-29, Rom. 1:20), and the moral argument (Rom. 2:14-15), and there is certainly scientific and philosophical evidence that can be cited.  These arguments can be used to strengthen the faith of believers and respond to the objections of non-believers, but it is neither necessary nor possible to prove the existence of God.  It is not necessary because everyone already knows God exists (Rom. 1:20), and it is not possible to give an ironclad proof because God has chosen to make all aspects of our relationship with Him a matter of faith (Heb. 11:6).  Evidence; yes.  Strong arguments; yes.  But ironclad proofs they are not, and have been criticized by philosophers for the last 250 years on a variety of grounds. 

I do not think this should greatly concern us, for the proper goal in apologetics is not to force someone to admit that we have proved our position, but simply to remove objections so that a non-believer cannot hide behind intellectual objections.  We present good evidence for the existence of God, but admit that it remains a question of faith.  But we also insist that the decision to believe in the non-existence of God is also a decision of faith, and we would contend that it is a faith decision with a weaker basis than the decision to believe in the existence of God.  The question of God's existence, in the final analysis, is a moral question, not a mental one.  Will I accept the fact that there is a God, for if I do, then I must face the question of what He demands of me?  I must acknowledge that I am not the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.  I must acknowledge someone is over me, and that I am responsible before Him.  And all our apologetic arguments must be to get someone to confront the fact that the issue is not mental, but moral. 

At any rate, the Bible does not spend much time defending the existence of God.  It assumes and affirms it: "In the beginning God."  So the Bible teaches theism (not atheism), that there is a living and true God.  But there are many varieties of theism: deism, pantheism, polytheism, etc.  What type of theism does the Bible teach?

2.  What type of God is God?  He is:

a.  Transcendent.  Gen. 1:1 affirms that God created all things.  This is the first and fundamental biblical affirmation about God--that He is the Creator-God.  This means that He is not to be identified with the creation, but is separate and distinct from it.  In theological terms, this is an affirmation of the transcendence of God.  He is not within creation, or part of it, but is above it.  Therefore, pantheism (the idea that God = the world) is excluded.

A number of attributes of God are implied in these first words of Scripture.  We would expect that the God who could create all things would be greater than them (and thus be an infinite God, or at least extremely great), would be more powerful than any forces He created (and thus be a sovereign God), and would be the source of all life that existed (and thus be a self-existent God, who had the source of life within himself).  We will mention these attributes in more detail later, but they are implied in the very nature of a transcendent Creator-God.

b.  Immanent.  But the affirmation of transcendence is soon balanced with an affirmation of immanence, the idea that God is thoroughly involved with His creation.  Gen. 2 and 3 show His very personal involvement with His creation, especially with the creatures created in His image.  God is involved with His world, interacts with human beings, acts to intervene in the course of events (including miracles, such as creation itself and other acts of intervention after the fall), and is Himself affected by what happens in His creation (see the divine sadness in Gen. 6:5-6).


Transcendence excludes pantheism, and immanence excludes deism, which pictures God as a watchmaker who winds up the world and then walks away from it, leaving it to run on its own.  God is not intrinsically bound to the world as a part of it, but has firmly chosen to be immanently involved in the world and in the lives of His creatures.  His immanence is not one of essence (that is, that God is by nature part of the created order) but one of personal relationship.  This implies another aspect of God's nature that is often considered with the attributes, the personality of God.  Personality is used here, not to refer to the elements we normally consider as essential to personality (will, emotions, mind, though each person of the Godhead possesses these), but to refer to the fact that the God we speak of is a type of God with whom human persons can have a personal relationship.  He chooses to become involved with His creation.  His immanence is not one of essence, but one consonant with His nature as a personal God.

As we shall see, maintaining the balance of transcendence and immanence has been a perennial problem in theology, especially in the 20th century.  But both are essential, because they give us a God like no other.  Unlike the Roman and Greek gods, the God of the Bible is transcendent, infinite and majestic in both power and goodness.  But unlike the gods of the east, of Hinduism and Buddhism, God's transcendence does not lead to a detached, impersonal God.  He is immanent, not by being part of the world but by choosing to relate personally to His creatures.  There is no other god in history like this personal-infinite, transcendent-immanent God.

Even his names reflect the balance of transcendence and immanence.  The normal word for God in the OT is Elohim, which is the plural of the common, generic word for God, El.  The singular is sometimes used, especially in combination with other designations (El Shaddai, El Elyon), but much more often Elohim is used (2570 times).  Why the plural?  It is probably not a foreshadowing of the Trinity, though it does allow for that, but is an example of the plural of majesty, or an intensive plural.  All that is implied in the idea of a god is true of the God, intensively and majestically. 

Likewise the title Adonai is the plural of adon.  The singular form usually refers to human lords and masters, but the plural form is used only to refer to the true God (more than 300 times).  It is another plural of majesty and intensity.  God is the Master above all Masters, the Lord above all Lords.  Both of these titles emphasize the majesty, the loftiness, the authority, the transcendence of God.

But the most personal and characteristic term for God in the OT is Yahweh (nearly 7000 times including compound forms, 5321 times alone).  There has been much written about the etymology of this title, and its link with the verb "to be" in Hebrew.  But J. Barton Payne has pointed out some problems with this linkage, and advocates translating Ex. 3:14 as "I am present is what I am," and understanding Yahweh to refer to God's faithful presence (see Theological Wordbook of the OT, vol. 1, article on Yahweh).  And the usage seems to favor Payne's view, for Yahweh is especially associated with God's redemptive acts, and His covenant keeping nature.  It is His personal name, reflecting the fact that He allows Himself to be known by His people, and His personal relationship with them.  Thus it very much emphasizes the immanence of God. 

Most interestingly, these two most common names, Yahweh and Elohim, are often combined: the LORD God (Gen. 2:4 and hundreds of other times).  Here in the very terminology for God we find the crucial balance of immanence and transcendence.


c.  Spirit.  Another element we encounter early in the biblical record is the spirituality of God.  Gen. 1:2 gives us the first hint, but the rest of the biblical record makes it clear that God not only has a Spirit, but is by nature spirit and not flesh and bones (John 4:24, Luke 24:39).  What exactly does it mean, to affirm the spirituality of God?  I think it has two implications, one emphasizing transcendence and one immanence.

To take the latter first, I note the comment of Stanley Grenz that the Hebrew word for spirit (ruah) means breath or wind, and by extension it soon became connected with the very principle of life, for without breath there is no life.  Grenz thinks Gen. 2:7 is important here, for it gives us a picture of the connection of spirit and life.  Grenz concludes: "By declaring 'God is Spirit' we acknowledge that God is the source of all life" (p. 108).  As we will find later in our study of the Holy Spirit, one of the main ideas behind Spirit, particularly in the OT, is that of life.  The Nicene Creed affirms belief in the Holy Spirit, addressing Him as "the Lord and Giver of life."  The spirituality of God thus gives striking evidence of His immanence.  He gives life to all that exists (Psalm 104:29-30). 

This is close to Paul Tillich's idea of God as the ground of all being (the sap in the tree).  Where Tillich goes wrong is in not preserving in a balanced way the transcendent element which gives God a personal and independent existence separate from the world.

The second implication of God's spirituality that does imply His transcendence is in the prohibition of making any physical representation of God (Ex. 20:4).  In the Incarnation, God the Son accepted a physical body in order to identify with us, but the divine nature in itself is different.  It is Spirit, and thus there is no adequate physical representation for God.  Thus any physical representation, even using the most powerful or majestic of animals (a bull, for example) was sinful idolatry, for God is greater than any physical representation can convey.

d.  A Unity.  The theism of the Bible is monotheism, not polytheism (or even henotheism: one supreme God over all lesser gods).  The people of Israel took a long time and severe experiences of judgment and persecution, but they finally learned the lesson taught by Moses in Deut. 6:4: "Hear o Israel, the Lord our God is one God." 

In the time of Jesus, that verse was recited by every Jew every morning and night, to remember the hard learned lesson that idols are nothing.  There is only one God.  The Bible teaches monotheism, and excludes polytheism. 

One other attribute of God we may imply from God's unity is what is called His simplicity.  This is the idea that there is no division in God's essence, no contradictory elements, no being pulled in two directions.  Everything in God is united and in harmony.

The tenacity of Jewish monotheism makes it all the more remarkable that in the time of the NT, there arose among some of these very Jews a new variety of monotheism, trinitarian monotheism.  This leads us to the last aspect of God's nature that we will consider.


e.  A Trinity.  This is the aspect of God's nature that makes the Christian God different than that of any other religion.  Not only does the Bible exclude atheism, pantheism, deism, and polytheism, it also excludes unitarian monotheism (such as held by Judaism and Islam).  We affirm trinitarian monotheism--one God who exists in a triune being, or, in traditional Christian language, one God in three personal distinctions.  To my knowledge there is no other religion in the world that has this conception of God.

How did Christians arrive at this view of God, especially after spending centuries learning that there was but one God?  The key factor was reflection on the incarnation and deity of Jesus Christ, and a drawing out of the implications of the NT teaching on Christ, and, secondarily, on the Holy Spirit.  We must admit that the Trinity is fundamentally a NT doctrine.  But there are some hints in the OT.

(1) OT Hints.  For example, Gen. 1:26 and Is. 6:8 use the first person plural, "our" and "us."  Certainly, this could be used simply to add to the majestic nature of the statements, and proves nothing, but it is interesting.  More important, in my opinion, is the word used for "one" in the Shema, Deut. 6:4.  The Hebrew language has two words that could be translated "one."  The word libad has more the connotation of an isolated unit.  The other, ehad, may have more the idea of uniqueness than isolation, and may mean a complex unity.  It is the word for one used in Gen. 2:24 where the man and woman will become one flesh.  And ehad is also the word used for one in Deut. 6:4.  It affirms monotheism without denying the possibility of a complex or compound unity within God.  These hints alone would certainly never lead to the doctrine of the Trinity, but they do fit nicely with it.

(2) NT teaching.  The Trinity is essentially an attempt to express three facts affirmed clearly in the NT:

-God is one (Deut. 6:4, Mk. 12:29, Eph. 4:6).

-The Father is God (Rom. 1:7), the Son is God (John 1:1), and the Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, Rom. 8:9-10).

-The Father, Son, and Spirit are, in one sense, one (John 10:30, II Cor. 3:17, Mt. 28:19-20), but there exists some distinction between them, for they exist in relationship one to the other (the Father and Son talk, the Spirit fills Jesus, Jesus sends the Spirit, etc.).

These teachings of the NT are the biblical foundations for the doctrine of the Trinity.  But it took a while for the early and patristic church to put it all together.  How was the early church to relate these three facts?  Are they contradictory, or was there a way to combine all three?  When we conclude this section on the biblical foundations of the doctrine of God, we will go back and look at some of the historical controversies that have swirled around God, and we will look at the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, not only in the early church, but down through history.  For now, we close our discussion of the Trinity and the nature of God with this anonymous couplet on the Trinity:  "Try to explain it, and you'll lose your mind; But try to deny it, and you'll lose your soul."

B.  The Attributes of God.  As we remarked above, there is some difficulty in trying to decide where the nature of God ends and the attributes of God begin.  For example, is eternality part of God's nature or an attribute of God?  Different theologians treat nature and attributes differently.  The distinction offered by one of my theology professors was that the nature of God is like the foundation of a building, and the attributes like the superstructure, but there is no hard and fast rule. 


A second introductory remark is that, as we mentioned before, the best way to study these is not to make a list, but to read the Scriptures and see which are central and how they show up in God's dealings with us.  However, for the sake of time, we have to give you something of a list.  Use it as a starting point and expand on it.

Third, we will follow most theologians in dividing the attributes into communicable and incommunicable attributes (or some theologians call them moral and natural, further emphasizing the difficulty of separating nature and attributes).  These two categories reflect the fact that on the one hand, we are and always will be less than our Creator.  He alone is God.  On the other hand, we alone are made in His image, and are both called and commanded to be like Him in our limited human way in some of His attributes, most centrally love and holiness.

1.  The Incommunicable Attributes.  Of the attributes that make God unique and different from all other beings, the first and most important is:

a.  His infinity.  By definition, there can only be one infinite being, and that being is God.  He is infinite in:

(1) Space.  This is what we mean by the omnipresence of God (Ps. 139:7-12, Jer. 23:23-24).  Some use the terminology the immensity of God.  He fills all the universe and more.  This attribute contains both comfort and challenge.  There is nowhere we go alone, but there is also nowhere to hide.  As Luther said, we live all our lives before God (coram Deo).

The doctrine of the omnipresence of God raises a question as to God's presence in hell.  On the one hand, omnipresence would seem to imply that God is present there, but the definition of hell is that of separation from God.  The best answer may be that God is indeed present in hell, or that hell is present within God, an ulcer that He contains within Himself, but that part of the penalty of hell is the loss of any capacity to sense God's presence or any other good thing (see the dwarves in C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, the last volume of The Chronicles of Narnia).  Any answer is somewhat speculative, for the Bible does not answer it explicitly.  The focus in Scripture is on God's greatness, and His presence with us wherever we are.

(2) Time.  God's infinity in relation to time is His eternality.  He is the Creator and owner of all time.  He existed before the creation of time (Ps. 90:1-2) and dwells in eternity. 

Implicit within the idea of this attribute is a distinctly Christian view of history.  We do not see history as an endless, meaningless, painful cycle from which we long to escape (as in most Eastern religions), but as His Story, the arena in which God has chosen to accomplish His purposes.  Still, it is God's creation, and He will conclude it at His chosen time. 

   


(3) Knowledge.  God's infinity in knowledge is omniscience (Ps. 139:1-12, Rom. 11:33-36), including perfect knowledge of us (Heb. 4:13).  In contrast to the position of some recent theologians (including Clark Pinnock), omniscience specifically includes knowledge of future events.  Because He knows all, God's decisions show His wisdom (Ps. 104:24), however hidden it may be to us today.  As J. I. Packer says in "God's Wisdom and Ours" (Knowing God, p. 102), God's wisdom consists in knowing the whole plan, and how best to accomplish it.  For humans, wisdom does not mean sharing in that type of wisdom.  The book of Ecclesiastes shows us that things do not make sense under the sun.  Rather, human wisdom is knowing, not why things happen, but how we ought to respond to whatever circumstances arise, and knowing that above all we can trust and rest in God's wisdom.

(4) Power.  God's infinite power is omnipotence.  That means that God can do whatever He pleases (Ps. 115:3).  This may be related to one of the names for God in the OT, the Lord of hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth).  This title is found 285 times in the OT, but nowhere in the Pentateuch.  It emerges as the nation of Israel begins to deal with other nations, and wants to affirm that Yahweh is not only the God of their army, but the Lord of all hosts (all armies).  It is an exalted title, that affirms God's glory and sovereign power (see Psalm 24).      

To the nonsensical questions, "Can God make a rock so big He cannot lift it?"  or "Can God make a three-sided square?"  we reply that this is a misunderstanding of omnipotence.  God can do whatever He desires.  He cannot lie or be cruel or unjust, for His nature is such that He never desires to do so.  Omnipotence means that God has sufficient power to carry out all His intentions.  He is sovereign.  His plans are not frustrated.  Since He is omniscient, He knows what is best, and since He is omnipotent, He can accomplish what is best!

(5) Every perfection.  God's infinity extends to every other attribute.  All that God possesses, He possesses in perfect and infinite measure:  infinite love, holiness, mercy and wrath (Psalm 36:5-6). 

b.  Self-existence (or aseity).  Our life is a derived existence; God has life in himself (John 5:26).  The most common name for God in the OT, Yahweh, may hint at the fact that He is and always has been.  God calls himself "I am." 

He has no need of us or anything else (Acts 17:25); there is a sufficiency of everything within the Trinity.  And since He has no need of us we can know His love is given freely and graciously. 

He is supremely the living God (I Thess. 1:9).  And His life alone is an immortal life (I Tim. 6:16).  It is possible that he bestows immortality on human beings as part of the image of God (though some would argue that the biblical view of our hope of life beyond the grave is resurrection of the body rather than immortality of the soul), but the clear biblical statement is that God alone possesses immortality as an intrinsic attribute.  Any others who possess immortality do so by God's gift.

c.  Immutability.  I list this word because it is the traditional one, but I prefer words like fidelity, or as Erickson uses, constancy.  The point is that God's character is such that we can count on Him to be the same today, tomorrow and forever (Heb. 13:8).  His nature, will, mind, and plans never change (Num. 23:19, Ps. 33:11, 102:26-27, Lam. 3:22-23, Mal. 3:6, James 1:17).  There is no whimsy, no caprice in God.


A question often raised in connection with immutability is the interpretation of the few verses that speak of God repenting (Gen. 6:6 and Jonah 3:10, for example).  The most likely and most usual explanation is that these are examples of anthropomorphic language, in which God's actions are described, not from the perspective of omniscience and omnipotence, but from the human perspective, in human terms.  The Bible uses this type of language, because it best communicates the truth God is most concerned to communicate in these stories.  For example, in Gen. 6:6, one of the truths God wants to communicate is that our actions affect God.  He can be saddened or pleased with the actions of His creatures.  Certainly, He is not moved by uncontrolled passions and emotions as we are (that is the grain of truth in the idea of impassibility), but neither is He a static, stoic, frozen God.  The other truth best communicated by anthropomorphic language is that in fact in "repenting" God does show His fidelity to His own character.  When He decides not to destroy the repentant citizens of Nineveh, it does not show that God is wishy-washy or capricious; rather, it confirms Jonah's description that He is and always will be a merciful, compassionate, longsuffering God (Jonah 4:2).

All these incommunicable attributes could be equally true of a cruel and unjust God or a good and kind God.  It is the communicable (or moral) attributes of God that are often of most concern to the people of God.

2.  The Communicable Attributes.  These are the attributes that not only tell us more of what God is like, but also give us a pattern for life, for these are the ways in which God wants us to be like Him.

There are many lists and ways of describing these attributes.  How far one goes depends in part on how finely one wants to distinguish various adjectives (kind, good, gracious, merciful, compassionate).  I think the best approach is with an illustration I heard about 20 years ago from a pastor in Suffolk, Virginia.

Imagine these attributes of God like a great tree with two great taproots.  One of these taproots is the holiness of God, and the other is the love of God.  From these two roots, the tree grows, with one side of the branches representing outgrowths of holiness, and the other outgrowths of love.

I like this because it gives us a memorable picture, and because it accurately, in my opinion, identifies the center of God's moral attributes.  If you want to boil all we're going to discuss down to two words, it would be holy love, or loving holiness.  I think those two attributes underlie all the rest.

a.   Holiness.  This word, in both noun and adjective form, is clearly fundamental to the biblical view of God, especially in the OT.  Baptist theologian A. H. Strong saw holiness as the most important attribute of God.  It has two aspects.  The first is the idea of something dedicated to special purposes.  The vases and implements in the Temple were holy because they were only used in the service of God, never for ordinary, everyday purposes.  God is holy because He is special, unique.  He cannot be treated as common.  We receive a status of holiness when we are saved because we are no longer to be devoted to the purposes of the world, but to God's purposes.


The second aspect of holiness is that of moral rightness.  There is a philosophical question here.  Is there a standard of holiness, external to God, which he matches, or is God's nature itself the standard of holiness?  While arguments can be made for both positions, I think the latter is much more likely.  There is no standard of right and wrong above God.  The holiness of God is the standard and pattern of what is right and wrong.  We are holy to the degree we conform to that pattern in all our thoughts, acts, and intents.  From this root of holiness, we may derive at least four branches.

(1) Purity.  Because God is holy, He is separated from impure things and cannot be contaminated (Hab. 1:13, James 1:13).  He cannot be tempted for there is nothing impure within that would be attracted to temptation.  There are no hidden motives, no secret agendas.  He is pure.

(2) True.  Because God is holy, He cannot lie or deceive or fail to keep a promise.  It would be a violation of His own nature (Num. 23:19, Heb. 6:18).  Involved in his truthfulness are the ideas of faithfulness and being a covenant keeping God.  Whatever commitments He makes, He keeps.

(3) Righteous or just.  Because God's holiness is the ultimate pattern of what is good and just, and because God always acts self-consistently, He is always righteous and just.  Righteousness means to be in the right, to be in accord with the law.  Since that law is itself the expression of God's holiness, God's actions are always just (Gen. 18:25, Deut. 32:4, Jer. 9:24). 

God's justice includes all He does to create, uphold and maintain justice.  God requires others to be just, and when they are not, He acts in judgment and punishment (Rev. 15:3-4, 16:3-7).  To not do so would be unjust and a violation of His character.

This word "justice" is very important in the NT, for it raises the question: How can a just God justly justify sinners? (Note: all the "j" words have the same root, as does righteous).  Paul answers that it can only be through the imputed justice (or righteousness) of Christ (Rom. 3:21-26).    

                   

                                                (4) Wrath.  Because God is holy, He rejects all that is unholy.  This opposition to and rejection of what is unholy, the Bible calls the wrath of God.  It is not uncontrolled passion, but a firm and unalterable opposition to every form of evil.  As light by its nature opposes darkness, holiness by its nature blazes against evil.  The wrath of God is seen against some sins today (Rom. 1:18, 24, 26, 28), but it will be openly revealed one day against all evil in a final consummation (Rom. 2:5, Rev. 6:16-17).

A few decades ago, a British scholar, C. H. Dodd, tried to water down the NT teaching of the wrath of God to make it an impersonal process that sin somehow called down upon itself.  His aim was to clear up misconceptions of God as a vengeful, wrathful, angry old man.  And that is a misconception, but Dodd was equally wrong, and Leon Morris challenged Dodd's view in scholarly journals and in a number of books (see Morris's Apostolic Preaching of the Cross).  Morris was able to show pretty conclusively that Dodd was not playing fair with the text of the NT, and that wrath was not remotely like sinful human anger, but was a divine attribute inseparable from God's love and holiness, and indeed was the reverse side of the same coin.  Because God loved human beings, and had holy purposes for them, His wrath blazed against anything that contradicted that loving purpose.  You may still find echoes of Dodd's position in some books, but the great majority of those who take the NT as authoritative acknowledge that Morris won that debate.          


                                    b.  Love.  The quality most associated with God is love, and justly so (if not disassociated from holiness).  But the love of God is different from any the world has ever known, and miles from the popular conception of love, for it is an unconditional, unmerited, self-giving love (John 3:16, Deut. 7:7 and I Cor. 13).  From the root of love, we see 4 branches:

(1) Goodness.  Because God is love, He does good for those He loves.  There are no evil intentions behind any of His actions.  He does good not to manipulate, but to bless.  His goodness is the source of all that is good, and it overflows to all His creatures to some extent (Ps. 145:8-9, 16-17, Matt. 5:45, Acts 14:17).               

(2) Gracious.  Grace emphasizes that God's love is one in which merit is not considered.  The fact that all creatures experience the goodness of God to some extent is an evidence of what theologians call "common grace," but more important to Christians is "saving grace," that grace which is the heart and soul of salvation.  We need to be careful when we say we are saved by faith.  Faith does not save us; Jesus does.  Faith grasps Jesus, and He is there to be our Savior because God is gracious.  We are saved by grace, through faith, in Jesus.

(3) Merciful.  That God is merciful is the hope of every sinner who seeks pardon (Dan. 9:18, Matt. 9:36, Titus 3:5).  One of the earliest and most often repeated descriptions of God in the OT centers on His mercy as our hope (Ex. 34:6-7 and many other places in the OT).

(4) The last attribute I want to highlight is variously translated as "steadfast love," "kindness" and "mercy."  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it encompasses the ideas of loyalty, patience, and committed love.  Psalm 136 repeatedly affirms that this loyal love "endures forever."

All these attributes and more than we can describe are all found marvelously harmonized in the character of God.  As God's people, we are called to be like Him, especially in showing His love (John 13:34) and His holiness (I Pet. 1:15).  May God plant these two roots deep in our hearts to produce Christlike character in our lives.

II.  Historical Developments.  Though Scripture is foundational in our understanding of theology, we must also consider history, for three reasons.  First, we must not arrogantly presume we have nothing to learn from 2000 years of Christians who have studied the Scriptures and encountered some of the same problems we encounter.  Second, we do not approach Scripture or theology with a blank slate or a neutral mind.  We come with questions and viewpoints, conditioned by the historical development of doctrine and by our place in history.  Understanding how history influences us is our only safeguard against being unduly influenced by history.  Third, we must understand the historical development, especially recent historical developments, to understand which areas of doctrine need special attention, defense, or revision in our generation.


A.  God as Transcendent and Immanent.  We mentioned earlier that maintaining the Scriptural balance of transcendence and immanence has always been a difficult task for theology.  For most of Church history, we have probably erred on the side of transcendence, emphasizing God's separateness and difference from His creation.  But beginning with the Enlightenment, and continuing into this century, the pendulum has swung to the side of immanence with a vengeance, provoking some reactions, but maintaining a general tilt to the immanent side.

Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson have tracked how immanence and transcendence have flowed and ebbed in an excellent book, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992).  Let me trace these themes since the Enlightenment using their formulation, and my own understanding of how things developed.

1.  The influence of Immanuel Kant.  You cannot go very far in philosophy or theology without encountering the figure of Immanuel Kant. (You Kan't overlook him).  His special importance for this topic was his insistence that transcendent reality cannot be known.  He saw two barriers.  First, we know through sensory experience and God is not an object of sensory experience.  Second, we can know only things as they appear to us (phenomena), never things in themselves (noumena), because our minds, in the very process of knowing, structure things to fit the categories our minds can understand.  So we are separated from direct, objective knowledge of God. 

However, God can be inferred from what Kant called "the categorical imperative," or the sense of moral obligation.  So God is a reality, but He can be present and known to us only in moral experience, not in a transcendent revelation of His nature.  And for the next 100 years we see a succession of theologies that found God, not out there as a transcendent being, but within the created order, and eventually as identical with the created order in pantheism.

2.  The triumph of immanence.  Friedrich Schleiermacher  based knowledge of God in religious experience, the feeling of absolute dependence.  Hegel saw God revealed in the dialectic of history.  Adolf Harnack believed God could be found by historical-critical research that discerned the kernel of NT truth and discarded the husk.  Walter Rauschenbusch saw God making His presence known through those involved in social action (the social gospel).

All of these were deeply immanental theologies.  God was not sought or regarded as a being separated and outside human experience.  Little consideration was given to God in Himself, for knowledge of that type was regarded either as impossible, or irrelevant.  What was important was God in His relationship to humans.

3.  Karl Barth and the return of transcendence.           In a sense, we may say that the 19th century ended in August of 1914.  For when World War I began, the world experienced a severe shock.  Optimism about human nature and the inevitable progress that the theory of evolution assured was shaken, and in theology, a bombshell was dropped upon the theological landscape in the form of Karl Barth's 1919 commentary on Romans. 


In it he insisted on an "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and humans, and a radically transcendent God.  God cannot be found immanently in human experience; rather, "by God alone can God be known."  He insisted upon the necessity of revelation, specifically, Christocentric revelation (remember his refusal to acknowledge general revelation).  One of the major dividing points between traditional liberal theology and the new school founded by Barth (neo-orthodoxy) is the renewed emphasis on a transcendent God.  Thus, on this point and many others, Barth is very much on the side of the angels, and lumping him along with all those liberals, does not show much theological discernment.  In fact, his theology is in general much better than his views of revelation should allow it to be.

4.  Paul Tillich and panentheism.    But in spite of Barth's influence, the pull of immanence was still very strong.  Grenz and Olson think that Bultmann tried to find a basis for transcendence in existentialism but failed.  Even that may be generous.  He surrendered so much of traditional Christian doctrine to historical critical research and his program of demythologization that there wasn't much left to build on.  At any rate, the next theological giant, Paul Tillich, definitely swung the trend back to the side of immanence.  God was not conceived as a being apart from the world, or even a being at all, but the ground of all being, the depth or basis of all existence, similar to the sap in a tree.  Tillich's view is often called panentheistic, God in all things, pure essence rather than existence.  In the end, Tillich's view leaves one with a God more Hindu than Christian, a God that can be an appropriate object for meditation, but not a being that can be addressed in prayer.

5.  Process theology and a growing God.  Another wave of immanence was seen in process theology, which challenged traditional formulations of God in a number of areas.  There was a touch of transcendence in the dipolar view of God in process theology, for God does have a pole called his primordial nature, but the emphasis is on his consequent nature, which participates in the process of life, grows and changes as a result of experience.  In the end, God is dependent on participation in the process of life to grow, to know, and to continue a vital existence.  Traditional transcendence, with its insistence on God's independence of the world, is gone.

6.  Temporal transcendence in the theology of hope.  The theology of hope can be seen as a reaction to the overemphasis on immanence and an attempt to return to transcendence, but a transcendence of a different type.  Rather than a spatial idea, of God being separated from and independent of the world in spatial terms, God is transcendent temporally.  He exists in the future, comes to us from the future, and calls us to the future.  The hope in the theology of hope is largely an eschatological hope, based on the power of the future to shine upon the present.  The balance of transcendence and immanence is found in God as future and God as bringing the future to bear upon the present.  There may be a problem with too close of an identification of God's inner Trinitarian being with historical events, but it does have some value as a new perspective from which to view transcendence.  It should be noted, however, that of the two most prominent theologians of hope, Moltmann and Pannenberg, Moltmann has been moving more and more toward a panentheistic view in his later writings (see God in Creation), again pointing to the persistent pull of immanence.

7.  God the Liberator.  The theologies of liberation (third-world, feminist, and black) are all heavily immanental, identifying and finding God in the struggle against oppression.  Whatever helps to lift oppression is a revelation of God.  Again, there is little interest in God in himself, in His independence.  God's importance is based on His value to liberate the oppressed.


8.  Conclusion.  Grenz and Olson view one of the latest theologies, narrative theology, as a possible attempt to reaffirm transcendence, basing it in the narrative itself, but that may be stretching it.  At any rate, they do show that 20th century theology has been greatly exercised by the pull of immanence and the reaction it has at times provoked.

For evangelicals, I think it warns us that while our relational age does look for a God who relates to humans, and our God is such a God, there is great danger in limiting our understanding of God to His relationship to us.  We need a renewed vision of the greatness of God, His aseity, His intrinsic self-sufficiency, those attributes that make Him worthy of worship, not because of what He has done for us, but because of who He is.  In doing so, we rely forthrightly on revelation as a true, if not exhaustive, description of a transcendent God.  We may agree with Kant that we do not know God by sensory experience, but Kant's statement that there is no knowledge except by sensory experience is itself not based on sensory experience, and is thus self-stultifying.  We insist that there is another way to knowledge, knowledge given from outside this space-time continuum by the Creator of space and time, testifying to His sovereignty over creation, and His independent existence.

            B.  God's Incommunicable Attributes.  Since we have already mentioned process theology, and the need to reaffirm God's transcendence, let us proceed to one of the main battlegrounds in modern theology.  What we have called the incommunicable attributes of God are generally those that emphasize his transcendence, His independence and difference from His creation.  And it is those attributes, particularly eternality, omniscience and immutability that have been most challenged.

1.  Eternality and Omniscience.  We group these two together because they are intrinsically intertwined.  For if the eternality of God is not understood in a certain way, omniscience is also affected.

The nature of eternity itself is one aspect of deity that is surely among the most incomprehensible for time-bound creatures like us.  All our lives and experiences are defined by time sequences, by "befores" and "afters."  But God inhabits eternity.  That has often been defined as meaning that he experiences all of time--past, present, and future--in one eternal "now."  The comparison is often made to someone sitting on top of a building who can see all the cars of a railroad train, while those on the ground can see only one car at a time as it passes. 

This understanding of God's eternity has been challenged recently from two sides.  On the one hand, process theologians have denied it because their conception of a growing, changing God demands His full participation in the temporal process.  While we would acknowledge that God's immanence requires His awareness of, involvement with and relationship to creatures enmeshed in temporality, we would also maintain that God's transcendence enables us to affirm his essential eternality.

A second related challenge has come from another small group of scholars who think traditional theology has overemphasized God's transcendence and argue for "the openness of God" (see the book by that title by Clark Pinnock and others), involving a redefinition of God's eternality and omniscience to safeguard the freedom of human decision in salvation, make God more of a real participant in the temporal process, and, in their view, offer a more biblical vision of God. 


A recurring question in theology has been how to reconcile the certainty of future events with the freedom of human decisions.  It is especially central in the question of salvation.  If God omnisciently knows who will be saved, does that not require God determining that they will in fact be saved?  Traditional theology, both Arminian and Calvinist, has said that God may foreknow certain events will happen without being the efficient cause of them. Some strong Calviinists say that God not only foreknows all, but also foreordains all events, even sinful events, but does so through secondary causality, so as not to be the author or approver of sin.  Rather, God remains the judge of sin and holds humans responsible.

This is based on an understanding of God's eternality that goes way back in Christian history.   I first remember reading it in a little book, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, written nearly 1500 years ago.  Christians have responded that divine foreknowledge and free human choices are not incompatible, because God inhabits eternity in the way described above, seeing past, present, and future in one eternal now.  He sees what happens in the future without determining it, because He sees it as present.  Thus omniscience, traditionally understood, is both possible, because God is not limited to the historical process, and it is compatible with real, free human choices, for God can simply know what is to come without causing it (see Psalm 139:4).  In philosophy, this is known as a compatibilist understanding of human freedom.                 

But Pinnock and others argue that this understanding of God's eternality insulates God too much from participation in the historical process, and is untrue to the biblical view of God as one who does participate in temporal processes, who does learn as time goes by. God asks questions and seems sometimes surprised by human actions in Scripture (Is. 5:3-4, Jer. 19:5).  Moreover, the idea that God knows what will happen in the future is incompatible with human free choices.  He cannot simply see it.  If anything is certain to happen, it must be so because God causes it, and that is incompatible with human freedom and real choices.  So these scholars offer a new definition of God's eternality.  God is eternal in that He has always been and will always be, but it does not mean that He knows past, present, and future.  

This revised view of eternality means traditional omniscience is impossible.  Omniscience is knowing all that can be known.  But the future is intrinsically unknowable.  It has not happened yet.  It is not real yet.  The only aspect of the future God can know is what He will do, what He will cause to happen.  He cannot know the future actions of free agents.  Thus both a traditional understanding of God's eternality and omniscience are surrendered. 


In reply, it must be simply stated that this is not the God the Bible portrays.  Combining divine omniscience with free human choices may be problematic for some theologians, but the Bible seems to perceive no conflict.  I see this trend as incompatible with the biblical understanding of a truly transcendent, omniscient, eternal God.  Pinnock believes that traditional theology was unduly influenced by Greek philosophy and has overemphasized the transcendence of God, and that a more open God is what Scripture truly teaches.  I believe just the opposite.  I believe modern theology is being unduly influenced by the cultural currents of contemporary society, and is underemphasizing the transcendence of God.  The longing for a more open God is not produced by a careful reading of Scripture, but by an overassimilation of modern culture and its assumptions.  I can recognize and appreciate what Pinnock and others are trying to do, but I think they are misreading what theology needs, and I reject their conclusions. Yet the openness theologians are receiving attention and some acceptance, even in evangelical circles.

2.  God's Immutability.      As we mentioned above, process theology has challenged this attribute of God, maintaining that all reality is in process, and that if God is real, He too must be in process.  We mentioned the dipolar theism of Alfred North Whitehead, the father of process thought.  God is described as possessing two elements, a primordial nature (that is unchanging) but also a consequent nature, a pole or aspect of God that changes, grows, develops as a result of participation in the process of life.  God is not finished, but is still open to the future.  He will learn more as the future unfolds, and will be impacted by human decisions.  Thus the traditional understanding of a static, immutable God is incorrect.  But the process understanding of God's consequent nature would deny not just immutability, but also omniscience and sovereignty, and ends miles away from the biblical view of God.           

We probably do need to reformulate the idea of immutability.  As described in the past, it may have been too static, implying that God is not at all affected by our actions and responses.  A truer, more biblical formulation of immutability needs to stress that God always responds, but does so in a manner consistent with His nature, which does not change.  The example of Jonah serves as a good model.  Jonah hesitated to go to Nineveh, not because he did not want to see their destruction; he did!  His fear was that the Ninevites would repent, and that God would respond to their repentance, and that God would respond in a way consistent with His gracious, merciful character (see Jonah 4:2).

 

Moreover, the idea of impassibility, while also safeguarding the idea that God does not experience emotions exactly as humans do, wrongly gave an unbiblical view of God as unfeeling.  A number of evangelical scholars, including J. I. Packer, have concluded that impassibility may be largely jettisoned, as more of a liability than an asset, and more influenced by Greek philosophy than Scripture.  Immutability is more important but should be reformulated and described in terms of fidelity or constancy.  I think this would allow us to retain what is important in the biblical understanding of immutability without the negative connotations of that word.

C.  The Trinity in church history.  Because the Trinity is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most distinctive Christian doctrines, I think we need to take a survey of how this doctrine has developed and been treated down through the years.

1.  The patristic period.  From the first generation of Christians on, the struggle was to maintain the monotheistic heritage of Judaism with the Christian confession of Jesus as Lord (Yahweh more than 6000 times in the Septuagint) and the power they experienced from the Holy Spirit.

a.  Tertullian.  It was the Latin theologian Tertullian (c. 200 AD) who first coined the term Trinity and the formula one substance (substantia) in three persons (personae), and even suggested some of the analogies we use to explain the Trinity (a tree composed of root, trunk and branch; the sun, its warmth and its light).  But his formulation did not catch on immediately, due in large part to the fact that the issue of Christ's deity had not been resolved, and in part to the fact that his formulation tended toward a modalism rather than a true trinitarianism.


Students of theology are usually familiar with the controversies that went on during the first centuries of the church concerning the deity of Christ.  Against those who claimed that Jesus was the highest of God's creatures, or the greatest of the prophets, or a man specially indwelt by God, Christian orthodoxy eventually affirmed the full equality of the Son with the Father.  This opened the way for the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

b.  The Cappadocians.  There is a trinity of theologians associated with the first careful formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.  They are the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.  Their task was to steer a way between the dual heresies of tritheism (three gods) and modalism (the idea of one God in three successive modes) or subordinationism (where Christ and the Spirit are a lower level of being than the Father).

Their solution, adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381, was one ousia (essence) in three hypostaseis (center of consciousness), in which all three share in the same ousia.  The distinction which separates the three hypostaseis is a special function associated with each one:  the Father "generates", the Son "is generated", and the Spirit "proceeds."  This is no mere temporal mode of difference, but a difference of function that allows for real personal distinctions.  Still, while there may be a subordination of order or dignity, there is full equality of essence.

Although this formulation was adopted officially in 381, there was continuing discussion and different trajectories taken by East and West.  In the East, where Greek was spoken, where the Cappadocians had lived, and where Platonic philosophy was especially strong, the emphasis was on the threeness of God, and the functional differences between the Father, Son, and Spirit.  Creation was most associated with the Father, salvation with the Son, and sanctification with the Spirit.  Moreover, there were overtones of subordinationism as the Father was seen as the single source of divinity from which the Son is generated and the Spirit proceeds.

In the West, most theologians were not fully cognizant of the distinctions between ousia and hypostasis, and tended to base their work more on Tertullian's formulation of substantia and personae.  But substantia was the usual Latin translation of hypostasis, not ousia, and the Latin term personae did not have our modern idea of a distinct psychological being, but was a theatrical term used to refer to a mask worn by a character.  Thus, where the East saw threeness, the West saw oneness.  Threeness was still present, but the West emphasized the oneness of God.  The distinction between the three members was not usually seen as functional, but relational.  This is especially seen in the influential work of Augustine.


c.  Augustine.  The work which Augustine himself saw as his most important was De trinitate, at which he labored, on and off, for nearly 20 years.  In it he advocated a relational distinction between the three members of the Trinity.  The Father is different from the Son, because he is eternally the Father, and always relates to the Son as a Father.  That is part of his nature.  Similarly, the Son is always the Son, and it is part of his nature to always submit to and obey the Father, though he is in no way inferior to the Father.  And the Spirit, in Augustine's formulation, is the vinculum caritatis, the link of love, uniting the Father and Son.  Since the three persons were differentiated by relation rather than function, the members of the Trinity were more often seen as working together in creation and salvation, rather than separately, as in the East.

Another important part of Augustine's work was an exhaustive search for analogies of the Trinity, or vestiges of the Trinity in the world.  After examining all the usual analogies and finding them to lead toward tritheism or modalism, Augustine looks within human personality.  He suggests the triad of the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself, or memory, understanding and will, or, most importantly, the mind remembering God, knowing God, and loving God.  Though no analogy is fully adequate, since the Trinity truly is unique, Augustine felt the last was the closest and yielded the best understanding of the Trinity.

But Augustine made one further change that led to controversy and was eventually part of the reason for the division between East and West.  He taught that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque in Latin), whereas the Nicene Creed had mentioned only the Father.  Augustine's idea was adopted by the Council of Toledo in 589, and by the ninth century was well established in the West.  But the East objected to the addition of the filioque clause.  They felt that adding a clause to an ancient creed without their consent was not only arrogant, but it threatened the unity of the Godhead, for the Father was the sole source of divinity.  The West thought the filioque clause was fitting to uphold the full equality of the Son with the Father (against Arianism). 

It is arguable which of the two positions is more biblical.  The East has John 15:26, while the West has the clear teaching that the Son sent the Spirit.  More important than the wording is the interpretation.  The two sides persisted in their different interpretations, and the filioque clause was one factor among many in the formal separation of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the 11th century.

2.  The modern period.  Throughout the rest of the Middle Ages and afterwards, the doctrine of the Trinity attracted little attention.  There was a denial by the Socinians in the time of the Reformation, but the real attack on the Trinity began afterwards, as Europe embraced "rational religion" that did not need to rely on special revelation.  In the 19th century, Schleiermacher saw the Trinity as a dispensable doctrine, since it could not be derived from Christian self-consciousness.  Schleiermacher's attitude has been fairly characteristic of liberal Protestant theology since.  Where denial of the deity of Christ and dismissal of the Spirit has been typical, the Trinity has hardly been emphasized.  When it has been mentioned, it has been seen as symbolic (P. Tillich) or reinterpreted in process terms, which ends up unitarian more than Trinitarian. 


It has been Karl Barth who has been most responsible for elevating the Trinity to a place of importance in modern theology.  In Barth's theology, the three members of the Trinity are necessary to explain the self-disclosure of God.  Revelation requires God the Father/Revealer, Christ the Son/Revelation, and the Spirit/Revealedness.  Following Barth, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg have all given the Trinity serious consideration.  Barth has been accused of modalism, but I am not sure that is entirely accurate.  He is uncomfortable with the formulation of "three persons," because he feels that the way we use the word "person" today implies tritheism.  He wants to affirm threeness as well, but is unsure how to best communicate that, and has used phrases like "modes of existing," but I do not think he would deny that there is some type of personal distinction within the divine nature.  The formulations of Moltmann, Pannenberg and Hans Kung are more problematic, in that they affirm an "economic" trinity (referring to distinctions in the work of salvation) but not necessarily an "immanent" trinity (distinctions within the nature of God).  But at any rate, these theologians have insisted upon the importance of the Trinity for systematic theology, and have helped stimulate new discussion about the ancient doctrine.  For a helpful evaluation of current philosophical and theological discussion of the Trinity, see Millard Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity.

III.  A Contemporary Theological Formulation.  As evangelical systematic theologians, Scripture is determinative for our theology, and we have already considered the biblical foundations for our beliefs, and do not need to cover that ground again.  We also exist in a historical context, and have considered questions and challenges that have developed historically and especially in contemporary life.  Our task now is to focus the biblical teaching on contemporary challenges and point out those issues that need special attention in our contemporary formulation and exposition of the doctrine of God.

A.  First, let us consider some issues relative to the nature of God.

1.  As I have already indicated, theology today needs to recapture the transcendence of God, without losing a proper perspective on the immanence of God.  New Age thought, many varieties of eastern thought, and some parts of the environmental movement tilt toward a pantheistic or panentheistic view, in which the line between the Creator and his creation is blurred. 

In response to this, we need to state clearly that God's immanence to the world lies not in his essence, but in his loving gracious decision to enter into personal relationship with His creatures.  This focus on the relational God presupposes a distinction between the two who are in relationship, while emphasizing properly the presence of God in and for His creation.

To uphold the transcendence of God, we need to emphasize in our preaching, teaching and worship the greatness of God.  Perhaps the greatest impact on the average Christian can be made through worship.  Cultivation of the awesomeness and the majesty of God must be pursued through prayer that is humble and holy, that urges us to bow before One who is greater than we can imagine.  It must be cultivated through continuing the present emphasis on praise in worship, but strengthening significantly the theological content and depth of our praise choruses, so that we praise God not only for who he is for us, but we worship God for the glory and beauty He is in Himself.  And in our praise, let us not neglect some older, substantive hymns (note the transcendent theology in hymns like "Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise" and "O Worship the King").

2.  We must continue to defend a Trinitarian view of God, for it is one doctrine that clearly distinguishes Christianity from other world religions.  This is one reason why the Trinity is challenged by many today; it is an obstacle to pluralism.  In particular, Islam challenges that the Trinity is irrational, and that it ends in polytheism.

We may acknowledge that there must remain an element of mystery in the Trinity, for we are exploring here perhaps as deep as we can go in the nature of God.  But that doesn't mean the doctrine is irrational or unimportant. 


The key elements are all present in a diagram that has been found in some stained glass windows in Europe.  It affirms in a visual way the three facts that we have said form the biblical basis of the Trinity:  God is one; Father, Son, and Spirit are equally divine; but the three are distinct one from another.  Beyond that, when we try to explain how they are different, we are entering areas of speculation.  I prefer Augustine's idea of a relational distinction, rather than the unbegotten/begotten/procession distinction characteristic of much Trinitarian history, or the functional distinction suggested by Erickson in his recent work.

Erickson suggests that we may have made the doctrine more difficult than necessary.  He advocates emphasizing the distinctness and threeness of the Trinity, and seeing the oneness as union rather than unity:

The Trinity is a communion of three persons, three centers of consciousness, who exist and always have existed in union with one another and in dependence on one another. . . . Each is essential to the life of each of the other, and to the life of the Trinity.  They are bound to one another in love, agape love, which therefore unites them in the closest and most intimate of relationships.  (p. 331).

He guards against tritheism by emphasizing the perichoresis of the three persons, the depth of their union in love, and the dependence of each on the other.  He advises describing each of the persons as divine, rather than each of the persons as God, reserving that title for the Trinity rather than any one person of the Trinity.  An analogy that he thinks is helpful, if less than perfect, is that of Siamese twins.  They are two, but unable to live separately.

I fear Erickson may be overemphasizing threeness in an attempt to reduce the paradox or difficulty in understanding how God can be three and one.  The Bible does use "God" to refer to each of the individual members of the Trinity, so Erickson's implication that each member of the Trinity is only a "part" of God is misleading.  I prefer the traditional view, emphasizing equally threeness and oneness, even with its paradoxical difficulty.

To those who say that the Trinity is irrational, for it asks us to believe that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1, we respond with two counters.  Rather, we are saying that x + y + z = a, or better still, 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.  In the case of deity, perhaps the relationship is multiplicative, not additive.  At any rate, we must be prepared to show that it is not inherently irrational or incapable of a sophisticated, coherent formulation.  Beyond that, we may allow that perhaps a full comprehension of the triune nature of an infinite God is beyond us.  He is unique.

B.  The Attributes of God.

1. Giving a Relational Definition to the Incommunicable Attributes.  In keeping with the need to emphasize the transcendence of God is the need to emphasize his incommunicable attributes, those ways in which God is different from all other beings.  But we may do so in a way that does not portray God as either static (the complaint of process theology) or as a threat to human freedom (as some Arminians believe).  Rather, we may define these attributes, not metaphysically, but relationally.


For example, God's aseity means that His relationship with us is free and gracious, for He is not dependent (or co-dependent) on us.  His omnipotence does not cower us, but encourages us to trust that He can perform all He promises to do.  His omniscience does not violate our freedom; rather, it means he knows what we will freely choose to do because he knows us, intimately and completely.  His immutability does not imply a frozen God, but a God whose responses will always be consistent with and faithful to His own unchanging character.

Really, this approach is as old as the Puritans.  Richard Brooks wrote that when God promises to be our God,

that is as if he said, You shall have as true an interest in all my attributes for your good, as they are mine for my own glory. . . My grace, saith God, shall be yours to pardon you, and my power shall be yours to protect you, and my wisdom shall be yours to direct you, and my goodness shall be yours to relieve you, and my mercy shall be yours to supply you, and my glory shall be yours to crown you.   

Though Brooks mixes communicable and incommunicable attributes, all can be stated in similar terms.   We need to emphasize God's incommunicable attributes in precisely these two ways:  they glorify God as a great God, and they meet the needs we have as His beloved creatures.

2.  Holding Love and Holiness Together.  With regard to the communicable attributes, I will say only that we need to keep holiness and love firmly tied together in our contemporary situation.  There is a tendency to define love in terms of tolerance in our society, whereas tolerance is far too weak for biblical love.  Biblical love, because it is a holy love, cares too much to tolerate unholy, self-destructive acts and attitudes in the lives of those who are loved.  Tolerance accepts others as they are and leaves them as they are, for tolerance is not love.  Love accepts others as they are, but yearns for others to be all they can be, and seeks by all possible means to motivate, spur one, encourage others to be the best they can be.  Tolerance is easy; holy love is much more costly.  We must not let our love degenerate to a mushy sentimentality, nor allow our holiness to become a harsh, legalistic set of rules.  Hold the two together.

I hope and believe we have been offering some practical applications throughout our discussion thus far, but we will mention some specific applications of the doctrine of God for life and ministry after we complete the second section of our study concerning the works of God.

 

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