Saturday, December 30, 2006

OUTLINE for Attributes of God series

Attributes of God Series (Fall 2006):

Part One: NOTs (negative metaphysical attributes)
I. Simplicity (or unity) [Oct 4]
II. Infinity (or greatness) [Oct 11]
III. Immutability (or constancy) [Oct 18]
IV. Impassibility (or freedom) [Oct 25]

Part Two: OMNIs (eminent metaphysical attributes)
V. Omnipresence (or eternity) [Nov 1]
VI. Omniscience (or wisdom) [Nov 8]
VII. Omnipotence (or power) [Nov 15]

VIII. Love [Nov 29]
IX. Grace and Holiness [Dec 6]
X. Mercy and Justice [Dec 13]
XI. Patience and Goodness [Dec 20]

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Connections Preaching

I've begun to notice a pattern. Most of the Christmas sermons I've heard (and preached) in the last few years went out of their way to make a connection between Christmas and something else. Christmas and the life of Christ. Christmas and the expectation of Israel. Christmas and the Cross. Christmas and Easter. Christmas and the Holy Spirit. Christmas and the Christian life. Christmas and ...

The great thing about these "Christmas connections" is that it keeps things interesting. New insights are brought in. Deep Biblical themes are interwoven. We avoid repeating the same thing every year. The one sermon heard by the most people in a congregation is probably the Christmas sermon. Attendance is up: the regulars are there, family is in town, the fringe folk come out of the woodwork, and guests abound. Because of this, we preachers are understandably worried about repetition. We don't want to preach the "same old Christmas sermon" every year. So Christmas connections keep everybody on their toes.

However, I am beginning to ask myself whether this habit has an unintended and unfortunate side effect: preaching Christmas connections gives the impression that Christmas is not interesting enough on its own. If we must speak of "Christmas and ...", what does that tell us about the significance of Christmas itself? Why can't we just speak of Christmas ... period? Why can't we just remind ourselves that one day God became human and that in itself is a pretty big deal. Sure, that is not the whole Christian story. But this important part gets its own day, and maybe we should give it proper attention.

I do not wish to reject Christmas connections preaching. I practice them and appreciate hearing them. But I do want to identify this possible danger. Even as we seek to interweave Christmas into the larger tapestry of belief, let us be sure keep the main thing the main thing.

Keeping this possible danger in mind, I would love to hear back from you what Christmas connections you heard or preached this year.

Any thoughts?
What connections have you heard or made?
Were they fitting or forced?
Did they illumine Christmas or distract from it?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Attributes of God (XI): Patience and Goodness

This week we come to the conclusion of our semester-long exploration into the attributes of God. Before addressing our final pair of divine characteristics (patience and goodness), I would like to retrace our steps by means of an outline:

NOTs -
I. simplicity (or unity)
II. infinity (or greatness)
III. immutability (or constancy)
IV. impassibility (or freedom)

V. omnipresence (or eternity)
VI. omniscience (or wisdom)
VII. omnipotence (or power)

VIII. love
IX. grace and holiness
X. mercy and justice
XI. patience and goodness

Although reviewing the whole of our series has some inherent value, I have presenting this outline for a specific reason related to this week's post. The structure of our series relies upon a noteworthy distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes. This classical notion distinguishes between those attributes of God which can be shared with creatures (communicable) and those which cannot (incommunicable). Our first two categories (the NOTs and the OMNIs) are traditionally considered to be God's incommunicable attributes, whereas our final category (the CHARACTER attributes) are considered to be communicable. Creatures, including human beings, cannot be called simple, infinite, immutable, impassible, omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent. But creatures, at least human creatures, can be called loving, gracious, holy, merciful and just.

This distinction is of particular interest to our final pair of character attributes: patience and goodness. As this week's image reminds us, patience and goodness are found among the gifts of the Spirit. As a human being is filled with the divine Spirit, she shares in God's communicable attributes. God "communicates" these attributes to us by grace.

Although I find this distinction interesting and instructive, I need to register one criticism. My criticism has two aspects corresponding to the two sides of the distinction. On the one hand, I don't think we can so easily discern which attributes are incommunicable. On the other, I don't think we can so easily assume that we share in any of God's attributes. Let me address each in turn, the second aspect dealing directly with patience and goodness.

The first side of the criticism has been implicit throughout my treatment of the "metaphysical" attributes (the NOTs and the OMNIs). I have tried to suggest alternative terms that avoid some of the methodological problems involved in metaphysical God-talk (see outline above). Note that each of these alternative terms is apparently more communicable than the metaphysical term it is replacing. Even the attribute of eternity will be given to human beings, as God has promised to give us eternal life. This is an gift of grace beyond our natural ability, but we will receive it nevertheless. There seems to be a human way of sharing in many if not all of God's attributes. So the distinction runs into problems because of the difficulty of identifying any inherently incommunicable attributes.

The second side of the criticism comes into sharp relief when speaking of the patience and goodness of God. At first glance, these two seem to be obviously communicable. We comfortably speak of both God and humans being good and patient. So these must be communicable attributes. But the problem with such an easy assumption is that the manner of God's goodness and patience is radically different than the manner of our goodness and patience. Since I have already addressed this problem in connection with divine goodness in an earlier post, I will focus my comments on patience.

We often speak of our being patient with God. We learn to be patient as we wait for God's timing. But can this really be thought of as sharing a divine attribute? Is our patience so similar to God's patience? When God is patient with us, he is not waiting on our timing. Rather, he is waiting for us to learn and grow, giving time and space for our freedom, even mercifully overlooking our sins. This is the meaning of divine patience. Human patience, in contrast, trusts in the Lord as he works out his good will. In other words, we are patient with God because he is good, whereas God is patient with us because he is good and we are not (yet). Again, there seems to be a distinctively human way of sharing in God's attributes. So the distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes again runs into problems because even the most obviously communicable attributes are shared with us in a way that differs radically from God.

The bottom line of this criticism is that the more crucial distinction is not between incommunicable and communicable attributes but between God's way of being his own attributes and the human way of sharing in God's attributes.

The implication for our talk of patience and goodness is that we should begin with God's patience and goodness and only then, with proper distinctions in mind, speak of our human patience and goodness. I suggest that such a habit of mind would apply across the board to all the attributes explored these last few months, though defending or applying this suggestion is beyond the scope of this already long post. I'll leave that task to you.

Any thoughts?
What is your initial reaction to the distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes?
Do the two aspects of my criticism of this distinction hit or miss the mark?
Is the notion of a human way of sharing in God's attributes helpful?
Would you agree that there is a distinctively human way of sharing in any of God's attributes, provided he chooses to share them with us? Why or why not?
Does my description of God's patience as ordered to the working out of his goodness ring true? Why or why not?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Attributes of God (X): Mercy and Justice

Our reflections on the attributes of God continue with another pair of characteristics: mercy and righteousness. These two attributes of God are often set alongside each other, and so it is not controversial to treat them together. However, there is no consensus on how to treat them in tandem. Consider the following as one way to think through the matter of their interrelationship in God.

Let's look first at God's righteousness. What does it mean to say God is righteous? Righteousness is liked to matters of justice, rights and law. To be righteous is to be found in accordance with law. When we say that God is righteous, we are saying that his being and action are in full accordance with law. But what law? Since God himself is the standard of justice and the ultimate law-giver, this attribute must be necessarily reflexive: God lives according to the standard of his law.

With such an understanding of righteousness, it should be obvious why we might encounter some choppy waters when we turn to God's mercy. Mercy is most basically understood as withholding the execution of what is just or right. You deserve one thing, but get another -- that's the heart of mercy.

If mercy is so understood, how can God be both merciful and righteous? For God to be perfectly merciful, there must be a lessening of his righteousness. For God to be perfectly righteous, there is a definite limit set on his mercy -- if he can be said to be merciful at all.

There are a number of solutions to this puzzle. We could abandon divine righteousness. We could abandon divine mercy. We could say God moves from righteousness to mercy (maybe by means of some kind of crude OT/NT distinction). We could try to hold them together as inherently paradoxical affirmations that bear witness to God's mystery. We could just give up on the theological task altogether, opting to speak haphazardly of both attributes in so-called "balance."

In the contrast of these alternative solutions, my approach (big surprise!) would be to redefine mercy and righteousness according to the history of God's dealings with us. Where is God in his mercy and righteousness revealed? In Jesus Christ, God deals with us rightly and merciful.

In Jesus Christ, God's righteousness is not a subservience to an abstract law. God's right is precisely his freely chosen covenant of mercy whereby humble and even sinful human beings are brought into fellowship with God and each other. God doesn't speak his law into a vacuum, but gives his law to his people. That God even has a people is a consequence God's merciful decision. Thus, God's mercy is the content of God's righteousness.

In Jesus Christ, God's mercy is not a lessening of the demands of righteousness. God's mercy is executed by God's righteous right hand, whereby he takes sin seriously and opposes it as his enemy. That God is righteous -- that God takes a stand for what is right between him and us -- is good news for us. It is through his righteousness that God enacts his mercy. Thus, God's righteousness is the form of God's mercy.

So, when understood in tandem with each other and in correspondence to God's history with us, the divine attributes of mercy and righteousness bear witness to the character of God as the one who is in himself for us and with us.

Any thoughts?
Have I misrepresented the general definitions of righteousness and mercy offered as foils at the beginning of this post?
Do my reformulations of mercy and righteousness sound right? On what basis would you judge them?
Has this exercise served to commend my preferred procedure (used throughout this series) of defining God's attributes in accordance with God's history with us in his covenant with Israel fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ? Does this particular example indicate any flaws or dangers in this procedure?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Attributes of God (IX): Grace and Holiness

As we continue the third and final phase of our series on the attributes of God, we will dedicate these last three weeks to three different pairs of character attributes: grace and holiness, mercy and justice, patience and goodness. There are numerous reasons for exploring these divine characteristics in pairs: (1) these attributes are easier to understand than the previously addressed "metaphysical" attributes, (2) they are less contentious and therefore less interesting unless brought into conversation with each other, (3) although not yet employed, the method of juxtaposing two seemingly contradictory affirmations is always an illuminating procedure, (4) such a procedure especially befits God, whose simplicity and perfection indicates that all his attributes describe him fully and thus modify each other, and (5) believe it or not, it was my plan all along. So here goes.

Our first pair of divine characteristics is grace and holiness.

Let's start with holiness.

What does is mean to say that God is holy? A common definition of holiness that accounts for most of its Biblical usage is "set apart for God's use." This general definition is great for creatures, but how exactly would such a definition be applied to God? Is God set apart for God's use? That's seems oddly reflexive.

I think this very oddity is illuminating. The attribute of holiness bears witness to God's distinctness, his set-apartness, his otherness. God is God. "God is not 'man' said in a loud voice," to quote a phrase. God is set apart from all that is not-God.

Although this may sound a bit empty, we must remember that what God is (in contrast to what he is not) has been revealed in the history of the covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So God's holiness doesn't just mean he is nothing like us; rather, God's holiness refers to the distinctive shape of life God takes in the history of his dealings with us. God is this God, and no other

But to even speak of God's holiness in this specified historical way, we are affirming that God has actually chosen to enter in history with us. God has condescended to us, coming among us by becoming one of us. The term which characterizes this act of condescension is grace. God is gracious. He doesn't abandon us in our sin, but enters into our sinful condition to overcome our plight and bring us back into relationship with him. That God has done this is sheer grace: God was not compelled to join with us, but he does it anyway.

God is God. He is set apart from all that is not-God. And so out of reverence we declare that God is holy.

God is this God. What sets this God apart is that he cares for us humans. And so out of gratitude we declare that God is gracious.

Any thoughts?
Do you have any misgivings about the procedure of pairing up divine attributes?
Does talk of holiness in terms of God's set-apartness make sense? Does it befit God?
What is missing from my account of God's grace? Is the act of condescension get to the heart of the matter, or is there a better point of departure?
How might God's holiness and God's grace further illuminate each other?