Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Attributes of God (VIII): Love

As a recent commentator noted "God is love. Does it get any simpler than that? Does it get any more magnificent? I think not." Thanks, anonymous, for supplying a segue to this third and final segment of our series on the attributes of God.

We began with the negative attributes (the NOTs) and then turned to the super-eminent attributes (the OMNIs). Now we come to what I will call, for lack of a better term, the character attributes. These terms attempt describe the quality of God's being and act. They are generally less "metaphysical" and thus require less explanation and/or criticism. However, they raise equally interesting and deep questions about who God is and how we come to know him.

We will start with that most famous appellation: God is love.

The love of God has earned its fame for good reason. It is one of the few things the Bible straightforwardly says God is (cf. I John 4:16). The Prophets state many divine attributes in the form of first person oracles. The Psalms declare many divine attributes in the form of second person praise. But the First Epistle of John states the attribute of divine love in the form of a third person proposition. God is love. In light of its unique character as a direct biblical statement, the attribute of divine love must be attended to with all seriousness despite contemporary romantic distortions.

But the very form of the statement raises a serious question. Can the statement "God is love" be revered to say "love is God"? It is certainly grammatically possible, since the verb "is" can function as an equals-sign, implying that the subject and predicate nominative can switch places without any change in meaning. The formula 5 + 7 = 12 is exactly the same as 12 = 5 + 7. That's the point of an equals-sign.

Although the phrase "love is God" may sound odd to some, the substance of this reversal can be found sprinkled throughout our God-talk. For example, we say that where there is love, God is there. We say that God is mysteriously present in the love between human beings. We wax eloquently about the superiority of agape and that we draw near to God when our love for others becomes agape in form. We talk about "seeing God" in the midst of loving acts. All these notions imply that God and love are equivalent terms: we can enter the proposition from either side and get the same result.

However, I would like to post a warning against reversing the statement "God is love." My warning is not because I do not believe God is present in genuine human love. It seems to me that divine omnipresence would take care of that. I raise a warning flag because I think it is crucial that in the case of divine love (as with every other divine attribute), we ought to let God himself define the meaning of love. The reversal of the phrase plays too easily into our inclination to control God by means of our pre-conceived definitions. A ubiquitous example of this kind of definitional control would be the rejection of a doctrine by identifying its inconsistency with divine love. This kind of argument is made so often that it makes one wonder whether love has been defined in a way that prevents the God of the Bible from ever fitting without significant remainder. When find ourselves cornered by such contradictions, we are better off going back to the drawing board in order to try to define divine love in accordance with the character of God revealed in the history of the covenant with Israel fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

In support of my warning, I dare to suggest that this procedure of definition is actually the logic of the Biblical proposition within its literary context. A few verses prior to saying "God is love," the First Epistle of John states clearly that God's love is revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God: "This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him" (I John 4:9). The apostle goes on to differentiate the content of this love from other human loves: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (I John 4:10). The apostle Paul concurs: "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Roman 5:8). So, at least the apostolic witnesses have tried their best to define divine love according to God's own self-defining action. Why should we do any different?

Any thoughts?
Can you think of examples where the statement "God is love" has been implicitly or explicitly reversed?
Do you see the implications of this reversal as negative or positive?
What other implications might there be?
Do you have any examples of rejecting a doctrine by appealing to God's love?
If we take our cue from the history of God with us when defining divine love, what might we say about the meaning of the statement, "God is love"?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Attributes of God (VII): Omnipotence

Our ongoing series on the attributes of God is approaching a turning point. We began with the NOTs -- the negative approach to God's attributes. We then turned to the OMNIs -- the positive approach. Both of these approaches are "metaphysical," in the sense that they begin with our knowledge of the world and try to think how God relates to us. Next we will turn to the attributes of character (love, mercy, etc.), which will consume us for the remainder of this series.

But first, we must add one last OMNI: omnipotence.

This may be the most well-known and most obvious divine attribute. Whatever God is, he must be the most powerful being imaginable, right?

In light of its familiarity - and also out of a desire to avoid a stylistic rut with this series - I think I will just raise a classic question about divine omnipotence and sketch some possible answers. You may have heard it before, but here goes:

Can God create an object too large to move?

Here are some classic answers to this classic question:

1) No. God's power extends to that which is logically possible. Omnipotence properly defined means that God is able to do anything that is not logically impossible. God cannot do something and also not do it. That's just logically impossible. God's power is not diminished by limiting it in this way.

2) Yes. God's power is exhibited precisely in his ability to limit himself in relationship to other creatures. God is able to create not only powerful forces but also free agents whom he cannot control. God's power is not limited but rather displayed by his free engagement with a free world. God need not coerce to be powerful.

3) Yes and No. The question reveals an absolute paradox that cannot be solved. If God is genuinely omnipotent, then he must be able both to create an object to heavy for him and to lift every possible object. This paradox may lead to three different conclusions: (a) God is not omnipotent because it would introduce contradiction into God's perfect being, (b) there is no God because the concept "God" requires omnipotence by definition, or (c) the contemplation of this paradox draws us into the mystery of the unknowable God, teaching us to affirm both his power and his weakness.

4) No comment. The question begins with a false premise and therefore should not be dignified with an answer. This false assumption is that God's power can be thought of in quantitative terms based on the analogy of created power dynamics. God is not human power multiplied to the nth degree. God's power is utterly unlike created power, as is shown by the Cross of Christ as the power of God. If we begin from the correct starting point (the revelation of God), we will avoid such speculative questions.

Any thoughts?
What answer would you give to this question?
Do you agree with any of the above answers?
How might you tweak them to fit more nearly your thoughts on God's power?
Is there an alternative answer that is not listed above?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Attributes of God (VI): Omniscience

During the discussion following last week's post on omnipresence, it was insightfully noted that omnipresence and omniscience seem to blur together. God's presence to all things and his knowledge of all things are related features of his being. The connection is even stronger if we speak of omnipresence as all things being present to God (as suggested last week). According to such an understanding, omnipresence and omniscience are very close indeed.

So what's the difference? Well, its important to remember that the difference between each of God's attributes are strictly logical differences. If we learned anything from the attribute of simplicity, it was that all God's attributes are unified within his one divine life. So God does knowing something today and become present to it tomorrow, nor is God righteous yesterday and gracious today. God is all his attributes all at once. We divide them up based on logical distinctions that make sense to us. It makes sense to distinguish between God's knowledge and God's presence because they are quite obviously distinct domains of activity.

Does this mean we should avoid making such distinctions entirely? I don't think so, because it is an act of faithfulness and obedience to use our minds as far as we able. Taking cues from Scriptural revelation, we ought to think carefully about how to talk about God intelligibly. We should be resist the temptation to throw up our hands and give up on God-talk. If we are to be faithful witnesses, then we should talk about God. Given that he has talked about himself, who are we to say we can't follow his lead and talk about him?

Enough prelimaries. We should say something about omniscience. Omni means all, and science means knowledge. Omniscience is thus God's all-knowing. I personally don't find this attribute to be that objectionable. Omniscience simply means that God knows all things. It would seem that this is exactly the kind of affirmation one would be inclined to make in light of God's dealings with us revealed in Scripture.

However, a common objection is raised that should at least be noted. Some have suggested that if God knows the future, then the future is determined, and therefore omniscience undermines human freedom.

In light of this objection, some have recommended an alternative understanding of omniscience. One could grant that since the future has not yet happened, then the future does not "exist" in the same sense as the past and present. Therefore, God can be said to know all there is to know without knowing the future.

I personally do not think the above objection sticks. Why would God's knowledge of the future determine it? Surely God knows things according to their nature, so that he knows which things are determined and which are not. Surely God can know something without controlling it. If I have missed the force of this objection, please let me know. But until I am convinced by it, I see no need to retreat to the alternative understanding of omniscience outlined above. Anyway, God knowing the future seems to be the "good news" about omniscience as a divine attribute.

My own beef with omniscience is not its classical definition but its language. As one of the OMNIs, it follows the via eminentia from the creation to the creator. I am suspicious of this line of reasoning. I would rather move from how the creator has engaged with us his creatures and learn from that how God is in himself. Omniscience sounds a lot like a human projection: we wish we knew more things (especially the future), and so we project this attribute onto God. The language of omniscience (and all the OMNIs) cannot easily escape this problem.

So what should we then say? How can we speak of God's knowledge? Scripture does speak of God's all-surpassing knowledge. The history of God with us hinges on God's gifts of promise and prophecy, both of which presuppose God's awareness of the future. The Bible repeatedly speaks of God's perception into the depths of the human soul, and it is such a perception as attributed to Jesus in the Gospels which signifies the deity of Christ. So we have every good reason to attribute something like omniscience to God. What linguistic alternative is there? I would recommend we reappropriate the language of God's wisdom. The wisdom of God in the Bible is not limited to God "knowing what is best for us" but also includes his knowledge of all things. God's providential care of the present in fact rests on his pre-eminent knowledge of the future. So God's wisdom seems to be an apt and sufficient alternative to the language of omniscience.

Any thoughts?
Does my mention of the unity of God's attributes help or hurt the sensibility of our God-talk?
Does my definition of omniscience ring true?
Do you feel the force of the objection discussed above? If so, why?
Is the language of God's wisdom a sufficient alternative to the langauge of omnisience? What is lost in the transition? What is gained?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Attributes of God (V): Omnipresence

This week we are entering a new phase in our series on divine attributes. We will turn our attention from the NOTs to the OMNIs. This shift is not only verbal (from im- to omni-), but also methodological. To discover the NOT attributes, we travel along the via negativa (way of negation), removing from God creaturely characteristics that do not befit him. To discover the OMNI attributes, we travel along the via eminentia (way of eminence), attributing to God creaturely characteristics which do befit him -- with the significant difference that they apply to him eminently (in the greatest possible degree). Hence the prefix omni, which means "all." So, by travelling along this path we will speak of God as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.

We begin with omnipresence. To say that God is all-present is to say that God is present to all times and places. We know what it means for us to be present in one particular place at one particular time. But the creator's presence to his creation is not limited to this place at this time. God is present to this place and that place, at this time and at that time. God is all-present: present-to-all.

As the above description shows, the term "present" is conveniently ambiguous. It refers to both time and place. Present means here rather than there. But present also means now rather than then. This should not surprise us, considering time and space go together: we can measure one by the other, and our awareness of one carries with it an awareness of the other. When a teacher takes attendance and a student says, "Present," it refers to both their presence in the room and their presence at this time. They are here-and-now. That's what presence means. So by virtue of his omnipresence, God is here and there, now and then.

Of course, this raises an obvious problem: What does it mean to say that God is present at a particular time and place? Is it really so special to say that God was present with his people Israel? Is it really so special to say that God is immanuel in Jesus Christ? Is it really so special to say that God is present in a sacred time and space? It seems like the significance of God's particular covenant history with his people is undermined by this notion of omnipresence.

This problem is far from insolvable. The key is to think of omnipresence as trans-presence. God is not simply everywhere in the way that we are somewhere. God is not just a human being writ large. Rather, God transcends space and time, and so in his freedom may engage with time and place as he wills. So God may be present-to his creation in a multiplicity of forms. Omnipresence doesn't set a limit on God, making it necessary that be "everywhere" in a strict sense. Omnipresence bears witness to God's freedom from such limitation (either the limitation of being only here or the limitation of being everywhere). God is so omnipresent that he is even capable of being present to this time and place in a way that he is not present to that time and place.

This modification seems necessary for those who believe in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God. But one may rightfully ask whether such a modification of omnipresence twists the term beyond its plain sense. Would it be better to just drop omnipresence? I don't think so (though I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter), because I am still affirming the point of the term: God's transcendence of time and space.

Furthermore, we can avoid an outright rejection of the term by turning the meaning of omnipresence on its head. Omnipresence focuses on God being present to all. But I am a bit more interested in saying that all are present to God. In other words, all things are laid before God. The term usually used for this God's eternity: God simultaneously engages all of time. Omnipresence also points to this divine reality, just from a different angle. I personally prefer the language of eternity, but see no reason to eliminate omnipresence from my vocabulary -- provided it is understood in terms of God's history with us.

Any thoughts?
Which way do you prefer: the way of negation or the way of eminence? Why?
Does my description of omnipresence make sense?
Do you think omnipresence is rightfully attributed to God?
How else might the attribute of omnipresence be reconciled with God's history?