Monday, May 21, 2012

11 The Incommunicable Attributes of God

A. Introduction
The next three chapters of Grudem's Systematic Theology treat the attributes (or characteristics) of God. Chapter 11 deals with God's "incommunicable" attributes, while chapters 12 and 13 deal with God's "communicable" attributes. Incommunicable attributes are aspects of God that he does not share with humanity, like the fact that he is present everywhere (omnipresent). Communicable ones are attributes that he shares with us, like the fact that he is love--we love too. Grudem makes the further claim that "there is no attribute of God that is completely communicable, and there is no attribute of God that is completely incommunicable" (157).

A second section to his introduction talks about the names of God in Scripture. His basic point is that "God made the universe so that it would show forth the excellence of his character" (159). The many images used of God in the Bible are illustrations of God taken from analogies to his character in the creation. "All that Scripture says about God uses anthropomorphic language--that is, language that speaks of God in human terms." These are not wrong or untrue ideas about God, just somewhat figurative or less than fully literal ones. Further, each description of God's attributes in Scripture needs to be understood in the light of the rest of Scripture.

Finally, Grudem clues us into the format by which he will define the incommunicable attributes. He will do so in two parts. The first part of his definition will define the attribute. The second part will balance out what that first part is not meaning to imply. He gives the example of God's unchangeableness. On the one hand, "God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises," but he balances this out with the fact that "God does act, and he acts differently in response to different situations" (160).

Grudem's categorization and descriptions are traditional and are quite acceptable. It is noteworthy, of course, that these categorizations are logical rather than biblical. They are perfectly appropriate attempts to arrange biblical material according to logical groupings that do not derive from anything in the biblical texts themselves. All such categorizations are "extra-biblical," meaning that while they can be built out of biblical content and can fit with biblical material, their organizing principles are not strictly derived from the Bible. Grudem's two part approach to defining God's attributes is also perfectly acceptable.

Grudem is much to be commended for his sense that our talk of God involves a hefty dose of anthropomorphism (or perhaps more accurately, anthropopathism, describing God by way of features of human psyche--anthropomorphism technically has to do with human shape). In theory, Grudem's understanding of God approaches an "incarnational" view, which would see revelation as God largely speaking in the categories of those to whom he reveals himself. Grudem at least accepts a measure of this view when it comes to God's revelation of himself.

B. The Incommunicable Attributes
1. Independence
Grudem defines God's "independence" as follows: "God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him joy" (160-61). This is Grudem's sense of the classic doctrine of God's "aseity" or self-existence. God does not and could not need the creation for anything (162). With regard to us, he is a necessary being (we could not exist without him existing) but with regard to him we are completely unnecessary (he can and does exist whether we exist or not).

On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that our existence is therefore meaningless. On the contrary, "we are in fact very meaningful because God has created us and he has determined that we would be meaningful to him. That is the final definition of genuine significance" (162). God's existence is qualitatively different from ours but our contingent existence is immensely significant because it is significant to God.

Grudem is completely on target with his sense of God's self-existence. God does not need us to exist nor does our existence complete God in any way. This is the classic view. Grudem is also correct in believing that our significance is derivative from God. Humanity is immensely significant because God considers humanity--and the creation as a whole--to be significant.

The main critique again is Grudem's use of Scripture to "proof text" his claims. God's self-existence is more a topic that arose in later Christian theology than within the pages of the Bible itself. On the one hand, Acts 17:25 does point solidly in this direction. God does not need human service. Even though the Bible doesn't say much about God's self-sufficiency, surely the biblical authors would have agreed.

On the other hand, attempts to use Exodus 3:14 to do hard core theological or philosophical service are generally anachronistic. This is the passage where YHWH reveals his name to Moses. To make significant metaphysical claims out of it is almost always to import later philosophical categories, often categories that did not exist until centuries after Christ.

"Couldn't God have been thinking such things when Exodus was written?", one might ask. Certainly! But how would we know what God was thinking at the time of Exodus, if that's not what Exodus itself originally meant? We would implicitly be claiming that God revealed this truth at some later point in church history. I personally am fine with thinking, but we should be clear in such cases that we are claiming God continued to reveal key understandings even after the New Testament was written. By contrast, those who say such things are often trying to use a meaning from outside the Bible to argue for a meaning inside the Bible. You can't have your cake and eat it to.

2. Unchangeableness
Grudem defines God's unchangeableness, also known as immutability, as follows: "God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations" (163). By unchanging "perfections," Grudem means God's attributes do not change (164). By unchanging "purposes," Grudem means that "once God has determined that he will assuredly bring something about, his purpose is unchanging and will be achieved." By unchanging promises, he means that God will be faithful to his promises once he has promised something.

Grudem addresses the impression we get from various biblical texts that God changes his mind. Moses intervenes and God decides not to destroy Israel. Hezekiah prays and God allows him to live for fifteen more years. Jonah preaches, Nineveh repents, God changes his mind and spares it. Grudem explains that "God responds differently to different situations" (165). Statements about what God plans to do in such cases are statements of his present intention given a present situation. When the situation changes, God's present intention changes. Such statements are thus not part of God's unchanging purposes or promises.

Another topic in this section is the question of God's "impassibility." Does God experience emotions or "passions." Grudem differs from the Westminster Confession and holds that "the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all clearly conflicts with much of the rest of Scripture" (166).

In this section he also dismisses process theology, a form of theology that believes process and change are essential aspects of true existence, and thus that God must change if he exists. The evangelical view in God's unchangeability, Grudem responds, does not imply that God does not act in the world. According to the Bible, Grudem says, God is both infinite and personal, something true only of biblical religion, he says.

Grudem ends his section on God's unchangeability with what is at stake. If God could change, then he could change for the worse--he could become evil. If God could change for the better, that would mean he isn't already the best. If God could change his purposes or promises, then how could we trust him? Some of the things most important to us about God would be in jeopardy. Rather, God is "infinitely worthy of trust" (168).

Grudem's treatment of God's immutability is orthodox and would be agreeable to most Christians. His use of Scripture, as always, is dubious. For example, the verses he quotes in relation to God's unchanging character need to be read in terms of what specific characteristic of God each passage is talking about. When God says in Malachi 3:5 that he does not change, he is talking about changing his opposition to adultery, to those who pay unjust wages, to those who oppress immigrants, and so forth. It is not talking about the theological doctrine of immutability.

When Hebrews 1:12 says that Jesus will not change, it is primarily talking about the fact that he will continue to live forever and probably that he will continue as high priest forever (cf. 7:24). The psalm Hebrews is quoting had a slightly different referent in its context even still. The parallelism of Psalm 102:26-27 indicates that the psalmist was speaking of God (the Father rather than Jesus') continued existence for ever. In short, Grudem doesn't know how to read biblical texts for their intended meanings.

I believe Grudem is also inconsistent in what he is willing to consider metaphorical and what he takes literally. So he insists we must take language of God's emotions literally. Perhaps he would say that he takes language of God changing his mind literally too, but I don't think he does because he is interpreting "change of mind" to mean "respond in a predictable way to a new circumstance." Surely this is not the normal sense of "changing one's mind."

A more consistent view, in my opinion, is to say that language of God changing his mind is anthropopathic language. It is human-speak that helps us understand God but that should not be taken literally. If God knows all things, then he cannot literally change his mind (or in my opinion, literally have emotions). These become less than literal pictures of God that enable us to relate to him. They are true analogies of a reality we could not possibly understand on a literal level.

So I believe Grudem is mostly right. God walks with us through time in the way he supposes. Yes, God's responses are predictable given God's unchanging character. Unlike Grudem, I would say God's emotions fall into this same category of anthropopathic descriptions of God's predictable responses.

Where Grudem is wrong is to suppose that the biblical texts already have such a philosophically worked out theology. Following Grudem's hermeneutic, he should be an open theist. Open theists are individuals who believe that God has suspended his foreknowledge so that he can truly change his mind, experience emotions, etc. They take the Old Testament text in particular more literally than Grudem does. I believe Grudem rightly appropriates the Old Testament through later Christian theological eyes. I believe he wrongly thinks he is taking the Old Testament literally.

We can raise some questions about Grudem's sense of God's unchanging purposes. Where do we learn these? Grudem would no doubt say that we learn them in the Bible. The problem is of course that he is being selective in what purposes are unchanging and which or not. Reading Leviticus on its own terms, for example, we would conclude that animal sacrifice is part of God's unchanging purpose. It is only when we read Leviticus in the light of Hebrews that we come to a different conclusion. So Grudem is not wrong to say that God's purposes are unchanging. He is only unreflective in how he has come to arrive at a knowledge of which of God's purposes are the unchanging ones.

A final word is in order about process theology, which is different from the open theism mentioned in the previous paragraph. One has to wonder what reason anyone has for continuing to believe in God at all if one becomes a process theologian. It does not seem a position that an atheist or objective seeker would adopt. Rather, process theology seems to be an attempt to hold on to some vestige of a Christian faith one has more or less lost or abandoned.

3. Eternity
Grudem defines God's eternity as follows: "God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time" (168). The fact that he does not learn new things or forget things (omniscience) follows from this aspect of his being. "To God himself, all of his existence is always somehow 'present'" (169). "All of past history is viewed by God with great clarity and vividness" (170).

God "has a qualitatively different experience of time than we do" (170). In Grudem's diagram, God is above looking down at creation, the life of Christ, 1994, and the final judgment all at the same time (171). Yet, by contrast, God somehow "sees the progress of events over time and acts differently at different points in time" (172). This will be true of us forever, even in eternity (173).

Grudem's analysis of God's eternity is completely orthodox here also. It would be unwise for most of us to speculate about the physics. Grudem's diagrams (and anyone else's) will surely be a source of great embarrassment to him in the kingdom when God gives him a greater glimpse of how it actually works.

Grudem's use of Scripture continues to be out of context. The idea of someone being "outside of time" seems anachronistic for biblical times. It seems doubtful that any biblical author understood God to exist outside of time. Such ideas arguably did not develop until later church history, and those who understand relativity today would no doubt even question the notion of medieval timelessness.

The biblical authors thus seem to picture God going through time as we do, as we would expect. The passages Grudem quotes only suggest that God always has and always will exist. God revealed himself in the ancient frameworks of those to whom he first spoke, so it is no surprise that the Old Testament sometimes pictures God learning new information, just as it sometimes pictures him knowing the distant future. Arguably the more philosophical versions of God's timelessness came in later church history, when philosophy began to influence Christian theology more extensively. The biblical language is more poetic and anthropopathic, even though the biblical authors themselves probably understood it literally.

4. Omnipresence
Grudem defines God's omnipresence as follows: "God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places" (173). God created space, so he cannot be limited by it. He is present everywhere, although not necessarily present in the same way.

So he can be present to punish in one place, present to sustain in another, present to bless in another. Grudem's sense seems to be that the times we tend to notice God is when he is active in judgment or blessing. But the rest of the time he is still there, sustaining everything. "There is no one place on earth that God has chosen as his particular dwelling place" (176). Even in heaven, God is not more present, only more manifested. When the Bible says God is present, it usually means "present to bless" (177).

Grudem believes that God does not have spatial dimensions. "We should guard against thinking that God extends infinitely far in all directions so that he himself exists in a sort of infinite, unending space" (174). Rather God does not have size or dimensions in space. "God relates to space in a far different way than we do or than any created thing does" (175).

God's omnipresence has to do with the fact that he is aware of and able to act at any point of space. Since we have a limited understanding of space, it is difficult to know exactly what the physics is. Grudem is right that God can act to bless, sustain, or punish at any point in space (just as he can in time). But we are not in a position to know the metaphysical details. Grudem is surely right to say that God relates to space in a far different way than we do.

It is possible that heaven is more profound--and analogical (meaning we can only grasp its nature through analogy)--than Grudem thinks. He seems to think of heaven as a place in this universe. But could heaven in part relate to "where" God was before the creation? If so, then it is not a place such as we can relate to but a reference to "wherever" God's "presence" most literally exists. Where created beings like angels or spirits exist "in heaven" remains a mystery, but it is not clear that it is within created space.

In the end, we are not in a position to say much about such questions. The same issue pertains to hell, which we probably should not think of as located within the spatial creation. Biblical images of hell are thus surely very heavily analogical as well, a suggestion supported by the fact that most of the imagery of hell is drawn from ancient Jewish apocalyptic.

5. Unity
The final incommunicable attribute Grudem treats is his "unity," sometimes called his simplicity. He defines it in the following way: "God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times" (177).

What does this idea mean for Grudem? It means that Scripture "never singles out one attribute of God as more important than the others" (178). These attributes are characteristics of God as a unity, not characteristics of parts of God. God is not a "collection of attributes" and his attributes do not add something to God. Rather, "God's whole being includes all of his attributes: he is entirely loving, entirely merciful, entirely just..." (179).

The implication is that God is not loving at one point in history and then just at another. "He is the same God always, and everything he says or does is fully consistent with all his attributes" (180).

The medieval doctrine that God does not have parts arose largely from the application of philosophy to theology. It is not a clearly biblical teaching, which does not in itself negate it. Divine simplicity means that God does not have attributes but God is love, justice, etc.

Many of us will no doubt find this doctrine obscure. Since it does not particularly come from Scripture, we may feel particularly free to question it. Biblical statements like "God is love" were not saying anything of the sort but are metonymies, poetic sayings that equate God with something that is so closely associated with him that we can practically identify him with it. It would be as if we were to call someone with an incredibly good sense of smell, "the nose." "She's the nose," we might say.

The question of whether some of God's attributes take priority over others is a legitimate question. We cannot wish it away. Can God make an exception to his justice because of his love? This is a legitimate question that cannot be wished away by some supposed doctrine of God's unity.

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