Sunday, May 20, 2012

12 The "Communicable" Attributes of God, Part 1

Chapter 11 presented God's "incommunicable" attributes, those that largely relate to God apart from the creation, like his eternity.  By contrast, God's "communicable" attributes are ones that have to do with his relation to the creation, like spirituality.

A. Attributes Describing God's Being
1. Spirituality
Grudem presents two attributes as aspects of God's being that relate directly to the creation.  The first is spirituality. By spirituality, Grudem refers to the fact that God is spirit.  "God's being, his essential mode of existence, is different from everything that he has created" (187).  God is not a certain size.  He does not have dimensions. He is not bound by a spatial location.

Here is his official definition: "God's spirituality means that God exists as a being that is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence" (188). Since "God has given us spirits," this attribute is placed in the category of communicable.

We in this universe are really in no position to know exactly what it literally means to say that God is Spirit.  Grudem's description is orthodox and fairly captures what it means when we say it. It connects to God's omnipresence--God is not limited by location.  God is not another being like we are a being.

At the same time, we can wonder whether we are really saying the same thing when we say God is Spirit as when we say people have spirits. We are in no position to say anything about what God's essence is like "outside" this universe. "Spirit" is a metaphor for what God is like inside this universe. "Outside," he is "other."

In that sense, we use "spirit" in relation to human beings to say that we have a part that belongs to the realm of God in addition to our obvious, visible, physical side.  In a sense, while we use "spirit" to refer to the fact that God, while other, is inside this universe, in relation to humans, we use "spirit" to say that we, while inside this universe, have a part that connects to the realm outside this universe.  In both cases, such language is only our attempt to get a handle on matters we cannot possibly understand, and it should not be taken literally.

When the Bible speaks in terms of God as a spirit or us having spirits, it is giving us a picture we can understand.  It is not likely a literal description of God or our make-up.

2. Invisibility
"God's invisibility means that God's total essence, all of his spiritual being, will never be able to be seen by us, yet God still shows himself to us through visible, created things" (188). God does sometimes make himself seen in various ways, mostly by analogy. The "beatific vision" (190), a seeing of God face to face, is an experience Moses is said to have had. The Old Testament mentions several "theophanies," appearances of God on earth.

We can wonder whether to say God is invisible to us is really to say much more than the implication of what we are saying when we say God is spirit. Certainly mainstream Christians have always believed that God can make himself visible on earth and spiritually present to his worshipers.  Neither of these claims suggest that God's "essence" becomes visible. Apart from Christ, a theophany is simply an embodied analogy.

B. God's Mental Attributes
3. Knowledge (Omniscience)
Grudem defines God's knowledge in the following way: "God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act" (190).  First he knows everything about himself, which is amazing because he is infinite. He secondly knows everything actual--everything that exists and happens.

Third, he knows everything possible. Some things are contingent upon other things but God knows how each contingent scenario would play out depending on what happens. Fourth, God knows all these things at all times. "God's knowledge never changes or grows" (192).

Grudem's presentation of God's omniscience is almost entirely valid and orthodox.  He is right to take biblical statements about God forgetting our sins as hyperbole rather than literal.  God cannot forget anything because he is all knowing.

Grudem is also quite right about God's contingent knowledge.  God knows what will happen if we choose one way, and God knows what will happen if we choose another way.  Grudem would also rightly believe that God knows which choice we will make in every circumstance.

Where he is wrong is in something he only hints at.  Grudem believes that, because of God's foreknowledge, "there must be some sense in which our choices are not absolutely free" (193). That is to say, Grudem believes that it is ultimately God who is behind the scenes orchestrating which "contingent" choices we will make. As we will say later on in his consideration of God's providence, such an approach renders incoherent any meaningful sense of God as love and leaves us without any meaningful solution to the problem of evil.

However, Grudem is quite right to reject "open theism," the idea that God has intentionally suspended his foreknowledge so that we can have free will on some level. Such an approach not only takes the Old Testament too literally; it is unnecessary. Like Grudem's sense of predestination, open theism falsely assumes that God's knowledge of the future inescapably would imply that God determines the future.

As creator of the universe out of nothing, God must know every possible aspect of the universe.  He must even know what it feels like to murder someone or to die on a cross, from the very beginning of creation. For God there is no difference between theoretical and experiential knowledge because he created every possible experience from nothing.

And since Christians believe further by faith that God knows everything actual as well as possible, depictions of him with emotions must be pictures to help us understand him.  In reality, God cannot literally have a rush of emotions--anger, sadness, etc--because that would mean that some event became more real or present to him at a point in time. By contrast, the full reality of all events is always, equally present to God at all times. Depictions of God's emotions are thus God helping us understand rather than literal.

4. Wisdom
"God's wisdom means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals" (193).  Wisdom thus, as Grudem defines it, has to do with the decisions a person makes with the knowledge he or she has.  God has shown his wisdom in the plan of redemption.  He shows his wisdom in our individual lives. God gives us wisdom too, although we will never fully share in his wisdom.

Grudem helpfully points out that wisdom is about knowing the right decisions to make with the knowledge you have. He is also correct that God knows what the best goals are and what the best means to those goals are. However, probably implicit in Grudem's thinking is a kind of "determinism" that would say God orchestrates everything that happens in the world.

We are in no position to say whether God created this universe as the "best possible world." I believe that God has created a world where it is better for his universe to choose him freely rather than a world where he micromanages and determines everything that happens. In that sense, God knows the best goals for us to choose and the best means to those goals for us to choose, but he does not always choose them for us. In his sovereignty, he has given freedom to nature ("natural law") and empowers humans potentially to do good ("common" and "prevenient grace").

Grudem has some very commendable application in this section: "If the Christian church is faithful to God's wise plan, it will be always in the forefront in breaking down racial and social barriers in societies around the world" (194).  He also as always has some questionable interpretations.

For example, Romans 8:28 was not originally about God working all things for good in this life.  The following verse points us the good as being conformed to the image of Christ, which has to do with being glorified either in the resurrection or in the transformation that will take place when Christ returns. The entire section has been about being freed from the corruption of our bodies.

5. Truthfulness (and Faithfulness)
"God's truthfulness means that he is the true God, and that all his knowledge and words are both true and the final standard of truth" (195).  Grudem takes the statement that God is the true God to mean that God fully conforms to his own idea of what God is. In Grudem's thinking, his words cannot conform to some standard of truthfulness outside of himself. They are truth itself.

In addition, "God's faithfulness means that God will always do what he has said and fulfill what he has promised" (196).

For us, God's knowledge is the standard of true knowledge. "God's words are both true and the final standard of truth" (196). If what we know is true, it is true because it conforms to God's knowledge. Grudem assents to the notion that "all truth is God's truth" and therefore that we should be encouraged to pursue knowledge in all areas of the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.

Because we are God's children, we must also be truthful.  To Grudem, lying is wrong not only because of the harm that comes from it but because we are acting in a way that is contrary to God's own character.

There is no question that God is faithful and true and that truthfulness is a core Christian value, in keeping with the nature of God. Similarly, the idea that "all truth is God's truth" is also beyond question.  Truth from any domain of knowledge cannot ultimately contradict what is true in the spiritual domain. It is refreshing to hear Grudem say that Christians should be encouraged to pursue knowledge in all areas of study.

However, if you find some of Grudem's presentation of God's truthfulness confusing, it is probably because his ideas are actually confused. What does it mean to say that God's words are truth itself, nothing that can be judged by some standard of truth outside himself? It sounds good.  It's just not clear what it really means.

It is much more helpful to think of it in this way. When God created the universe, he created everything that is true in this universe.  He created the very standards of truth that we know and rely on in all of the creation. He created the criterion that truth corresponds to the data of the world. He created the criterion that truth coheres with truth. He created the criterion that truth "works" and helps us function and do things in the world.

As far as truth in relation to God himself, we are in no position to know what it literally might be. We have no frame of reference for God's essence outside this universe other than by his revelation of himself through the analogy of things in this universe.  To think otherwise is to confuse God with the creation, to put him inadvertently within rather than beyond the creation.

Therefore, even Scripture gives us truths about God largely if not entirely by analogy. To think otherwise is to create an idol of God in our thoughts. It is thus a little misleading to say that "all of God's words about himself and about his creation completely correspond to reality" (196). They do correspond to his divine reality, but largely by approximation and analogy.

So God is not subject to the standards of truth inside this universe because his essence is outside this universe. But within this universe, all truth conforms to the basic rules of logic and the fundamental three criteria. Most Christian thinkers have rejected the idea that God might ever choose to violate the laws of logic in this universe, although when we approach God in this way, we cannot preclude the possibility.

It is not surprising, given the extent to which Grudem believes we can know God literally, that he would very closely identify truthfulness with a very literal presentation of the truth. He is here almost certainly reflecting a certain stream of Western culture. The Bible itself does not present truthfulness in such Victorian terms, from Rahab to John 7:8.

Grudem continues to demonstrate that he is unable to read the Bible in context.  For example, what does it mean for Jeremiah 10:10 to say that YHWH is the true God?  It is not to make a statement about God telling the truth. It is to say that YHWH is the only legitimate God to worship in comparison to the other gods.  It is not even necessarily to deny that the other gods exist as spiritual forces.

Once again, Grudem comes to the words of the Bible with his definitions in hands and unsurprisingly finds the Bible to teach the theology he comes to it with.

C. God's Moral Attributes
After treating attributes of God's "being" and of his "mind," Grudem proceeds to God's "moral" attributes as attributes that relate to the creation.

6. Goodness
"The goodness of God means that God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval" (197). For Grudem, we are not free on our own to decide what is good.  God is the one whose actions provide the definition of good and what is worthy of approval. God is also the source of everything good in the world. God is the ultimate good and we should strive to imitate him by doing good in the world, that is, by doing the things that God approves.

Grudem's treatment of God's goodness, like his treatment of God's truthfulness, tries to deny that there is some independent standard of goodness such that we might measure God by it.  Rather, God and his actions provide us with the very definition of what is good and worthy of approval.

It may not seem immediately obvious what the point is here, but it is in part to close down discussion on issues like, for example, whether God was good to command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac or command Joshua to obliterate the innocent wives, children, and animals of Jericho. If God provides the definition, then these things become good by definition and the discussion is over before it begins.

Nevertheless, since we have biblical precedent to question God's actions in relation to his goodness (e.g., Hab. 1:2), it is clear that God's actions--or inaction--do not always immediately appear good to us.  That is to say, there is a valid operating definition of good in the Bible that is not circular like Grudem's definition.

The biblical sense of "good," like that of "love" below, is on the level of ordinary language, to act virtuously, to act for the benefit of others, to do what is right.  Grudem's definition is thus more theologically motivated than biblically driven. The Bible assumes a definition of goodness against which God, in theory, could be compared.

By faith, however, we believe that God does always act in ways that cohere with absolute goodness. God has created this universe with a certain sense of the good, and God always acts in this universe consistent with that standard. I prefer to say that he does so by choice rather than having to do so.

7. Love
"God's love means that God eternally gives of himself to others" (199). Grudem finds evidence of this eternal giving in John 17:24, where Jesus mentions God giving glory to him even before the foundation of the world. God is love (1 John 4:8) and shows this love in giving his Son Jesus to die for us.  We are to imitate this communicable attribute of God by loving God and loving others.

There is nothing objectionable to Grudem's discussion of God's love. He does not try to say that love is God's being, which would not make sense.  "God is love" is a metonymy, a poetic metaphor that equates God with something that so typifies him that we can say he "is" it.

He does not at this point pull any circular argument in relation to some doctrine like predestination. For example, you could see someone try to argue that it is loving by definition for God to predetermine that some individuals go to hell, to make them go to hell.  Such a person might argue that, since God's actions define what is good and loving, then to predestine individuals for hell is loving by definition, because love is whatever God does.

Grudem does not make such an argument here. As we said about goodness, the Bible operates with a normal sense of goodness or love, to act for the benefit of others, to do to others as you would have them do to you.  The Bible does not operate with a circular definition of love, such that it is simply whatever God actually does.

8. Mercy, Grace, Patience
"God's mercy means God's goodness toward those in misery and distress.  God's grace means God's goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God's patience means God's goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time" (200).

Grudem distinguishes these three and of course refers to that great, recurring Old Testament affirmation that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (e.g., Exod. 34:6). The bulk of this section is filled with examples from the Bible of these characteristics.

In his discussion of grace, Grudem emphasizes that God is never obligated to give grace, that he always does so freely. "There is only one attitude appropriate as an instrument of receiving such grace, namely, faith" (201). Our entire living of the Christian life results from God's continuous grace. Meanwhile, Grudem especially thinks of God's patience in terms of his slowness to punish sin.

Grudem's sense of God's mercy, grace, and patience is largely correct.  He does, predictably, filter God's grace and patience through the lens of God's justice. Cannot God be patient with us in our slowness to understand or to grow without the patience being resisting beating us with a stick?

Probably the main critique is one we have seen repeatedly. Grudem is to a large degree a pre-modern interpreter who brings his own definitions of words to the books of the Bible. It is thus no surprise that he finds pretty much a singular meaning for words throughout the whole book, one that coheres precisely with his theological understanding.

But in the New Testament world, "grace" is patron-client language. [1] Words take on meanings in socio-cultural frameworks, and in the New Testament world, grace reflects God's willingness to serve as a patron like the patrons of the first century Mediterranean world. Such grace comes close to the abstracted theological grace of Grudem, but it is not exactly the same.

So ancient grace could be solicited. It could be cut off if the client did not give appropriate honor to the patron. We find hints in this section of the Protestant doctrine of "by faith alone," reflecting the "faith versus works" interpretation of Paul from the Reformation.  It is, once again, an interpretation that comes close to Paul but which is a little skewed because it has been ripped from its first century moorings.  In its socio-cultural context, the works Paul especially had in view were works of the Jewish Law, especially those that separated Jew from Gentile. [2]

The words of the Bible had a richness that related directly to the world in which they were written. By contrast, Grudem pretends to read them as timeless words with a singular meaning. What he really does is read them flatly through the eyes of a particular stream of the Reformation, the Reformed one.

[1] See, for example, David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture  (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000). Also, Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

[2] The most significant person to argue for this understanding is James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul 

9. Holiness
"God's holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor" (202). God's people are to imitate God's holiness in the Old Testament, which for Grudem means not least that they are to be separate from evil. Christians are also to stay away from sin and evil in their striving for holiness.

God's holiness comes to involve what we think of as moral elements, but that is not the primary dimension in the Old Testament.  After all, God's holiness leads him to kill Uzzah simply for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:7).  We may want to rationalize this event--maybe he wasn't a Levite, for example. But the biblical text does not say anything of this sort.  He just touched something that was set apart, something he was not supposed to touch. It was not an immoral act, it was a shal, an inadvertent wrong or error.

A person in a given culture will tend to have very clear ideas about what is moral and immoral, but a good deal of what seems obvious to us at any time may have to do with our culture and be a social construct.  What feels immoral or outrageous today may or may not feel the same tomorrow. An older person may be deeply offended that his or her grandchild is texting at the dinner table, while the young teen cannot figure out what the problem is. Hair length, clothing, places to avoid, people to avoid--at any one time a particular Christian group may have strong feelings about what God requires, only to find that its grandchildren do not at all feel the same.

All that is to say that the holiness of God in the Old Testament does not so much have to with what the New Testament thinks of as immoral act. These are not matters we would associate with God's moral attributes. In Exodus 15:11, the holiness of God is associated not with his moral uprightness, but with his awesome power.  The Sabbath is set apart as holy not by ceasing from immorality on Saturday but by doing something different--not working (e.g., Exodus 12:16). Isaiah 52:1 talks about how, because Jerusalem will be holy, no uncircumcised or unclean person will be allowed in--both things the New Testament does not consider immoral or of continuing validity in the new covenant.

In short, holiness in the Old Testament overwhelmingly has to do with setting something apart because it is strongly associated with God. It strongly involves the category of clean and unclean, and it can be conveyed or defiled by touching (e.g., Exodus 29:37). In the Old Testament, God is holy because God is God, not because he is supremely moral. Holiness is godness. It is primarily a category of awe and glory. God is holy by definition, not by action, and other things become holy because they are set apart to him or touch something set apart to him.

Nevertheless, it is true that certain actions we associate with morality come to be part of what the New Testament understands by holiness. 1 Peter 1:15 especially makes this connection in a way that the verse it quotes, Leviticus 11:44, does not.  Leviticus 11 makes this statement about God in the context of the food laws, not eating things like snake in particular.

So Grudem, as a pre-modern interpreter of the Bible, simply mixes together the moral element of New Testament holiness with the clean/unclean orientation of Old Testament holiness and projects moral holiness as a part of God's nature. To be sure, God always acts morally in this universe and expects us to model our behavior on his "nature." But the first meaning of God's holiness relates to what we have mentioned earlier as his awesome godness.

So insofar as the holiness of God is a moral attribute, it simply relates to God's goodness. It more accurately and profoundly relates to God's otherness, his very godness, his awesomeness. It is rarely if ever associated with what we think of as God's justice.

10. Peace (or Order)
"God's peace means that in God's being and in his actions he is separate from all confusion and disorder, yet he is continually active in innumerable well-ordered, fully controlled, simultaneous actions" (203).

God is a God of peace, especially ultimate peace. However, the point of the passages that describe God as a God of peace seem to refer to the fact that he brings peace to us rather than to make some statement about his nature.  He is a God of peace because he ultimately brings peace, although at some times it takes some conflict to get there.

It would be easy for a certain personality to take a description like Grudem's and use it to evaluate certain situations as more or less godly because of how "orderly" or "disorderly" they seemed. Both advanced math and science indicate that there is a certain degree of what looks to us as chaos and randomness to the most fundamental level of material existence. Surprising order can emerge (seemingly) randomly from chaos.

In the end, it seems more helpful to think of peace as a characteristic of what God brings to us than to impose extraneous assumptions onto God.

11. Righteousness, Justice
"God's righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right" (204). Part of God's justice for Grudem is that "it is necessary that God punish sin, for it does not deserve reward; it is wrong and deserves punishment."  He mentions Romans 3:25-26, where Christ's death demonstrates the justice of God even though he had not yet punished sins.

What is right?  Predictably, Grudem defines "whatever conforms to God's moral character is right" (204). He mentions Scriptures like Romans 9 and Job 40 where humans have no right to question God's righteousness. God does not answer Job with a justification of his actions but with a statement of his own majesty and power.

Surely all Christians will agree that God always acts in accordance with what is right.  The questions we can raise about Grudem's description and definition are 1) whether righteousness has a normal definition that is not based circularly as simply whatever God does, 2) the extent to which God is compelled to punish someone for sin, and 3) whether it is inappropriate to question God's justice.

We face the same issue here that we faced with God's goodness. Did God, when he created the world out of nothing, create as it were standards of what goodness, justice, and righteousness were?  Is there some sense in which they are built into this universe, in some way? We believe by faith that God never acts in a way that violates these standards, although at times it may seem so.

Key is to recognize that there is a normal definition of righteousness and of justice.  To say that God is righteous is to say that he does what is right, where "what is right" refers to some normal way of thinking about what is right. To say God is just is to say that he at least does not act unjustly, where there is a normal sense of what injustice is. These are not a circular concepts, as if we can really get away with just saying that the definition of righteousness is whatever God does. We can believe God is righteous and acts righteously without a circular definition.

In theory, God could be measured against these standards. While Grudem gives a couple instances where individuals are said not to question God, the whole council of God includes places where righteous individuals do question God.  Habakkuk 1 and Psalm 13 are examples. 

The notion of the whole council of God is crucial when appropriating the Bible. Individual passages or books of Scripture rarely give the whole picture. For example, there are several key respects in which the book of Job only gives part of the picture on issues like the afterlife or Satan. In Romans 9 as well, Paul is probably over-making a point. This chapter is best read as a footnote in Paul's theology rather than as ground zero.

Does God have to administer justice?  Certainly Grudem thinks so. We can at least raise questions about this sentiment.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant do not picture God as having to do anything along these lines. God forgives the prodigal son and the servant that owes him an outrageous amount without anyone paying. We have to suspect that God could show mercy to anyone he wanted without demand of payment--because he is sovereign God.

Nevertheless, there is a kind of order to things that, normally, calls for justice.  If someone hurts others, if someone does evil, the universe calls for justice.  "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." It is the order of things. This is the normal way of things and so it is completely appropriate for Paul to see Christ's death as a sacrifice that shows God cares about justice (Rom. 3:25-26).

We should not leave the question of God's righteousness without recognizing that the prevailing sense of God's righteousness in Scripture is not legal.  God's righteousness in the Old Testament often has to do with his faithfulness to his people Israel and is thus can be relational in character.

Consider Isaiah 46:13: "I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel." Righteousness is parallel to bringing salvation to Israel, not because Israel deserves it or has earned it, but because God is faithful to Israel and has committed himself to them.

Similarly, the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 is not just his justice but his faithfulness, now not only to Israel but to the whole world. [1] As always, these sorts of words have definitions that come from particular historical contexts and describe how God acts in the world. Great care must be taken in abstracting what they might mean for God's "nature," since it is so easy to substitute elements of our own historical context into our definitions without even realizing it.

12-13. Jealousy and Wrath
"God's jealousy means that God continually seeks to protect his own honor" (205). Jealousy for humans is almost always wrong, seeking to preserve our own honor. But Grudem argues it is completely appropriate for God to seek his own honor.

"God's wrath means that he intensely hates all sin" (206).  God's wrath is found in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Grudem mentions John 3:36 and Romans 1:18. Christians, however, have no reason to fear God's wrath, and Christians should also remember God's patience before executing his wrath.

Jealousy and wrath both relate directly to human emotion. As we have already suggested, emotion involves response and response means a new sense of awareness. Since God is all knowing and all aware at all points in every way, any depiction of God's emotion must be anthropopathic and figurative on some level. It is thus misleading to describe these as attributes of God's nature.

God is a just God who acts with justice. Although most biblical authors would surely have accepted the proposition that God can show mercy without expectation of any penalty, many Christian thinkers would like to say in hindsight that Christ's death justifies any mercy he has ever shown. 

To say God is a jealous God is to say that God is worthy of the exclusive worship, submission, and obedience of his entire creation.  It would be just for him to "lash out in wrath" toward any part of the creation that does not worship, submit, or obey him entirely and exclusively. The biblical record indicates that sometimes he does, even though he does not literally experience these sorts of emotions.

The New Testament message is that "mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13). If God implements wrath, it is for good.  It is 1) to help get his people or world back on track or 2) to protect the good from the evil or 3) there may be some instances where the "order of things" needs to be satisfied by annihilation of unredeemable evil.

[1] N. T. Wright has famously suggested that righteousness here is God's "covenant faithfulness." See, for example, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), e.g., 99.

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