Results tagged “attributes” from Reformation21 Blog

Talk of God's attributes that is not tethered to concrete stories of God's dealings with his people in history tends toward abstraction (and so away from doxology, where all talk of God should end). The same is true, of course, of talk about any person's attributes. It's one thing for you to tell me that your spouse is kind and forgiving. I understand the meaning of those words, and, at least in theory, I applaud the virtues thus named. But those descriptors, so long as they remain divorced from stories of specific instances of spousal kindness and grace, don't grip me -- they don't move me to wonder and admiration at your spouse and his/her virtues. It's a whole different thing to tell me stories about how your spouse supported you in concrete ways during a rough spell at work or when your father passed away, or to tell me how quickly and freely they forgave you after you said or did that thing you shouldn't have said or done. Tell me stories, and I gain a more robust appreciation for the positive qualities of your husband or wife. Stories give teeth to adjectives that might otherwise fail to impress as fully as they should.

So too with God. Descriptions of God as just, merciful, wise, and true are accurate. But those words as such, no matter how artfully defined or movingly recited, don't grip us the way that concrete stories demonstrating God's justice, mercy, wisdom, and truthfulness do. And no story -- that is, no historical event -- puts God's attributes more vividly on display than the Cross. If pressed to define the Cross, our first inclination might be to unpack it in terms of what it has accomplished for us. And not without good reason. But we should also strive to unpack the Cross in terms of what it reveals and demonstrates about God. Who he is. What he is like.

Robert Howie does just that in his late sixteenth-century work On Man's Reconciliation with God. Howie was a Scottish born student of Caspar Olevianus and Johannes Piscator at Herborn. He returned to Scotland around the same time that his book on reconciliation was published on the continent (1591). Back home, he became the first principal of Marischal College in Aberdeen following its founding in 1593, and in 1606 succeeded Andrew Melville as principal of St. Mary's College in St. Andrews.

"In the reconciliation of God and man, God's supreme justice, mercy, wisdom, and truth shine." Thus Howie introduces the second chapter of his book on reconciliation. He proceeds to explain how each named characteristic of God is made conspicuous upon the Cross. With regard to God's justice, for instance, he notes how the Cross upheld God's own insistence regarding himself in Exodus 23:7 that he "will not acquit the guilty." God's justice was not compromised in the least by the Cross. Sin received its full due. God's righteous indignation at violations of his perfect law was exhausted. His wrath was poured out completely -- poured out on His own Son in the place of those whom God purposed to save from all eternity.

God's mercy, however, is equally conspicuous on the Cross. "God himself sent his only-begotten Son to die for those who were his enemies. And the Son suffered that wrath to fall on him that rightly should have been poured out on us." There was, Howie notes, no residual virtue in man that moved God to act thus. "God purposed to have mercy upon us entirely according to his own infinite grace, being moved by the indignity and misery of his creatures." Howie concludes his discussion of God's mercy vis-à-vis the Cross by noting several considerations that highlight the extent of that mercy. So, for instance, he points out that "God had mercy upon us, not upon the Angels [who rebelled against him], even though they were more excellent creatures than we." God's saving compassion towards particular sinners likewise exalts his mercy: "Even if all men had remained in the state of original intregrity and just one of those predestined for salvation had fallen, the Son of God still would have come down from heaven, and, leaving behind the ninety-nine sheep, would have sought the one who had gone astray and carried him home on his shoulders."

God's infinite wisdom, Howie notes thirdly, is conspicuous upon the cross. God's wisdom manifests itself in that way that perfect justice and perfect mercy meet upon the cross. "God remained just to the highest degree because he punished our sins with eternal death, not remitting any of them. He was merciful to the highest degree because he did not exact punishment for those sins from us, but from our surety, whom he himself had given to us, and thus he forgave all our sins." Reflection upon the wisdom revealed in justice and mercy's marriage on the cross prompts Howie to both praise and humble intellectual restraint. "Herein lies the astonishing wisdom of God, which transcends all knowledge. The minds of men are not sufficient to obtain exact understanding of these things. Angels rejoice to probe the same. Indeed, this wisdom is of such magnitude that we and the Angels will dwell upon it for eternity - there is much to learn from it, and much to weigh carefully in it."

"God's supreme truthfulness, finally, is conspicuous in our redemption." God's truthfulness, Howie argues, is seen in the fulfillment of God's own threats and promises in salvation history -- threats and promises that, upon the surface, may seem at odds with one another. So, for instance, God's insistence to Adam and Eve in the Garden that "you will surely die" (Gen. 2:7) finds fulfillment on the cross. Death for sin is realized in our substitute. Simultaneously, God's promise from the beginning (Gen. 3:15) of one who would come to conquer sin, death, and hell finds fulfillment on the cross. "God is found to be true in both the threats and promises he made," at that very moment when profound justice and profound mercy, in keeping with God's profound wisdom, meet. "For in the fullness of time, God sent the mediator into the world, and that mediator... absorbed for us that death which God had threatened."

Other attributes of God demonstrated upon the cross could be noted. Howie himself hints as much when he subsequently notes that God's "omnipotence never shone more brightly than when coupled with God's justice, when he determined to free us from death and the Devil... by a course that in itself seemed most impotent (for never did God constrain his omnipotence more than when he died in the flesh)."

In sum, then, we should as Christians regularly turn our thoughts to the cross. And may the cross, in addition to providing peace and hope to us, richly inform our sense of what God is like (our sense, that is, of his character), and so inform our praise.

We tend, perhaps, to think of divine love as something akin to, albeit much greater than, human love. We tend, in other words, to assume that God's sentiments towards us are much bigger and stronger than, but fundamentally similar to, the sentiments we feel towards our most cherished friends and family members. And, in part, we are right. Theologians typically identify love as one of God's "communicable" attributes; the communicable attributes of God are, by definition, those which, by virtue of our creation in God's image, we recognize in ourselves in diminished and inferior form (e.g., power, knowledge, presence, goodness, justice, mercy, etc.).

Nevertheless we must remember, even when speaking of God's communicable attributes, that we predicate 'love' and other traits of God and man in common analogically. In other words, divine love and human love might be like one another, but they are not identical in kind (regardless of their difference in quantity). God's love is not only greater than, but also fundamentally different than, human love in significant regards. Exploring specific points of difference between divine and human love can serve to increase our appreciation of divine love (and thus of the divine Lover), perhaps even more so that mentally multiplying human love by a million whenever we hear God's love referenced.

Luther helps us in this regard, by highlighting at least one fundamental point of difference between God's love and human love in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. "The love of God," he writes, "does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

Luther deems the second half of that thesis rather obvious, and spends little time defending it. Human love, he observes, is responsive. It answers to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends, whether that object be another person, an animal, or some inanimate entity. To put it another way, we love that which is, at least to our perception, lovable. Even parental affection conforms to this principle.

By way of contrast, God's love (extra se) does not necessarily answer to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends. Rather, it creates something attractive or desirable in (or about) the object it apprehends. "God... loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive." God does not love that which is lovable; God loves, and in loving, renders the object(s) of his affection lovable.

It's doubtful that any good analogy to the way in which God's love creates, rather than responds to, that which is ultimately pleasing to God can be discovered in human experience (any more than good analogies for the Trinity can be discovered in human experience). That, in fact, is rather the point of Luther's thesis -- that God's love is un-like our love in this regard.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking, as I re-read Luther's Heidelberg Disputation earlier this week, that my two-year old daughter Geneva's affection for one particular object (named "Puppy") in her ever-growing menagerie of toys and stuffed animals sustains at least some affinity to God's love as described by Luther. Geneva set her affections on Puppy, a gift from a friend of the family, at a very young age, and she has never looked back. Puppy accompanies her everywhere she goes, and he bears on his body the marks of her constant regard. He was never particularly attractive at any stage in his career, but after two years of receiving almost obsessive adoration, he is literally hanging together by a thread.

Were thieves to enter our house tonight, I'm fairly sure Puppy would be the last thing they'd want to steal. I'm also fairly certain that, barring the persons and (real) dog living under our roof, Puppy is the item my wife and I would be most keen to protect in our home. On more than one occasion my wife and I have feared that Puppy was lost. He always turns up (often in places no stuffed animal should frequent), but we have spent a few frantic evenings thinking he was lost for good and searching for a Puppy replacement online, wondering whether or not we'd be able to trick Geneva into believing something (or someone) other than Puppy was in fact her beloved. On such evenings, my admittedly absurd strategies for replacing Puppy and tricking Geneva into accepting the replacement have typically involved plans to lay replacement Puppy on the road in front of our house and repeatedly drive over him, in the hopes that what might miraculously emerge from such abuse would be something similar to the tattered brown and white dog currently touted here, there, and everywhere by her.

Geneva's affections for Puppy were initially triggered by some inherent virtue that she, at least, perceived in him. In that regard, her responsive affections for Puppy are not like God's creative love for us. But we can, I think, gain some insight into the value which God's love for us confers upon us from considering the value which Puppy has come to own in our home by virtue of Geneva's affections for him. The fact that I would much sooner turn over my wallet, my computer, or the keys to my car to someone than Geneva's Puppy in no way reflects Puppy's monetary worth vis-à-vis those other objects; it reflects, rather, the worth he has accrued by virtue, quite simply, of being loved.

So, too, our value rests not, in the final analysis, upon our intrinsic worth (even as creatures made in God's image), but in the fact that God loves us, and is at work creating in us those qualities he deems most desirable. Recognizing that God's love creates, rather than responds to, something God deems desirable in us is a rather freeing and exhilarating truth. However much we must labor to make ourselves lovable, and so sustain the love towards us of even those who are closest to us, we need not work to sustain God's love towards us or the value which God's love imputes to us -- no more than Puppy need work (as if he could) to sustain the affections of my daughter or the value which her affections imputes to Puppy in our home.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.