How to Teach the Doctrine of the Blessedness of God [Part 4]
January 27, 2015
Divine blessedness is fruitful. Of course the divine blessedness itself, the beatitude of God, is fruitful, as the source of everything that has come into being. But my point here, as in the earlier articles in this series, is that the theological doctrine of God's blessedness is also fruitful, and that once it has been recovered for Christian life and thought, it will be productive of a hundred insights and connection points. Some of those will seem strikingly new because they have been so thoroughly forgotten in modern theological discourse (and we do well to remember that blessedness was not benignly or accidentally forgotten from such discourse, but was aggressively banished with extreme prejudice). Some of the insights generated by the recovery of divine beatitude may be genuinely novel -there is such a thing as theological progress, modest though it may be. This final entry on blessedness, then, is a bit of a grab-bag, a listing of several ideas about how to handle the doctrine so that it commends itself to a contemporary audience. I'll number them for the sake of discussion.
1. Blessedness and blessing
The state of blessedness should be distinguished from blessing, that is, the speech act which is the pronouncing of a blessing. The difference is not just between noun and verb form of the same word; there really is a conceptual difference. Johann Gerhard wrote, "Beatitudo refers to a state of sacred happiness or bliss, while benediction refers to the effectual speaking of a good thing upon someone else." In fact, it's odd that in English we use the same word, "bless," to mark what are different word groups in Greek. The kind of "blessed" I've been writing about is makarios, the same word used in the Beatitudes ("blessed (makarios) are the poor in spirit," etc.) and in (the Septuagint version of) those Old Testament passages that teach about the nature of true blessedness: Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked; blessed is the one whose sins are forgiven; blessed is the people whose God is the LORD," etc. Those makarios-statements of the Old Testament are almost a stream of wisdom discourse, inquiring after the type of human life that is truly fulfilled. And that same word, makarios, is applied to God in a handful of New Testament passages: how happy is this God, how truly fulfilled is this deity, how conspicuously he ought to be recognized as possessing good things.
To bless, on the other hand, comes from the Greek roots from which we get eulogy, "to speak well of." The difference is obvious if you consider Ephesians 1: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing." The triple occurrence of bless here is all eulog- roots in Greek; Paul is ringing the changes on the term intentionally. As the commentator Bengel said of the passage, "aliter benedixit Deus nobis, aliter nos benedicimus illi; God has blessed us in one sense, we bless Him in another." Ephesians 1, in other words, is not primarily about the beatitude of God but about our praise of him. God is not blessed (makarios) because we bless him (eulogetos); actually we bless him because he is blessed, praising him as "the blessed and only sovereign."
2. Benedictions lead to beatitude
On the other hand, when God is the one doing the blessing us-ward, then benedictions do lead to beatitude. Furthermore, benedictions and trinitarianism tend to keep company in Scripture. The Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-26, "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace" is an example of the priests "placing the name of the LORD on the people" by pronouncing it thrice.
3. Blessedness is a doctrine that is stated positively rather than by negation
This is interesting because it is also, as we noted earlier, a piece of vocabulary that Christian theology has in common with Greco-Roman theologies. Most of the wisdom that the church adapted from the Greek philosophical tradition takes the form of negative theology: God is immortal, eternal, without passions or parts, etc. There is in fact a set of negative terms available which approach the doctrine of beatitude: impassibility, aseity, and so on. But the doctrine of blessedness strikes deeper, and dares to say not only what God is not but what he is. The nearest analogical word for it is happy; God has felicity.
4. Blessedness breaks free from more static depictions of God
If blessedness sounds too static to apply to the living God of the Bible, it can be stated in a way that produces more dynamic connotations. We can say that God has everything he needs and wants, or exercises all the divine perfections. Gerhard again: blessedness is "understood as that by which God fully recognizes His own perfections through His intellect, loves them supremely through His will, and rests in it quietly and serenely. From this resting arises the joy by which God delights in Himself." If you want to develop the doctrine in this direction, it probably helps to have some skill with the ways of analogy and poetry. For instance, consider how Thomas Traherne, in his Centuries of Meditations, talked about God's felicity: he says that God wants more than anybody else:
This is very strange that God should want. For in Him is the fulness of all Blessedness: He overflowed eternally. His wants are as glorious as infinite; perfective needs that are in His nature, and ever Blessed, because always satisfied. He is from eternity full of want, or else He would not be full of Treasure. Infinite want is the very ground and cause of infinite treasure. It is incredible, yet very plain. Want is the fountain of all his fulness.
Traherne is careful to make his doctrine of God's wantingness match up to his doctrine of God's havingness. He pictures God as simultaneously wanting and having in such a way that he is perfectly delighted by his own nature. Pressing the point, Traherne even asserts that this is what makes God superior to false gods: "The heathen Deities wanted nothing, and were therefore unhappy, for they had no being. But the Lord God of Israel, the Living and True God, was from all Eternity, and from all Eternity wanted like a God. He wanted the communication of His divine essence, and persons to enjoy it."
Perhaps that's a little too dynamic for more sober tastes. Generally when poets do theology there's a bit of trimming and clean-up to be done afterwards. What we can learn from Traherne, though, is not to present this teaching as if blessedness is some sort of quiescence. Instead, we could say that God's aseity is not so much his having no needs, as having no unmet needs. His blessedness is not having no wants, but having no unsupplied wants.
5. Blessedness produces praise
Even from pagan times, the blessedness of the gods has overflowed into the blessedness of the dead, of those who were in some way, mythologically, affiliated into divine fellowship. The Christian version of this is of course the recognition that the saints are blessed and that the dead in Christ enjoy blessedness most fully. Isaac Watts, in a memorable sermon, traced a "scale of blessedness" up from the blessed believer through blessed angels to the blessed Trinity. At the top of that ladder he exclaimed:
We are lost in this ocean of being and blessedness, that has no limit, on either side, no surface, no bottom, no shore. The nearness of the divine persons to each other, and the unspeakable relish of their unbounded pleasures, are too vast ideas for a bounded mind to entertain. It is one infinite transport that runs through Father, Son, and Spirit, without beginning, and without end, with boundless variety, yet ever perfect, and ever present, without change, and without degree...
And of course the proper direction to move on that ladder is from the top down, rejoicing in the way God's own blessedness is the source of ours.
6. The doctrine of blessedness is comprehensive in scope
The blessedness that belongs to God by nature can be conceptually expanded to include the more conspicuous display of his blessedness after the completion of redemption. In terms of the table of contents of a systematic theology, the doctrine of blessedness could go up front in the doctrine of God, as one of the attributes, or as a summary of all the attributes. But then it could also come back and be taught again after the doctrine of redemption, in which the character of God is so conspicuously magnified. And finally, blessedness could be used as a concluding doctrine to summarize and praise the final perfecting of creation. The trick in handling the doctrine this way would not be avoiding repetition so much as it would be avoiding the impression that God somehow accrues blessedness in the course of history. He doesn't. He starts with it. It is part of the definition of God.
7. God is blessed without reference to us
And the notion that blessedness belongs essentially to God, without reference to creatures and without waiting to see how the world process is going to work out, is part of what led to its marginalization in the modern period. That first and greatest practitioner of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, famously announced that as far as his theological method was concerned, "we have no formula for the being of God in Himself as distinct from the being of God in the world." For Schleiermacher, all Christian theology had to be derived from a consciousness of having been redeemed, so every doctrine already bore the marks of God being engaged with us redemptively. There was no way to back out of the system and say anything about God in Himself without reference to us: God was always with reference to us.
But at least in the mode of praise and adoration, a doctrine like blessedness requires us to say what God is in himself, leaving ourselves quite definitely out of the picture. There is a kind of interval of impracticality to a good doctrine like this. The situation is exactly similar to the doctrine of the immanent Trinity, where we admit that God would have been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit even if the Father had never sent the Son or Holy Spirit. God is blessed without reference to us. With these doctrines about the eternal God, there is a need to hold your breath and admit it's not about you.
8. God gives his own blessedness to be our blessedness
But then it is about you. After the interval of impracticality, after you admit that the blessedness of God does not depend on creaturely participation, then it's time to explore the gracious truth of creature participation. In a beautiful section of the Summa Theologia, Thomas develops the view that the blessedness of the saints is God himself; that he gives his own blessedness to be their blessedness. And the Lutheran Johann Gerhard, in his Theological Commonplaces, finishes a robust treatment of God's beatitude and then warms up to "the practical use of the doctrine of the blessedness of God." It is twofold, both consoling and exhorting. Consoling:
The blessed God will also make us blessed with eternal life, and that is why "the dead who die in the Lord" are pronounced "blessed" (Rev 14:13), because through death the come to the Lord, that is to say, to blessedness, and begin to be truly blessed.
And exhorting: We are moved "to seek our blessedness in God," because
God alone is truly and perfectly blessed; therefore let us seek true blessedness in Him. No created thing obtains all good things cumulatively but only part of the good. God, on the other hand, is blessed with an abundance of every good thing... Our communion and union with God, then, is true blessedness.
Fred Sanders is Professor of Theology at Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. His recent books include The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010) and Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love (Crossway: 2013). He writes regularly at The Scriptorium Daily