The Attributes of God
Gerald Bray, The Attributes of God: An Introduction (Crossway, 2021), 160 pp., Paperback, $15.99.
Orientation to the Book
This is the first volume in the new Short Studies in Systematic Theology series by Crossway. The series editors, Graham Cole and Oren Martin, aim to get at the essence of each doctrine that is “attuned to both the Christian tradition and contemporary theology.” (Series Preface, p. 9). Gerald Bray shows deft awareness of both the tradition and contemporary issues. He hopes to dispel the tension between modern and classical formulations of theology proper by presenting a case that gains “general assent.”
Bray is well aware of the tension present in current discussions between modern and classical theology. There has been considerable pushback on modern critiques of classical theism in recent years. Those who’s mind is more modern than classical have in some instances moved with conviction toward the classical (e.g., John Webster) or otherwise have held their ground while at the same time extending an olive branch to the classical camp (e.g., Bruce McCormack). Yet others, styled evangelicals, have offered surprisingly non-conservative proposals which seem to move in a more modern direction (e.g., John Frame, K. Scott Oliphint, Bruce Ware). But Bray offer us here an unapologetic commitment to classical theism.
Chapter 1 gives evidence of the author’s commitment to classical theism. In light of a strong Creator-creature distinction, Bray speaks about the essential and relational attributes of God. The former are attributes that God has even if there were no creation, while the later he has in light of creation.
His classical orientation is evident in the very first sentence, “Few people doubt that God is a being.” This is the ground, it seems, of his attempt at general assent. But the idea of God as a being is not without controversy. “God is a being” raises some difficult-to-answer questions. For example, “is God a subset of a greater category called ‘being?’” Or, “is God one being among many other beings?” And if so, does God share a common being with them? This is the problem of the so-called analogia entis. Without getting into the history of debate on the analogia we will only note that modern theologians have raised strong objections to this way of speaking. In short, the analogia doctrine entails the idea that God and man participate in a common substance (i.e., being). The difference, then, between God and man is only quantitative not qualitative (i.e., God has more/better being than man, not a different kind of being). Perhaps a less controversial way for Bray to put it would be: “God is being.” The indefinite article can stir up a world of theological strife!
Yet, Bray is clear that he is after the “qualitatively different” idea. To his credit he affirms a hard Creator-creature distinction which is qualitative, not just quantitative (p. 16-17). To that end he explains why the word “being” was taken over from Greek philosophy. Rather than a concession to pagan thought, it was used by early Christians to denote God’s “substance” as unique and objective. This absolute difference between God and creation leads to a negative theology (i.e., apophatic). This is especially clear in the Old Testament where the emphasis is on the oneness and uniqueness of God. Philosophical concepts like “immortal” are not used until the New Testament where we find such “abstractions.” (18) Nevertheless, such doctrines are implied in the Old.
At this point I would like to register a critique of how Bray understands the revelation of God’s attributes in the Old and New Testaments. According to Bray the OT emphasizes the oneness of God. The OT is concrete (i.e., not abstract or philosophical). But in the NT the emphasis is on the plurality of the divine persons and thus abstract and philosophical concepts are used. While revelation in the Bible is certainly progressive, I am unconvinced that the revelation of God’s character is divided this way. To say God is portrayed as one in the Old and multiple in the New seems forced (if not Marcion-ish) to me.
Along these lines, Bray divides the epochs of revelation in such a way as to make the incarnation necessary for the knowledge of God:
John did not say how Jesus has made God known but stressed that, because God is invisible, he cannot be known apart from the incarnation of the Word as Jesus Christ. God has not changed, and if Jesus has made him known, he has done so in and through his humanity (Col. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5–6). The attributes of God’s nature remain as hidden and mysterious as ever. It must therefore be the personal, or “communicable,” attributes of God that Jesus reveals, and that is precisely what we find in the Gospels. (p. 21)
I think I understand what he is getting at here, but I still have concerns. Afterall, God has made himself known since the beginning of the world, quite prior to the incarnation (e.g., see Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20). Further, I remain unpersuaded that the OT emphasizes the oneness of God to the exclusion of his three-ness. That claim itself is to impose upon the OT text Greek philosophical categories as an interpretive grid. Furthermore, Bray seems to assume that apophatic theology is abstract. I think it is time to call that assumption into question and hold that any attribute of God, if it is revealed in Scripture, is no abstraction. In fact, any characteristic, attribute or perfection of God is – by virtue of being God himself – purely concrete. The divine life is the only pure, original and absolute concrete reality. In other words, God is the concrete absolute even before he acts in time.
All that said, Bray is to be applauded for his very strong follow-up (pp. 19-20). For Bray, while the OT may not use the technical words we use (or Nicaea used), nevertheless God’s attributes are clearly implied in the OT. In sum the opening chapter gives us, in my opinion, a confusing message about theological method and the doctrine of the attributes. Overall, Bray is orienting us in the right direction, but questions remain about his assumptions (e.g., about what is abstract and concrete) and method (e.g., is the OT and NT really that different in how they describe God?).
Chapter 2 is on the essential attributes “as they are in themselves.” Bray opens with a nice survey of the differences between God’s transcendence and immanence. He is right to note that God is infinite, and the finite cannot contain him as he makes himself known in our sphere. (pp. 25-26) And so he begins with attributes that describe “what God is.” Here he begins with simplicity and gives a straightforward explanation of the classical doctrine. He rightly notes that God’s simplicity entails that whatever we say about any one attribute we say about the divine being as a whole. (27). His attributes are not parts that make up his being. Next he tackles “incorporeality” and “stability.” The former refers to the fact that God is spirit, the latter has to do with God’s immutability. He describes this doctrine well when he says, “Christians agree that God is at work in the world, but he is not essentially part of it. The created order may shift and change, but he does not.” (31). Amen!
Next is the attributes concerning “what God is like.” These are a “secondary level of divine attributes.” (32). Bray spends most his time on impassibility. He defines it rightly as the inability of God to suffer (34), or “be harmed…by any external force.” (37). Furthermore, God is “beyond human feelings.” (35). In this way “impassibility is a logical consequence of his immutability.” (37) But, Bray notes, this does not take away from the idea of Christ’s suffering and death. Yet, recently theologians have called into question impassibility because, they claim, it renders God cold and unsympathetic with our suffering (36). Bray answers the modern objection with the ancient church. According to the fathers, a God who is affected by his own creation (even to suffer) is too weak to save it (41). Far from making God static, that actually means he is maximal love.
He then moves on to those attributes that are contrasted with time (47). Here he focuses on eternity. He does this in part to address the problem of how to differentiate eternity from endless time (54). This is the difference between creaturely life without end within time, and God’s eternality outside time. God is timeless in his eternality. But the debate among today’s philosophers (e.g., Paul Helm and William Lane Craig) shows that there is doubt (on the part of Craig, not Helm) that God could enter time if he is timeless. Craig affirms that God is in himself timeless, but once he decides to create he experiences “temporal becoming.” (55). But Bray affirms that God relates to time without becoming one with it (56). Next he presents attributes that contrast with space: infinity and incomprehensibility as well attributes “as we perceive them:” omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscient. (62) Bray sets forth the biblical and logical case for each of the attributes in a way that is rational and edifying.
Chapter 3 addresses the “relational attributes.” Bray opens by discussing the relation between God’s nature and his personhood (pp. 77-80). God is relational in the three persons but not in his nature: “In his nature God is unique, but as three persons God is relational.” (77). Therefore, concludes Bray, “the concepts of person and nature are distinct from each other.” (79) This means “it is necessary to make a radical distinction between God’s personhood and his nature because in his persons he is relational” (80). Here we see a strong distinction between God’s oneness and his threeness. But is it too strong? To be sure, Aquinas has such a distinction in treating the oneness of God distinct from and prior to the Trinity (ST, Q. 2-26 and 27-43, respectively). But may we rightly distinguish the nature and persons of God so as to preclude his nature from being relational? When the persons relate to creation, they do so – as Bray rightly affirms – possessing the fullness of the divine nature. But how can we deny that the nature is also relational? The impression is that the nature stands behind the persons and is therefore inanimate. But God is simple, therefore if his persons are relational then so must be his nature. To complicate things further, Bray denies that personhood is a divine attribute:
we must not say that personality—or more correctly nowadays, “personhood”—is an attribute of the divine nature, on par with invisibility or immutability. If it were, there would be no room for a Trinity in God, nor would the incarnation of the divine Son (but not of the Father or of the Holy Spirit) be possible. (82)
I understand what Bray is trying to protect against here. But is it inconsistent to say God is simple yet deny personhood to the nature while affirming it for the persons? This introduces, in my opinion, a gap between the one divine nature and the three persons. While I do not believe, even for a moment, that either Bray or Aquinas are modalists, given this way of speaking it is understandable why that charge has come against western trinitarian theology. It is hard to see any other way when an impersonal divine nature is affirmed (p. 83).
Chapter 4 is on the relevance of God’s attributes for today. Theologizing about the attributes is no mere academic task, but one for our everyday life. For example, God’s omnipresence comforts us by assuring us he is always readily available to us. His impassibility assures that he cannot be affected by the very thing he came to conquer, namely death. His omnipotence assures us that there are no challenges we face too great for God to handle. Bray does a great job here showing us where the rubber meets the road in our doctrine of God.
The final part of the book is the appendix. This is a very helpful overview. It consists of a historical survey of the development of the doctrine of God from the early church right up to the present. There is here a great introduction to the history of dogma.
Bray’s book is refreshing, especially because of issues in theology proper today. Formerly, evangelicals were seen as defenders against encroaching modernism, but today it seems they are in retreat. Having granted the modern criticism of classical theism (i.e, that it has an impersonal/unrelatable God), card-carrying evangelicals from Clark Pinnock to John Frame and K. Scott Oliphint have offered new proposals. Pinnock’s well-known case for open theism in which God shifts and changes in response to creation’s actions only differs in detail from the proposals of Frame and Oliphint. The latter propose a two-existence theory (Frame) or the addition of covenantal attributes to the divine (Oliphint) as ways of explaining how God can be with us. The story is particularly tragic given these were all trained in, and have betrayed, the school of thinking developed by Cornelius Van Til. Van Til, formed as he was by both the Old Princeton (the Hodges and Vos) and Old Amsterdam (Bavinck in particular) traditions lands squarely within the classical tradition on God. In fact, his entire approach to apologetics depends on an unqualified commitment to the aseity, immutability and omniscience of God.
It is worth noting that is not a problem for Van Til to affirm an absolute God who relates to creation. Nor does he feel compelled to radically distinguish God’s nature and person in order to allow for a divine-human relation. Nor is the incarnation necessary for God to be known. Further, God does not need to relate to creation, as if it were a necessary step he needs to take. Rather, given who and what God is – especially in light of his omnipresence – God just is always related to creation, without becoming one with it. I would suggest, then, that the locus of God’s relatedness to question is first not because of the persons (though they are not excluded), but rather in the divine nature itself, especially the attributes of omnipresence and immensity.
Of course God’s relationship to creation includes and entails his persons. There can never be allowed in our thinking any daylight between the three persons of the Trinity and his divine nature. To borrow from Van Til, the oneness of God and his threeness are equally ultimate. Or, in the language of Gregory of Nazianzus, “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One.” Therefore, with some level of equivocation, we would need to say that God is both three persons and one person. For in no way can we posit of the one nature an impersonal anything. If God is simple, and the three persons are in such a perichoretic relationship that they are equally ultimate with his one nature, then it necessarily follows that the three persons exhaust the fullness of the godhead. Given this harmonious relation between the one nature of God and the three persons, if we were to posit an impersonal nature of God at any point we would have to posit it of God at every point. And here Van Til helps us with a genuinely Protestant doctrine of God which denies the comingling of the ontological and economic in modernism on the one hand, and the quasi-modalism of classical theism on the other.
Dr. Bray’s book is a helpful guide to the doctrine and many of the issues. I recommend the book for adult Sunday school material, with the above caveats. To be sure the classical doctrine of God is on the side of the angels. If one has to err, it is better to err in that direction than in the direction of modernism or its evangelical lightweight counterparts. But still, there are weakness in the classical formulations, weakness that need to be addressed. And I, for one, believe they should be addressed without moving in the direction of modern theology. While modernism has rightly pointed out problems in the classical position, its solutions (along with so much evangelical theology) are worse. So all told Dr. Bray has shown us a way that is better – even if not the best – to master a sound, biblical doctrine of God for both theology and life.
Jim Cassidy is the pastor of South Austin Presbyterian Church. He graduated in 2014 from Westminster Theological Seminary with the Ph.D in systematic theology writing on the theology of Karl Barth. He is the author of God’s Time For Us: Barth on the Reconciliation of Eternity and Time in Jesus Christ (Lexham Press).
"God Not Divided" by Tony Arsenal
"How Should We Distinguish God's Attributes?" by Amy Mantravadi
"Hilary's View of the Trinity" by Todd Rester
The Essential Trinity, ed. by Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman
 Also, “personhood . . . is something in God that is not tied to his divine nature.” (84). But the question I have is how can something “in God” be disconnected from his divine nature?
 So Bavinck, “the divine being is tripersonal, precisely because it is the absolute divine personality.” RD 2.302. Cited in Daniel Ragusa, “The Trinity at the Center of Thought and Life: Herman Bavinck’s Organic Apologetics” MAJT 28 (2017), 149-175.
 There is no singular place in Van Til’s writings where we can point to substantiate this claim, for the evidence is scattered throughout his corpus. For Van Til, God is the original interpreter of reality because back of all reality is the very mind of God. But if that mind were to become correlative at any point with the creature it could not be the source of all meaning. Therefore, we could never think God’s thoughts after him, for his thoughts would only be the thoughts of a mere creature. For more on Van Til’s doctrine of God and his commitment to traditional theism, consult chapters 13-18 of his An Introduction to Systematic Theology.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40, On Holy Baptism.
 So this insightful illumination of Van Til on this point in Lane Tipton, The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til (Greyslake, IL: Reformed Forum, 2021).