A Cross-Shaped View of God's Attributes
November 30, 2016
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.