Discussing God's Attributes

Is the conversation about God's attributes "old fashioned" and "western"?  Regarding systematic theology, one often encounters the critique that the logical ordering of various topics is "western" or "Greek" or "academic"--all of which are really meant as synonyms for "bad" and "wrongheaded." Similar critiques are made about discussions of the attributes of God. The conversation about God's attributes, we are told, shows a "Greek" way of thinking, an alien pattern of thought that is unfaithful to the text of Scripture.

I'd like to briefly counter this naïve assertion.  

First, it's true that some of the terms used for the attributes of God are Greek. And it was often the Church Fathers that introduced the use of these terms. Sometimes, like with discussion of whether or not God has "passions," the Church Fathers were entering into discussions that the Greek philosophers had started.

Yet when entering into a conversation and defending the God of the Bible, using the language and terms of those around you use isn't necessarily a compromise. Rather, this is an apologetic move, proclaiming God's truth in language that people can understand. To use a buzz word from missions, this is contextualizing, translating the truth for people who need to hear it. Translation is not compromise.

This isn't the time or place to go into defending and critiquing the Church Fathers, Medieval theology, or Reformed orthodoxy's use of scholastic categories. But it is far too broad of a brush stroke to dismiss the work of our brothers and sisters in Christ--who arguably spent more time in the Scriptures than most of us--with the simplistic slander of "Oh, that's just Greek thought." Often times, the person making such a claim is themselves beholden to postmodernism, which is really just a logical extension of the Enlightenment. If we really want to get a good dig in, we might tell the postmodernist they really are just standing on the shoulders of Enlightenment foundationalism. In other words, it's easy to point to others' captivity to patterns of thought without seeing your own.

Since the rise of Biblical theology, we have rightly been taught to examine the storyline of Scripture. God is entering into history, redeeming His people, and His plan is an unfolding covenant. But think back to your high school English class: In every book that you spent time drawing plot diagrams and discussing the way the author moves the story along, you probably also spent time asking questions. Who are the characters? What are they like? What do they do? What abilities do they have? What are their limits or flaws?

Looking at the attributes of God is simply looking at the God who has revealed Himself and asking "who is He? What is He like?" This is why discussions of God's attributes sometimes come with discussions of the names of God. Most systematic theologies spend time examining the divine name YHWH, the  "I AM WHO I AM." One can hardly have a discussion of God's attributes without talking about Exodus 3:14-15. This is God's name, and it reveals God's identity. Here the line of redemptive history intersects with the collection of God's attributes (often organized systematically by theologians). We won't spend time expositing all these verses tell us about God; for our purpose, it is enough to recognize that questions like "Who is God" and "What is He like?" are not unbiblical. This is part of what it means to know God, just as a husband can tell you all about who his wife is and what she is like.

Thinking through the attributes of God is precisely a biblical exercise, and the Scriptures themselves guide us in this. When Isaiah stands against the idols of Babylon, he dives into the character of God. Who is like Him? Who declares the end from the beginning? Who made all things? He describes God as self-sufficient, self-sustaining, infinite, upholding all creation. Certainly, Isaiah weaves this into poetry, but the good exegete both honors the poetry and teases out what this is telling us about God.

I recently heard a story from a missionary working with non-literate people. They employed a biblical storytelling model where the Bible stories were told, retold, and then repeated back. After each story was passed on, they would ask a series of questions, including "What does this story tell us about God?" and "What does this story tell us about man?" The missionary said the advanced students--those who knew 150 Bible stories or more--were recently quizzed by a group of seminary professors. The professors determined that these people who could not read knew as much about God and the Bible as a seminary-level graduate. 

These non-literate people knew who God was. They heard the stories and they asked the question: What is this telling me about God? If you ask this question, you are going to come up with a profile of His character. You are going to understand what He is like and how He stands over and above His creation. You will know His attributes, not because you are engaging in "Greek thought," but because you are listening to the God who reveals Himself.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Related Links

"A Cross-Shaped View of God's Attributes" by Aaron Denlinger

"Where's the Love? Polanus on Divine Goodness" by Ryan McGraw

PCRT '87: How Great Thou Art  [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Divine Simplicity, edited by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson