The Gospel of the Glory of the Blessed God

The Gospel of the Glory of the Blessed God

In 1 Timothy 1:11, Paul says that he has been entrusted with "the gospel of the glory of the blessed God." It is a weighty phrase in every way, but Paul's use of the word "blessed" is especially striking. In only a handful of instances in the New Testament is God explicitly said to be "blessed." More often the word is applied to humans: blessed (makarios) are the peacemakers, blessed are they who did not see but believed, etc. But here and in a few other passages (Rom 9:5, 2 Cor 11:31, 1 Tim 6:15), Paul ascribes blessedness to God himself. The seventeenth-century commentator William Burkitt (1650-1703) rightly noted that Paul used the word here 
to signify thereby unto us, his transcendent mercy and excelling goodness, in that being infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself and his divine perfections, and incapable of any profit from, or advantage by, his creatures, he was yet pleased to give us his Son, his gospel, his Holy Spirit, to qualify us for, and bring us to, the enjoyment of himself.[1]
The cascade of near-synonyms makes it apparent that Burkitt is drawing much meaning out of this single word, as if Paul had given a hint to the expositor that something here ought to be pursued in greater depth. The word "blessed" is a signal to dig deeper, to say something about the nature of God behind the good news being announced. For Paul to call God blessed in the context of the gospel is to point to the sheer gratuity of his self-giving: moved by neither need nor greed, lacking nothing and unimprovably happy, God gives graciously from his abundance.

Whenever the notion of God's own beatitude is invoked, we are being summoned to acknowledge something of uncommon theological magnitude, a divine perfection that diffuses its influence through every doctrine, and exerts a gravitational force on every aspect of theology. The same pastoral epistle that begins with a reference to "the blessed God" concludes by praising "the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:15-16). Paul praises the divine majesty and exaltedness, God's mystery and sovereignty, beginning with the keynote of blessedness. God is not only sovereign, not only exalted above all powers, not only incomparably perfect and inaccessibly majestic, but beyond or behind that, in a secret sanctuary of divinity, God is something even more: God is blessed. 

Don't be alarmed if you haven't heard much teaching or preaching on the blessedness of God. It has fallen so far out of fashion that even the basic vocabulary of it has come to sound quaint and foreign to our modern ears. Many theologians and preachers who have a feeling for its importance have found ways to indicate the reality of the thing without necessarily making it a topic of explicit proclamation.

But we could stand to hear more about God's blessedness. As a doctrine, it is currently in need of retrieval, because it has been both neglected and attacked in recent centuries. In a series of posts coming up at this site, I want to show why some thinkers have turned against the doctrine, and why others have ignored it and thereby lost sight of its implications for Christian life and spirituality. But in this introductory post, I want to survey the importance of the doctrine of divine blessedness for systematic theology as a whole. It seems to me there are three major ways that systematic theology benefits from attending to the blessedness of God.

1. Blessedness Sums up the Divine Attributes. Beatitude is not just one of the divine attributes; it is the one that summarizes the way God enjoys the possession and exercise of all his other perfections. That is why the doctrine of divine beatitude is usually only taken up at the very end of the doctrine of God's attributes: because only when all the perfections of the divine being have been elaborated can theology take a step back and ask, "What is the word for the simultaneous possession of all of these perfections in their fullness?" 

Actually, theology gives two answers to this question, an outward answer and an inward answer. Considered outwardly, the sum total of all God's perfections can be called glory. When God is conspicuously Godlike, and shines forth with the comprehensive majesty that belongs to the divine life, we call that the divine glory. What the glory of God is outwardly, the blessedness of God is inwardly. It answers the question, "What is it like to possess all of the perfections of God in their totality?" To have these perfections is to be blessed. The doctrine, in other words, is a doctrine about what it is to be God. No wonder Scottish Free Church theologian Hugh Martin said of God's blessedness that "It is a great deep, it is a dazzling, bright abyss. We can look into it only as with shaded eyes."

At least one theologian -the Baptist Augustus Hopkins Strong--has gone so far as to say that the divine blessedness is simply too comprehensive a category to be classed among the attributes of God. "Blessedness is not itself a divine attribute," he says; "it is rather a result of the exercise of the divine attributes. It is a subjective result of this exercise, as glory is an objective result." Perhaps it would be wiser to categorize blessedness and glory, not as non-attributes, but as mega-attributes or meta-attributes of God, since they indicate respectively the subjective result of the exercise of all God's attributes (blessedness) and the objective result of the exercise of those same attributes (glory).

In his influential devotional handbook of theology called The Practice of Piety, the Puritan Lewis Bayly enumerated the divine attributes and then added, "From all these attributes ariseth one, which is God's sovereign blessedness or perfection." He went on to define blessedness as "that perfect and unmeasurable possession of joy and glory, which God hath in himself for ever, and is the cause of all the bliss and perfection that every creature enjoys in its measure." Note three things in Bayly's brief description of the doctrine: First, this attribute comprehends all the others ("from all these... ariseth one"). Second, it is God's "possession of joy and glory," emphasizing not the outward expression but the inward experience of having these things. And third, it is the foundation of creaturely blessedness: Because God is immeasurably blessed, creatures can be blessed in their proper measure.

Perhaps the summative nature of the doctrine of blessedness has contributed to its neglect. The cataloging of divine perfections may be a glorious labor for the theologian, but it is labor nonetheless, and shorter systematic theologies tend to move on from the last attribute without pausing to survey the ground covered. Only the largest books of doctrine make space for it, and frankly only the most comprehensive theological outlooks are drawn to a doctrine of such vast scope. Thomas Aquinas, of course, met both requirements, as did Amandus Polanus among the Protestants. Baptist John Gill devoted a page to the doctrine before concluding his treatise on divine attributes with the words, "here ends the account of the attributes of God; which all center and terminate in his blessedness."

2. Blessedness is the Bridge to the Trinity. In recent decades it became fashionable to warn against the danger of developing the "one God" section of systematic theology in isolation from the "three persons" section, that is, the treatise De Deo Uno from the treatise De Deo Trino. And it's easy to imagine a systematic theology that said so much about the unity of God, complete with all the divine attributes, that there was nothing left to say about the Trinity when the time came. In recent decades, theologians have tried several ways of keeping the two treatises together: putting Trinity before unity, for example, or categorizing the divine attributes explicitly as joint attributes of the three persons. But an older tradition, represented by Thomas' Summa Theologia, Polanus' Syntagma, and many shorter systems, instead made use of the doctrine of divine blessedness as the bridge from the doctrine of God as one to the doctrine of God as triune.

The doctrine played this unique hinge role not just because it was the final doctrine on the final page of De Deo Uno, but for a reason deeper than the table of contents. The doctrine of divine blessedness is a statement of God's fullness, richness, and perfect completeness. It is therefore a uniquely ripe, fecund, or pregnant doctrine; one that is ready to bring forth the next idea. Furthermore, as we saw in contrasting it to the doctrine of God's glory, the doctrine of blessedness is a doctrine of divine inwardness, and whenever we let our minds follow God's revelation from what he is outwardly to what he is inwardly, we find ourselves confronted with the inner trinitarian relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches us to distinguish what has been revealed about God essentially from what has been revealed about God relationally: the Logos was (relationally) with God, and the Logos was (essentially) God. A Christian meditation on what it is like to be God (God above all, blessed forever) will necessarily turn into a meditation on the Trinity (God in three persons, blessed Trinity). This is why the doctrine of divine blessedness naturally unfolds into the doctrine of the Trinity. 

Whether we ponder this using a psychological analogy or a social analogy for the Trinity, we can come to the same conclusion about blessedness and triunity. In a social analogy, God is thought of as being like three people ineffably united as one being. Thinking this way, our idea of the eternal bliss of being God threatens to remain somewhat abstract and sub-personal until it is unfolded into the interpersonal fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the history of theology, Richard of St. Victor reasoned that the perfect being must be maximally perfect love, and the most perfect love includes one who loves, one who is loved, and a mutually co-beloved third. In a psychological analogy, God is thought of as being like one infinite mind, with indwelling faculties of knowing and loving which are the same mind all over again at once. Thinking this way, God's eternal bliss is viewed as God having all divine perfections, and knowing he has them, and loving the having of them. In the history of theology, Thomas Aquinas reasoned that the Son proceeded from the Father by way of intellect (thus the self-knowledge of beatitude) and the Spirit from the Father and Son by way of will (thus the self-loving of beatitude). Both the social and psychological analogy tend to take a speculative turn, as is evident from these summaries of them. But they converge on enabling us to see divine blessedness as the hinge doctrine to get from the notion of the one God to the notion of the three-one God.

The Puritan theologian John Owen knew both analogies well and was fluent in handling them. His description of the blessedness of the Trinity seems to alternate easily between the insights of both social and psychological analogies. So on the one hand he can give this social account of divine beatitude: "The blessedness of God consists in the ineffable mutual inbeing of the three holy persons in the same nature, with the immanent reciprocal actings of the Father and the Son in the eternal love and complacency of the Spirit." And on the other hand he can go on in the same passage of his book Christologia to say, in a rather psychological mode, that "herein doth God act in the perfect knowledge, and perfect love of his own perfections, unto an infinite acquiescency therein, which is the divine blessedness." And (again, from the same passage) he concludes that the blessed God is "infinite being and goodness, eternally blessed in the knowledge and enjoyment of itself, by inconceivable, ineffable, internal actings answering the manner of its subsistence, which is in three distinct persons."

3. Blessedness Regulates the Interpretation of Anthropomorphisms. When we come to understand the depth of God's blessedness, it changes the way we can interpret the various emotions and attitudes that are clearly attributed to God in Scripture. One of the pervasive features of biblical revelation about God is its anthropomorphisms, and while it is easy enough to recognize that God does not literally part the Red Sea by stretching out his hand or blowing with his nose, it can be harder to understand what Scripture means by describing God as feeling rage, or aching with compassion, or finding out something. Without a deep grounding in the fundamental realities of what Scripture teaches about God, a reader can go astray by taking these statements in the wrong sense, resulting in a picture of a God who is buffeted about by waves of emotion. God would be passible, reacting to outside forces and having his attitude determined by them.

Classically, God's blessedness has helped provide a guideline in this area. Augustus Strong states it as a rule: "We are entitled to attribute to [God] only such passibleness as is consistent with infinite perfection. In combining passibleness with blessedness, then, we must allow blessedness to be the controlling element." And William Shedd stated the principle even more clearly:
The criterion for determining which form of feeling is literally, and which is metaphorically attributable to God, is the divine blessedness. God cannot be the subject of any emotion that is intrinsically and necessarily an unhappy one. If he literally feared his foes, or were literally jealous of a rival, he would so far forth be miserable. Literal fear and literal jealousy cannot therefore be attributed to him. 
God feels feelings, but is not overcome by passions. To be so overcome would be to surrender blessedness, and an unblessed God could not be the source of blessing to needy creatures. The unhappy emotions attributed to God are therefore not attributed literally to him. Shedd goes on to describe which "fundamental forms of feeling" are literally attributed to God, but the short answer is that they are feelings compatible with blessedness.

One reason blessedness works so well as a guideline for interpreting anthropomorphisms is that God's blessedness is so vastly different from our experience that it shocks us out of any comfortable ability to think of God as being like us, only bigger. That kind of cozy analogizing is precisely the kind of mistake we make when thinking of God's emotional life: we know what it feels like to be us, and we ponder what it must feel like to be God, so we multiply our own feelings times infinity. But the biblical invitation to know God as the one who is blessed is a startling call to recognize the sheer otherness of God's inner life: A comprehensive unity of all the perfections of being and beauty in blessedness, shared among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

It is high time to recover the classic affirmation of the blessedness of God.

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


[1] Expository notes, with practical observations, on the New Testament By William Burkitt, p. 515.