Christian Doctrine (6)

Image - John Calvin

“We know the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence, which we ought more to adore than meticulously to search out, but for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself.” (Institutes I.v.9)

Summary notes on Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) Chapter 6 “What Is God Like? The Doctrine of the Attributes of God”

The “God is dead” movement in theology represents the death of inadequate models of God: the indulgent “heavenly Granddaddy;” the sovereign, arbitrary tyrant; an abstract idea (98).

The God revealed in Scripture is a living and personal God; of course this means that terms used about God are anthropomorphic; they are not exclusively masculine, btw, and they create the problem of needing to guard against idolatry even in mental or conceptual representation; the abstractly impersonal picture of God is equally distorted and anthropocentric; “we must be open to learn from the Person what it means for us to be persons …” (101)

Paradoxically God is transcendently sovereign and simultaneously immanently intimate and potentially friendly, a lovingly concerned friend (metaphorically). Reformed reflection often begins with God’s transcendence. But we really have to begin with God’s self-revelation (contemplating God “in his works” as Calvin would say), and this is to begin with God’s intimate approach to us (101-104). “The love of God is sovereign and free love, and the sovereign power of God is loving sovereignty and freedom” (104).

On the intimate side: consider two central attributes, love and justice, that we need to attend to; there are many others including “mercy, pity, compassion, grace, patience, righteousness” (104). God is love (I John 4:8), which doesn’t mean love is God; God teaches love … always loving; qualities of love include universality, unconditional, imitating, faithful, reconciling, costly, helping, and renewing. The question is whether our “love” demonstrates (or even aims to demonstrate) these characteristics (105-106).

“God is always, with everyone, both loving and just at the same time. God’s justice is loving justice, and God’s love is just love (107).” God’s justice isn’t strictly impartial; it’s on the side of the poor, and is more about giving people what they need than what they deserve (107).” Also those who are morally and spiritually poor and oppressed (108). “God’s justice is not a terrible alternative to God’s love; it is God’s love (109).” What would be the consequences of such a form of justice and love in our own lives and the lives of our nations (111)?

On the transcendent side: God is “our Father in heaven” – that is, above and beyond us and our world – contemplating God in God’s works – omnipotence – able to do all that is consistent with God’s love and goodness – God’s power is not limited by circumstances – “ready to recognize the sovereign power of God’s love and justice at work in the everyday events of our lives (112)” even in the worst of those events; omnipresence (112) – there is no place “not even hell itself – where God is not present and at work with loving justice and just love (118).” God’s omniscience (113) means especially that God knows us, “before whom all hearts lie open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid (113).” God is eternal (113-114), meaning not that God is timelessly separated from us, uninvolved, but that God is present in every time; and God is “unchangeable, immutable, immovable” – the classical understanding of which was that God was absolute, and impassive, with an unchanging plan for every human individual, but rather that God, who is not static and unresponsive, is always “for us” in every new circumstance (114-116).

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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