A Trinitarian doctrine of God's attributes

This is the concluding post in a series reviewing Daniel Migliore's book, Faith Seeking Understanding, An Introduction to Christian Theology. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4.

God the Father 
(Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, 1779)
In this concluding post, we look at Migliore's Trinitarian perspective on God's attributes. He takes exception to what he sees as a common error in many contemporary systematic theologies, namely grounding the doctrine of God's attributes not in the revelation through Jesus of God's attributes as a triune communion of divine persons, but in speculative, metaphysical, philosophical concepts that dominated the Western theology of the church in the middle ages.

As examples of this error, Migliore cites Augustine's view of God's impassibility (that God does not suffer emotionally). Augustine taught that, "God does not truly grieve over the suffering of the world." He then cites Anselm (considered the father of the Scholastic movement in Christian theology), who taught that God does not experience compassion. Finally, he cites protestant reformer John Calvin who, in line with Augustine's and Anselm's views of God's impassibility, taught that "when Scripture speaks of God's compassion, it employs a figure of speech that is an accommodation to our finite understanding" (p82).

Migliore then notes the unfortunate consequences of this approach to God's attributes:
The scholastic way of developing the doctrine of the attributes of God creates many problems from a biblical perspective and leads to serious consequences in both theology and ethics. Failure to rethink and reform our ideas of God's impassibility, immutability, and omnipotence in the light of the gospel sets Christian doctrine of God at odds with the proclamation of Christ crucified. It may also support, however unintentionally, ways of thinking and patterns of behavior that are insensitive to the suffering of others, resistant to needed change, and prone to divorce power from compassion and responsibility (p83).
Migliore contrasts the scholastic approach with Karl Barth's Trinitarian doctrine of God's attributes (what Barth calls the "divine perfections") as revealed in the person and work of Christ:
The triune God is for Barth the one whose loving is free and whose freedom is loving. Hence Barth contends that the perfections of God are properly understood not in isolation but in dialectical [seemingly contrasting] pairs. Each perfection of divine love is to be set in the light of God's freedom, and each perfection of divine freedom is to be set in the light of God's love. According to Barth, grace and holiness, mercy and righteousness, patience and wisdom are the perfections of the divine love; and unity and omnipotence, constancy and omnipotence, eternity and glory are perfections of the divine freedom (p84).
Migliore comments on Barth's pairing of God's attributes of grace and holiness:
The grace of God is expressed in God's gift of life to the creation at the beginning and in the still greater gift of new life to fallen humanity in God's work of salvation in Jesus Christ and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to renew the people of God. Instructed by the biblical witness, we know that the grace of the triune God is not cheap but costly, holy grace, and we likewise know that the holiness of the triune God is not simply purity or faultlessness that places us under judgment but a gracious holiness. An encounter with the holy God is an encounter with the God who seeks to redeem and sanctify us and who calls us to new life, mission, and service (Exod. 3:1-10; Isa. 6:1-8) (p85).
In line with Barth's Trinitarian approach, Migliore rejects the scholastic concept of God's immutability (that God does not change):
Far more accurate than the term "immutable" is the affirmation that the triune God is constant, steadfast, and faithful in character and purpose even as God does new and unexpected things, consistent with the divine character to fulfill the divine purpose. This is surely what Scripture means when it affirms that the Lord God does not change (Mal. 3:6) and that Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8).  An absolutely immutable, utterly changeless God would not be the living, triune God of Scripture but a dead God. Precisely because the grace of God revealed through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is constant and reliable yet new every morning, Christians affirm that God's faithful, changeless love is manifested in changing, surprising ways (p85).

Comments

  1. Thanks for the post Ted. Along these same lines, I’d recommend reading "Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes," by recently deceased British author Colin Gunton (Eerdmans, 2002). In fact Daniel Migliore wrote a back cover blurb for Gunton’s book, recommending Gunton’s helpful Trinitarian approach to understanding God’s identity and character. Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion of Gunton's "Act and Being."

    “The man Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, risen and seated at the right hand of God still clothed in his humanity, is, to use an expression of Karl Barth’s, albeit in a different way, the knowability of God on our side. Instead, therefore of speaking of God’s unknowability – a pagan form of unbelief – we should speak rather of his incognito. The Son of God comes as one who ‘had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering’ (Isa. 53:2-3). We cannot evade that narrow road along which we must pass if we are to know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And yet we must gloss Isaiah’s poem, for this man who had nothing ‘in his appearance’ that we should desire him, is in fact that beauty and majesty of God in action. In that incognito we truly find the attributes of our God, for there is God in action, in the richness of his utter simplicity.”

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mike, thanks for sharing this with us! As both Gunton and Migliore reimnd us, God's attributes must always be understood as they are revealed to us in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ. How is God just, or all-powerful, or...? The answer is this: just like Jesus. Indeed, as Jesus said, "if you have seen me, you have seen the Father."

    ReplyDelete
  3. For a helpful video from Elmer Colyer that addresses God's attributes (and also the subject of hell), watch the You're Included video at http://www.gci.org/YI113

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Can people get out of hell?

Does everyone have the Holy Spirit?

Theology and Biblical Studies - What's the Difference?

The missional character of the church

The nature of our union with Christ

How big is hell?

Ministry: sharing in what Jesus is doing

Question on John 3:36

Torrance on the church and its mission

The link between theology and mission