Act and Being: Towards a Doctrine of the Divine Attributes

Act and Being: Towards a Doctrine of the Divine Attributes

by Colin E. Gunton
In his latest book Colin Gunton -- one of the foremost systematic theologians writing today -- addresses the thorny question of God's attributes. Theologians often seem to have been content with a list of intelligible, but often abstract, terms as to 'the contents of our idea of God'. And for Gunton, the doctrine of the divine attributes seems often to have been


In his latest book Colin Gunton -- one of the foremost systematic theologians writing today -- addresses the thorny question of God's attributes. Theologians often seem to have been content with a list of intelligible, but often abstract, terms as to 'the contents of our idea of God'. And for Gunton, the doctrine of the divine attributes seems often to have been approached using the wrong method; developing the wrong content; and even, when that has not been the case, treating things in the wrong order. This has much to do with what has become a tangled web of the relations between Greek and Hebrew discussions and characterisations of the topic. In this book Gunton attempts to disentangle these threads as individually and carefully as possible. Successive chapters on the problems of the 'tangled web'; the nature of theological language; and the difference that the Trinity might make to the discussion succeed in developing one of the most coherent and intellectually stimulating pictures of the divine attributes to have been published in recent times. The author's many admirers will find this book mandatory reading, as will all serious students and teachers of systematic theology and Christian doctrine.

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Act and Being

Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes
By Colin E. Gunton


Copyright © 2002 Colin E. Gunton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-2658-9

Chapter One

A Hybrid Deity?

I The Situation Addressed

To speak of God's attributes is to attempt to speak of the kind of god that God is; of the things that characterize him as God; of what makes him to be God, rather than some other being or kind of being. While the doctrine of the Trinity, we might say, identifies God, says who he is, as Father, Son and Spirit, the doctrine of the attributes is a proposal about the defining characteristics of the deity. To be sure, this is not an absolute distinction, and one cannot be divorced from the other. To speak of the Trinity is already to say something of God's characteristics, while to speak of the attributes apart from the Trinity – as is often done – is a mistake, and one which we shall be exploring below. The central difficulty of the situation as it meets us after nearly two thousand years of discussion is that there seems to be little clarity about how the two are related: how the identity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit relates to the kind of things that have been, and are, said of the kind of being that God is.

II Aspects of the Historical Background

The Fathers are often ambivalent, indeed sometimes apparently in two different minds, in their attitude to the Greek philosophical heritage in the context of which they did much of their thinking. On the one hand, the philosophers and their works are excoriated as the source of all ills, and not only by those, like Tertullian, who accuse them of being the fount of heresy. Clement of Alexandria provides a more illuminating study. Robert Jenson has recently drawn attention to the fact that a positive reference to Plato comes after 'chapters of invective against the Greek-taught pagans for their worship of God's works instead of God', where Clement writes: 'I long for God, not the works of God. Now – whom from among you can I take for a co-worker in this longing ...? Perhaps Plato ...' The outcome of this ambivalence, aspects of which will be traced in this study, is, especially so far as the doctrine of God is concerned, a deep fissure running, often unrecognized, through the body of Christian teaching. This will be argued to be particularly easily recognized in the theologians who write in the aftermath of the Reformation, because there the new emphasis on a doctrine of God derived from the biblical narrative is uneasily combined with antithetical doctrines deeply sedimented in the tradition. That is to say, the Christian doctrine of God is for much of its history a hybrid of two organisms.

Hybrids come in many forms, from those that represent a new, stronger and more fruitful development to those which are in some way merely dull or even monstrous. There are many varying estimates of the character of the deity which emerged when Greece and Jerusalem cross-pollinated one another, and, indeed, many different variations on the combination. We shall meet some of the different forms and judgments in the pages which are to come. But there is one feature of the developments which needs to be faced and, I believe, rejected. It is one of the tragedies – one could almost say crimes – of Christian theological history that the Old Testament was effectively displaced by Greek philosophy as the theological basis of the doctrine of God, certainly so far as the doctrine of the divine attributes is concerned. Eric Osborn's comment, that 'The first Greek steps towards a Christian view of God were unwittingly indicated by Xenophanes of Colophon ...', might have a grain of truth in it, but of greater moment is the fact that this appears to have had more effect than the steps towards, indeed articulation of, an essentially Christian view of God which is already present in the Old Testament. The irony of Osborn's observation is that he made it in a book on Irenaeus, who, despite all the echoes of the Greek position, made it his business to stress again and again that Christ is to be found in the pages of the Old Testament scriptures. And while it is not the case that the Old Testament was explicitly downgraded by the tradition in favour of philosophy, there is a tendency to say that the latter achieves for the Gentiles the equivalent of what the Old Testament does for the Jews:

Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring 'the Hellenic mind,' as the law [was for] the Hebrews, 'to Christ'. Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.

In that passage, the Old Testament is implicitly downgraded in two ways: narrowed in its function (it is important for the New Testament far more than is suggested by the one allusion to a saying of Paul to be found there) and relativized by being reduced, at least in this respect, to an equality of function with the philosophy of the Greeks. The distortion finds its way into the mainstream Western tradition; in the words contained in the Requiem Teste David et Sybilla we encounter a juxtaposition in parallel of Old Testament and pagan philosophy, which surely should not be.

The tendency to make a particular philosophical tradition definitive for Christian theology is still to be observed, most recently in the 1998 papal encyclical on faith and reason. While it can be conceded to the Holy Father that 'in engaging great cultures [sc. that of India] for the first time, the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought', she must surely abandon what she has mistakenly taken, as will appear later. And the point is this: it is often enough remarked these days that the centuries-long neglect of the Old Testament has served to the detriment of the Christian faith, nowhere better illustrated than by the long history of anti-Semitism, but more generally in the impoverishment of our grasp of the breadth and depth of the gospel's meaning. This is no more truly the case than in the treatment of the being of God, that most central of doctrines. Evidence will be offered in the following chapters that this has been deeply paganized, so that nineteenth-century jibes about Christianity as Platonism for the masses are not so far off the mark. The key to the matter is to be found in the location of the divine in a realm that is in some way opposed to or the negation of this world, and we shall find evidence for that in the most orthodox of theologians. So much of the modern rejection of Christianity derives from a reaction against that, which is so widespread that it cannot be ignored as misrepresentation, misrepresentation though it often contains in plenty. The treatment of the divine attributes over time provides a prime example of this tendency to an essentially sub-Christian doctrine of God, as we shall see.

Underlying the papal defence we have met of the indispensability of the Greek contribution to theology is a conviction that the teaching of the Christian faith, dependent as it is on particularities, requires foundation in a general philosophy of being. However, the attempt to supplement the particular by the general runs the risk – and, indeed, historically it is more than a risk, even a fact – that the particular will be constrained or even overwhelmed by the general. Moreover, the supposition that one particular philosophy – for that is in effect what is being claimed – is necessary for Christian theology is an odd one, and has been decisively refuted by Robert Jenson. He points out that Greek philosophy and its descendants have no more claim to universality than any other set of doctrines. The various accounts of the structure of being in the Presocratic and classical Greek philosophies are in point of fact theologies, attempts to conceive the world in relation to the divine. '[T]his body of theology was as historically particular as any other set of historical proposals: it comprised part of the theology that Greek religious thinkers, pondering the revelations claimed for Homer and Parmenides, had provided for the cults of Mediterranean antiquity ...' As we shall see, Greek philosophy begins as an attempt not only to reject the inadequate gods of popular belief but to provide a rational version of the ancient world-view those gods represent. It is a demythologization (Aufhebung?) only as a translation or transposition, not a displacement or abolition. It is when Christian theology becomes dependent on the philosophers' speculations rather than on the equivalent Old Testament polemics against paganism that the troubles begin. In that light, we must move to another salient characteristic of our intellectual world.

III Aspects of the Intellectual Situation

In the next chapter, we shall review some of the chief problems facing those who would essay a doctrine of the divine attributes. As an introduction to this, let us examine the problem of problems, that which dominates all treatment of the subject. This is that we think that we know what the attributes are. 'By the name God I understand a substance that is infinite [eternal, immutable], independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else ... have been created.' Similar definitions can be found, especially in text books on the philosophy of religion. But let me pause a little longer over the theology of Charles Hodge, and two citations. The first appears early in the first part of his Systematic Theology, entitled, 'Theology Proper'.

Theism is the doctrine of an extra-mundane, personal God, the creator, preserver and governor of the world.

The second, which I shall cite at greater length, appears about 150 pages later:

Probably the best definition of God ever penned by man, is that given in the 'Westminster Catechism': 'God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.' This is a true definition; for it states the class of beings to which God is to be referred. He is Spirit; and He is distinguished from all other spirits in that He is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being and perfections. It is also a complete definition, in so far as it is an exhaustive statement of the contents of our idea of God.

It is not that we should necessarily want to deny the attribution of most of the qualities to God; nor is it that I am unaware of the fact that Hodge delimits carefully what he means by definition and that he has elsewhere much more to say about God. It is rather a matter of what is left out, and particularly what Robert Letham has recently pointed out, that Hodge 'does not get around to suggesting that God is triune until after 250 pages of detailed exposition of the doctrine of God'. Of theological dissatisfaction with this, volumes could be written.

As the argument of this book proceeds, we shall find that there are many far less satisfactory attempted definitions than that of Hodge. But the point remains, that theologians often appear to have been content, certainly in the first instance, with a list of apparently intelligible and often rather abstract terms as 'the contents of our idea of God'. And it is against the over-confidence with which Hodge claims to provide the 'exhaustive statement' that the moments of truth in an otherwise badly construed doctrine, that of the unknowability or incomprehensibility of God, are to be found. We shall, then, approach the topic with an initial theory or hypothesis in mind and test its truth especially in the third and fourth chapters: that so far as the divine attributes are concerned, the doctrine has often been approached using the wrong method; developing the wrong content; and even when that has not been entirely the case, treating things in the wrong order. As we shall see, this has much to do with what has become the tangled web of the relations between what can broadly be identified as the Greek and Hebrew determinants of the topic, but, as it is indeed a tangled web, we must attempt to disentangle the threads as individually and carefully as is possible. But this must be prefaced by some remarks about terminology.

There are three terms with which, from the beginning, we must become acquainted. The first is the one we have met, 'attribute'. As Karl Barth has pointed out, this is a problematic term. When something is attributed to something or someone, such as certain characteristics – for example, as was said recently of a British politician that he is 'the master of the non-denial denial' – it might be done because it is the case, or because it is believed to be true, or because it is wished that the thing or person be seen in that way. The case of political abuse is a perfect example of the difference. The stress in the latter case is on what the human mind does, ascribing certain characteristics to the object of its attribution. That puts the emphasis the wrong way round. We are concerned, rather, first of all with who God is, not what we attribute to him, and it was for a reason similar to this that Barth preferred – and this is our second term – the word 'perfections', 'because it points at once to the thing itself instead of merely to its formal aspect, and because instead of something general it expresses at once that which is clearly distinctive'. This seems to be right: what we seek are not our attributions but the ways in which God is perfect. Theology, as Barth knew, is the discipline which seeks, so far as God grants and it can achieve, to bring to speech in many different ways the perfection of God, so that he can be known, praised and obeyed. It is not a matter of what we attribute, but of what he reveals himself to be. It is because of his relentless pursuit of this matter that Barth's treatment of the divine perfections is one of the finest accounts of the topic to be found in theological history, although some criticisms of it will be in a later chapter. Nevertheless, because it accords well with familiar usage, I shall maintain the traditional language of the attributes, hoping to keep in mind that we are concerned only with what God grants us to attribute to him on the basis of what he has shown us.

A similar confusion arises in connection with the third term we meet in the tradition, that of the divine names. As we review the history of our topic, it becomes clear that an important distinction can be drawn, and it is parallel to that we have met between perfection and attribute. It is between the notion of a revealed name and the terms in which some theologians and philosophers have spoken of how we name God. Here our best illustration is to be found in the opposing ways in which a text of scripture is interpreted. All comes to a head in the different ways in which Exodus 3.13f. and similar passages in the Old Testament speak of the matter:

Moses said to God, 'Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they ask me, "What is his name?" Then what shall I tell them?' God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: "I AM has sent me to you."' (Exod. 3.13f.)

From quite early times, particularly after the work of the fifth-century Pseudo-Dionysius, it came to be held that this 'I am' means that God's primary name is that of Being. John of Damascus puts it thus:

It appears then that the most proper of all the names given to God is 'He that is,' as He Himself said in answer to Moses on the mountain ... For He keeps all being in His own embrace, like a sea of essence, infinite and unseen.

As we shall see in a later chapter, such exegesis comes to form the basis of the tradition of negative theology, of naming God in terms of what he is not. The tradition is surely justified in part: in seeing here the basis of the need to limit carefully what our words can claim to describe of God's 'inner being', if we can so speak. As Brevard Childs comments, '[t]he formula is paradoxically both an answer and a refusal of an answer'. We shall see later in the book that a similar point can be made about the Second Isaiah's apparent adoption of negative theology in the well-known passage in chapter 40. And yet, to the sceptical observer John's exposition seems more a piece of Platonic abstraction than a true exegesis of the biblical text.


Excerpted from Act and Being by Colin E. Gunton Copyright © 2002 by Colin E. Gunton . Excerpted by permission of SCM PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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