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The Attributes of God
Guthrie talks (on page 98) of the arguments for the "death" of God, and to some extent he agrees that certain gods should be considered "dead":
Which god is dead? All the gods that were really nothing but a projection of our own fears, wishes, insecurity, greed, or speculation. All the gods made in our own image. If talk about the death of God in our time exposes our idols and their inadequacy, we may welcome it. The quicker we bury and forget the gods we make for ourselves, the quicker we can learn who God really is.
It is this task (learning who God really is) which is attempted when we speak about God's
We try to describe (always in a limited way) who this God is - and that description can take a variety of approaches.
Some 'gods' are dead: the tyrant, the cosmic granddaddy, the cosmic slot machine, the heavenly Santa Claus, the 'god' of abstract concepts. Christians, at their best moments, proclaim an altogether different God, a "living" God, a "personal" God, a "relational" God.
But our attempts to describe the God we know has not been without its moments of philosophical talking, either.
Two approaches to the Attributes of God: Philosophical and Personal
If we describe God in
terms, we might say, for example, that God is loving, kind, moral, fatherly (or motherly), nurturing, wrathful, just, jealous, passionate, or faithful.
These are just a few examples, but what is similar among all of them is that these attributes of God are in the same category as those attributes we might use to describe ourselves. Now, these might be (following a comment made once by Ludwig Feuerbach) attributes "spoken in a loud voice," meaning that they are grander than what we're used to saying about ourselves, but still we can relate to what they talk about in a very
Some of the advantages to speaking of God in this way is that is allows us to feel familiar with God, and that God has some manner of empathy and sympathy with us as humans. By describing God in terms we understand, it is easier to assert that God understands
However, there are disadvantages to this approach, too. For example, we might become
familiar with God, and ignore the majesty and awesomeness that demands our reverence. We might slip into thinking that God is here for "our convenience" or that, like a friend, we can ignore God and just visit "when we want to."
On the other end of the spectrum are the
terms to describe God's attributes. These have included calling God by the "omnis": omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent, as well as other absolute terms like "all-loving," Infinite, Supreme Being, or "Alpha and Omega."
Unlike the personal terms, we have a great deal of difficulty relating these sorts of terms to things we as humans have actually experienced. These ways of describing God are good because they hep us to appreciate the difference, the mightiness and majesty, that are proper to God and God alone.
However, thinking of God using these terms also has the disadvangtage of making God so remote from us that it is hard to ever imagine there could be a relationship between God and the world (let alone humans).
Part of our task in learning the theological tradition is learning how to strike a balance between these two poles, so we can both appreciate the infinite and "other" aspects of God, as well as the efforts God undergoes to be in relationship with humanity.
Three ways Theology has classically talked about God
Christian theology has often spoken in terms of God's absolute rule over the cosmos. If we think in terms of the earthly models of government, God is equivalent in some way to a heavenly "king". This has entailed a rejection of
or the notion that there is some "evil power" in the universe that rivals God. God's sovereignty helps us to have a robust faith ("God will be all in all") and a strong sense that justice and mercy will prevail. However, sovereignty also contributes to thinking of God as remote and uninterested in human affairs.
If you were to speak to an observant Hebrew around the time of the life of Christ, and asked him (or her) "who is this God you are speaking about," they wouldn't answer with philosophical categories. Instead they would answer with the words of Deuteronomy 26:
4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
In other words, the Jewish believer would talk about the attributes of God in terms of
who this God had been and is in relation to the history of Israel.
This approach is profoundly relational, but it has the advantage of also acknowledging the mightiness of God while still claiming that God draws near.
Christians take this relationality one step farther, however, and speak of the God who becomes incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Not only does this offer a radical new view of relationality, but when we take the incarnation seriously, it also realigns our very definitions of terms like "majesty," "sovereignty," and "power" that we would use to describe God. In the incarnation God is not powerful like an earthly king, and yet the awesome power of God is preserved. The Christian temrs to describe God, then, are at their best when they hold to this mysterious tension and translation of God's attributes - both the personal and the philosophical.
Implications for us
Knowing what kind of God we serve can point us to the type of people we are meant to be (as we are created in God's image). The compassion pointed to in relationality and incarnation can, like the relationality pointed to in God's triune being, push us to reach out and build community in our worship and our daily life.
Moreover, this relationality gets communicated in God's call to us to worship properly. Consider the words of Isaiah, speaking God's words:
1:12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 1:13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 1:14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 1:15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 1:16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 1:17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Or again, Jesus' own words in Matthew 25:
25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 25:44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 25:45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
In calling us to be authentically ourselves, God is identified as authentically a God of justice, mercy, and lovingkindness.
6.2 The Creator God and Creation
Consider these two different stories:
Before the beginning, on a planet in a galaxy far, far waway, there lived a man who lived a good life. When he died, and after a long period of becoming perfected, he was raised to the level of being a god. He was given his own small piece of real estate in a faraway arm of a galaxy, and there he decided to create a solar system. In that solar system, on the third planet out, he created life and eventually, a man was born there. When he died, and after a long period of becoming perfected, he was raised to the level of a god. Now he will get his own small piece of real estate in a faraway section of the galaxy, to do with what he will...
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6 And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
We can see that these two accounts of cration are vastly different, and they make very different claims about God. The first story is a version of the creation story as you might hear it from a memeber of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). The second is the account we more mainline Christians know from Genesis.
It is important to note that both stories treat the Bible seriously as a sacred text. We can see, moreover, that the Mormon account of creation tells us a lot - not only about how the world got here, but the nature of human beings (some of us might become gods!) and the nature of their god (he was once a man, with a body).
The Christian account, in a similar fashion, has these sorts of implications as well. To tell the genesis narrative as we do implies some things about the universe (nothing existed before God started creating), about human beings (we are created in God's image, but we are not meant to become gods ourselves), and also about God (seeming to exist beyond time, and have awesome power, etc.)
The story we tell about creation, in other words, connects us to
attributes and assertions about God, the world, and ourselves. This class we will explore some of those connections.
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