04 October 2005, 09:06 PMPhil
C. On the nature of God
What do we mean when we speak of God? What would be your response at this time in your life?
Down through the millennia, there have been all kinds of responses to this question, but what strikes me as most significant is that human beings even consider the question in the first place. After all, why should we even think about God? There is nothing we can point to that we can call God. And yet there is not one single culture lacking in a sense of the religious, however it might be expressed.
Is this not a curious thing -- that human beings think and wonder about God? Is it not in itself amazing that we even conceive of a "being greater than which nothing can exist," to use a common definition. Why should this be? From whence comes this conception of something or someone beyond all sensory and mental perceptions? An old saying has it that "if God did not exist, we would have to invent Him," but I also wonder why it should occur to us to conceive of such a Being in the first place if God did not, in fact, exist?
So we take as our starting point in this series the fact that God does exist, knowing that we cannot prove this, but also that arguments which attempt to disprove God do not satisfy either. Human beings think about and relate to God, even when we are trying to deny God. It seems to be an idea that we just can't shake from our minds.What God Is
We enter this study as part of a religious tradition that goes back over 4,000 years, and which has had much to say about God. What strikes me, however, is that there is very little in the Bible, our written tradition, which speaks about what God is. We all know, or think we know the answer to this -- Creator, Redeemer, Savior, etc. But those titles say more about what God has done
than what God is
. When speaking of "is," in this sense, we are referring to God's "being," which is different (but certainly not separate) from God's "doing."
Metaphysics is the study of being, or the is-ness of things, and there is very little straightforward metaphysical teaching in the Bible. There is a deep metaphysical intuition at work, but it is seldom given any kind of systematic or detailed expression. That's because our Hebrew ancestors didn't start off with a system of metaphysical ideas which they then put into practice; they began with a sense of relationship with God and metaphysical understanding came later.
The task of more deeply mining the metaphysical implications of the Judeo-Christian tradition has fallen to theologians, especially those who have expertise in philosophy. In their reflection on the question, "What is God?," they generally emphasize the following:
1. God is the Supreme Being.
By this we mean that God is "a being greater than which nothing can be conceived," as noted above, and there can only be One of those (hence, monotheism). God is the greatest, the highest, the "most-est" Being. Note that this very understanding of God means that anything we try to say about God will necessarily be limited -- unless we are using superlatives! For, as a Supreme Being, God is beyond any kind of created being, which the mind is more capable of comprehending. And yet the mind can conceive of the idea Supreme Being, even while not knowing exactly how to give expression to It. It also seems strangely natural for the mind to do so -- almost as though this is part of what is means to be human.
2. God is a Personal Being.
Here we mean that the Supreme Being is in possession of Intelligence and Freedom and is not merely some kind inanimate force-field, which could not have initiated and entered into covenant. Thus did the Hebrews know God to be a personal, relational Being, even while they affirmed that God's personal attributes go far beyond our human capacities. God knows without limitation (omniscience) and is unrestricted in acting (omnipotence), for that is how it goes for a Supreme Being. Of course, it also goes without saying that God's knowing is far above our limited human capacity, and God's acting is also beyond our ability to fully understand. These points are frequently made in Scripture (see Is. 55).
3. God is a Spirit.
This almost necessarily follows from the above two points. God is spiritual in the sense of being immaterial, unmanifest, and of possessing intellect and will. Furthermore, God's Spirit is such that it must be in all places at all times, for that is implied in the understanding of God as Supreme Being. If God were manifest, then God's presence would be restricted to a "place" and there would be a "beyond" the place which would not include God. When we reflect on the Incarnation of the Word in a future session, we'll see how it is the humanity of Jesus that makes God present in a particular place at a particular time.
I should point out, here, that these three metaphysical affirmations about God aren't unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. A number of philosophers have affirmed the same, but for the Hebrew people, this was understood in terms of an intimacy with the divine that constituted them as a people who lived in covenant with Him. Thus did they also come to know some of the "qualities" of God's Being -- e.g., God's justice, anger, mercy, patience and love. These are not metaphysical revelations, per se, but they're certainly of the utmost importance. If the Supreme, Personal Being is antagonistic toward us, then there's little basis for hope in anything! Who can win out against omniscience and omnipotence? The Hebrews knew the Personal God as relational being, but--more!--as an essentially Good Being. This intuition held throughout their troubled history, and still holds today. It's also as valid for us as it is for them.Attributes of the Divine Nature
Flowing from the metaphysical understanding so briefly sketched above, we come now to the divine attributes, which one will often find described in theological and spiritual works. These are not separate from the three points already discussed, but provide a further elaboration of them.
There are many lists of divine attributes. What I will do now is enumerate a few that are most commonly noted; you can find links to various lists and treatments of them all over the Internet, and we can go over these in the forum, if there's an interest.
Who God Is
1. Eternal -- this means that God has no beginning and no end, and exists in a realm beyond space and time even while being present to the created order.
2. Simplicity of God's substance -- you cannot divide the divine into "parts." This is true, by the way, of all spirits, including the human spirit. The intelligence and freedom of a spirit are not found in different "places" as we find with the parts and organs of the body.
3. Omnipresence -- there is nothing to which God is not present, no place beyond God. Hence the old saying, "God is everywhere."
4. Omnipotence -- there are no limitations on God's exercise of freedom. God can do as God wishes. Closely related to this is the idea of God's sovereignty, which means that God will ultimately bring about what God intends.
5. Omniscience -- God possesses infinite knowledge, including the "big picture" and the smallest of details.
6. Immutable -- God is unchanging, for, given the attributes described above, it is difficult to see what could be changed. This does not imply that God is not somehow affected by the unfolding of creation, but even that must be considered in light of God's omniscience.
7. Transcendence -- God exists in a realm beyond the created order. More on the relationship between God and creation in our next session.
8. Loving -- this attribute is affirmed more from the witness of the Hebrews and Christ than from metaphysical reflection. Its clearest articulation can be found in 1 Jn. 4: 7-10, where the writer comes right out and says that "God is love. . . No one has ever seen God, but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us."
Having reflected on what God is and touched upon several divine attributes, we come now to the "who" of God, for whenever one speaks of the personal and spiritual, the question is bound to occur. This is even more to be expected when a community like the Hebrews and, later, the Christians, experience themselves to be in relationship with God. We want to know all about our relational partner, especially such qualities as whether he is basically benevolent or antagonistic, as noted above. These are the kinds of issues about which Scripture seems most concerned and which Christ reveals most conclusively. He also brings to light a new metaphysical truth, however, one that we could never have guessed at through philosophical reflection. And so we affirm:
- God is a Trinity of Persons
The One Supreme Being is a community of three Persons, who all fully possess the divine nature. This one is difficult to conceive, I'll grant you, but I think we can draw a crude analogy from our human experience. We recognize another human being not just from the appearance of their physical body, but from their possession of what we might call a "human nature." This is to say that humans are a particular type of being with qualities that makes us unique and different from other animals. When we relate to another human being, we presume in them the presence of this human nature and its attributes -- intelligence, memory, feeling, freedom and so forth -- and we relate out of our own human nature. So what we can say is that there is one human nature but many different human individuals.
Something like this can be said of the Trinity, I believe. There is the Father/Creator, the Son/Word, through whom the Father creates, and the Spirit who joins the Father, Son and creation in a flow of Love. The three Persons are all God; they all possess the divine nature. Notice that I used the word "possess," here, rather than "share," and that is intentional. The Supreme Being we call God is not divided up among the Persons of the Trinity any more than our human nature is divided up among individual humans. Just as we all fully possess a human nature, so, too, do the Persons of the Trinity possess divinity. And, analogically, just as each human expresses their human nature in a unique way, so it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they are all God, but each in a different way, and they each have a unique role in bringing forth the creation.
One might ask, here, why only three Persons? Why not four, or ninety? There have been billions of individuals sharing in the one human nature, so why only three for the divine?
I do not know, of course, except that that is what Christ has revealed. It also seems that there is a sublime sufficiency and super-abundance in the Trinitarian love exchange, which overflows into the creation of the universe. This does not make the creation a kind of fourth Person, however; more on this in our next conference.Further Reading
On the Nature and Attributes of God
The divine attributes
- http://preceptaustin.org/attributes_of_god.htmReflection and Discussion
1. What difference does it make to you that God is a supreme being, personal, spiritual, Trinity, possessing the attributes described above?
2. Consider what difference it would make if God were different from what is described above: e.g., limited, impersonal, static, antagonistic, etc.
3. What questions or comments do you have from this lesson? Use the Reply tab below right to post your response.