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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The attributes of God, speech by Dr. Gerard Kelly

Gerard Kelly, Catholic Institute of Sydney

I would like to begin this short reflection on the attributes of God by referring to two texts from what Christians call the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. The first is the account of Moses at the burning bush in the Book of Exodus; the second is the Shema Prayer in the Book of Deuteronomy. These take us to the very core of belief in God, and will enable us to move to the New Testament and the Christian era, and consider the attributes of God as elaborated by Christians.
The Burning Bush
I’m sure we all know the incident of Moses before the burning bush. He is walking along, sees a bush that is burning, but notices that it is not consumed. As he approaches to get a closer look God calls out to him, announcing that God is the God of his fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We know there is something sacred going on here; the scene is filled with awe. Moses is told to take his shoes off, because the ground is holy ground, and we hear that he is afraid to look. Then God announces that he has seen the misery of his people in Egypt and that he is going to come down, deliver them from their bondage, and bring them into the promised land. Moses is to have a special place in God’s plan, and is told to visit Pharaoh. As the story unfolds Moses seems to become a little bolder, and asks God ‘What is your name?’ He needs to be able to tell the people who it is that gives him this command. God replies with that very strange phrase, difficult to translate, but which usually appears in our bibles as ‘I am who I am’.
In this ancient and captivating incident we have the attributes of God placed before us in all their subtlety and brevity. In the first place we can speak of the holiness of God or the otherness of God. This is clear from the sense of awe created by the scene, as well as the reaction of Moses. Here is a transcendent God who is beyond what Moses can see, and beyond this world.
But at the same time we can say that God is close. God speaks a word to Moses and communicates to Moses; God reveals himself to Moses. This suggests the immanence of God. This is a God who is close to his people and has entered into a relationship with them. This God is a personal God. Of course, we have already had a glimpse of this in the accounts of creation where God speaks with Adam in the cool of the evening.
The immanence of God and the personal relationship God sets up with the people whom he has created is seen even more intensely when God is moved by the misery the people suffer. Here we see another important attribute of God, namely that this is a God who saves. While at this stage the saving will of God seems to be focused on the people he has chosen as his own, as the knowledge of God develops among this people (and we see this in the pages of the Bible) it is apparent that God’s saving will is universal. Thus we can say that another attribute of God is his desire for all people to be saved.
The God Moses met at the burning bush was not an abstract notion, but a personal God, known through his speech and his action. Christian doctrine has emphasised that God is revealed in the unfolding of history, the history of salvation. People have encounter God through that mysterious inter-connection of God’s word and God’s deeds. Let me quote a passage from the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, promulgated at the Second Vatican Council in 1965:
The pattern of revelation unfolds through deeds and words bound together by an inner dynamism, in such a way that God’s works, effected during the course of the history of salvation, show forth and confirm the doctrine and the realities signified by the words, while the words in turn proclaim the works and throw light on the meaning hidden in them (n.2).[1]
Now this doctrine tells us something more about God. If God speaks and acts in such a way that speech and act are bound together in an inner dynamism, then we must say that God acts with reason. This is something that Christian theology has taken very seriously. It is evident in the way Christian faith has made ample use of Greek philosophical thought to speak about God, in such a way that there is no incompatibility between, on the one hand, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on the other hand, the God of the philosophers. The notion that holds together these apparently different views of God is found in the Greek word Logos, which we usually translate as ‘Word’. When used in relation to God, it highlights that God is reasonable. But it is also a word that is used in our New Testament to affirm the word and action of God in salvation history, stressing a personal God as well as both the immanence and transcendence of God. I shall return to this later on.
There is one final point we need to make in relation to the incident of the burning bush, and it concerns the name of God. It is true that God is without name; that no one can utter the name of God and live. But God utters a name, which in fact is probably not a name, to Moses. This ‘name’ asserts being. Here we have the foundation for the biblical revelation that God is eternal and different from all other gods. As the psalmist says, ‘The Lord is great and worthy of all praise, to be feared above all gods; the gods of the heathens are naught’ (Ps 96:4-5). Later Christian theology will speak of God as Esse (using the Latin verb ‘to be’). God is pure being. This means that God is not a creature, that God is distinct from the world and that there was never a time when God was not.
The Shema Prayer
The second text I indicated that I want to look at is the Shema Prayer: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ (Deut 6:4). Pope Benedict appeals to this text in his encyclical letter, Deus caritas est. He says (n.9) that there are two significant facts about this statement. The first is that all other gods are not God. This means that the universe has its source in God. God is creator. We can correlate this with the opening pages of our Bible and the account of creation in the book of Genesis. There we hear that constant refrain, ‘God said…’, uttered at each moment of the creation. ‘The whole world, then, comes into existence by God’s creative Word’ (n.9). Here let me recall my earlier statement about God’s revelation unfolding through God’s word and God’s deeds, which are bound together by an inner dynamism. Our God creates by speaking a Word, a logos.
The second fact that Pope Benedict draws our attention to is a consequence of this, namely that God loves humankind, who is his creation. This, of course, is the theme of Benedict’s encyclical: that God is love. For Benedict, this is the primary attribute of God, and the others are related to it. This attribute is characterised both by eros, which is God’s passion for the people, and by agape, which indicates that it is a love that is bestowed gratuitously and without any merit on the part of human beings.
There is an important consequence arising from this. Because God is love, and this is a love that reaches out to human beings, they are drawn into that love and into life with God. In other words, they are made in the image and likeness of God. Now, I believe that following this insight we should be able to show that any of the attributes of God can help us understand human beings. The Christian writer, Irenaeus, in the second century, explored this in his reflection on God the creator. Using the biblical and philosophical concepts of his day he affirmed that God alone is, and that human beings are becoming. (Note the contrast between being and becoming). The goal of God’s creative activity is that we might ‘become’ according to the image and likeness of God. This idea is particularly strong in the theology of the East, and is referred to as the divinisation of the human person. Far from undermining the uniqueness and oneness of God, it reaffirms that God is Being – as the Biblical text says, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone – and concludes that creatures are dependent on God, that they are always changing, and that they have the capacity to change according to the image and likeness of God.
Jesus and the New Testament
This seems the right moment to speak about Jesus, the Christ. Benedict XVI makes an important point, that the revelation of God in the New Testament continues the revelation we have just been speaking about, given in the Old Testament. It does not overturn it or contradict it. He wrote in his encyclical: ‘the real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts – an unprecedented realism’ (n.12). This takes us to the core Christian belief about God, namely the Incarnation. We need to consider step by step what this tells us about the attributes of God.
In the first instance we can consider the words and deeds of Jesus. Through his words and deeds – be it in parables or his miracles – he revealed God to those whom he encountered. We see re-affirmed for us the love of God, the mercy of God, and the saving will of God. We need think only, for example, of Jesus’ encounter with a leper early in Mark’s Gospel (Mk 1:40ff). The leper says, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’. To which Jesus, moved with pity, replies, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Notice here the echo of God’s words to Moses, ‘I have seen the misery of my people’. Or we can think of the parable referred to as the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11ff). It is a story of a young son who takes his inheritance and moves away from his father, to a strange land where he squanders the inheritance and ends up lost and no better than a slave. He decides to return to his father and request permission to enter the property as one of the servants. But the father reacts with great generosity by welcoming him back as a son. He puts on a feast because the son who was lost is found; the son who was dead has come to life. The point of the parable is that it reveals that God is a God of mercy. Furthermore, it is a mercy that extends far beyond the normal bounds of human mercy.
The words and deeds of Jesus reveal God in a concrete way. They remind us that the fundamental image Jesus gives of God is ‘Father’. But we are also being told something about Jesus. Christians speak of Jesus as the self-revelation of God, and the completion of the revelation of God (in the sense of the fullness of revelation). Let me quote once again from the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation. You will recall from my earlier quote that it was speaking about the revelation of God taking place in the unfolding of the history of salvation. It goes on to say: ‘By this revelation the truth, both about God and about the salvation of humankind, inwardly dawns on us in Christ, who is in himself both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation’ (n.2). Even in the Gospels we see the tension that this causes, as when the healing of a leper or the forgiveness of sins raises questions. The religious leaders ask: ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Lk 5:21). The very question tells us the meaning of incarnation, namely that God is revealed not just in a particular historical situation, but most especially in the flesh of Jesus.
The meaning of incarnation becomes even clearer as Jesus approaches his death. The love of God, which is manifest in God’s universal salvific will, is witnessed in the concrete act of Jesus who goes to his death. This is the ultimate revelation of God’s love – a selfless love, which has seen the misery of his people and wants to save them, a love that seeks the good of all creation.
The first Christians very quickly came to recognise that in Jesus they encounter God, and that God has become flesh and lives among them. In the New Testament we see various ways of expressing this. One of the earliest expressions is found in the Pauline letters:
He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominations or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-17, 19-20)
This text affirms the attributes of God that I identified earlier when looking at the texts from the Old Testament. It speaks of God as transcendent, as eternal, as creator, as immanent, and as saviour.
Another expression, but a different one, is found in the Gospel accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus. We are told that the angel Gabriel addresses Mary, who is to be the mother of Jesus and says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’ (Lk 1:35). This child will be like us, but also unlike us. The imagery suggests a child who is both human and divine. Later Christian faith will affirm the uniqueness of Jesus.
The opening chapter of St John’s gospel takes this to an even deeper level. Echoing the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, it speaks about the beginning: ‘In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things came into being with him, and without him not one thing came into being’ (Jn 1:1-3). As we hear these words we are hearing nothing that is at odds with those attributes of God that we identified from the Old Testament. But St John goes on to write: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14).
It is important to note that for Christian faith this declaration does not contradict the oneness of God. In fact it is consistent with what I have said often this evening, that God is revealed in his word and his deeds. We need to consider the logic of this. Perhaps an analogy will help: the words I am speaking here and now do not have being or existence apart from me. Similarly, the Word of God does not have a separate being from God. As Christians reflected on God and the nature of God in the centuries after the resurrection of Jesus they eventually found a way to express this in a formulation that is now used in our Creed or Profession of Faith – a profession that is used each week in our worship. They spoke of Jesus as ‘of one being with the Father’. There were also other images to convey the unity of God, for example, ‘light from light’.
The Trinity
You will notice now that I have begun to use images to speak of God. There is nothing new in this – indeed, the burning bush was an image to speak about God. This practice reminds us that any language we use about God is limited. Christian theology has tended to use analogy when speaking about God. I raise this point now because it will help us approach the next thing I must speak about, namely that God is a Trinity. This is very important for our discussion of the attributes of God. In the first place, nothing we say about the Trinity should contradict these attributes. But secondly, Christian reflection on the Trinity should also help us to be even more precise about the attributes of God.
Up to this point I have spoken about God, and have noted that Jesus referred to God as Father. I have also identified Jesus as the Word of God, one in being with the Father. I have only made passing reference to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. There was one reference in the infancy narrative, where the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived. Our Creed puts it this way: ‘Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’. But later in the gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. If we had time we could look more closely at the Old Testament and identify the breath of God, the Spirit of God, who comes to renew the earth.
But let me return to the idea of analogy, for that is the way that Christian theology has tried to comprehend the mystery of God. A very early analogy was to speak of the Son as the Word of God and the Spirit as the breath of God. St Augustine, in the fifth century, used a couple of analogies.[2] One was the analogy of mutual love. Various thinkers over the centuries have developed this. A fairly mature expression of it is found in the twelfth century theologian, Richard of St Victor. The analogy goes like this. God is the fullness and perfection of all goodness. Because charity or love is the perfection of all goodness, God must possess charity to the highest degree. Now charity, by its very nature, involves another. In other words, the greatest charity is the self-transcending love for another. Therefore, within the Godhead there must be self-transcending love for another co-equal person. Furthermore, because mutual love, if it is to be perfect, must be shared, the lover and the beloved share their love. Now, with this analogy we have the Father and the Son understood as the lover and the beloved, and the Holy Spirit as the fruit of their love. The distinction of persons only exists within the Godhead while the unity of God is maintained.
The second type of analogy, again going back to Augustine, is called the psychological analogy, because it is based on the process of human knowing and loving. This analogy was also developed in subsequent centuries and reached a high degree of maturity in St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. His starting point is that God is Esse or pure ‘Being’. He argues that in God, to be, to know and to love perfectly coincide. Within God, the act of self-understanding (or knowing) issues in the Verbum or what I have referred to earlier as the logos. Further, the intellect delights in its understanding. This delight or joy, is expressed as love – God’s self-love. This is the Holy Spirit.
Now, I appreciate that I have presented this in a very summary form, and rather quickly. It is necessary to mention it, however, because Christians believe that God is a Trinity. This belief can be misunderstood in a variety of ways, including, quite dangerously, as tri-theism. I hope that the analogies I have just presented indicate, in the first place, that the understanding of God as Trinity continues to affirm the oneness of God. Secondly, I want to make a further claim, and it is that a proper understanding of the Trinity safeguards the attributes of God.
Safeguarding the attributes of God
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity intends to safeguard both the transcendence and the immanence of God.[3] In those cases where the divine immanence is denied – and this would include both the denial of the Incarnation or a misunderstanding of it – God ends up being remote and distant. The classic expression of this is what is referred to as Deism.
In other instances, where the transcendence of God is denied, God ends up being either just one being among others, or else an impersonal force. You either end up with a creature who is not God, or you end up with a notional god, sometimes referred to as the ‘god of the gaps’. In other words, when there is no other answer to the mysteries of the created order, you appeal to a notion of god.
In other forms of the denial of the transcendence of God you end up with pantheism, where the whole created order is identified with God. This, too denies the attribute of God as Creator, and thus distinct from creation. The Incarnation, properly understood, will guard against this.
Let me conclude by saying that I don’t think we should pretend that the Christian doctrine of God is always easy to comprehend. The attributes of God are like a series of checks and balances. There is always one attribute that needs to be balanced with another. The task of theologians is to study these and to find ways of speaking about God that respects them. We should note, however, that even before there is theological language to speak about God, people use the language of worship to pray to God. In an almost instinctive way the prayer of the Christian people respects the various attributes of God. In a real sense their religious experience and their faith in God coincide.
Ultimately, of course, we all stand humbly before the mystery of God. Let me finish with the words of St Paul:
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33-36)

This is the text of a presentation made at St Patrick’s Cathedral Parish Hall, at the invitation of Bishop Kevin Manning, as part of a dialogue between Christian and Muslim friends, on 26 April 2007.
[1] English translation from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, edited by Norman P. Tanner (London: Washington: Sheed & Ward/Georgetown University Press, 1990), vol II.
[2] For this discussion on analogy in Richard of St Victor and Thomas Aquinas I am relying on Anne Hunt, Trinity (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005), 17-26.
[3] In this discussion on misunderstandings of God I am relying on John H. Wright, “God” in The New Dictionary of Theology, Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins & Dermot Lane, eds (Wilmington: Glazier, 1988), 430.

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