When the Fathers of the church sought to refute the twin perils of heresy and paganism, they drew on many of the arguments of the philosophers, especially Plato’s moral critique of the gods in his Republic. It was not only the moral criticisms that were influential, but also the concepts in which the critique was couched. In answer to poetic anthropomorphism, which made the gods subject to the passions of lust and revenge, God was described in increasingly negative terms, and, despite the protest of some theologians against the tendency, these came to prevail. The structure of the doctrine of God was, and often is, provided by a list of concepts such as those found in John of Damascus: “without beginning, without end, eternal and everlasting, uncreated, unchangeable, invariable, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, infinite, incognisable, indefinable, incomprehensible…” (De Fid. Orth. 1.2).
It may be necessary to say some of these things, but the development exacted too high a price. Central among the results was a marginalization of the OT, a marginalization which is indicated in a tendency in, for example, Clement of Alexandria, to say that Greek philosophy performs for the gentiles the function performed by the OT for the Jews (Stromata 1.5). This means that divine attributes central to the biblical account of God cease to shape the doctrine of God in much of the Christian tradition. In the OT, for example, the divine attributes are presented narratively. From the outset of the treatment in Genesis of creation, fall, and their aftermath, there is a stress on God’s sovereignty (in creative action), mercy, providence, and love, while his holiness dominates parts of Leviticus and his redemptive justice the prophecies of Second Isaiah. It is important to note, also, that the OT is as anxious to reject the gods of the pagans as is Greek philosophy, but it does so in a different way, by celebrating the divine action which reveals that God is entirely different from the gods of the gentiles.
The account of the divine attributes in some of the most influential theologians of the tradition omit those that appear to be biblically the most important. Holiness does not appear in the crucial opening questions of Aquinas’ Summa, while his treatment of love is summary and scarcely moves out of philosophy. The Reformers begin to change the emphasis, and there is a wonderful celebration of the need to speak positively rather than negatively of God in Luther’s “On the Bondage of the Will.” Calvin, however, is more cautious, and in the tradition of Reformed dogmatics after him there is a return to a priori philosophizing. Significant here, however, is the fact that their biblical orientation compels the writers to pay more attention to biblical concepts like holiness and spirit. Yet there is a deep rift to be seen, so that they sometimes appear to be operating in two worlds, and find it difficult to avoid defining concepts like “spirit” negatively rather than in the light of biblical revelation.
In trinitarian perspective this simply will not do, as Barth has already shown in his wonderful treatment of the divine attributes in Church Dogmatics (2/1, ch. 6). In that extended treatment of the doctrine of God, Barth places two biblical concepts, love and freedom, at the head of the discussion, and shapes his treatment in their light. He will not, for example, allow abstract definitions of omnipotence—that God can do anything but will a contradiction—to determine his treatment, but defines it through the cross of Jesus, where we see God’s omnipotence at work. It is important for him that God is not defined as sheer power but as the one whose power operates through love. For Barth, “love” and “freedom” are determined trinitarianly, from the structure of revelation. As Son, God is revealed as essentially love. But this is not an automatic love, as if God were bound to love us; it is love freely given. God’s freedom is the freedom of uncompelled self-giving, and shows that God is Father as well as Son. That is to say, the pairing of love and freedom which shapes Barth’s doctrine of God is derived from the dialectical relation of Son and Father in trinitarian revelation.
However, God the Spirit does not play a particularly prominent role in the shaping of things, and if we are to develop a truly trinitarian account we must return to the roots of biblical revelation and examine two central divine attributes as they are presented in the Johannine literature. The first: “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). A deep-seated tendency is to discover the meaning of this abstractly, by reflection on the claim that God is not material. There is no need to deny that this is indeed the case, but it is not the whole of it. That God is spirit, generally, does not mean simply that he is not material but that he is able to encompass both what we call spirit and what we call matter. To be spirit, as God is, is to be able to cross the boundary between creator and creature, even to the extent of God the Son’s becoming identical with Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Spirit. In Scripture, God’s being spirit appears to refer to the capacity of the creator to cross ontological boundaries: to interact with and become part of that which he is not. It is to do with creative and redemptive power.
How is this to be understood trinitarianly? “In spirit and in truth” means in the Holy Spirit and in him who is, according to this Gospel, the truth, Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. God’s being spirit is God self-defined in this particular free self-identification with part of the created order for the sake of the remainder of it. The specification of God’s difference from the world—that God is entirely Spirit—can be understood only in the light of God’s free relation to the world.
The second Johannine definition of God is “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The context is the author’s elaboration of the love of the Christian community and his claim that there is a close relation between knowledge of God and love of the neighbor, and then also between those and a knowledge of who God is. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” This love is clearly something that God is, in himself, so that to be known it had to be revealed in the world, to move outside itself into relation with another. The implication of v. 12 (“No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us…”) is that we know God even though no one has ever seen him, and we must here refer also to John 1:18: “no one has ever seen God… his only Son has made him known.” The important point for us is that John’s theology of the economy of love — for it is that with which he is concerned — is grounded in a conception of God’s being as love. The love that God is is realized in time (1) christologically (vv. 9, 14) and (2) pneumatologically (vv. 2, 13). That God is love (eternally) is demonstrated by the threefold shape of his loving agency (in time).
We may now take a crucial step that will lead us into other aspects of the doctrine of the divine attributes. The fact that this love takes the form of God’s sending his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins (v 10) shows us the form that this love takes. Here we are well advised to prefer Forsyth’s stress on the holiness of this love to that of Barth on its freedom. God’s love is indeed free, but its holiness encompasses far more adequately the shape of the love as involving the overcoming of the sin that brings men and women into enmity with God. Charnock’s magnificent expression of this makes the point: “Without it [holiness], his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtlety. It is this gives a decorum to all…. In acts of man’s vindictive justice there is something of impurity, perturbation, passion, some mixture of cruelty; but none of these fall upon God in the severest acts of wrath” (The Existence and Attributes of God [vol. 2; Baker, 2000] 113-14).
In the holiness of God are encompassed a range of concepts that spell out the kind of God with whom we are to do: otherness from the world as its creator, purity as its redeemer and judge, and so on. If we focus our attention on the christological dimensions, we shall say with Forsyth that God’s holy love is demonstrated on the cross, which marks the center of God’s rejection of sin and redemption of the sinner. Because God is holy, his action encompasses both of these apparent contraries. Pneumatologically speaking, there are things to add. The Spirit is the one who makes holy. This means that by bringing the sinner to the Father through the ascended Christ the Spirit perfects by making holy that which had unfitted itself to come into God’s presence. The Spirit’s work is the eschatological work of perfecting through the redemption won by Christ that which was created and fell from its proper being. It is this connection with perfecting that above all characterizes the holiness of the Spirit.
How then do we link these definitions of God? God is holy love because he is spirit in a quite definite way. The need here is to avoid the Western tendency to conceive the Spirit as the one who closes the circle of the divine love, replacing it with an orientation outwards, so that corresponding to the Spirit’s constitution of the otherness in relation of the Father and Son in the eternal Trinity is an orientation to the other which is the created world. The Spirit is indeed the one who completes God’s being as eternally holy love-in-relation. And yet God’s inner self-sufficiency—his aseity, that he has his being in and from himself—is not a denial of his movement outwards, but its basis. The Son, we might say, is the principle of the Father’s movement into relation with the other, the Spirit its motive power.
The doctrine of the Trinity thus makes all the difference. It gives us two complementary and utterly necessary outcomes: an account of God’s utter self-sufficiency and his gracious orientation outwards, so that creator and creation are not opposites, as so often seems to be the outcome of the traditional “negative way,” but two realms which are positively related, and only become opposites by the sin and evil which set themselves in opposition to God’s goodness.
[Adapted by the author from his book, Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes (SCM, 2003).]