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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Thursday, 9 April 2009

"God is X but he is also Y" (a plea for integration in theology)

I must confess that my warning bells go off when I hear people say, "Well God is x but he is also y." Here's a few examples.

"Well, God is loving, but he is also holy"
"Well, God is merciful, but he is also just."
"Well God is immanent, but he is also transcendant."

Such talk is not without merit – its goal is the very worthy one of balancing theology so that we embrace more of the fullness of divine revelation rather than picking parts and dropping other parts (God is nice and loving so he would not hurt a fly).

Such talk is also predicated on the intuitively correct belief that the qualities of love and holiness, or mercy and justice, or transcendance and immanence (etc) are not the same as each other. (Of course, according to the classical notion of divine simplicity all of God’s properties were identical with each other and with God’s existence. I have not the confidence to write off the classical doctrine of divine simplicity as wrong but it certainly has some mammoth hurdles to jump to convince people of its truth. I’m open to persuasion but I think that God’s love is not the same thing as God’s justice, say.)

Nevertheless, my worry with all these “x but also y” reminders is that they feel like the speaker’s doctrine of God lacks integration. It sounds like, “sometimes God is x and but sometimes he is also y”. Or perhaps like, “God is x with some people but y with others.”

For instance, what does it mean to say that “God is loving but he is also holy.” Does it mean, “God is sometimes loving, but he is also sometimes holy”? Does it mean “God loves some people but he is holy with others?”

What does it mean to say that “God is loving but he is also just”? Does it mean that God is sometimes loving but that at other times he is just? Does it mean that he is loving to some people but just towards others?

I write the above as if everyone will say, “Of course it does not mean those false things!” but I have to be honest and say that in the contexts in which I hear such sentences as “God is loving but he is also holy/just” used, they regularly seem to mean precisely such questionable things to the speakers. They seem to be saying, "Sure God is loving, BUT ..." Hence my alarm bells.

And perhaps here is where the right instinct that motivated the classical doctrine of divine simplicity might lie: the integrity of God. I want to say that all God’s actions are loving, are holy, are just. His love is a holy love, a just love. Similarly, his justice is holy and loving. He treats all people with justice and with love. And his mercy is not unjust nor does it trample justice.

And the God who is immanent within creation is the transcendant God who is transcendant in his very indwelling and closeness to his world.

It may be that I am shooting my mouth off without thinking through the implications of this idea adequately (and I certainly do not wish to dissolve all tensions in our doctrine of God), but I do think that we need to seek to integrate our view of God better. I want to embrace a theology according to which God is unfailingly just, impeccably holy, unremittingly loving and whose nature it is always to have mercy.

10 comments:

Terry J. Wright said...

Steve Holmes or John Colwell could comment wisely on all this, Robin...

David Reimer said...

I can't comment on this wisely, but two things come to mind:

1. My concern is with the adversative, not the conjunction. In other words, "God is x AND y" sets off no bells, while "God is x BUT y" certainly does. I think this is the drift of your post anyway. :)

2. It reminds me of a fairly wonderful (and, I think, well known) Jonathan Edwards sermon: "The Excellency of Christ". (If that link doesn't work, it's in vol. 19 of the Yale OnLine edition, Sermons and Discourses, 1734-1738, or at CCEL.) The sermon is built around a reflection on:

"an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ. Which appears in three things: first, there is a conjunction of such excellencies in Christ, as, in our manner of conceiving, are very diverse one from another; second, there is in him a conjunction of such really diverse excellencies, as otherwise would have seemed to us utterly incompatible in the same subject; third, such diverse excellencies are exercised in him towards men, that otherwise would have seemed impossible to be exercised towards the same object."

Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. AND, not BUT. :)

Mike Higton said...

Surely God's love and justice are identical. What is God's justice other than the fact that God loves everyone equally?

In just the same way, God's love is, surely, simply identical to God's wrath. What is God's wrath if it isn't God's implacable hatred of anything that stands in the way of the love that God has for God's creatures?

Or do you think I am missing something?

Robin Parry said...

Terry - Thanks. I have no doubt that both would have far more interesting things to say on the topic than I do. I like that both of them have respect for the classical tradition which takes simplicity seriously.

Robin Parry said...

David

Thanks - I too want to say YES to 'and', NO to 'but'. That is a helpful way of putting it.

I am impressed that you read Jonathan Edwards sermons! What a fascinating theologian he was! (which is not to say that I agree with him on everything)

Robin Parry said...

Mike

I think that we might well agree but I would not phrase things in quite the way that you do.

Take wrath.

I think that it would be wrong to say that divine wrath is IDENTICAL WITH divine love because the two are not simply interchangeable.

For instance, God loves Israel and blesses with good harvests. This is an act of divine love but not divine wrath. You could not exchange all the instances of divine love in the Bible and insert the word 'love' for 'wrath'. So I would not feel happy to say that divine wrath is identical with divine love.

However, I do think that divine wrath is - I am searching for the word here - one way in which divine love manifests itself in certain circumstances. God's love for Israel will sometimes manifest itself as a wrath.

Wrath is perhaps a mode of God's just-love.

The same with love and justice. I think that 'love' and 'justice' pick out different aspects of the same divine acts. But just because the same act might be seen as love in action and as justice in action it does not follow that the concepts of 'love' and 'justice' are identical or interchangeable.

I don't think that we have any substantial disagreement but I just don't feel comfortable putting things in quite the way that you do.

David Reimer said...

@Robin - I thought everybody read Edwards? :P

Btw, as I reflected on your post, the antepenultimate and penultimate paragraphs began to resonate strongly in memory with Hendrikus Berkhof's treatment of "divine attributes" in his systematic theology, Christian Faith (worth clicking on the Table of Contents there!).

Berkhof accepts that God "appears in revelation in a dual way", which he tries to capture in its broadest terms as "transcendence" and "condescendence" (pp. 114-5):

"In the Bible this two-sidedness occurs regularly, but rarely if ever as an intellectual problem, and almost always in such a way that the distinction between the two aspects remains entirely in the shadow of the unity which both have in the one essence and the one act of God" (115).

Then the treatment of "attributes" proceeds under three headings: "holy love", "defenseless superior power", and "changeable faithfulness".

...which sounds a lot like your antepenultimate and penultimate paragraphs!

James Pate said...

Good post--I often think evangelicals present God as someone with a split-personality. For example, many say God's justice was satisfied on the cross. Okay, so is God not just in his relationship with Christians?

One question I have is your view on hell. Is God loving towards those who are there? You mention God's wrath when it is correction, and I can see that being loving. But what about hell, where God's wrath is punishment, not correction (unless one's a universalist)?

Robin Parry said...

David

From Edwards to Berkhof! Your Reformed credentials are impeccable (apart from the occasional tip of the hat to Open Theism :-))

Thanks for that

Robin

Robin Parry said...

James

I think that one would need some account of Hell that saw Hell as a manifestation of divine wrath (which was a mode of divine love).

It is not obvious that this need entail universalism. If memorty serves me right Eleanor Stump defends a Thomist view of Hell which sees it as an mode of divine mercy even though those there cannot be redeemed.

I am not suggesting that Stump is correct but simply pointing out that the move from Hell-as-motivated-by-divine-love to universalism is a jump that is not necessarily a required one.

(All that said I do think that universalism is a serious theological position that falls within Christian orthodoxy [even if at the fringes of it]. It deserves consideration even if we choose to reject it in the end)