Tag Archives: divine attributes

The Lord is Still Great

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my book, Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Eerdmans). I am pleased and humbled that after 10 years the book is being used in seminaries and colleges more now than ever before—much more. Though modest by some measures the book sold 512 copies in the last 6 months. I assume that most of those were used in seminary classes. I still feel and believe what I wrote 10 years ago in the Preface to that book. Below is a slightly edited version of that Preface:

“From the ocean side slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains on the campus of Pepperdine University I look over the moonlit bay to the giant city of Los Angeles and feel a stab of pain. The word “God” in some language finds a place in the vocabulary of every resident of that city of nations. But do they know what it really means?  I fear that many do not. For, if they did, every street corner would echo with thanksgiving and every courtyard ring with praise. I feel that same stab, if to a lesser extent, when I enter my general studies classes the first day of the semester. I see beautiful, intelligent, and privileged young people and I love them. In that poignant moment I feel the weight of my responsibility: how can I help them see why their joy must come from loving God above all things….

“The great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1217-1274) warned that the deadliest enemies of theology are the pride and curiosity of theologians. The purpose of theology, he urged, is to “become virtuous and attain salvation.” Theologians, he cautioned, should not fool themselves into thinking that “reading is sufficient without unction, speculation without devotion, investigation without wonder, observation without rejoicing, work without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility or endeavor without divine grace” (Itinerarium mentis in Deum). The academic style dominant today leaves little room for a Bonaventure-style theology. And it is not easy to swim against this current…Nonetheless, I believe writing a theology that praises God is worth the risk….

 

The Argument

 

“I shall defend a traditional doctrine of God. I argue not only that the traditional doctrine is not guilty of making God uncaring, aloof, and threatening to human freedom—as some critics claim—but that it actually preserves our confidence in God’s love, intimate presence, and liberating action better than its opponents do. Far from effacing our humanity, the traditional doctrine grounds our dignity and freedom in the center of reality, the Trinitarian life of God. Here is the heart and soul and passion and pain of my book. Whether in praise or blame, make your judgment here.

 

The “Traditional” Doctrine of God

 

“I have already indicated that I shall defend the “traditional” doctrine of God. Perhaps then I should explain briefly what I mean by this term. I mean the teaching about God that was held by almost the whole church from the second to the twentieth century and is still held by most believers: God is Triune, loving, merciful, gracious, patient, wise, one, simple, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, omnipresent, immutable, impassible, and glorious. The church understood these characteristics as Scriptural teachings, not as philosophical theories. They were explained and defended by such fourth-century theologian-bishops as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

 

“They were enshrined in ecumenical creeds and denominational confessions of faith. This doctrine was explained and defended by Augustine of Hippo, who became the theologian to the Western world. It was summarized by the Eastern theologian John of Damascus (c. 675- c.749) in his Orthodox Faith. In the middle ages such theologians as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Bonaventura wrote treatises expounding and defending the traditional divine attributes. It was held by the Protestant Reformers and their descendants in almost all Protestant churches. And it was cherished by Alexander Campbell, leading light in my own tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement.

 

“This doctrine of God went almost unchallenged within church until the eighteenth century and then it was challenged only by a few on the periphery. Only in the twentieth century did it come under wide-spread criticism. Today, even among many evangelical and otherwise conservative writers, rehearsing the shortcomings of the “traditional” or “classical” teaching has become a standard way to introduce one’s own (presumably better) doctrine of God. Unfortunately, many of these writers evidence little real knowledge of the traditional doctrine and offer such a caricature of that teaching that the reader has to wonder how the church’s most saintly and brilliant teachers could have been so deceived for so long.

 

“I wrote this book to correct this caricature and show why the traditional doctrine of God dominated the church’s thinking for so long. My answer is intimated in the title of this book: Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God. I believe the traditional doctrine of God focuses our attention on the unsurpassable greatness of God and urges us praise him according to his infinite worth. I am overjoyed to add my little “Amen” to that great chorus of angels, psalmists, apostles, saints, martyrs, doctors, and teachers, who have said to us through the ages: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise!”

 

Note: You can read the full Preface and look through the Table of Contents on Amazon.com:

 

https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lord-Theology-Praise-God/dp/0802833004/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1534961022&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

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God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals

 

“I believe in a loving God.”

“God loves you.”

“God is love” (1 John 4:8).

“For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).

We hear these words so often that we become hardened to their significance. They no longer strike us as surprising and profound. Voltaire is reported to have said, “God forgives because it’s his business.” We may also grow to take God’s love, mercy, and grace for granted. Or just as bad, we may think we understand God’s love when we have only the most superficial grasp.

We have heard that love is a divine attribute and a divine action. Good. But what does that mean, and how do we know? In fact, it is not at all clear that the concept of God necessarily entails that God loves. The followers of Plato considered the highest reality to be absolutely perfect and self-sufficient. God is “Goodness” itself, but this does not mean that God is actually good to anyone. It means that God is the most perfect object of desire. For Aristotle, God thinks only of the highest reality, that is, his own being. God is “self-thinking Thought.” All beings desire God because they desire perfection, but God desires nothing and takes no thought for the world. In ancient polytheism, a particular god may favor a particular human being, but the conviction that “God is love” seems never to have entered the human imagination before Jesus Christ came into the world. The Old Testament asserts that the one God of Israel alone is God. And God loves Israel and favors some people, such as Abraham and David, above others. Still, the Old Testament does not clearly teach the radical love of God the way it is taught in the New Testament.

Unless we give serious thought to the New Testament teaching on divine love we tend to think of God’s love in too close analogy to human love. Let’s think about the differences. (1) God’s love is not an emotion in the way we experience emotion. Our emotions are moved by the characteristics or situation of object toward which we act. God’s love is God own being and is always active, constant, and perfect. God always loves in every act because God is love. And God does what God is. (2) That God loves means that God wills the perfect good for himself and his creation. Indeed, God himself is the perfect good that he wills for himself and creation. Hence the aim of God’s love is to give himself to the object of his love. When we love, we also will something good for the object of our love. But our love is not guided by perfect understanding of what the highest good is for the person we love. Nor do we know the perfect means of attaining that good or have the power to give that good to others. Our love can be blinded by our short-sighted desires or by the momentary feelings of the one we love. But God knows the highest good for everyone and the perfect way of attaining it for each; and God will not be distracted from that aim by his needs or by our misguided desires. The Christian teaching that God is love and loves us does not imply that God will “go soft” on us. God is not indulgent; nor does he exercise a false compassion that concerns itself only with relief of immediate distress but neglects our highest good. As Augustine says in his Confessions, God exercises a “severe mercy” in bringing us to him, our highest good. We could also speak of it as a “merciless love.”

(3) God does not love us as individuals, that is, as isolated individuals. Shocking? Perhaps so, but the reason we are shocked by this is that God’s love is often sentimentalized, sweetened, and personalized to meet our own preferences. God wills, as I said above, our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good [perfect fellowship with God] only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all.

To be continued…

As you may have noticed, I asserted the thoughts in this essay without much proof. If you are interested in hearing more evidence for them, see my book, Great is the Lord, pp. 164-221.