God Who Lives
What is in a Name?
“As God’s essence is hidden and incomprehensible,” Calvin observes, “his name just means his character, so far as he has been pleased to make it known to us.”
1. In what does the importance of the names of God lie?
In this, that God through them draws our attention to the most important attributes of His being. This being is so rich and comprehensive that we need to have some benchmarks in order to understand the rest. God’s names are not empty sounds (like the names of people), but they have meaning and contribute to our knowledge of God.
The name should thus be understood as referring to Yahweh’s being the creator and sustainer of all that exists and thus the Lord of both creation and history, all that is and all that is happening—a God active and present in historical affairs.
On one hand, the revelation of God’s name is a sign of transcendence, measuring the gulf between God’s majesty and the human servant.
On one hand, the revelation of God’s name is a sign of transcendence, measuring the gulf between God’s majesty and the human servant. Misusing God’s name required the death penalty under the old covenant (Ex 20:7; Lev 24:16). Nevertheless, this name is also a sign of God’s immanence, having been given to his people as a pledge of his personal presence, to be invoked in danger and praised at all times.
The point is frequently made that the Lord (Adonai) is our LORD (Yahweh) and vice versa.
The New Testament reveals a similar pattern. As the narratives generate doctrines, the doctrines give rise to doxology and are even expressed in the form of praise, as in 1 Timothy 1:17: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” As spirit (Jn 4:24), God is unavailable to human investigation apart from his own initiative and mediation.
Nevertheless, out of love for his creatures, God condescends to our finite capacity by selecting analogies that are appropriate but nevertheless fall short of his majesty.
As we will see, it is these attributes of the way of negation that are most frequently challenged as a supposedly later corruption of biblical theology by pagan (Greek) metaphysics. However, it is not only later theologians but the apostle Paul as well who use the alpha-privative prefix, referring to God, for example, as immortal (aphthartos) and invisible (aoratos) (1 Ti 1:17; cf. 6:15–16).
As human beings, we are complex and compound creatures. That is, we are made up of various parts. However, God is simple and spiritual. On the one hand, this means that God is not the sum total of his attributes but is simultaneously everything that all of the attributes reveal. On the other hand, each of these attributes identifies a different aspect of God’s existence and character that cannot be reduced to the others. This latter point is especially important, given the tendency of recent critiques to identify this doctrine with an extreme view that denies any real difference between attributes.
God is not the sum total of his attributes but is simultaneously everything that all of the attributes reveal.
One implication is that we cannot rank God’s attributes or make one more essential to God than another. God is love even when he judges; he is holy and righteous even in saving sinners; he is eternal even when he acts in time.
God’s simplicity in no way p 229 limits the diversity evident in his works, but stipulates that in all of God’s activity he is self-consistent. In every act, God is the being that he is and will ever be.
There is no genus of “deity” of which the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a species.
Although we cannot help but talk about his immutability, then his goodness, then his love, we should not imagine that God is composed of these various attributes. Rather, God’s existence is identical with his attributes.
God’s goodness, love, omniscience, and holiness are simply who God is. I would still be human even if I lacked judgment or enterprise, but God would not be God if he did not possess all of his attributes in the simplicity and perfection of his essence.19
Simplicity reminds us that God is never self-conflicted. In God’s eternal decree, even in the most obvious example of possible inner conflict (namely, the cross), justice and mercy, righteous wrath and gracious love, embrace. Just where we would expect to see the greatest inner conflict within God, we read that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Co 5:19). At the place where the outpouring of his wrath is concentrated, so too is his love. Neither overwhelms or cancels out the other. God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26, emphasis added). At the same time, simplicity does not (in the Reformed view, at least) eliminate the difference between attributes. Love, justice, goodness, and other attributes are not mere synonyms but are “conceptually different in God himself.”
God is never free to be not-God. None of his attributes can be suspended, withdrawn, diminished, or altered, since his attributes are identical with his existence.
The denial of this attribute is often motivated by a broader criticism of God’s immutability, impassibility, and eternity, as we will see. It is not surprising that some critics of simplicity go on to deny God’s spirituality. There is but a short step from the denial of at least this minimal affirmation of simplicity to the denial of God’s infinity (i.e., divine transcendence).24
Divine Aseity - Self Existence
Before we speak of God relating freely to creatures and entering into human history as Lord and Redeemer, our starting point is God’s aseity (“from-himself-ness”), or independence from the world. It goes without saying that a dependent deity would be involved with the world. What is remarkable is that the triune God—self-existing, perfect, and independent—would nevertheless create and enter into covenantal relationships with creatures in freedom and love.
Karl Barth properly stressed the point that the God who is God without us has nevertheless determined to be God with us. Freedom from creation is the ground of God’s freedom for creation.
God’s independence from the world is a necessary correlate of his glory
This doctrine has tremendous practical value. If God were not free from creation, we might pray for him, but not to him. We would have no confidence that he could overcome evil or rescue us from death. Yet God’s freedom for creation—even for those who are not only finite but sinful—is the presupposition of our hope in Christ. God does not need time, but he freely enters it; he does not need a house, but he builds one anyway. All of this is for our benefit, out of God’s zeal to dwell together with finite, embodied creatures in covenant. That God freely does this in creation, without any inherent need, is a testimony to his unfathomable goodness. That he continues to do this even in relation to the unfaithful covenant partner is a measure of his unsearchable grace.
Complete and perfect in himself from eternity to eternity, God has no potential that is not already fully realized. God cannot be more infinite, loving, or holy tomorrow than today. If God alone is necessary and independent of all external conditions, fully realized in all of his perfections, then there is literally nothing for God to become.
Thomas Wienandy explains that according to the patristic account, “God is unchangeable not because he is inert or static like a rock, but for just the opposite reason. He is so dynamic, so active that no change can make him more active. He is act pure and simple.”
“According to Socinians, Pelagians, Arminians, and Rationalists, God is changeable not in his being but in his will.” Taking a further step, “Gnosticism and Pantheism (Fichte, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann, etc.)” deny God’s immutability in being, representing God “as eternally becoming.”
This panentheistic paradigm has been revived more recently in various projects ranging from open theism and the work of such creative theologians as Jürgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson to process theology.
Yet the surprising announcement that we meet in the gospel is that the eternal Son became flesh without losing any of his divine transcendence in the process.
All of this is simply to say that God always remains infinite and transcendent even in the finite and immanent forms of his self-revelation.
We do not know what God has p 241 predetermined in his eternal counsels, but we do know that in his conditional promises (for example, to our first parents before the fall and to Israel at Sinai) there are changes in the course of God’s dealings with his people. It is not with respect to God’s being, character, or hidden decrees but with respect to the history in which these decrees are executed that we encounter instances of reversals in God’s revealed plan.
Just as we must resist collapsing the distinction between God’s essence (ousia/dynamis) and his energies (energeia), we must carefully distinguish God’s hidden counsels from his revealed will. In 1 Samuel 15:11, for example, God regrets having made Saul king, and yet in verse 29 we read, “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Neither God’s nature nor his secret plan changes. Rather, it is God’s revealed plans that change. The judgment that he has warned that he will bring on the people is averted—precisely as God had predestined before the ages in his secret counsel. The dynamic give-and-take so obvious in the history of the covenant must be distinguished from the eternal decree that Scripture also declares as hidden in God’s unchanging and inaccessible counsel (Eph 1:4–11).
These are not two contradictory lines of proof texts to be divided up between rival camps. Rather, there are two lines of analogy acting as guardrails to keep us on the right path. There is real change, partnership, and even conflict in covenantal history and therefore between God and human beings, but not within God’s inner being. Just as God can assume our flesh without altering his divine nature, he can relate the world of becoming to himself without surrendering his fully complete and fully active being.
Impassibility means “immunity to suffering.”
Yet with this important distinction, we are able to say that while God’s energies (acts) may sometimes be affected by creaturely action, God’s essence and decree do not change.
On one hand, we must avoid the conclusion that God is untouched or unmoved by creaturely suffering
On the other hand, God is the transcendent Lord of the covenant who is never a passive victim but is always the active judge and justifier.
First, the false choice to be avoided is that either God is related to the world (in the technical sense, as needing the world for his existence) or the world bears no relation to God.
God delights in the work of his hands, in our fellowship with him, in our worship, and in the love and service we render to our neighbor. Yet God needs none of this for his own fulfillment.
Second, it is crucial to bear in mind that impassibility refers to God’s essence rather than to the particular persons who share it.
Third, we must again recognize that God speaks to us in terms adequate to our understanding rather than adequate to his being.
Fourth, a Christian doctrine of God must supplement causal with communicative analogies that are more in keeping with Scripture’s own testimony to God’s performative speech.
Fifth, we must beware of allowing a theology of the cross to become a philosophy of glory.
Although their common essence does not suffer, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit open themselves up to a covenantal relationship with free creatures. Affected by the world, they are not affected in the same way as we are because they are not the kinds of persons that we are.
Eternity and Omnipresence
If we knew exactly what eternity is, we would be eternal—in other words, God. Therefore, it is critical here to remain within the bounds of Scripture: its explicit statements, and legitimate inferences from those statements. God is praised because “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90:2), celebrated because he is “enthroned forever” in his Sabbath glory (Ps 102:12).
Even when God is present in a particular place for us, in peace, he remains omnipresent in his own essence; the same is true of his eternity. The God who is eternal (essentially) is active within time (energetically).