14 July 2005

God Is What His Attributes Are

One of the most profound statements to come from the mouth of Dr. Rolland McCune is the proposition that "God is what his attributes are."

In this statement there are a number of implications for God's unity, aseity, knowability, incomprehensibility, and other areas of theology proper. However, I want to key in on what this proposition implies about the attributes of God.

As McCune points out, especially with respect to apologetics, the attributes of God are not human rubrics which we use to catalog and categorize our understanding of God. Humans do not by observation of God arrive at an abstract concept which constitutes a divine attribute.

The reason that this construction does not work might become clear through an illustration: Sally Mae comes to faith in Christ. She knows that God loves her because God saved her. Now say Sally Mae meets Richard, a particularly nitpicky and nasal unbeliever. She tells him of God's love for her, but he asks, in his annoyingly arrogant way: "How do you know that your salvation means God loves you?" She might say, "It is certainly not hateful for God to save me."
In which case he could opine, being completely obtuse, "I think that's exactly what it is. I mean, I liked you a whole bunch before you became so goody-goody. I think you have a lot less fun this way. You're missing the best part of your life; you're throwing your youth away for some crazy who lived two thousands of years ago. I think God's coming into your life and messing everything up is just plain hatred."
Then she might say, "Well it is rather like the way my parents treated me. I mean I know I wanted to do some things, but they--" but then she might catch herself and think of how the analogy would fail at so many points.
Sally Mae is beginning to realize her problem. She was assuming a definition of love which her jerk-of-a-friend Richard was unwilling to allow as a given in their conversation.

Pausing the story for a moment, I hope it has become clear why God's attributes must not be the inductive results of observation of God's actions. If definitions of God's attributes are left absolutely to human observers, then the definitions will become as different as the observers. If the human mind is the precondition for knowledge, knowledge is impossible because there is no guarantee that all human minds will be the same.

So instead, Dr. McCune says, "God is what his attributes are." To apply the proposition to our story, “God is what love is.” God is the only adequate and accurate definition of love. There may be many ideas of what love is, but only one idea is the correct one: God. Any idea which falls short of this Personal Absolute standard is either dead wrong or right only in an analogous way (more about that in a future entry). Only to the extent we know him do we know what real love is.

This is not to say that we do not know God by what he does. Priority is what I am getting at. God's actions are the divine manifestations of his attributes. God's attributes are not the human abstractions of his actions.

So returning to our story:
Sally Mae repeats, "'Just plain hatred,' huh?" With a wry, but humble smile, Sally Mae asks, "How do you know it's hatred?"
Richard furrows his brow, "I just said--because your life is a wreck now."
She responds, "Well, how do you know wrecking my life is hatred?"
Now on the defensive, Richard uses his nasal-spray and clears his throat, "Um...well, it just seems like a mean, hateful thing to do."
At this point Sally Mae shows Richard that it is not a healthy thing to think that you can just make up what "love" and "hate" are. She can remind him how little his girlfriend would appreciate it if he got to define what love is. She can tenderly show him how silly it is to call people bad names without even knowing what the names mean. She can "gently instruct" him about how the definition of love and hatred may be found in God and "hope that God will grant him repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth."

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