Tuesday, September 21, 2010

God's Attributes--part2

God’s attributes get classified in a lot of different ways. I suppose it is inherent to human nature to lump things together (remember Jr. High biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species…?). Maybe it’s a way to enhance our memory. Ultimately, I find these classifications unhelpful and unnecessary. But more about that later.

I wish I knew who started this classification business. Books about God’s attributes almost universally skip over the development of the thought and classifications which I would find fascinating. So maybe I’ll write a book on it myself.

Somehow over the course of time, different folks starting using different terms. I have neither an accurate nor exhaustive understanding of which terms and systems came first and which ones were a later nuance of an older system. Most systems use only two categories. My guess is that the oldest classification system is the one preferred in the Reformed tradition which refers to God’s attributes as either “communicable” or “incommunicable.” We can find it in the Belgic Confession of 1561. In Article 8 we read of the Trinity’s “incommunicable properties”.

While those are lofty terms, they have a rather simple meaning. A “communicable” attribute is one that God has “communed” or “communicated” or given to man; whereas an “incommunicable” attribute is one he has not. Common examples are that God’s omniscience (all-knowing) is an “incommunicable” attribute since humans are not all-knowing; and that God’s mercy is a “communicable” attribute since most humans show mercy (to some degree).

Other systems use different terms to describe basically the same thing: namely there are some attributes of God that only He possesses and there are other attributes of God that humans share. Those systems use the following terms: Transient/Intransient; Transitive/Intransitive; Moral/Non-moral; Transferable/Not Transferable.

Donald Macleod, in his book Behold Your God, observes that,
None of these [classifications] has much to commend it and certainly none is to be regarded as authoritative. Scripture nowhere attempts a classification... All the suggested classifications are artificial and misleading, not least that which has been most favoured by Reformed theologians - the division into communicable and incommunicable attributes. The problem here is that these qualities we refer to as incommunicable adhere unalterably to those we refer to as communicable. For example, God is "infinite, eternal and unchangeable" (The Shorter Catechism, Answer 4) and these are deemed to be incommunicable properties: and God is merciful, which is deemed to be a communicable property. But the mercy itself is "infinite, eternal and unchangeable" and as such is incommunicable. The same is true of all the other so-called communicable attributes such as the love, righteousness and faithfulness of God. One the other hand, to speak of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence as incommunicable is equally unsatisfactory. If we remove the prefix omni we are left simply with power, knowledge and presence, all of which have analogies in our own human existence. (p. 20-21)

I agree. Just because certain words get that wonderful little prefix “omni” doesn’t mean that we should negate that God’s other attributes are possessed by Him in perfect form. While God’s “omni-love” or “omni-forgiveness” sound awkward, we must remember that while we share with God a certain quality, He always possesses it in perfection, humans in imperfection. So, every attribute is transferred by God to His creatures in some fashion. Some we can enhance (mercy, love, forgiveness, for instance); others we cannot (eternality, for example).
Other systems use:
Theological/Biblical: words not found in the Bible versus those words that are found in the Bible

Positive/Negative: the positive being those which ascribe perfections to God, and the negative those which deny imperfections.

Essential/Dynamic: essential attributes relate to God’s being—who He is; dynamic refers to what He does (sometimes called Absolute/Relative).

Categories: Metaphysically (Self-Existent, Eternal, Immutable); Intellectually (Omniscient, Faithful, Wise); Ethically (Holy, Righteous, Loving); Emotionally (Jealous; Patient; Compassionate); Existentially (Free; Omnipotent); Relationally (Transcendent; Immanent).

All of these systems ultimately aren’t too helpful. A few trips on the Bible bus and you’ll get a pretty good handle on terms that come right out of the Bible itself and those that come out of a theology book. And, with just a little background in language, one quickly understands words that are defined either positively or negatively.

What ultimately matters is that we know God. To know Him we must study the Bible—the record of His own self-revelation. AW Pink, in his work The Attributes of God, says it well:
“A spiritual and saving knowledge of God is the greatest need of every human creature. The foundation of all true knowledge of God must be a clear mental apprehension of His perfections as revealed in Holy Scripture. An unknown God can neither be trusted, served, nor worshipped.

It is my hope that you know God in a personal way. Not in the abstract. He is not a philosophical contemplation. He is “the God of all flesh” and He is to be known, worshipped and obeyed. Studying His attributes is the best way at doing this.

List of Attributes
(not exhaustive)

The Omnipotence of God
The Omniscience of God
The Omnipresence of God
The Simplicity of God
The Transcendence of God
The Aseity of God
The Condescension of God
The Wisdom of God
The Eternality of God
The Greatness of God
The Unity of God
The Personality of God
The Veracity of God
The Sovereignty of God
The Wisdom of God
The Incomprehensibility of God
The Infinitude of God
The Impassibility of God
The Invisibility of God
The Immanence of God
The Immutability of God
The Immortality of God
The Love of God
The Goodness of God
The Grace of God
The Mercy of God
The Compassion of God
The Patience of God
The Faithfulness of God
The Forgiveness of God
The Joy of God
The Holiness of God
The Righteousness of God
The Wrath of God
The Vengeance of God
The Jealousy of God
The Justice of God

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Attributes of God

This past Sunday I started teaching on the attributes of God. “Attributes” are simply characteristics or qualities of God. Try describing your spouse or parent or child or dear friend to someone. You’ll use words that are descriptive of their qualities—they are kind (or grumpy); generous (or stingy); loving and sweet; giving and selfless; etc. These are that person’s attributes.

The word “attributes” is a theological word. That is, you are not going to find it in a chapter and verse of the Bible. It’s like the word “trinity” or “rapture”. The word itself cannot be found in the Bible, but the concept can.

About the closest place in the Bible of using the word “attribute” is in I Peter 2:9 “that ye should show forth the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (KJV). The greek word is ἀρετή and is rendered “virtues” or “excellencies” in other translations. I prefer that word “excellencies”. “Praises” has other connotations and seems to obfuscate that 1 Peter 2:9 is teaching the church to show or declare the attributes of God.

I haven’t tracked down the first usage of the word attribute, mostly do to a lack of time rather than interest. So if any of you have a bit of extra time on your hands, I’d appreciate the research help. I found it coincidently used by John Bunyan, author of the great The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Near the end of his Bedford Jail incarceration, Bunyan composed A Confession of My Faith, and a Reason of My practice, published in 1672. In it he extols some of God’s attributes:
I believe, that this God is almighty, eternal, invisible, incomprehensible, &c, ‘I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect’ (Gen. 17:1). ‘The eternal God is thy refuge’ (Deut. 33:27). ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever’ (I Tim. 1:17; Job 11:7; Rom. 11:33).
I believe, that this God is unspeakably perfect in all his attributes of power, wisdom, justice, truth, holiness, mercy, love, &c. His power is said to be eternal (Rom. 1:20), his understanding and wisdom infinite (Ps. 147:5). He is called the just Lord in opposition to all things (Zeph. 3:5). He is said to be truth itself and the God thereof (II Thess. 2:10; Deut. 32:4). There is none holy as the Lord. ‘God is love.’ ‘Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?’ (Job 11:7).
John Owen, the Congregationalist, defines attributes as “His infinite perfections in being and working (Rev. 4:8‐11).” More specifically they are his, “goodness (Ps. 119:68; Matt. 19:17), power (Exod. 15:11; Ps. 62:11; Rev.19:1), justice (Ps. 11:7; Zeph. 3:5; Jer. 12:1; Rom. 1:32), mercy (Ps. 130:7; Rom. 9:15; Eph. 2:4), holiness (Exod. 15:11; Josh. 24:19; Hab. 1:13; Rev. 4:8), wisdom (Rom.11:33, 16:27), and the like; which he delighteth to exercise towards His creatures, for the praise of his glory.”

James P. Boyce, the Baptist, in his Abstract of Systematic Theology, writes the attributes of God are, “those peculiarities which mark or define the mode of his existence, or which constitute his character.”

Robert L. Dabney, the Presbyterian, defines them as “those permanent, or essential, qualities of His nature, which He has made known to us in His Word. . . . They are traits qualifying His nature always, and making it the nature it is.”

Well, I have a lot more to say about God’s attributes. In fact, I’ll be saying those things every Sunday morning at my local church for the next three months.

Which of God’s attributes are you benefitting from at this phase of your life? Give Him thanks today for who He is!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Belated Labor Day Meditation and the Parable of the Two Sons Part 2

It’s interesting that there is still another aspect of Jesus parable in Matthew 21:28-32. While the parable is about salvation (read this earlier post) and about who ultimately has changed their thoughts and their ways about honoring the Father, you still cannot help but get an understanding that Jesus wants children of the Father working.

In the parables, not everything Jesus talks about has a meaning. Some might wonder what the ‘vineyard’ is, and I can even imagine some former tea-totaling modern Baptists grasping even here for a Bible passage that smiles upon their sinful use of alcohol (would you believe I know a Baptist deacon raising a vineyard for wine production? Okay, way off point I know…maybe I’ll opine at another time). The vineyard has no secret meaning in the parable—it’s just the context in which Jesus tells His story.

But there is a side-point to this parable—that God’s children are actively involved in God’s work. It’s timely because we Americans just celebrated Labor Day. God’s children need to labor. Remember the old hymn:
Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care;
Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Or how about the really old hymn (from my grandparents generation):
O land of rest, for thee I sigh! When will the moment come
When I shall lay my armor by And dwell in peace at home?
We’ll work till Jesus comes, We’ll work till Jesus comes,
We’ll work till Jesus comes, And we’ll be gathered home.

The first thought is that there is work to do and the second thought is that this work is God’s work. We modern Christians are busy, feverishly active in doing things, so few need help embrace the first thought. To be sure, there are a few lazy, slothful, passive Christians who are doing nothing while waiting for the trumpet blast to call us home. If you find yourself in that group, give some thought to this point.

But most need help embracing that the work we are doing must be God’s work. The question of our age is: is what we are engaged in the King’s business (or to use the imagery of our parable—the Father’s business)?

James Montgomery Boice puts it this way:

“That is an especially important word to our generation, for many today are working—it is an age of work, an age of sometimes feverish activity—but most of what is done is not for God. It is work in our vineyards, for our profit, the end being our ease and glory. I am convinced that in any normal gathering of contemporary Christians the majority have never done any consistent work for God and are unlikely to do so unless their present understanding of discipleship or their present life-style changes. They do not serve in church offices. They do not teach Bible classes. They do not witness. They do not bring friends or neighbors to church. If the truth be told, they do not even pray or read their Bibles much. Yet they suppose all is well with them and that God is somehow pleased with their nonperformance. They would say that they have no time for those things, being so busy elsewhere.”

Could it be that you are so exhausted doing your own work, you have no time to work for the Father?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Jesus and His Parable of Two Sons

Matthew 21:28-32

28 “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. 30 Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to Him, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.

Is simply “saying” that you are loyal to God enough? Is professing some kind of attachment to God and His kingdom sufficient for holy living? The obvious answer to those who have some understanding of the Bible’s teaching is NO. We need more than talk. We need actions. Allegiance to God is more than about what you say. It’s about what you do. Jesus talks of that many times and he teaches that truth in this parable.

You’ve probably heard about the wife who complained to her husband he wasn’t showing her very much love and affection. He defensively responded that he remembered telling her that he loved her. She responded that in twenty five years of marriage he had only told her one time that he loved her—and that was at the wedding ceremony itself. He responded, “Honey, I told you then I loved you and if it ever changes, I’ll let you know.” He thought words were enough. She needed actions.

Neither of these two sons in Jesus’ parable gave an appropriate response. The first son gave a defiant response: “I will not go!” That’s hardly any way to talk to anyone with whom you have a relationship let alone one’s own father. The key to this son, though, is that later, he repented of his sharp tone and disloyal spirit and he went and did what the father asked.

The second son gave a deceptive response. He said what he thought his father wanted to hear. He gave the words of obedience, but he did not go and do what his father asked.

The essential truth of this parable is that folks who associate with Jesus and profess their devotion to him can be traitors (doing is more important than saying). We don’t hear much of that word any more. It’s also relegated to classic literature and action movies. “Traitors” aka: Benedict Arnolds, spies, haters, infiltrators, dirty scumbags, betrayers, double-crossers, renegades, mutineers, insurgents, deviants, defectors, two-timers, turncoats, and dissidents. Benedict Arnold, Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, Alger Hiss, Aldrich Ames…all synonymous with traitors. People who said one thing, but did another.

The focus of Jesus is on the second son. It was an obvious connection to the religious leaders who were seeking to entrap him. They were the ones who had pledged loyalty and affection to God, but they didn’t show it. They ignored John’s preaching and stubbornly held to only an appearance of righteousness. Open sinners, on the other hand, repented. While they at first lived lives in hostility to God and His claim on their lives, they repented and changed.

Maybe you’re like that child. Defiant, selfish, preoccupied and dishonoring of God. Maybe, you, like this son in Jesus’ story, don’t care at all about what the Father wants. But maybe you are realizing there is more to life than your schedule. Do you know God created you for His purpose, not your own? Do you realize there is forgiveness in Jesus? The good news of the Bible is that you can change. Today! With the power of Jesus, you can start serving God and honoring Him!

Maybe you feel more like the second son. You’ve always given the right answers, but you know that deep in your heart you resent it. You ignore God every chance you get. You do whatever it takes to look good on the outside to please some people in your life, but you don’t love God and you don’t do what He says to do. Could it be that you’re not really His? In an early chapter of Matthew Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord’, ‘Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father in heaven.” Doing God’s will is the best way we can know we love Him. It’s not a perfect test, because some people do the right things but for a wrong reason. Even they can be traitors to God. But it at least starts there. Are you sure you truly love God?