Why I Am A Universalist, § 4: The Doctrine of God, Part 3: The Attributes of God (Section I)

Section I: God’s complexity and simplicity as the “one who loves in freedom”

The attributes ascribed to God have no other function than to give expression as precisely as possible to the God who is love. (E. Jüngel, “Theses,” thesis 5.4.2)
The subject of God’s attributes, or perfections, will not receive the close attention that it would otherwise deserve in an actual systematic theology. As a complementary addition to the quote from Jüngel, I begin with Barth’s great thesis that “God is the one who loves in freedom.” Barth’s definition of God’s being is significant in that it simultaneously affirms God’s sovereignty and freedom—what Jüngel calls God’s non-necessity—and God’s personal being as Love. God is a personal being who is free to act according to the divine self-positing will. God’s revelation is self-revelation and God’s being is self-determined being. God is who God wills to be. God is thus complex in “the inexhaustible riches of his attributes” (Jüngel), the plurality of facets of God’s being; but God is simultaneously simple as the one God in whom all the perfections of God’s being cohere in a mysterious unity.
This unity and this distinction corresponds to the unity and distinction in God’s own being between His love and His freedom. God loves us. And because we can trust His revelation as the revelation of His own being He is in Himself the One who loves. As such He is completely knowable to us. But He loves us in His freedom. And because here too we can trust His revelation as a self-revelation, He is in Himself sovereignly free. He is therefore completely unknowable to us. That He loves us and that He does so in His freedom are both true in the grace of His revelation. If His revelation is His truth, He is truly both in unity and difference: the One who loves in freedom. It is His very being to be both, not in separation but in unity, yet not in the dissolution but in the distinctiveness of this duality. And this duality as the being of the one God necessarily forms the content of the doctrine of His perfection. (K. Barth, CD II.1, 343)
This section functions as a prolegomena to the subject of two attributes which are important for the subject of universalism: love and righteousness, or mercy and holiness. The liberal universalist theologians of the nineteenth century up through today—including the general sentiment of contemporary “religious” society—emphasize God as love at the expense of God’s holiness. That is, they focus on God’s character as the loving creator and redeemer as if this overrules the “outdated” portrayal of God as judge. (One could and should call this “contemporary Marcionism.”) Albrecht Ritschl removed judicial language entirely from his famous account of justification and reconciliation, and some contemporary theologians like John A. T. Robinson do the same. The great error is that liberal theology operates, implicitly or explicitly, with a via eminentiae method of theological knowledge, meaning that they begin with human experience and then move to speak of God in light of what is “known” about human characteristics and actions. So when they speak about God’s nature as love, they define this attribute based on what they know of human love. When they speak about God as judge, they define this in terms of human justice. Such a method inevitably means that love and justice, mercy and righteousness, will be seen as antithetical to each other, or mutually exclusive. A person is merciful by withholding judgment. A person insists on righteousness at the expense of love and affirmation.

As we have already seen, Karl Barth views God as self-determining, and that means God determines what love, grace, holiness, righteousness, mercy, and justice mean for Godself. Humanity cannot ever define these terms for God. The unity and simplicity of God means that God cannot be divided up into different “gods”—such as the God of love and some other God of judgment. This was the fatal error in Luther’s theology, between the revealed God (deus revelatus) of grace and the hidden God (deus absconditus) of wrath. The moment we allow distinctions to become separations—which are often variations of the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity—we threaten to lose the one God attested to by Holy Scripture. This one God of the gospel happens to be infinitely rich in perfections, but these perfections exist in a perichoretic unity in which grace and judgment are not different sides of God but rather interanimating attributes of God’s ontological repleteness and superabundance. If we are going to explicate what it means to speak of God as love—which we must—then we will have to allow God’s being-in-act to define the essence of divine love. In other words, we will have to grapple with what it means for God to be holy love, whose grace is cauterizing and whose mercy judges us in our sinfulness while refusing to abandon us even while we persistently turn away.

I end this section with two quotes by Karl Barth. They are worthy of separate sections of their own, and I heartily recommend giving them the attention they deserve. Barth provokes us to consider what it means to affirm God’s love as universal or cosmic in scope while at the same time particular and embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. At the same, however, he emphasizes that this divine love is holy, meaning that God accomplishes God’s purposes over against all opposition. Of course, we must remember that God’s revealed purpose is to redeem this world and create a fellowship of new persons who exist in restored relations with God, others, and themselves by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is the Lord of all creation as the one who loves in freedom.
God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love. In the Gospel of Israel’s Messiah and His fulfilment of the Law, of the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us, of Him who died for our sins and rose again for our justification—in this Gospel the love of God is the first word. If then, as is proper, we are to be told by the Gospel who and what God is, we must allow this primary word to be spoken to us—that God is love. (CD II.1, 351)

God’s loving is a divine being and action distinct from every other loving in the fact that it is holy. As holy, it is characterised by the fact that God, as He seeks and creates fellowship, is always the Lord. He therefore distinguishes and maintains His own will as against every other will. He condemns, excludes and annihilates all contradiction and resistance to it. He gives it validity and actuality in this fellowship as His own and therefore as good. In this distinctiveness alone is the love of God truly His own divine love. (CD II.1, 359)

Further Reading:

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, pp. 257-439
E. Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, pp. 314-43
E. Jüngel, “What does it mean to say, ‘God is love’?”
Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est


Shane said…
David, there is a lot of material in this post worth pondering. Prima facie, I have only two questions, neither of which are very serious. But small mistakes at the beginning, etc. and so forth.

You call your section heading: "Section I: God’s complexity and simplicity". Now what is complex is not simple and vice versa, ex hypothesi. This seems like a simple slip of concentration to me, surely you aren't really meaning to say that there is complexity in the godhead?

The second thing that jumped out at me was two sentences from the Barth quote from 343 of II.1:

"God loves us. And because we can trust His revelation as the revelation of His own being He is in Himself the One who loves. As such He is completely knowable to us." (emPHASis added).

When I read this, I literally flinched in my seat as if someone had stabbed me in the kidney. I share Barth's distaste for Luther's economic God of grace and immanent God of wrath. (Luther seems to be veering dangerously close to dualism again; I know we've argued about Luther's dualistic tendencies before.) But, that is no excuse for conceptual idolatry, which is exactly what thinking that you understand God completely is. Revelatory positivism (whether based on biblical inerrancy or Christocentrism) leaves you in the end with a totally immanent, conceptualizable, rational God.

Thomas's doctrine of analogy, for example, guards against this analogy by saying that it is always and only through analogy that we can speak of the divine, precisely because he is unable to be thematized in our concepts. He cannot be reduced to a part of the immanent totality.

Note that Thomas is really just following the Eastern Fathers here, for whom God always remains in excess beyond, incomprehensible, etc. At any rate, the Bible itself does not seem to say that we know everything about God that there is to know, or that our finite human conceptualizations exhaust his essence. Rather, it says that we see through a glass, darkly, etc.

this is one area in which I think the "post-moderns" really do have something to contribute to theology. Read Jean Luc Marion on the difference between the icon and the idol in chapters 3 and 4 of "God Without Being".
I fully intended to use the two words complexity and simplicity. They are not contradictory only insofar as they are used of God, because is not bound to human paradoxes. God is capable of uniting opposites in Godself, in the same way that mercy and judgment are not antithetical for God. If it helps, think of it this way: God is personally complex and ontologically simple. In other words, as Person, God is infinitely rich in perfections (complex beyond all created complexity), but as the divine Being, God is simple, in that God is one and not divided within Godself. Does that help?

I want to affirm what Barth says without qualification. If you keep reading, you will see that Barth simultaneously affirms God's unknowability. That is why Barth speaks of God as the "one who loves in freedom." Let me translate this into different terms: God is economically active as the immanent Trinity. In other words, the economic Trinity reveals Godself wholly and truly (re: there is nothing of God that is not revealed in Jesus Christ, meaning there is no remainder in God which remains obscured; who God is economically is who God actually is in Godself), while the immanent Trinity remains free and sovereign as the Lord (re: God is never part of the immanent created realm; God is always superior to the creation and free to reveal or not to reveal, but because God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, God did reveal Godself to us).

Thomas, the eastern Fathers, and even some contemporary theologians mislead us if they affirm God's hiddenness as something other than God's hiddenness in revelation. Barth's point is that God is indirectly revealed to us in Jesus Christ, i.e., God is not naturally available to all people in Jesus Christ but is available through the eyes of faith by the Holy Spirit. "Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, Peter..."

Barth does NOT subscribe to revelatory positivism. This is to misunderstand the analogia fidei and the nature of God's indirect revelation. Bonhoeffer was good on many things regarding Barth, but not on this point. But Barth and Bonhoeffer are agreed in not returning to a Scholastic or mystical notion of God's hiddenness. This obscures the fundamental theological point: the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa. Rahner's axiom must be retained or else we lose all theological footing for speaking about God at all.
Shane said…
Please forgive me for speaking out of my depth here. I don't know trinitarian theology that well and I know almost nothing about 20th century takes on the subject. But, with that disclaimer in mind, I have to say Nein! to Barth.

You can't make words mean whatever you want them to mean because this destroys their ability to communicate meaning.

A simple whole is a single something that is indivisible. A complex whole is constituted of parts. A point in geometry is simple because it has no parts. A car wheel is complex because it a tire and a rim.

The mystery of the trinity is that God is three persons yet absolutely simple. The Father is not a part of God, the Son is not a part of God, the Holy Ghost is not a part of God. Rather, Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God. Yet there are not three Gods, but one. The orthodox view of the trinity does not confound the persons or divide the essence.

If God is complex, then the persons are parts and the godhead is divided, thus there is no trinity, only tritheism.

The trinity is a mystery, I'll grant, but it is not a contradiction (because the being of God is spoken only analogically, not univocally).

A mystery is something that we cannot understand because it exceeds our graps as finite beings. (i.e., the Trinity) A contradiction is something that we cannot understand because it is impossible (i.e., A square circle or the logical proposition 'A and not-A').

A contradiction is always false because it is impossible for the same thing to be both true and false in the same respect at the same time. [One can speak paradoxically through contradictions, (i.e. "The child is the father of the man") but this is not a true logical contradiction because there is no univocity. Poetic flourishes such as this are not actually proposing the truth of a contradiction.]

The trinity is not a contradiction in the way that saying "There are three Gods and only one God" or "Jesus is God and not-God" would be.

If Barth is simultaneously affirming that
(1) God is fully known, and
(2) God is not fully known
at the same time and in the same respect, then he has wandered into good ol' fashioned contradiction.

If Barth is claiming that God is fully known in faith and not-fully known outside of faith, that is a different story. But, I still find the concept of God's being fully present to us in faith immensely problematic. After all, if God were fully present to you, then you would, perforce understand the trinity. If Barth says that the Trinity is a mystery, then it is not fully present. If he says that to the person of faith the trinity is a mystery and not-a-mystery at the same time and in the same respect, then I will suspect that his language has run amok.

The claim that God is simple and complex at the same time and in the same respect would fall under the same judgment. I'll agree that God has all perfections, but if this impugns divine simplicity, let's all be Hindus or Hegelians. I don't see a middle way between the two. In other words, your options are (1) pantheism polytheism or (2) pantheistic monothesis in which the historical self-determination of Spirit sublates all oppositions by gathering them into a more inclusive totality. Or (3) the orthodox view of the trinity as a mystery, not a contradiction.
Shane, whether you realize it or not, your position is actually the closest to Schleiermacher's. You and Schleiermacher both have a starting-point that is external to God's self-revelation. Schleiermacher begins with human experience; you begin with rational logic. Experience for Schleiermacher and those in his school dictates how they speak about God, while logic dictates how you speak. In other words, a human construct pre-determines how you are able to define and conceive of God.

The point of having God's self-revelation as our starting-point is that regardless of what we think we must say of God, God determines what can properly be said about God. If you are looking for a religion without apparent contradictions and sound logic, Christianity is not it. I need go no further than to say one word: incarnation. You may say this is a mystery, but for every classical philosopher, this would have been clearly a contradiction. The divine cannot become human; the Creator cannot become the creation; the infinite cannot become finite, etc. Truly this is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

The word you are looking for, or perhaps were avoiding, is paradox. The first definition I found is the following: "a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true." Christianity is a paradoxical faith. What appear to contradictions are actually glorious paradoxes. Not that we revel in irrational absurdities, but that what is seemingly impossible in terms of logic or human experience is actually quite possible with God. For example, it is possible that as the one who judges us, God actually rescues us. Or as the one who loves us, God is the one who judges us. Our human experience does not reveal this, nor does it make much sense. But Jesus Christ embodies this as the free act of the God who loves humanity, but judges humanity upon the cross.

I took the concept of God's complexity and simplicity from Paul Dafyyd Jones, a recent Ph.D graduate from Harvard University and a brilliant young scholar of Karl Barth. He spoke at the recent Barth Conference here at PTS. He made the distinction between personal and ontological in relation to complexity and simplicity.

Think of this dialectical relation as another way of speaking about God's being-in-becoming. God is a simple being who is not static or distant from creation but is rather intimately and fully involved within it as the one who becomes and is able to become: able to become human in Jesus Christ and thus able to assume and redeem sinful humanity.

Complexity simply means intricate or complicated, and if God is indeed infinitely rich in perfections and actions, then complexity is a proper of describing this personal richness. But we are saying the same thing by emphasizing God's ontological simplicity as the one God who is divided within Godself. You think that I am contradicting this, but that is not the case. The paradox here is that while God is simple as the triune God (immanent Trinity), God acts in manifold ways in relation to the creation (economic Trinity). Thus, the distinction I am making is between the immanent and economic Trinity, or God pro se and God pro nobis — which are materially identical even though the distinction is important to make. God is infinitely complex, rich, and manifold in divine attributes as a God who relates to the finitely complex, rich, and manifold cosmos. But God remains infinitely simple and undivided, the God who remains Deus pro nobis in divine constancy.

When Barth speaks of God's being "fully known" and "fully unknown," he too is making a kind of immanent-economic distinction. As the economic Trinity who is revealed in divine self-revelation, God is "fully knowable" to us in Jesus Christ. But this would be true only if God were only the economic Trinity and thus only identifiable with the immanent, created realm. We know this is not the case. As the immanent Trinity, God is free and sovereign as the eternal Lord over all time and space, and thus God is "fully unknowable." But this would only be true if God was completely unrelated to the creation and never revealed Godself to the world. We know this too is not the case. God has revealed Godself from the early days of Israel up through the present days of the catholic church; but the center of all this is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Because God is enfleshed in Jesus, we have in him the locus of God's knowability and unknowability. In faith and by the Holy Spirit, we can recognize that he is the Second Person of the Trinity who came for us and for our salvation — and so God is fully known as the God who creates, elects, reconciles, and redeems. Without faith and without the Holy Spirit, we only see flesh and blood, the man Jesus who is the barrier between us and God. God, in other words, is veiled in human flesh and remains veiled even to faith. God never becomes fully available to any person. Those who recognize God are not granted access to the throneroom. We are simply given God's indirect self-revelation — a true and full revelation, in the sense that we perceive God as God truly is without remainder. We are thus always at the mercy of the One who reveals; we are incapable of determining who God is or what we can know about God.

In short, complexity does not impugn simplicity, and simplicity must not be construed so as to escape God's complexity.

But there are many more important things about this post than the title. I would really like to discuss the quotes from Barth and the issues associated with God's self-determination.
Shane said…
I see that I am going to have to write a short little treatise to post on my blog re: logic, analogy and the being of God. (it will be a while, i'm in the midst of finals) At any rate, you are right that they are peripheral concerns to most of the material in your post here.

I don't actually have much more to comment on at the moment.
In my last comment, I wrote: "But we are saying the same thing by emphasizing God's ontological simplicity as the one God who is divided within Godself."

I intended to say "...who is NOT divided..." I hope that wasn't confusing.

Also, I recommend reading the chapter from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy entitled "The Paradoxes of Christianity." The whole book is great, but this chapter is one of the best.
Shane said…
OED gives the meaning of "paradox" as:

"2. a. An apparently absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition, or a strongly counter-intuitive one, which investigation, analysis, or explanation may nevertheless prove to be well-founded or true."

A "contradiction" is a "Logical inconsistency or incongruity."

The trinity is a mystery or paradox if you will, not a contradiction. Because the trinity is actually true.

In this forthcoming treatise, I will attempt to show that it is you who are submitting God to the vicious mastery of logical analysis and not I.

Regarding how God can be simple yet containing within himself all perfections, cf. Summa Theologica, 1a, q.4, a.2.

--shane "somehow I am the orthodox one" wilkins
I really don't care much about the complexity and simplicity thing. I happen to think it is perfectly fine to speak in such terms, but it changes absolutely nothing materially if I lose those terms altogether.

The fact that Thomas is employing Greek philosophy -- focused as it was upon simplicity, oneness, and the absolute -- makes me think that he is liable to emphasizing a simple immanent Being at the cost of attending to the complex economic reality of God.