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)
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