Systematic Theology I - Lesson 20
Attributes of God: Communicable (Part 3)
Continuation of the discussion of God's communicable moral attributes (love, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness, justice) and the attributes of God's rulership (freedom; omnipotence).
Attributes of God: Communicable (Part 3)
Doctrine of God
V. Attributes of God (part 7)
A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God
B. Incommunicable Attributes
C. Communicable Attributes
1. Intellectual Attributes
2. Moral Attributes
LESSON BEGINS HERE
a) Legislative Justice
b) Distributive Justice
1) Remunerative Justice
2) Retributive Justice
3. Attributes of God’s Rulership
An introduction to theology, answering the questions of what is EST (Evangelical Systematic Theology), why study EST, and how it relates to other theological disciplines.
Introductory issues of how to do EST and the criteria for assessing theological formulations.
Issues of cultural Christianity, and the evangelical position of "contextualized normativity."
Begins with a discussion of the background to the discussion (Pelagius, Augustine, Council of Carthage, and semi-Pelagianism), and then a discussion of Luther, Calvin, Arminius, the Synod of Dort and the Five Points of Calvinism.
Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and their views of Israel and the church
A discussion of these three positions and the key figures in each (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, von Harnack; Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr; Carnell, Henry, Graham)
The beginning discussion of revelation and the specifics of General Revelation
A continuation of the discussion of revelation with an emphasis on Special Revelation, moving into the topic of Inspiration (definition and key passages).
A survey of the recent debate, defining inerrancy (including the relationship of hermeneutics and inerrancy), and its relationship to authority.
The definition of illumination, why it is necessary, and how we come to know truth. The critceria for canonicity is then discussed and why the canon is now closed (i.e., why no more books would be accepted into the Bible).
Why there is a need to know God, and "theism" (arguments as to whether there is a God or not).
Can God be known? The Doctrine of the Trinity (Scriptural basis; historical background; Monarchian heresies)
Continuation of the discussion of the Trinity and the church's rejection of Monarchianism
Beginning of the discussion of the attributes of God's character, and how the discussion is organized.
The related doctrines of God's self-sufficiency and his love. (The lecture begins in the middle of a sentence but not much content is missing. Point V., subpoints 1 and 2 were covered in lecture 14. See Outline tab.)
God's incommunicable attributes are those that he does not share with us: self-existence; self-sufficiency; infinity; omnipresence; eternity
Completes the discussion of God's incommunicable attributes by discussing immutability, the doctrine that God does not change.
Discussion of those attributes of God's character that he shares (to some degee) with his creation, beginning with his intellectual attributes (omniscience).
A continuing discussion of God communicable attributes, both intellectual (Omnisapience; truth) and moral (goodness; love).
Continuation of the discussion of God's communicable moral attributes (love, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness, justice) and the attributes of God's rulership (freedom; omnipotence).
The Scriptural teaching and issues related to this central question
Hyper-Calvinism, Process Theology, Arminianism, and Calvinism
Concluding discussion on Calvinism
An introduction to the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of humanity's origin (Adam and Eve)
Theories on the structure of the human soul (Monism, Dichotomy, Trichotomy) and the transmission of the soul (Creationism, Traducianism).
Sin is one of the most foundational and significant topics in Scripture. The doctrines of salvation and sanctification are meaningless without an accurate understanding of sin. The Old Testament teaches both the personal and corporate aspects of sin. New Testament teachings include the essence of sin and total depravity.
The facets of the Fall, theories of Original Sin, and God's triumph over sin
What value is there to attempt to know the unknowable or to try to understand someone that, by their own description, is beyond our understanding?
Even though we cannot know everything there is to know about God, there are some things you can know because he has revealed them to you. You can develop a systematic theology as you contemplate what you experience in nature, what you can read in the Bible and what you can know from history. This will give you insights into who God is, how you can have a relationship with him, and how you will live your life differently. Dr. Ware begins by giving you a systematic theology definition and explains systematic theology teachings and concepts that you will find in systematic theology books. He also helps you to learn both the inductive and deductive approaches in assessing various criteria so you can determine for yourself the validity of any theological position.
Some of the first lectures in Dr. Ware’s Systematic Theology I give you the core theological positions of major movements like Calvinism, Arminianism, Covenant, Liberalism and Neo Orthodoxy and help you compare and contrast their different perspectives. Also, since the Bible is the primary source for determining your systematic theology, Dr. Ware defines and explains key terms like inspiration, revelation, inerrancy, illumination and canonicity. God’s existence and attributes make up a major part of this class. The final lectures in Systematic Theology I focus on what the Bible teaches us about humans and sin.
The study of systematic theology is a mixture of science, art and faith. Join Dr. Ware as he leads you in understanding the core teachings of Scripture in a way that help you articulate your systematic theology, deepen your relationship with God and live out your life as a changed person.
This is the first of a two semester class on systematic theology. We recommend the book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem as a companion book for this class. Dr. Grudem also wrote an abridged version entitled Bible Doctrines that includes discussion questions that are helpful for using in a small group/classroom situation.
Course: Systematic Theology I
C. Communicable Attributes
1. Intellectual Attributes
2. Moral Attributes
Another passage showing God's particular or discriminate love is Deuteronomy 7 where God tells Israel why he has chosen them and, of course, why he has not chosen them.
Deut 7:6 For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
That is particularity. Of all the people on the face of the earth, I have chosen you. Why is that?
Deut 7:7 The Lord did not set his love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, Deut 7:8 but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
So how you interpret this choosing of Israel, is affected a bit by your theology here in terms of covenant, dispensational, reformed and so on. I hold a view that when Paul says in Romans 11 that all Israel will be saved, he means all ethnic Israel. God will fulfill his promise to the people Israel. The reason I think this is true is because in the Old Testament God pledged to this ethnic people, of all the ethnic peoples of the world, I choose you to be my people. Paul raises the question in Romans 9 whether God failed in his promise? The whole point of Romans 9, 10, and 11 is to say he hasn't failed. He is going to do it. He is going to come through on his promise, and he going to save Israel. So that statement in Romans 11:26, "and so all Israel will be saved," is not a statement that you can generalize. You can't say all Americans will be saved, all Babylonians will be saved, or all Egyptians will be saved. But you can say, because the Bible does, all Israel will be saved. People like to say this was just a choosing so that he could, through the Abrahamic Covenant, bring a blessing to the nation. Well he did bring a blessing to the nation, but still he set his love on ethnic Israel in a way that remains today distinct. He will do for ethnic Israel a saving work that is unique among the nations and the ethnic peoples of the world. This is particular love that God shows even here with the choosing of Israel.
We see that the love of God is complex and not simple. It is true, and at the same time there is a sense in which there is a universal love of God for all people. A passage like 1 Timothy 2:4 perhaps means this. I am not convinced that it does mean this, but perhaps it does mean that God really does desire all people universally, generally to be saved. That is at least a legitimate interpretation of that passage. Surely John 3:16 announces that God loves the world.
So there is this sense in which there is a universal general love of God for all people but also a special love for his own. A special love that chooses, saves, preserves and glorifies his own. I would encourage you to revel in the particular love that God has shown his own. If you are his, that includes you. It is an incredible thing when you think of that. It is very much like how a young women would feel at the privilege of having been chosen by this dashing young man to be his bride; he chose her. There were other women, but he chose her. He really is a great guy, and really it is a privilege to have been chosen. The reason that analogy is apt is because this is the analogy of Christ and the church; an analogy of the bride for the Son. So God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. In love he predestined us. In love. It is a marvelous thing.
Grace can be defined as the unmerited favor of God by which he brings well being or goodness to those who are undeserving. Grace has in mind the object of God's favor. He brings favor; he brings well-being to those who do not deserve what they get. There is no merit that calls forth this favor. This is not payment; this is not a wage. This is not earned.
As you look in Scripture, grace is used clearly in contexts that distinguish it from what is earned or merited or deserved. So it is undeserved, unmerited favor that is given to people. For example, Romans 3:24.
Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Rom 3:24 being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus
An interesting point is (I have noticed this in a number of passages) how often the word "gift" is used along with "grace" to make the point. When you give a gift, it is not something that you have to do. It is something that you choose to do, and it benefits the other person, but it is undeserved; it is unmerited. That is the point of it being a gift. It is not payment. It is not payback. It is a gift.
In some cultures this very difficult to understand. I remember my mother's frustration. She held a Bible class for years in our home for Japanese women in Spokane, Washington where I grew up. There were a lot of Japanese families there who were part of Fairchild Air Force Base, and they would come to our church. My mother felt so badly for a number of these families because they were so poor. As they were leaving she would try to keep one of the ladies back a few minutes so it wouldn't be done in public, and she would give them some blankets or some clothing or a coat or something like that. Guess what would happen. The next week that same poor Japanese Christian woman would show at the Bible study with a gift of at least comparable value. My mother would just shake here head and say, "Please don't do this. You are missing the point. I want to give you a gift. You don't have to pay for this." In some cultures it is difficult to accept the notion that it is a gift. I think it is for this reason that Jesus said it would be very difficult for the rich to inherit the kingdom of heaven; it is like a camel going through the eye of a needle. Why is that? It is because rich people are not accustomed to being given gifts that they didn't earn some way or another. They buy what they want; they earn it. To acknowledge before God that I have nothing, absolutely nothing that can commend myself before you; I am impoverished and there is no basis of merit by which I receive this is so insulting to our pride, to our self-attainment, self-ability. The message of the gospel of grace is that we have to acknowledge we can do nothing to merit or earn it.
Another famous passage is Ephesians 2:8-9.
Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; Eph 2:9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Notice the kicker at the end: so that no one may boast. God is jealous for his glory. He gets all the credit, every bit of it. This is one of the reasons that the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace falters when weighed against the necessity that God receive all the glory for salvation. It is not a grace that leaves up to us which way it will go. It is a grace that gives to us the gift. We become recipients because of the grace.
A couple of other passages, Romans 5:15 and Romans 11:6, show grace being God's unmerited favor, undeserved, not earned.
Rom 5:15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.
Rom 11:6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Mercy is the favor of God expressed to those who are needy, poor, helpless, hopeless. It is often times connected conceptually with the compassion of God, the mercy of God, his pity. God shows pity on people who are needy, empty, ruined, destitute. This is mercy.
There are some passages which show that the prevalent notion of mercy is this concept of favor to those who are in desperate condition. For example, in Ephesians 2 earlier in that chapter he talks about mercy before he brings up grace. Notice the context in the first three verses of Ephesians 2. Think as you read this of our condition because of sin. That is crucial for understanding mercy.
Eph 2:1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, Eph 2:2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Eph 2:3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
Look at this condition we are in. We are held hostage to sin. We are subject to its powers. We have no power over it. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. We stand before God deserving condemnation; we are children of wrath. That is the condition we are in. This is not a pretty picture. There is nothing about this that indicates that we have any hope at all; but God is rich in mercy. So here is this mercy of God, his compassion, his kindness that he expresses to needy helpless, hopeless people.
Titus 3 is another place where you see mercy in the context of such clear need.
Titus 3:3 For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.
Here is the condition that we are in. This horrible destitute condition, slaves to our lusts and ruining our own lives and others. It is a horrible picture of what life is like for us.
Titus 3:4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared,
This is the concept of mercy, compassion, kindness.
Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
So here you have it again. This kindness of God expresses to those who are desperately needy. Obviously the two concepts of grace and mercy are simultaneously true in salvation. Because we, as the objects of God's saving favor, are simultaneously undeserving and hopelessly, helplessly destitute. We are in need of grace because we don't deserve the kindness of God. We can't merit it. We can't earn it. We can't do anything that would commend it, so we are in need of grace, and we are in need of mercy because we are ruined. We can't do anything. We are enslaved to sin. We can't break it. This is what Romans 7 is about. It is not about Paul the Christian. It is about the hold that sin has upon a person so that he cannot break out of its clutches; we are slaves to sin. Both come together in salvation. Actually, it is all three of these. It is God's electing love that chooses to shower upon us favor. How is that favor shown? It is shown to people who are undeserving of it, and it is shown to people who are helpless and destitute. So love, grace, mercy are all expressed in God's saving of us from our sin. It is a marvelous thing.
It may look like the holiness of God is the largest category as goodness is the most general and largest category that relates to the very nature of God. His nature is good. His nature is holy. It is good to be holy. Holiness is goodness. So these things are compatible. But holiness has its own special meaning. It has its own special substance.
Holiness could be defined as God's eternal separation from all impurity or defilement. You hear in that definition two concepts that are involved. One is the concept of separation. The term holy means, at its most basic level, to be separate from or to be different from. It means to be one of a kind, unique, set apart. This is very helpful to see because there are contexts in which holiness is used in the Bible where the moral component, no impurity, no defilement, no immorality is absent yet we are talking about it being holy. How does this make sense? For example, the Sabbath Day is holy to the Lord. If you ask the question, how can a day of the week be a moral entity? Is it a morally pure day which is what makes it holy as opposed to Tuesday? There is no day of the week that is more morally pure than any other because none of them is. It is not a category that applies to a unit of time, a day. It is a misplaced category to think in terms of morality. Why is the Sabbath Day holy? Because, six days a week you work and on the seventh day you rest. It is unique. It is one of a kind. It is separate from the other days in terms of what it is. So it is a unique day.
Here is another example. The Israelites were told that they could not eat certain kinds of foods or wear certain kinds of clothes. I am convinced all of us if you have not broken the food laws of the Israelites, you are presently at this moment breaking the clothing laws of the Israelites because you were not to wear a piece of clothing with two kinds of materials mixed together. No blends. One hundred percent wool only, one hundred percent cotton, so we are guilty. So why are they not supposed to do this? What is the reason given for certain food laws, certain clothing laws? For you are a holy people. And people have tried to make an argument in terms of eating that there really are certain kinds of foods that God knew would be impure for your body. What is the problem with that interpretation? It contradicts the New Testament. Who in particular? Peter. In Acts 10, Jesus tells Peter to rise and eat; Jesus pronounced all foods clean. It means that what was regarded under that dispensation as illegitimate is no longer that way. So evidently there never was really anything about the food itself that was impure. Otherwise, what would it say now? So it is not that. The reason Israel is called to just eat certain things and not others and wear just certain kinds of clothes and not others is because they are to be different. God wanted Israel to look different, act different, and be different than all the other nations of the world. So when they would see Israel they would say, "What a different people who serve a different God." Holy people who serve a holy God.
So the core notion of holiness is the concept of being different. There is a sense in which this concept is popular in our culture at one level. Breaking out of the status quo and being your own person and this sort of thing. But have you ever noticed how this really works. You only want to be your own person if, as you do that, you look the right way to other people. In other words, you are different in the way others are different, so actually you are just the same as the group of people you want to identify with. God wants us to be different in the way that he is different. He wants us to be set apart in the way that he is set apart. This is what it means to be holy: set apart as God is set apart, different in the way he is different. His standards become ours. What he loves, we prayerfully, meditatively seek to love. What he hates we prayerfully, meditatively seek to hate. Isn't it true that Christian people ought to grow in vibrant heart-felt hatred of sin, what stands opposed to God? We ought not to wink at it. We ought not to laugh at it. We ought to despise it. This is being different as God is different. We have a long ways to go. So the first concept of holiness is separation.
The second concept is his moral purity. The way in which God is most fully manifest as different is in his absolute infinite moral excellences. In his infinite moral perfection God is eternally, immutably, unchangeably pure. This is why in Isaiah responded the way he did in Isaiah 6 with his vision of the Lord lofty and exalted, with the train of his robe filling the temple.
Is 6:3 And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory."
Here is this scene with the loftiness of God, his grandeur and majesty, Seraphim are crying out Holy, Holy, Holy and how does Isaiah respond?
Is 6:5 Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."
It is that response from Isaiah that helps us realize that the holiness of God that he observed is not just his metaphysical difference from creatures. It is the infinite greatness of his moral purity before which Isaiah realized he had absolutely no place, so he is on his face, ruined. That sense of the very nature of God being infinitely, morally perfect and excellent is at the heart of holiness as well. So different, yes. Separate, yes. In particular, in his infinite moral excellence.
In talking about holiness, God has his natural standards of moral behavior, moral right and wrong. What else does it mean when you say God's nature is infinitely morally excellent than to say God embodies what is right and rejects what is wrong. That is another way of saying that there are standards of right and wrong that make up the very fabric of God's own nature. Laws of right and wrong that flow out of God's nature are not arbitrary. They are not capricious. They are not ad hoc. They are not cultural relative. They are universal because they attach to the eternal nature of God who defines, who embodies moral rightness.
The first attribute that flows out of God's own nature of being holy is righteousness. Righteousness refers to God's own perfect conformity to his own intrinsic moral law. Or God's own nature is righteous in that it never violates in word, thought or action God's intrinsic moral standards. The first statement is a positive statement; it is God's own perfect conformity to his own intrinsic moral law. The second way of putting it is a negative; it never violates in word, thought or action God's intrinsic moral standards. Both are true. It conforms to it; it doesn't violate it.
Righteousness is the holy nature of God in action. God's nature is holy in action, whether that action is in word, in thought, or in deed. God in action always abides by the standards of his intrinsic moral nature. He never violates it. So when God speaks, he speaks out of an intrinsic moral nature that demands truth. When God speaks, he speaks truth. When God thinks or has attitudes, those thoughts and those attitudes are always in conformity with his intrinsic moral nature. When God acts, all of his actions are done in conformity to this intrinsic moral nature. Catch the concept of the word "righteousness," even as we have it English. It is right action, right word, right thought, right attitude. Righteousness is how right God is according to his standards in word, thought and action. God conforms absolutely. I thought of that this morning in a sermon from Dr. York with God telling Ezekiel that he would kill his wife. Ezekiel 24:16 "Son of man, behold, I am about to take from you the desire of your eyes with a blow; but you shall not mourn and you shall not weep, and your tears shall not come." It is not easy to understand this, but we have got to realize that God does not do something unjust when he takes her life. Because it is God's prerogative to give life and to take it. We are not owed one second of life. If God takes one near and dear to you, do not shake you finger at him and say this was not fair. What is fair is never having a moment of life or having had life receiving eternal condemnation. Raising our finger to God and demanding fairness is a fearful thing to do. So God's actions are right when he commanded the Israelites to go into Canaan and wipe out all of the Canaanites. Everything God does, says, and thinks, every attitude of his heart is in conformity with that moral nature of his.
Justice refers to two things. It refers to the fact that God establishes standards for his moral creatures that are in conformity to the standards of his own nature, and he judges his moral creatures by their conformity to those standards.
a) Legislative Justice
Legislative justice refers to the fact that God establishes standards for his moral creatures that are in conformity to the standards of his own nature. In other words, God is the law giver. He is the legislative branch of government as well as the executive branch of government. He establishes the laws for his moral creatures by which they are to live. The law of God is not negotiable; it is not arbitrary; it is not capricious.
Voluntarism view. God actually could have willed any law that he wanted to. If God had said you shall hate the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, that would have been good if God had willed that. They put the emphasis on the will of God. I find this vouluntarist view absolutely frightening in its implications because it means there is absolutely no moral bed rock absolute universal moral standard to anything, including God, in the universe. It is all relative. This is not the case. God's nature is eternally what it is. God wills a law that conforms to his nature. The Ten Commandments are expressions of that moral nature of God. That is legislative justice. He gives a law that conforms with his nature.
Psalm 19 speaks about the Law of the Lord being perfect. Psalm 119 extols the Law of the Lord. Romans 7:12 speaks about how the Law is holy, righteous and good.
The problem is not the Law. As Paul thinks about this he wonders how come when this law came and said, "Thou shall not covet," there was in me all this coveting? Was the problem the Law that announced to me the coveting? No, the problem is not the Law; the problem is me. The problem is my flesh. There was an incident when I was a grade school boy walking to school. The school I went to was about five blocks away, so I walked almost everyday. One day I was on my way to school and there was a portion of the sidewalk up ahead of me that they had just put down, so it was new cement. It was still wet and glistening. I honestly think that if there hadn't been the sign, I would have walked around it. I probably wouldn't even have given it a thought. As I approached it there was a string around the whole thing with a sign with bold letters. I think that is probably what got my attention. It said, "Do not walk on the wet cement." So I said, "OK, I won't walk on the wet cement; I'll just run over it." So I popped the little string and ran right though it on my way to school. Unfortunately the woman in the house saw this happen, and she called the cement people to come back and fix it before it became all hardened. I was in big trouble when I got home that night, as you might imagine. It is such a vivid illustration to me of what happens in my heart when I am faced with an altogether good and reasonable law that I don't want to keep. The Law is perfectly good and righteous; there is nothing wrong with the Law. The problem is my heart that doesn't want to do it. So obviously, we have to have a heart transplant. And that is Ezekiel 36. "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). The legislative justice is the giving of the law that good.
b) Distributive Justice
He acts as judge. He is not only law-giver, but he is judge over those who have been given the law. That is the second half of the definition of justice. He judges his moral creatures by their conformity to the standards he has given them. He distributes justice.
In Galatians 6 you can see distributive justice along with both the remunerative and retributive sides of it in this one text.
Gal 6:7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.
That is distributive justice. Whatever you sow, you will reap. God will judge. He will distribute justice in whatever way is required, honoring you, blessing you, rewarding you or punishing you for what you have done. He makes that clear in the verses that follow.
Gal 6:8a For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption,
That is retributive justice. This is what God will bring upon you: the punishment for one who sows to his own flesh
Gal 6:8b but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
This is what rewards will be given for following the Spirit.
Gal 6:9 Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.
Obviously, he means the reaping of the blessing.
Gal 6:10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.
So God is the rewarder of those who obey him, and the one who punishes and ultimately will judge and condemn those who stand against him. In that sense, he is judge over all. God is then both the legislative and judicial branches (of course, he also the executive branch as king). He provides the laws and upholds the laws as judge.
(1) Remunerative Justice
Remunerative Justice is God's rewarding of those who obey his laws.
(2) Retributive Justice
Retributive Justice is God's punishment to those who disobey his law.
Let me say one more thing on these attributes that relate to God's moral nature. There has also been a tendency in the discussion of the attributes of God through history to think of all of his attributes as necessary qualities of his being. That is, if you know the distinction, it is an Aristotelian distinction between necessary predicates and accidental predicates, between necessary characteristics (another word for predicate) and accidental (which are ones you can fail to have but still be what you are or who you are). This actually relates to the whole section above which we have been talking about. A difference between necessary and essential and what are called accidental. It is a distinction you can conceive of very easily. Every one of you is made of necessary predicates and accidental predicates. For example, each of you has a soul. If you were to lose your soul, or if you failed to have a soul, would you be who you are? No, that is a necessary or essential characteristic of who you are. But every one of you has fingernails, hair and some of you have facial hair, at least I do. If I go home and shave, would I be who I am? My wife might not think so and my kids, but yes. You get a haircut, and you are still who you are. You can lose a finger in accident and you are still who you are. You can't lose your soul and still be who you are. There are necessary and accidental predicates. All that is to say that in the history of the discussion about God there has been an insistence that all of God's qualities are necessary. To put it differently, God has no accidental predicates. That is because God is eternal, and because God is immutable. You can just take those two things right there. He is eternal and immutable; he is always the same. So obviously there can't be any accidental predicates if, in fact, you hold to eternity and immutability. But the minute you start talking about immutability involving a relational mutability (God changing in relationship to us) then you realize that you have to do something with the attributes.
I now hold a view that we ought to talk about attributes which are necessary and ones which are accidental (ones that may not be, and yet God is still God). One of those I think is wrath. I think wrath is an accidental predicate. What if God, being God, never created a world, so there was no sin? Do you want to say of God, who is the Triune being apart from any world, is eternally wrathful in the same way you would say he is eternally holy or loving? I find that a very strained notion. Rather, I think we should say that the wrath of God is an accidental predicate. That is, it is a quality that arises, that is occasioned by something in this world that he made, namely humans who sin. Yet it is a response of something out of his nature which is necessary and essential. What is that? Holiness, justice, or at least righteousness. The righteous standards of God and his justice demands conformity to those standards. Those can be absolute essential predicates of God which give rise to wrath when those standards are violated. But, absent the violation, absent the sin, it seems very odd to me to say that God is eternally wrathful.
I think the very same thing is true of God's mercy and grace. Mercy and grace are likewise elicited from God to those who are affected by sin. Why is it that we are unworthy; why is that we do not merit the favor of God? We are sinners. Why is it that we are helpless and hopeless? It is that we are sinners. So the mercy and the grace of God is an expression of his essential quality of goodness. I think that love could be included with goodness as essential qualities of God that give rise to grace and mercy in certain situations. But, absent sin, absent the world as we have it, would you want to say God is eternally merciful? If you think about, this is more troubling than if you say God is eternally wrathful. Because if God is eternally merciful, and there is no one else but God (you got Father, Son and Holy Spirit), then who is the helpless, hopeless destitute one to whom mercy is being expressed? Which member of the Trinity? If God is eternally expressing of grace, who is the unworthy one to whom favor is given? I think we have to think of grace and mercy as being expressions of the essential qualities of God who is goodness and love in his nature. Wrath, occasioned by sin, is an expression of his holiness and justice against sin.
I think that this is a helpful way to think about it. To have this category, to be able to invoke this category of accidental predicates will help on the whole question of God and time, as well. Because it means that God can be in time, involved in relationship with us and really can become angry or delight in someone's repentance and bring mercy. God then is able to be involved in those kinds of responsive relational dispositions in his relationship with us, which is difficult to account for, if not impossible, if the only category you have for the characteristics of God is the category of essential predicates or necessary predicates.
You need to know this is fairly innovative because the church wanted to ensure God never changes. We have perfections, and it is here for keeps. There was such as desire to insure, to insulate God from any possibility that there could be a marring of his perfection. He is timelessly eternal; he is absolutely immutable. That does it; he is locked in. But here is the problem. He is also locked out of real relationship with us. You have this problem of having the wrath of God in the category of essential attributes.
3. Attributes of God's Rulership
There has been a struggle in the church to understand the nature of God's freedom. What is the nature of God's freedom? Is he free to be anything he wants to be? This is along the lines of the Army appeal: be all that you can be; be anything you want to be. Can God choose to be an omnipotent Satan? Is he free to be evil? Is he free to be anything he might choose to be? There have been some in the history of the church called Voluntarists. Voluntarism is the belief that the will of God, if it truly is free, cannot be constrained by anything, including any moral nature. The moral nature of God is a function of his will. The fact that we have a God who is good and holy means we ought to wipe our brow and say, "Wow that was close one; he could have chosen..." If that is the case, then there is no moral absolute to the universe. Plus, it absolutely contradicts the notion in Scripture that God's nature is eternally fixed.
So if you don't go the Vouluntarist route and say that God will be anything he wants to be, then the other extreme of that would be Necessitarianism where you say God has to be just the way he is and cannot will anything other than he does. It seems to me that this is a troubling notion to say that God was not free to create. If everything God willed had to be willed the way it was, then what about redemption? I can remember reading a section in Karl Bath's Dogmatics when he was talking about this necessitarian view and he said, ìCan you imagine coming to Christ in heaven and saying to him, ëWell you know it really was no big deal, was it? Because after all, you had to do it; it was necessitated.í" Is God free to create? Is he free to redeem? We have always wanted to say in the history of the church, yes, absolutely.
The middle position between these two I have given the name Essentialism. That is to say, the essence of God is absolutely fixed, but from within that essence he chooses whatever he wishes that is an expression of that essence which also includes his choosing to be what he eternally is. In other words, he continually chooses to be the holy God he is. I think his freedom is found in his simultaneously choosing to be who he eternally is, and out of that essence he chooses freely to create a world and to redeem lost sinners. All of the attributes we are talking about would be the set of essential characteristics of God. They would be his essence or nature. I think this is a helpful place because it puts this discussion halfway between the Voluntarist which ends up totally relative and the Necessaritarian view in which God ends up totally restricted. This understands that it is the essence of God eternally which is the basis of all of his other choices that he makes as God.
God is able to perform anything consistent with his nature. He is not free to violate his essence. He is free to do anything in accordance with that essence. Can God make a rock bigger than he can lift? The answer is no. Any rock he can make he can lift. Does that mean he can't do something? No. This is a trick question. It doesn't mean that he can't do something; it simply means there is nothing he can't do. There is no power bigger than his power. Can God die? No, because he has the power always to sustain his life. God is able to do anything he chooses to do out of his nature.
This also includes this whole notion of logical possibilities. God is good not evil. We do not have the God of Shintoism with ying yang. We do not have God being good and evil, black and white, truth and error. That is a frightening view. This is a God who is good not evil, truth not error and that is the foundation for logic. He is the foundation for the law of non-contradiction. He is the foundation for all rationality. Try to think meaningfully about anything without the law of non-contradiction. If you disagree with me, you just proved my point. If you disagree you are saying, "No, it is not that; it is this." That is the law of non-contradiction that something cannot be both and A and not A in the same way. God himself embodies the notion of logical consistency within his own being.
Blessings on you.