As the conversations regarding Theology Proper (the doctrine of God) are coming more to the fore, it occurs to me what comfort that which is the classical doctrine of God (classical theism, or orthodox theism), gives to the believer.
I recently posted a comment to a dialog that was on the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog. The Original Posted Article was by Pastor Jim Butler, of Free Grace Baptist Church of Chilliwack. The article by Pastor Butler, may be found here, entitled A BRIEF STATEMENT ON DIVINE IMPASSIBILITY. I highly recommend not only reading the article, but the comments which follow, which will show certain things that are coming to light in this present age.
What is inherent in the discussion is that God has perfections, not passions or emotions. God’s perfections are that by which we derive our great comfort, and I find that which most greatly comforts me is that, in His eternal, infinite, unchanging being, He gives to us a love which is based in His love of Himself. We have no fear, because that which is of God cannot ever change.
1 John 4:18-19: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
The love with which we love Him is based upon, grounded in, and derived from the love which He first loved us with. Since that love is His love of His Son, we are given to not have fear of circumstances in this life, or of eternal judgment, and His love is being perfected in us. Because God is pure act (Exodus 3:14), all that He is continues from “everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2). His love continues because “God is love,” and that not as an addition or mood, but part and parcel with His essence and being, which cannot change. This is the love with which He first loved us – Himself. God is not love as a component of His being, but in His being “God is love.”
No mistake should be made, or is here intended, as to that which I am stating about our God. I am not saying that all that God is, is love alone. Indeed, Scripture gives us the truth that our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), jealous (Exodus 20:5), righteous (2 Chronicles 12:6; Psalm 7:11; 11:7) and many other things which are but a definition of that way we perceive Him, for He is all of those things, all at once, without addition or subtraction or change, infinitely.
Therefore, while we speak of God, we can never completely properly portray Him, even with the words He has condescended to give us those views of Himself in His revelation. He not only is love, but is also defined by Himself in myriad other ways which accommodate our understanding, but do not give us that full knowledge of Him which is only His (1 Corinthians 2:11; cf. Romans 11:33). When we grasp that which He has given us to know about Him, we must say “these are but the outskirts of His ways” (Job 26:14). Regarding these different expressions which sound like human emotions to us, we must always keep in mind, as with all those passions expressed and experienced by mankind, that these things which are temporally felt, suffered, and expressed by and to us, are but the shadow of a shadow of that which is true of our God in unchangeable, infinite, eternal, uncreated manner.
God is indeed jealous of that which is true of Him, and He will – in fact does – consume those who hate Him, according to the unchanging good and righteousness which He is, yet this in no way detracts from that love He has everlastingly decreed to express towards those who are encompassed within His decree of election in Christ Jesus. He is jealous as an outworking of His righteous perfection of good as opposed to anything that is not perfect and good as He is, yet we must not suppose this is jealous (nor that we are consumed by Him in the same way as we think of our being consumed by the passion of jealously) in the manner of men, but rather, that these finite expressions are accommodated to our understanding as those He created, that we may indeed stand at the outskirts of the interminable reaches approaching who He is to gain that merciful and loving understanding of Him He has allowed (indeed, the usage of such language as “allow” is, itself, a proof of accommodation, for God does not “allow” one thing and not “allow” another – as the apostle wrote, “we speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh”). We may not know Him exhaustively, but we may know Him as He has revealed Himself, which is yet such a broad range of knowledge of Him that we can say we have been granted to know Him who is unknowable in a manner suited to our comprehension (and this is only true of those He has given His Spirit to abide in to understand these things – 1 Corinthians 2:12-16).
This is reason for great hope, for our God cannot be affected by the pallium of human investiture. Regardless of how we see or perceive Him, He remains as He is: most serene, most blessed in and of Himself, and it is of that unchanging blessedness which He has deigned to give to us, those whom He created, as He wills.
The first thing, then – indeed the chief thing – to remember in addressing this most foundational doctrine of our faith is this: We are out of our dept. That which may be comprehended about God is given of God to us, but of all that He has entrusted us to know of Him, primarily in special revelation (Scripture), and secondarily through natural, or general revelation, the thing He drives home, time and again, is that we cannot know Him exhaustively. He is infinite and eternal, the only being of which it can be said that never did He have a beginning, nor will He have an end, or experience change. When He describes Himself to us in His Scripture, He is giving us brief glimpses, as of catching a view of a distant sun, thousands – no, billions and billions – of universes removed, through the most monstrous telescope which could ever be made, with atmospheric disturbances in our field of vision each microscopic measurement of the way.
When we think of His glory, we must understand we are seeing that which we cannot approach in fractions of fractions of reflections. As the apostle Paul spoke of “in a glass darkly,” and made comparison to the eternal state with God as “then face to face,” He nevertheless did not contradict what he states elsewhere of the inability of man, whether perfected of God or before, to truly know God (1 Corinthians 13:12; cf. Romans 11:33; 1 Timothy 6:13-16).
The breakdown which has often – too often – come to the fore in the current discussions among modern Reformed and orthodox evangelical theologians is that of analogical predication, which is language, such as we use, to describe God. In other words, God uses the language He gave to man to define Himself to man, and He does this in two ways: 1) By descriptions of Himself, and 2) by descriptions of what He does in the world (and this is very simplistically put). It should be obvious that passages which speak of who God is – that is, as to His essence and being – necessarily establish the meaning of passages speaking of that which God does.
As a for-instance, God tells us, in Psalm 90:2, Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. This is God giving us information about His essence and being through Moses’ prayer. He is not one who came into existence, nor is His existence, essence and being limited by that which He created. He has always been, and will always be, the great I AM THAT I AM. In light of this fact, anything God does within His creation which has temporal results that are now, then pass away, must not be thought of as referring to that which He essentially is. Also, such effects are outside of God’s essence and being, which is to say, though He causes them to come about, and so affects that which exists within His creation, He is not, in turn, in any manner affected by these changes. His love is a perfection, as is His righteousness and other attributes, so that He is these things unchangeably, eternally and infinitely, all at once. Nothing He does changes Him, and nothing done by those whom He created affects Him to bring about change in Him.
It is precisely because of who He is that His love is able to interact with that which He created without, in turn, causing Him to respond to those things which His creatures undergo. Since God is pure act, His love never had a beginning, cannot grow, and will never end. It is perfect in the quality and quantity (if we may use such a term of He who cannot be measured) that God is perfect, which is why, when the theologians of the church throughout history speak of those emotive passages in Scripture which would be passions for us, they call them perfections when referring to God. That which is perfect has no need of anything to be added to it to become more perfect (realizing the expression “more perfect” is an oxy-moron), and so it is with God in all that He is. He is perfectly merciful, therefore there is no need that He respond to the sufferings of His creatures with any further mercy elicited by their sufferings.
It is precisely here that some modern theologians, trying to explain the language of emotion predicated of God in Scripture, go astray. They cannot imagine a God who did not suffer with His people, therefore they base their observations and expositions of those passages which show us that analogous relationship between the Creator and His creatures in backwards fashion. Where they should allow the passages which speak of the being and essence of God to determine the meaning of the passages which speak of His interaction with His creatures, they reverse this order, and in doing so, predicate change of God based on a univocal (one-to-one) relationship of the Creator with those He created. Instead of a God who tells us He cannot change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), and instead of taking comfort in the God who perfectly loves and is perfectly merciful at all times, they attribute the malleable nature of the creature to Him, in order to bring Him down to a level they can understand (but God cannot be understood as a man understands another man – Psalm 50:21).
Instead of the comfort of a perfection of love, righteousness and mercy that is beyond the ability of man to comprehend, they posit these traits in the One who created them to be responsive, when God has no need to respond, since He is already perfect in all these things all at once, forever.
If we were to take all the human miseries of all time and bundle them together, God’s love and compassion would be more than enough to encompass these without His need to react to them, because for God, where all these are perfect, He cannot become more complete in them. It is because He is perfect that we take comfort. A God who could change would not be the God of Scripture, nor would He be able to offer us that solace that comes from knowing that He is the most loving, most compassionate, most just God, for there are none like Him. He is the Creator, who was perfect in all these things at one and the same time, without beginning or end, before ever He created, and He cannot become more perfect in any of them. His perfections are at one with who He is, which is to say, His essence.
This is our comfort in the love of God. Perfect love does, indeed, cast out fear.
This is intended to be a brief meditation on the comfort of our everlastingly, infinite, unchanging God for the purpose of our comfort in and of Him, so I will end it with the apostle’s benediction:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
SDG – Bill
EDIT – Upon a brief interaction with a beloved brother in the Lord, I want to say that I do affirm that God has emotions, but not as we think of them. Emotions, as God has them, being pure unchangeable act in infinite and eternal being and essence as He is, are not unstable, or brought upon Him where He now feels love, now feels mercy, now feels hatred, or wrath, etc.
Rather, God is, in Himself, most pure and complete in a manner we cannot conceive of for ourselves. He is unique, with none to compare with Him. It is precisely because of the constancy of His emotions, which I have called “perfections” in the article above (along with other theologians of the past among the Reformed and earlier), that I choose that terminology.