God, Love, and Power, Part 1: Knowing God and Knowing About God

This piece, which covers an issue that I think has become a prevalent problem in thinking about God, is rather long. Nevertheless, rather than breaking it into separate posts, I wanted to keep it all as one to help see how the parts connect.

We often hear atheists/agnostics speak about the God of Christianity in a way that makes him seem morally evil, rather than good—God as some kind of omnipotent narcissist. And what they are saying seems theologically accurate, even if perhaps emotionally inappropriate. Perhaps we Christians have not been careful enough in how we speak. Or perhaps we are quite careful, but we have failed to see how sin can so easily deceive us into thinking wrongly, even (or especially) when we feel quite confident that we are right.

Consider the following a reflection on how sin makes us obsessed with power, so much that we’d bow to Satan in order to establish God’s Kingdom on earth—something Jesus quite rightly rejected.

“What is God?” or “Who is God?”

Several years ago, I was teaching philosophy at a small Christian college. In one class, I asked the students to describe God. They gave all the important characteristics of God: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, eternal, and so on.

The word that never came up was “loving.” Now, they may have believed that “all-good” covered “loving,” but I don’t think many do. Generally, we think of goodness as moral rigidity, a kind of harsh bleach—holiness, purity, which is closely aligned with judgment, anger, and perhaps even hatred of us and our failures. I wasn’t surprised that the class had left “love” out of the list.

I talked to one particularly bright and thoughtful student after class, and she said that she really wanted to say “loving,” but because this was an academic class, it seemed out of place.

The sense she had was that love is not a trait of God that academia would bother recognizing or discussing.

I do not think my student was stupid—in fact, I think her claim was sadly insightful.

Why does God being all-powerful, all-knowing, holy, eternal seem more intelligent or academic, while loving seems a low-brow, childish way of talking about God? It might be because the former traits say what God is, while loving describes who God is.

And for some reason we think that we are more accurate in describing God when we say what he is, rather than who he is.

This may not seem strange to us because it arises out of a much larger set of metaphysical and epistemological views to which we have been habituated. But it isn’t a mere meaningless idiosyncrasy. I think it is a bad way to talk about God, and results in bad ways of talking about everything from sin to salvation.

It also reflects bad ways of talking about ourselves. And I think turning to how we view ourselves may help us grasp what is wrong with talking about God this way.

“What are you?” vs. “Who are you?”

We are a society that seems obsessed with identity. Our view of identity, though, seems attached to three kinds of things.

(1) Our genetic makeup, and how that manifests in our appearance.

(2) Our external circumstances (particularly during our childhood), usually social or economic.

(3) Our desires.

In relation to (1), we may identify as a particular race, sex, gender. In relation to (2), we may identify as abused or privileged, upper, middle, or lower class, or some locale or culture. In relation to (3), we identify with some desire or set of desires, most often those desires that are most powerful (e.g. sexual desire).

What is lacking in each of these ways of identifying ourselves?

Personal agency.

Personal agency is that capacity to decide how we respond and use these things that influence us. Personal agency shines brightly in those who overcome addiction, who arise from abuse and violence to offer kindness and help to others. Personal agency shows up in those who climb into some form of success out of the despair of socio-economic circumstances that seem to cripple most of us. Personal agency shows up most beautifully and powerfully in self-giving love, which involves denying oneself those motivations that arise naturally from (1)-(3), so that you can offer help to another person through giving time, peace, or forgiveness.

So, then, why would we define ourselves according to what we are, rather than who we are?

I think there are numerous reasons, and they are perhaps different for different people. In the past, I would identify with my childhood circumstances in order to avoid responsibility for my own failures. Identification with a desire or set of desires releases us from responsibility for acting on those desires, for, we might say erroneously, that “this is who I am!” What we really mean is: “This is what I am.”

For the question of who you are can only be answered with descriptions of personal agency. We might reference our genetics, circumstances, and desires, but these are not who we are, but the stuff we have been given to work with as persons. Some of us have been given a mix of genetics, circumstances, and desires that offer us less trouble in our present society, while others of us have been given a mix that causes us greater distress and trouble in our environment.

But this mix is not who you are. It is what you are (or what you are made of).

Of course, even this language isn’t quite right. For what you are is a who, a person. But allow me to use language a bit loosely in this regard.

If someone were to describe you with the following sentence, “Oh, s/he is just a ______”—even if that blank space was filled with a list of all the facts about your genetics, circumstances, and desires, you would be insulted. And rightly so. For such a list says things about you. But it does not say who you are.

In fact, I’d suggest that each of us is somewhat indescribable. We are truly known only through personal relationship.[1] And if you don’t know me personally, it would be quite easy to misunderstand my words or deeds. And, even more, it would be quite easy to make judgments about me based on my genetics, circumstances, and statistically-probable desires.

God’s Power and the Persons of the Trinity

So, let’s get back to talk about God. Just as you are not simply a list of properties about you, but are most truly known only in the choices you make in your personal agency (even if those choices are simply submission to your natural desires), so God is not really known until we know him as a person—or, more appropriately, the three persons of the Trinity as persons.

In this case, if asked to describe God, your first response should be “love.” All the other stuff seems to say stuff about God, about what God is, but it does not say who God is.

How do we know who God is? Where has God been most manifest?

We can look at the Torah, the wars of Joshua and the judges and kings of Israel. We can look at plagues, punishments, exile. We can look at creation. We can look at the return of Christ at the end.

And these, I think, tend to be the way that we picture God—God is essentially, most importantly, about power to create and then destroy those pieces of creation that don’t submit to his righteous demands.

But I believe that the clearest manifestation of God is in the personal agency of Jesus Christ. For God to be known truly, he must be known as a person, as a who. And what could God possibly do better to present himself as a who, as a person, than to send the Son into the world to live among us?

And what is the clearest manifestation of God within the life and work of Jesus? It is in his being “lifted up,” in his self-giving act of love on the cross.

Jesus Christ and him crucified—to quote Paul—that is the best description we have of God.

It is more central to who God is than his being all-powerful, all-knowing, all-pure, and eternal. It is not that these attributes are wrong or unimportant. It is that they are not central. Because the God of the Bible is a (tri-)personal God.

Listen to the request of Philip in John 14:8 (ESV), “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” We perhaps think like Philip: “Yes, Jesus is truly caring and self-sacrificial. But this is all just preparatory work for when the Father comes to beat everyone down. Jesus died on the cross for us, sure, but now that that is out of the way, the real character of the Father as overwhelming power to control and destroy—just like the kings of the Gentiles, will be shown. ”

But Jesus says to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9 ESV).

Perhaps Philip wanted a violent, army-crushing Messiah. And we, today, still want, and fear, a violent God.

Has Jesus shown you enough? Or do you deny that in seeing Jesus you have seen the Father?

Who is God? He is the one who gives of himself, even to torture and death, so that we might have life and share in the life and glory of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

To know God is to experience, to have faith, deep within ourselves that God loves us.

But our sin, our faithlessness, tells us to believe that God is at war with us. That God hates us, and that God’s happiness and our happiness are at odds.

Why do we see things this way? Part 2 will address this question, as we go a bit deeper into our discussion of God, love, and power.

 

God, Love, and Power, Part 2: Ontological Necessity and the Trinity

 

In Part 1, we covered what you might consider just elementary Sunday School stuff. But I wanted us to see how our contemporary society has a terrible view of our own identity, but how this view of our identity is simply a reflection of how we—even we Christians—view God: As a list of properties, a what, rather than as a who.

It seems evident to me why we should care about this. In the previous post with the apparently deceptive title “Morality as Natural,” one person responded several times by saying that Christianity is terrible because the Bible presents a God who demands his followers be sycophants, and that the morality of Yahweh worship is driven by threats of punishment.

You see the idea here is that the God of the Bible is one of power-over, of lording-it-over. And it is this idea, talked about on a more “psychological” level in Part 1 that I want to dive into in a more metaphysical manner in Part 2.

What is the Problem. And the Trinity is the Answer

If you were to pick the most unusual doctrine with Christianity, what would you pick? Perhaps, we might say that idea of grace, or the Incarnation. But I think the real answer is strictly about God: The Trinity. This truly unique theology is also perhaps the most ignored. Because we don’t know what to do with it. Some even see it as an embarrassment, a semi-irrational idea, if not a straight up contradiction.

But this view of the Trinity really arises from our own disconnect with those great Christians who, under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit, assembled the New Testament, battled out the creeds, and handed down to us the faith given to them. We seem to think Christianity either began with Luther and Calvin, or (as I used to thoughtlessly feel) that it clearly began in the New Testament, went through almost two thousand years of relatively unimportant, primitive confusion, then really became what it was supposed to be in the last century or so.

Let us peek back a bit, utilizing the brilliant work of John Zizioulas in his book Being as Communion. Zizioulas, like most Eastern Orthodox thinkers, has much more familiarity with the church fathers and the debates about Jesus and the Trinity than most of us.

One can easily see the richness and depth of Christianity in how reflections on its doctrines anticipate problems that we have only really recognized recently. Indeed, if Zizioulas is right, it is only with the Trinitarian understanding that the idea of personhood as a metaphysical concept arose in Western history.

What do I mean by this? Well, if you read Part 1, you see that a person is something more than the facts, the impersonal properties that serve as the material through which, and upon which, a personal agent acts. My body is an important part of me, to be sure. But you can’t look at my genetics and say therefore that I am nothing more than the biological laws that drive my body. I am also a person.

We call this “reductionism”—when you reject whatever the whole is, claiming rather that the whole is nothing more than the parts that make up that whole. Racism relies on a form of reductionism, ignoring the personhood of anyone with a particular genetic makeup. Same with misogyny, misandry, and all other forms of hatred that rely on categorizing people.[2]

Neither can we categorize God. The God of the Bible is not like other gods. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity makes this clear in more ways than one.

The Existentialists noted the problem of the relationship between what makes you up and who you are. We humans, they would say, are the ones who determine the natures of things. We see some stone and a stick, and we determine it is a lever, or a mallet. We determine that a pile of lumber shall make up a house or a deck. We look upon the world and give the things within it proper places and uses.

What then do we do with ourselves? The Existentialists reject belief in God, and thus see humans as beings who have no one to give to them a nature or purpose. We must give ourselves a nature. We determine for ourselves what we are. And this is both exciting and terrible—we are orphans in a universe without purpose or nature. We must decide for ourselves.

Of course, we Christians believe in God, and that God has given us a nature.[3] But then we might ask, “Who gives God a nature?” In a real way, God could be an existentialist—not that God is an atheist, but because there is no one and no thing above God to give him a nature.

Well, perhaps God’s nature—being all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, eternal—these are God’s nature, period. And God is, you might say, constrained by these properties. And, because God did not create himself[4], he did not have a choice over his existence or his properties. God seems to be utterly unfree, existing without choice over existing and over what attributes belong to him. In some ways, he seems in a state worse than what the Existentialists claim we are in.[5]

Zizioulas refers to this situation as “ontological necessity.” (“Ontology” refers to the study or nature of being itself.) It seems that God, left as simply a being that is eternal, all-powerful, etc. is just as trapped as we might be.

What is the solution to this problem? For it seems that God, having had no control over his being, is trapped by what he is. And given that he is all-good, he cannot even exercise freedom in choosing any option other than the very best. Is God a slave to his own nature?

Kirilov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, who saw humans in this state of ontological necessity, claimed that we could overcome our being-trapped by our own being through suicide. In destroying our own being, we could gain control over it. In that moment, we become gods—in fact, it seems, we become freer than God himself is!

What a sad conclusion, though, that freedom over ourselves can only manifest in actively choosing (an unnatural) death.

But suicide is not the only solution to the problem of ontological necessity. There is one other option. And the contrast between ontological necessity and the solution drives us directly into the question of power.

What is the other solution? What is that solution that gives us the capacity not to gain freedom over our being through destroying our being, but rather giving free consent and affirmation to our own being.

Self-giving love. You see one’s being, one’s given-nature[6], can relate to other given-natures in a limited number of ways. Two given-natures will either try to enslave or destroy one another. For every other is either an enemy or a tool of you, and you will either control or destroy the other, or be controlled or destroyed by the other.[7]

Need evidence? Look at everything around you. All creatures, all people seem naturally bent to relate this way. We take, we violate, we use, we destroy, we enslave. Even most of our friendships are merely ongoing acts of mutual use. The Existentialist philosopher Sartre makes this most evident in his play “No Exit,” in which we find the famous line, “Hell is other people.”

But not all relationships fall into this given-nature enslave/destroy approach. Some seem to go beyond this. And the most important is that between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is almost improper to talk about God in the singular in Christianity. It is not that we believe in more than one God, but that we always (as I have in this post) refer to God as “he,” as if God is a single person. But God the Father has eternally begotten the Son, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father (and the Son).[8]

God overcomes ontological necessity which would control him by being God the Father who eternally begets and loves the Son, and eternally gives procession to the Spirit.

An important point can be found here, which we can recognize simply in the way that we talk about God. God being Triune is not found in his “given-nature.”[9] All-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and so forth say nothing about the Trinity—which is why the Trinity has been seen by some Christians as almost an embarrassment, so that we usually ignore it.[10] And it is correct that God’s given-nature does not prescribe three persons in one God.

God is Trinity because of the eternal free choice of the person of the Father. God is free, not by given-nature, but by being personal. God’s freedom overcomes the danger of ontological necessity. God is therefore fundamentally personal, and God’s personhood is fundamentally an act of self-giving communion. In fact, if we were to sum this up, we could not do much better than saying that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

God the Father affirms his own being by freely giving of himself to eternally beget the Son and give procession to the Spirit.[11]

God is indeed all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, eternal. But none of these are the most important attribute of God. God’s love is. For that is who God is, and who God is is far more important and meaningful than what God is.

Our emphasis on God’s what is the problem. The Trinity is the answer to that problem. “God is love” is the summary.

And we are tempted, by our given-natures, to view God and respond to him (or, rather, them) as given-nature, to be at war with God. Indeed, if I may say so, this may very well be the essence of sin itself, for living in and thinking in terms of our given-natures puts us at war with God and everyone and everything around us. But “[o]n these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”: Love God and love your neighbor. And that is merely living out the image of God in which we were created.

 

God, Love, and Power, Part 3: The Power of Empires Overcome

In Part 1, we examined our tendency to determine our identities in terms of what we are, which I termed in Part 2 one’s “given-nature,” and we saw how that echoed in how we viewed God as a what, rather than a who. In Part 2, we dove deep into the metaphysical waters of the doctrine of the Trinity, and saw how God being three persons is far more central to him (or, rather, them) than God’s whatness. In short, “God is love” is far more important, more fundamental to God, than “God is all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.”

In this last part, we will leave the depths of metaphysics, and apply this idea to the issue I’ve been trying to get us to: What is the nature of God’s power?

In the post entitled “Morality as Natural,” I specifically criticized the idea that Christian morality is grounded in threats of punishment from God. It is not that I reject the idea of hell or punishment, but that I believe that sin brings about the punishment, just as jumping off a cliff leads to the “punishment” of being broken on the rocks below, or eating a ghost pepper leads to the “punishment” of a pain-filled mouth.

Does this mean that God is some loving, but powerless, being who simply allows people to suffer the consequences for their actions? No. At least, I don’t think so. I cannot respond to this entire set of (self-)accusations, so feel free to criticize me here. But I will respond to at least part of it.

Let us begin by looking briefly at the Bible. Specifically, let’s consider the two-part series of Luke-Acts. In Luke-Acts, we see a clear comparison not only in the content, but also in the form of the books. The form seems to be set in a broad chiastic manner. We start Luke with references to Roman officials—Herod and Caesar Augustus. In fact, it was the decree of Caesar that seemed to get things going.

Luke-Acts ends with Rome again, but this time Paul is in Rome. In some ways, this reflects well the beginning of Luke, and exposes a weakness in the power of Rome. For the plan of God was that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. God used Caesar’s power—a power that the Jews died to fight against, for the census was perceived insult, a shameful form of oppression over the Jewish people by a foreign power—to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. So, too, Paul wanted to bring the Gospel to Rome, and he is preaching there daily while under arrest by the power of Rome. God’s power undermines  even the greatest power in the world at the time, bending it to the work of love that God has been bringing into the world.

Against this framing of the story with Roman power—which I will simply refer to as Empire Power—we have the center of the story, which is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Specifically, the resurrected Jesus is emphasized, which appears at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts.

And so we have contrasted the Empire Power of Rome and Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice and the resurrection. What do we learn about these kinds of power from this contrast?

Perhaps a better way of approaching this is to ask yourself how Jesus could be the Jewish Messiah? For the Messiah was to free God’s people from the oppression of foreign rulers. Did Jesus accomplish this?

My guess is that most would respond in one of two ways. One might “spiritualize” the Messianic work and say, “Yes, he did free them from the oppression of sin, which is a far worse foreign power than Rome.”

Another might make the Messianic work purely future, saying, “He had to die for sins, and will in the future come back and destroy all foreign powers.”

Most of us would say both.

But what if Jesus did in fact overcome Rome, and not just Rome, but all worldly power?

What is the power that runs the systems of this world? It is getting, taking, controlling, using. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, all worldly order is built upon the threat of, at minimum, exclusion,[12] and ultimately death. We live in a worldly system that values the frantic self-destruction of the pursuit of wealth, fame, power, and the belief that in order to get these, one must either crush or use others. Spend some time in a networking group and appear unhelpful for the acquisition of money and see how quickly you are ignored and excluded.

The world runs on the same power that was the foundation of the Roman Empire, and all Empires: The power of death. It is not that everyone in the world is threatening everyone else with death. It is that if you ask “why?” of any cultural norm or morality, you ultimately end in society either excluding or killing you.

Most people end up with the same conclusion when talking about the morality that finds its roots in the character of the Triune God. And that seems wrong, for at least two reasons.

First, because Jesus does not exemplify the power of empires, the power of death. He overcomes death. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And, just previous, “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22).

And this power that Christ exhibits manifests in his willing acceptance of humiliation, exclusion, and death, and his love poured out even on those who mocked and condemned him. Through such self-giving love, in which Jesus did not seek to acquire power-over, but emptied himself (Philippians 2), he overcame death itself.

Shall we then make Jesus into his opposite? Shall we impute on him the works of his enemy, death? Shall we, like the confused disciples, opportunistic followers, and Jewish religious leaders believe that he is a mere military Messiah—only their timing was off by at least a couple thousand years? Do we say with Philip, “Show us the Father,” and ignore the healing, inclusion, and life-giving acts of Jesus in the gospels?

In addition, we can appeal back to the more metaphysical claims about the Trinity from Part 2. The Father eternally begot the Son and gave procession to the Spirit so as to be in a state of eternal loving communion. And the Trinity, the one God in three persons, created a space for that which is other—we created beings—gave us the glory of the image of God and redeemed us through servanthood and self-sacrifice so that we might be in Christ, identified with him, joined through the Spirit into the body of Christ, so that we are “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). What tremendous self-giving love!

And yet we have this bad habit of seeing God as primarily all-powerful, who also happens (luckily!) to be a fairly kind being. Though, in the end, he will come back and, wielding an infinite amount of Empire Power, will kill and torture everyone who does not submit to his power.

Is it not, rather, that we are trapped in our own obsession with power that we make God in our power-hungry, death-wielding, exclusionary and hateful image?[13]

But isn’t God powerful? Isn’t there a final judgment?

I would prefer to put these questions off until I have concluded, but even I feel a little nervous about what I’ve written. This is, to some extent, exploratory, and I welcome correction. I want to remain faithful to Scripture and the faith handed down.[14]

So what do we do with God’s judgment, wrath, and the final overthrowing of all worldly powers?

I obviously do not believe they need to be abandoned, otherwise I would toss all this away as heretical speculation.

Let’s look quickly at some elements of the judgment, for a few stand out.

First, fire. Fire appears several times in the New Testament connected with judgment. John the Baptist declares that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Paul says that our works will be tested by fire (1 Cor 3:13). Hell is described several times as a place of unquenchable fire, a lake of fire.

Fire—the Greek of which is the origin of our English word “pure”—serves as that which purifies. We see that everyone will pass through fire, not just unbelievers. But it seems that those who reject faith in Christ will be all impurity, while we, by the grace of God alone, will pass through the fire and come out the other side. This is stated clearly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:12-13.

Fire isn’t the only image of that which purifies. Truth stands in stark contrast to lies and deceit. And the idea of truth plays an important role in judgment. It is the belt of those who wear God’s armor (Eph 6:14), and perhaps also appears in the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17)–for God’s word divides us, exposing what is within us (Heb 4:12). This image of a sword appears in the final judgment, when Jesus returns (Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15; 19:21).

The truth—this is perhaps the greatest weapon against a world glutted with the power of death. And it is this that destroys the power of the kings and nations that fight against God and his people.

But it seems that God kills all the bad guys, right?

I think the presence of God, the declaration of the undeniable truth, and the presence of that which purifies (these are perhaps all the same thing) will indeed destroy the false, the sinful, the rebellious, the chaff. For what can stand before all this?

But if we look at this as a matter of God, frustrated because people are not glorifying him, decides to come and kill everyone, I think we have the wrong sense of what is going on. God gives life, but he does so only in the truth. Those who are living death (see Eph 2:1-2) cannot stand before the purity, the fire, the truth of the presence of God. Yes, indeed, they will be judged, but not because God has an anger problem, nor because God is some kind of omnipotent narcissist. They will be judged by the truth—that their lives have been built upon a system that glorifies the power of death, exclusion, violation, use, enslavement.

And we who are believers, and yet participate and even glorify such worldly systems of power, we will pass through the fire so that our work will be shown for what it is (1 Cor 3:12-13). Again, by God’s grace, we will come out the other side and not fall into the second death (Rev 20:14).

One last critique: Doesn’t this make God passive, rather than active, in the judgment of the world?

I think yes and no, depending on what you mean. The world is upheld by the Word, through whom it was created. That this same Word, the Truth, exposes that which has rejected the very nature of being and the world, seems rather active.

In turn, there is a limit to what God will allow before he brings down the fire of truth to end the reign of the power of empires, the power of death.

But is God’s “passive” presence alone enough to undermine the power of those who glorify themselves by taking from others? Absolutely!

God, Power, and Love

Let me conclude by summarizing and offering a caveat.

The purpose of this post is in fact a development of the previous several posts on the issue of morality. Most importantly, perhaps, is that the morality found in Scripture is not grounded in God being all-powerful and so able to do what he wants, punish whomever he wishes, and so we must obey (even if we don’t care about what is good) simply to avoid punishment. Rather, morality is grounded in God’s personhood—for God exists eternally in loving communion. All things were created by the Triune God, and we were created in this “interpersonal” image.[15] And so sin, which is simply acting against the will of our Creator, is in turn to act against our own being, as well as the being of the world.

The world was corrupted by our sin, for we were meant to rule over it and bring it all into subjection to the character of our Creator and King. But we failed. And so the world is subject, rather, to death, decay, hatred, violation, destruction. The ground itself is cursed as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:17; cf. Gen 4:11; Rom 8:19-21). And we humans continue to live in this pattern of death, from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Even our love is weak and corrupted by the desire for power and fear of death.

But thanks be to God! For he sent his only Son to overcome the power of death/sin by living a pure life, a life untouched by the obsession with power and control.[16] Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the power of Satan, the power of this world(ly system), the power of empires, the power of exclusion and death were overcome.

God’s judgment is the judgment of purification and truth (or, rather, Truth). Not truth spoken in hatred (cf. Eph 4:15), but Truth manifest in him whose love lifted him up onto the cross. Hatred, narcissism, gluttonous pursuit of money, power, control—these cannot stand before the truth, the purity, the fire of the one who appears as a lamb who was slain.

And so true Christian morality is not grounded in punishment and reward, which would allow false motives and corrupt hearts. Rather, it is grounded in being itself. And being is fundamentally personal—it is not given-nature, but the persons of the Trinity, and ourselves as persons. To sin is to reject personhood as fundamental, to bring on a war of given-nature against given-nature. To be good, to be holy means nothing more than living in love, in faith, and in hope. And these are all centered on Jesus, the lamb who was slain, and his Lordship over all things.

Are we able to follow his example? Can we recognize that the greatest in the kingdom of God is the servant of all? Or are we too attached to the idea that the greatest in the kingdom must indeed appear great and exercise that power of lording-it-over (Matt 20:25) so that we corrupt both our own ministry and our reflections on God’s nature?

May God give me the grace to love as he first loved us.

Finally, one caveat. I said before, and I will simply repeat here: Most of this is fairly new to me—even though the ideas have been around for a long time, I simply could not see things except in terms of empire power. Given that I am newly wrestling with these ideas, I may have said something, or perhaps many things, in error. I am open to correction, and would be greatly blessed by any Christian wiser and more knowledgeable who could show me whether I am in error.

[1] Cf. Matthew 7:23—Jesus surely knows all there is to know about these people, but they never came into relationship with him. And so he, the omniscient, might perhaps rightly say that he never knew them.

[2] That such a way of looking at persons is to be rejected is evidenced even in the Old Testament, but is perhaps most clearly stated in Galatians 3:28.

[3] This is where the idea of “morality as natural” comes from in the post with that title.

[4] God could not create himself, because that would create two impossibilities: First, it would mean that God existed before God existed, which is a contradiction. Second, it would mean that God is a created being, which means that he is not in fact God.

[5] The reason it would be worse is because we have a world and other people around us in which we might find purpose and direction. God, prior to creation, would be utterly alone.

[6] I use the term “given-nature” to refer to those properties that are a part of a person, but are not the person. I do this because the word “nature” is kind of loose. In reality, our nature is personal. But our given-nature, as I’m using the term, is that which is impersonally a part of us (our genetics, socio-economic background, etc.), but through and out of which we act as personal agents. So, too, God’s given-nature are the list of attributes, such as being all-powerful, all-knowing, etc.

[7] There is one other option, represented perhaps most clearly in Hinduism, in which there really is only a single given-nature, such that God (Brahman) and I (atman) are the same thing.

[8] “Begotten” and “proceeds” are the terms the Nicene Creed uses. The parenthetical “and the Son” is a reference to the notorious “filioque” controversy. The Western Church (Catholic) and the Eastern Orthodox Church broke in 1054 AD over the Western Church’s addition of this phrase to the Creed. Or, at least, that was the excuse for the division, since the fracture between the two had been growing for some time.

[9] See footnote 5 for the meaning of this term.

[10] I think most Christians in the West are really (quasi-)modalists—that is, we view a single God with three different ways of act, three personalities, we might say. Modalism is a heresy—and thank God it is!

[11] You are perhaps tempted at this point to say something like this: “But God is able to freely act only because of what kind of thing God is. Therefore, the impersonal what of God is more fundamental to God’s being than the who.” But, while this seems to fit very well with our view of the world, it denies God’s free affirmation of his own being through his free action. And this free action is eternal, and therefore there is no “what” that is “prior to” the eternal, free begetting of the Son, etc. That is, once again in this temptation, we confront that desire to

[12] Exclusion is akin to death and leads to it. We are made to be in communion. This is why, even in prisons where there is perhaps the shabbiest echo of communion in the general populace, solitary confinement is still the worst punishment.

[13] It is likely that a reader who has some theological training might be thinking here that this comparison of God’s power, love, etc., is in fact somewhat inappropriate if only because of the idea of God’s simplicity. The simplicity of God here would refer primarily to the indivisibility of God’s properties, virtues, and so on. Thus, one might say that this talk of which is prior or most important and so on is in fact fundamentally confused. But I disagree, for two reasons. First, I believe that, if indeed the simplicity of God is a sound idea, this is only due to God being personal. For if simplicity is indeed the case, then we recognize that our ideas of, for example, justice and mercy, which are at odds in our own minds, are not to God. And we see examples of how these apparently opposing ideas can be unified, not as pure concepts, but in people who exhibit a deep wisdom. So, we might think that justice and mercy oppose one another, but it is not at all strange to say about some particular arbiter that s/he is both just and merciful without any contradiction and tension. Secondly, on a more strictly psychological level, one may affirm God’s simplicity, but still cannot help but emphasize those virtues or properties that reflect one’s view of oneself. If we begin with an impersonal property, rather than God’s personhood, then I think that is a sign of how we view others and ourselves. And so we have this view of ourselves, others, and God as more of a what than a who, and, in turn, we find ourselves divided in our virtues and qualities, just as we see God divided. The final result is most often that we pick a particular property—usually power or niceness (as opposed to real love)—that we think is most important, and identify God and ourselves by that. And given that we worship a being of pure power or pure niceness, our view of ethics falls along with this lower view of God. For if you worship power-God, then you his other attributes are mere corollaries to his power, and so even his goodness is merely a function of power. In short, “might makes right.” Or, if you worship the Santa Clause nice-God, then you also believe that sin is not an undermining of our very being, but rather a matter of preferences that God just isn’t that concerned about, but really just wants you to avoid genocide and racism, but otherwise, it’s all good. In both cases, morality is merely a matter of “might makes right,” it’s just that in one God is himself only concerned with his own power, and in the other he’s just super nice, and so sets his might-supported (earlier?) preferences aside, and just kind of rolls with “enlightened” culture. Both views are badly wrong. If we talk divine simplicity, we must first turn to God’s personhood, a personhood that appeared in the Father’s affirmation of his own being in eternally begetting the Son and giving procession to the Spirit. We emphatically should not assert “simplicity” for the sake of worshiping Empire Power.

[14] 1 Timothy emphasizes the need to correct false teachers, and I do hope to remain a teacher of truth. Of course, already in 1:5, we see Paul declare that the “aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”

[15] Thus, “[i]t is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). One of the points here is that we cannot be in God’s image if we are alone. In fact, it may be that the clearest image of God is the body of Christ—for Jesus is God! Therefore, the image of God appears most clearly when we are loving one another and glorifying the Head, that is, Jesus.

[16] Cf. Matthew 4:10 and 16:23, in which Jesus rebukes Satan—first in the temptation to worship him so that he might gain all the kingdoms of the world, which belong to Satan (empire power), and secondly against Peter, who declares that Jesus should never suffer and die. Satan, through Peter, was again tempting Jesus to act in terms of the militaristic power of death that empires wield. Jesus, doing only what the Father commands, rejects both, and continues on his way to the cross.

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Wm. Travis Coblentz

Author Wm. Travis Coblentz

Travis Coblentz is the Executive Director and philosopher for Tactical Faith. Dr. Coblentz sits on the board and is a great asset in the Birmingham, AL area. He is also an Adjunct professor of philosophy at UAB.

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