The Goodness, Holiness, and Love of God

Christopher R. J. Holmes

What is true of God? And what is God like? What are God’s qualities? These are perennial questions in theology. These questions receive an answer via the doctrine of the divine attributes. The doctrine unfolds God’s names, what is true of the one essence of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In dialogue with Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, this article explores in a scripturally charged fashion three key attributes, namely goodness, holiness, and love. Each of these attributes tells us something important about what God is. While showing the significance of Aquinas’ contribution as a refinement and extension of Augustine’s, this article remains sensitive to modern Protestant objections to a metaphysically motivated account of God’s goodness, holiness, and love. The worries exemplified by Barth (and some of those under his influence) are instructive. They help us to see how the notion of God as an acting subject who loves in freedom constrains the field of reference for an account of these attributes in ways positive and negative. What is also important to consider is the affective dimension and consequences of God’s goodness, holiness, and love. One learns to know and love the God of the Bible by worshipping him, and in so doing elucidating what the church’s worship throughout the ages assumes to be true about the one supremely good, holy, and loving God.

1 Introduction

Is it possible to apprehend, know, and love God as God truly is? Many Christian theologians think that the answer is yes. A theologically and biblically responsible account of God’s goodness, holiness, and love unfolds the yes. The task ahead, then, is twofold. Such an account describes, first, God’s attributes as intrinsic to and co-extensive with the one divine essence itself. God’s attributes identify what God is. God is goodness, holiness, and love. Each of these attributes enjoys great scriptural density, though none more so than goodness. An account of the divine attributes also forms us. To speak well of God’s attributes, one must be – or be on their way to becoming – a certain sort of person. This entry is alert to claims about the imperatival and shaping dimensions of God’s attributes. In the case of goodness, for example, we are to be good and do good in relation to God and to one another. Divine goodness requires us to imitate the goodness that we share in as images and likenesses of God. Consideration of the attributes encourages us toward a greater likeness to God.

It is important to recognize that the attributes of God, revealed in God’s great works of grace, strengthen our understanding of God’s attributes as revealed in creation, the works of nature. The motif of participation does important theological work in unfolding God’s attributes, helping us to describe how created things participate (as likenesses) in the Creator. We see that God is all that he is apart from anyone or anything else. He grants all things existence in relationship to himself. Creatures share in what God is in line with what kind of creatures they are. God’s attributes are thus the basic principle by which we explain the origin, character, and end of all created things. Most importantly, the primary idiom in which scripture speaks of God’s attributes is worship and praise. This is explicit in the Psalter. Discourse on God’s attributes must embrace a worshipful frame if it is to be true to its subject matter and promote desire for and love of the same.

Before we pursue such discourse, however, it is important at the outset to define the term ‘attribute’. What is a divine attribute? An attribute describes something of what God is. In this respect, John of Damascus writes ‘for God, being good’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith: I.I; 1983). John teaches that goodness is true of God. Again, ‘[f]or God, being good’. We could just as easily say ‘[f]or God, being love’ or ‘[f]or God, being holy’. Goodness, holiness, and love (though not only goodness, holiness, and love) are absolute in God. That is our baseline, working definition. An attribute explains ‘what He is in His essence and nature’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith: I.IV; 1983). Love, goodness, and holiness are (among others) three key attributes of God that describe God’s essence and nature. Attributes are descriptive ‘of God’s own life in se’, the life common to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Holmes 2007: 58). Attributes are intrinsic to God, essential to God’s being. The many attributes of God are ‘truly united aspects of the one simply inexpressible nature of God’ (Holmes 2007: 70). Or, in John of Damascus’ words, attributes denote ‘the qualities of His nature’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith: I.V; 1983). And if we are to rightly explain these qualities, we are entirely dependent upon God’s communication of himself, ‘the things which have been divinely revealed to us, whether by word or by manifestation’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith: I.III; 1983). Attributes are (again) ‘the qualities of His nature’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith: I.V; 1983). That is our basic working definition, and our focus is on the biblically charged qualities such as goodness, holiness, and love.

2 Attributes in the history of Christian theology

Having defined, drawing on John of Damascus, an attribute(s) of God, we are now able to offer a very brief summary of primary positions in the history of Christian theology. This is not a simple task if indeed one wants to avoid caricatures and excessively broad brush strokes. In terms of the patristics, Greek and Latin, no one looms larger than Augustine. In Confessions, Augustine writes in response to the question ‘[w]ho then are you, my God?’ the following:

Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5, Old Latin version); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking. (Confessions I.4; Augustine of Hippo 1991)

Augustine teaches the catholic tradition how to describe God. In so doing, Augustine does not encourage us to preside over the mystery of God but rather writes as he does so that God might be everything to us: ‘Lord God, tell me what you are to me’ (Confessions: I.5; 1991). Augustine unites with matchless brilliance lush descriptions of God’s qualities in a way that nourishes the affections.

Augustine is not alone in this. The greatest systematic Greek patristic writer on God is Origen. Origen’s On First Principles has much to say about ‘the dignity of the divine nature’, and how we understand that dignity ‘through purity of heart’ (On First Principles 1; 2017: 197, 280 [original emphasis]). Origen makes it clear that qualities such as goodness are not ‘accidental’ to God but instead essential, that is, ‘an essential goodness’ proper to God (On First Principles; 2017: 65).

Augustine and Origen have been mentioned briefly after John of Damascus in the introduction, so as to communicate that in the patristic era attributes are conceived along essential lines ‘as belonging to his [God’s] divine nature’ (Bray 2021: 112). For the patristics as a whole, to say nothing of Thomas Aquinas, ‘it is, following John’s lead, impossible to explain what He is in His essence’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith I.IV; 1983). There is a strong negative moment in their thought. Having said that, the negative gives rise to positive statements about God. Thus ‘when we speak of Him as light, we mean that He is not darkness’ (Exposition of The Orthodox Faith I.IV; 1983). Although we cannot explain the light that is true of God in his essence, we can nonetheless glimpse it, recognizing the positive claim: ‘we mean that he is not darkness’.

The largely uniform witness of classical Christian theology (in the Greek East and Latin West) carried through to the Middle Ages. It was simply taken for granted by Aquinas that God is impassible, simple, and immutable. Aquinas provides robust detailed accounts of these truths. As he does, he builds his case upon the scriptures while citing numerous authorities in the tradition, though none more so than Augustine. When it comes to the upheavals of the sixteenth century, neither Calvin nor Luther alter the basically Augustinian doctrine of God, though Luther does innovate in his account of the communicatio idiomatum as regards his Christology. Even though the magisterial Reformers do not articulate the God/world relationship along strictly causal lines, it is clear that the world adds nothing to God, that God creates by his will, and that God is ontologically self-sufficient, giving being to what is not God while not receiving in an ontological sense anything from creation. God is infinitely good – for the Bible tells me so. Attributes, for the sixteenth-century Reformers, are described in ways that would largely be recognizable to Augustine. And when we mention the Reformed Orthodox of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, what is extraordinary is their deep commitment to a broadly Thomistic metaphysics of God. We see this in the work of the English puritan writer John Owen, and in continental thinkers like Petrus van Mastricht.

To be sure, there is a subtle gap that begins to open up in the late middle ages between Duns Scotus’s vision and that of Aquinas. This is hard to map in a way that is intellectually honest given the space constraints of a brief historical survey. That qualification aside, attributes of God’s being – none more so than being itself – become ‘applied to God and creatures in the same way’ (Smith 2004: 97). The upshot for Duns Scotus is that God and creatures share in being – being is common to them. Whereas with Aquinas (and Augustine) God is being itself, granting being to creatures. Other attributes like goodness are true of creatures as participations in the absolute good, though without the reverse ever being true. This is a complex story that has immense consequences for how attributes are conceived in the modern era. According to this view, attributes really do refer to God though we know not how. Indeed, the sticking point in this late medieval debate really has to do with analogy. Analogy, understood primarily in ontological and not so much epistemological terms, becomes the site for mapping the different accounts of the attributes that arise roughly from the late eighteenth century onwards.

The common sense of the modern era is shaped in large part by Kant’s sealing off of the noumenal from the phenomenal. Kant presents us with a significant fault line. Due to Kant, there is a reluctance to consider ‘God in se’ (in itself) and so to focus on God’s actions toward creatures’ (Holmes 2007: 65). The attributes, accordingly, describe God in relationship to us. What does not gloss this relationship is above us and of no concern to us. Traditional metaphysical predicates like infinity belong to the realm of the Deus absconditus [Hidden God]. A participatory understanding of created things as existing in relationship to God who is unparticipated goodness itself (Aquinas' view) yielded on the back of Kant’s influence to a more soteriologically motivated doctrine of God’s attributes. This is simply because, as we reflect on how the divine attributes have been treated in Protestant and Catholic modernity, a great deal hangs upon how (or perhaps whether) divine being as well as divine goodness and created goodness are explained analogically and with an appropriate sense of proportion. No one would deny that human beings are in the likeness of God, but in the modern era there is a great deal of confusion as to whether ‘some divine attributes find an echo in human beings’ and whether attributes describe either the qualities and mode in which the one essence of the one God (common to the three) exists or the acts of the three persons in relation to us (Bray 2021: 134).

The modern era can thus be represented by two broad streams of thought. There is a more metaphysically robust stream, embodied for example by Erich Przywara, talking as he does about the ever-greater dissimilarity between God and creatures in the midst of similarity (2014). God is always infinitely and immeasurably greater than what God creates and sustains, and yet created things possess though through a glass but darkly the perfections of the Creator. The other stream, embodied by Barth, focuses on the divine economy, God’s loving in freedom. The attributes bespeak what must be said of God as one who self-reveals in the history of Israel as fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Revelation, thus, teaches us to speak of what is true of God as one who loves in freedom. The latter approach loathes ‘abstraction’, is suspicious of a participatory metaphysics, and harbours antipathy towards Greek philosophy, largely because it encourages an account of God lacking discipline by the specifics of salvation history. Said differently, the former approach (i.e. Przywara’s), following the lead of Aquinas, avers that the attributes are deduced from ‘the most proper name of God […] He who is’ (Mascall 1943: 110), while the latter approach would rather focus on the actions of the ‘He who is’.

In sum, the alternatives in the modern era are, on the one hand, between those who embrace an essential (along the lines of Augustine) and existential (along the lines of Aquinas) account as does for example Przywara. For him, God’s existence and all the qualities of God’s being are entailed in the notion of God’s essence. On the other hand, we have those who are averse to essential/substantial notions of the one essence of the Trinity in favour of the idea of subject, that is, God as the acting subject. Nonetheless, both recognize the utter importance of revelation whether it be incarnate or scriptural. The one speaks of God on the basis of the Bible as ‘the self-revelation of the self-existence and transcendent God, a self-revelation which reaches its climax in the Incarnation of his co-eternal Son’ (Mascall 1949: 15). The other explains the attributes more in light of the acting subject of revelation and not so much in reference to God as ‘primarily Being and pure Act’ (Mascall 1949: 52).

3 Understanding God’s attributes ‘substance-wise’ (Augustine)

It is prudent to begin treatment of the divine attributes with a formal concession. When it comes to God, ‘our thoughts’, notes Augustine, ‘are quite inadequate to their object, and incapable of grasping him as he is’. This is not a counsel of despair. It is, however, a commendation of humility. Thought is ‘inadequate’, yes, but it is capable of grasping something of God, though what is apprehended falls dramatically short of God ‘as he is’. Apprehension, not comprehension, is the name of the game. Nevertheless, we press on towards apprehension because we must. The Christian ‘ought to think about the Lord our God always’ (The Trinity: V.1; Augustine of Hippo 2001), for there is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, ‘nothing better than God’ (Summa Theologiae [ST]: I.XXV.6, ad 4; see Aquinas 1997b).

This inquiry will always be undergirded by a simple word, and that is ‘grace’, what Augustine calls ‘the grace of our creator and saviour’ (The Trinity: V.2; 2001). Grace is necessary because we ‘can never think about him [God] as he deserves’ (The Trinity: V.1; 2001). Importantly, we can, however, praise and bless God as God deserves. Praising and blessing is the context for our inquiry. And yet, the words with which we sing and shout out praise to God do not fully express God. Thus, we need God’s help in order to understand and explain, recognizing that we will, as Augustine notes, make many ‘blunders’ (The Trinity: V.1; 2001).

This is (again) not a council to despair but instead denotes the beginning of wisdom when it comes to describing God’s attributes. According to Augustine, we cannot measure God’s nature and life with respect to created things. There is a great difference between the Creator and the creature. How so? God is not subject to change, though the debate about what this involves is ongoing. God’s immutability has been understood by some philosophers of religion to be incompatible with, for example, petitionary prayer and the ability to respond to creatures’ needs. Moreover, God is supreme – there is no one to whom God is accountable and no thing God is in need of. God is thus ‘all-sufficient’ (The Trinity: V.2; 2001), meaning that God does not have life in relationship to anything outside of God.

Given God’s greatness, is there any epistemological integrity with respect to knowledge of God’s attributes? Do we really know God’s attributes, assuming indeed that our quest is motivated by ‘faithful piety’? Yes, we do, provided of course that ‘the mind is fired by the grace of our creator and savior, and not inflated by arrogant confidence in its own powers’ (The Trinity: V.2; 2001). God is indeed above us, dramatically so, but that does not mean our pursuit of God is futile. Knowledge of God and God’s attributes does have integrity, though it is by no means exhaustive knowledge. For this reason, our piety has to be marked by epistemic humility, recognizing that when we proceed on our own steam, we will err. What then do we begin to say with respect to God?

We say, first, that God is good. Though we will explore divine goodness in far greater detail in section 4, we confess that goodness is true of the one God in a substantial or essential sense. As Edward Wierenga writes, ‘if an individual could not lack a certain property, then that individual has the property essentially’ (Wierenga 1989: 11). God is ‘good without quality’, notes Augustine. God is not good in relationship to anything outside of God but good essentially. God’s goodness is not acquired. Goodness is, as is the case with all the attributes, a property. ‘Attributes are properties’ (Wierenga 1989: 6 [original emphasis]). Accordingly, attributes are true of God in a substantial sense. God is what God is essentially, without reference to any created thing. Continuing in this vein, Augustine writes that God is ‘great without quantity’. God does not possess his attributes in any kind of measurable way, for all that God is, is infinitely true of God. Because God’s attributes are substantial in nature, true of God himself, God is ‘creative without need or necessity’ (The Trinity: V.2; 2001). There is nothing that makes the one God what and who he is, nothing outside of God that causes God to act as God does. God’s creative and saving actions are more than necessary. God is complete in himself, thus again underscoring the importance of appreciating that discourse on the attributes is substantial. None of the attributes we shall discuss here are incomplete, whether it be divine goodness, holiness, or love. Accordingly, we inquire about ‘the Lord’s own Unique Metaphysics’ (Sonderegger 2015: 191).

Augustine says that God presides ‘without position, holding all things together without possession’. This may only be said if God is all that God is in relation to himself and not in relation to created things. God creates, sustains, and preserves things not because God needs created things but simply because God is good and has life in relationship to himself. Recognition that the attributes refer to God’s substance, and that they are common to all three persons of the blessed Trinity, gives rise to the sense that God is ‘wholly everywhere without place, everlasting without times’. Neither place nor time have any ontological impact upon God; likewise, they are not constitutive of God. What we say and confess of God is substantially true of God. God does not require the world. God is ‘without any change in himself, making changeable things, and undergoing nothing’ (The Trinity: V.2; 2001). God’s attributes are not the result of a long process whereby God becomes what God is.

Thinking about God’s attributes in substantial terms also proves beneficial for another reason. It reminds us that God is supremely and truly God’s attributes, substantially perfect as it were. This is good news, reminding us that God cannot cease to be the goodness, holiness, and love God is. God cannot become, for example, bad. There is ‘nothing in him [God] that can be changed or lost’ (The Trinity: V.1.5; 2001). God can neither become better nor worse, there being neither diminishment nor improvement in God. It is impossible, so to speak, for God to improve upon himself. God is perfect being. The Anselmian tradition reminds us that

the operative conception of God for perfect being theology is that of a greatest possible or maximally perfect being. What this means is that God will be conceived of as having some unsurpassable array of composite great-making properties, properties it is intrinsically better to have than to lack. (Morris 1987a: 9)

God’s attributes are truly said of God without reference to anyone or anything else. The creation of humankind, for example, does not make God loving. Rather, God is love. Even if there were no world, God would still be the love that God has always been. Katherine Sonderegger describes this as ‘the Aseity that is Love’ (Sonderegger 2015: 7). Again, God is his attributes with reference to himself. Attributes denote that God exists and something of what God is, and the doctrine of the Trinity tells us who God is. Thus, when we confess that God is glorious, the substance of that confession is the same as when we confess that God is love. The attributes describe what God is. ‘We are […] to see that God is His own Nature’ (Sonderegger 2015: 192). And when taken together, they do not add up to many, a plural. The name of God, the Lord, is a name inclusive, argues Augustine, of many attributes. To be the Lord is, for him, to be his attributes. Just so, God does not participate in, for example, truth in order to be the truth God is. God is perfect being itself. In being God, God is true as well as good, loving, etc. As Augustine notes, ‘for God it is the same thing to be as to be great’ (The Trinity: V.2.9; 2001). Greatness is, as with all the attributes, predicated properly, that is substantially, of God.

The substance-wise register, as Augustine unfolds it, instructs us, in no uncertain terms, that created things do not impact God. Were that the case, the attributes would not be substantially true of God. God is his own glory; the Holy Trinity is glorious. God is glorious and is, echoing Augustine, his own glory. There is not any modification in terms of glory for God’s substance is unchangeable. Nothing happens to God’s substance, and therefore the nature of God’s substance. Even so, there are those within theology who would take issue with this, for example, process theologians such as John Cobb (Cobb and Griffin 1976) and Catherine Keller (2008). Far from discouraging devotion to God, the unchangeability of God encourages it. We grasp that the God who loves us, who indeed loves the world, does not love us in order to get something out of us. The love of God expressed in Christ in the power of the Spirit is poured out for our benefit and not God’s. God’s love, as with God’s goodness and holiness, are, as with all the attributes, ‘Communicable Perfections’ (Sonderegger 2015: 434). Christian life as a life of ever greater participation in God does not mean that God changes in relationship to us. Rather, we change as we come to share in God’s nature, and participate in God’s attributes in ever greater intensity, towards the goal of life eternal. As Augustine says of the faithful, ‘they change, not he’ (The Trinity: V.4.17; 2001).

In the next section, we think about goodness as it pertains to God and to created things, using Ps 119:68 as a kind of test case. We see that thinking about goodness in substantial terms helps elucidate the nature of creatureliness along participatory lines, creatures as participations in the good. We pursue this in accordance with the insight that ‘at the heart of creaturehood is the dynamic of receiving being, of having it by participation’ (Davison 2019: 32 [original emphasis]).

4 The test case for the ‘substance-wise’ register: goodness

4.1 Divine goodness

‘You are good’, says David in Ps 119:68. The ‘are’ is theologically significant, pointing to how ‘being’ is for God the same thing as being good (The Trinity V.2.9; Augustine of Hippo 2001). God is one being and one goodness, though God is not good because God partakes of goodness. Instead, God is good in a substantial sense. Even if the world did not exist as a share in God’s goodness, God would still be good. Goodness, as with the other attributes, is not said of God just because God happens to have created a very good world.

It follows that the three persons of the Godhead are not ‘three good ones’. Father, Son, and Spirit are not three good persons ‘but one good one’ (The Trinity: V.2.9; Augustine of Hippo 2001). Goodness is not said of each but said of the one essence common to them. The Father is good, the Son is good, and the Spirit, too – not three goodnesses but one substantial goodness. And what the one good God does in the missions of Son and Spirit among us is good. ‘You do good’ (Ps 119:68), says David. God cannot do bad; and God cannot author evil because God is good. Therefore, we see something of the logic of the Thomistic conviction that God acts by his essence. God acts as God does because of what God is, goodness itself. The Christian faith never says that God may do good or bad. No, the faith instead affirms that God is ‘his own goodness’ (The Trinity V.3.12; Augustine of Hippo 2001) and therefore does good, always.

That leads us to an important speculative question, namely, ‘is God always doing good?’ The answer goes something like this. Before the world was, God, as the pure act of goodness God is, was ceaselessly delighting in God’s very self. Within the context of the act and providential sustaining of creation, God is always doing good. The doing of good has a kind of economic register, referring to God’s works of nature and grace, but its substantial foundation is the one essence common to the three persons. Everything that God does is good because God is good; nothing God does is ever bad, goodness being convertible with God himself.

The acts of goodness never exhaust God. God is not depleted – rendered less good – because God does good. God’s substantial goodness is not participated, and God’s great acts of goodness do not degrade God. God’s acts do not lead to a drop or diminishment of goodness. Because God is pure act, God’s communication of goodness to creatures does not take away from God’s inner glory. Goodness is communicative. This is not to suggest that God, who freely communicates goodness to creatures thereby maintaining and perfecting them in being, needs to be refreshed in goodness for having communicated goodness as he does.

4.2 Creaturely goodness and Psalm 119:68

Our discussion so far helps us to see the force of the scriptural language of ‘likeness’ (Gen 1:26), that is human beings made as God’s likenesses. We are distant likenesses of God, and our telos (end) as creatures is not simply to become more like God, though that is true. Even stronger, God is so good that his works of goodness – the good things God does – assimilate us to God, ushering us into participation in Godhead – all those substantial attributes. Creaturely goodness achieves its fulness through our entering ever more deeply into the life of the Trinity, world without end. This dynamic is called theosis or divinization.

Theosis is not a straightforward concept. It refers first to a broad theological theme concerning the divine economy, a theme encapsulated in the so-called ‘exchange formula’: the Word ‘was made human that we might be made divine’. (Athanasius, Incarnation 54; Russell 2011: 132)

Creaturely goodness is understood in relation to God. As Thomas Aquinas notes, ‘every action and movement of any creature is ordered to the divine goodness as its end’. We acquire goodness, as creatures, ‘by sharing in a likeness of it’. As hard as it may seem to believe, human nature ‘has a potential infinity’ (Compendium of Theology; Aquinas 2009: 103). That infinity is of course God’s, but our end as creatures, though utterly exceeding us, does not make us less creaturely. Instead, we become, in Christ and by his Spirit, those moved toward ever deeper participation in the ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28) of God.

Psalm 119:68 intimates that ‘God is his essence and his existing’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 109). This is implied by the ‘are’ in the declaration ‘[y]ou are good’ (Ps 119:68). Our goodness is had in relation to God who is our ‘intrinsic end’. We are not our own, God is; and we are not our own end, God is as well. However, we are (sadly) capable of defecting from God’s goodness. We are composite creatures whose form and existence is had in relation to God, ‘by a sharing in him’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 109).

The fact that creaturely goodness is ours in a derivative sense is a spur to pray as does the Psalmist – ‘teach me your statutes’ (Ps 119:68). In praying this prayer, we resist the perverse drive towards deflection from God, being itself. Indeed, without being taught God’s statutes, we will defect. We will abscond from God, decreasing rather than increasing in likeness to him. Without the last clause of Psalm 119:68 on our lips, we inevitably think of ourselves as our own masters, having existence and an end in relation to ourselves, rather than God.

As we have seen, there is a great deal of theological wisdom to be had in relationship to Augustine’s deployment of the substance-wise register in understanding divine and creaturely goodness. The same holds true for Augustine’s relationship-wise register, albeit in quite a different way. In this next section, we consider the promise of the ‘relationship-wise’ register for an account of God’s attributes.

5 Understanding God’s attributes ‘relationship-wise’ (Augustine)

Each ‘member’ – that is Augustine’s language – of the triad, has what the other two members of the triad have by dint of the one essence common to them. But each person has greatness in a manner befitting their person. The Father has greatness as the begetter, the Son has greatness as the begotten, and the Spirit has greatness as ‘a kind of inexpressible communion or fellowship of Father and Son’ (The Trinity: V.3.12; Augustine of Hippo 2001).

When we use the language of begetter or begotten, we refer to the relations of Father and Son one to another. Divine persons are defined by their differing relations of origin – their processions in the divine life – which, in the case of Son and Spirit, find their term in their missions. The Son and Spirit have a mission while the Father does not, for he is the source of the missions of Son and Spirit. Accordingly, when we think about the attributes, we are to also think about how the missions of Son and Spirit express God’s attributes.

Let us think further about this. The Father (as the begetter) sends the Son. The Father is not sent but sends. This is fitting on the basis of the Father as unbegotten. The same is true of the Son as begotten, for he is sent. It is fitting that the one sent by the Father is from the Father. The Son’s mission expresses his procession from the Father. And the Son as begotten and therefore sent is greatness, too, just as is the Father. To be sure, Jesus says that ‘the Father is greater than I’ (John 14:32). This is true in terms of his mission, for Jesus does not send himself the Father does, and is therefore greater. But in terms of the attribute of greatness, for example, neither the Son nor the Spirit are less than the Father. Attributes are expressed and communicated by each of the three, but in a way that respects what is said of each of the three persons ‘relationship-wise’. The Father is good, being from no one; the Son is good, being eternally born of the Father; and the Spirit is good, being the ‘inexpressible communion’ of both (The Trinity V.3.12; Augustine of Hippo 2001).

It is clear that the attributes are common to the one essence of the Trinity. Attributes are not ‘proper or peculiar to’ a divine person himself. Instead, they are true of the triad. Attributes apply to all three in an essential sense. Attributes are not, therefore, said with reference to their respective relations of origin. The Holy Spirit provides a great test case for this point. The name Holy Spirit encompasses attributes – holy and spirit – common to the one essence. The Holy Spirit is holy and spirit as one who ‘always proceeds and proceeds from eternity’ (The Trinity: V.3.12; Augustine of Hippo 2001). This is of course not true of Father and Son, for they do not proceed, and yet they too are holy and spirit. The point, then, is that each person has what is common to them in a manner befitting their person. We turn now to another attribute, holiness, in order to see how the ‘relationship-wise’ register assists us in understanding divine and creaturely holiness.

6 The test case for the ‘relationship-wise’ register: holiness

Holiness is an interesting attribute to think about. Aquinas, for example, does not discuss it as a distinct attribute, while others, like the Dutch Reformed theologian Hermann Bavinck see holiness as applying to both God and creatures, albeit in quite different ways. Furthermore, Karl Barth, while treating holiness as a distinct attribute of God, focuses on the creature, specifically the holy God’s ‘judgment upon us’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.360). Barth avers that the gracious God reveals his holiness, enabling his will to prevail among us. Interestingly, in contemporary discourse, the discussion about holiness ‘has been […] very thin’. Mark Murphy’s monograph and John Webster’s short study being notable exceptions, though each comes at holiness from quite different places on the theological spectrum (Murphy 2021: 1).

Augustine’s thinking nudges us towards the place wherein we can think about holiness in relation to God and creatures. We saw in the previous section how some things are said about God ‘relationship-wise’. Proceeding, for example, is said of the Spirit, following John 15:26, but only in relation to the Father. Procession is relationship-wise language, referring to the Spirit’s originating relationship via the Father; proceeding is thus not said ‘substance-wise’. Holiness, however, is first said substance-wise; holiness is what Bavinck calls ‘an essential inner quality’ (Bavinck 2004: 217). God is holy, substantially so. Holiness is also a deeply relational term, though it is not to be understood in the manner that Augustine deploys ‘relationship-wise’ language. Holiness also expresses, to draw again upon Bavinck, God’s relationship to the world, the shape that God wills the world (creatures) to assume in relation to him.

6.1 Divine and creaturely holiness

Let us consider, first, how holiness applies to God. Holiness is closely linked with God’s glory. This is famously noted in Isa 6:3. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’. Holiness denotes God’s purity, God’s sanctity, that God does not conform to anyone or anything in order to be the light, the dazzling luminosity God is. As subsistent being itself, God is, has, and enjoys the totality of existence. Knowing neither increase nor decrease of being, God is the thrice holy one.

The third person of the Trinity is of course the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not more holy than either Father or Son. That said, the Spirit’s holiness is manifest in the Spirit’s work among us, conforming the soul to God through the merits of Christ via increase of love of God. God’s holiness is, as Barth also notes, following texts like Lev 11:44, ‘a cultic holiness’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.364). The holiness codes in Leviticus, for example, command and commend creaturely holiness in all dimensions of moral and ceremonial life. From a new covenant point of view, the holiness of God is gifted to us in Christ, and made effective in an ongoing sense via the Spirit. Holiness is, as Bavinck winsomely notes, ‘the principle making the whole body of laws, the moral and ceremonial commandments, the entire revelation of salvation given to Israel’ (Bavinck 2004: 218). God’s relationship to Israel, and indeed to creaturely life in general, has the shape that it does because God is holy.

6.2 Creaturely holiness and Exodus 32

In Exodus 32, we see God’s holiness on display as it were, though tragically so. If holiness encapsulates, as Bavinck writes, ‘the entire relationship in which Yhwh stands to Israel and Israel to Yhwh’ (Bavinck 2004: 221), the episode with the golden calf reveals the extent to which Israel (representing all humanity) overturns that relation. Israel will have God, but only on Israel’s own terms. The creation of a God that Israel can see, touch, and handle, a god who is mute, making neither claims upon nor promises to Israel, is the god Israel wants. Yhwh of course stands, as the holy one, utterly opposed to this, and in so doing, reveals his love for his wayward people. The holy God’s ‘wrath burn[s] hot against’ his people (Exod 32:11), and Israel stands before Yhwh as one judged, chastised, and punished.

Because Israel does not know God, it does not love God. Israel thinks that handmade gods brought her out of Egypt. This is, of course, false. One might think that such a holy God would give up on such a people. We discover, however, the very opposite. The holy God is faithful to the promise – ‘I will be your God’ (Ezek 36:28, 37:27) – because he is love. In the next section, we explore something of that love; but let us not jump ahead of ourselves.

It would be all too easy to read the tragic story of the golden calf as but another example of Israel’s profound indifference to God’s holiness and uniqueness. To be sure, that is true, but the golden calf episode corresponds to humanity’s experience with idolatry. The holiness of God reminds us that God is not to be approached on our terms, that God is not immediately accessible. God’s presence, as Moses learnt all too well, is a holy presence to be guarded with great care and reverence. And because God is holy, God does not treat infidelity with indifference. The sons of Levi publicly identify with their being on the Lord’s side by heeding the Lord’s command: ‘Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour’ (Exod 32:37). Holiness, then, is not only a commentary on God’s character, God’s exclusivity with respect to other gods. Also, because God is the one, true, and living God, the people’s relationship to God is to reflect God’s exclusivity with respect to other gods, that is, ‘gods of gold’ (Exod 32:31). As the holy One, God demands absolute fidelity.

Remarkably, God is responsive to his people’s actions: ‘they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them’ (Exod 32:8). One of the extraordinary theological lessons of Exodus 32 is that God’s holiness does not render God unresponsive and mute. God’s holiness is the holiness of the living God; it is a dynamic and responsive holiness. ‘Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them’ (Exod 32:10). This is how God responds to his people’s lack of holiness, the lack of likeness to himself. God’s holiness is as much a metaphysical as it is a moral holiness. God’s desire to consume Israel for its behaviour is indicative, in no uncertain terms, of Israel’s desire not to belong to God. Perhaps most extraordinary is the Lord’s changing ‘his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring upon his people’ (Exod 32:14). Because God is in need of nothing – see Acts 17:25 – God is able to freely relate to his (sinful) people, speaking to them in accommodated terms, conveying to them his immense displeasure with their conduct all the while preserving his own majesty.

We might just ask why the holy Lord of Israel is as accommodating as he is. Why not simply do away with a ‘stiff-necked’ people (Exod 32:10)? The answer is because God, the holy one of Israel, is a God of love: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). ‘Love refers fittingly’ (Outka 2011: 288) to God. If God were not love, God would not, as God indeed does, forgive the people their sin; God would not, moreover, provide the means of atonement for them. But God does – and that is simply because God is love. In the next section, the metaphysics of that love is explored.

6.3 Divine love

Love, as Gene Outka notes, ‘refers fittingly to both God’s action and ours’ (2011: 288). That is true but inadequate, for the being of God, the Godhead of God, the one essence common to the three is love. God acts as God does because God is in an essential sense love.

As we unfold this great truth, we are wise to tie God’s love, following Thomas Aquinas, to God’s will. Love is the first movement of God’s will. And what God wills is good. ‘Love, however, regards good universally’ (ST: I.XXII.1; Aquinas 1997b). If we are to describe responsibly God’s love, then we need to think about it in close relation and proximity to God’s goodness. God loves what is good. Love is what Aquinas calls an ‘intellective appetite’ (ST: I.XXII.1, ad. 1.; 1997b). God cannot therefore love what is evil but only what is good. God’s love is a perfect, complete, and utterly simple love. This means in part that the motor for God’s love is God himself. Why does God will ‘good to others’? Because God is love and God is good. God wills good for himself and, hard as it may be to believe, ‘the good that He wills for Himself is none other than Himself’ (ST: I.XXII.1, ad. 3; 1997b). There is nothing more excellent than God, and so God cannot will anything better for himself than himself. God is pure goodness itself. Therefore, God’s love is self-directed before it is other-directed. God relates to the world in love – the world which exists only in relationship to him – loving the world in himself. Indeed, God loves the world as God does because ‘the being of a thing is itself a good’ (ST: I.XXII.2; 1997b). The world, devastated though it is, is loved by God ‘since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing’ (ST: I.XXII.2; 1997b). God’s love is shown in the fact that God only wills good (never evil) for existing things. If God is love – as Christians confess God is – and yet God were to do evil, that would make God into a despot, a tyrant.

God is love and as such creates a world that is good. Herein lies the deep, theological logic behind God’s creation of a world that is good, very good. God’s will is creative ex nihilo (out of nothing) of what is good. God’s will causes what is good and in Jesus Christ we see God’s love incarnated, and through God’s Spirit God’s love is poured out into our hearts. The love of God is creative of goodness. We might at this juncture think about how this applies to us, sinners that we are. God loves sinners because even in the worst of sinners there is something of God and the potential for more of God. The existing nature of sinners is the basis for God’s love of sinners, for even sinners exist only in relation to God. As Aquinas argues, sinners ‘are from Him’ (ST: I.XXII.2, ad. 4; 1997b) though their sin is not from God – their being is. God loves sinners by willing them good, namely, the good of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, God loves the world, willing good to the world in and through Christ.

Moral and natural evil pose many challenges to sensing and experiencing the goodness and presence of God in created things. Evil is due to sin, but sin’s metaphysical status is corruptive and parasitic in nature. Sin is fundamentally privative. While this cannot be unpacked in any detail, it is noted that sin and thus evil are ‘things’ in which all people (and societies) are, to varying degrees, complicit. Sin, moreover, ‘deeply distorts the fabric of creation and its relation to God’ creating a ‘severe theodicy problem’ (Kilby 2020: 90, 91). The problem is severe because scripture does not answer the many problems raised by evil, refusing to explain evil’s relationship to God’s goodness, love, and holiness. ‘To demand that we must have a lucid, comprehensive account of the origin of sin, for instance, would push us towards a denial, on one level or another, of the goodness of creation’ (Kilby 2020: 98).

Another way to put this is that the good God wills that the world be a participation in himself. ‘The greatest good for human beings is to be in a union of love with God […] The unending shared union of loving personal relationship with God is the best thing for human beings’ (Kilby 2020: 387, 388). Remember that God’s will is one and simple in him: God’s will, to use a Thomistic idiom, is convertible with God himself. In willing good, God wills himself for all people. Again, ‘God’s love is the cause of goodness in things’ (ST: I.XXII.3; Aquinas 1997b). The reason God causes goodness as God does is because God is love, and God wills that all creatures experience a loving relationship with himself, which is the best thing for us.

6.4 Creaturely love

Creaturely love, the love that the creature exercises in relation to another creature and to self, takes its cues from God’s love poured out in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Neighbourly love is fundamentally a response to the love of God lavished upon us. Just as God ‘wills as God to be for us’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.274), to draw upon Barth’s language, so are we to be for the neighbour, the neighbour who is of course not ourselves. God’s love is, in this respect, exemplary. Neighbourly love is preoccupied with the other for her own sake. Just as God seeks and creates fellowship with us for God’s sake, so too is love for the neighbour undertaken for the neighbour’s sake. Because God has given us, to draw again upon Barth, everything in ‘giving us His only Son’, created love gives selflessly, generously, imitating (though not copying) ‘the self-communicating life [of God] as such’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.277). The neighbour is worthy of God just because she is, her existence being but a participation in God.

Existence is of course a good that comes from God, the giver of all good gifts. And to imitate God, which is the call of all the baptized, is to live a life of love, to live as God does, in love. ‘But God’s act is His loving’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.283). There is, of course, no gap in God in terms of God’s economic acts and God’s love in se, but there is such a gap in us, between what we so often do – sin – and who we are created to be – creatures living in fellowship with almighty God. In a perceptive statement, Barth notes: ‘Man is not a person, but he becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return’. We ‘can love God in return’ by loving our neighbour. That is the form that love for God takes. This is a matter of being ‘fundamentally […] what God is, to be, that is, the One who loves in God’s way’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.274). Loving in God’s way is to love in relationship to God himself, ‘to know, to will, and to act like God as the One who loves in Himself’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.285). To truly be a person is to love as God does, in imitation of the person God is. ‘Be imitators of God’, writes Paul in Eph 5:1. The triune God shows us that he is the person, the personal God, by loving, and in loving us freely, ‘He reveals what one, a person, really and truly is’ (Barth 1936–1977: II.1.286).

6.5 Hosea

In keeping with this, there is no better book for unfolding the depths of God’s love, its covenantal shape, and its stern indictment of infidelity, than Hosea. Readers will no doubt be familiar with its basic outline. This section draws attention to what Hosea teaches regarding the basis of love being God himself.

Hosea helps us to see that divine love assumes, first, the shape of a ‘no’. Through Hosea, God says ‘no!’ to Israel’s apostasy. Disobedient and apostate Israel, however, is beloved of God, and God’s love – God’s supreme mercy – is triumphant, following the ‘no’ with a divine ‘yes’, ‘the goal and end of Israel’s history’ (Barth 1936–1977: IV.2.231). Though God’s ‘no’ to Israel does take the form of ‘this most terrible judgement’, God judges only so as to declare his love for Israel. Barth puts it nicely: ‘Hosea was the first to declare expressly that the action of Yahweh in His covenant with Israel is in every respect and form the action of His love’ (Barth 1936–1977: IV.2.761). God’s love is covenantal love. God loves Israel, and therefore God inclines ‘His heart toward Israel, the smallest of all peoples, and elected it’ (Barth 1936–1977: IV.2.762). God’s love does not need a loving and ostentatiously pious object by which to reveal itself. Instead, God’s love is demonstrated in his ‘free choice’ of Israel, God’s being and action ‘as the Lord of the covenant’. Extraordinarily, Barth calls Hosea’s picture of marriage ‘the nerve’ (Barth 1936–1977: IV.2.763) of God’s being and action.

The marriage metaphor in Hosea is so powerful because it points to what the apostle John so ‘explicitly denoted and explained’, namely, that love is proper to God himself. Hosea’s contribution to an account of God’s love is thus quite straightforward. Love ‘belonged’, notes Barth, ‘to His essence, so that He could deny it only as He denied His very nature as God’. God’s nature as God is love. God thus does not choose to love. Instead, God in the depths of God’s being is love. Love is ‘not a casual or capricious choice’. God is not moved by God’s people’s rejection of God to become the faithful love God is. Instead, God ‘loves primarily and eternally, and as such [is] the self-moved and therefore the living God’ (Barth 1936–1977: IV.2.758).

What Hosea also, in conclusion, teaches us is that this costly love that ‘takes the form of the most terrible judgement’ calls, in Barth’s words, ‘for an analogous and therefore a pure and free self-giving’ (Barth 1936–1977: IV.2.761, 758). We are to love as God loves. We do not thereby copy God’s love but instead love analogously. How so? We ought to love with ‘a pure and free self-giving love’, the kind of love that knows no stain. The creature loves purely in the love she receives from God, thereby giving freely. God’s love is proper, then, to God. God just is love.

7 Thomas Aquinas’ contribution

Aquinas’ contribution to these matters is significant. This is due in part to his persistent reminder that there is not any potentiality in God. ‘Matter’, as Aquinas notes, ‘is potential being’ (Compendium; 2009: 28) but God is not. This is good news, for God is not subject to change. God is good, and so is entirely trustworthy. Because God ‘directly and chiefly understands himself’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 30), God is not dependent on us in order to understand his goodness or any other attribute. This is also to say that, as we have observed, there is not anything accidental in God. As Aquinas notes, God’s ‘essence is necessarily his ultimate actuality’ (Compendium; 2009: 11). The attributes that we predicate of God according to created things (effects) ‘are necessarily in God originally and superabundantly’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 21). That God exists perfectly, that God is in no way limited by anyone or anything, is good news and illustrative of the promise of a Thomistic approach. It is indeed salutary that God cannot act badly, that God does not act so as to bring gain to himself. God acts, rather, according to the way in which God exists and as the perfect and complete goodness God is. Goodness, as with all the attributes, is ‘necessarily the same as his essence’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 29).

7.1 Analogy and participation

Some might be thinking, but how do we know this is true? Here we refer, for further understanding, to an important dimension of a broadly Thomistic approach though one embraced by Reformed theologians like Bavinck. That dimension is analogy and its closely related sibling, participation. God causes things – is the source of – things that bear a kind of analogical likeness to himself. Created things contain perfections, ‘the source’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 24) of which is God. Or, as Bavinck notes, God ‘is the archetype [the original]; the creature is the ectype [the likeness]. In him everything is original, absolute, and perfect; in creatures everything is derived, relative, and limited’ (2004: 129–130). Bavinck continues, ‘we ascribe to God in an absolute sense all the perfections we observe in creatures’ (2004: 131).

The doctrine of analogy has many different layers, but for our purposes it is enough to focus on how created things (creatures) bear the likeness, the imprint of their Creator’s perfections. Our intellect ascends, as Aquinas notes, ‘from creatures to God’, and that from God ‘perfections descend to other things’ (Compendium; Aquinas 2009: 27). Analogy unfolded along broadly Thomistic lines is relevant to describing the nature of knowledge of God. We see, as Paul writes, ‘in a mirror, dimly’ (1 Cor 13:12). The same is true of our knowing of the divine attributes. As Bavinck maintains, divine names/attributes ‘first of all apply to creatures and are then transferred to God via eminence’ (2004: 100). There is, then, a likeness between Creator and creature. When we say God exists absolutely, indeed as absolute existence itself, the existence that we possess as creatures is a kind of analogical likeness with respect to God. That said, God’s existence surpasses – eminently surpasses – that of creatures in such a way that the dissimilarity between divine goodness and creaturely goodness is always greater than the similarity. This is (again) Erich Przywara’s basic insight: God is ‘above in governing, below in upholding, within in filling, without in encompassing’ (2014: 522). There is likeness, to be sure, but the dissimilarity between divine goodness and creaturely goodness is always greater. Analogy therefore has relevance at an epistemological level and a being level.

Our knowledge of God’s attributes is ‘finite and limited, but not for that reason impure or untrue’ (Bavinck 2004: 100). That is simply because of God who, though invisible, represents himself through visible things, created things who have their being via participating in him. Just so, our knowledge bears a likeness to the one known. Similarly, our being as creatures has likeness to the one in relationship to whom we have being via a participation in him. As Bavinck states, ‘we possess them [perfections belonging to God’s essence] by participation’ (2004: 107). In sum, naming God with respect to the creaturely realm is ‘ectypal’ or ‘ontological’ (Bavinck 2004: 131). The analogy is weak but it is nonetheless there. The task of Christian theology is, in part, to consider things in relation their cause, that is God, which is to consider them analogically.

Such reflection is aided by consideration of the doctrine of participation. God creates things in such a way that they, in accord with their mode of being, share in himself. God upholds in being what God causes. A given creature is accordingly best described as a participation in God. Again, what we have as creatures is not to be derided because it is ‘derived, relative, and limited’. Rather, God simply has ‘in an absolute sense all the perfections we observe in creatures’ (Bavinck 2004: 131). Additionally, God has them in a way that is not participated, meaning that God does not have many perfections in relationship to something outside of God. God is all that God has, absolute being itself.

Just so, we unfold the doctrine of participation so as to illuminate what Andrew Davison calls, in his superb book Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics, the world’s ‘fundamental structure at the level of being’ (Davison 2019: 9). The world has the structures that it does because it is created out of nothing. ‘Creation ex nihilo is the foundation for participatory theology’ (Davison 2019: 23). In terms of creaturely participation in God, we share in all that God is, but our sharing or participating ‘is remote and deficient, that is, according to likeness’ (Davison 2019: 40). This is where the promise of a Thomistic account, broadly conceived, helps a great deal. The notion of participation encourages us to describe, as does analogy, God as one who does not need anyone in order to be. Also, participatory theology helps describe ‘what creation is’, that is a participation in God (Davison 2019: 74).

Participation in terms of the divine attributes has a negative and a positive thrust. On the one hand, it tells us what God is not – for example, participated, receiving being – but in so doing we receive positive knowledge, namely, ‘God is not part of the creature’ (Davison 2019: 89). On the other hand, the perfections of God’s essence, God’s attributes, whilst participated in by humans, are proper to God. This is where the theological rubber hits the practical road: creatures are to imitate God, God whose perfections are one with God himself. A Thomistic approach recognizes that the desire for and orientation to God which God has blessed us with ‘is intrinsically also desire for one’s own completion, as underlying all other desires’ (Davison 2019: 118).

God, of course, because God is being itself, need not be completed. God is good, beautiful, and complete in relationship to himself. God’s existence is his essence, as Aquinas maintains in Compendium §11. Therefore, God has what God is, essentially so, whereas what we are is a likeness of God’s being. Likeness ensures, following Aquinas’ lead and as Davison unfolds it, ‘a non-continuity between God and what is brought into being’ (Davison 2019: 163). Creatures bear traces, and humans in particular bear traces of God as the likenesses to God that they are, though God does not bear traces of anything: ‘from God to the world’ (Davison 2019: 180).

In a sense, analogical thinking complements participatory thinking. Analogy describes the kind of relationship that exists between God and things. Participation unfolds the ground and structure of that relationship. We relate to and call upon God as participations, whereas God is really good, supremely so, unparticipated being itself, existing in relationship to no-thing, upholding everything in being. Though we cannot develop how participation informs doctrines like soteriology, we can say that the doctrine of salvation has ‘the same underlying metaphysics’ as does the doctrine of creation (Davison 2019: 299).

Herein lies a crucial dimension to Aquinas’ teaching. Aquinas helps us to see, as Davison points out, that ‘the deepest truth of anything is its relationship to God’ (Davison 2019: 310). Considering God and all things as they relate to God is theology’s task, and herein we have looked at how creaturely being opens up a window into the divine life – that the God who creates things as ‘related’ to himself is related to no-thing (Davison 2019: 345). This is illustrative of what Davison calls ‘consistency between revelation and nature’ (Davison 2019: 356). That is important to note for one ought not to isolate revelation and nature. Rather, revelation teaches us truths inaccessible to nature though not contradictory to them. The truths of God’s being, the attributes intrinsic to the one divine essence itself, receive greater specification when taken up in relation to the whole counsel of God. We learn that, for example, ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Cor 1:25). That is the lesson of the cross. Aquinas’ approach is noteworthy because he does not make us choose between nature and revelation. However, more recent important voices in the Protestant tradition would make us choose between natural and revealed truth, that is, grace. We now consider what one might call ‘the Barthian worry’ as exemplified by a theologian influenced by Barth, namely the late Colin Gunton (1941–2003).

8 The Barthian worry

Colin Gunton’s book – Act and Being: Toward a Theology of the Divine Attributes – is a valuable contribution to the debate about the contours of the doctrine of the divine attributes. Gunton’s path is here construed as the Barthian path. This path has much to commend, most especially its preoccupation with the triune God as the acting subject who gives himself to be known through his great self-revelatory acts of creation (whose basis is covenant), salvation, and perfection. This is a noteworthy preoccupation. That said, it is important to think about whether an account of the attributes derived exclusively from ‘God in action’ is complete (Gunton 2003: 158). In David Bentley Hart’s words, it is necessary to evaluate Gunton’s approach by thinking through ‘divine revelation as a deepening and consummation of natural reason and intentionality’ (Hart 2020: 32).

For Gunton, the doctrine of the attributes is a matter of the positive, ‘of what he [God] reveals himself to be’ (Gunton 2003: 9 [original emphasis]). Such an emphasis is over and against ‘negative theology’, closely bound up as it is with what Gunton calls ‘metaphysical causality’ (Gunton 2003: 17, 16). Stated briefly, Gunton considers God’s being and attributes solely via God’s action. This is unlike, for example, Bavinck. Bavinck avers that ‘the entire universe is a revelation of God’ (Bavinck 2004: 135). There is something at stake in this difference. How does the personal, the sense that ‘knowledge of God [is] mediated through Israel’s history and the incarnation’ (Gunton 2003: 54) relate to the notion that ‘the entire universe’ is revelatory? (Bavinck 2004: 135).

Gunton’s aversion to ‘the way of causality’ and the ‘kind of independent negative theology which we meet in the tradition’ has to do with the tradition’s (supposed) commitment to ‘the hierarchy of being’ (Gunton 2003: 59, 61) According to Gunton’s reading of the negative tradition, God is not wholly other than creatures. Instead, God is simply (a lot) more of what we are, possessing the predicates (like existence) applied to us though in a much stronger sense. While not getting into a discussion of how Gunton has received the tradition, especially his understanding of analogy, and whether his reception of analogical thinking is very robust, Gunton clearly resists an account of being which posits God and creatures at opposite ends of the being spectrum. This is what Gunton calls a ‘foreign’ account of God’s being (Gunton 2003: 87). We can thus escape abstraction only when we take seriously God’s triune action. For Gunton, we learn therein that God is not ‘opposite’, ontologically opposed to the world but instead ‘its other-in relation’ (Gunton 2003: 154).

The Barthian worry (as Gunton exemplifies it) basically comes down to whether you have one work of God or two: either works of grace or works of nature and grace. Put differently, the worry has to do with whether the Christian reads one book – scripture – or whether nature, too, is a book that one receives in conjunction with scripture as revelatory of God. For someone like Bavinck, ‘in all creatures but especially in humanity there is something analogous to the divine being’ (Bavinck 2004: 136). This is an important insight. For Gunton, Bavinck’s account would be adjudged a bit wrong-headed: stick with God’s acts, and you will have all you need to know of God. Quite the opposite with Bavinck: there are (again) two books, the books of nature and scripture as testimony to God and God’s works of nature and grace. Just so, God’s work is accordingly understood as twofold, along the lines of works of nature and grace. The basic difference between an approach modelled upon Aquinas and Bavinck in comparison to that of Gunton has to do with the nature of the God/world relationship. Gunton understands it in fundamentally agential terms. Revelation is self-revelation in act. Also, Gunton thinks of the God/world relationship in contrastive and oppositional terms. John Webster describes a contrastive approach well when he writes ‘divine perfection is [when the movement from God to creatures is conceived of as a matter of God’s free self-determination] understood contrastively, as discontinuous with or antithetical to created reality’ (Webster 2011: 386). This approach, as Webster describes it, does not harmonize with either that of Aquinas or Bavinck, for they emphasize that the world is receptive of God, and that it is therefore not to be contrasted with him. This does not mean ‘the historical and temporal’ are given short shrift (Gunton 2003: 109). Instead, Aquinas and Bavinck talk about attributes as common to the three by dint of their one essence, and as expressed via the mission of Son and Spirit and the works accomplished therein. If such is the case, then, God is not to be understood as having something in common with creation in relationship to a supposed hierarchy of being. God is not ‘one being among others within a single order’ (Tanner 1988: 45). Instead, there are theological grounds for talking about the attributes in a twofold register. The attributes are commonly manifest to all through the structure of being itself, and when we consider revealed truth we note that the knowledge of God gifted to us in the created order receives great expansion and deepening in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in fulfilment of the promises made to Israel.

8.1 John Webster’s contribution

For John Webster (1955–2016), a distinguished and younger contemporary of Gunton, ‘the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation’ also exercises a ‘corrective function’ in terms of theological epistemology. As with Gunton, Webster considers ‘created reality’ in relation to ‘revelation’, and the attributes of God as indicating ‘the identity (in biblical terms, the “name”) of the divine subject’. Webster is not interested (as with Gunton) in attributes ‘deemed necessary for causal explanation of the world (e.g. self-existence or omnipotence)’ (Webster 2011: 46). Rather, ‘ascription [of attributes] follows’, so Webster argues, ‘the divine self-enactment’. Accordingly, ‘[t]he most common effect’, Webster avers, ‘of a Trinitarian conception of God is to emphasize that the divine attributes name God as God encounters us in God’s works’ (Webster 2011: 47).

This is a decidedly economic conception, as Webster himself acknowledges. The enemy is abstraction, ‘abstract notions of deity apart from any relation to creatures’. The positive and concrete notion of deity that Webster champions rests upon the basis of God’s acts, the upshot of which is that the Trinity is ‘analogous to a community of persons’. This is not to deny God’s essential unity but it is to say that, for Webster, unity ‘is identical with God’s triunity’ (Webster 2011: 47).

Webster’s approach has some similarities to that of Gunton’s. Both take seriously God’s encounter with creatures in God’s works. At the same time, they attend less to those things that simply are true of the one essence of the one God common to the three. Accordingly, there is less capacity to consider the attributes with respect to God’s one essence as expressed in the works of God in nature and grace. Such an understanding is not an exercise in natural theology in contrast to a so-called exercise in revealed theology. Rather, it is a matter of clinging to scripture’s twofold register. Just as some attributes such as goodness are more appropriate to ‘substance-wise’ discourse, so too are some attributes more appropriate to ‘action-wise’ discourse. God’s mercy is, for example, related explicitly to God’s acts. God encounters us as one ‘whose property’, following the lead of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘is always to have mercy’. And God has mercy as God does because God is good and God is love. God mercifully remedies defects – namely, sin – as God does because of the goodness and love that God is.

The approach of Gunton and Webster highlights some differences in relation to a broadly Augustinian/Thomistic framework as found in Bavinck’s work. The former approach aligns, at times, what scripture seems to distinguish. God is the ‘I am’ who is what he has; God’s actions and the works accomplished therein via the missions of Son and Spirit express this. The missions of Son and Spirit do not override, as it were, the witness of the created order but fill it out in the most surprising and even scandalous of ways. In other words, it is important to follow John of Damascus’ prioritizing of God’s essential attributes, for they anchor and ground God’s works: ‘For goodness is existence and the cause of existence’ (Expositions of the Orthodox Faith I.XII; 1983). Or, ‘all these names must be understood as common to deity as a whole, and as containing the notions of sameness and simplicity and indivisibility and union’ (Expositions of The Orthodox Faith I.X; 1983).

9 Priority of worship

None of our interlocutors would ever want to isolate God’s attributes from a life of service, devotion, and worship, rooted in Word (and sacrament). As Kathryn Tanner so eloquently states, ‘training in a Christian form of life make one a competent Christian speaker’ (1988: 14). The home of such training is of course the church, the church’s preaching, sacraments, and care of souls. A Christian form of life is not a given; it requires a life of obedience in accord with the dominical command in Matt 22:37: ‘You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’.

This raises the question of whether one can speak competently of God if one’s form of life is (egregiously) compromised. This may evoke Barth whose long-term three way relationship between his wife and his academic colleague, lover, and live-in assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum has been sensitively discussed in Christiane Tietz’s new biography, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (2020). As Tietz’s work shows, one can speak persuasively of God as does Barth – reminding his contemporaries (to say nothing of ourselves) that theology’s subject matter is God, even as one’s form of life is in overt and sustained contradiction to the commandments of God.

This is significant because worship is a school that not only castigates disobedience but is also one that teaches metaphysics. Theology’s task is to unfold the underlying metaphysics of worship and so to encourage a life shaped by them. The doctrine of the divine attributes is ‘implicated in Christian practice’ (Tanner 1988: 32). This is not to say that its articulation is dependent upon Christian practice, but it is to say that the many metaphysical truths that worship rests upon receive more rather than less judicious treatment when the one speaking is ‘pure of heart’ (Matt 5:8). Though it is unhelpful to ask whether Barth could have said things even better if his own form of life had been more transparent to God’s commandments, it is fitting to say that even more lucid insights could have been articulated if his form of life was not – in terms of his marital life – so opaque to the commandments of God.

Further to this, Tanner’s sense that the theologian is a ‘grammarian of Christian usage’ inadequate (Tanner 1988: 27). That is true to an extent, but the ascetic character of the theological task is short-changed. Yes, we have in this article described, in part, the divine goodness – but we also need to be taught goodness via the statutes, in accord with Ps 119:68, if we are to confess robustly God’s goodness. Theology and the divine attributes as its horizon is, as Katherine Sonderegger says, a ‘spiritual exercise’ (2020: 240). Metaphysical claims about God – that God’s attributes are one with and simple in him – assume piety, indeed demand piety, this living shape. The kind of piety that simplicity demands is purity of heart. ‘Ponder anew what the almighty can do!’ following the lead of the great hymn Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. Worship is of God and towards God. What Sonderegger says of the Bible is true of worship: it ‘is about God, not about salvation, principally or exhaustively’ (Sonderegger 2020: 240). No one in the twentieth century presented that ‘intellectual capital’ better than Barth. To be sure, the attributes was but an extended (and rather glorious) gloss of sorts on the self-revelation of the triune God. In this view, the attributes of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are intellectual as much as they are spiritual capital. This is why analogy is important. Analogy contains a call for us to imitate God as the likenesses of God that we are. We receive spiritual capital in corporate worship anchored in Word and sacrament, and in personal worship in the form of praying without ceasing. Articulation of God’s attributes is as much about the content of what is being articulated as it is about commending a form of life (ecclesial and individual) in agreement with that.

10 Conclusion

This article has unfolded something of the richness of the divine attributes. The attributes said substance-wise are those common to the three persons. Whether it is God’s goodness, God’s holiness, or God’s love, these things are true of God in se and therefore expressed in God’s works of nature and grace among us. From there, we looked to Aquinas, and what his teaching suggests regarding the likeness between God and creatures understood along analogical and participatory lines. Both Aquinas and Bavinck have useful things to say regarding the nature of creaturely knowledge of God (analogical) and creaturely participation in the divine being.

Furthermore, having drawn upon Thomistic thinking with the help of Przywara and Davison, the article canvassed the Barthian worry as exemplified by Gunton. Gunton has little time for (negative) approaches that do not rely solely upon God’s action, those that do not gloss God’s saving history with us. This conviction is shared by Webster though less strenuously. Their view is that attributes are derivative of action. A causal and participatory account of the God/world relation argues somewhat differently insofar as an account of the attributes is also beholden to the structures of creaturely reality itself with God as the one who is all that creatures have. This is not to say that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ do not impact the treatment. It is, rather, to say that Jesus Christ leads us to love and serve the God who attests himself via the works of nature and grace.

We then concluded with a brief meditation on the priority of worship. Worship is not optional. Instead, we saw something of how the truths of God’s life and attributes are received as he intends only insofar as one’s form of life is shaped within the context of Word and sacrament by God who gives himself to be known and loved through his two books, that of nature and Holy Scripture.


Copyright Christopher R. J. Holmes (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bray, Gerald. 2021. The Attributes of God: An Introduction. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
    • Charnock, Stephen. 1996. The Existence and Attributes of God. Grand Rapids: Baker.
    • Gunton, Colin E. 2003. Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Hart, David Bentley. 2013. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
    • Mascall, E. L. 1943. He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
    • Morris, Thomas (ed.). 1987b. The Concept of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Sonderegger, Katherine. 2015. Systematic Theology: Volume 1. The Doctrine of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • Works cited

    • Aquinas, Thomas. 1997a. ‘God and the Order of Creation’, in Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Volume 1. Edited by Anton C. Pegis. Indianapolis: Hackett.
    • Aquinas, Thomas. 1997b. ‘Summa Theologiae’, in Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Volume 1. Edited and translated by Anton C. Pegis. Indianapolis: Hackett.
    • Aquinas, Thomas. 2009. Compendium of Theology. Translated by Richard J. Regan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Augustine of Hippo. 1991. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Augustine of Hippo. 2001. The Trinity. Translated by Edmund Hill. New York: New City Press.
    • Barth, Karl. 1936–1977. Church Dogmatics. 14 vols. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
    • Bavinck, Herman. 2004. Reformed Dogmatics. 2 vols. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Hart, David Bentley. 2020. Theological Territories. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
    • Bray, Gerald. 2021. The Attributes of God: An Introduction. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
    • Charnock, Stephen. 1996. The Existence and Attributes of God. Grand Rapids: Baker.
    • Cobb, John B. Jr, and David Ray Griffin. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press.
    • Davison, Andrew. 2019. Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Gunton, Colin E. 2003. Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Hart, David Bentley. 2013. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
    • Hart, David Bentley. 2020. Theological Territories. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
    • Holmes, Stephen R. 2007. ‘The Divine Attributes’, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. Edited by Kathryn Tanner, John Webster, and Iain Torrance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 54–70.
    • John of Damascus. 1983. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2. Volume 9. Edited by Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Keller, Catherine. 2008. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Kilby, Karen. 2020. God, Evil and the Limits of Theology. London/New York: T&T Clark.
    • Mascall, E. L. 1943. He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
    • Mascall, E. L. 1949. Existence and Analogy: A Sequel to ‘He Who Is’. London: Longmans.
    • Morris, Thomas. 1987a. ‘Introduction’, in The Concept of God. Edited by Thomas Morris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1–17.
    • Murphy, Mark C. 2021. Divine Holiness and Divine Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Origen. 2017. On First Principles. 2 vols. Translated by John Behr. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Outka, Gene. 2011. ‘Love’, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Edited by Ian A. McFarland, David Fergusson, Karen Kilby, and Iain Torrance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 288–290.
    • Pryzwara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Translated by John Betz and David Bentley Hart. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Russell, Norman. 2011. ‘Deification’, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Edited by Ian A. McFarland, Iain R. Torrance, and David Fergusson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 132–136.
    • Smith, James K. A. 2004. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Sonderegger, Katherine. 2010. Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Sonderegger, Katherine. 2015. Systematic Theology: Volume 1. The Doctrine of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Sonderegger, Katherine. 2020. Systematic Theology: Volume 2. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Processions and Persons. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Tanner, Kathryn. 1988. God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny and Empowerment? Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
    • Tietz, Christiane. 2020. Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict. Translated by Victoria J. Barnett. New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Webster, John. 2011. ‘Divine Attributes’, in Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Wierenga, Edward R. 1989. The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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