I have been reflecting on the attributes of God and I know for certain that I don’t have a proper view yet ((1) because I’m so unsure and (2) because i don’t think anyone on earth has it right). Does God have a center among his moral attributes? A primary focus? The more I think about it, the more I read the Bible, the more I learn about what it means to be Christian I think that the answer to these questions is no, no he doesn’t have a primary attribute because all his attributes are so central to his being that to elevate any one attribute to center is to give it too much precedence.
God has several moral attributes and among those commonly discussed are goodness (including his love), holiness, and his righteousness. Of these, I find that Christians tend to elevate either his goodness or his holiness to the highest degrees. And I think it’s easy to exalt either his goodness, which appeals to society at large, or his holiness, which appeals to a conservative evangelicalism that operates as sojourners in a society that has largely claimed love for itself, but I also think that it is also hard to give both their proper place at the same time. It is easy for popular theology, the theology of the individual Christian, to subsume all of God’s other attributes under one of headers of love of holiness because they are such broad things that we use as a lens to see how God acts towards us in this world.
Take goodness, for example, which is the absolute perfection and bliss of God that when displayed towards people in different ways may also be described as love, grace, and mercy. I once (over the past two years, though recently changed my mind within the last month) subsumed all of God’s other moral attributes under his goodness. That is to say that above all else God is good, and that all other attributes arise from his goodness, and after all the John said that “God is love.” It is easy to see how love and grace and mercy come from goodness, but holiness can flow from an absolute love towards what is good, redemption and patience can flow from a goodness shown towards creation. Many of God’s moral attributes can be put under a relation to his goodness, and I suppose some theologians, especially those that call themselves open theists, do just this. Yet at the same time, I do not think it takes into account the full holiness of God that we see in the Bible. It doesn’t explain his transcendence adequately and puts God into this limitation whereby everything we know about him in defined in relation to humanity and how he shows his goodness to us.
The alternative, suggested to be by a lot of friends influenced (though they might not know it) by the reformed theologian RC Sproul, is also easy, we can subsume all things under the holiness of God, which is his separation from sin and his relationship as above all things. God is, afterall, awe-inspiring and we should tremble before him, him whose glory even Moses could not see. God is at his core then that being which the angels cry out eternally “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” And this is true, God is transcendent and there is an inherent creator-creature distinction that cannot be broken. We cannot understand love without an application of his holiness, an active holiness that is his third moral attribute: righteousness, called by strong “transitive holiness.” So everything in this conception is then related to his holiness, we cannot understand his grace towards humanity without also talking of his justice, creation without the creator, intimacy with God without also his place above all. And all this is true, much as what I think of what I said about the goodness of God, but it doesn’t explain his immanence sufficiently. But in popularly subsuming his transcendence, his self existence, his very otherness under the umbrella of holiness and placing that holiness as the center of God (though in some sense it is) we end up with a God that, I think, is strongly impersonal, the conception of God that, while I think not strictly incorrect, can lead to legalism, a lack of compassion and a God that is far more transcendent than immanent. Indeed, taken to its logical end we might end up with something that mirrors Paul Tillich’s theology, a theology that diminishes the immanence of God for a God that is, above all else transcendent:
Thus if the question of the existence of God can be neither asked nor answerd. If asked, it is a quesiton about that which by its very nature is above existence, and therefore the answer — whether negative or affirmative — implicitly denies the nature of God. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being.
And while, I also think that this strictly isn’t wrong (for God is indeed the I AM), it does however, miss something on the ability to personally know God and renders God into an almost pantheistic God.
What then is it that I think? I think that God is both the highest good, the being of being-itself, and the being whose holiness in action is righteousness. God is all three of these moral attributes: he is good, he is holy, he is righteous. To place any one over the other is to miss something on the fullness of God. We cannot lose sight of God’s love, or we forget grace and descend into legalism. This is, I think, a problem in the evangelical church even, especially as it comes to moral issues. We as a Church have lost sight of grace, of redemption, of mercy and it stands as a testament that we are called not-genuine and hypocritical, for while preaching grace we have driven the sinners out of church, we have not reached to the broken and we, as a Church have focused on the appearance of holiness while forgetting the grace that binds us in holiness. We cannot also lose sight of God’s holiness, for in trying to be relevant to society, we have also forgotten the gospel. We have forgotten that God is unable to bear the sight of sin. We have forgotten that we should fall on our knees at his glory. We have forgotten that we are a people that should be separate from society. We have not been driven to share the gospel because of that holiness, for while we have grace, many in this world do not and cannot enter into the presence of that which is totally and utterly sinless. And lastly, we cannot forget righteousness and that God is just. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
These three, goodness, holiness, and righteousness, are the moral attributes of God. No one subsumes the other, but all three are united in God. To elevate one is to imply a center to a God that has no center. And it is as Berkhoff says in his systematic theology, “Not that one attribute of God is in itself more perfect and glorious than another, but relatively to man the moral perfections of God shine with a splendor all their own.” God is God, he is nothing else, we cannot take away or add from his attributes for they are attributes of his very nature. And in a divine mystery these attributes are equally expressed in unity speaking to the believer as is needed most, to the sinner, holiness, to the destroyed, grace, and to those that reject God, justice. Is there a central attribute of God? I say no, no there isn’t, but there are attributes and they are all part of who God is.
(as always feel free to disagree with me, I am after all, still trying to work this through as I will be my whole life)