Last week, I began my class on the theology of Jürgen Moltmann at the College of the Transfiguration. We have a splendid group of students, and I am thrilled to be working with them in the course. Part of the assignments for the class will be position papers in which students argue for a strong, and perhaps even provocative thesis in light of our readings. I want them to venture some bold affirmations not only for the sake of our class reflection, but also for the sake of the gospel. We should not be timid about the good news we have to share.
I wrote the first position paper for the class. Along with a collection of Moltmann’s writings, we are using Daniel Migliore’s text, Faith Seeking Understanding, to provide some context for understanding Moltmann’s thought. I wrote on Migliore’s rethinking of the traditional sets of God’s attributes. As you will see, I couldn’t help but bring some Moltmann in to the discussion.
So if you are a theology geek, here’s my paper. Let me know what you think. And please keep my students in your prayers. They have to put up with me for a whole semester.
Christian theology, if it is to remain true to the proclamation of the gospel, needs to rethink the attributes of God in light of the history of the triune God. Too often Christian theology speaks of the attributes of God in a way that seems to have little to no reference to the God of Israel, who suffers for, with and because of God’s people, and supremely to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, we are often presented with a list of abstract attributes describing God with terms like infinity, immutability and impassability. The upshot of this approach is that we end up saying things about God that strike us as tone deaf to the basic affirmations of the Christian faith. Even great theologians like Augustine, who once said that God does not truly grieve over the pain and suffering of the world, and Anselm, who once said God does not experience compassion, can fall into this trap. In order to avoid these and other distortions of the nature and character of God, we need to rethink the classic attributes of God in light of the revelation of the triune God that we meet in Jesus Christ.
In Migliore’s chapter on the triune God he argues for a thorough rethinking of the attributes of God in light of his reflections on the Trinity (Migliore, pp. 85-90). In Protestant and Catholic scholastic theology the attributes of God were presented in two sets. The first set, derived by the via negativa or negative theology, offers a list of “absolute” attributes by saying what God is not. This way excludes all that is thought to be imperfect in creatures. For example, God is not finite, but infinite, and God is not changeable (mutable), but immutable. The second set, derived by the via causalitatus or the way of causation, and the via eminentiae or the knowledge of God based on the virtues of creatures, provides a list of “relative” attributes. These ways move from the creation to God as either the creator or the perfection of the virtues found in the universe. For example, from the experience of wisdom and love in creatures, we can affirm that God is all-wise and all-loving.
These sets of God’s attributes may at first blush seem quite reasonable. But when we recall the many criticisms of the traditional doctrine of God problems emerge (see Migliore, pp. 66-69). Marxists and feminists claim that traditional doctrines of God’s omnipotence identifies God’s nature and character with tyrannical power that is used to justify the exploitation and oppression of the poor and vulnerable. Other people criticize the doctrine of God in light of the experience massive suffering in the world. How does one square the existence of suffering and evil in the world with claims about God’s being all-powerful and all-good? Still others claim that reality is inherently relational and dynamic, and, therefore, criticize notions of God’s immutability. In light of criticisms like these, it is hard to defend the traditional sets of the divine attributes.
Another problem with the scholastic teaching on God’s attributes, which I mentioned in my opening paragraph, is that they often sit uneasily with the basic affirmations of the gospel. For example, the claim that God is impassable (i.e., not subject to or capable of suffering) runs the risk of emptying the salvific nature of the Christian proclamation of Christ crucified. If God cannot suffer, then was Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross simply illusory? This approach, taken by the gnostics, will cause us to wonder if redemption can really touch those areas of our humanity that are affected by sin, suffering and death. Or, if God cannot suffer, was it merely a human Jesus who died on the cross? This approach might lead us to wonder what kind of murderous God would require such a death.
Perhaps, instead of beginning with an attribute like God’s impassability, we should begin by looking at the crucified Christ and allow that to tell us about the nature and character of God. This is the approach that we find in Moltmann’s book The Crucified God. In light of the centrality of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ to the proclamation of the Christian gospel, we will need to let go of the traditional attribution of impassability to God.
Migliore offers a rethinking of many of the attributes of God. In the limited space of this paper I can’t deal with all of them (though I hope we will discuss them in class). For the purposes of this paper I will lift up just one example. Migliore follows the lead of Karl Barth in rethinking the attributes in terms of pairs that point to the God who loves in freedom. In rethinking the attribute of God’s impassability, Migliore speaks of the love of the triune God as “vulnerable, yet unconquerable” (Migliore, p. 88). The traditional attribute of God’s impassability tried to safeguard us from thinking of God as driven to and fro by passions in a way that we see all too often in human life. God is not like human beings in this sense. Fair enough. But, the attribute of God’s impassability often seems bankrupt in light the biblical witness to nature and character of God. The prophets speak of the passionate lament of God for God’s people, the gospels speak of the passion and death of the Son of God, and Paul speaks of the sighing that is too deep for words of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. What we see in the scriptures is not an impassable God, but a God whose love for the world is passionate and vulnerable. God is not perfect in that God cannot suffer. Rather, God is perfect in that God is love, and the nature of love is such that is always open to rejection, suffering and loss. Since it is God’s love, we may think of it as ultimately unconquerable, but that does not mean that it is not subject to suffering and death. Rather, God’s suffering love is a free act of the God who acts to bring about the reconciliation of the godless and the godforsaken and the salvation of the whole world.
If Christian theology is to fulfill its task of testing the church’s proclamation by its own norm, which is Jesus Christ as he is attested in scripture, then we need to rethink the traditional attributes of God in light of the history of the triune God.