A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)


The biblical theology of glory provides an embarrassment of riches. To expound this doctrine, we could proceed simply by concordance-drill, reciting some key passages on divine glory, putting them in a meaningful salvation-historical sequence, and tracing the theme of glory all the way from the doctrine of God through creation to redemption.

Let me just do my top 7, to show you how rich and satisfying the whole exercise would be:

 Isaiah 42:8 “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.”

  Isaiah 43:7 “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Hebrews 1:3  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 Habakkuk 2:14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Revelation 21:23  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

But just to make sure the systematic theologians aren’t left permanently underemployed by the biblical theologians, perhaps we can add to that recital a little more conceptual or definitional precision. After all, none of the key passages ever quite set out to define glory for us.

Consider Petrus van Mastricht’s account of divine glory. He analyzes in four categories, and while he doesn’t call them concentric circles, they actually are. Van Mastricht starts from the center and works his way out: Glory has these four aspects:

1. Eminence.

2. Brightness of that eminence.

3. Recognition or Estimation of that eminence and its brightness.

4. Celebration or Manifestation of that recognition of that eminence and its brightness.

Eminence is about being high or lifted up; exalted. God is “high above” in every sense, and that exaltation is the first thing to say about his glory. He is high above all; he is high above height. He transcends all things and is above them, not as the highest thing in an ascending sequence, but as above that. His infinite eminence means you can’t simply rank him as the greatest  of all time; that would be to drag him down into the contest. He’s so much the highest that he’s off the chart.

Van Mastricht points out that God has this infinite eminence “first from his essence, insofar as he is Jehovah,” and “next from his attributes, inasmuch as from them, as if from various  parts, comes forth that eminence of the divine majesty, just as we have shown throughout in our individual contemplation of them.” (2:473)

The next three elements van Mastricht gathers from the various ways the word glory is used in  Scripture: God is not only exalted, but that exaltation shines forth as brightness or splendor. And third, that shining splendor of eminence evokes intelligent recognition, it summons attention and calls for a right recognition and estimation of just how exalted and just how splendid God is. Finally, God’s glory is such that just recognizing it is inadequate; it must be celebrated; its manifestation must  be enjoyed and praised.

Now those last two elements, recognition and celebration of God’s glory may sound like external additions to, or responses to, God’s glory. But van Mastricht includes them in the glory of God itself, glory proper. That’s because as you read about glory in the Bible, there’s no conceptual knife sharp enough to slice between glory and its recognition, between the brightness of God’s eminence and the acknowledgement and praise of it. Glory has to be acknowledged to be glory. You can’t be famous if nobody knows who you are. So you know the question, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We might try to ask if God is glorious in the woods and nobody is there to see it, does he shine? In such a case, would we say all four components of glory are present, or does the glory of God depend on external appreciators in order to be glory?

The answer is that in such a case, glory would be fully present, not only in its eminence and brightness, but also in recognition and celebration. For two reasons: first, God is his own audience. If glory requires recognition and celebration, only God is a worthy recognizer and celebrator of his own majesty. So while glory has what we’re calling an outward orientation, a  radiating splendor that awakens spectators, nevertheless the absolutely self-sufficient God could have intrinsic glory from himself. In one sense, only God can give God the glory due to his holy name. Finite creatures can only give him the glory due his name in their own, finite capacity; they can do the best they can. But God himself in his own divine life acknowledges and celebrates the splendor of his infinite exaltation.

But second, we could say that same thing in trinitarian terms. The Father is always delighting in the beloved Son, and the Son is always adoring his holy Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Robert Leighton said, “It is most true of that Blessed Trinity, Satis amplum alter alteri theatrum sumus; that is, each is to the other a theater large enough. Furthermore, God arranges all things to the end that they promote and proclaim his own glory, but the doctrine of the Trinity shows one of the ways that this divine self-glorification is unselfish. In it, the persons of the Trinity bring about the more conspicuous display of one another’s glory.

But notice the dual way this answer unfolded: first a response focusing only on God as such, and then an explicitly trinitarian answer. It’s the same answer, really, at two levels of analysis. There’s a temptation for excited trinitarian theologians to present this kind of thing in a problem-and-solution format: Step one would be “a merely monotheistic God couldn’t have the fullness of glory,” and step two would be “but God is Trinity, which solves the problem.” But I think that’s an unhelpful approach.

I think the right way to speak about this is to present the doctrine of the Trinity not as the solution or correction of a doctrine about the one God, but to present it as an intensification, enrichment, or deepening. We an acknowledge that God inherently has glory even when just considered essentially; but we can also see a deeper and richer glory when we bring in Trinitarian distinctions. Trinitarian theology functions best for us when we see it as an enrichment, concretizing, and deepening of the doctrine of the one God, rather than as a solution to alleged problems of the doctrine of the one God.

One way trinitarianism deepens the doctrine of God is by providing much clearer links to the gospel story. We see this in the doctrine of glory especially well. The doctrine of glory is wonderful and practical in a first phase of description. But when we go forward to its trinitarian aspect, the external work of redemption, the sending of the Son and Spirit, can then  be seen as a kind of externalization among creatures of that inherent glory in the divine life. Just as God is self-glorified in the  life of Father, Son and Spirit, he draws creatures to glorify him in the Father’s sending of the Son and Spirit:

To close with a passage from John Owen:

When God designed the great and glorious work of recovering fallen man, and the saving of sinners, to the praise of the glory of his grace, he appointed, in his infinite wisdom, two great means thereof: The one was the giving his Son for them, and the other was the giving his Spirit to them. And hereby was way made for the manifestation of the glory of the whole blessed Trinity; which is the utmost end of all the works of God.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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