A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Coalescing Perfections

In a comprehensive systematic theology, authors usually lay out their exposition of God’s perfections in a sequence, and in a structure, that is by no means absolutely mandatory, but which has a certain logic to it. The logic tends to start with the divine perfections that are the most fundamental to our understanding of God’s existence, of what God is, and of who God is. The perfections most foundational for our apprehension of God tend to come first. Even if these perfections of God are sometimes very abstractly stated, it works best to lay them down first and then to build the structure of understanding onto them: God’s spirituality and simplicity; his immutability, unity, infinity, and greatness. We could go on at length enumerating these foundational perfections, and I want to stress that there’s no such thing as a complete list of the divine perfections: as Charles Wesley says in one of his hymns, they are “glorious all, and numberless.”

The doctrine of divine perfections is a wonderful field of doctrine; it is supposed to be mind-blowing, heart-lifting, and theologian-transforming. And the enumeration of the attributes is in some ways more of an art than a science: you can never perfectly complete it, but you can reach a point where you’ve surveyed enough divine attributes that any new ones that  occur to you, or that you sort of stumble over in Scripture and realize you need to sit down and spend time with, can be more or less assimilated under the heading of something you’ve already named. (As an aside, I can testify that just last year I was working on an account of God’s immortality when I noticed that there are in fact two different words used for it in the NT, and that one was better translated incorruptibility, and that focusing on that word brought out the indestructibility of God’s life from a new angle. I more or less fell down the hole of researching the new-to-me doctrine of divine incorruptibility for a couple of weeks before I emerged and got back to business as usual.) The numberless divine perfections sometimes seem to draw us on theologically toward a vanishing horizon, but I’m not complaining. I’m not describing a problem! Or if it’s a problem, it’s a good and fruitful one.

Well. Once a foundation is laid, you build on it by considering other divine perfections, and then as the provisional end comes into view, a final set of divine perfections comes around: A set of perfections which sort of presuppose that you’ve already considered a bunch of prior perfections, and that now you’re taking a retrospective view back over the whole set of them, and making a kind of summative statement about God by drawing together the perfections from the far side of having already considered them each in sequence. These final, capstone, or summative perfections have a specially wonderful character. Chief among them: our friends blessedness and glory.

Let me illustrate this from one great Protestant theologian, Petrus van Mastricht. His  17th-c system of theology is listed there in your bibliography. It is just now appearing in English for the first time, and I know you’ll pardon my nerdhood if I say, wow, what a time to be alive! You couldn’t read this back when we were in seminary! Had to learn Latin. Kids these days have got all the good stuff, in English!

 Mastricht has a wonderfully detailed and precise treatment of the divine attributes. The earlier ones like divine spirituality and infinity, which I called foundational, he refers to as “primitive.” And the last ones, which I called summative, he refers to as “the attributes that are, so to speak, derivative” from those others. That is, you don’t start with them, but first you consider the others, then you derive your understanding of these latter attributes from that consideration. Or, in a slightly better turn of phrase, Mastricht calls them “doctrines that coalesce from consideration of” all the others. So coalescing doctrines, or derivative in that sense. And Mastricht lists three: Perfection, Glory, and Blessedness. There they are. And once Mastricht has discussed each of those, he  brings his massive doctrine of the one God to a conclusion, and turns to discuss the persons of the Trinity. (Chef’s kiss!)

So blessedness and glory belong together at the end of the treatment of attributes in an exemplary theological system. But of course there’s an underlying reason why a a system like Mastricht’s has that structure:  It’s because that sequence traces the actual structure of our actual knowledge of God. That’s what these theological statements are all tracking with: there’s an order inherent in the things we know about God, and the divine perfections in some ways sort themselves into that sequence when we consider them well. We become aware of glory very early in our spiritual awareness of God, but as a thing that we can focus our minds on and contemplate, glory gravitates toward the conclusion, as a great, comprehensive view that takes in everything else we know about God.

Now since I’ve talked about the divine attributes in this way, I want to triple underline one thing about them: I’m describing the way the divine perfections are laid out in our minds, in our informed, biblical, Christian understanding of God. What I mean is, if I were to produce for you a chart of how these fit together (and I could! They’re sequenced and totally chartable), I would not have produced for you a diagram of God. I would have produced a diagram of the well-ordered knowledge of God. Do you see the difference? It would be a theology diagram, not a God diagram. Of course the theology is ABOUT God, and I know God by thinking the theological thoughts. But the distinction really matters: through good theology, well ordered in response to God’s revelation, we apprehend God, but we do not comprehend God. (Indeed, one characteristic of God is his incomprehensibility.)

I wanted to triple underline this to make sure you don’t get the impression that we are adding elements together so that they total up to a doctrine of God; the divine perfections are not a list of ingredients in some divine recipe that mix in a bowl so we can whip up a batch of God. The one perfectly simple God that we are contemplating isn’t like that.

In fact, there’s an important sense in which our ability, or our need, to list these different perfections distinctly is imposed on us by the fact that we are finite creatures pondering the infinite creator. Here’s an illustration. When you are standing within a landscape, and you direct your attention to the horizon, you cannot take it all in at a single glance. You only see the slice of it in front of you. It’s plenty, of course, since it fills your field of vision and stretches away to both sides. But you’re not seeing all of it. To take in the full scope of that one horizon, you have to turn, then turn, then turn again. Notice, you’re only looking at one big thing, but to because of it scale, and your finite location within its vast, surrounding reality, you only apprehend it by turning, turning, turning, turning. East is East and west is west, but the horizon is One. Our knowledge of God is something like that: He has revealed something so vast and comprehensive that we only approach to its inherent simplicity and unity by turning our attention through a series of discrete meditations.

That’s what gives a special charcter to these summative doctrines, the derivative or coalescing doctrines of blessedness and glory. If we turned a complete circle and saw the whole horizon, and then concluded with that final glimpse of how the whole panorama goes together, we’d be doing  something like we’re  doing now: considering the divine blessedness and glory.

So the idea of gathering up the divine attributes describes an act of our understanding; it’s something we do in our minds. Remember, the perfections themselves don’t coalesce, but our meditation on them does. So after considering a number of divine attributes or perfections, it’s time to provisionally conclude the meditation by considering blessedness and glory. Let’s get coalescing!

Here’s how blessedness and glory relate. When you gather together all the divine perfections, blessedness describes what it’s like for God to possess all of those perfections, and know it, and delight in it. Glory describes what it’s like for God to possess all those perfections, as they shine or radiate forth from him. That is, blessedness coalesces the perfections and considers them inwardly, as God’s possession; glory coalesces them and considers them outwardly, as God’s splendor.

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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