God’s Being and Perfections

D. Stephen Long

Katherine Sonderegger begins her Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God challenging modern theology. She writes, “Who is God? And what is God? (Qui sit et quid sit Deus). These are the questions of an entire lifetime” Yet, she continues, “Modern Christian theology has shown an allergy to questions about Deity – what God is” ([Fortress, 2015], xi). Instead, it opts for “identity.” Protestant theologians in particular eschew the speculative theological task of inquiring into God’s nature and focus on the practical task of knowing God from God’s relation to creation. Sonderegger beautifully and powerfully addresses the much-neglected topic of “what God is.” Her Systematic Theology should become the standard text for all seminaries in the Wesleyan tradition. It is that good.

Perhaps it is our “practical” bent, our pious disposition, our ethical focus, our opposition to the Reformed correlation of God’s nature and absolute predestination or to Roman Catholic natural theology and metaphysics. Whatever the reason, Wesleyan theologians, clergy, and laity have not done well teaching and learning the doctrine of God.

The Wesleyan and Protestant neglect of the doctrine of God is understandable. It arises from a catholic disposition. The traditional teaching on God was never questioned by the major Protestant theologians. Between 1536 and 1538 Martin Luther wrote the Schmalkald Articles to set forth what mattered most in his dispute with the Pope. The first part on the “lofty articles of the divine majesty” is the shortest, containing four articles on the Holy Trinity. Luther presents them in traditional form and concludes, “These articles are not matters of dispute or conflict, for both sides confess them. Therefore, it is not necessary to deal with them at greater length” (The Schmalkald Articles, 5). Similar statements can be found in Calvin. Protestant neglect of treatises on the doctrine of God arose because it was not disputed. It did not need reform, revision, or rejection. Many Protestant theologians, including Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590), Richard Hooker (1554-1600), John Owen (1616-1683), and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) affirmed the Catholic teaching on God found in Thomas Aquinas.

Wesley assumed this teaching. (The best, and most thorough, account of the relationship between Wesley and Aquinas can be found in Edgardo A. Colón-Emeric’s Wesley, Aquinas and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue [Baylor University Press, 2009].) Like earlier Protestant theologians, he never gave us a sustained, sophisticated treatise on God’s nature and attributes, or being and perfections (the two phrases were used synonymously.) In fact, his sermon “On the Trinity” is one of his most disappointing. It is unusually anti-intellectual, admonishing his hearers to affirm it as a mystery by arguing that they affirm other things they cannot understand. Of course he never assumed Wesleyans would receive their doctrine only from him. He encouraged his hearers to engage with the question “What is God?” by studying theology and philosophy. In his 1756 “Address to the Clergy.” He admonished the clergy to ask themselves:

Do I understand metaphysics; if not the depths of the Schoolmen, the subtleties of Scotus or Aquinas, yet the first rudiments, the general principles, of that useful science? Have I conquered so much of it, as to clear my apprehension and range my ideas under proper heads; so much as enables me to read with ease and pleasure, as well as profit, Dr. Henry More’s Works, Malebranche’s “Search after Truth,” and Dr. Clarke’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God?” (§I.2, Works of John Wesley [Jackson], 10:483)

His sermon “Catholic Spirit” assumed such knowledge was decisive for catholicity.

This sermon should not be misunderstood. It was not a rapprochement with Roman Catholicism. Wesley affirms a “Catholic Spirit” against what he finds to be the constriction of conscience in Roman Catholicism. He affirms what is Catholic among competing Protestant communions and his answer is God’s being and perfections. This is an important ecumenical insight. Drawing on 2 Kgs 10:15, Wesley asks, “Is thine heart right as with mine heart?” If it is, then the appropriate conclusion is “give me thine hand.” Wesley sets forth seven conditions by which one determines catholicity. The first is intriguing:

The first thing implied is this: Is thy heart right with God? Dost thou believe his being, and his perfections? His eternity, immensity, wisdom, power; his justice mercy, and truth? Dost thou believe that he now ‘upholdeth all things by the word of his power’? And that he governs even the most minute, even the most noxious, to his own glory, and the good of them that love him? (“Catholic Spirit,” in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2, ed. Albert Outler [Abingdon, 1985], 87)

Only if his hearers say yes to this question could he give them his hand.

Wesley’s brief affirmation of God’s being and perfections stands in a long tradition of theological wisdom on God’s nature, a wisdom that requires work beyond Wesley in order to understand it. A good place to begin is the first forty-three questions of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. Everyone entrusted with teaching in the church should be familiar with these questions; they are a basic primer in the doctrine of God written for those who preach and teach. Let me conclude this first installment for Catalyst with a summary of what and who God is according to those questions, a summary that will then be more fully examined in the next installment.

God is simple, perfect, immutable, impassible, infinite, eternal and one, who is revealed in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s essence is one, yet each person is the essence. The Father is the essence. The Son is the essence and the Spirit is the essence. The Father, Son, and Spirit are also the essence. Nonetheless, there is only one essence and three persons. The persons are distinguished by their relations.

Here is the answer, or at least the beginning of the answer, that was the basis for Wesley’s affirmation of God’s being and perfections. It was shared by Catholics and Protestants in the midst of their opposition to each other. If we are to be catholic, this answer will be essential. If we are not to be catholic and seek to reject or revise this answer, we should at least understand what it is (the divine quiddity) that we are rejecting.

Posted Sep 21, 2015

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