An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Okay, if we’re going to explore the question, “What is God like?” we must be prepared to go in way over our heads. And once we do, we find our hearts and minds expanding and being enriched. And we also find ourselves learning to bow. That’s what Matthew Barrett demonstrates very well in his new book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God.
I’m Fred Zaspel here at Books At a Glance, and we have Dr. Barrett here with us to talk about this really rich, warm, and yet profound study.
Matthew, welcome, and congratulations on a really excellent book.
Well, thank you for having me, and thank you for those kind words. I’m glad that people are enjoying the book.
In your Preface you describe this book as the climax of an extended time of your own learning. Tell us about that. How have you found that God has been “domesticated” in much of popular Christian theology?
Well, I don’t know that my experience growing up as a young believer, as a young Christian, I don’t know that it’s terribly unique in any way. I grew up in a church that I’m incredibly indebted to and grateful for to this day. They were faithful to just preach through the Scriptures verse by verse. And I grew up in a Christian church environment that loved Jesus and took the Bible seriously. So, in many ways I am so grateful for that. I noticed, however, that as I started to grow up and as I entered into my college years, it seems like forever ago, now, but when I entered into my college university years, I started to discover certain things that surprised me.
For instance, as much as growing up I had read the Bible daily, I was serious about devotions, I never had learned theology. In other words, I could tell you a Bible verse, but I probably couldn’t articulate some of the most deep or important or significant doctrines of the faith. And so, one of the most important things that happened was I started to learn from certain college theology professors that had a great influence on me. However, in that process I discovered a very different picture of God than what I had been used to hearing. Usually the way that I was taught to think about God was, well, this is a God we worship, this is a God who is holy and loving; but the type of God that was conveyed was one that I didn’t really understand as transcendent in the sense of wholly other. I remember one semester in particular a friend gave me a copy of Augustine’s Confessions, which I had not read before. It was just a tiny little paperback; I think it cost ninety-nine cents at the time. They found it at a used bookstore and they thought, “oh, I bet he’d like this.” So they gave it to me and I went camping that summer and thought, “I should read this.” Immediately I realized this is a very different type of God than I was used to.
In many evangelical churches today, God is thought of as really just a bigger, better version of ourselves. Whatever we experience, we just assume that’s true of God in a bigger way. If we experience love or grief or sorrow or a type of suffering, we will just project that back on God in some way. What I noticed when I started reading Augustine, and he was interpreting the Scriptures afresh for me, was that actually he started off thinking of God as someone who is wholly other, he is not like the creature at all. In fact, he’s not made in our image, we are made in his image. He’s not just a bigger, better version of ourselves, he’s a different type of being, altogether. In other words, what’s being conveyed is he’s the Creator, not the creature. In theology, there are terms that describe the type of view of God that’s very common in churches today and it’s a type of mono-polytheism. What that means is we tend to view God as one, mono, we believe in one God; but nonetheless we tend to view him kind of like the ancient people viewed pagan deities. There’s a plurality of pagan deities; these were deities that were bigger and stronger than people, but they still were characterized by the same type of limitations or change or fluctuation as we are. And sometimes as Christians, as well-meaning as we may be, we can buy into that paradigm. And what we do is we actually limit God in significant ways that Scripture does not.
What is the contribution you hope to make? You mention that while other books on the attributes of God examine one attribute after another successively, you want to point out how they all relate to one another and how they all stem from one foundational truth about God. What is that one foundational truth, and how does it inform all the rest?
Great question. The one foundational truth, (and I say this in every chapter throughout the book, and I emphasize it at the very beginning,) is that God is someone then whom none greater can be conceived. And of course, this echoes biblical language. You think of a prophet like Jeremiah or Isaiah. Isaiah is differentiating between the gods of the nations. These are gods that are created; these are gods that are limited in the way that creatures are limited. So you have Isaiah or Jeremiah, as well, who then says this is not like Yahweh, at all; Yahweh is the Creator, not the creature. Anselm, another church father, comes along and asks, “how do we describe this God? Well, he must be the perfect being.” He’s the perfect being in the way that Anselm liked to say it is, “well, he’s someone then whom none greater can be conceived.” What he meant by that was not merely that God is, like I mentioned a minute ago, just bigger and better than us, as if he’s just a greater version, a type of ‘superman’ that’s really just like us, but just, you know, our ideal image. No, what Anselm is saying, he’s a different type of being, altogether; he is the perfect being.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, if we understand it right, first of all there must be perfect-making attributes that follow, if God is this perfect being. What are those? Well, I would say, there’s lots we could mention and I address them in the book, but first up is God’s infinitude. What is it that essentially separates him and distinguishes him from the creature, from creation, which he has made? Well, it’s his infinitude. While we are finite individuals and creatures, we’ve been made and we change and we have limitations in our knowledge and our power and so on, God is not finite, he is infinite. He is an infinite God. Well, if he is an infinite God, then that means any type of limitation has to be precluded. Anything that would limit God, for example, lack of knowledge, lack of wisdom, lack of power. Or change, as if God changes in some way and, does he change for the better? Does he change for the worse? Or parts in God, as if God is somehow made up of parts, and he’s not a unity anymore. We could say dependence, God is somehow dependent on the creation or the creature. All these types of limitations have to be eliminated because any single one of these would mean God is no longer the perfect being. He’s no longer infinite, now he is finite. And we could say time and space, as well; if he’s limited or bound by time and space rather than the timelessly eternal God. Well, all of these types of things would limit him in some way. So, first off, this basic premise – God is someone then whom none greater can be conceived – first off it means that he is the infinite Creator, the eternal God, rather than the finite creature. And from there, many, many other attributes follow.
So, what are these perfect-making attributes, if he’s infinite? Well, he is incomprehensible. He is a God who is ase, he is a God of aseity, he is independent, rather than dependent on the created order. He is a God who is simple; he’s not compounded or composed of parts or dependent on different parts that make up his being. He simply is who he is eternally; his essence is his attributes, and his attributes are his essence. He is immutable; he does not change; he’s the unchanging God. He’s impassable; he’s not like us where he is subject to emotional fluctuation or change. He’s eternal and omnipresent. He’s not bound by time and space. He is omnipotent, omniscient, omni-sapient, all-wise. And of course, this also means that even his righteousness, his goodness, his love, these too, are to be characterized according to his infinite nature.
I would say, to answer your questions, simplicity is very key to all of this, though, because when we talked about these perfect-making attributes, we’re not, even in our finite understanding where having to address one before we move on to the other, that sort of thing, or distinguish between them, actually we have to be very careful here that we understand that in God, all that is in God is essential to him. What we mean by that is each of these attributes, he simply is his attributes. It’s not as if he’s, you know, 20% love, 15% holy, 40% omnipotence. No, he simply is love, he is holy. So, we can talk about these attributes, but at the end of the day this is one God who is not made up of parts, as if he could be divided by these parts. Rather, whenever we describe one of these attributes, we can’t help but naturally describe all the others. As you go through the book, you begin to see that.
You make a point to commend the A-team – Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Tell us how they are especially helpful in this study.
I mentioned, just previously, how for me, personally, they played such a big role. As I was a young Christian, stumbling across an Augustine was pivotal in not only introducing me to a God that was foreign to me at the time, but it also helped me to return to the Scriptures that I thought I knew so well. And I then realized that actually I didn’t know them as well as I thought. I had overlooked how the whole of the Bible portrays God. We have to remember with so many of these Fathers, they were biblical exegetes and preachers expositing the Scriptures, preaching sermons on the Bible. And so they are helpful along our journey to point us back to the Bible, to help us understand it more accurately and to give us a bigger picture of God than maybe what we are used to, the type of domesticated picture of God that we are used to.
Someone like Augustine was so influential. I mentioned Anselm the medieval church Father. He may be a little bit more difficult to read than Augustine for some Christians. Augustine, if you read his Confessions, Augustine is wonderful because he’s writing the story of his life but he’s doing so in the form of a prayer. So as he’s taking you through his life, he’s teaching you theology, but then he’s also leading you to doxology. Anselm is a more analytical thinker. He’s going to take you deep into the deep things of God and be very precise. You know, God is someone then whom none greater can be conceived. This is the type of language he uses. Another figure is Thomas Aquinas. I’m afraid many Protestants are unfamiliar with Thomas Aquinas and fearful of him. He’s one of the greatest thinkers in church history and I would say his writing on the attributes of God, I think is some of his best. I think that Christians will be surprised at how rich it is.
We could call these three the A-team – Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, though, of course, there are many others. This A-team is so helpful because no matter who you are reading, Augustine, Anselm or Thomas Aquinas, each of them is coming to these conclusions, maybe from a different angle, but coming to the same conclusions that this is the incomprehensible, infinite God, who is immutable, who is a God of aseity, who is a God of timeless eternity. And each of them, in their own way, understand that we dare not domesticate this God as we are so tempted to do, making God just a bigger, better version of ourselves, creating him in our own image – the Bible calls that idolatry. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas argue – no, this is the God… No one is like him; we are made in his image, he’s not made in our image. And so, from there they argue that this must be the perfect being, this must be the infinite Creator, and from there all the other attributes follow. So, whether it’s Augustine’s Confessions, where he is praying, or Anselm’s very analytical thought, or Aquinas who has given this really precise prose on who God is and who he is not, each of them bring us to this understanding of God. Ultimately, though, each of them take us back to the Bible itself and really open our eyes and warn us – don’t domesticate this God.
Who are some other theologians that you have found most helpful in this study?
I’ll just mention two of them, there’s so many that we could mention. Well, I’ll mention three, I’ll cheat a little bit here. Early on in my own pilgrimage John Calvin, of course, played a significant role. I remember I had stumbled across an abandoned copy of Calvin’s Institutes. It was pretty beat up but it was still readable and I was very poor at the time. I didn’t have any money to buy books so I thought this will do. So I took this tome, it was so thick in one volume. I had heard about Calvin and through all kinds of reasons that I won’t go into, I was very intrigued by Calvin and so I decided I’m going to read through Calvin’s Institutes. It’s something I always recommend to my students – read through Calvin’s Institutes in a year. I determined to do that. And Calvin was so, so helpful because Calvin helped me understand that this God who is transcendent, wholly other, this God who is the perfect being, the one who cannot be domesticated, this is a God who beyond… The seemingly impossible has happened. This God is one who has stooped down. And though we could not know him otherwise, because we are finite, he has stooped down. This infinite, incomprehensible creator has stooped down and, though his essence is immeasurable and infinite, by stooping down he has revealed himself through his works. Calvin called this accommodation – God has accommodated us finite creatures. And he talked about lisping, how God lisped to us through his Revelation and his works like a nurse or a mom or perhaps a dad who, with a newborn, baby talk, he lisps to that newborn so they can be understood. So, Calvin was so influential in that regard. He was so careful, like Augustine before him, to preserve God’s transcendence, but also to convey that as the transcendent God, while we dare not compromise that transcendence, we understand that God has graciously accommodated himself to us.
Two others that I recommend people read. One is the Puritan, Stephen Charnock, who wrote a large volume on the existence and attributes of God. I think the second half of it is focused on the attributes of God. Boy, this is, I think, some of the richest work on the attributes! Because, for this reason, Anselm and Aquinas will take you into the deep things of God and they will really push your mind, right? Well, Stephen Charnock does the same; however, in very Puritan fashion he can never finish a chapter on an attribute of God without telling you why this attribute matters for the Christian life and why it should change the way you live and how you worship and how it should change the church, ultimately. And that’s something I’ve tried to let rub off on me. I just soaked myself in Stephen Charnock, so that, as I was writing None Greater, I tried to do the same. So, every chapter, no matter how difficult or how complex the chapter is, either throughout the chapter or at the end of the chapter, I tried to show you as a reader why does this matter so much and what are the consequences if we do domesticate God? What are the consequences for the Christian life, for Christian living, for the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Sometimes Christians think this doctrine of God is abstract and it’s for the theologians in ivory towers. Well, as it turns out, it’s not. In fact, it’s directly related to the Gospel, to the Christian life, to how we respond to trials and temptations, to our future hope of whether God will come through on his promises – all of this depends on our doctrine of God. So that’s Stephen Charnock.
Lastly, I’ll mention the Dutch Reformed thinker, one of my favorites of course, Herman Bavinck. If I could only give you one book on the doctrine of God, it might be Herman Bavinck’s. I think Banner of Truth took it out of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, and published a standalone book called, The Doctrine of God. This is beautiful; it’s the doctrine of God at its best. So, go read Herman Bavinck. He will summarize the doctrine of God in a way that will change your perspective on God and help you see that we’ve actually been in danger the last couple of hundred years, with modern theology, we’ve been in danger of painting a picture of God, that we are so trying to emphasize God’s eminence and his relationality that we’ve actually compromised God’s transcendence. And Bavinck is the ideal theologian and apologist who comes into that picture and says we’ve departed. We’ve departed not only from the classical vision of God but from the biblical vision of God.
I thought your overview of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 32-33 was an exceptionally helpful introduction to your study. Sketch that out for us briefly.
Yes. I’m always encouraging Christians to go to the Old Testament and read the Old Testament. It’s something that I’m afraid we don’t do very often. And it’s really to our detriment, because in the Old Testament, not just in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament we see a grand vision of who God is. You think of Isaiah, in Isaiah 6, “woe is me,” as he is encountering the holiness of God. Well, we see these types of encounters throughout the Old Testament and they give us a picture of God that I’m afraid is foreign to us today. It’s foreign to our churches in the way that we just talk about God. It doesn’t seem to be consistent with the way the Old Testament pictures God. You’ve mentioned Exodus and Moses’ encounter with God. This is after God has delivered Israel from Egypt as he promised he would. He’s done this through his servant Moses and he’s parted the Red Sea and taken them to Sinai after defeating the Egyptians. As they cross over in victory, Moses sings this song. It’s a prayer of sorts in which he is just praising God, not only for what he’s done, but for who he is.
As Israel then comes to Sinai, Moses is called upon to mediate. He is the mediator between God, Yahweh, and this people, Israel. And it’s a scary thing because they are not only finite creatures, but they are sinful; and so Moses must mediate on their behalf, and then he’s going to mediate God’s Word to them. As he goes up Sinai, and climbs the mountain, he encounters God. If anyone could have encountered the glory of God, I suppose it would have been Moses, right? As God says throughout Exodus, this is the one he speaks with face-to-face. He has a very close relationship with Moses, more than anyone, we could say, at the time.
Well, as Moses encounters God and receives God’s Word for the people of God, Moses asks something that is unbelievable. As you’re reading the narrative, you think, how could he ask this? He says to God, “let me see your glory.” Now, on the one hand, you kinda want to slap Moses, and be like, “Moses! What are you asking? Do you not realize who this is? Do you not understand? This is God! This is the infinite, incomprehensible Creator.” Well, I think that’s appropriate, maybe we would have a talk with Moses before he goes up the mountain. But on the other hand, I also think Moses may be asking this because God has just asked him, not only to bring the people to Sinai, not only to lead them, but then to lead them to the land of promise. And in light of Israel’s idolatry and sin that occurs at Sinai, but then is going to be ongoing, Moses is fearful, perhaps, of whether God will go with them, in light of their sinfulness. God has promised to bless them, but will he continue with us? And Moses realizes that if this God is not going to go with us, we’re hopeless, we’re doomed. So, there may be something there, that Moses wanted a verification, a confirmation.
Well, regardless of what it is, Moses has asked the impossible. God responds to Moses and says, “Moses, no one can see my face or see my glory and live.” Right away this teaches us that not even Moses can domesticate this God. This is a God whose essence is incomprehensible. If we were to see it or come close to it, we would disintegrate. Like trying to approach the sun, before we even got there, we would disintegrate. His glory is immeasurable and his holiness is an infinite holiness. Moses understands this. But at the same time, like I mentioned with Calvin, God is so gracious in this moment, because he accommodates Moses and ultimately Israel. On the one hand, he says to Moses, “no one can see my glory and live,” and yet, at the same time God says, “Moses, I’m going to hide you in the cleft of the rock, so you will be safe, and I will pass by and you will see,” so to speak, “my backside.” And this is God’s accommodation to Moses; it’s his confirmation, even, of his goodness, his benevolence, his covenant benevolence to Moses and to Israel that he will not abandon them, he will go with them. But even then, Moses is veiled, right? He’s veiled from the glory of God lest he perish. And even as he comes down, Paul talks about how as he comes down the mountain his face is glowing and it has to be veiled from the people. There’s so much more I could mention, but this is just a glimpse of who God is. This is the infinite Creator, the perfect being, whose glory, whose essence is immeasurable, and yet, he has graciously accommodated himself to us finite creatures.
Give us a brief walk-through of your book. You can’t narrate each chapter, but just sketch it out for us in broad strokes.
Well, Fred, that’s a difficult task. I almost hate to do it because I can’t do justice to it; but I’ll give it a try. I think that readers will find as they are working through chapters, they’ll discover so much more than what I can say here.
I guess I would say a couple of things. The first thing to notice, much of what I’ve been saying, that’s how I start the book. I start off talking about my own experience as an evangelical Christian and how I was used to hearing about a domesticated God and then I stumbled across a very different picture of God, this incomprehensible, infinite being. I talk about how I was surprised by God. And then after I discuss incomprehensibility, I talk about how should we talk about God then? How does the Bible talk about God and are we talking about God in a way that could put us in danger of idolatry? So, I have a chapter called, Can We Think God’s Thoughts after Him? How the Creature Should (and Should Not) Talk about the Creator. It’s a very important chapter because I discuss there how, because he’s infinite and we are finite, then our knowledge of God, even our language of God, is always analogical in nature. In other words, on the one hand, if God is incomprehensible, then our knowledge of God, our language of God, can’t describe him in all his glory and essence.
On the other hand, we’re not agnostic; it’s not as if we know nothing of God. So how then? Well, analogical. And this is where Thomas Aquinas is so helpful. As he is being a biblical exegete, he says as we interpret the Scriptures we always have to understand whenever we predicate something of God, even if it’s love, or as we’re talking about God’s communicable attributes, attributes of God that are actually characterized in us, like love, for example, or knowledge or whatever it may be, we always still have to remind ourselves that this may be true of us, but it is true of the Creator in a whole different way, in an infinite way. And so, no matter what attribute we’re talking about – love: well it’s an infinite love, holiness: it’s an infinite holiness, and knowledge is an infinite knowledge. What he’s doing there is reminding us that our language is always analogical, our knowledge is always analogical of God. And that makes sense because we are image bearers, we are created in God’s image, to image him; we’re not God, ourselves.
I discuss how that should affect our language, how that affects the way we interpret passages where the biblical authors may use terms or concepts of our created world and apply them to God. Or even what we would call human emotions, and apply it to God. I talk about how this analogical approach affects the way we interpret Scripture, itself.
And then from there, I discuss God’s attributes. I turn to God’s infinitude, God’s aseity, his simplicity, his immutability, impassability, eternity, and so on. As I do so, though, I am always talking about one in light of all the others. I mentioned simplicity, a minute ago; this is so important. Simplicity means that God simply is his attributes; his attributes are his essence; his essence is his attributes. It’s not as if these are different things, as if God is one thing and his attributes are something else that are added to him. No, God simply is his attributes.
Well, if that’s true, one of the practical implications of this is whenever we talk about one attribute, we can’t help but talk about the others. For example, I have a chapter on God’s aseity, another chapter on God’s immutability. Well, it’s very difficult even to talk about aseity and immutability without talking about God’s eternity. If God is not dependent on the world, if he is independent, if he is self-sufficient, self-existent, the God of aseity; if he is life in and of himself, well, then he also must be immutable because any type of change would make him dependent on something as he is changing, either for better or worse. He also must be eternal; he can’t be bound by time. If he is, then suddenly his aseity is compromised. The point is, as I go through each chapter, each of these attributes then must be interpreted in light of all the other attributes. And for this reason, I have a glossary at the end where I introduce them so that even if you haven’t gotten to a chapter, you can still look it up.
This becomes really important towards the end of the book when I talk about God’s holiness and love. Because I think if there’s any tendency in our own circles to domesticate God, it’s at this point in which we tend to set God over against himself. We think, well, God is a God of love; well, he can’t be a God of wrath. And this certainly affects our view of the Cross where we think, what’s the Cross about? It’s about his love, but is not about wrath; it’s not as if Christ is satisfying the wrath of God on our behalf. Well, there, I talk about if simplicity is true, then we can’t say that. This is a God who is love, but this is a God of holy love, of righteous love. So, we can never emphasize his love to a point where we would somehow compromise his righteousness or his holiness.
I do that in the last chapter on jealousy, as well. I talk about how jealousy tends to be a negative term in our experience, but when Scripture applies it to God, it’s a holy jealousy. This is a jealousy for his own glory; and ultimately this is a jealousy that concerns his love. Because he’s a jealous God, he demands our exclusive devotion to himself. This is a type of intolerant love on God’s behalf. Well, I could go on, but that gives you a little bit of a picture. Each chapter is devoted to a different attribute, but, nonetheless, as I talk about one, I can’t help but talk about all the others.
How ought our growing understanding of God’s perfections shape such things as our devotion, our witness, and our daily living?
I’m really glad you asked that question, Fred, because I think it is so, so important. Whenever we’re talking about the attributes of God, we should not think that this is somehow removed from the implications of Christian living. It’s not. Our theology, never is it more true than with God; our theology should always lead to doxology. We can’t divorce those two. For all kinds of reasons, we seem to have a tendency in the church, today, to do that, to think that in church we’re concerned with ministry and practical living, and all that theology stuff is removed. No, it’s not. Actually, it’s only if we have a right understanding of who God is that we will then live rightly.
When we talk about the attributes of God, we see this in all kinds of ways. Let me just give you one example. The chapter on God’s impassability, that God is not like us, he is not subject to emotional change or fluctuation. This is a lot like the pagan deities, that one minute they are happy with you, and the next minute you can’t trust them or trust their word, they’ve changed their mind and are having a temper tantrum, or something like that. This is not like the God of the Bible, at all. He is a God who is impassable; this simply stems from his immutability. Well, does this have implications for the Christian life? Absolutely! Think about suffering. Our default reaction is to think we want a God who can suffer because that’s the type of God that is comforting; that’s the type of God we can relate to. So, you’ll hear people say, “you’re suffering, you’re going through hard times; don’t worry, God’s suffering with you.” At first glance, that sounds comforting, but actually it’s a devastating thought if we think about the implications. If this is a God who suffers, this is a God we might feel like we relate to, but it’s certainly not a God we’re going to pray to as if he can omnipotently deliver us. No, he’s a God who is just as prone, just as much a victim to suffering as we are. This is a God we might even feel sorry for and start to pity. This is a God who is like us. Well here, this is where his immutability and impassability have huge implications for the Christian life. It’s precisely because God does not suffer that he is able to help those who are suffering. I mean, just imagine the implications here, then, for the problem of evil, for trials and suffering in the Christian life, for death itself. Do we want a God we feel sorry for or do we want a God who can actually come through on his promises because he’s not a victim like we are.
That’s just one example. There’s so many more. In each chapter I give examples of how, no matter what attribute it is, I give examples of how it impacts the Christian life.
We’re talking to Dr. Matthew Barrett about his excellent new book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. Don’t let the daunting depths of the subject keep you away. You’ll find the study enriching to your worship and your devotion to God. Read for the sake of your own joy.
Matthew, thanks for your good work, and thanks for talking to us again today.
Absolutely! Thanks for having me on.
Buy the books
NONE GREATER: THE UNDOMESTICATED ATTRIBUTES OF GOD, by Matthew Barrett