Friday, September 17, 2010

Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (Part One, Chapter Three): Relation of the Being and Attributes of God

Part One
The Doctrine of God (The Being of God)

III. Relation of the Being and Attributes of God
A. The Being of God.
B. The Possibility of Knowing the Being of God.
C. The Being of God Revealed in His Attributes.

Some dogmaticians have separated the being of God and the attributes of God. “Others prefer to consider the Being of God in connection with His attributes in view of the fact that it is in these that He has revealed Himself” (p. 41).

A. The Being of God.
“It is quite evident that the Being of God does not admit of any scientific definition…At most only an analytical-descriptive definition is possible. This merely names the characteristics of a person or thing, but leaves the essential being unexplained” (p. 41).

“The Bible never operates with an abstract concept of God, but always describes Him as the Living God, who enters into various relations with His creatures, relations which are indicative of several different attributes” (p. 41).

To speak of the being of God is to speak of his essence. While our knowledge of his essence is most limited, Berkhof points to two passages in Scripture where his essence is defined: “An indication of the very essence of God has been found in the name Jehovah, as interpreted by God Himself, ‘I am that I am.’ On the basis of this passage the essence of God was found in being itself, abstract being. And this has been interpreted to mean self-existence or self-contained permanence or absolute independence” (p. 42). He also points to the words of Jesus in John 4:24 where Jesus speaks of the spirituality of God. “God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

B. The Possibility of Knowing the Being of God.
“The consensus of opinion in the early Church, during the Middle Ages, and at the time of the Reformation, was that God in His inmost Being is the Incomprehensible One” (p. 43).

Can we truly give answer to the following questions? “What is God? What is the nature of His inner constitution? What makes Him to be what He is?” (p. 43). We as creatures are finite and unable to comprehend the infinite. Berkhof goes on “Apart from the revelation of God in His attributes, we have no knowledge of the Being of God whatsoever. But in so far as God reveals Himself in His attributes, we also have some knowledge of the His Divine Being, though even so our knowledge is subject to human limitation…We know God only in so far as He enters into relations with us” (p. 43). The Reformers held that the Divine essence is incomprehensible.
Calvin’s take on the matter is considered and Berkhof speaks of his understanding when he says “this knowledge cannot be obtained by a priori methods, but only in an a posteriori manner through the attributes, which he regards as a real determination of the nature of God” (p. 44).

“The question, therefore, is not as to the possibility of a knowledge of God in the unfathomableness of His being, but is: Can we know God as He enters into relations with the world and with ourselves? God has entered into relations with us in His relations of Himself, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and we Christians humbly claim that through this Self-revelation we do know God to be the true God, and have real acquaintance with His character and will” (p. 44).

C. The Being of God Revealed in His Attributes.
Some have gone so far as to say that God’s attributes are God himself. While this safeguards “the unity and simplicity of God by maintaining that the whole essence is in each attribute” to do this “is a very dangerous extreme…moving in the direction of Pantheism” (p. 45). This rules out all distinctions in God. “Thomas Aquinas….asserted that the attributes do not reveal what God is in Himself, in the depths of His Being, but only what He is in relation to His creatures” (p. 45).

“Naturally, we should guard against separating the divine essence and the divine attributes or perfections, and also against a false conception of the relation in which they stand to each other” (p. 45). Berkhof quotes Shedd who speaks of the divine attributes as “an analytical and closer description of the essence.” Berkhof will say that “”because of the close relation in which the two stand to each other, it can be said that knowledge of the attributes carries with it knowledge of the Divine Essence…These qualities cannot be altered without altering the essential Being of God. And since they are essential qualities, each on if them reveals to us some aspects of the Being of God” (p. 46).