It is common, when speaking of God, to describe Him by certain characteristics. We say things like, “God is Love;” or, “God is All-Powerful;” or, “God is the Father.”
These abstractions from the Divine Personality invite certain issues. The person who hears that “God is Love” may rightly ask, if that is the case, why there is such a place as Hell. The person who hears that “God is All-Powerful” may rightly be puzzled by the question, “If He is All-Powerful, could he create a stone too heavy for He Himself to lift?” And the person who hears that “God is Father” may rightly feel, drawing from his or her own experience of fatherhood, that if this is the case he wishes for nothing to do with such a God.
There is a grave problem with these statements about God, and it is not that they are, in themselves, untrue, but that they are abstractions. They are properties of God removed from God; and, having been separated from God Himself, they are employed in turn to judge God. Consequently, we end up in the sorry position where God’s Love is militated against His Justice, His Power against His Character, His Wrath against his Mercy. We judge God, then, not by God, but by our ideas of God, and in the process we become idolaters of our ideas. Our ideas of God, then, become hellish and Satanic—for it is always Satan’s trick to make us choose, in the place of God, a lesser good. The problem, then, is not with these characteristics of God’s personality, but with the way we are approaching our knowledge of Him.
How are we approaching God wrongly? When we abstract the characteristics of God in the way I have described, we are drawing from our human understanding of love, and power, and fatherhood, and applying those human definitions to God. The result is a vision of God that is composed of all the ‘best thoughts I can imagine’ about God. But whatever best thoughts you might have, they still fall short of God in His actuality. How can you, O Finite Human, capture or conceive even the smallest characteristic of an infinite God? If you had 100 pieces of information about God, how much more information would you need to reach infinity? If you had 1,000,000 pieces of information about God, how much more would you need to reach infinity? The gap between our human understanding and God, no matter how high we climb the ladder of knowledge, remains impassable.
To explain this more clearly I’ve created the following diagram.
When it comes to our knowledge of God, we have no way of achieving such knowledge on our own. This is because our human knowledge, working from the ground up, builds from our understandings of things like Love, Power, Fatherhood, Holiness, Mercy, Grace, Forgiveness, Justice, and whatever other characteristics are applied to God. But it always has a ceiling; we can only go so far. “What is called God’s goodness and God’s holiness,” observes Karl Barth, “cannot be determined by any view that we men have of goodness and holiness, but it is determined from what God is.” And when we take our human knowledge and apply it to God as a way to determine His character—that is, when we develop an abstraction and define God by that abstraction—then we are worshipping idols. We aren’t worshipping God, but the characteristics of our own making. Incidentally, the very nature of this ladder of knowledge is precisely the reason why we cannot prove God from Nature. He is not such a being as could be determined or defined by any earthly characteristic. He is a being who must be revealed.
The ladder of the knowledge of God, in other words, only goes one way. We can only know God as God has revealed Himself to us, and we can never determine who God is by our own means and definitions. We cannot take from any earthly definition and move ‘upward’ toward God; all our understandings of God must be received, downward, from Him in revelation. But this is precisely where the good news begins, because this is exactly what God has done. He, recognizing the gap between our knowledge and Him, has made a way for us to know Him. Humanity could not reach God, but God condescended to reach humanity.
The only way, then, that we can speak fairly and accurately about who God is, is to speak with the language that God Himself has chosen for His self-revelation—that is, to speak of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. As Christians, when we are asked what we know about the Doctrine of God, our first and best answer should be, “Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen.”
Let’s return, then, to God’s Love, Power, and Fatherhood, and address some of the issues raised by their abstraction. As we do this we must keep in mind that because of the one-way ladder we can never work from human definitions upwards, but must always work from God’s self-revelation to us. We do not know what ‘Love’ truly is, except by gazing at God in Christ. And that means human love is an utterly insufficient platform from which to make determinations about God. From God’s perspective, however, the purest expression of His Love, revealed to us, is the Cross—a very different picture of love than what we would choose! But it is one that in its severity and costliness makes some sense of a doctrine of Hell. We do not know what ‘Power’ is except by looking at God in Christ, and what we see in him is a person who rejected earthly power in favor of Heavenly submission. Christ’s power meant submitting to the will of God, that is, to crucifixion. Once again, this is profoundly opposed to our human definition of power! Thus, the Power of God is revealed in the submission of Christ to the plan of God—that is, power revealed in self-limitation to the constraints of God’s character. In this way, the question of the stone-too-heavy-to-lift is brought into focus as an absurdity. It is based on an abstraction of power that is separated from God’s character—as if God could violate Himself! Lastly, we don’t know what Fatherhood is except by looking at the Son and the Father in relationship. And here we come to see that the Fatherhood of God sets the parameters for His mission to the world—to bring His beloved children home to Him. And thus God is the One “from whom all Fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph 3:15). Our idea of ‘Father’ must be informed by God, and not the other way round.
In the end, these properties of God, given to us in revelation from God, form a coordinate and holistic picture that reveals, in perspective, the perfect and unchanging character of God; a character that we learn, recognize, and come to know in Jesus Christ, who is God, speaking for Himself, in the flesh.