None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, Matthew Barrett (Foreword by Fred Sanders). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Summary: Drawing on classical and reformed theology, discusses the perfections of God, that set God apart from all else.
It seems a common tendency in Christian preaching, and even in our informal conversations, to try to “bring God down to our level.” Christian Smith, in a study of the religious beliefs of American teens, coined a term to describe the God of many: “moral therapeutic deism.” In this system, there is a belief in a God who made the world, who wants us to be nice and fair, the purpose of life being to feel happy and good about oneself, God only gets involved in our lives when we need God, and that good people will go to heaven when they die. Such a God is nice, domesticated, and mostly irrelevant to our lives. God is like us, only a bit better and maybe more powerful.
The classical theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and those in the Reformed tradition of the author thought quite differently. For them, God, as Anselm put it, is “someone than whom none greater can be perceived,” hence the title of this work. While God may have certain communicable attributes like love, that are evident in part in human beings, God’s incommunicable attributes are utterly unlike any other creature and set God apart as incomparably greater than human beings.
It was this God that Matthew Barrett discovered in college when he read Calvin’s Institutes, and the other theologians mentioned above, opening his eyes to the glory and majesty of God. His hope in this book is that through a study of God’s attributes, particularly those dealing with the incommunicable perfections of God, to sow the same sense of wonder in his readers, inviting them to give up their domesticated versions of God for the incomparably greater undomesticated God of scripture.
The first three chapters of the book lay groundwork. First he explores the incomprehensibility of God, that we may speak of attributes, but none of us may see or know God in God’s very essence. It is not that God in unknowable, because God makes God’s self known through God’s works. He discusses how we may speak of God in analogical language as revealed by God to us, and sometimes in anthropomorphic language of hands, eyes, even wings, none of which are true of God’s essence. Most of all, we must recognize that God is infinite in God’s perfections, and without limits–a staggering realization for finite and imperfect creatures.
The remainder of the book discusses the perfections of God:
- God’s aseity or self-existence independent of all of creation.
- God’s simplicity, that even when we speak of various attributes, these are not “parts” of God but compose a seamless whole.
- God’s immutability, that God does not change, grow, improve, or diminish, which is a tremendous comfort.
- God’s impassibility, that God does not experience emotional changes, both settled in his promise-keeping love, and holy wrath toward evil.
- God’s eternity, that he is timeless and not exists in the eternal present.
- God is omnipresent: not bounded by a body, infinitely present.
- God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnisapient: all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise.
- God is both holy and loving: the high and lifted up God Isaiah sees, who cleanses his mouth and takes his guilt away and lovingly commissions him.
- A God who is jealous for his own glory, inviting us into a similar jealousy for the glory and reputation of God above all in our world.
I found this discussion far from the “sterility” often found in such treatments of the attributes of God. Barrett helps us understand how each attributes both feeds our worship of God and is of great consolation to the believer. For example, the aseity of God means that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us. He deals with questions that may arise, such as how we can speak of simplicity and yet believe in a triune God. He differentiates an immutable God from one who is rigidly immobile. He deals with the classic conundrum of God creating a rock so big he cannot lift.
His discussion of impassibility is particularly intriguing in taking on Jurgen Moltmann’s “suffering God.” Yes Christ in his humanity suffers, but God does not suffer, God redeems. God is not like the family suffering over a family member trapped in a fire, but rather the fireman who has the capability and compassion to enter the burning building, enduring the flames and the smoke, to rescue the loved one. I’m not sure I buy this, and it seems these ideas are framed in either/or terms, not admitting the possibility of both/and, or the possibility of a quality of suffering in the God of eternal love who from eternity both purposed creation and the redemptive work of Christ.
This is a highly readable contemporary rendering of classical theology. It has become popular to bash classical statements of theology. Often, what is being bashed are caricatures. Here is the real stuff, articulated clearly and winsomely. I didn’t agree at every point, but found myself again and again marveling at the greatness of God and challenged to consider the ways I’m tempted to domesticate God. That, I think, is what makes for good theological reading and may be found here.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.