Theology Aids Praise

Dogmatics, Metaphysics, and Worship

In the past articles in our systematic theology category, there has been much “metaphysical” talk, that is, a use of philosophical, theological language and categories. This language is not meant to imply deistic thought—God as some cold, transcendent machine “out there” being who he is. The reality and knowledge of the divine attributes are meant to induce and aid right, heartily worship that flows out of accurate knowledge of God. Theological ontology of God in himself is meant to give us better understanding of who God is in order that we might see, savor, and delight in the glory of who he is in himself and in his fatherly care and character in his external works. 

Metaphysics and Ontology aid Worship.

To conclude our series of the attributes of God and to segue into our Trinity series, we shall briefly discuss three things regarding the divine attributes (i.e., perfections) and theological studies, all of which flow forth from the first point: (1) metaphysics, dogmatics, and worship; (2) perfection and the external works of God; and finally, (3) perfection and presence.[1] In this, we hope to show the happy results of theological ontology of the divine perfections and why it is important and helpful to have metaphysical categories and thus implicitly defend such practices. To end, we shall briefly discuss some seemingly potential problems one may face when moving from divine attributes (perfections) to triunity.

1. Metaphysics, Dogmatics, and Worship: The Nature and End of Theology

Unfortunately, metaphysical inquiries have been perceived as too “out there” or abstract. Metaphysical study of God may be under suspicion to be rabidly speculative and too philosophical. However, these metaphysical and ontological categories in the study of God (which must then flow outwards to God’s works) are necessary insofar as they are helpful, formative, and informative.

Theological study must be theological, that is, theology’s character and nature ought to be flooded by and with the doctrine of God because he is the Source, Provider, Redeemer, and Consummator—the one who grounds and does all these things and all these things can be traced back to him. Bavinck proves well here:

All the doctrines in dogmatics—whether they concern the universe, humanity, Christ, and so forth—are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point. Dogmatics is always called upon to ponder and describe God and God alone, whose glory is in creation and re-creation, in nature and grace, in the world and in the church. It is the knowledge of him alone that dogmatics must put on display.[2]

Here, Bavinck rightly confesses that there truly are other doctrines in Christian theology other than the doctrine of God and that these doctrines are worthy of our study. Nonetheless, he gives theological order and locates the derivative doctrines in their right place and thus denotes how we are to understand them: sub species divinitatis (in light of divinity).[3] 

Theology, then, must primarily be about God, yet it must cover all things because it is this God who does all things.[4] Therefore, in studying all things, we ought to do so inasmuch as they relate to God, that is, study all things under the formality of being relative to God: “theology talks about everything by talking about God.”[5] 

All of this, then, gives rationale for ontology and metaphysics. If we are to have our theological studies flooded with the doctrine of God, we must then have room for his perfections (i.e., divine attributes and triunity) because God simply is this one who is. If the doctrine of God is the primary topic of theology, and if all things are better known sub species divinitatis, we must then do well in studying and knowing God. Because the Scriptures reveal who he is, namely, what sort of one he is and how this one is, we have ground to contemplate divine perfections, namely, we have rationale to employ philosophical theology—metaphysics. By way of inclusio, then, as we began with the burning bush episode in the first post of this series, so shall we close with Exodus 3.

Is the revelation of God in the burning bush a revealed metaphysic? Étienne Gilson says, “Of course we do not maintain that the text of Exodus is a revealed metaphysical definition of God; but if there is no metaphysic in Exodus there is nevertheless a metaphysic of Exodus.”[6] As stated above, metaphysics can be charged with the study of the abstract, however, from this episode wherein God reveals himself and thus Moses receives God-given knowledge of the divine, we may know that metaphysical study is actually not about the abstract. As Allen says, “Metaphysics is not thought about abstract things; rather, metaphysics is abstract thought about very concrete things.”[7] 

Exodus 3:14–15 does not reveal an idea of something abstract, it reveals the identity and nature of reality itself—YHWH (Yahweh) our God. That is, it reveals a particular being who is in a class by himself because of what and who he is. But the ontological nature of God is not the only thing that is revealed here. The next verse is very informative: “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’” (Exod 3:15).[8]

After saying who and what he is, God identifies himself as the covenantal God of Israel’s fathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But there is something more here. He says, “YHWH is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered [זִכְרִי] throughout all generations” (3:15). Here, God says that his “name is to be a ‘memorial.’”[9] This is not a simple recollection; rather, it is meant to be taken in the sense of praise and adoration.[10] Hence, God revealed his name, which is identical with his being,[11] and therefore, he has revealed the nature of his being so that he may be praised and glorified.

We see an intriguing sequence here that theology aims to follow: revelation ­—> knowledge —> praise. God’s revelation of himself gives knowledge to man so that God might be praised by man. We must know well then that “Ethics follows ontology.”[12] Conversely, “theology shapes ethics.”[13] God reveals himself as he essentially is, namely, he reveals not only his identity as Creator, Redeemer, and God of the patriarchs, but he also reveals his essential identity—the one who is and is so above and differently than all others. When one truly knows that it is this one who does all things (create, redeem, sanctify, glorify), the result and purpose of this revelatory knowledge is awe-struck wonder and worship. Ontological study, which is informed by divine revelation, is meant to know God more and therefore to excite the mind to leap and sing praises to him. 

When one has knowledge of the divine perfections, the shape and character of God’s external acts are illuminated. As such, given the knowledge of the divine perfections, in the following two points, I hope to aid and induce worship by looking at how knowledge of the divine perfections gives us a greater appreciation of the nature and character of God and his external works, such as, for example, creation and redemption.

2. Divine Perfections and the External Works of God: Creation

Knowledge of God’s attributes ought to induce and increase worship. When man has knowledge of God’s perfections, there is a happy illumination of the character and nature of God and his external works, which, necessarily, causes joy-filled worship. As a test case, we shall briefly discuss the external work of creation.

Creation: Not out of Need, but out of His Own Goodness

Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) shines bright when studied under the light of God. We may do well to remind ourselves of God’s perfections: God is a se, immutable, impassable, infinite, and simple. With this in mind, we can know that God is full and complete in himself—he has no lack or need. God is fully realized (actus purus) in himself—there can be nothing to add to his perfect and replete life. Therefore, creation is not a completion of God.[14] Webster adds, “God the creator wholly exceeds the act of creation, which in no way constitutes, perfects or extends the perfection of his life as Father, Son, and Spirit.”[15] Therefore, “we need somehow to come to terms not simply with the utter nonexistence of all things apart from the will, love, and goodness of God but also with the fact that in his simplicity and entire sufficiency God would be wholly himself were there no world.”[16] 

A theology of the attributes of God, then, tells us that creation is ontologically unnecessary for God. Why is this happy news? It is happy news because if God did not need to complete himself through creation or through external relations to creatures, then the divine perfections inform us about the character of God and this external work: creation is a gratuitous, loving, voluntary, and free act of God.

Webster writes, “Creation is a work of God’s free love and boundless goodness.”[17] The act of creation shows God’s sheer gratuity to that which is not himself because God is not moved out of necessity to create as if he was in need ontological fulfillment, but he does so freely and voluntarily. He has what nothing else has—life—and gives it to another. Out of this voluntary character, one can see that this is pure generosity and love towards the creature. As again Webster notes:

Creation is a work of wholly adequate love. Part of this love’s adequacy is its voluntary character: it is fully spontaneous and self-original, nothing more than God’s will being required for creatures to come to be. But creative divine volition is not caprice but purpose, direction of entire capacity to another’s good; and it is purposive love, most of all because this other does not antecede the gift of its own being but receives the gift of life from God. Love gives life, and love gives life. In willing to create, God wills the realisation of life which is not his “Love is also a lover of life.”[18]

God is so great and boundless in his life, that “God does not have his being in competition, reserving being and life to himself. Beyond threat, God is also beyond envy, no other possible reality having the capacity to enhance or diminish his perfection.”[19]  Because God is a se, “he can give life to the world, he can be infinitely generous without self-depletion.”[20] Again, God has life and he gives it to that which is not himself—that which does not have life––and he does so freely. By this, he gives the creature dignity and honor:

Because God is not one being and agent alongside others, and because he is in himself entirely realised and possesses perfect bliss, he has nothing to gain from creating. Precisely in the absence of divine self-interest, the creature gains everything; because of (not in spite of) the non-reciprocal character of the relation of creator and creature, the creature has integrity.[21]

As the divine perfections inform, God could have remained himself in beautiful and boundless bliss. Nonetheless, he did not retain or restrict himself in his goodness, but rather, because of and in his goodness, he gave life to that which is not himself. This giving is unnecessary, free, loving, generous, and voluntary. God is not as man who is selfish with his goods, but rather, in his goodness and with his goodness, God is infinitely generous and loving to the creature. He did not need to create and give man goodness, but out of his own good pleasure, he has given man everything. 

This is a happy occasion for joy-filled worship. An understanding of God with metaphysical and ontological categories informs us not only of how this one exists, but it also informs us of his character and illuminates the external works, such as creation. With this knowledge that our God is good, our minds and hearts are bent to see how great and magnificent our God is, which results in happy worship. The divine perfections give us further reason to happily rejoice: God does not only create, but he is also present and by being present, he redeems.

3. Perfection and Presence: Redemption

The divine perfections do not disable or negate God’s ability to be present in creation. Rather, God’s perfection frees him to be present as the God he is. This is seen quite clearly in the revelation of God in the burning bush episode. Again, Exodus 3:15, “God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’”[22] 

Divine presence here “permeates” not only the burning bush episode, but also its context.[23] Hence, YHWH, the one who is, is near and present. However, some might have some objections. Franz Rosenweig says, “all those who find here notions of ‘being’ of ‘the-one-who-is,’ of ‘the eternal,’ are all Platonizing … God calls himself not ‘the-one-who-is’ but ‘the one-who-is-there,’ that is, there for you there for you at this place, present to you, with you or rather coming toward you, toward you to help you.”[24] 

This objection, however, appears to pit transcendence against immanence (presence). But this does not need to be nor does it seem to be the case, for it is this one who is in and of himself who comes to Moses and is present with Israel. Again, God’s perfections enable him to be present as he is.[25]

God’s presence is most poignantly manifested in the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). In the incarnation, the Son manifested his glory (2:11), and thus, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). In this, the Son has made God known (1:18). But how is it that the Son has made him known? He makes God known because he is the exact representation of the Father (Heb 1:3) and thus, whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father (John 14:9). How can this one be the exact representation? He can be thus because he himself is God who is over all (Rom 9:5).

We must do well here, however, to remember the fact that the Son, the Christ, was not only God, but was also true man. Here, one may be tempted to say that the Son merely “took on” something new, but we must be careful to follow John’s terminology, “the Word became [ἐγένετο] flesh” (John 1:14). How could this one become man and still be God? We must be careful to avoid the pitfall of kenotic Christology. The Son emptied himself, yes (Phil 2:7), but not of his divine perfection, but rather, his privilege(s). Here, we come to the mystery of the incarnation and confess in faith that God became man while remaining God. Because of his immutability and eternality, God is (i.e., remains) who he is—even in the incarnation. But he is still truly man. Thus, we call him, “Immanuel,” God with us (as a man), and yet, God with us (as God). By this way, God becomes man and is truly with us as one of us, but in this becoming, he remains God, and therefore, he is with us as he is eternally, and his divine perfections enable and free him to remain as such (since he’s eternal and immutable) and so, be himself in flesh.

Here, the doctrine of the divine perfections is crucial for reconciliation. The perfect God saves by becoming present through incarnation. Yes, becoming human is crucial as the author of Hebrews attests: “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). However, we must maintain not only the humanity of the soteriological axiom, “what is not assumed is not healed,” but also the divinity of the axiom: “Only God can save.” We ask, who is this God? It is none other than YHWH, the one who exists “on a wholly different plane of being” than creatures as seen in his divine perfections.[26] In the incarnation, God still is who he is because he is a se, simple, immutable, impassible, and infinite.

It is this one who truly becomes present by becoming one of us as our federal head—our covenantal representative. The God-man is Mediator between God and man. It is this one who brings the story of the Bible to its telos: peaceful fellowship between God and man. The perfect God becomes present in a new way with us, so that we may be in his presence forever.[27] What is the result of this redeeming presence of the perfect one? Revelation happily tells us: “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:3–4). This informs us that divine perfections are not incompatible with presence. God’s perfections actually enable him to be present with us without compromising his being.

God is still God when he is with us as the God-man because he is immutable and eternal. Therefore, since he must become present as a man in order to save man, and since only God can save, God in his perfections—metaphysical realities, not abstract ideas—can save us, which is a reason for blessing (i.e., worshipping) God (1 Pet 1:3–9).

[1] I would have covered a fourth point here: Christian contemplation versus curiosity wherein metaphysics and theological ontology can create healthy contemplation for the sake of love for and worship of God that does not fall in the camp of mere curiosity, that is, in the camp of knowing-for-the-sake-of-knowing. However, due to space limitation, I will not cover that in this essay.

[2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:29, quoted in Michael Allen, “Knowledge of God,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 23.

[3] Allen, “Knowledge of God,” 23.

[4] John Webster, God without Measure, 159–161.

[5] Ibid., 117.

[6] Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), 433, quoted in Michael Allen, “Exodus 3,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives ed. R. Michael Allen (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 35.

[7] Allen, “Exodus 3,” in Theological Commentary, 35; cf. Matthew, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

[8] Translation of the divine name, instead of the term Lord, is mine. The rest is from the ESV.

[9] Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis ~ Leviticus vol. I (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008),  371.

[10] Longman and Garland draw from the word “זִכְרִי” (zikrî) and parallel it to Ps. 6:5, “For in death there is no remembrance [זִכְרֶךָ] of you; in Sheol who will give you praise [יוֹדֶה (yôdê)]?” Accordingly, since remembrance is being linked with yôdê, remembrance ought to be taken as a relation of adoration (ibid.,, 371–372).

[11] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatis, 2:99.

[12] Allen, “Knowledge of God,” 22; cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:58.

[13] Allen, “Divine Attributes,” 59.

[14] John Webster, “‘Love Is Also a Lover of Life’: Creatio ex Nihilo and Creaturely Goodness,” in Modern Theology 29:2 (2013), 168.

[15] John Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 137.

[16] Ibid., 131. Webster adds, “the act of creation does not bring about a state of affairs in which God’s fullness now includes his relation to creatures. As creator God does not cease to be perfectly alive and active without the creature; he remains supereminently himself apart from what he has made” (ibid., 137–138).

[17] Ibid., 138.

[18] Webster, “‘Love Is Also a Lover of Life,’” 168. Webster quotes, Izaak Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine, trans. Rev. Prof. Alfred Cave and Rev. Prof. J. S. Banks (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1881), vol.2, 15.

[19] Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” 138.

[20] Ibid., 138.

[21] Webster, “‘Love Is Also a Lover of Life,’” 168.

[22] Translation of the divine name, instead of the term “Lord,” is mine. The rest is ESV translation.

[23] See Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible New Studies in Biblical Theology 15 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 95–96.

[24] Franz Rosenzweig, “A Letter to Martin Goldner,” in Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Scripture and Translation trans. Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 191, quoted in Allen, “Exodus 3,” 36. For a fuller case on the historical validity of seeing the perfections in Exodus 3, see Michael Allen, “Exodus 3 after the Hellenization Thesis,” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 3.2 (2009): 179–196; Allen, “Exodus 3,” 34–35.

[25] Allen, “Exodus 3,” 36.

[26] Ibid., 35.

[27] J. Ryan Lister, The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).