God’s Attributes

British Professor Colin Gunton caught my attention when he said, “I prefer not to speak of God’s attributes but of his perfections.” He pressed the point by noting that the language of attribution centers on the perceiver rather than on the one perceived. So any attributes suggest our human capacity to assign labels to God on his behalf. Gunton preferred, instead, to use the language of God’s perfections because, while denoting God’s inherent qualities, they suggest our place as responders to God rather than as initiators.

It struck me as a small but appropriate corrective to a human impulse to view and represent God in terms defined more by our interests than by the priorities and emphases of God’s own self-disclosures in the Bible. My question for this entry is whether Gunton’s proposal might be sharpened.

But first we should ask why Gunton even raised the matter. I don’t recall that he offered a reason, but the move suggested a response to an underlying impulse in theology: a human tendency to reshape what we know of God in terms of our own interests. That is, to engage God’s self disclosures as resources for selfish personal benefits.

To engage God as a source of personal benefit is not necessarily wrong, of course, if all we mean to do is ask how we should respond properly to him. But what if sin plays a role in the reshaping process? Augustine, after all, treated sin as self-love—”concupiscence”—and Luther treated it similarly, as a “curving in” on ourselves so that as sinners we perpetually seek to serve ourselves. And assuming that even theologians are fallen—although many are repentant and have grown in real faith—the Fall will still account for a human bias towards domesticating God and his word: of making God into a resource for human self-love. Aaron, for instance, claimed that his golden calf was actually just an image of Yahweh—even as the fallen impulses of the Israelite nation turned this “God” into an excuse to have an unseemly party.

If such a distortion is present even in speaking of God’s attributes, what are the results? One feature is a preference to treat all of God’s self-disclosures as intransitive qualities—whether speaking of them as attributes or as perfections. That is, to treat God as a collection of essential and divine, but non-relational, resources. Take holiness, for instance. If God is seen to be holy, what does that actually mean? If we treat him as a resource, and if we are living as sinfully autonomous (“self-loving”) perceivers, then we may be reshaping God into an infinitely large container of something called holiness.

That is, since by using an intransitive perspective of God we portray him in static terms—as a self-contained essential being—then we, as those made in God’s image, are free to see ourselves as little bits of this intransitive God who also contain some measure of holiness. So, too, we begin to see ourselves as carriers of goodness, love, faithfulness, and so on, to the degree that we draw upon these communicable attributes. God is, in this approach, our Genie and we are the beneficiaries as we rub up against him on Sundays to gather measures of God-ness for ourselves.

But by recognizing that God discloses himself as triune and relational—as the eternal Father-Son-and-Spirit God—we find a transitive and relational being rather than an intransitive monad or singularity defined by a set of essential qualities. And here even Gunton’s proposed language of perfections may fail if the identified perfections do not take on the underlying relationship in which all God’s qualities exist.

Transitivity, after all, speaks to the subject-object or one-and-other state of being that is common to our experience. A transitive verb, for instance, identifies some sort of relationship between two or more objects or actors. To say “I believe you”, for instance, is a transitive sentence. An intransitive verb, by contrast, lacks any relationship. “I am” is intransitive.

Why is this important? For at least two reasons. First, transitivity is inherent to God’s triune, relational being: to the God who spoke, “let us make man in our image”. If we are to maintain our faith in the Father-Son-and-Spirit God then we must adopt language appropriate to that bedrock reality of being.

Second, we must repent of our fixation on a “capacity”-based view both of God and of ourselves. By that I mean our fallen tendency to see personhood mainly as intransitive states of being. If I think of myself, for instance, as constituted by a set of skills, learnings, powers, and purposes, I have actually begun to see myself as a monadic and relatively autonomous self-moved entrepreneur.

Let us turn again to God’s holiness, then. Will it differ to speak of God’s holiness from within the revealed context of his eternal relational being—rather than to speak of his attributes or perfections in static essential terms?

Yes. Holiness must be seen, trinitarianly, not as some ethereal moral quality but as the moral ethos of God’s dynamic mutuality. So that all that has ever existed in God’s eternal, glorious communion has a label: love. And the quality of that love is holiness. That is, nothing unseemly or impure—something inappropriate to God’s mutual, active love—is able to exist in the context of that love.

We must also reengage all of God’s so-called attributes from within the triune insights of biblical theology. For instance, if we speak of God’s immutability, impassibility, omniscience, omnipotence, and so on, what difference does it make if we start the conversation from within the transitivity of God’s eternal triune communion? Frankly I believe we will find some misfits—especially to the degree that Christian theology has assimilated the lists of God’s qualities rooted in Aristotle’s a-relational Metaphysics, all of which are notable for being anchored in an essentially monadic “self-moved mover.”

So I applaud the late Colin Gunton for raising an important question. Our task now is to take it up, while reading our Bibles, to see where it might lead us. My confidence is that the God we begin to describe as a result will be far more attractive than the God represented in some of our current systematic theologies.



  1. Bobby Grow

    Amen, Ron!

    I really like how TF Torrance gets at this in re. to knowing God from *within* vs. from *without*. How he presses the vicarious life of Christ, and further presses this through union with Christ language. So that His being becomes the mediator to any knowledge that we have of Him; and any knowledge of Him becomes predicated by our beings being reconciled to Him through the Incarnation/Cross-work.

    I also like how you use the transitive/intransitive grammar to underscore the competing approaches to knowing God. I hope your message continues to get out; that God is a relationship, that His oneness is shaped by His threeness. Thus our approach to Him and then eachother must be shaped and reshaped by this reality (which is best summarized by: Love God, and Love our neighbor).

    Thanks Ron!

  2. Carmen

    Our dean at WLGC passed this on to me because of its relevance to what we are trying to do in teaching theology. Thanks for posting it.

    What is the source of the quote from Colin Gunton? I found a list of his works but I’m not familiar with them.

  3. Ron

    It was a comment offered in a lectureship at Multnomah Bible College & Seminary almost a decade ago. Elements of that series were eventually published as ACT & BEING (I’m working from memory here). I don’t recall that he mentions the point in the book.

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