by M. James Sawyer

Note: The title of this blog is technically a false dichotomy, but in the mind of many this is the choice we need to make.  And that choice has profound implications for the way we approach God, and the way we live our lives.

When I was in college and again in seminary I took courses in the doctrine of God (Theology Proper). These courses examined in depth the issues of the existence and attributes of God. They also delved into the philosophical proofs for God’s existence as formulated by Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury and others. I learned how to classify the divine attributes as communicable (those which are common to both God and humanity) the incommunicable (those which characterize God alone). The first definition of God that I learned as a junior in college stated “God is spirit, infinite and holy.” I later became familiar with the Westminster Confession’s definition of God (a bit expanded from the above definition!). Chapter II of the confession states 

I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and with all most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

II. God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleases. In His sight all things are open and manifest, His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands. To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require of them.

III. In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

That is quite a mouthful, and it is biblical. Each of the statements cites numerous verses as proofs of the truth of the statement. But does it get to the point?

As I did my doctoral work in historical theology I discovered that the preoccupation of the ancient church was with the Trinity—a topic that was barely covered in my courses on the doctrine of God.. The more I learned the more I became convinced that the Trinity had to be our starting point in talking about God. And when we talk about the Trinity we are in the realm of the personal and relational.

My classroom training had taught me that the most basic attribute of God was holiness. That was the essence of God. I became convinced that while God was Holy, the biblical concept of holiness was related to “set apartness,” to God’s “otherness” rather than being a moral concept (Note: in the OT we have things as diverse as pots and pans and prostitutes described as holy—so whatever “holy” is, it is something other than absolute moral rectitude)

I am a great fan of both CSI and NCIS. Both TV shows deal in criminal forensics and in nearly every episode we find a murder involved. If there is a murder, there is an autopsy. We are brought into the autopsy room as the pathologist dissects the body of the deceased to see what killed him or her.

What does this have to do with our understanding of God? Actually quite a lot. In an autopsy or by studying a book on anatomy we encounter the structure of the human body. We see its various parts. We examine them individually, and we learn quite a bit about how we as human beings are put together.

But if in our study of God we dissect Him and split Him up into various parts do we really get to know Him? No! God is personal and relational! We no more learn about the personal nature of God by examining his attributes than we learn about the person and life of the murder victim on the autopsy table by his/her dissection.

The path to knowing God is through Jesus. If we place any kind of wedge between Jesus and the Father we commit a serious error. (Is heresy too strong a word here?) Thomas asked Jesus to “Show us the Father.” Jesus’ reply was, of course, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The opening chapter of his gospel John says that no one has seen God (the Father) at anytime. The only-begotten Son/God (textual problem here) who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained (exegeted) him.

God as Trinity exists in an eternal dynamic relationship of self-giving love. Daniel Migliore had noted:

The Trinitarian persons are not self-enclosed subjects who define themselves in total separation from one another. Instead in God “persons” are relational realities and are defined by intersubjectivity, shared consciousness, faithful relationships, and the mutual giving and receiving of love. (Faith Seeking Understanding, 68) . 

According to classical trinitarian theology, the three persons of the Trinity have their distinctive identity only in their deepest relationship with each other. They “indwell” each other (as the technical Trinitarian concept perichoresis suggests), “make room” for each other and are hospitable to each other, or to use another metaphor, they are united in an exquisite divine dance. (Faith Seeking Understanding, 70) (italics added. This concept of the great dance is found in the early fathers of the church.)

The Trinity’s love is shown first in creation. Creation did not come out of boredom, loneliness or necessity. The divine Trinity is complete in itself and gains nothing from our existence. The only explanation for why there is anything at all is love. Love is creative and expansive. Creation must be grounded in the love of God that desires to share relationship with his creatures, just as redemption is grounded in the self-giving love of God.

I close with some observations from Thomas Torrance in his The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons presents a breath-taking view of the trinity (though not for the faint-hearted—it is not an easy read, but it is utterly magnificent) says,

“. . . [I]n the unlimited freedom of his love, God created the world out of nothing, and did not grudge bringing into being an altogether new reality utterly different from his own.” (237) “. . . God is not limited by our feeble capacities or incapacities, but in his grace and outgoing love he graciously condescends to enter fellowship with us . . . In his love of us and for us God freely wills not to be without us and wills to be with us as those whom he has eternally chosen to coexist with himself and share his eternal love. . .[H]e does not want to be alone without us or want us to be alone without him” (4) “It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love.” (5)

Visit Jim’s Site

    8 replies to "The Essence of God: Sovereign, Holiness, or Love?"

    • DEF

      “But if in our study of God we dissect Him and split Him up into various parts do we really get to know Him?” This is an excellent question, especially for those who study theology or philosophy of religion.

      However, we need to identify the false dichotomy in this statement: we either grow in our relationship with God or analyze him and don’t grow in our intimacy with him. I think we can do both.

      As a philosopher of religion, I remember studying the arguments for God existence and the doctrine of God in college. Yes, my intimacy with God began to deteriorate. However, I realized it wasn’t the act of studying God or analyzing him, but rather it was the attitude in which I approached philosophy of religion. That said, I began to examine the material with my relationship with God at the center of the questions about God and philosophy, seeing the relationship between faith and reason too. As a result, my passion has never waned for God and philosophy of religion. Today, I teach both subjects to college students.

      Thank you for reminding us of the danger of studying God without the right attitude. We need to glorify him all we do.

      Great post!

    • Zach

      Simply brilliant!

      This post did me quite well. I personally have been inoculated with so much traditional theology that it is sometimes overwhelming and frees me of burden when I read truth. Obviously, that is why reading Scripture with proper hermeneutics is so important! Loved the blog! Awesome, simply awesome.


    • rayner markley

      Although, as you said, God didn’t gain anything for Himself by creating us, nevertheless now that He has created us He loves us more than Himself (from Torrence). God knew that would be the case, so is that the reason He created? A starting point for Emanuel Swedenborg was that God’s love compelled Him to create us.

    • Susan

      Such an encouraging reminder! And it is this blessed truth….the truth that God desires to be in loving relationship with His creation, which compels us to tell others about Him. Maybe a question we should ask ourselves often, when sharing the Gospel is, “How can I best communicate God’s love?” That will always bring us to the cross…the most loving act of all human history. The gaping hole in all other religion is that there is no loving relationship with the creator. The gaping hole in the human heart, is loneliness apart from God. Oh that God would constantly use me as a vessel to communicate this truth, to my children, and to others!

      Thanks, James! ….and thanks for Reinventing Jesus…..a very worthwhile read.

    • Ed Mishoe

      This idea of the Holy Spirit: “eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son” has no biblical support. None of the Members of the Godhead “proceeded” for the Others. They are all eternal. Just as the Son has not proceeded from the Father, nor has the Holy Spirit proceeded from A(a)nyone. We just can’t get out of our minds this “hierarchy” within the Godhead. These are roles they assumed with creation. It is how we as creatures relate to the Godhead. Sans (not Before) creation (this includes angelic beings) there was no such “hierarchy” in the sense that we have misunderstood it.


    • DEF


      I understand your concern about “eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” The Church Fathers also shared this concern. That said, the the East and West split over the filioque, a distinction between the two. The Eastern-Church rejected it; the Western-Church espoused it.

      Despite this split over this issue, I think it is important to approach this with an ecumenical attitude. Each side has much to learn from each other, especially as it relates to theology of religions.

      Also, what if we use “hierarchy” linguistically to understand the relationship among the Trinity. However, we espouse metaphysically that the trinity shares in this relationship, rather than subordination among the Trinity. This is just one interpretation to further explore. Thank you for making this point.


    • Ed Mishoe


      Thanks for your response. I have only one ‘caution.’ The ‘spirit’ of ecumenicalism must not override our insistence that biblical truth can be arrived at. We need not understand absolute truth absolutely; we can know absolute truth partially, but that partial understanding can be unequivocally true.

      We will always encounter competing and diverse viewpoints. This is to be expected, but this should not influence our responsibility to understand and teach biblical truths, and to correct false teachings. I realize this puts us in an uncomfortable position, and moving in an ecumenical direction can often lessen our uneasiness. I just want to encourage others to listen to others, accept others, yet, in the midst of these exchanges, put theological truth about the ecumenical spirit. Biblical truth must be the dividing line; never shrink from this.

      Thanks again for your reply.


    • ulysses lorenzetti

      Out of curiosity has the desire to know about the “essence” of God?
      “THE ESSENCE OF GOD” is composed of all the “PHYSICAL SPACE OF THE UNIVERSE” occupied by a “INTELLIGENCE” of the highest degree of perfection, to give the origin in time and space, all forms of “ENERGY “, which move, since the atom, with its structures tiny dimensions, until all the celestial bodies, which composes the cosmos in perfect harmony and balance in their movements, and the purity of their feelings of “LOVE” composed of “Piety”, “Justice” and “Mercy”, gives us, the existence of life.
      What is your “opinion” on this character, known to everyone, but its composition is rarely talked about among the laity and religious?
      I await your response, if you “really” believe in him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.