Saturday, April 13, 2013

Grudem 12c God's Moral Attributes

I continue from several weeks ago Grudem's chapter on the "communicable" attributes of God, the ones that have to do with his relationship to the creation.
B. God's Moral Attributes
After treating attributes of God's "being" and of his "mind," Grudem proceeds to God's "moral" attributes as attributes that relate to the creation.

6. Goodness
"The goodness of God means that God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval" (197). For Grudem, we are not free on our own to decide what is good.  God is the one whose actions provide the definition of good and what is worthy of approval. God is also the source of everything good in the world. God is the ultimate good and we should strive to imitate him by doing good in the world, that is, by doing the things that God approves.

Grudem's treatment of God's goodness, like his treatment of God's truthfulness, tries to deny that there is some independent standard of goodness such that we might measure God by it.  Rather, God and his actions provide us with the very definition of what is good and worthy of approval.

It may not seem immediately obvious what the point is here, but it is in part to close down discussion on issues like, for example, whether God was good to command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac or command Joshua to obliterate the innocent wives, children, and animals of Jericho. If God provides the definition, then these things become good by definition and the discussion is over before it begins.

Nevertheless, since we have biblical precedent to question God's actions in relation to his goodness (e.g., Hab. 1:2), it is clear that God's actions--or inaction--do not always immediately appear good to us.  That is to say, there is a valid operating definition of good in the Bible that is not circular like Grudem's definition.

The biblical sense of "good," like that of "love" below, is on the level of ordinary language, to act virtuously, to act for the benefit of others, to do what is right.  Grudem's definition is thus more theologically motivated than biblically driven. The Bible assumes a definition of goodness against which God, in theory, could be compared.

By faith, however, we believe that God does always act in ways that cohere with absolute goodness. God has created this universe with a certain sense of the good, and God always acts in this universe consistent with that standard. I prefer to say that he does so by choice rather than having to do so.

7. Love
"God's love means that God eternally gives of himself to others" (199). Grudem finds evidence of this eternal giving in John 17:24, where Jesus mentions God giving glory to him even before the foundation of the world. God is love (1 John 4:8) and shows this love in giving his Son Jesus to die for us.  We are to imitate this communicable attribute of God by loving God and loving others.

There is nothing objectionable to Grudem's discussion of God's love. He does not try to say that love is God's being, which would not make sense.  "God is love" is a metonymy, a poetic metaphor that equates God with something that so typifies him that we can say he "is" it.

He does not at this point pull any circular argument in relation to some doctrine like predestination. For example, you could see someone try to argue that it is loving by definition for God to predetermine that some individuals go to hell, to make them go to hell.  Such a person might argue that, since God's actions define what is good and loving, then to predestine individuals for hell is loving by definition, because love is whatever God does.

Grudem does not make such an argument here. As we said about goodness, the Bible operates with a normal sense of goodness or love, to act for the benefit of others, to do to others as you would have them do to you.  The Bible does not operate with a circular definition of love, such that it is simply whatever God actually does.

8. Mercy, Grace, Patience
"God's mercy means God's goodness toward those in misery and distress.  God's grace means God's goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God's patience means God's goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time" (200).

Grudem distinguishes these three and of course refers to that great, recurring Old Testament affirmation that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (e.g., Exod. 34:6). The bulk of this section is filled with examples from the Bible of these characteristics.

In his discussion of grace, Grudem emphasizes that God is never obligated to give grace, that he always does so freely. "There is only one attitude appropriate as an instrument of receiving such grace, namely, faith" (201). Our entire living of the Christian life results from God's continuous grace. Meanwhile, Grudem especially thinks of God's patience in terms of his slowness to punish sin.

Grudem's sense of God's mercy, grace, and patience is largely correct.  He does, predictably, filter God's grace and patience through the lens of God's justice. Cannot God be patient with us in our slowness to understand or to grow without the patience being resisting beating us with a stick?

Probably the main critique is one we have seen repeatedly. Grudem is to a large degree a pre-modern interpreter who brings his own definitions of words to the books of the Bible. It is thus no surprise that he finds pretty much a singular meaning for words throughout the whole book, one that coheres precisely with his theological understanding.

But in the New Testament world, "grace" is patron-client language. [1] Words take on meanings in socio-cultural frameworks, and in the New Testament world, grace reflects God's willingness to serve as a patron like the patrons of the first century Mediterranean world. Such grace comes close to the abstracted theological grace of Grudem, but it is not exactly the same.

So ancient grace could be solicited. It could be cut off if the client did not give appropriate honor to the patron. We find hints in this section of the Protestant doctrine of "by faith alone," reflecting the "faith versus works" interpretation of Paul from the Reformation.  It is, once again, an interpretation that comes close to Paul but which is a little skewed because it has been ripped from its first century moorings.  In its socio-cultural context, the works Paul especially had in view were works of the Jewish Law, especially those that separated Jew from Gentile. [2]

The words of the Bible had a richness that related directly to the world in which they were written. By contrast, Grudem pretends to read them as timeless words with a singular meaning. What he really does is read them flatly through the eyes of a particular stream of the Reformation, the Reformed one.

[1] See, for example, David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000). Also, Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

[2] The most significant person to argue for this understanding is James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

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