The Non-Attributes of God

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows?  He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
    for the Lord your God.

  • Joel 2:12-14

Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What then shall we say?  Is God unjust?  Not at all!  For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

  • Romans 9:13-15

“God, Maimonides says, has no attributes.  We cannot rightly say that God is ‘good’ or ‘powerful.’  This is because an attribute is either accidental (capable of change) or essential.  One of my accidental attributes, for example, is that I am sitting, others are that I have gray hair and a long nose.  But I would still be what I essentially am even if I were standing, re-haired, and has a snub-nose.  Being human – that is, being a rational, mortal animal – is my essential attribute: it defines me.  God, it is generally agreed, has no accidental attributes, because God is unchanging.  In addition, says Maimonides, God cannot have and essential attributes either, because they would be defining, and God cannot be defined.  So God has no attributes at all.
“Maimonides claims that we can say things about God, but they must be understood as telling us about God’s actions, rather than God’s being.  Most discussions in the Torah should be understood in this way.”

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) followed the Jewish Aristotelian branch of philosophy.  It boggles the mind that the attributes of God are sprinkled throughout Scripture, but Maimonides argues himself into a dark corner.  Sure, God makes Himself known by His actions, but God makes His attributes known by His actions also.

Maybe this is a play on words, but it shows a divergence in philosophy that will continue to creep into philosophical discussions for another 1000 years after Maimonides.  Philosophy started with people trying to make sense of the world.  It was an odd start.  The initial four elements look silly in hindsight, but there was little variation from the Greek earth, wind, fire, and water.  Some cultures, like the Hindu, add a void.  Some discussions use air instead of wind.  They are similar, but it springs forth from thought.  With thought comes experimentation, from experimentation to observation, and from observation new theories can emerge.

Yet, as we get to the Greek philosophers that lived only a few hundred years before Jesus, we see a voice from the “void” – outside the Judaic God of Scriptures.  We see the philosophers tying much of true classic thought together and coming very close to the things Jesus taught, and this pertains to more than the Greeks.  Without knowing the God of Israel, they were coming close.

Now, with a Jew who lived 1000 years after Jesus, the philosophical theories begin to diverge.  Everything converged at just the right time for Jesus to walk the earth, but now a thousand years later as the world begins to dig out from the Dark Ages, there is a Jewish philosopher saying that God is unknowable.  It is as if our collective intellects of the world started thinking so quickly that we zoomed right past the answers to all our questions and missed Him, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.

Maimonides’ first point is well taken.  There is nothing accidental about God.  And, indeed, God cannot change.  His first assertion is quite good, but the second?  Not so much.

Yet, without making his erroneous conclusion, he was in some way making a fairly decent argument.

First, if he meant by not being able to define God as us putting God into a pigeon-hole of our choosing, then he is definitely correct.  Second, if he meant that we cannot define God on human terms, that is also correct.  Every time we try to define God’s Love, God’s Anger, God’s Patience, God’s Justice, we compare His attribute with that of our own and at some point, it breaks down.  The key is that God is Holy, and holiness is something so foreign to us with our sin nature that many refer to “Holy” as something “Wholly other.”  In other words, what we are not, what we might aspire, but we will always fall short.  God will fix that problem, but not until we pass over to the other side.

Yet, God has those attributes.  It is just not what God does that we can define.  God loves us.  God is Love.  Those are attributes.  We can spend entire books discussing how God loves us, and many have tried, but our problem is not that God does not have attributes, the “essential” attributes.  The problem is that our language, all languages on earth combined, do not have a word that describes that love adequately.  God’s Love is something just barely beyond our ability to express, yet when we have God in our heart, we can feel God’s Love in a way that is inexpressible.  We can feel it, but again, the words will fail us.

I have been in a room with several street evangelists and we will discuss an attribute of God as it relates to us.  Someone will say, “It’s like … ummm.”  And you see the twinkle in his eyes and the water around the edges.  You see the smile on his face.  You see his chest moving in and out.  Then someone else says, “Right there with you.”  The emotion in the room was palpable, but the words remained inadequate.  Yet, for those who had experienced that attribute, it was real and we understood what the other could not express.

We could apply the argument to the other attributes of God, and many more.  And in each case, if we ever feel that we have wrapped words around any one of those attributes, we will find that Maimonides is almost right that God cannot be defined.  We can never wrap ourselves around any attribute of God, because God is not finite in any way.  Each attribute of God has that infinite quality that goes beyond our ability to comprehend.

We may recognize the attribute.  We may look in wonder at that attribute as God relates to us regarding it.  But as for a complete definition?  We can only stand in awe.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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