Friday, May 20

Email Question on God's Mercy

I received an interesting email comment (or question) this week from someone reading the posts here on God's attributes. I spent some time this morning responding to it because it was an good question, and an interesting one. However, I don't consider myself any sort of expert who should be taken all that seriously in matters such as these, even though I can't resist thinking about these things and discussing them and commenting on them. Therefore, I'm posting parts of the email along with my comments, and inviting you to give your two cents on the subject as well.

The quotes from the email are in block quotes, and my responses in italics below.
I'm not sure where you stand, but I believe that God must be fully self-contained or "internally defined."
That is, there is nothing *essential* to the nature of God which is necessarily dependent upon creation. God is a truly autonomous being Who is not in "need" of us (Acts 17:24ff). He does not need our help in order to be totally God.
I agree with this as well. However, I do think that there are essential characteristics of God that only find their expression in relation to creation. God freely made the choice to express them, and also freely made the choice to express them within creation in the particular way we see him express them.
Because of this point, I've been studying justice and mercy in relation to the idea of what was God like prior to creation. I think, fundamentally, we have to say that He was the same in essence prior to Gen 1:1 as He was following Gen 1:1 (for reasons stated above).
Now, I have been able to understand "justice" as an internally defined quality (thanks mostly to the work of Jack Cottrell in Faith Once For All). As for mercy though, I believe it is only definable in terms of relation to sinful creatures.
I believe that the characteristic that God has that causes him to help those who need help existed within him even when nothing existed that needed his help. I think this characteristic is only EXPRESSIBLE (I wouldn't use the word "definable"*) in terms of relationship to creatures.
Because of this, I have been reading several systematic theologies to see what they say regarding whether we should regard "mercy" as a sort of "stand alone" property of God's essence even in eternity (prior to creation). I have, in fact, as I suspected, come across a couple writers who say that God's relational attributes should not be viewed as essential to His being, but are functional terms.
I think what you call "relational attributes" are indeed essential to his being, but it is not essential for him to express them in order for whatever characteristic it is within him that causes him to relate in the way he does to exist. In other words, those attributes do not exist only because they are expressed, rather they are expressed because they exist and God freely chose to express who he is within creation.
That is, they describe how the essential attributes are expressed, or manifested, or applied to circumstances regarding creation.
Well, I do believe that mercy and grace are expressions of certain aspects of God's love and that God's love could be expressed in some way within the trinity. However, God's love is not expressed within the trinity in the same fulness with which it is expressed within creation.
From this view, it wouldn't be accurate to say God is "all-merciful" in the same sense that He is triune, self-existent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. But even the writers I've read don't deal with this point to any great depth.
I'm not sure what you mean by "all-merciful", but I would point out to you that while God is omnipotent, the full extent of his power is only expressed in creation--and even then "full extent" is probably the wrong term to use for an infinite attribute. That power, as an essential attribute of God, however, exists outside of creation. Creating and sustaining that creation is a way God has freely chosen to express his power.

I think I would consider his mercy to be not all that different from that. Saving sinners is a way God has freely chosen to express his mercy, and once God made the choice to express it that way, then creation (and sinful creatures) became necessary as a way to bring about God's choice to express his mercy toward sinners.

Okay, have at it. What say ye all?

[*The reason I wouldn't use the word definable here is this: It is true that WE can only know (or define) God's mercy in terms of his relationship to us, wouldn't God have known it, and so have been able to define it, outside of creation?]

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