About 25 years ago, while neck-deep in my seminary training, I set my sights on a rather high goal: I’d learn the Book of Psalms by heart. Not in a year. Not even in five years. But as long as it took. Inch by inch, I’d explore these ancient hymns, climbing every hill and sinking into every valley, immersing myself in their literary landscape until they became part of me. I settled on a translation, found a chart for working through all 150 psalms per month, and began the journey.
Now, a quarter-century later, I’m still on that journey, that “long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson put it. But one thing I know for certain: The long, prayerful, exploring obedience has benefited me in ways I cannot even begin to put into words.
It has also, more than once, thoroughly unnerved me.
Alongside lofty praise and soaring hallelujahs is raw lament, bleeding with anguish. Next door to G-rated prayers are harrowing petitions laced with graphic scenes of violence. The full range of human emotions—good, bad, and ugly—undulate through these songs of Israel. As shocking as the human element is, however, it’s nothing compared with the God we encounter. The Lord is my shepherd (23:1), but he is also an arm-breaker (10:15) and a teeth-shatterer (3:7). The Lord is my light (27:1), but he’s also pushed me into the darkest depths of the pit (88:6).
In one arresting metaphor, after being full of wrath, jettisoning his rebellious people, and falling asleep, God finally wakes up like a drunken soldier overcome by wine (78:65). Such actions and images, staring out from the pages of the Bible itself, are unsettling to most of us. They don’t fit into our neat and tidy boxes of divine etiquette. One can understand why Sebastian Moore, a British Benedictine, once quipped, “God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.”
Or does he? That, in essence, is the challenging question that forms the background of theologian Matthew Barrett’s new book, None Greater. But it’s the subtitle that really captured my attention: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. Whether we’re traveling through the wild landscape of the psalms, following the patriarchs through their interactions with the Lord in Genesis, or standing alongside Jesus as he heals, teaches, and flips over temple tables, we come face-to-face with the God who cannot be flattened down into something vanilla and predictable. He surprises. He upsets. He invigorates. And he saves. Most notably, in the words of Mr. Beaver regarding Aslan, “He isn’t safe. But he’s good.” He’s anything but a tame lion.
A Complete and Unified Portrait
So how do you write a book of systematic theology that unpacks the attributes of God without running the risk of domesticating him or demystifying his mysteries? In two ways. One, like a good archaeologist, you get dirty. You dig down into the aged layers of wisdom throughout church history. Two, you let Aslan roar biblically, not meow philosophically. Rather than speculating abstractly about who God is or might be, you plant your feet firmly in the soil of Scripture. You dip your quill into the ink of his own narrative.
Barrett, to his credit, avails himself of both approaches. Drawing heavily from what he calls the “A-team”—Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas—he reminds us that the theological questions we grapple with today are by no means novel. We aren’t the first generation to wonder what it means when God “repents” or “regrets” that he made humanity (Gen. 6:6), whether the Father suffers when his Son is crucified, or how Jesus could be fully God and yet shrug his shoulders as to the timing of his Second Coming (Matt. 24:36).
If anything, earlier generations of Christians wrestled with these questions even more profoundly. Intense debates among the church fathers led to deep, communal thinking, which led to ever clearer articulations of the biblical message like the Nicene Creed. Irenaeus arose in the 2nd century to combat Gnosticism. In the 4th century, Athanasius was dubbed contra mundum (“against the world”) because he spent a lifetime fighting Arianism, which taught that the Son was less than fully divine. The A-team joined their voices to this great cloud of witnesses.
Barrett’s book, far from striving for theological ingenuity, builds upon their wisdom, while at the same time applying their insights to more contemporary debates about divine attributes. But he knows, too, when to set these voices aside and let Aslan roar.
Years ago, I was teaching Hebrew and Old Testament courses in the exegetical department of a seminary faculty. A running joke between my department and our colleagues in systematic theology was that we explained the Bible to students while they explained the Bible away. It was all fraternal jest, of course, but it carried the slightest wink of truth. At least in my own experience, many books dealing with dogmatic theology don’t offer a map of the Bible so much as drive a philosophical bulldozer over the terrain itself, flattening hills, damming up rivers, clearing jungles, and basically making the landscape more comfortable for biblical tourists.
And, I must confess, that prejudice was firmly in place when I opened None Greater. But how pleasantly mistaken I was! Barrett’s book is not only saturated with Scripture, but he lets that same Scripture shape the argument, direct the conversation, and gradually form a complete and unified portrait of the God whose life, love, and light fill the pages.
Barrett is “convinced that we can only understand God’s attributes in all their glory if such attributes originate from one core conviction: God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived.” Borrowed from Anselm, that phrase—“than whom none greater can be conceived”—sets the tone from cover to cover, as Barrett discusses God’s incomprehensibility, aseity (or self-sufficient existence), simplicity, immutability, omnipresence, and a host of other attributes. And because he is the Lord “than whom none greater can be conceived,” the moment we speak of him as if we’ve exhausted all possible knowledge is the moment we know we’ve wandered from the path of truth into the brambles of deception.
Barrett also repeatedly calls us away from the all-too-familiar error of pretending that God can be reduced to individual parts, like a massive divine structure made up of cubicles housing the components of his personality. Here’s his mercy cubicle, his omnipotent cubicle, his goodness cubicle—all little parts of a great big God. Or, to use Barrett’s analogy, “the perfections of God are not like a pie, as if we sliced up the pie into different pieces, love being 10 percent, holiness 15 percent, omnipotence 7 percent, and so on.” Whatever he is, he is that wholly. He doesn’t have a series of attributes like love and holiness. He is his attributes: wholly love, wholly life, wholly righteousness.
The Greatest Picture
All of this might seem like pretty heady stuff, like just another volume penned by a professor holed up in an ivory tower. Thankfully, None Greater is anything but. Barrett has a rare gift: He can translate the highest, most profound theology into everyday language and earthy illustrations. Put this book into the hands of Sunday school teachers guiding students through the stories of the Old Testament. Give it to parents who struggle to teach their children about the Trinity, Jesus as God’s Son, and the strange but delightful depictions of God in the Psalms.
Will you and they be challenged theologically? Yes, by all means! But at least that challenge won’t come from having to Google three Latin phrases per paragraph. (Barrett, in fact, has provided a glossary for the toughest terms.) Rather, the challenge will be encountering a God who, as Barrett explains, is “not just a bigger, better version of ourselves.” He is the Creator, we the creatures. He is God, we are human. And to the extent that he acts and speaks like a human, he’s accommodating himself to us, like a parent to a child, that we might confess him as our Father.
For me, the book’s proverbial cherry on top is the way Barrett brings the discussion, again and again, to the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). We can talk till we’re blue in the face about God’s various attributes, but until we’ve focused on the scandal of particularity, the precise embodiment of God in Jesus Christ, we’ve not yet proclaimed the Good News. And that is where this book takes us. To Christ. To his incarnation. To his rugged cross and empty tomb.
That cross, writes Barrett, though it was the “greatest symbol of weakness up to that point in history . . . would now be the greatest sign of God’s power over sin and death. Through his Son’s death on a cross, the wrath of God was satisfied on behalf of sinners like you and me (Rom. 3:25–26). When Jesus cried out, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), our debt was paid, our forgiveness was won, for on that cross Jesus bore the penalty for every one of our trespasses. That the Father was satisfied with his Son’s payment for our sin was publicly declared by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:25). The cross and empty tomb are the greatest picture we will ever have of the wisdom of our all-powerful, all-knowing God.”
And when we look upon this “greatest picture,” the only right response is to declare, along with the psalmist, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Ps. 150:6).
Chad Bird is a writer and co-host of the podcast 40 Minutes in the Old Testament. He is the author of Upside-Down Spirituality: The 9 Essential Failures of a Faithful Life (Baker).
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