The Doctrine of God: Three Recent Books of Note
Brief Book Notice
by Fred G. Zaspel
(originally published in Credo 3:2, April 2013, pp. 72-73)
I enjoy reminding myself and my students that in the study of God we are always in over our heads. The fact that
God is infinite (Job 11:7-9), incomprehensible (Rom. 11:33), and not like anything (Is. 40:18) necessarily leaves us in a never
ending yet glorious pursuit of him. Our subject is beyond us, and although because of his gracious self-revelation we can
know him truly, by the very nature of the case we will never know him completely. The pursuit is never over, and throughout
this life and for unending ages to come our greatest joy is found in knowing God ever more fully.
Archibald Alexander captures all this wonderfully:
“What an adorable being is the Triune God! How gloriously mysterious in his being, attributes, operations,
and personal acts! How little are we capable of knowing of this infinite Being. ‘None by searching can find
out the Almighty to perfection.’”
And then he worshipfully adds,
“Where the feelings of the heart are right, the incomprehensible nature of the divine existence causes no
obstruction to genuine devotion. Indeed, the soul of man is so constituted as to require an incomprehensible
Being as the object of worship. Profound adoration is the very feeling which corresponds with this attribute.”
That is to say, although we recognize that our small minds will never fully comprehend God, our hearts are
increasingly enlarged in the on-going and ever-rewarding attempt. To love God with our minds - to understand him in all the
ways that he has revealed himself, so far as we are able, to think his thoughts insofar as he has made them known to us - in
short, to “gaze on his beauty” (Ps. 27:4) - is no mere intellectual curiosity but the happy exercise of loving devotion. Indeed,
nowhere else will our hearts be content.
Within the past year or so three new books on the doctrine of God have been released that help considerably in this
mind- and heart-stretching pursuit. I have not taken the time to review them thoroughly, but I do want to mention them by
way of hearty commendation.
The First is God Without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness, by James E.
Dolezal (Pickwick Publications, 2011). This is likely the finest monograph on the doctrine of divine simplicity available -
contemporary or otherwise. This doctrine has stretched the minds of Christianity’s greatest thinkers since the beginning - that
God, being himself ultimate, absolute, self-sufficient, and self-existent, is not a composite of other forces or principles prior to
or more ultimate than he. “He alone is the sufficient reason for his own existence, essence, and attributes” (p.1). The subject
is simply profound (pun not intended), and Dolezal systematically unpacks the meaning and the significance of this doctrine -
historically, philosophically, and theologically - in forming the ground of other notions such as God’s unity, necessity,
immutability, self-sufficiency, independence, perfection, and infinity.
The next is The Indescribable God: Divine Otherness in Christian Theology, by Barry D. Smith (Pickwick
Publications, 2012). Grounding his study in an examination of the biblical concept of divine “holiness” and related concepts
(chapter one alone is well worth the price of the book), Smith demonstrates the various aspects of God’s “otherness” with
illuminating and fascinating clarity, leaving the reader with a fresh appreciation of God’s transcendence and greatness.
The third is God Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion, by Rob Lister (Crossway,
2012). In what is likely the finest book on the subject Lister expounds, defends, and clarifies the historic doctrine of God’s
impassibility - a doctrine that has fallen on bad times, primarily, perhaps, because of misunderstanding. The book’s title states
the thesis, that God is both impassible (in the historic and carefully nuanced understanding of the term) and impassioned
(again, in a carefully nuanced understanding of the term). Scripture often expresses God’s relation to his human creatures in
terms of emotion, and if we are not careful we can tend to understand those expressions as we experience them. Yet we
must be careful not to pattern God after our own image, for the fact is we do not know what it is to experience emotion as a
transcendent, self-sufficient, eternal, omniscient sovereign. That is to say, although Scripture’s expressions of divine emotion
are to be understood as truly reflective of him, we must keep in mind the larger structure of God’s self-revelation as a
transcendent, self-sufficient, and so on. God is not contingent. And Lister does a masterful job of sorting through all this to
provide an exposition that is marked by a theological and exegetical rigor and precision which in the end is rich in devotional
impact as well.
Martin Luther once wrote in a letter to Erasmus, “Your thoughts of God are too human.” We must all be on guard
against this tendency also, if we would worship God as he is. These three titles provide valuable help to that end. And I
suspect they will serve to keep many a pastor and teacher from mis-statements in theological discussion. Very instructive,
and highly recommended.