Essay / Theology

God is Blessed

We should pay more attention to the doctrine of divine blessedness. I have been pondering it lately, noticing it everywhere in older theological writing, and wondering how to give this great doctrine more weight and emphasis.

Beatitude, blessedness, is a divine attribute. It is a perfection of God’s being. Blessedness has occupied an ambiguous place within the structure of the doctrine of divine attributes, though. On the one hand, it is a pervasive or summative category for all of the divine attributes. It encapsulates the way God enjoys the possession and exercise of all his perfections. All that God is and all that he does, he is and does blessedly. What God’s attribute of glory is outwardly, his blessedness is inwardly. On the other hand, this comprehensive and summative function of blessedness may have helped lead to its neglect, because it is difficult to focus on a doctrine so pervasive. Rather than being one of the many attributes on the list, it seems to be more like the tone or timbre of all God’s attributes at once.

One way to draw attention to a doctrine is to pick a fight over it. When you think about it, some of the biggest theological fights of the twentieth century have been, obliquely and without saying so, about divine blessedness. One way in which blessedness has been attacked in modern theology has been the charge of hellenization, which alleges that beatitude is more greekified than biblical. There is in fact such a thing as a pre-Christian and non-Hebrew doctrine of the blessedness of the gods. Following Harnack, modern theology has fallen into a habit of contrasting this pagan doctrine of divine blessedness with the biblical account of a God who suffers and cares deeply for his creation, and has often rejected any notion of divine blessedness. Instead of considering blessedness itself a relic of Hellenic paganism, however, the responsible theological option is to describe what is distinctively biblical about a proper confession of God’s blessedness. The charge of paganism, in other words, should help contemporary theologians sharpen their confession of the biblical doctrine of God’s blessedness. The work to be done here is partly in the Greco-Roman background of the New Testament, finding out what it meant for Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to call the gods blessed. But it would also be interesting to see how the Qur’an develops the idea of Allah’s blessedness, for purposes of comparison to the biblical account.

God’s blessedness has been an unpopular doctrine in much modern theology for other reasons. It has been dismissed as if it were a sub-biblical account of a god who remains in self-satisfied aloofness from human suffering. Various theologians have argued against God’s blessedness in order to establish a doctrine of God more oriented toward the world and its salvation. But this is short-sighted, because only by first establishing the blessedness of the creator can we be assured of any blessedness for the creature.

Finally, divine blessedness is a doctrine that is especially grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity: it is in the perfect fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit that he is “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Only as such is God “fons salutis Trinitas:” Trinity, the fountain of salvation. Even within the doctrine of the attributes itself, blessedness has been used (by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and by Johann Gerhard and Michael Polanus in the seventeenth) as the transitional doctrine between the discussions of the one God and the triune God, the tracts de deo uno and de deo trino. The standard way of handling blessedness, it seems, is at the very end of the divine attributes, as the last step before turning our attention to the Trinity. The blessed Trinity, that is.

Blessedness, it seems to me, should be seen as the interior state of God that corresponds to his outward glory. Since both grace and glory are extended to us in the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit, they both reach back into the eternal being of God. The missions of the Son and Spirit are free actions of God toward the world, and at the other end of these missions are the eternal processions of Son and Spirit, which constitute the blessed life of God.

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