God the being


‘The notion of God as a perfect being is not of biblical extraction. It is the product not of prophetic religion but Greek philosophy; a postulate of reason rather than a direct compelling initial answer of man to His reality. In the Decalogue, God does not speak of His perfect being but of His having made free men out of slaves. Signifying a state of being without defect or lack, perfection is a term of praise which may utter in pouring forth our emotion; yet for man to utter it as a name for His presence would mean to evaluate and endorse Him. The Biblical language is free of such insolence, it only dared to call “His work” (Deut. 32:4), “His way” (2 Samuel 22:31), or the “Torah” (Psalm 19:7) tamim, perfect. We were never told: “Hear, O Israel, God is perfect!” It is an attribution which is strikingly absent in both the biblical and rabbinic literature.’ (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hescehl, ‘God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism’, p. 101-102)

This is a stark contrast compared to the majority of Christian theology, in which God’s attributes are often the subject of conversation, music, books, and conferences. The other-ness of God is really what Rabbi Heschel is driving at – His absolute other-ness and holiness. This ties in a bit with some of the other posts I’ve made here: to what extent can we even speak of God, the Holy?

Part of me doesn’t really know – which is why I’m not a huge fan of various systematic theologies, especially those that try and lay out the attributes of God in a succinct form.  To me, that seems to really not take the Holiness and other-ness of God seriously.


10 thoughts on “God the being

  1. mackman April 18, 2012 / 11:36 am

    He has a point concerning the Old Testament, although I would imagine there is much argument to be had on why you would avoid calling Him perfect, when his way and his works are both perfect. However, his point (and yours) seems much weaker when considering the New Testament as well.

    You say that in attempting to expand what we can say for sure about God, we fail to take his Holiness and otherness seriously.

    First, why is Holiness considered to be a barrier to speaking about God?

    Second (and this is related): I think that to speak only about the Otherness of God is to fail to take the Incarnation seriously.

    Jesus was Holy: He was set apart. And yet we can speak about him, we can KNOW things about him, things that are attested to by the Gospels and the letters of the apostles. And in knowing things about Christ, we know the Father in a way that the Jews were never able to. In knowing Christ, we know the Holy Spirit in a way far beyond even the greatest of the prophets.

    In light of the Incarnation, God can no longer be spoken of as wholly other.

    FInally, in light of this, the New Testament has several passages that speak directly to the Rabbi’s comment about, “a state of being without defect or lack, perfection.”

    “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

    “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Acts 17:24-25

    Paul also makes reference to the eternality of God at the end of Romans.

    I believe that to speak of God as wholly other is to miss the fact that Jesus is the “exact imprint of [the Father’s] nature.” (Hebrews 1). We can’t afford to stick with the elementary doctrines: that leads to stagnation, as Hebrews 5 warns us. We must press on, desiring to know God more fully: Because in sending Christ, he tells us that he desires to be known.


  2. whitefrozen April 18, 2012 / 11:46 am

    I was thinking about the NT as I was writing this, actually. Your point about the Incarnation is spot-on as well – I don’t think I’d disagree too much with anything you said. You may also find these posts I did on the subject interesting:



    I would still hold that in His essence God is unknowable, even in light of the Incarnation, though.


    • mackman April 18, 2012 / 1:55 pm

      This reminds me of something I remember from Augustine’s work on the Trinity that really pissed me off when I read it. Augustine asks, “And who ever saw with his physical eyes the Word that ‘was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’?”

      The apostles did. John himself testifies to this in 1 John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” And this must have value. This must be a true appearance, or else it is worthless.

      I was happy to see you mention Barth: “We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can must be only the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shows to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ… And He shows Himself to be more great and rich and sovereign than we had ever imagined. And our ideas of His nature must be guided by this, and not vice versa.”

      I guess my main problem with this idea of unknowing is that, even if all we have are metaphors (as you suggest in “Certainty in Theology”), they are metaphors that mean something. They are useful, they tell the truth, even if it is not the whole truth, and we must grab hold of it and absolutely refuse to let it go.

      Can we know all of God in his essence? Of course not. But this isn’t an “all or nothing” thing. Jesus is not a metaphor. Jesus must reveal who God actually is, or else Jesus reveals nothing. To then insist on maintaining a sense of mystery which has been specifically torn away, as the curtain was torn in two, is to discredit John’s surety of touching that which was from the beginning. It is, ultimately, to say that we do not truly see God in Christ, for if God is only unknowable, than he cannot be known at all.


  3. whitefrozen April 18, 2012 / 2:11 pm

    Generally when I talk about the other-ness or the wholly-otherness of God or anything like that, I’m referring to knowing God in His essence – I agree with everything you’ve written so far fundamentally. We absolutely *can* know God – that’s the whole point of Scripture and very much the point of the NT (we are adopted, we cry ‘abba’ father, etc etc). ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father’. This is more or less Barth’s entire theology – that God has spoken to us, and His word is Jesus Christ, and through Christ and the Holy Spirit we can know God in that intimate way (and as you rightly noted, in a more intimate way than even the Holy Prophets, which in itself is something of a mystery), like when John leaned his head against Jesus’s breast.


    • whitefrozen April 18, 2012 / 2:14 pm

      Brennan Manning (‘The Rgamuffin Gospel’ guy) makes some similar points in his book ‘Ruthless Trust’ which I think is a perfect, brilliant marriage of the ‘otherness’ that Heschel has and the ‘knowability’ that you’ve articulated. The sense of mystery, awe, holiness and other-ness is something that I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of.


      • mackman April 18, 2012 / 3:40 pm

        Our faith is built on paradoxes.


    • mackman April 18, 2012 / 2:24 pm

      Awesome. I guess my main experience with people asserting the “unknowable” nature of God is as a lead-in to the attempted disintegration of doctrine: You reference something of the kind in your last comment on the other post (two simultaneous conversations ftw).

      I would have to say, thought, that although we lack direct experience of God in His essence, we know things about God as God. Although we cannot know his essence fully, we can know things about his essence: Bits and pieces though our knowledge may be, they are bits and pieces of truth.


  4. whitefrozen April 18, 2012 / 11:20 pm

    I’m definitely not going that route – that’s more of an emergent-church angle that I find silly (and self-defeating). I’m certainly not a fan of ‘God is unknowable, we can’t have any doctrine, etc, etc’. But at any rate, I think we more or less agree that we can know things about God without ever knowing Him in His essence fully.


  5. whitefrozen December 4, 2013 / 8:22 pm

    Reblogged this on Theologians, Inc. and commented:

    In light of the current theistic-personalism/classical theism debate, Rabbi Heschel has some words worth repeating.


  6. guymax December 8, 2013 / 8:42 am

    To say that God is unknowable would not necessarily mean the abandonment of any doctrine. It would be the doctrine that God is unknowable.

    If we think that we can know God then this would imply a separation between knower and known. If we think we are God, however, then this kind of knowing would be impossible. So to say we cannot know God is not necessarily an appeal to ignorance. It may be the claim that ultimately there is no separation between knower and known, and that at the limit ‘being’ takes over from dualistic ‘knowing’. At any rate, this is the claim of mysticism, Eckhart, Plotinus, the Upanishads etc.


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