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[Common Places] New Studies in Dogmatics: The Divine Names

Categories Common Places

The perfections of the triune God may be treated profitably under various aspects. Under the aspect of “divine attributes,” God’s perfections are studied as truths about God’s being, always alert to the fact that, properly speaking, God does not have attributes since God is his perfect being, power, wisdom, and love. Under the aspect of “divine goods”—Gregory of Nyssa’s lovely description of the divine perfections—God’s perfections are treated with a view to God’s status as the supreme object of desire and delight, in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures evermore. Both of these approaches are common to natural theology and revealed theology insofar as these disciplines treat God as the efficient and final cause of his creatures.

I have chosen, however, to treat God’s perfections under the aspect of The Divine Names. Though God reveals himself abundantly through his works of creation and providence, he remains in this revelation an unknown, unnamed God, a God whose being and action cannot be denied but whose personal identity and aims are largely hidden. Only in Holy Scripture, the covenantal self-declaration of the triune God, does God reveal his name to us and invite us to take his name upon our lips in prayer, proclamation, and praise.

Why The Divine Names?

My title thus signals a concentration upon the preeminent, interpersonal mode whereby God reveals his perfections to the objects of his covenant mercy. It also signals one of the book’s major objectives: to reconnect for contemporary readers the church’s traditional understanding of the divine perfections with its biblical source, norm, and idiom.

The last two centuries of theology have witnessed various attempts to unpack the divine perfections in a “personalist” vein, often under the influence of historicist and idealist categories of subjectivity, narrative, and process. Modern theologians have pursued this personalist path with varying degrees of success, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics representing the high point in this tradition of reflection. More recently, evangelical theology, both in its more progressive and conservative forms (e.g., “open theism” and its various respondents), has pursued a personalist path as well.

In many cases, modern theology’s personalist emphasis in the doctrine of God has led to revision of the church’s traditional teaching about the divine perfections. Both conservatives and progressives, for example, have found reasons to reject divine impassibility and divine timeless eternity in the name of the Bible’s “personal God.” These revisions, in turn, have caused others with more traditional sensibilities to hesitate in affirming God’s “personal” nature out of a desire to protect God’s perfections from the threat a personalist approach to the divine perfections faces, i.e., the temptation to exchange the glory of the immortal God for the image of a creature: in this case, the creature made in his image.

As I hope to demonstrate, Christian theology’s long tradition of reflection upon the divine names, from Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas to Protestant Orthodoxy, offers us a way of affirming the personal (indeed, tripersonal) nature of divine perfection without succumbing to the potentially idolatrous temptation of modern personalist approaches to the doctrine of God.

Reflecting on God’s Perfections

In terms of formal considerations, reflection upon God’s perfections requires that we attend to both the scope and shape of the biblical naming of God. In the Bible, God’s name is “fully uttered,” to borrow Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful phrase, and this fullness constitutes the immeasurable measure to which our praise must aspire in theological reflection.

Furthermore, we must learn to follow the biblical shape or grammar according to which the divine names obtain their divinely intended meaning. This grammar does not explain the metaphysical significance of God’s names; such explanation is impossible for the theology of pilgrims. Rather, this grammar teaches us the pattern that, in following, enables our thinking and speaking of the divine names to be true and faithful. Just as one may learn to follow a tune without understanding the underlying mathematics that inform the theory of musical composition, so too we may learn to follow the metaphysical grammar of the divine names revealed in Holy Scripture, even though we cannot possibly understand the divine science that informs and governs biblical revelation.

In terms of material considerations, my thinking about the divine names has been shaped significantly by the vision of God declared in James 1:17-18. According to James, God is “the Father of lights,” the supreme and unchangeable source of all created lights and of all created goods, and the author of our adoptive regeneration through the gospel. I believe the divine names may be treated fruitfully by means of conceptual expansion upon this rich and suggestive text. As “the Father of lights,” the first and fontal source of all created perfections, God is independent and simple. As the one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” God is immutable and impassible. As the one who reigns supreme “above” all creaturely time and space—the King of the ages who dwells in a high and holy place—God is eternal and immense.

Not only does this text open a path of reflection upon what Reformed dogmatics calls God’s “incommunicable attributes.” It also opens a path of reflection upon God’s “communicable attributes” insofar as it presents God as the one who, in his outward operations, is the creative source of every good and perfect gift and the recreative source of sons and daughters through “the word of truth.” Pursing a method of “reduction,” God’s perfections in their common operation ad extra may be traced back to their (appropriated) bases in God’s tripersonal being ad intra. The ray of God’s creating and regenerating power ad extra leads us back to its basis in the Father’s generating and spirating “primity” ad intra. The ray of God’s creative and regenerative purpose or design ad extra leads us back to its basis in the Son’s identity as God’s radiant wisdom ad intra. The ray of God’s creative and regenerative goodwill ad extra leads us back to its basis in the Spirit’s procession in the mutual love of the Father and the Son ad intra. God’s fatherly power, God’s filial wisdom, God’s spiritual love: these too are names of the one true God, our radiant Lord and King. And these are the characteristics of his lordly activity in nature, grace, and glory.

That, at least, is the plan for the book. I confess that I have not written a single word of it yet. The entire project thus stands under the banner of James 4:15: “If the Lord wills. . .” But that is not a bad place to stand, for the Lord who holds our futures is the Father of lights. And because he remains unchanging and unchanged in his radiant glory, his children will dwell secure, whatever may come of their plans, as those born to hymn his praise in this age and in the age to come. SDG.

(Image: Gentile da Fabriano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Scott Swain is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is author of several books, including The God of the Gospel: The Trinitarian Theology of Robert Jenson, and Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation. He serves as general editor (with Michael Allen) for T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary and Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. He is a regular blogger at Reformation21.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics series seeks to retrieve the riches of Holy Scripture and the church’s tradition for contemporary theological renewal. We have asked each contributor to give us an interim report on the questions, figures, texts, trends, or even surprises they are finding or looking forward to engaging in their respective volumes.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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