Haunted by the Perfect Being

This week the sponsored post is proved by Baker Books and is adapted from Matthew Barrett’s new book None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. Matthew Barrett is the author of None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God. He is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive editor of Credo Magazine, where he hosts the Credo podcast. You can follow him @mattmbarrett.

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Have you ever read a book that completely changed your life? Way back in college, I was given a copy of Augustine’s Confessions. I thought nothing of this little paperback, but after reading it, my life would never be the same.

Why exactly? At the start of the book (1.4), I encountered a prayer from this church father that opened my eyes to divine beauty I had never seen before. Carefully differentiating between the Creator and the creature, Augustine is like an acrobat walking the tightrope. Yes, God is immanent (“intimately present”), but he remains transcendent and incomprehensible (“deeply hidden”). Yes, he effects change in the world (“changing all things”), but he never changes in himself (“immutable”). Yes, he creates and renews, but he himself is timelessly eternal (“never new, never old”). Yes, he nurtures others, but he is never one in need of nurture. Yes, he brings the world into maturity, but he never matures, nor is he ever in need of reaching his potential or being activated; he is maximally alive, pure act (“always active”). Yes, he loves, but always impassibly (“you love without burning”). And yes, he redeems, paying our debt, but only because he owes debt to no one, being a God of absolute aseity.

After reading Augustine’s prayer again and again, I put down the book and felt perplexed. Why had I not learned of this God before? He was so . . . big, much bigger than I had been taught. Sure, I knew the basics: God is Creator. God is Lord. God is love. But never had I thought about God’s perfections like Augustine had. Part of me felt frustrated, too. How could I be a Christian for so long, have studied the Bible for so many years, and been in church so regularly, and yet never have heard about attributes like simplicity, aseity, impassibility, and others? Nevertheless, I was simultaneously overwhelmed by joy. With Augustine by my side, I reread the Scriptures and saw these attributes on every page of the Bible. How could I have missed them before?

However, there was one phrase that I just couldn’t escape: God is “perfection of both beauty and strength.” It’s the word “perfection” that especially haunted me. What did it mean?

In the months ahead, the haunting grew louder, until finally everything started to make sense. But this time it wasn’t Augustine who opened my eyes; it was Anselm, one of the greatest thinkers of the medieval age. If Augustine was my first awakening to this God, Anselm was my second. Anselm asked a probing question: Is God the most perfect being? There it was, that word again: “perfect.” Anselm had a way of getting at this concept of perfection by asking whether God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived. If he is, then he must be the most perfect being conceivable. And if he is the most perfect being conceivable, then certain perfect-making attributes—or perfections—must follow, perfections like infinitude, aseity, simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and timeless eternity, perfections that shield God from being crippled by limitations, perfections that ensure he remains the most perfect, supreme, and glorious being.

That explained everything. The reason I had not come into contact with the type of attributes Augustine had described was that no one ever introduced God to me as the perfect being, someone than whom none greater can be conceived. As I reflected on my own journey, it was obvious that God had always been introduced into conversations in a very experiential way: love is a common human experience, so God must be a God of love; mercy is a commendable virtue, so God must be a God of mercy; and so on. Thinking about God was always from the bottom up—that is, from my experience to who God is. But with the help of Augustine and Anselm, that approach now seemed dangerous, always flirting with the possibility of creating a God in our own image, always defining God’s attributes according to our own limitations.

As I explain in None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, what was so different about the God of Augustine and Anselm was that they first thought of God as one who is not like us. They started from the top (God) and then worked their way down (to humanity). They moved from the Creator to the creature. God is not just a bigger, better version of ourselves but a different type of being altogether. Unlike the creature who is finite, God is, in a word, infinite. As the infinite deity, any limitation must be ruled out of the question. Should he be limited in some way—limited by time or space, limited in his power or knowledge, limited by change or limited by divisible parts—then no longer could he be infinite. Some type of limitation would be introduced into the very essence of God. No longer would he be the most perfect being. Someone or something greater could be conceived than a limited being.

The lesson here is clear: whenever we talk about who God is, we must always do so knowing that his essence has no limitations. As the Creator, rather than the creature, his being is immeasurable. While we grow and mature, God does not; he cannot be his perfections any more than he already is eternally. God is his attributes absolutely for he is the perfect being. Or as Anselm liked to say, God is pure being.

Of course, none of this is original to either Augustine or Anselm. The idea of a perfect, infinite being goes back to scripture itself. For example, in Psalm 147 we read, “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (147:5). According to the psalmist, God is so great—so perfect!—because there is no limit to his power; his wisdom and knowledge have no bounds.

Can we settle for a God who is less than a perfect being? We cannot. To do so is to rob God of his infinite nature and unbounded perfection. To do so, scary as this sounds, is to create a God in our own image. Our God, by contrast, is high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1). He cannot, he will not be domesticated.