Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

Book Reviews

None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

Matthew Barrett, Baker Books, 2019, 296 pages, £8.95 pb (Amazon)

“Behold your God!”. That is the message given to the herald of good news in Isaiah 40:9. But what kind of God should we expect to “behold”? Is he just like us, but bigger and better? After all, the Bible tells us that we are made in his image (Genesis 1:26). According to classic theism, God is a perfect being, “without body, parts or passions”. But “perfect being theology” has had a bad press of late. We want a God who can enter into the suffering of wretched humanity, not a remote Being who is sublimely undisturbed by the woe of the world. 

But if the God we behold is a domesticated deity, cut down to size and shorn of his divine majesty, can we trust him? Does he command our highest worship? Of course, the key thing is what God has revealed of himself in the pages of Holy Scripture. It is the case, however, that our reading of the Bible can be skewed by our twenty-first-century perspective. Our psychological age demands a therapeutic deity who can feel our pain and soothe our troubled minds. That is why it is helpful to listen to the voices of those who have read God’s Word in previous centuries. They also were people of their times, but their insights can at least make us aware of our own biases. 

Matthew Barrett wheels on the “A Team” – no, not Mr T and the gang, but Augustine of Hippo, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. These three theological greats were attentive readers of the Bible and it was from its pages that they understood that God is the perfect being than which none greater can be thought. If he were anything less, he would not be God at all. While the focus here is on the being of God, the theologian does not lose sight of the three persons who share the one divine essence: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The book’s subtitle speaks of the Undomesticated Attributes of God. We domesticate God when we dissolve the fundamental biblical distinction between God our Creator and the creature. As finite creatures we cannot know God as he knows himself. Our knowledge of him is true, yet analogical. The Bible may speak of God in creaturely terms, but that is on account of it being divine revelation accommodated to our capacity. God is pure Spirit. He therefore has no “hands”, “eyes”, or “nose”. Neither does the sovereign Lord have regrets or change his mind. If the Scripture’s anthropomorphic language is not to be taken literally, neither are its anthropopathic descriptions of God’s “emotions”. All that is in God is God. He is therefore eternal, infinite and immutable in his being and attributes. 

As Barrett explains, God’s attributes are not the various components that comprise his being, some of which could in theory be detached from him. God is simple and unconflicted; his righteousness does not pull him one way and his mercy another. He is always righteous and merciful; his love is holy love. And that love is not a “flash in a pan” that can be switched off in response to the sinful rebellion of human beings. That is where God’s aseity and impassibility come in. His life and love are self-generated, totally independent of the creature. God does not need us to complete him. He is complete in the fulness of his own being and in the fellowship of the persons of the Trinity. It is precisely because God is not needy or vulnerable that we can trust him to be faithful to his promises and never let us down.

The author describes the way in which his own life was enriched as he was helped to “behold his God” afresh as the “A Team” enabled him to see divine self-revelation with fresh eyes. While the work is technical in parts and demands attentive reading, Barrett’s style is lively and interesting. You will find references to holidays in beautiful Pembrokeshire, delicious caramel apple pies and baseball games. (No Rugby Union illustrations, though, which struck me as a bit odd. I think Barrett is American.) More importantly, his treatment of God’s being and attributes is thoroughly biblical and full of practical application. You will be filled with wonder and worship.  You will be stirred to renewed faith in God and obedience to his commands. As Daniel says, “the people who know their God will stand firm and take action” (Daniel 11:32). 

Guy Davies
Pastor, Providence Baptist Church, Westbury, Wiltshire


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