Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sixty-Six Divine Descriptors

Theologeek that I am , I personally find poetry in the sesquipedalian technical terms of theology such as ‘soteriological’, ‘sublapsarian’, ‘perichoresis’, etc. I take particular pleasure in rolling summary divine ‘attributes’ off my tongue such as ‘omnipotence’, ‘omnipresence’, ‘omniscience’, ‘omnibenevolence’, and the like. And indeed it is their actual meaning that I most appreciate. Some find them cold and cerebral but I find them useful and helpful. I’ve even coined one of my own to sum up an oft neglected attribute of God: that God is ‘omnisophical’, all-wise.

My enjoyment of such terms notwithstanding, the Bible of course does not speak like this. True, it does at times ascribe to God that he is ‘Almighty’ or that he ‘knows all things’, but usually the above attributes are described by contemplative poetry (e.g. ‘where can I go in all the world and You won’t be there with me?’ = omnipresence) or in historical circumstances or prophetic utterances or ‘apocalyptic’ visions (e.g. angelic beings covered in eyes = omniscience). But I do believe all of the above attributes are described and affirmed in no uncertain terms throughout the Bible’s pages.

But another stimulating dimension to the way the Bible describes an infinite-personal God is that it does so by pictures and stories, particularly through literary genres and styles and forms and devices.

On a whim one day I listed the majority of the 66 books of the Bible with a summary statement based on a book’s form, style, prominent subject matter or theme and ascribed this to God’s character. Many are to be expected, but some I find fresh and surprising. Some of them are provocative and would require qualification and clarification. Anyone could easily make their own list that would bring out many different nuances than mine and yet would no doubt overlap a great deal in essence. I find it exhilarating and expanding and intriguing to think of God in this ‘biblical-canonical’ way. It shows both ‘the God of the Bible’ as well as the ‘Bible of God’ to be more wide, weird, warm and wonderful than we might usually conceive of.

I start with the New Testament, perhaps slightly more familiar in theme to us (though even here there are some intriguing bits), and then go on to the perhaps less familiar Old Testament. If you just say aloud the summaries one after the other it has a powerful effect I think.

Matthew (‘The Kingdom of God’)
Mark (‘The Secrecy of God’)
Luke (‘The Humanity of God’)
John (‘The Word of God’)
Acts (‘The Movement of God’)
Galatians (‘The Freedom of God’)
Philippians (‘The Joy of God’)
James & Jude (‘The Wisdom of God’)
1 Peter (‘The Fiery Ordeal of God’)
Hebrews (‘The Finality of God’)
Revelation (‘The Unveiling of God’)
Genesis (‘The Creativity of God’)
Exodus (‘The Presence of God’)
Leviticus (‘The Holiness of God’)
Numbers (‘The Journey of God’)
Deuteronomy (‘The Treaty of God’)
Joshua (‘The War of God’)
Judges (‘The Horror of God’)
Ruth (‘The Redemption of God’)
Samuel (‘The Politics of God’)
Kings (‘The Tragedy of God’)
Chronicles (‘The Retelling of God’)
Ezra (‘The Repatriation of God’)
Nehemiah (‘The Rebuilding of God’)
Esther (‘The Comedy of God’)
Job (‘The Perplexity of God’)
Psalms (‘The Beauty of God’/‘The Consolation of God’)
Proverbs (‘The Pathway of God’)
Ecclesiastes (‘The Enigma of God’)
Song of Solomon (‘The Erotica of God’)
Isaiah (‘The Majesty of God’)
Jeremiah (‘The Anguish of God’)
Lamentations (‘The Grief of God’)
Ezekiel (‘The Strangeness of God’)
Daniel (‘The Sway of God’)
Hosea (‘The Ardour of God’)
Joel (‘The Day of God’)
Amos (‘The Justice of God’)
Jonah (‘The Inclusiveness of God’)
Habakkuk (‘The Unorthodoxy of God’)
Haggai (‘The House of God’)
Zechariah (‘The Pictures of God’)
Malachi (‘The Approach of God’)


  1. Really enjoyed this.


    a) There are only 43 of them, not 66
    b) Some of them aren't techincally descriptors of God himself.

    Sorry to be a pedant :)

  2. Cheers, Stanton. Agreed. As to a), I mention at the beginning of this entry that I one day listed the 'majority' of the 66 books of the Bible. The title of the entry is meant to indicate merely that we can think of the books as each being at least one 'descriptor' of God, not that I'm actually going to list them all. But it's probably a bit misleading nonetheless.

    As to b), yes, some of them describe a theme or something that's actually happening to God's people, not God per se. But inasmuch as God identifies with his people, perhaps these could be in a qualified sense true of him also? E.g. in 1 Peter the 'fiery ordeal' is that of God's people, but Jesus said to Paul that in persecuting the church he was persecuting her Lord. So God endures the fiery ordeal with us. It would be the same for the 'journey' in Numbers. But something like the 'redemption of God' in Ruth is more problematic here. Is God redeemed as his people are redeemed? Hm. Probably not. But here we could shift the meaning of the word 'of' to signify the redemption God accomplishes rather than receives.

    Just some possibilities of still seeing how these genres/themes might speak to us of the very character of God. It would take some thorough, nuanced, and rigorous hammering out.

    As to your apology, I'm reminded of how I heard someone paraphrase Olympic runner Eric Liddell's famous saying: 'God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.' This person said, 'God made me pedantic, and when I criticise I feel his pleasure.'

    Pedants unite!

  3. This is great. Very interesting. I'm going to refer back to this when I go through these books.

  4. To 'esburrito': Great, I find it interesting too. Just note the conversation I have with Stanton here as a qualifier. Let me know if you discover other ways to describe God from the books. Best, DOJP

  5. Let us remember this list is only the beginning in consideration of the descriptors of the character/personality of God. This is the easy part, the hard part will be very time consuming.It will take reading and reading the books, gramatic and theological research, deep thinking (almost beyond our ability), and let's not forget "rug" time before this God we are trying to describe. Thanks for the stimulating conversation and challenge.

  6. Agreed! And I don't often emphasise enough the 'rug time' as you say. I have found wrestling with God in prayer a genuinely crucial and powerful part of theological reflection and understanding. I need to learn to write about it, though! Thanks for your comments. -DOJP

  7. Daniel...I just searched the term 'omnisophical' and this post was one of only three results that Google could find. Good job! I guess I learned this term from you. I will be teaching it to our youth group next week...we'll see it go world wide yet! Peace and thanks for the cool list of books with descriptors...really enjoyed it.