Puritan theologian William Ames (1576–1633) offered my favorite definition of theology: the art of living well. Robust theology ought to lead to robust living. Matthew Barrett’s new book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker) [read TGC’s review] characterizes this truth well.
Before he became a scholar, Barrett had an awakening to the God of the Bible, and now he’s seeking to make his character and attributes clear and accessible to laypeople so that learning the attributes of God transforms lives.
I interviewed Barrett—associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—about his new book and theology for laypeople in general. We discussed his desire to write theology for the local church, justification by faith, whether it’s possible to talk Christian living without talking theology, and more.
In the introduction to None Greater, you recount an experience prior to entering ministry that opened your eyes to the greatness of God. Talk a bit about that.
As a young Christian attending evangelical churches, I noticed there was a main objective whenever Christians talked about God: He must be relatable and relational, intimate and immanent. That often meant you determined who God is by looking to your human experience. So, if we experience love, God just has more love. If we have knowledge, God just has more knowledge. This also worked in the other direction: If we grieve or suffer, God grieves or suffers too. What kind of God does this leave us with? A God who is just a bigger, better version of ourselves.
But then I (accidentally!) read Augustine’s Confessions. I had read my Bible for years, but Augustine opened my eyes afresh to the God of Scripture. Augustine taught me that God is not just our ideal version of ourselves; he is an altogether different kind of being. He is not the finite creature but the infinite Creator. He is not merely greater in size but in essence; in fact, his essence is immeasurable and unbounded, incapable of being limited by human experience.
God is not just our ideal version of ourselves.
Then I stumbled across Anselm, who said God is someone than whom none greater can be conceived; he is the perfect, infinite being. Anything that would limit God cannot not be true of God. That means certain perfect-making attributes must follow, attributes that shield God from limitations like change, emotional fluctuation, divisible parts, dependence on the creature, lack of knowledge, a succession of moments, and so on.
This view turned my world upside down. I thought I knew God, but I was surprised by God. This left me frustrated—how could I be in church for so long and have read my Bible so many years and never heard of attributes like immutability, impassibility, simplicity, aseity, and timeless eternity? But this discovery also left me thrilled—this God is far greater than I ever imagined and must be worthy of worship. After this discovery, my Bible became a strange new world.
One of the best features of your book is the target audience: It’s a volume on the attributes of God that is impeccably researched but written for laypeople. How important is it for academic theologians to serve the church in this way?
So important. I often hear scholars lament how shallow church is these days and how little theology churchgoers (or even pastors) know. Yet they do nothing about it. That must change, but it won’t unless scholars who spend their lives studying Scripture and theology start lisping to novice students, pastors, and churchgoers. When we look back at the greatest revivals of theology in church history, they occurred in part because scholars communicated truth to those in pews and then mounted pulpits. The church fathers who wrote the Nicene Creed, for example, understood the survival of the church itself was at stake. Reformers like Martin Luther may have started off writing theses for academic debate, but they quickly realized the Reformation would only take root if its ideas (and its Bible) were put in the vernacular. I could go on. Point is, scholarship divorced from the church is a bad hangover from the Enlightenment. In most of history, scholarship was for the church.
We don’t often talk in church about things like the aseity or the simplicity of God. How have you sought to make those things accessible to lay Christians?
There is a popular caricature that says the doctrine of God is some abstract theory that has nothing to do with the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mentioned how I providentially read Augustine, but keep in mind that his Confessions are biography in the form of prayers. That’s right, prayers! As he prays, he puts his theology on full display. Apparently, the greatest minds of the church thought who God is has everything to do with the Christian life.
We see this with God’s attributes. Ask yourself, what are the consequences of rejecting attributes like aseity, simplicity, immutability, or impassibility? The consequences are devastating. If God is not life in and of himself, self-sufficient, and self-existent—but a God who depends on us finite creatures—then he is a God who needs saving just as much as we do. If God is not simple—but instead is composed or compounded by parts—then he is divisible. Frankly, this is a God who will fall apart on us, for he is destructible. If God is not immutable—but changes—then how do we know whether we can trust him? Will he come through on his saving promises? If God is not impassible—but suffers alongside us—how can we have any assurance that he can or will overcome the suffering we experience in this world? Is he not just as much a victim as we are, and should we not feel pity for him rather than pray to him?
In short, everything from Christian assurance to the gospel itself hinges on who God is eternally. To undercut these attributes is to rob the believer of gospel promises that not only give him confidence in the moment, but also hope for the future. Why in the world would we not cherish such attributes in church and proclaim them from the pulpit?
Do you think the way we often talk in church about God is faulty? We often hear him spoken of as “the man upstairs” or something similar. I heard a woman many years ago who encouraged a Sunday school class to call God “buddy.” How can we help people in our churches think (and talk) more reverently about God?
Our God talk betrays us. This is a God made in the image of our culture, but it’s not the God of the Bible. This type of God is more like the pagan deities of the nations around Israel, gods these nations created and could control or manipulate. But when we open the Scriptures, we see a different picture of God. He is the God of Moses: No one can see his glory and live. He is the God of Isaiah: high and lifted up. He is the God of Jeremiah: There is no one like him.
Only when we stand in utter awe of his transcendence—saying, with Isaiah, “Woe is me!”—will we be baffled by his gracious immanence. Only when we grasp that he is the infinite Lord will we be amazed that he would stoop so low as to speak to and save sinners.
The God talk we’ve imbibed from the culture is ironic. In our desperation to make God immanent, we’ve lost immanence altogether. We’ve domesticated him, making him safe and tame. Why are we surprised that we have little desire to worship this God, let alone fear him?
I heard a statement from a person defending a wildly popular book written by a Christian giving advice on everyday living. It went something like this: “This book is not about theology, so it shouldn’t be critiqued as a work of theology.” Is it possible to write about everyday living as a Christian while remaining atheological?
Don’t take the bait! Any book that claims to talk about God, his people, or the Christian life is a book that cannot escape things theological. Its main purpose may not be to expound theology itself, but to pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is (that is what theology is, after all) is to write like an atheist.
To pretend that who we are or how we live has nothing to do with who God is is to write like an atheist.
It’s also dangerous. It gives people the impression that the books that really matter are those you see in the “spiritual life” or “Christian living” section of bookstores. Meanwhile, books on “theology” are reserved for those who sign up for cemetery—I mean seminary. Again, don’t take the bait. One of the wisest things C. S. Lewis ever said (you can read it in his preface to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation) had to do with his discovery of old books of theology. He was far more likely to hit his knees in prayer when he had a pencil in hand with a tough bit of theology than he ever did with the latest, hippest book on spirituality.
Theology exists because worship does not. Theology should always lead to doxology. If not, then you are either not studying the God you think you are studying, or you are trying to study God without knowing God. Both are tragic in God’s eyes.
One last thing: If spending your time learning about the character of God is not relevant to what it means to be a Christian, then honestly, I don’t know what it means to be a Christian anymore, nor am I sure I want to be one.
You have another book that recently released on justification by faith. Why is it so important that we assert and reassert that critical doctrine every few years?
That’s right! If you enjoyed None Greater, then consider working through The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls (Crossway, 2019). I’ve asked some of the best minds in Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral theology to come together and write a positive presentation of the doctrine of justification.
Protestants since the Reformation have rightly believed that the church stands or falls on this doctrine. If we get justification wrong, it’s just a matter of time before we misunderstand the gospel and its power to make us right with God. Few doctrines have come under such severe attack today as our doctrine of justification. I fear that the Reformational view of justification—which I believe is the biblical view—is so muddied by competing interpretations that not only the churchgoer and pastor but also the student and scholar are left in ambiguity, not sure what to believe anymore. So, it seemed wise to gather a team that could clear away the fog and give a positive case for justification—one that returns to Scripture afresh and does so with theological rigor.