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Can We Know What God is Like? - Steve Duby

Phoenix Seminary
April 20, 2021

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Duby on the topic of who God is and what he is like.

Topics of conversation include:

  • What are some challenges we face when trying to learn about God?
  • How does knowing Christ impact our ability to know God?
  • What are some incommunicable attributes of God?
  • Does God experience emotions?
  • How can we apply our knowledge of who God is to our daily lives?

Dr. Steve Duby is associate professor of Theology at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark, 2015) and God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (IVP Academic, 2019). Dr. Duby holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews.


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

As evangelical Christians, we often say that faith is about a relationship. It's not enough to know about God. We must know God. God wants to be in close fellowship with us, and we want to know him more than just words on a page. We want a close connection with God. But how can we as creatures know the creator? How can the finite comprehend the infinite? How can we dare say we know God when our knowledge of him can seem so small? Some theologians have speculated that heaven will be one continual revelation of God. And since God is infinite and we are finite, God's revelation of himself could go on for eternity. You cannot exhaust God, because he is inexhaustible. You cannot fully comprehend God, for he is incomprehensible. What a glorious thought this is! And yet, God wants to be known—both now and for eternity.

Brian Arnold (01:09):

Well, to help us understand what God is like, we have theologian Dr. Steve Duby with us today. Dr. Duby is associate professor of Theology with us at Phoenix Seminary. And he's already establishing himself as a leader on the doctrine of God. He has written Divine Simplicity and God in Himself, and he has a book coming out early next year, titled Jesus and the God of Classical Theism. My favorite part about Dr. Duby is that he isn't satisfied just to know a lot about God (which he does)—this man knows God and walks humbly with him. Steve, welcome to the podcast.

Steve Duby (01:42):

Glad to be here.

Brian Arnold (01:43):

So our big question today is this—can we know what God is like? And let's just admit up front how perplexing this question's going to be for a lot of people who have spent a lot of time reading the Bible in their lives saying, "well, of course you can know God, we have the Bible." And it's a bit more complicated than that for us on the side of theology. So why is knowing God such a challenge?

Steve Duby (02:06):

That's a great question. I can think of at least three reasons off the top of my head. One of them is pretty straightforward—we as human beings, as creatures, tend to gain knowledge of things by way of sense perception. We pick up on what's available to our five senses. So if we're talking about an invisible God, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:17, there are big questions about how we could know him, because he's not an ordinary object of knowledge, like other created things. That creates one challenge. Another one would be, as you already noted in the introduction, that we're finite creatures. We do not have minds that are adequate to all that God is. So we are inevitably going to come short of all that there is to know about God. And in that sense, we don't know God as God alone will ever know God—he has an infinite knowledge of himself,

Steve Duby (02:57):

and we're just finite creatures trying to grasp God to the extent that he's revealed himself to us. Obviously, that distinction between the finite and the infinite is another reason that there's a challenge here. And then thirdly, I think it's also worth bringing up a practical point. And that is the point that we human beings get distracted, especially in our culture today. There are many things that could distract us, and that includes social media and so on. I don't need to list everything off, but that also creates a problem for us, because if we're inattentive to a God that can be challenging to know, then of course we will have difficulties gaining theological understanding. Another thing to add there is that sometimes our culture is loaded with an anti-intellectual spirit. And sometimes that looks like people saying, "well, I'm not interested in knowing things about God, let me just approach God with feelings, or approach God in a way that doesn't really take the hard mental work seriously." And so as Christians, it's important for us in addressing the challenge of knowing God, to find ways to break down that artificial barrier between head knowledge and heart knowledge. Because both are important. We want to know God in the sense of loving him, but the way to get there is to exercise our intellect and learn truth about God from his Word. So that then affects our hearts and causes us to desire greater fellowship with God.

Brian Arnold (04:33):

And it's not accidental that in the first great command, Jesus says, "love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength." So there's something about the totality of the person that must be engaged with knowing God rightly. And, God tells us that he wants to be known, so even if we have some of these obstacles to knowing God, he's a God who wants to be known. I think about something like Deuteronomy 29:29, that the revealed things belong to us, but there's hidden things that belong to God that we will never fully comprehend. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to comprehend who God is.

Steve Duby (05:05):

Yeah. We also read in John 17:3 that the heart of eternal life is knowing God the Father and Christ, whom he sent. And we can say, of course, that means more than what we often call head knowledge, but it doesn't mean less than that. We have to know the truth of God's wisdom and God's love and God's justice, and the fact that he is Father, Son, and Spirit in order to actually grow in the heart knowledge, or the love of God, that we seek as Christians.

Brian Arnold (05:30):

Yeah. And that's why I started off with that conception of some theologians thinking that heaven is kind of a continual revelation of God, to some extent. Because eternal life is to know him, well, why not then, in eternal life, knowing him even more and greater with some of those distractions that you mentioned before no longer pulling us away from knowing God? Well, theologians sometimes distinguish between knowing God in himself, and knowing God as he relates to the world. So kind of take a few minutes to unpack what that means. What does it mean to know God in himself, and God in his actions in the world?

Steve Duby (06:08):

I think it's important to acknowledge that, as Christians, we rightly take very seriously the story of the Bible. We rightly take seriously God's works in bringing Israel out of Egypt, and sending his Son into the world, and raising his Son from the dead, and so forth. But along the way in Scripture, we are also given a knowledge of the fact that God didn't have to do these things. He didn't have to create the world in the first place. And so we might just make the point by saying—God already has a life of his own. For example, in John 1:1 we read, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That's the backdrop to the Word becoming flesh. That was already the case. The word already existed in loving fellowship with God the Father,

Brian Arnold (06:56):

Okay, let me dive in right there and ask the question that everyone from a five-year-old up to my theology students ask, and that is—if God has life in himself, and that life was existing before he created the world, and he didn't need to create the world, what was God doing before he created the world?

Steve Duby (07:11):

Well, I'm pretty sure that you know classic answers to this question from famous theologians like Augustine and Martin Luther, who said, when they didn't want to answer that question, "God was building hell for the curious."

Brian Arnold (07:20):

That's right, exactly.

Steve Duby (07:21):

I think you wanted me to say that. And now that we've gotten that down, that's a great question. We're not given any lengthy treatment on what exactly God was doing, but from what we know of God, we can say that God was delighting in his own goodness. The New Testament—I'm thinking of the Gospels in particular—open up to us the fact that the Father delights in his Son. That appears, that's declared, at the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration of Jesus. Also in Jesus's prayer in John 17, he says that the Father loved him and gave him glory before the foundation of the world.

Steve Duby (07:57):

So we don't know all of that. And we will always be finite creatures who don't know everything there is to know about God, but we can be assured that God was enjoying his own goodness. And the Father, Son, and Spirit existed in loving fellowship with one another. Which takes us back to that question about why we would distinguish between God in himself and God's actions in the world. And as I've just said, God has a life of his own. Another place to consider these things would be Paul's speech in Acts 17, when he's in Athens. He clarifies to the people there that this God is not served by human hands, as though needing anything. Instead, he's the one that is the giver. He gives to us life, and breath, and all things. So I think we can say from Scripture, there's a clear witness there to the fact that God just is who he is.

Steve Duby (08:46):

He didn't have to make us in order to become God, or in order to solidify his position at God. And then finally I'll mention also, in Genesis 1, it's really significant that there is no story there of how God became God. Other books in the Ancient Near Eastern world that would have been known to the peoples of that part of the world, they would talk about how different gods secured their position, but the Bible doesn't do that. It just says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." So apparently God's identity already just is what it is. And even though we are right to think about God in relation to us, it's very important for us to know that God already is God. He didn't have to make us, but he freely chose to do that.

Steve Duby (09:35):

So we can talk about God as he is in himself, and also God's action in the world. And when we make that distinction, we're not talking about two different gods, or two different versions of God. We're just taking note of the fact that in his own eternal life, God is who he is—Father, Son, and Spirit. And then also, since God has freely chosen to create the world, he is doing—to put it crudely—doing stuff outwardly, out of himself, in relation to creatures. And it's not that there are two different versions of God. God's action reflects who he is, but he already had that life of his own. And I think we will come eventually to the fact that there are some practical implications from that.

Brian Arnold (10:16):

Well, going back to one of the challenges you set forth at the beginning, the first one you mentioned was we're empiricists in many ways. We use our five senses in order to understand the world around us. Well, one of the things God has done is he has engaged in the world around us. He's actually, in Christ, become incarnate, walked among us. We could see him with our eyes and hear him with our ears. And so we can know how God relates, even through the person of Christ. So how does knowing Christ impact our ability to know God?

Steve Duby (10:53):

Yeah, it is significant that God...I guess to back up, even start at an earlier place—we know God only because of God's works. We don't know God if God doesn't reveal to us. And then when God does his works in the world, he gives us these things that point back to who he is. And of course God's work of revealing himself culminates in the person of Christ. And it's not an accident that the person of Christ, the person of God the Son, took on flesh. So he was perceptible. He could be seen and touched and heard by the people living around him in the first century. And the person of God the Son used his humanity in order to reveal what God is like to those around him. John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Steve Duby (11:43):

And then John says, "and we have seen his glory—glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." There is a mystery there in how an invisible God is revealed through the visible humanity, and the audible teaching, and so forth of the person of Christ. But we can certainly say that when the incarnation takes place, God is showing that he understands how we creatures learn things through the five senses—through hearing, teaching, through seeing things be done. And that includes Christ's miraculously healing someone who's sick, for example. So God has accommodated himself to us through his different works, so that we can understand something of who he is. But then that reaches its culmination in the person of Christ, where it's no longer, for example, something like God parting the Red Sea through Moses, or something like that. This is actually God himself, having taken upon himself a human nature with human flesh, and is operating to reveal God to everyone around him. We don't get that privilege of being right there in the first century, but we do get eyewitness testimony from the Apostles in the New Testament. So we are people who benefit from this wonderful thing that God has done, and we get to read about it centuries later.

Brian Arnold (13:04):

So talk to me then, about how this idea of God revealing himself, especially in the person of Christ, works its way maybe back into knowing God in himself. Because if God had not revealed himself in the works of the world, we could not know him at all. So what can we know about God as he is in himself? Can we know anything apart from the works that he's done?

Steve Duby (13:26):

Yeah. I think that's an important question. We do know God by his works, but at the same time, in the context of us knowing God by those works, we get the benefit of seeing how those words show us—not just God's relationship to us, but also God's eternal attributes. God's wisdom, God's goodness, God's justice, and so forth. And in the case of the incarnation, yes, the Word becomes flesh at a moment in time, but the whole event of the incarnation is something that shows us—the incarnation is not all there is to God. Like I said, in John 1, the first verse is, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." So in order to talk about the incarnation, John finds himself having to say, "by the way, this person is an eternal person who already existed."

Steve Duby (14:20):

I'm also thinking of a place like 2 Corinthians 8:9, where Paul says that the gift, or the grace, of Christ is that he became poor, though he was rich, in order that we, by his poverty, might become rich. So in order to talk about the Son humbling himself by taking on a human nature, Paul finds that he has to say, "Oh, this person is rich, eternally abundant in God's eternal life." And that's what helps us make sense of the fact that he takes on flesh. That's what helps us understand how great an act of generous love this is. And I'm also thinking of a place like Philippians 2, where I'm sure listeners will be aware of Paul saying that, you know, Christ was in the form of God, but he took on the form of a servant. So again, the act of condescension on the part of Christ—it has to be talked about with reference back to the fact that he already was in the form of God.

Steve Duby (15:16):

So there are all these wonderful ways in which the incarnation leads to us understanding something of God in himself. And it's not just the bare fact that God existed and had life in and of himself that we can understand. We can also understand—this God is a God of infinite love, a love that's poured out toward us in the incarnation and with the Holy Spirit coming into our hearts. So I think that God's works in the world, especially God's work of the Son becoming incarnate, these things don't just show us God's relationship to us, but they show us the backdrop to that—God being an abundant God of wisdom and goodness and love. And that ought to be something that's very reassuring to us as Christians.

Brian Arnold (16:01):

Absolutely, it is. Well, let's talk about some of those kind of attributes of who God is, especially things that we as theologians might call incommunicable attributes, which means God does not share these with us. So God has communicable attributes, things like love, which we can also share in, but God has things that we don't get. Things like eternality. Like, God has always existed. We had a place where we were created. So maybe something like the doctrine of immutability, which just means God does not change. So talk to us about a doctrine like that.

Steve Duby (16:36):

Yeah. Immutability, as you said, it's an incommunicable attribute in the sense that it's not something that gets shared by us creatures, because we creatures do change. That's just how it works. When we say that God is immutable, or unchangeable, there are certain things that that applies to. What God is, God's essence, never changes. God's essential attributes don't change, such as wisdom and goodness and love and justice and power. Also, the relationships that exist among Father, Son, and Spirit don't change. The Son is always the perfect image of the Father, he was always beloved of the Father, for example. And we can also add that God's plan for the world is something that doesn't change. God will take what he has eternally planned, eternally decreed, and he will see it through to the end. I think of a place like Isaiah 46, where the Lord says, "My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose."

Steve Duby (17:35):

There are some interesting questions that come up surrounding divine immutability, though, when we take seriously the whole Canon of Scripture, because—and maybe this has already popped into the minds of some listeners—we do read, for example, in Genesis 6, that when human wickedness becomes so bad, God repented of making humankind, or he regrets making humankind. So there are interpreters of Scripture who want to say, "Ah, see—this is God changing his plan," or "this has God changing his mind." We can't go into all the details as to why that sort of reading ought to be critiqued or challenged. But the thing that I'll say just now is that from a traditional Christian's perspective on God, those passages in which God repents, like in Genesis 6, they are meaningful in the sense that they're teaching us something about God, or God's activity.

Steve Duby (18:22):

But the point is, in that case, God acts like a repentant human being acts, which is to say, he produces a different kind of work. He does something new. So this is not about God changing his knowledge, or his eternal plan. This is teaching us something about how God is working in the world. He's producing something new and different. And then if we take seriously the whole Canon of Scripture, we can say that doesn't mean that there's a change in God's plan. God has planned out these different changes through the history of the world. So God repenting in Genesis 6 is actually God continuing to carry forward his plan, which already took into account the need to deal with human wickedness, and the fact that God was going to bring about a flood to recalibrate, so to speak, human existence. So immutability applies to God's essence, the attributes that we use to describe God's essence, the relationships among the three Divine Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit, and it also applies to God's plan for the world. And then we can say within that plan, God's immutability is not an obstacle to God performing a new work in the world. God can act and produce new things. It's just that the wisdom and the power by which he acts, those remain the same. God never needed to update those things.

Brian Arnold (19:42):

Well, I think that's helpful. And it leads into another question that I think people might have, and we'll have to do this pretty briefly, although it's a large question. And that is on the doctrine of impassibility, which is—does God suffer emotion? So we look at a thing, like you mentioned in Genesis 6 with the flood—is this showing God being what can seem like over-emotional, which is a change—which you said, God doesn't change—which is clear in Scripture. But we read the Bible, and it seems like God does have these emotions. But to have these kinds of emotions, at least ancient Christian writers said, means that he is suffering change. So how do we understand that? In one minute, Dr. Duby?

Steve Duby (20:22):

One minute. Well, we're talking about the attribute of impassability, which has to be defined very carefully. It means that God is not susceptible to being harmed or being damaged in some way. And we actually receive testimony about this in Scripture, for example, in Hebrews 2, God the Son had to be made like us, that is to say, had to become human, in order to suffer. So far from being something that's anti-Scriptural, I think this is actually something that's revealed to us in Scripture—that God, according to his own divine essence, doesn't change, but also, in this particular case, doesn't suffer. So we have revelation in Scripture that God isn't suffering according to his own divine nature. But God in the Person of the Son takes upon himself a human nature. And in that human nature, he undergoes suffering. He experiences ordinary human emotions like us, like sorrow and fear and anxiety. So we can say that God, as God in his own divine nature, doesn't experience suffering. But God the Son, with regard to the human nature he takes on, he does suffer like us. And that is very pastorally valuable. God can't be damaged by us. That's very important to know. But the Person of the Son, in his humanity, he suffered like us, which makes him our sympathetic High Priest, as Hebrews says.

Brian Arnold (21:45):

Which is the beauty of the incarnation—that God becomes like us sufferers. If he hadn't, then I think it would be right for people to say, "God doesn't really understand what I'm going through." And yet, in Christ, this perfect God-man, he really does. And what a great God we have because of that. So maybe give us one or two points of application. So we've been kind of deep down in the things of God, and some people, who these are all new terms and concepts, might be wondering, "okay, what do I do with this in my daily Christian life?" So help us, Dr. Duby, understand how we can take these great thoughts of God and apply it to our daily lives.

Steve Duby (22:23):

Yeah. Well, first of all, in prayer. One of the important things is that if God has life in and of himself, he's not established by having to get something from us. We can know that in prayer, we can't make God weary. We can't exhaust God. We can't make God run out of energy in any way. So when we cry out to God, we have a Father who's never going to be bothered by that. And that is wonderful for us Christians to know. Secondly, I think it's good for us to remember that and to be humbled by all of that. Who I am is not what makes God who he is. My skillset, my gifts, anything that I can do is not what is going to enable God to fulfill his good plan for the world. He's going to see this thing through,

Steve Duby (23:05):

and it doesn't depend on me. Which is both humbling, but also freeing because the weight of the world, the fate of the world, is not something that rests on my own shoulders. And then finally, I would say, we talk a lot about glorifying God, or God doing things for his own glory. When we understand this in the context of God already being God, that means when we do things for God's glory, God, isn't using us. He's not doing that in order to make himself better. The fact that God wants us to glorify him reflects that God loves us, and God knows there's nothing better for us than to glorify him and to enjoy his rich perfection and wisdom and goodness. And so it's in our best interest to do that.

Brian Arnold (23:46):

Amen. I mean, that's a great way to kind of begin to land this thing of how knowing God pertains to our daily lives. What's maybe one resource that would be really helpful, especially for more lay people, in understanding the doctrine of God?

Steve Duby (24:05):

Yeah. I'll point to—you said one, I'll point to two, I'll cheat a little bit. One is just called God Is, it's by an author called Mark Jones. And that talks about God's attributes. And then another, on the side of the doctrine of the Trinity, is by an author called Scott Swain. And it's called The Trinity: An Introduction, or perhaps An Introduction to the Trinity, but you could find it easily enough either way.

Brian Arnold (24:26):

It's the Crossway one that's recently come out. Excellent introductions to the Trinity. Well, and then I would point a bit more serious theologian, listeners, to Dr. Duby's book God in Himself, which is a tour de force on this question. And so thank you for your work in this area. For helping us know God better. And to those listening, God wants to be known. What a great God we have, that has not only revealed himself, but he wants to know us in relationship. So use your mind, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and know him. Well, thanks for joining us this week, Dr. Duby.

Steve Duby (25:04):

Thanks for having me.

Outro (25:06):

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