Surprised by the Perfect Being

by Matthew Barrett June 4, 2020

College can be one of the most pivotal moments in a young person’s life. R. C. Sproul once said that his time in college was life changing because he took a philosophy class where he had to grapple with the greatest ideas from the greatest minds ever to walk the earth.

That is true to my experience as well. College seems like it was a lifetime ago—I guess I am getting old—but in those few short years God did something radical. It all happened one sunny Southern California afternoon (I went to school in L.A.) when I stumbled across an abandoned copy of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the weeks before, I started wrestling with theology, something I never had the chance to do growing up. Calvin’s name came up, especially as I tried to face off with ideas like predestination and free will. I had heard Calvin was one of the church’s greatest theologians, so I was convinced that if Calvin couldn’t help me out, no one could. I set out, with great determination, to read through the entire Institutes.

The result was revolutionary.

Who is this God?

As I explain in None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, I had read my Bible as a young Christian but after reading Calvin I realized I had far too small a view of God. The God of the Bible proved to be a God far bigger than I ever could have imagined. I knew of God’s compassion, love, and mercy, but Calvin pointed me to places in the Bible where I was introduced to God’s holiness, power, and glory. I sat at my desk stunned; God was far more majestic than I thought. Calvin spoke of me when he wrote, “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”[i]

Being hit over the head with Calvin’s Institutes was a good thing, but it also made me feel dirty. I was so used to a Christian culture that domesticated God that I felt ashamed when my eyes were opened to the God of scripture, a God who cannot be domesticated. No longer could I continue making God in my own image; this was a God in whose image I was made. I had it all backwards, but now I saw God for who he really was and it was baffling to say the least.

The Perfect Being

Not long after reading Calvin, I was also introduced to another great mind of the church: Anselm. Calvin had introduced me to the majesty and supremacy of God, but Anselm took me one step deeper. Like I said, I was used to hearing from popular Christian speakers about a God who was like us, but Anselm came along and he, too, hit me over the head with a God who is distinct from us, above us, and a totally different being than us. He is not like the finite creature; he is the infinite Creator.

If this God really is the Creator and not to be confused with the creature, Anselm explained, then he must be supreme, someone than whom no one greater can be conceived.[ii] He must be the most perfect being conceivable. Should he be the most perfect being, then there must also be perfect-making attributes or perfections that define who he is and what he does.

Now this was a completely different way of thinking about God. Instead of starting with man and projecting human attributes back onto God, Anselm started with God, and his perfection, and then worked his way to man. Doing so, I quickly learned, avoided a real danger, and one all-too-prevalent in evangelicalism today: imposing human limitations on God, as if he is a creature like us, just a bigger and better one. Anselm warned against this tendency way back in the medieval era. God is not just a bigger, better version of you. No, he is a different type of being altogether.

The Infinite Being

If he is a different type of being than the creature, then he must be defined by attributes that are incommunicable, that is, attributes that are not like us, the creature, at all. One of the first perfect-making attributes to recognize is God’s infinitude. He is someone than whom no one greater can be conceived because unlike the creature who is finite, God is 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.

But that’s not all. To say God’s attributes are infinite does not mean he merely has our attributes but in greater measure. Instead, for God to be the most perfect being, he must be his attributes—his perfections—in infinite measure. Not only must any “quality which is inherently limiting” be “denied of God,” says philosopher Katherin Rogers, but “any perfection attributed to God” must be “attributed in an unlimited degree.”[iii] He is not just powerful, for example, but he is power and in infinite measure; he is omni-potent. Or consider his love. He is not merely loving; he is love and in infinite measure.

We could go on. But 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. Perhaps the Puritan Stephen Charnock sums it up best when he preached to his congregation, “No perfection is wanting to God.” A “limited” divine essence “is an imperfection,” but an “unbounded essence is a perfection.”[iv]

The God who will not be domesticated

Of course, none of this is original to either Charnock, Calvin, or Anselm. The idea of a perfect, infinite being goes back to scripture itself. This is one reason I love to read the psalms each day. For example, in Psalm 147 we read that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (147:3). The reason the downtrodden can know God will bind up their wounds is because it is this God who “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). What, then, can the psalmist conclude about this Creator but this: “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.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and Tabletalk Magazine.