God, Heresy, And Modern-Day Shibboleths
By Allan Turner
It is impossible to make distinctions between God, His essence, and His attributes. “I AM THAT I AM” or “He who is” (Exodus 3:14) exists as a self-existent (Romans 1:23; I Timothy 6:16; John 5:26), eternal (Deuteronomy 33:27), infinite (Psalm 139:7-10; Isaiah 46:9,10; Jeremiah 32:27), immutable (Psalm 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17) Spirit (John 4:24). If He ceased to be any of these, He could not be God. In other words, God's essence (i.e., that which makes Him what He is) could not be anything other than what it is; and that which makes Him what He is, of course, is His attributes. Therefore, it is never correct to think of God apart from His essence or attributes. In fact, God does not have an essence; He is His essence, and He does not have attributes; He is His attributes.
For example, the Bible tells us that God is love (I John 4:8,16). It informs us that God's love is great (Ephesians 2:4), eternal (Jeremiah 31:3; Ephesians 1:4,5), infinite (Ephesians 3:18,19), and dependable (Romans 8:35-39). Nevertheless, what the Bible does not say about the essence or nature of God is just as important as what it does say. Although the Bible teaches that God is His attributes and characteristics, it does not teach that any particular attribute of God is God. In other words, the Bible is not saying, and has never said, that “Love is God.” On the contrary, what the Bible teaches is that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). Clearly, then, the Bible instructs us that God is His attributes and characteristics. Anyone who believes the Bible, believes this. Consequently, God is, has been, and always will be Who and What He is at this exact moment.
Even so, there are those who argue that the attributes of God can be stripped from Him. In other words, some are saying that God's attributes can be separated from His essence, either in part or wholly. One such individual had this to say: This difference in the essence of God and the attributes of God has been noted, not just by denominational writers, but by some brethren as well. Brother Roy H. Lanier, Sr. wrote, “While the attributes of God are `distinguishing characteristics of the divine nature,' we must be careful to view them as something apart from the essence of that divine nature. To view the sum of the attributes as God is to deny the personality of God.” But unfortunately we have some brethren doing exactly that. One has written, “God is His characteristics and attributes.” (Ronny Milliner, “Fullness,” Faith And Facts Quarterly, October, 1991, p. 29).
There is no citation given for brother Lanier's statement, but it is taken from page 24 of his book on God, entitled The Timeless Trinity. I have read this book and have found it quite useful. However, I have not always agreed with brother Lanier's conclusions, and in this instance, I, once again, disagree with him. Ontologically (i.e., by reason of His Being), “I AM THAT I AM” or “He who is” (Exodus 3:14) cannot be anything other than what He is. He is, as we have shown from Scripture, self-existent, eternal, infinite, and immutable, and He cannot be anything less. Surely, this truth is part of what God was saying about Himself when He said, “I AM THAT I AM.” If not, why not?
Incidentally, brother Lanier believes that Jesus is the “divine-human” or “God-man,” who, while here on earth, “retained all the attributes of Deity” (The Timeless Trinity, p. 268). And on page 242, he said, Jesus “could not cease to possess the essential attributes of God, for he is immutable.” In other words, brother Lanier, unlike the one who quotes him, does not believe that the “divine nature” can be divested of the “attributes of Deity.”
When Milliner writes: “But unfortunately we have some brethren doing exactly that. One has written, ‘God is His characteristics and attributes,’” I am resonably sure he is quoting me. I have written, and do believe, that God is His attributes and characteristics. Therefore, I happily plead guilty. Nevertheless, what I have not said is just as important as what I have said. In other words, I have not said, and I do not believe, that any particular attribute of God is God. For example, I am not saying, and have never said, that “Love is God.” What I believe and teach is that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). This is clearly what the Bible teaches on this subject and anyone who believes the Bible, believes this. How is it, then, that some have the unmitigated gall to criticize those of us who believe and teach this?
It ought to be obvious that some among us no longer believe what the Bible teaches. These make fun of the “God-man” doctrine of incarnation. They scoff and call “silly” the idea that Jesus was “100% deity and 100% human.” They teach that the Logos, upon coming to earth, divested Himself of His “divinity” and “godhood,” and became “a man, just a man,” “an ordinary man just like you and me.” They say that Jesus, like every other man, “lusted” while here on this earth and, like every other man, faced death fearing there may not be a God or life after death.
When this blatant heresy first surfaced, I thought it to be a shocking, but small, digression among conservative churches of Christ. Frankly, I thought the reaction to a doctrine so blatantly heretical would be so immediate and overwhelmingly unfavorable that, once it was openly exposed, these false teachers would either be forced to repent or suffer the consequences of being marked as false teachers. Unfortunately, in many cases, the non-existent or, when it did come, slow, seemingly reluctant reaction of many to this false teaching has, in my opinion, emboldened these heretics to obscure their error by exploiting the false idea that the whole controversy over the deity of Jesus is nothing but a “preacher squabble,” which has, in turn, been aggravated by the esoteric character of semantics and the alleged mean, nasty, and cantankerous nature of certain personalities.
These unsubstantiated charges are, of course, an obvious smoke screen, and the Bible teaches us to expect nothing less (cf. Colossians 2:8; I Timothy 6:20; Ephesians 4:14; II Corinthians 2:11; II Timothy 3:1-9, II Peter 2:1-22, etc.). The heresy these false teachers preach and teach was accurately identified from the very beginning of this controversy. These teachers have not been misrepresented or misquoted. Their words have not been taken out of context, as their defenders allege. In fact, it is the very context of their writing and preaching that has been used to expose them. The evidence has been presented, and it is plain, clear, and incontrovertible. Nevertheless, wrongly influenced by the bombast, ridicule, and ad hominem diatribes of the false teachers, the jury, in some places, has been slow in returning its verdict.
In the meantime, the doctrine of these heretics continues to be defended by so-called “faithful” brethren. Others, who would not themselves take this heretical position, continue to malign and wag their tongues at those who have exposed this damnable doctrine. Others, still, seem to be sitting on the sidelines, hoping the whole thing will blow over without anybody ever really noticing. These are heard to say, “The last thing we need is another controversy,” or “If we can't invoke Romans 14 in our differences, then we [we, means conservative churches of Christ—at] are going to divide and splinter into a thousand different groups.”
These last two groups, at least in part, are made up of those who worship at the totem of Self. These accentuate the positive and have learned to avoid the negative at all cost, and they have no love for “Mister In-between.” Instead of contending “earnestly for the faith which was once and for all delievered to the saints” (Jude 3), which takes guts, these are much more comfortable with a “feel good about yourself” gospel of Self-Love, which, not just incidentally, is a gospel that excites the minds and tickles the ears of a lost and dying world. Do not misunderstand what I am saying. These folks still continue to utter the shibboleths of a bygone era, but, in truth, they no longer have the stomachs for fighting the good fight of faith. A prime example of this attitude, whether consciously or unconsciously, is to be found in expressions like the following, which was taken from a “Why We Aren't Growing” article in a church bulletin: Desire For a Fight. One of the main reasons we have seen a decline in conversions is that we are constantly looking for fights among ourselves. No sooner has one “issue” been defeated (with no small losses) than we are busy looking around for the next big “issue.” From institutionalism to Grace-Fellowship—Calvinism to Deity-Humanity of Christ we eagerly wade into our necks in the blood of sometimes innocent Christians (i.e. babes in Christ). This is not to say that the truth should not be defended, but I think a party spirit prevails among God's people at this time.
Notice the shibboleth: “This is not to say that the truth should not be defended.” But, on the other hand, if one decides to defend the truth on any of the issues this brother mentions, he is already branded a spiritual gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.
Brethren, we are drifting and do not even seem to be aware of just how far we are from shore. In order to defend the truth, one must be willing to stand against falsehood. We must not give lip-service to defending the truth and then cowardly shoot in the back those who believe and act upon what we say—this would be unconscionable!