In recent decades, the doctrine of God and his attributes has become a special focus of theological writing. The battle lines are drawn between revisionary and classical accounts, as well as those who eschew such umbrella terms. The discussion often underplays the impact of these doctrines on Christian practice and action, and an assumption in the literature is that the revisionary accounts have greater potency and relevance. Simon Cuff’s Only God Will Save Us: The Nature of God and the Christian Life works to fill the gap and combat this assumption. Cuff argues and defends the classical doctrine of God and his attributes by showing its applicability to the Christian life. In so doing, he responds to the supposed strength of revisionary accounts and the presumed weakness of classical theism. He has two further important goals: to bridge the gap between theology and praxis; and to connect academic discussion with pastoral and lay applications.
The introduction outlines the order of operations. If God is at the center of Christian doctrine and life, then the Christian life is one that is ordered properly to God (4). The divine being is the source of divine action, and so the task is to order our actions to God, rather than to work backwards from our ideas and desires, measuring God against us. As Cuff writes in the conclusion, “To be aware of the God of classical theism is to relinquish the notion that our ways of existing are the summit of what it means to be” (132). Human life is reframed under the rubric of God’s uncreated life made manifest in Christ. Only from this source can Christian action have any foundation or power (9-14).
Each chapter of the book analyzes a divine attribute followed by an examination of its consequences for Christian living. While Cuff does not defend the classical account at every turn (he assumes it for the most part), it emerges at key points, illuminating the topic under scrutiny or counteracting a popular but flawed interpretation of the attribute in question. The substantive chapters cover divine simplicity, impassibility, love, wrath, mercy, and jealousy, with concluding reflections on prayer. A few points are worth highlighting.
Cuff helpfully describes simplicity as “God being God”; in other words, God’s being is his attributes. God is not a creature made up of parts, nor does God “possess” attributes. Simplicity is about God’s unity and the absolute distinction between creator and creation (19-22). It is not a philosophical concept projected onto God but it is instead derived from Scripture by the earliest Christian theologians. Simplicity balances seemingly contrasting attributes (33-35). This re-centers belief and practice on God, who is “not another” (as Cuff, borrowing from Nicholas of Cusa, puts it). God is not a species in the genus of created beings; God is sui generis (unique). As Cuff points out throughout, this means that all of God’s works, from creation to redemption, are radically gratuitous.
The chapters on impassibility and love, two of the most disputed ideas between revisionary and classical accounts, are well done. The doctrinal issues with the claim that God suffers out of love, as Jürgen Moltmann (among others) argues, are raised with respect to the unity of the Trinity and creator-creature distinction. A concept of love must be rooted in God’s concrete and self-giving actions in the earthly career of the Son. Cuff persuasively argues that a suffering God is not able to overcome and redeem suffering. The classical doctrine also provides a truer model of Christian love.
There are other insights of note. Highlights include the chapters on divine attributes, such as wrath and jealousy, that are often overlooked in the wider literature. There is technical treatment of divine wrath, conceived of as the burning of God against evil and sin, which enables human anger toward evil to be converted into action against it. This reframes human wrath: it is not inappropriate per se, but it needs a proper object and purpose. The closing substantive chapter on prayer is a fitting conclusion to the project. It suggests that prayer should be understood less as a petition and more as a dialogue that grows one’s relationship with God.
Some elements of the book may be questioned. Cuff tends to contrast classical theism with more extreme forms of revision; however, other options exist apart from these extremes and some options call the categorization of “classical” and “revisionist” into question. Less extreme accounts might be more difficult to dismiss. For example, in the section on the problem of Trinity for simplicity (28-30), Cuff fails to address the criticism that a stringent conception of simplicity makes much trinitarian speech on personal differentiation difficult to understand, in both theory and practice. While Cuff’s insights on jealousy are sound, the conclusion of the chapter requires greater exegetical support to match the rigor of the preceding sections.
Nevertheless, this text exudes wide learning and insight, discussing a healthy range of past and present thinkers. Cuff is judicious in his analyses and moderates what might in others lead to overcorrection; this can be seen in his rejection of universalism while retaining of the hope for universalism in the context of divine mercy and justice (97-105). He deploys an approachable, conversational style that is possessed of precision and substance, appropriate given his intended audience. Cuff accomplishes his task, offering a deep vision of the Christian life.
One hopes that this is not the last that Cuff will write on the attributes of God and their application. This text will be useful to ministers, the laity, and even undergraduate or seminary students, and this reviewer looks forward to future publications that bridge content and audiences with the same success as this book.
Rev. Mark P. Hertenstein is a PhD student in the School of Divinity, St. Mary’s College, the University of St. Andrews.
Mark P. Hertenstein
Date Of Review:
February 3, 2023
Fr Simon Cuff is a Tutor and Lecturer in Theology at St Mellitus College, and Coordinating Fellow of the Centre for Theology and Community.
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