In writing on the wisdom of God in salvation, the most brilliant theologian America has ever produced, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), posed this question: “What object can be more worthy…than the glories of the Divine Being?” Last week we examined one of the Divine Being’s glories, immutability. God’s unchanging nature is part of why He is consistent and therefore trustworthy. Absolute consistency and trustworthiness are some of the bedrock glories of God. This week, we’ll direct our attention to another one of the glories of the Divine Being, independence.
Former Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court of the United States (1936–2016) was a well-known “originalist” that often sharply criticized what he saw as “revisions” to the Constitution by his fellow Justices. In addition, Justice Scalia, for good or bad, became infamous for his written dissents. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Scalia wrote:
This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.
Outside of the legal and political implications of the statement by Justice Scalia, I want you to see the heightened value we place upon liberty. Whether you agree with Justice Scalia here or not, we can all assert that “freedom to govern” ourselves is a natural inclination. Do you know why we are bent this way? The answer lies in the “glories of the Divine Being.”
It can be tricky when we attempt to think about the nature and being of God. Have you ever thought about what it means to be truly independent? Americans have long attempted (thankfully) to grab hold of independence, to shape its contours, impose its influence upon the world, and model its benefits to other nations. But in reality, what we have trouble admitting at times is that we are not really independent, strictly speaking. The claim of real independence rests in God alone. He is the very definition of independence and the reason that we as humans have a framework to think about and understand liberty. There has to be a “first source” in order to define things, right? Before something can be imprinted upon the creature, there has to be a Creator that defines it, exemplifies it, and decides to communicate it.
As such, let’s look at three aspects of the doctrine: (1) what is God’s independence? (2) how should we understand it? and (3) why does it matter for us right now?
What is God’s Independence?
At the most fundamental level God’s independence means that He does not exist from any other and He is the absolute first being. In other words, God was when there was not. He created all things, and He owns all things—with no strings attached. This type of independence is not reflected in anything else but God. Humans do not enjoy this independence in its fullest sense.
Understanding God’s Independence
Exodus 3 is a clear picture of God’s independence. This chapter details the infamous burning bush episode with Moses. In short, God has mercy on the people of Egypt for their affliction and suffering (Ex 3:7-9) by commanding Moses to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt (Ex 3:10-12). Of course, Moses is hesitant about the command and basically poses the question to God: “If I go do this, these people are going to ask me who sent me and what am I supposed to tell them?” This is where God’s independence is asserted in full measure. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM…say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:14).
There is a lot going on in these verses (and its highly debated in scholarship) but for our purposes right now notice that God asserts: (1) His identity, and (2) His separateness in this statement to Moses. He could have said “Hey Moses, go reason with these people and tell them you’re my guy.” However, that is not the case as God first asserts His inexhaustive independence by way of His name and being. There is a promise coming in a latter chapter of Exodus (Ex 19-34), but first God asserts His independence and then he brings Himself under obligation to mankind by way of a covenant/promise. Sequence always matters! In other words, God is fully independent and owes nothing to creation, even though He voluntarily makes promises to us. His name alone asserts full independence because He does not exist from any other. Complete independence = full authority.
Why Does it Matter?
What does all this stuff have to do with coronavirus and why does it matter?
First, this virus, and the impending global economic ripple effect, only serves to remind us just how much independence we lack. I’m bought and sold on liberty/independence and their unmatched ability to create human flourishing. Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013) once noted, “there is no alternative to capitalism because it is the only system that ensures the most prosperity for the most people.” I agree with her sentiments. Thatcher was a remarkable lady that understood the benefits of independence, along with the long-line of costs associated with obtaining it. But we must keep things in perspective. To be clear, liberty and independence are imprinted by God upon mankind (Image of God) so they’re at times faint and limited. Only God is fully independent. God’s independence means that He is free from hindrance. God does not experience difficulty, limitation, prevention, or deterrence. This should be a comfort to you in uncertainty. If we dealt with a God that was not fully and inexhaustibly independent, things would be a wreck for the Christian. How can your soul ever be anchored (remember, the doctrines of God anchor the soul in uncertainty) if it is dependent upon someone or something that isn’t fully independent? You should feel this reality more than ever right now. It’s why we need the doctrines of God. Its why we need to know God and understand His nature. This is why we must look to God’s independence.
Second, like Exodus highlights, God makes promises and obligates Himself to mankind, subsequent to His independence. There are self-imposed obligations (promises) that an independent God makes to mankind. He’s able to do this because He is independent. This is an incredible truth that you should reflect upon this week. Furthermore, there is one obligation that He makes that should resonate deeply with you right now. God Almighty, in His mercy and kindness, has asserted, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:7). Do you know why God can make this statement? Because He’s the great I AM. He existed before there was, He created when there was not, He redeemed when He could have not, and He’s imparted grace where it previously did not exist. His independence allows him to “take” you as His people and hold you in the palm of His hand. This is a comfort and it is encouragement. And right now, we need both.
You see, I believe the country (and the Church) will overcome the current situation with resolve and dignity. I still believe in the people of God. I still believe in the spirit of the American fight, grounded in liberty and independence. I’m resolute in my belief in a God that has unleashed His common grace upon all of creation and called forth a response. But I believe in these things because I’m “taken” by the “glories of the Divine Being.”
Stand firm my friends and be the people of God.
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Sereno Edwards Dwight and Edward Hickman (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 2:145.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2627 (2015).