Aseity and Adoration

by Andrew Stobart.

Disciples of the Kingdom, says Jesus, are like wise stewards who bring out from their storehouses what is old and what is new.[1] This is a good metaphor for the task of theology: wise stewards of the faith will curate their language carefully, forging new dynamic equivalences on the one hand and rehabilitating old terms on the other.

One such old term worthy of rehabilitation is God’s ‘aseity’, a word which comes from the Latin a (‘from’) and se (‘self’), and which here refers to God’s life in and of himself; the fact that God’s being is underived; that there is no cause or condition that produces God; that God does not depend on anything other than God’s own triune life for existence.

Contemporary theology is nervous about talk of God a se, preferring instead to focus on God pro nobis (Latin, ‘for us’). The intention behind this theological timidity about aseity is commendable, wishing as it does to keep the incarnation central, and to assert the proper contingency of God’s life – God really did become enfleshed in our human tent and expose himself to the risk of love and death. Given what we know of Jesus, it is a bedrock of Christian theology that God is always and ever ‘for us’, pro nobis.

But – and this takes us into the mystery of divinity – God is also utterly always God a se, God from and for himself. Let me venture a couple of observations about what might be jettisoned if we fail to rehabilitate our understanding of God’s aseity:

First, divine self-sufficiency. Aseity asserts that God would have been utterly and eternally God, if we had not existed. This is an astounding thought: while we depend completely on God for our existence, the relationship is not mutual. God is the fount of his own being. The eternal triune relationships – the Father begetting the Son; the Son obeying the Father; the Father and the Son spirating the Spirit; the Spirit showing the Father and approving the Son; these are all the relationships that our triune God needs in order to be God, in order for his life to be full and complete. As Psalm 90 puts it: ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.[2]

Secondly, without aseity we lose the graciousness of God’s grace. Understanding that God is completely self-sufficient enables us to appreciate the awesome and quite frankly startling assertion of Christian Scripture that God is ‘mindful’ of us.[3] God’s love overflows from his triune life, creating life, allowing freedom, and then shamelessly seeking out the wayward objects of his love, not because God must do these things, but because he does in fact do them. This was one of Barth’s logical motifs: actuality creates possibility. Because God in actual fact loves us, it is now clear to us that God could have chosen a different way to express his life. That God has not done so means that the character of God is always grace. Grace, in other words, is grace because it might not have been. God chooses not to be God without us so that, paradoxically, we experience his self-sufficiency (his ability to exist without us) even as we experience his loving commitment to be God for us and with us! Surely this is a mystery: experiencing God pro nobis pushes us back into the wonder of God a se, who we will never know as such, because God has committed always to be pro nobis. Getting our heads and hearts around this is part of the task of theology.

Finally, without aseity, adoration is weakened. Adoration is an expression of wonderment that erupts from our souls when we realise that for all we have been created like God, God is not like us. Our life is from him; God’s life is from himself. The classic outburst of adoration is surely the words of Isaiah’s vision, repeated in Revelation: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of your glory.’[4] Adoration begins not with us but with God. It is an abrasive reminder that we are not the centre of the universe, but God is The universe hangs for its next moment of existence on the very Word and Breath of this eternal Father.

God’s aseity is a worthy object of our reflection in Advent as we approach the season of celebrating God’s gracious contingency, as God becomes ‘incomprehensibly made man’[5] – not because he had to, but simply because he willingly did. We will only truly understand this grace when we understand that it arises from God’s utter plenitude – God a se which grounds God pro nobis. As John puts it: ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’[6]

 

[1] Matthew 13:52

[2] Psalm 90:2

[3] Psalm 8:4

[4] Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8

[5] Charles Wesley, ‘Let earth and heaven combine’.

[6] John 1:16

 

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4 thoughts on “Aseity and Adoration”

  1. This really is a good one – one to really ponder, perhaps in a contemplative group, we need to approach it in awe and wonder. However, it should be preached for itdoes need exposition, as I suspect most people in our generation pretty much take it for granted, unlike their forefathers, say of the time of the Reformation.

    In its own way, it is a powerful rebuttal of the sort of vague Godlike spirit described in things like “Sea of Faith” – this is a God who is active, in perpetual dynamic relationship, whether or not creation exists. We can perhaps question whether God, with such an abundance of love looking for expression, could possibly not have produced a creation, but we are still driven to awestruck adoration that God produced this creation, and gave us life.

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  2. Thank you Andrew. As I ponder Carol Services and Midnight Communion this has really given me food for thought. We often rush to celebrate the God-made-flesh, without always considering the nature of God separate from us. As you say, this deepens our understanding of grace and enriches our worship.

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  3. I understood &agreed with your thoughts, but I hope you do not preach with similar wording. The most common complaint that I hear from congregations is that preachers have been taking over their heads. Theological wording may be fine in a thesis, but not from the pulpit.

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