Who Is God?

Remi Brague’s little book, On the God of the Christians, offers a startling and fresh presentation on the identity, being, and actions of God.

Remi Brague begins his lovely little book by stating: “What is truly interesting is that the images and concepts that have been made of God (which concepts are themselves, at bottom, but images) differ among men and among the associations that bring men together, whether it be philosophical schools or religions.” The garden variety religious pluralist does not take the differences of these images and concepts of God seriously as expressions of differing judgments about the divine. As a result, clarity about the differing judgments about the divine and the distinctiveness of the religious ways of life following upon them elude us.

Into the breach steps Brague, who wields his pen like a scalpel in service of clarity in understanding the difference our ideas about God make for the ways we live our lives. Because Brague is so good at making distinctions, he is able to show marvelously well the coherence of Christianity while at the same time engaging some of the thorniest and most persistent modern objections against it. He does so explicitly, as when he directly counters Nietzsche’s complaint against a God who bargains with man by offering love in return for faith, and also implicitly, for example, in his running dialectic with modernity on the true character of human freedom.

The book begins with a kind of religious disambiguation as Brague dialectically treats the understanding of God posed by the main world religions that affirm the unity of God: those religions that are called monotheistic or “peoples of the Book.” Jews, Christians, and Muslims bear at least a surface similarity, but Brague expertly demonstrates the vast differences those terms cloak. As he notes with characteristic and elegant economy of expression, the relationship each group bears to its book is quite distinct: “The religion of Israel is a history that led to a book; Christianity is a history recounted in a book; Islam is a book that led to a history” (18). Although—at least, from the Christian point of view—the question whether God is One is not in dispute, the question as to how God is One very much is. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, far from being an extra additive on top of the prior affirmation of God’s oneness is the very way in which Christians affirm that God is One: three persons united in charity.

The rest of the book is Brague’s unfolding of the implications of the Trinity. For Brague, the basic teaching of Christianity might be called personalism, if understood in light of the loving relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Again, rather than extra added onto the really important teaching of monotheism, Christian Trinitarianism ramifies throughout the entire Christian way of life and thinking. If Brague has a single critique of the way the Church practices theology, it is that the Church’s practical teachings—for instance, her social doctrine—is left largely unconnected to the highest peaks of Trinitarian theology. The more mundane aspects of the Christian life, in other words, need to be more directly connected to the revelation of God’s inner life.

Brague therefore approaches a whole range of Christian teaching—from God’s fatherhood and the creation of the world, to revelation and the knowledge of God, to the Incarnation and faith, to grace, sin, and redemption—in the light of Trinitarian personalism. For example, Brague follows the tradition in asserting that God is superpersonal but not impersonal. That means that each of the persons of the Trinity is superpersonal: both alike and unlike human persons.

Brague focuses on the Father to make clear how God the Father is both like and unlike human fathers. He does this by making a very useful distinction between paternity and virility: virility is the ability of a male to impregnate a female and therefore implies an incompleteness on the part of the male, whose initiative in impregnating requires a female partner. God’s fatherhood, however, is perfect and requires no assisting partner. His fatherhood, therefore, cannot be called virile; yet, because God the Father does initiate the generation of life, the Son, the imperfect action of human fathers finds its preeminent exemplar in the generation of the Son from the Father.

God’s perfect paternity also grounds the divine act of creation from nothing. Yet, while the similarity between divine and human fatherhood is very useful in thinking about God, the dissimilarity between divine and human fatherhood makes any facile moral or political adaptation illegitimate, for “since it is severed from virility, the paternity of God cannot serve as a ground for any privilege for the masculine sex” (77). Similarly, as the Arian crisis served to make manifest, the inner-trinitarian relations cannot serve as a useful political model.

The perfection of divine initiative further serves to ground the character of God’s actions in the economy of salvation. Brague identifies as the touchstone for determining the difference between the true God and false gods whether the god in question asks or demands anything of the creature. If a god demands or asks something from the creature, it proves itself false, for it proves itself a rival for goods that men also pursue. But a rival to man cannot be a god to man. The true God only gives; the true God needs nothing from men. Faith, on the other hand, is the appropriate access to God because it acknowledges human neediness while engaging man at his highest point: his freedom to accept or reject what is offered.

Brague constantly returns to the theme of freedom since it is connected to the very core of what it means to be a person. He says, “God gives to each creation everything it needs to attain its proper good, but he allows it to choose for itself the ways and means that will allow it to attain its good” (115). By virtue of man’s reason and the gift of the Law through Moses, man has all he needs in order to choose rightly. Yet, because of sin, he cannot. In a lovely part of the book, Brague neatly engages the alleged opposition between law and Gospel. The Law has been given; conscience is functioning in man. What Christ comes to give is not a morality or a politics, but rather the remission of sin and grace. In other words, Christ comes not to establish some sort of new code of conduct, but rather to give to man what is necessary to do what he already knows he ought to do but cannot because of sin and frailty.

Sin itself, inasmuch as it can, comes to light for Brague as whatever is anti-personal or depersonalized. That is why sin is healed only through confession: that is, the person must take hold of sin, appropriating it personally through acknowledgement of responsibility. The sinner thereby brings the anti-personal into the realm of the personal, which is the realm of relationship with God.

On the God of the Christians is, at first glance, a rather ordinary book: a simple explication of Christian doctrine about God, performed in light of a contrast with other understandings of God from other religions, and the ways in which the various aspects of Christianity flow from this underlying understanding of God. The genius of Brague, however, is to make what has unjustifiably become familiar or commonplace startling and fresh. This book can be read profitably by everyone from the educated neophyte to the professor of theology.

On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others)
by Remi Brague (translated by Paul Seaton)
St. Augustine’s Press, 2013
176 pages; hardcover.

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About Thomas P. Harmon 19 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. He lives in Sugar Land with his wife and five children.