A Humble God? Wilcoxen’s Bold Proposal

Divine Humility: God’s Morally Perfect Being, by Matthew A. Wilcoxen (Baylor University Press, 2019)

This review originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Ad Fontes magazine.

Theology proper has experienced something of a renaissance over the last decade or so. Partially fueled by the broader turn to theological retrieval of the classical tradition, many have recognized both that theology’s proper subject is God and that to say “Trinity” alone cannot exhaust our confession of His works and being. Thankfully we have had an increasing number of careful, full-scale studies developing God’s classical attributes or perfections such as simplicity, immutability, wrath, and love. 

Amidst these proposals, Matthew Wilcoxen’s Divine Humility: God’s Morally Perfect Being stands out. Unlike modern revisionist accounts, he is explicitly not trying to “say something new” about God, but neither is he merely defending or repristinating a classical mainstay of the doctrine of God. Instead, he is drawing out and expanding upon a neglected dimension within the tradition.

Wilcoxen’s thesis is that the largely overlooked attribute of divine humility is, first of all, truly a divine attribute, and second, crucial for articulating a theology of God’s “morally perfect being” which overcomes the modern tendency to bifurcate concepts of being from moral concepts or subordinate the one to the other; divine humility’s contribution to understandings of God’s morally perfect being is also key for understanding the turn from God’s being ad intra to his works ad extra, or his internal subjectivity and objectivity for us.

Methodologically, Wilcoxen proceeds mostly by way of  strategic, deep engagements with key conversation partners. His initial methodological ground-clearing is a defense of the possibility and necessity of some substance-metaphysics. He engages with Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology as the culmination of the Enlightenment philosophy, as well as Jean-Luc Marion’s attempt to do theology without it, and he draws on Kevin Hector’s rehabilitation of conceptual language for God derived from  the ecclesial community’s experience of God to overcome the charge of projectionism (42). 

His essential second chapter tackles the initial definitional problem, analytically and historically laying out several possible conceptions of “humility” that we might try to apply to God. Ruling out any deflated notions of slavish, or servile humility (contra Humean and Nietzschian complaint), Wilcoxen shows that, in the classical Christian tradition (Athanasius, Basil, Augustine), humility was originally an expansion of an Aristotelian conception of magnanimity, a self-giving flowing from benevolent condescension (76).

In the next three chapters he explores the concept as it is deployed theologically by three master theological practitioners, examining why and how it ought to be brought into the doctrine of God. 

First, Wilcoxen engages the suggestive tensions within Augustine’s exegesis, whereby he deals with God in se (in Himself) and God pro nobis (for us). Expounding Exodus 3, we are given the tension between God’s “Name of being,” indicating attributes whereby he is in himself, and his “Name of mercy,” indicating attributes of his gracious turning to us. John 5:19-30 furnishes us with trinitarian rules of reading whereby we learn to distinguish eternal trinitarian processions and inseparable operations of the economy, without subordinating Son to Father per divine simplicity. Philippians 2:6-7 furnishes us with the necessary distinction between reading any text according to the forma dei (according to his divine nature) and forma servi (according to his human, “servant” nature). For Wilcoxen, all these reading strategies are necessary, helpful, and allow Augustine to affirm a “highly suggestive” doctrine of divine humility, but they also leave a set of recurring tensions that fails to clarify its exact status (107). 

Turning to Karl Barth, Wilcoxen finds a “full-throated” statement of divine humility, indeed, humility as obedience within the divine nature, that nevertheless possesses its own ambiguities (109). This chapter is a sophisticated exposition of the transformation and tensions within Barth’s trinitarian theology under the pressure of his actualistic ontology of persons and natures; his doctrine of election; and his assertion of obedience and command, priority, and posterity within the being of God in the relation between Father and Son. Contrasting Barth’s account with the Chalcedonian consensus, embodied especially by Maximus Confessor, Wilcoxen shows that Barth, against his own explicit statements, ends up with an account requiring multiple subjectivities in the Godhead and implicitly giving a monothelite account of Christ’s two natures (137, 140). What’s more, by identifying humility uniquely with the Son, we end up with a servile account of humility as subordination that is just the sort of “deflated” notion of humility Wilcoxen has already averred we must avoid. 

For his final interlocutor, Wilcoxen turns to Katherine Sonderegger, whom he takes to have articulated a full-orbed concept of divine humility in volume one of her Systematic Theology. That he is the first to engage her work at this depth makes this possibly the most unique contribution of the book. Sonderegger articulates a doctrine of divine omnipotence as holy humility, but she does so within a sophisticated theological framework that does not map easily onto the tradition, either classical or modern. Beginning with God’s unicity, Sonderegger posits a relationship between God and the world she dubs “theological compatibilism,” whereby God simply is His own relation to the world. God can be present to the world as Himself, while allowing the world to be itself, simply because He made it for Himself. Her reconceptualization of divine power is essential, construing it not so much as cause or will, but energy—a simple, personal, moral energy. She sees this as avoiding either making creation necessary (cause), or arbitrary (will). Instead, this personal, moral energy is the humble mode by which God brings into being and communicates Himself to creation, radiating life and being towards another (168, 176). This move also sets up her later treatment of the counterfactual question of whether God could have done other than create and redeem the world. The answer is that God is humble—He is internally disposed to share life (175). In this way, Wilcoxen sees Sonderegger bringing to resolution the tensions found in Augustine’s account without falling into the errors of Barth’s. He then concludes with a brief summary, constructively tying various threads together in his commendation of divine humility as an essential attribute for understanding the glorious condescension and magnanimity of God’s morally perfect being. 

Before concluding, I’d like to turn to a couple of quibbles, or suggestions for further exploration. First, while Sonderegger’s concept of divine energy does seem fruitful for thinking through the divine being, it is still not clear that it is an unmitigated improvement on the notions of cause or will for thinking through the divine relation to creation. Insofar as Wilcoxen is prepared to purify  her concept for use in this fashion, it seems just as plausible to accept a similar purification of the other two. 

Relatedly, it is not clear whether this humility whereby God is disposed to communicate Himself needs to be seen as part of a broader concept or derivative of another more exemplary attribute of God’s “morally perfect being,” such as the divine goodness or holiness. Tyler Wittman has recently given attention to the way that, for Thomas, goodness has both metaphysical and moral dimensions, as well as the resources to give us a God both perfectly replete in himself and disposed to communicate that goodness to others. Meanwhile, John Webster’s account of Holiness articulates it as another attribute with both metaphysical and moral dimensions, transcending communicable and incommunicable, or absolute and relative categories, which nonetheless captures God’s objectivity, His perfection in se, as well as his gracious turning towards creatures. Whether divine humility should be seen as a part of goodness or holiness This question seems worth pursuing especially as both plausibly have wider attestation in the Scriptural witness as well. 

Quibbles aside, Wilcoxen has given us a significant study worthy of careful consideration. His exposition is elegant, his judgments mature, and his analysis is penetrating. In this, he has given us a model of theological retrieval that is both faithful and contemporary, rooted in the tradition, without fear of developing it where necessary. In my judgment, he has made the case that the development is necessary if we are to properly confess our great and humble God.


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