Enjoying Divine Blessedness
When Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us,” he uses the same word twice: blessed (Ephesians 1:3). A moment’s thought, however, shows that God blesses us altogether differently than how we bless God.
When God blesses us, he takes the initiative, doing the kind of mighty acts that Paul recites in the next dozen verses: electing, redeeming, forgiving, adopting, sealing, and lavishing grace on us. When we bless God, we praise him in response. It’s a beautifully appropriate response, but just because it’s the same verb doesn’t make it the same act. The deep reason that we can never bless God the way he blesses us is that God is already blessed. God is blessed with perfect, plenary, personal blessedness.
The blessedness of God is a classic Christian doctrine, and one that we could stand to hear more about in our time. It gives us big thoughts to think about God in three domains: God’s relation to the world, God’s essential perfections, and God’s experience of his own life. Consider these three domains as concentric circles. We can think our way in toward the inner circle from a starting point in the outer circle, at the outskirts of God’s ways.
To recognize that God is already blessed before we bless him is to realize something utterly fundamental about God’s relation to the entire world of creatures: God is self-sufficient. If God had never created anything whatsoever, he would still be fully himself, with no unmet needs waiting to be fulfilled by anything outside of his own divine life.
When God freely and graciously created, he did not change from being unsatisfied and unglorified to suddenly being fulfilled and having a purpose. The benefit that accrues from creation, the blessing it brings, is entirely a blessing toward creatures. Furthermore, God continues to be self-sufficient and fully realized within his own life even once creation has come into being. Since God minus the world would still be God, then God plus the world is also still God.
Seventeenth-century lay theologian Edward Leigh (1602–1671) said it well: “God is blessed essentially, primarily, originally, of himself such, and not by the help of any other thing” (Body of Divinity, 200). The word blessedness opens up a vision of God as infinitely transcending all incompleteness. The word alone marks a vast doctrine.
Our point of departure in this essay was the way Ephesians 1:3 runs in two directions with the word blessed, but the Greek word used there is eulogetos, whose roots mean “speaking well of.” The actual key vocabulary word for blessedness in the ancient world and in the Greek New Testament is makarios: it is the same word Jesus uses about people in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), but Paul applies it directly to God in 1 Timothy 1:11 and 6:15. Praising God (eulogetos) lifts up our minds to recognize his own state of blessedness (makarios).
God is so perfectly complete and fulfilled that he is exalted above all neediness and greediness. He works toward us in grace and love because, in the ultimate sense, there is nothing in it for him. He does not need to make use of us to increase or improve his blessedness, since it is already fully actual within the divine life, without reference to us. God alone has unborrowed blessedness. Creatures borrow blessedness and live off the largesse of God.
You may notice a tension in this doctrine, as it seems to start out by sternly warning us about God’s absolute self-sufficiency, as if carefully distancing God from entanglements. But as the doctrine unfolds in our understanding, it shows itself to be the source of God’s deepest involvement with creatures. We hear whispers of this beautiful doctrine of the blessed God in old hymns: “God from whom all blessings flow,” “fount of every blessing,” and so on. The theological tension is fruitful; unless God is blessed without us, we could never be blessed in him. What may seem like an imposing doctrine of an austere and faraway God is in fact the foundation of “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11).
In addition to helping us think rightly about God’s relation to the world, divine blessedness helps us rightly estimate all those perfections of God that we call divine attributes. Blessedness is a divine perfection, but it has a special status among the perfections. At least one theologian (A.H. Strong) reckoned it to be not so much a divine attribute itself as a description of what it means for God to have all of the divine attributes.
Whatever we decide about how to categorize divine blessedness, the point is that it is a doctrine that sums up all the other divine attributes. If you take all that it means to be God, his goodness and mercy and truth and faithfulness and beauty and steadfastness and patience and wisdom, and consider them simultaneously as God’s own inmost possession, you get the doctrine of divine blessedness.
Of course, it’s not as if we assemble God by adding together perfections, but our thoughts do need to run through the course of his perfections and accumulate them mentally before our mind’s eye in their primal unity. When we do that (no small task!), we can consider them as they shine outwardly and as they resonate inwardly. When we consider them as shining forth from God, we call it glory: another very special divine perfection. But when we consider them as being perfectly enjoyed by God in absolute divine self-possession, we call it blessedness.
To put it briefly, we can think of the word blessed as the answer to the question, “What is it like to be God?” To the extent that creatures can give any meaningful answer to that question, even on the basis of God’s self-revelation, we can answer that to be God is to be happy. Here, certainly in English but probably in all creaturely language, we crash into the problem of a word like happy not carrying the weight we need it to. God possesses whatever we should call the absolutely solid and real thing that happiness and joy are just a shadow of.
It is good news that God has blessedness, and that God is blessed. He is sufficient, self-sufficient, all-sufficient; never waiting on something outside of the divine life to make the divine life complete; always enjoying all the perfections of being himself, and knowing he has them, and loving to have them: God is blessed.
With this insight, we come to the inmost circle of the three domains of blessedness. The perfect God who creates without need or greed, the one God in the plenitude of his attributes, is the triune God whose eternal life is characterized by ineffable joy and mutual glorification among three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Divine blessedness and triunity have a special relation to each other. In previous generations, theologians who took the time to write very large treatments of Christian doctrine would usually say everything they could about God’s nature first, and then turn to the doctrine of the Trinity to consider each of the three persons who possess this one divine nature they had just discussed. Often, they would reserve the doctrine of blessedness to be the very last thing they said about the one God, before turning on the very next page to the Trinity. We see this strikingly in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and great Protestant theologians like Amandus Polanus and Petrus van Mastricht do the same in their systems. Something deeper is at stake here than just how to organize the table of contents in a big theology book!
Why does the doctrine of blessedness gravitate toward the doctrine of the Trinity like this? Partly because of the summative character of blessedness, the way it bundles all the divine attributes and considers them with reference to God having them. But partly because, once we cross the line into trying to speak about the fullness and perfection of God’s joy, we find ourselves reverently following the lines of revelation into the innermost chamber of God’s identity. That identity is the eternal reality of the living God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One possible reason we don’t often hear about divine blessedness these days may be that it is such a vast and comprehensive doctrine that it is hard to talk about. God’s blessedness has one foot in the highly exalted “big God” theology that some people have recently been calling classical theism. The doctrine keeps company with great themes like aseity, simplicity, and the attributes that start with the prefix omni-. It is a high and exalted doctrine.
But the doctrine’s other foot is very near to us, and makes close contact with human happiness. We must maintain constant awareness that we are speaking analogically about the ineffable, and we always need to remain reverent in what we say. But the fact is that God is happy, and the sovereign joy of the indestructibly blessed God is good news.