Giving Glory to God

Can we say whatever we want about God, as long as it’s positive?


Justice Virtue

“The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive!” So read an outsize banner hanging in the gymnasium at an Institution of Higher Earnings. Once upon a time I taught there. From the start, the banner’s placement gave me pause. Is the idea that the fitter the student the greater is God’s glory?

Said banner duly cited St. Irenaeus, an early Father of the Church and martyr (c.125-202). But context counts. Irenaeus had written, more fully, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God” (Adversus Haereses, IV, 20, 7).

Right. It’s fine to be fit, and one might get fit at the gym. But Irenaeus had something very different in mind. It is in knowing God, and being known by God, that we are fully alive, and our being fully alive shows God’s glory. That glory is eternal. Indeed, God’s glory is perfect independently of the Creation which shows that love is diffusive of itself.

At that same Institution of Higher Earnings, one came across, though less often with passing years, the proud motto “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.” Even that motto was a bit less than the original: Ad majorem Dei Gloriam Inque Hominem Salutem. Translation: To the greater glory of God and the Salvation of Man. Still, short form or not, isn’t the point that we are to act to increase God’s glory?

No, not if that means that God can become more glorious. God cannot become more glorious, or more worthy of glory, any more than He can become more loving. What we can do is to make God’s glory more widely known. In doing so, we can ourselves come to share more fully in God’s life and glory. Thereby His glory reaches to embrace our salvation. In this light, Augustine’s definition of glory as clara notitia cum laude, “brilliant celebrity with praise,” suggests that we give glory to God by praising the brilliance that is already fully His.

There’s a lesson in these reflections. We should always exercise care in how we speak of God. For example, surely God’s glory is radically different than our prestige. Suppose Jones invented sliced bread. If no one realizes it, Jones doesn’t win any prestige, at least as an inventor. Imagine Gomez invents a better mouse trap. Again, if no one knows it, Gomez doesn’t become prestigious. By way of contrast, although a specific religion might have more prestige than another, God neither has nor lacks prestige.

So how about credit? Let’s say that Chang invents a heart-healthy cheeseburger. He deserves credit for doing so. And if that credit, at long last, is given him, it would more than make his day. It would make his career. OK. Now let’s say, that after decades of indifference, Jones and Gomez and Chang give God credit for keeping them in existence. We’d hardly say that their doing so “made God’s day,” much less the Divine Career.

Do such distinctions really matter, though? Can’t we say whatever we want about God, at least if it’s positive? No, not unless we speak coherently about the God of Revelation. We already know that our arms are too short to box with God! Neither can our speech change, for better of for worse, the one who tells us “I am who am.” It is not for us to take God’s name in vain.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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