Chapter 1 - God

09/11/2015 13:29

 

 

 

Why should I call Thee Lord, Who art my God?

                                         Why should I call Thee Friend, Who art my Love?

                                         Or King, Who art my very Spouse above?

Or call Thy Sceptre on my heart Thy rod?

                                         Lo, now Thy banner over me is love.

                                                                        — Christina Rosetti, After Communion

 

                                Who is He, this King of glory?

                                The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of glory.

                                                                        — Psalm 24:10

 

 

 

I came to the funeral home the evening before the next day’s service for a boy in our church who had committed suicide. His mother and family met a line of sympathizing friends that stretched through the room, out the door, and down the long corridor. As I stood waiting in line, slowly approaching the family, I heard the guttural groans welling up from the depths of this mother’s soul. As I reached her and embraced her, my mind raced through Christian words of comfort, but it wasn’t the time to tell her everything would be all right. It was no time to sit with her and explain that God had a plan, that God does all things right, that some purpose would be served for her or someone else from this tragedy. I just held her in my arms, and I told her I loved her. And she drank down those words as though parched in a desert.

But why didn’t I shout, “Give glory to God!”? Isn’t that why God made us—to give him glory? Doesn’t he want us in every situation, in every circumstance, to glorify his name? The answer to that is yes, he does want that. But in the midst of some circumstances in life, like that funereal scene, when overwhelmed by the tragedies of a sin-cursed world, when we aren’t calmly reflecting on his majesty and power, God’s every-moment demand for glory from us may seem from him a bit unsympathetic, self-centered, and egotistical. Of course, we don’t say those things out loud because, well, that would be wrong. We can’t fault God, we scold ourselves. He’s all-powerful. He’s our Creator. He can wipe out our puny lives with a flick of his finger. And so, instead of trying to understand God better, we presume that we can’t understand him better. He must have a reason, we tell ourselves “in faith,” but as to what it is … we just have to trust. The problem with thinking that way is that it doesn’t seem like trust. Hasn’t God told us how to love? Hasn’t he revealed in his Word what is good? Should we really throw up our hands and say God seems to act in opposition to everything he has told us about goodness, but we’ll just have to accept it? Maybe we do think that way. Maybe we stumble on simply and resignedly knowing that he’s more knowledgeable, that he’s more powerful, and that we owe our very existence to him, so, well, he can do as he pleases.

But what if it is not just our somewhat innate inability to understand God? What if we, perhaps and rather, simply understand him wrongly? What if it is that misunderstanding on our part that is the source of our confusion? Who is this God really? We know he has revealed himself to us in his Word—the Bible. Perhaps exploring him in it will bring some clarity to the seeming inconsistencies that we’ve come to unthinkingly accept. So, then, who is this God of ours?

On March 24, 1988, at the University of Mississippi, J.P. Moreland, prominent Christian professor, author, and apologist debated Kai Nielsen, then professor and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary, on the subject Does God Exist? Professor Nielsen’s argued position in the debate was that for someone “with a good philosophical and a good scientific education, who thinks carefully about the matter, that for such a person it is irrational to believe in God.”[1] Professor Nielsen developed his argument by saying that we have no idea who God is when we talk about him. He is not physical—someone you may ostensibly point to. In fact, even Christians argue that, although talked about in such fashion in the Bible, he is actually not anthropomorphic at all. Without the ability to detect him with any of our senses, we are left not knowing who it is we are even talking about, and, thus, the concept of God itself is incoherent. The things that we do say about God, such as, “He is a being transcendent to the world,” or “God is the maker of the heavens and the earth,” are so obscure and problematic that we don’t even know what we are talking about when we make such statements.

Of course, Professor Moreland attacked this line of reasoning by appealing to religious experience, and by that I don’t mean some kind of mere emotional response but rather a numinous experience by which one may have direct apprehension of a personal Being who is holy and good and upon whom one may depend for life and care. In matters of life other than theological, we often define theoretical concepts to explain their effects (e.g., electrons and light rays). Because we cannot see the thing itself does not mean we are incoherent in speaking of that thing as the cause for its effects. An understanding of God, therefore, may come from what has been revealed to us by him in the world in which we live. Paul spoke of this in Romans 1. And it is, then, not too far a logical step to understand the Bible as the message of this God who engages in revelation. 

Leaving apologetics, but, for our purposes, holding on to that revelation conclusion, we realize that we know our God by what he has revealed about himself to us. And what is that? What has he revealed about himself? One characteristic that many theologians (especially Reformed theologians) point to as foundational is God’s holiness. This word indicates transcendence of a sort, something that is beyond or set apart from. The angels, we find in Isaiah 6, cry out in emphatic repetition that he is holy, holy, holy. In fact, that scene prompted the Christian apologist and author, R.C. Sproul to comment,

Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, that the whole earth is full of His glory.[2]

At first blush, this emphasis and explanation seem certain: holiness would seem to be central and foundational to God’s essence. And yet, it is the very definition of holiness that argues against this. While holiness surely describes God’s transcendence in relation to us, its very definition results from a comparison. God is transcendent to something or someone. God’s holiness shows separateness from something or someone, and by this we surely recognize that God exists purely and truly beyond us.

But our pursuit is not simply how God differs from us. We want to recognize God’s central essence, and that must be considered even without us in the picture. Who is God in his transcendence? Who is God apart from creation? In fact, consider God before time began—before creation ever was. When he existed before any somethings and someones were on the scene, from whom or what was he separated? There was nothing. And without anything other, terms such as holiness and sovereignty, although absolutely true of God in relation to all else, lose effect when there is absolutely nothing else. They are terms of comparison, necessarily requiring something else, something other, with which to compare. God, existent without creation, was not separate from anything. He was not transcendent when there was nothing to be transcendent to. Holiness, then, cannot be his central quality, and we return to the question of just exactly who our God is.  

Jesus told the woman at the well that God is spirit (John 4:24). He said this to distinguish God from the physical. Common secular thought may picture spirits or ghosts as some wavy, ethereal vapor that glides around like smoke. Movies, those great definers of public perception, picture ghosts haunting houses or showing up only at night in attics or basements or graveyards. But all those images seem to define spirits as something still fairly physical. They are located at some place. But the point Jesus was intent on making with the Samaritan, who wondered whether God dwelt in Jerusalem or Samaria, was that, as spirit, God had no locational limitation. Jesus had offered this description to the woman at the well to explain that the Jewish/Samaritan debate about where to worship God (John 4:20) was not a concern because of a limitation on where God would be—either in Jerusalem or Samaria. God is spirit, Jesus told her; he is non-locational; he is everywhere. The old command to worship in Jerusalem was an image God had presented of his association with only those who had relationship with him through faith. But true worship in the New Covenant sense could and would occur anywhere with those with whom he desired to dwell—those who by faith wanted relationship. That picture, Jesus goes on to say, in the New Covenant reality would become a going to God that is not a physical movement (as it was in the Mosaic covenant) but rather a spiritual response. Furthermore, Jesus said, that spiritual response is the recognition and embrace of truth—the truth of God himself.

From Jesus’s teaching, therefore, first, we realize that God is spirit. We realize his independence from creation in this quality. He is not of creation; he is not some thing. He is beyond or transcendent to our physical reality. Recognizing God’s transcendence, therefore, is important. But it must be held within the confines of God’s revelation to us.

In addition to his pure essence in spirit, we are told that he is infinite in knowledge, understanding, wisdom, care, mercy, and beauty. The metaphysical religious philosophers categorized and organized these qualities as pure and infinite truth, goodness, and beauty. From Augustine and Aquinas through Barth, we hear their harmonic intonation of God as eternal truth, goodness, and beauty. And Scripture certainly supports that. God is called true (e.g., De 32:4), good (e.g., Ps 119:68), and beautiful (e.g., Ps 27:4) in countless direct statements as well as through the principles and expressions of the narratives and poetry. We learn also that he acts in accord with his truth, goodness, and beauty. He prizes these qualities of himself by being faithful to them. He also looks ahead to his continued exaltation of his essential truth, goodness, and beauty in all his plans of coming glory. Thus, in both his own faith and hope, he embraces his essential and inherent truth, goodness, and beauty.

Even more central to his activity (and here activity means his active existence as opposed to his essence) regarding his truth, goodness, and beauty is that we know of this Godly essence only by his revelation. Paul opens his epistle to the Romans with that notion. Paul tells us that God has proclaimed to even those who have never held a Bible or heard the good news of Jesus the Savior his revelation as to who he is (Ro 1:18-20). But notice that God’s revelation results in the fact that “people are without excuse” (Ro 1:20b). That statement may sound harsh, but God did not reveal to condemn. Those rejecting the revelation are condemned because the revelation leaves them without excuse. However, the revelation itself is intended to show God’s image bearers who he is so that they may embrace who he is and relate to him. Thus, it is for relationship that God reveals himself. And since God reveals himself to be truth, goodness, and beauty for our understanding of who he is for purpose of relationship, our essential conclusion must be that relationship is the benefit God intends for us.

A simple definition of love is the giving of self for the benefit of another. Jesus illustrated this definition as he explained to his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Why is this Jesus’s example of the greatest love? It is because the one loving has given all of himself—his very life—for the benefit of those he loves. So we see then that God’s revelation of his truth, goodness, and beauty for our benefit is an act of love. In other words, God’s communication of himself to us is based on his love.

This is a huge, encompassing realization. What it establishes for us is that all God’s communication to us—all God’s revelation—all of Scripture—is the intention of God to have us understand him and benefit by that revelation. Thus, all—all—revelation by God is motivated by love. We know nothing of God that has not been revealed to us through and by his love.

However, the glory in love is not merely one-sided. Love reaches its height of enjoyment in the shared embrace of two or more giving of themselves in reciprocating fashion. As one gives of him or herself for the other and as the other gives of him or herself for the first, love relationship is born, grows, and blossoms. Bringing together the several concepts we’ve just gone over, we find that love relationship necessarily comes from the mutual, selfless communication of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty for the benefit of us—the ones loved.

This, then, is who God is in revealed essence. He is love. While true that God’s Word never describes God in triplicate emphasis of love, love, love, as it does with holy, holy, holy, yet, it is God’s love that leaps from every page, every line of Scripture, because it is love that is the motivating purpose for all God’s communication to us.  

Does Scripture support this notion that love is the preeminent means by which God interacts? Yes, of course, it does. Jesus himself said that all the Law rested on the commands to love God and love others (Mt 22:40). His “new” command for the new covenant of life was to love (Jn 13:34). Truth, goodness, and beauty—the essential attributes of God—are held and communicated through faith, hope and love, and of these, Paul tells us, the greatest is love (1 Co 13:13). The Bible consistently places love at the forefront of God’s interaction with us.

This is the nature of God. He possesses, perceives, and proclaims his essence of truth, goodness, and beauty for the benefit of those to whom he reveals it. But, this understanding, though biblical and sensible, may still, perhaps, catch in the back of the mind. Earlier, we had set holiness and sovereignty (two true characteristics of God in relation to his creation) aside momentarily because they required comparison with creation. Does not love also require interaction with some other person or thing to be realized? In other words, if God, by nature, loves through sharing his truth, goodness, and beauty, is the existence of his creatures, therefore, a necessary existence so that he may express, reveal, and articulate to them his love? If they did not exist, could God, in actuality, still love?  

If God created us—image bearers—because he needed someone to love, he would be, in an absolute sense, incomplete without us. In other words, if love is an essential and central element of who God is, is he not then dependent on us—someone to love—in order to be fully God? This certainly does violence to our understanding that God is independent. Independence necessarily means that he needs absolutely nothing outside himself to be who he is and exist as he is. This, at its core, is what infiniteness is all about. There are no limitations. Nothing else must be so or must exist for God to realize all that he is. He is complete, and therefore, infinitely secure, established, and satisfied, within himself.

So, then, how could his independence and his need to love exist together? These concepts seem at odds with each other. Love relationship demands some other for whom you may give yourself to benefit, but independence demands that there be no other for self-fulfillment. Here, then, is the philosophical basis for our concept of a Trinity. The Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—existing in one essence albeit in three persons is revealed in concept and activity through the biblical record (although never expressly stated as such). But the idea is also upheld by this philosophical truth: God is love, and for love to exist, there must also exist some other to love. It is in the Trinity’s three-person arrangement that God may love without any other. Each Person of the Trinity loves—has the attitude (what the Bible describes as a submissive or servant attitude) of giving of self for the other in communicating the truth, goodness, and beauty that is the very essence of God. So, then, God is independent, finding in himself the eternal and infinite satisfaction for all that he is. Yet, God in himself reveals that love is his means for communicating his truth, goodness, and beauty in relationship. There is, then, no inconsistency with God in understanding who he is and for what purpose he is and acts. He is truth, goodness, and beauty. He recognizes, acknowledges, and holds that truth, goodness, and beauty in faith. He looks forward to the exaltation of that truth, goodness, and beauty in hopeful expression of desire and plan. And, importantly, he communicates that truth, goodness, and beauty in love—the self-serving care to benefit others in encouragement and promotion of that truth, goodness, and beauty that are essentially God.

This is the glory of God. Glory is no mere self-serving, feel-good experience, dependent on others for praise for the sake of praise. When we speak of the glory of God, our meaning must refer back to this understanding of who God is. John Piper, well-known Christian pastor, author, and teacher, has stated that the glory of God is “the infinite worth of God made manifest.”[3] I agree with this summary definition. Based on our discussion so far, the infinite worth of God is found in the infinite truth, goodness, and beauty of his essence. How it is made manifest is through his expression in faith, hope, and love. In other words, then, we may recast Piper’s definition with these clarifications: the glory of God is God’s truth, goodness, and beauty (i.e., his “infinite worth”) expressed (or, “made manifest”) in faith, hope, and love.

However, as already noted, while faith, hope, and love all manifest God’s truth, goodness, and beauty, faith and hope apply to God’s own perspective while the communication of love directly makes manifest God’s worth to the benefit of others. This, in fact, is why we find the Scriptural emphasis on love. First Corinthians 13:13 tells us that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love. Further, God speaks of his love by saying that it was proved in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Ro 5:8). So the consistency of Scripture’s discussion of love is that it is the greatest expression of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. We see it expressed in its highest form through the giving of self. And God, being infinite and of infinite love, accordingly, did just that—gave of himself so that we could be redeemed. Recognizing all these elements, we may further refine our definition of the glory of God in this way: God’s glory is his truth, goodness, and beauty expressed in faith hope, and love, with love as the preeminent means of that expression.

This truth holds incredible impact for both our theoretical musings on God as well as the practical implication. We will get to the theoretical import in the following chapters. But think with me for a moment of the practical implication.

In that brief, struggling moment that I described at the outset of this chapter, while I embraced a fellow believer—one who had lost a child in physical death (who was a Christian, a fellow member of covenant relationship with me and in me (John 17:21-23))—all that I told her was that I loved her. And, in her moment of unfathomable grief, that was all she needed to hear. She drank those words in because we receive those words—those words about and of love—more than any others, willingly and gratefully, allowing their solace to burrow deep within. Love—the word—has been stolen by the world of mindless, selfish desire. But its meaning lives poignantly true for Christians who embrace by faith and hope the gospel that we belong together in and through Christ with God.

This is the glory of God. This is how we express that glory. He is Truth. He is Goodness. He is Beauty. Pull aside from all the world’s twisting and distorting of those elements. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as revealed by our God in his creation, through his Word—revealed purposefully for our benefit—is communicated ultimately and only through God’s attribute of love. In this we hope. In this we breathe. In this we live. For of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13).

 



[1] J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1990), 48.

[2] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000), 26.

[3] Piper, John, “Rebuilding Some Basics of Bethlehem: The Centrality of the Glory of God,” November 4, 2009, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/rebuilding-some-basics-of-bethlehem-the-centrality-of-the-glory-of-god.

 

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