Who is God? (Part 2)
Christianity teaches about God and humanity, sin and salvation, religion and ethics. Each aspect of the message presupposes (or creates) a question to which the teaching is an answer. And the answer Christianity gives to each question takes form as a story of people’s experience of God and culminates in an invitation to participate in that story. The story Christianity tells is narrated in the Bible; it is the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church. The church, which is the voice of Christianity in the world, presents this story not as a myth or the product of rational speculation or mystical insight, but as a narration of historical events and experiences. Some will ask whether the story is true. Of course this is a critical question, and I will address it at some point. However in this post I want to focus on how the story identifies God.
The story told in the Old Testament rarely addresses the question “Does God exist?” For this was not a pressing issue in its environment. The existence and activity of the divine dimension of the world was self-evident for nearly everyone. The urgent question was “Which god is God?” or “Who is God?” The story of the Old Testament can be read as a prolonged struggle to answer this question. Throughout the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus God is identified as “the God of Abraham” or “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” or by what God did for past generations. As the story of ancient Israel unfolds the identity of God is deepened and enriched, sometimes in surprising ways, by encompassing more and more history, acts and relationships.
Christianity sees the long story of Israel’s ever-deepening understanding of God’s identity as culminating in the story of Jesus Christ. It does not reject the Old Testament’s identification of God anymore than Moses rejected Abraham’s identification of God or Isaiah or Jeremiah rejected Moses’ identification. But the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together, proved such a surprising turn of events that the entire story had to be reoriented to focus on Jesus. Now God is identified by his relationship to Jesus Christ. When Paul speaks of God he almost always speaks of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:3) or even of “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3). As Paul warns the Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols, he finds it necessary to distinguish the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ from other divine identities: “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:5-6).
And we should not leave out the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent, who filled the apostles at Pentecost, guided the early church and continues to sanctify and guide believers today. Hence when Christianity answers the question, “Who is God?” its short reply is “God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” This is the Christian name for God. It stands for the entire narrative of God’s actions through Jesus Christ and the Spirit. In the words of the late 4th century church father Gregory Nazianzus, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Or, to generalize Gregory’s assertion, “When the church talks about God, it means Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” No other religion identifies God in this way; for to identify God in this way is to become a Christian.
What kind of character are we attributing to God by identifying God as “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” or as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”? And what difference does it make in the way we live and how we relate to God? To be continued…
Note: no contemporary theologian I have read focuses so intently and with more profound insight on the question of divine identity than Robert W. Jenson. See his Systematic Theology, 2 vols (Oxford University Press, 1997). Warning: it’s difficult reading.