Category Archives: Infrequently Asked Theological Questions

The theological question you should have asked

Who is God? (Part 3)

 

In the first two parts of this series I argued that a person’s identity is determined by whatever founds their existence, what they do and say, what is done to them and the relationships they have. We’ve seen that Christianity points to the story of ancient Israel, Jesus Christ and the apostolic church to answer the question “Who is God?” The story is the answer. But this story is much too long and complicated to rehearse or even summarize in this essay. And some of it overlaps with Judaism and to a lesser extend Islam. Hence I want to focus on the heart of the distinctively Christian part of the story: Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught that we can relate to God as our “Father in heaven”(Matt 6:9) and that we ought to love not only our friends but also our enemies (Matt 5:44). I think that Jesus’ teaching about God, religion and ethics, taken as a whole, is quite unprecedented in the history of religion. Nevertheless, it is not in Jesus’ teaching but in his “fate” that we find the most revolutionary reorientation in divine identity.

For most of the New Testament, but especially for Paul, the cross and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian gospel. The claim that God raises the dead did not surprise or offend Paul’s Jewish audience, though his Greek hearers found it strange and even repugnant. But Paul’s contemporaries found the timing of Jesus’ resurrection very surprising. The resurrection was not supposed to happen until the end. But what they found most surprising and troubling about the resurrection of Jesus was the claim that God raised a man who had been crucified for blasphemy and rebellion. For Paul’s contemporaries the cross was an offense completely opposed to God’s dignity and power. But for him the cross embodied the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:24). How could Paul have come to such a conclusion? Apparently Paul and the original disciples of Jesus were forced to look for divine wisdom in the cross because the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances convinced them that God had raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and overturned the verdict that led to his execution. The bold things Jesus said about God and his intimate relationship to God were declared true and reverent. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, the cross could not have been an accident but makes sense only a divinely intended act. If in the resurrection of Jesus God overcame death’s power over humanity, it stands to reason that in the cross God overcame the power of sin; for sin was the “sting” that brought death into the world (Genesis 3; 1 Cor 15:56).

The New Testament does not explain the cross as something God did to Jesus or merely allowed to happen to Jesus but something God did in and through Jesus (2 Cor  5:18-19). Jesus’ acts were also God’s acts, his words God’s words, and his love God’s love (2 Cor 5:14). Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). We come to know the glory of God in Jesus’ face (2 Cor 4:6). We know that God is love because God in Christ gave himself for us sinners (1 John 4:9-10). Hence, according to the New Testament, the gracious, self-giving act of Christ on behalf of those who did not deserve it, reveals the heart of God’s character; it defines God’s identity. God is not world-dominating power or arbitrary willfulness or blind justice or indulgent neglect. God is self-giving, unselfish, gracious and redeeming Love. How, then, does Christianity answer the question, “Who is God?” It says, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And God’s life is God’s eternal act of giving, receiving, returning and sharing among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This divine identity was first made known to human beings in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and everyone is invited through the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s eternal love story.

Why, then, is it important to get the right answer about God’s identity? What difference does it make? As I said in part 1 of this series, unless we know who God is we won’t know how to relate to God or what to expect from God. Most people living in the western world do not have a clear idea of how many conceptions of divine identity there are, how much they differ or what different visions of human life and behavior they generate. People seem to think that everyone who acknowledges the existence of a divine reality holds the same nebulous view of God’s nature and identity: God is benevolent toward all and wants us to be happy in this world. But it is not as simple and self-evident as this. As Paul said in the text quoted in part 2, there are many so-called gods and lords (1 Cor 8:5), and the character of some of those gods looks more like character of demons than that of Jesus (1 Cor 10:20-21). Some gods are identified with fertility, some with wine, some with war, some with nations and some with death. Their powers are revealed by the activities of these natural forces. The gods’ identities are constructed by the stories told about their deeds and sufferings, by the heroes they inspire and commands they give. And worshipers naturally live as much as possible like their gods. Devotees aspire to their gods’ power and wealth and find excuses for their sins in the moral defects of their gods.

Suppose someone thinks of the divine nature as exalted high above human nature, as possessing supernatural powers and immortality and even as being one (monotheism). No doubt believing in the existence of a God with these qualities would affect a person’s behavior in certain general ways. But this description does not tell us who God is and what we are permitted to do and ought to do in relation to God. It is our understanding of the identity of God that determines decisively our behavior in relation to God. If you identify the divine nature as an omnipotent, world dominating force who works by coercion, if the stories of your God’s acts are all tales of conquest, if the heroes of your religion are blood-soaked warriors and politicians, and if you think your enemies are fit only to be destroyed, it is to be expected that you will aspire to be like your God and his heroes. But one who identifies the divine nature with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will seek God only in the face of Jesus and will aspire to live as Jesus lived; and this dramatic difference is an important reason to get the identity of God right.

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Who is God (Part 2)

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.

Who is God? (Part 1)

Who is God? (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series entitled “Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology.” Professional theologians, of course, ask “infrequently asked” questions. That is their job. But I am not writing for them. I am writing for non theologians who are interested in theology and in reflecting on faith at a deeper level than they ordinarily do.

In asking the “who” question we are inquiring about personal identity. It makes no sense to ask, “Who is that tree?” or “Who is that boulder?” Hence even asking the question “Who is God?” presupposes that we believe God possesses personal characteristics analogous to those of human persons. At minimum, to think of an existing thing as a person is to consider it rational and free by nature. Boethius (c. 480-c. 524) defined a person as a “rational, individual substance” and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) added “incommunicability”  (i.e. ineffability and uniqueness) to this definition. Others add the phrase “in relation to other persons.” Much more could be said about the concept of person, but the point I want to emphasize is that the question “Who is God?” asks about the particular personal characteristics that distinguish God from other persons, divine and human, and help us to enter understandingly and empathetically God’s personal dimension. We need to know “who” God is so we know how to relate to God: What should we say and do in relation to God and what may we expect God to say and do in relation to us?

What sort of information could satisfy our need for an answer to the “Who” question concerning a particular human being? It will not help to hear about their generic human characteristics; these they share with other individual human beings. We want to know things that distinguish them from others. First we want to know their name, which stands for their whole personal identity. Next, we want to know what forces and events shaped their characters. We also want to hear about their significant actions, choices and aims. What they’ve suffered and to whom they are related and in what ways. In sum, we learn something about who a person is by listening to their story, the story of what made them who they are. A person’s story is unique to that individual; it distinguishes and identifies them, gives us a sense of knowing them and makes their actions meaningful and to some extent predictable. In the end, however, only by entering into a relationship with someone and by becoming a character in their story and they in ours can we really know another person. I’d like to state a principle here: it is in their personal characteristics, best understood by hearing a story and by mutual participation in a common story, that one person is distinguished from another and that a person can be known in their unique personhood.

Many religions and philosophies speak about “God.” But what do they mean, and of whom are they speaking? There are two questions here: “What is God?” and “Who is God?” I will post another essay on the “what” question later, but think about this: even if two human beings possess in common every quality that makes human beings human, they are not the same person. In a similar way, even if two people speak about God as possessing the same divine attributes they are not necessarily talking about the same person. If the stories they tell are different and the personal characteristics those stories portray are different, we may not be speaking of the same one. It is as if two people were talking about “Kimberly,” whom they think may be a common friend, but tell such different stories and relate such dissimilar personal experiences that they begin to think they are speaking of different persons with the same name.

But why is having the right answer important? And what is Christianity’s answer to the question “Who is God?”

To be continued…