Tag Archives: omnipresence

The Lord is Still Great

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my book, Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Eerdmans). I am pleased and humbled that after 10 years the book is being used in seminaries and colleges more now than ever before—much more. Though modest by some measures the book sold 512 copies in the last 6 months. I assume that most of those were used in seminary classes. I still feel and believe what I wrote 10 years ago in the Preface to that book. Below is a slightly edited version of that Preface:

“From the ocean side slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains on the campus of Pepperdine University I look over the moonlit bay to the giant city of Los Angeles and feel a stab of pain. The word “God” in some language finds a place in the vocabulary of every resident of that city of nations. But do they know what it really means?  I fear that many do not. For, if they did, every street corner would echo with thanksgiving and every courtyard ring with praise. I feel that same stab, if to a lesser extent, when I enter my general studies classes the first day of the semester. I see beautiful, intelligent, and privileged young people and I love them. In that poignant moment I feel the weight of my responsibility: how can I help them see why their joy must come from loving God above all things….

“The great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1217-1274) warned that the deadliest enemies of theology are the pride and curiosity of theologians. The purpose of theology, he urged, is to “become virtuous and attain salvation.” Theologians, he cautioned, should not fool themselves into thinking that “reading is sufficient without unction, speculation without devotion, investigation without wonder, observation without rejoicing, work without piety, knowledge without love, understanding without humility or endeavor without divine grace” (Itinerarium mentis in Deum). The academic style dominant today leaves little room for a Bonaventure-style theology. And it is not easy to swim against this current…Nonetheless, I believe writing a theology that praises God is worth the risk….

 

The Argument

 

“I shall defend a traditional doctrine of God. I argue not only that the traditional doctrine is not guilty of making God uncaring, aloof, and threatening to human freedom—as some critics claim—but that it actually preserves our confidence in God’s love, intimate presence, and liberating action better than its opponents do. Far from effacing our humanity, the traditional doctrine grounds our dignity and freedom in the center of reality, the Trinitarian life of God. Here is the heart and soul and passion and pain of my book. Whether in praise or blame, make your judgment here.

 

The “Traditional” Doctrine of God

 

“I have already indicated that I shall defend the “traditional” doctrine of God. Perhaps then I should explain briefly what I mean by this term. I mean the teaching about God that was held by almost the whole church from the second to the twentieth century and is still held by most believers: God is Triune, loving, merciful, gracious, patient, wise, one, simple, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, omnipresent, immutable, impassible, and glorious. The church understood these characteristics as Scriptural teachings, not as philosophical theories. They were explained and defended by such fourth-century theologian-bishops as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

 

“They were enshrined in ecumenical creeds and denominational confessions of faith. This doctrine was explained and defended by Augustine of Hippo, who became the theologian to the Western world. It was summarized by the Eastern theologian John of Damascus (c. 675- c.749) in his Orthodox Faith. In the middle ages such theologians as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Bonaventura wrote treatises expounding and defending the traditional divine attributes. It was held by the Protestant Reformers and their descendants in almost all Protestant churches. And it was cherished by Alexander Campbell, leading light in my own tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement.

 

“This doctrine of God went almost unchallenged within church until the eighteenth century and then it was challenged only by a few on the periphery. Only in the twentieth century did it come under wide-spread criticism. Today, even among many evangelical and otherwise conservative writers, rehearsing the shortcomings of the “traditional” or “classical” teaching has become a standard way to introduce one’s own (presumably better) doctrine of God. Unfortunately, many of these writers evidence little real knowledge of the traditional doctrine and offer such a caricature of that teaching that the reader has to wonder how the church’s most saintly and brilliant teachers could have been so deceived for so long.

 

“I wrote this book to correct this caricature and show why the traditional doctrine of God dominated the church’s thinking for so long. My answer is intimated in the title of this book: Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God. I believe the traditional doctrine of God focuses our attention on the unsurpassable greatness of God and urges us praise him according to his infinite worth. I am overjoyed to add my little “Amen” to that great chorus of angels, psalmists, apostles, saints, martyrs, doctors, and teachers, who have said to us through the ages: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise!”

 

Note: You can read the full Preface and look through the Table of Contents on Amazon.com:

 

https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lord-Theology-Praise-God/dp/0802833004/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1534961022&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

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“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”

It might seem obvious, but I think it is worth our time to note that Christianity teaches that God really exists. It does not present evidence or offer proofs for God’s existence because it rarely contemplates the possibility of atheism. The existence of a supernatural realm was self-evident to most ancient people, and atheism was rare. Psalm 53:1 is a possible exception: “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” And perhaps the writer of Hebrews had atheism in mind when he said, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (11:6). Overwhelmingly, however, the issue for both the Old and New Testament is not the existence of a god but question of the true nature and identity of God. Isaiah asserts,

I look but there is no one—     no one among the gods to give counsel,     no one to give answer when I ask them. 29 See, they are all false!     Their deeds amount to nothing;     their images are but wind and confusion (Isaiah 41:28-29).

John speaks of the true God as the one we have come to know through Jesus:

20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

Paul opposes the idols and gods of Corinth to the one God who is the Father:

We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 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 Corinthians 8:4-6).

The first affirmation of the Apostles Creed asserts, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” In the Creed, God is identified as “the Father Almighty” and as the Creator. The expression “the Father” is short for “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Interestingly, in his speech to the Athenians Paul also used this brief two-fold way of identifying the God of Christians. He asserted that “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24), and then he drew two inferences from that truth, which he assumes his audience also accepted. (1) God does not need to live in temples made by human hands or to be served by human beings because he made everything and gives “life and breath and everything else” to us (17:24-25). God is self-sufficient and needs nothing! Any concept of God that assumes or implies God’s dependence on creation or any lack in God is severely defective. (2) Since human beings are the image of God, the Creator in whose image we are made cannot and ought not to be reduced to an idol of gold or silver. If we are alive, free, aware, and active, how much more our Creator! Paul reasons here from the widely held belief that the God is the creator of our world to a concept of God worthy of God’s great work of creation.

Next he speaks of the revelation of God’s character and power in Jesus Christ and of his resurrection from the dead:

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Paul names and specifies the Creator by his connection to Jesus Christ. Christ will be the Judge and standard by which God judges the world. I will return to this way of identifying God in future posts. For now I want to extend Paul’s reasoning to other divine qualities that are implicit in the belief that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth.”

In the Bible and in Christian history, creation is the chief example of God’s power. Traditional theology speaks of God’s “omnipotence” because consistency with our confession of God as Creator demands it. The power God demonstrated in creation is not like the power of the Sun, human technology or political organization or any other power within creation. God created the world from nothing. In creating, God gives creatures their total being and existence. No creature can do that. The reason God’s power is called “omnipotence” is that all other powers owe their being and power to God; apart from God they can do nothing.

If God is the creator of “heaven and earth”, that is, of everything, then God has to be everywhere and know everything. God is the cause of all existence, and existing creatures are the effects of God’s causality. And where the effect is, the cause must also be. Hence the Creator must be omnipresent. But the Creator must also be omniscient, that is, God must know all things. God certainly knows what he is and does. And there is no creature that is not the result of God’s doing. Hence God knows all creatures in their total being and doing.

You can see why in his discussion of the Creator Paul quoted the pagan philosopher Epimenides approvingly:For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Creator is present and active everywhere. God surrounds, indwells, sustains and empowers us. God provides everything we need. Hence we ought to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27).

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” What an amazing confession! How it would revolutionize our lives if we really understood it and lived by it. We are surrounded, indwelt, enfolded, sustained and empowered by the Almighty Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

The “With Us” God: God and the Modern Self #10

When I was child the thing that troubled me most about God was that he always knew what I was thinking. As children we are not strong enough to get our way by force or knowledgeable enough to succeed through skill. But at least we can hide our thoughts from others, thereby securing a small victory over our enemies. A bully can make you cower on the outside, but in your imagination a different set of rules apply. You can enjoy humiliating your enemy without risking his wrath. You can relish knowing something she doesn’t know, which, if she knew, would make her angry.

But then there is God. It was explained to me that God knows everything and is present everywhere. Nothing can hide from God, not in heaven or on earth, and not in the secret places of the mind and heart. God cannot be deceived or mistaken.  God knows what we’ve done, what we think and what we feel. God knows the good, bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. And I felt uneasy.

Even as adults that uneasy feeling can return when we think about God’s complete knowledge of us. We don’t want just anyone to know our thoughts, and there are some secrets we do not want even our best friends to know. Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” The more people know about you the more power they have over you. But if someone knows your every secret they have complete power over you. We insist on our right to some privacy from prying eyes and attentive ears, and we identify the space inside our minds as ours alone. The constant presence of others robs us of a sense of selfhood and identity. So we can understand why some people resent the idea that God knows everything and is present to their inmost selves. They feel vulnerable and exposed and judged.

But there is another way to think about God’s knowledge and presence in our lives. Consider how much of our life’s energy is spend dealing with the problems of loneliness, inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity and worth. We desperately want to be loved by others, appreciated and valued. Unless someone else loves us we remain doubtful of our worth; yet how can others love us unless they know us? And how can they come to know us unless we let them into our minds and hearts? Here we face that other problem: how can we tell others who we are when we know so little about ourselves? Even worse, we remember that along with the good there is the bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. We are caught between loneliness that urges us to reveal ourselves and fear of rejection and injury that holds us back.

Now let’s return to the thought of God’s knowledge of us. We must keep in mind that God is not merely an anonymous all-knowing judge of good and bad, a cosmic lie detector, a heavenly mind reader. God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One whom we know by looking into the face of Jesus. And we see in Jesus’ face perfect, self-giving love. Just as in the previous essay (#9), we learned that God’s power is a loving power and his love is a powerful love, we can now say that God’s knowledge is loving knowledge and his love is a knowing love. They are one. In loving, God knows, and in knowing, God loves.

This thought places God’s complete knowledge of us in a wholly different light. God knows everything about us and, yet, still loves us. God knows every secret; yes, God knows the bad and the ugly, the sleazy, the slimy and the selfish. But he loves us anyway. The one thing we most desire, to be known perfectly and loved completely, we already have and have always had.

What about the problem of inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity? Does God’s perfect knowledge and love help us with this condition? Yes, it works a revolution in this area. God knows perfectly what and who we are. And since he loves us so graciously, so unexpectedly and so unselfishly, we are freed and, indeed, compelled to love him in return. We need not struggle to reveal ourselves to God. He already knows. We need not worry what he would do if he knew. He knows and loves us anyway. If I am loved by God who knows me perfectly, I need not be so troubled by my lack of perfect self-knowledge. Someone knows! In knowing God, I know the One who knows me better than I know myself. And since God knows (and loves) I can trust him to lead me even when I cannot see the path. In my conversation with God, who knows me, God can reveal to me things about myself I could not have learned from any other source.

What if you made God’s knowledge, presence and love the foundation of your relationship to others? Perhaps you would not experience the pain of loneliness so often. God knows and is always there. Perhaps you would find new courage to reveal yourself to others, since your worth no longer depends on acceptance by others. Since you know you are loved perfectly, you may find yourself spending less energy seeking to be loved and more in finding ways to love others. Since God knows perfectly who you are, you might spend less time looking for yourself and more time seeking God. For when you find God, you won’t need to ask about yourself any longer. You will find yourself as well, for we were created to seek, know and love God.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 10 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Awakening Presence”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Have you or people you know ever had an uneasy feeling about God’s all-knowing presence? Describe what you felt and thought in those moments.

2. Reflect on the dilemma of loneliness described in this essay. What does our need to be known by others say about our created nature?

3. Describe the relationship between clarity of self-knowledge and being known by others. Relate this issue to the dilemma of loneliness.

4. Why do we need to believe that we are loved by others in order to love ourselves or feel our self-worth confidently?

5. Discuss the ways believing that God knows everything about us and still loves us sheds new light on the problems discussed in the essay: loneliness, lack of self-knowledge, the need to be known and loved, and the need to reveal ourselves to others. Specifically, how have you experienced God’s healing knowledge in each of these areas?

6. Discuss the claim made in the last paragraph of the essay. Does believing God knows and loves us really enable us to become bolder in revealing ourselves to others or empower us to love others without needing acceptance in return or be less concerned with figuring out ourselves?

 For the next two weeks we will look to Jesus Christ for clues about the right way to be human in relation to the “for us” and “with us” God he has revealed.

A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.