Who Is God? Reflections for Disciples - Part 1 (Nature of God)

This week, as part of my effort to stimulate theological conversation among Disciples, I post the first of two reflections on the nature of God. I wanted to put forth some foundational issues, and will follow up later with a conversation about the Trinity. It should be noted that the Preamble to the Design places the conversation about God after the statement about Jesus, signalling that one encounters God first of all through the encounter with Jesus. But, with that said, who is God?


                Having attended to the one Christians affirm as revealing the face of God, the person of Jesus the Christ, we come to the question asked for millennia: “Who is God?”  It is a question that has been pondered by many, with many an answer offered.  The answers include "the ground of being" (Tillich), the "soul of the universe" (pantheists), and “unmoved mover" (Aristotle). For some God is wholly other, distant and transcendent. For others, God is close at hand, immanent and relational. In popular culture, God is often referred to as the “Man Upstairs,” an image that conjures in our minds the picture of an old man with a long white beard. On the other hand, one can refer to God as the “womb of being.” While it’s quite understandable, we tend to envision God in our own image, with human traits and characteristics. 

                While Disciples, as a rule, do not treat the Preamble to the Design as a creedal statement, it does offer a confession of faith God, who is described as “maker of heaven and earth.” We are bound to this God and to each other through a covenant of love. Disciples traditionally look to the witness of scripture to discern the nature and character of God. While eschewing official creeds, the way Disciples understand God has been influenced by church tradition as well as philosophical insight. Many of our foundational beliefs have been influenced by Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle. Many of the terms we use to describe God come from these philosophical traditions, terms like omnipotence, omniscience, possibility/impassibility. Each generation of theologians has engaged the philosophical systems of the day.  In other words, there is no purely New Testament understanding of God to be had.

Foundational Questions Concerning God’s Nature

  • The Existence of God

We can start the conversation with a consideration of the very existence of God. It may seem odd to discover that Christians were once called atheists, because they refused to venerate the Greek and Roman deities, as well as the emperor. Those who were once condemned as atheists now face militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who question God’s very existence. It is charged that belief in God is untenable in an age of science. Besides, too much evil is done in the name of God.  Still, belief in God(s) remains strong. But, the notion of God has evolved over time, even among Christians. For those who need proof, theologians have come up with a variety of apologies, statements of defense. For our purposes I’ll name two, the ontological and the cosmological arguments, though there are many more possibilities.

    • Anselm and the Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is a philosophical one. It is rooted in questions of the nature of being, including the concept of perfection. The ontological argument is usually linked with Anselm, who began his defense of God’s existence with this premise: “Now we believe that thou art a being than which none greater can be thought." For this premise to be true Anselm insisted God must exist in reality; otherwise there would be someone or something greater than God. 
And thou art this being, O Lord our God.  Thou so truly art, then O Lord my God, that thou canst not even be thought of as not existing.  And this is right.  For if some mind could think of something better than thou, the creature would rise above the Creator and judge its Creator; but this is altogether absurd.  [Anselm, “Proslogion,” in A Scholastic Miscellany:  Anselm to Ockham, Eugene R. Fairweather, ed., (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1956), pp. 73-74.]

    • Aquinas and the Cosmological Argument

                A second, and more popular, set of proofs, borrows from Aristotle. It presumes that every effect requires a cause, and the final cause is God, whom Aristotle called the “unmoved mover.” With that as a starting point, Aquinas offered what is known as the “cosmological argument” or the argument from design.  The “argument from design” is based on the observation of order in the world. The world couldn’t have come into existence as it has, unless someone designed it.  William Paley, very famously, spoke of the “watchmaker.” That is, if you see a watch lying on the ground, you presume someone made it.  What is true of the watch must be true of nature, except that Darwin and others suggested a means by which the world became ordered without God being necessary. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, in Hugh T. Kerr, Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed., (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1990), pp. 112-14].  Arguments from design, unfortunately, often lead to a “God of the Gaps,” who fills the unexplained places in our understanding.  The problem with this defense of God’s existence is that as the gaps are filled, God is displaced in our conceptions of reality. 

  •  Attributes of God

A fruitful way of answering the question of God’s nature is to focus on God’s attributes. Standing within a tradition that includes Judaism, Christianity affirms attributes of God, including monotheism, spirit, transcendence/immanence.  We could add to these attributes those derived from philosophical traditions—impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.  For now, we will focus on monotheism, Spirit, and transcendence/immanence. Then we will look at God’s character.    

o   Oneness:  Monotheism

A good starting point is the affirmation of God’s oneness.  As Deuteronomy 6:4 states: “Here O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” While Deuteronomy speaks to the monotheistic foundations of the Jewish faith, the term monotheism does not tell us much about God. Although the term “monotheism” serves to distinguish Israel's faith from the polytheism of its neighbors, it doesn't give us a full sense of Israel's understanding of God. “Equally important is to recognize that the unity and uniqueness of God (Deut. 6:4ff, which calls for utter devotion—heart, soul, and might—did not denote God's being as that of a monad, or of a monolithic, unchanging deity. Rather, Israel developed a variety of hypostatic-like {note: personal} forms by which to bear witness both to God's transcendence and his immanence. [Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments:  Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), p.  355].

 As we consider this monotheistic heritage, it is important to note that it was an idea in development. Even passages in the Hebrew bible that speak of God’s oneness (Deuteronomy 6) may not be purely monotheistic.  Instead, they may assume that for Israel, there is but one God, but this doesn’t mean that other deities do not exist. The term used for such a view is henotheism. As time passed, largely after the exile, Jews moved toward true monotheism. Of course, as we’ll see further on, Christians have modified monotheism in light of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    •  Spirit
                The biblical witness speaks of God in terms of spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of those who worship God in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). As we think of God in terms of Spirit, we must be clear that almost all God language is analogical or metaphorical. Thus, it is important to remember that any gendered language used to describe God is not to be taken “literally.” That is because God is without gender, and yet includes all gender (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, if we speak of God as Father, we speak analogically not univocally. That is, the term Father does not directly describe God’s nature. As Hosea 11:9 states:  "for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst."  Other translations have it "I am God and not a man." The issue of gender and God is important, and needs to be seen in the light of the biblical discussions.   We need to remember that Israel was called on to reject the fertility cults of its neighbors, cults that emphasized the sexuality of their gods and goddesses.  As Brevard Child's notes:
“For the prophets of Israel the great threat came when Israel claimed to know Yahweh, but in actuality the covenant God was worshiped as if a Baal (Hos. 6:1ff; 8:2; Jer. 3:1ff.).” [Childs, Biblical Theology ,p.  375].
                This issue of language goes for both male and female language.  If one keeps in mind that our language for God cannot be taken literally, then we should be able to speak of God in male, female, or non-gender related terms. Scripture itself speaks of God using feminine imagery, which should be sufficient support for such uses today. Thus, God could be described as a mother crying out as if in the pain of labor (Is. 42:14); or as in Isaiah 66:13 God can describe his relationship to Israel:  "As a mother comforts her child, so will comfort you." 

o   Transcendence and Immanence

                In the biblical witness, we see references to both transcendence and immanence.  Both scripture and our theological inheritance contains references to both transcendence and immanence. So God is wholly other. That is, God is different from us, not just in degree, but in essence. This is symbolized at times by God being pictured sitting on the throne of heaven, high and lifted up, surrounded by angels (Isaiah 6:1-8). Thus, in contrast to pantheism or monism (god and the world are one) and polytheism, the biblical God stands distinct from the World. The doctrine of creation stands as a major witness to God's transcendent character (Gen 1:1f).  There is the need to affirm the self-sufficiency of God apart from the world. God does not need the world to exist. 

                On the other hand, God is immanent with creation. Paul told the Athenians that God "is not far from each one of us," and as proof he quoted one of their own philosophers who said: "In him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:27-28).  Jesus describes God as one who is actively involved in the created order, making the sun rise on both the evil and the good and bringing the rain on both as well (Mt. 5:45).

                One way of expressing this idea is “panentheism.” Unlike pantheism, which merges God and the universe, “panentheism” suggests a middle ground—one that leaves room for God and the universe to both exist. That is, while God is in the World, and the World is in God, God is more than the world. In fact, the way to put it is that everything exists within God, but God has made room within God’s self for the other to exist.  Marcus Borg speaks of God in panentheistic terms as the “encompassing Spirit.”  [Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, (San Francisco:  Harper One, 2003), p. 65-66.] Philip Clayton uses the analogy of the body and the mind [Philip Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, and Divine Action, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 128. Thus, what the mind is to the body, and the body is to the mind, so God is to the world. God is the mind; the universe is the body. And, there is a two-way (dialectical) relationship between the two. What panentheism attempts to do is propose a way for God to be engaged in/with the universe without being identical to it and without intervening from outside in a supernaturalist way – something that natural law would argue against.   

The Character of God

                Although similar to attributes, we should keep attributes separate from character.  There are several ways of seeing this, including love and holiness.

  • Love

                In 1 John 4:8 the author straightforwardly defines God as love.  Love can be seen as "the inner dynamic of God.” Love, is in one sense, the key to understanding the interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity. Stan Grenz writes:
Love is a relational term, requiring both subject and object (Someone loves someone else).  Were God a solitary acting subject, a person apart from Father, Son and Spirit, God would require the world as the object of his love in order to be who he is, namely, the Loving One.  But because God is triune, the divine reality already comprehends both love's subject and object.  Consequently, the essence of God does indeed lie in the relationship between the Father and the Son (love) which is the Spirit.  [Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994), pp. 92-93.]
Another way of saying that God is love is to say that God is compassionate. As we read in the Psalms: “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful” (Psalm 116:5).  Or, as Jeremiah puts it: “Is Ephraim my dear son?  Is he the child I delight in?  As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.  Therefore, I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him says the Lord. “(Jer. 31:20). Of course, we can’t forget that most famous of expressions of divine compassion – John 3:16: “For God so loved the word that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal world.”  The text goes on to state that God did not choose to condemn the word but to save it through Jesus Christ. 

  • Holiness

                To claim that God is love often stands in contrast to the claim that God is holy.  Holiness involves such qualities as righteousness and moral perfection, but also fairness and justice (qualities that seem to go hand in hand with God’s compassion).  A good description of the holiness of God is found in Hannah's prayer (I Sam. 2:1-10).  Hannah says of God: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (vs. 2). To say that God is holy does not mean that God is puritanical.  Rather, it means that God is just.  Consider Isaiah’s description of God as the God of Justice (Isa. 30:18), and in the course of that proclamation, he calls on God’s people to continually seek justice for their neighbors.  And as we read in the post-exilic portion of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord:  Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa. 56:1).

  • Relationality

Most Christians, when they think of God, think of God in terms of a relationship, a God to whom one can pray (and hopefully hear back from).  Consider these words from an old hymn:

                He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
                O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
                Whatever I do, wherever I be,
                still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
                       He leadeth me, he leadeth me, by his own hand he leadeth me;
                       his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.

The Psalms give voice to that sense of relationship.  God is the good shepherd, and in him I shall not want of anything.  That is because God is there with me (Psalm 23).

                Despite our devotional conceptions of God, traditional theology often leaves God looking static and impersonal. Even the confession that God is father might not be helpful if we see fathers as being distant and non-engaged. Descriptions of God such as omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, impassibility, and immutability, also can leave God looking a bit unapproachable.  While traditional theism can leave us feeling less than inspired, Scripture tends to speak of God in dynamic and relational terms.

                The two creation stories give us two different visions of God. The first story, found in Genesis 1, envisions God speaking creation into existence. All is good, but God remains wholly other. On the other hand, the second story, which we find in Genesis 2 describes a God whose hands get dirty, and who engages in conversation with the human creation. In the second story of creation God is not, to use a philosophical term, an "unmoved mover." Instead, we encounter a God who is an active agent in human affairs. 


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