What scripture does and does not say on God

12 February 2016

Stephen Fowl argues that we learn most about God from the Bible when we abandon our preconceptions

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The whole world in his hands? The Creator (detail), 1510-11, Raphael

The whole world in his hands? The Creator (detail), 1510-11, Raphael

WHEN it comes to almost any topic in Christian theology, but particularly to God, we will not get off to a good start if we expect the scriptures to demonstrate a unified, cut-and-dried doctrine of God.

Viewing scripture as a receptacle of doctrines will frustrate us, because on the one hand scripture’s accounts of God are rich and variegated, but on the other these accounts are not systematically organised. This frustration is amply demonstrated in most of the books that attempt to do “biblical theology”. Instead, it may be more theologically fruitful to see that scripture already recognises this diversity, and is already theologising about how to organise and account for this variety.

When it comes to the doctrine of God, scripture and theology may be distinct, but they should not be sharply separated. Theology continues and shapes conversations that scripture itself initiates, but does not resolve. There is no single formula for how to relate them, just as there is no single formula for a successful conversation. In the material below I offer the contours of three different aspects of this interplay between scripture and theology with regard to the doctrine of God.

 

LET us begin with the stories of creation. The biblical texts do not aim to tell us how God created. To treat them as if they did would put Christians in difficult and needless conflict with the best scientific accounts of how things came to be. In any case, questions of why and for what purpose God created are more fruitful.

When it comes to questions about why God created, the biblical texts are suggestive, but not very direct. In this case, theological considerations can help to sharpen our views about God.

For example, although Genesis asserts that God does create, and creates humans in God’s image, Genesis on its own does not really tell us the important theological truth that God does not need to create. Creation, and the creation of humans in particular, does not address some deeply felt need in God. Creation does not fulfil God. Perhaps driven by Psalm 104 and 1 John 4.8, Christians want to assert that creation is a gracious act that stems from an overflowing of God’s love.

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Nor does God rely on anything in order to create (e.g. Romans. 4.17); but what God creates is “good”. This is not only because God proclaims this in Genesis, but because God is good (e.g. Matthew 19.17).

This is important to note, because it reminds us that God is not the creator of evil: a recognition that has generated a long tradition of Christian thinking about that subject.

Thus, God creates graciously, out of love; God does not rely on, or need, anything that creation fulfills; God’s goodness yields a good creation. None of these essential claims about God can be directly read from Genesis 1-2; but, nevertheless, those chapters can be read in ways consistent with these claims, and Christians’ convictions about God should lead them to read in this way.

 

GENESIS 1-2 offers more direct clarity when it comes to thinking about the purposes for which God creates. This implicitly reveals God’s desires for us, and says something about God’s character, too.

Humans are placed in an environment in which all things are in their proper relationship to God, themselves, and the rest of creation. In this place of Sabbath rest, humans are able to fulfil their vocation of loving and enjoying God and each other.

Genesis 3 shows how those ends and purposes are frustrated and damaged by human sin. This raises the questions of whether humans can ultimately thwart God’s ends and purposes.

This in turn would, of course, raise questions about God’s power. Can God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? If not, the implications for a doctrine of God are quite disturbing. If so, can God’s purposes be fulfilled without trampling on human freedom?

 

GIVEN this particular set of questions, the rest of scripture could then be read as a complicated and surprising story of how God’s purposes are ultimately consummated in the new Jerusalem, in a way that draws the world to God without compromising human freedom.

It would be unwise and inaccurate to claim that scripture is put together in order to tell just this story. Nevertheless, to read Genesis 1-2 in the light of claims about why God creates, and to engage with questions about the purposes for which God creates, is to enter into a theological conversation in which views about God are already shaping, and being shaped, by a reading of scripture.

It is possible to advance that conversation, and bring some resolution to those questions, by presenting an account that covers the entire scope of scripture without making grander claims about there being a single scriptural story.

 

FINALLY, there is the Old Testament’s unrelenting insistence on the singularity of God (most decisively stated in Deuteronomy 6). There is only one God who calls forth our whole-hearted, single-minded love and worship. Nothing else can be allowed to divert us from our love and worship of God. This is why scripture contains such a strong polemic against “idols”.

Through their commitment to Israel’s scripture, the early Christians continue this commitment to God’s singularity. In addition, their words about, and their practices regarding, Jesus indicate that they see Jesus as participating in God’s divine identity.

These dual assertions in scripture set up a theological tension: there is one God; and Jesus is also God. This tension is set up within scripture; scripture establishes some parameters within which this tension can be resolved, but scripture does not itself resolve the tension.

That really only gets worked out at the Council of Nicea — the Church’s first ecumenical council — in AD 325. This focused on addressing issues around the full divinity of Christ in ways compatible with a confession of God’s singularity.

Nicea provided a scripturally shaped way of understanding these dual scriptural claims theologically. It is not so much the case that scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity, as that its claims exert a theological pressure on believers which can only properly be resolved in a Nicene way.

 

THESE conversations can, of course, be synthesised. That would result in a perfectly appropriate account of God, who graciously calls creation into existence, seeks to draw a sin-damaged world back to God (particularly through the calling of Israel), and who — without compromising God’s singularity — takes on human flesh in order to redeem that world.

At times, particularly in worship, it is good to rehearse such syntheses. They summarise some of the most successful moments in the conversation between theology and scripture.

It is equally important for all Christians to participate in this conversation, at whatever level they can. This is because the conversations between doctrines and scripture form a central part of the foundation of faithful Christian living.

 

Dr Stephen Fowl chairs the Theology faculty at Loyola University, Maryland. He is the author of Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cascade, 2009).

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