OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

The God of the Bible

The poll asking whether visitors to open source theology believe that the God of the Bible exists has raised the question of what we actually mean by the 'God of the Bible'. I don't have a very coherent response to the question, but these are some preliminary thoughts.

I would suggest that we need a greater awareness of the pluralistic (or even polytheistic) context in which we make statements about God. This is part of what it means to be postmodern - there is faith but there is also a heightened self-awareness, a sense of context, a willingness to entertain complexity and doubt. The collapse of Christendom and its metanarrative and the influx of foreign gods into the West in recent decades have made it much harder to claim a privileged status for the God of the Bible. What right have we got to say who God really is for everyone else? Perhaps we are much closer now to the situation of early Israel. We worship YHWH, a tribal god, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god which Jesus worshipped, the god of the Christians, in a world that has many other gods and un-gods. True, we want to say that our god is the only true God, that he is the creator of heaven and earth, that he is a jealous god - but perhaps we haven't really grasped the fact yet that this has become again a contested assumption. The natural religious state of humanity is, and always has been, paganism. The particular commitment required by belief in YHWH is exceptional, which is why it is framed within doctrines of election and covenant. It doesn't come naturally.

Rather than define God primarily in abstract, philosophical terms, we should probably emphasize the narrative and relational framework - not an ontology but a narratology of God. This means, on the one hand, that we make sense of God essentially by telling stories rather than by putting forward rational arguments; and on the other, that we emphasize the fact that this God has called a people out of the world to be faithful to him, has made a binding agreement with that people, and has given that people a task, a job to do, among the nations of the world. This is a God to whom we respond as a people, as a community - through worship and through living God-like or Spirit-filled lives. But it is also a God who responds to us, so another way of speaking about God would be to set out what we expect from him.

(Telling the story of a tribal God competing for loyalty amongst other gods, raises a different set of problems: see, for example, A God of violence?)

I think we should also be much more candid about the difficulty of speaking about this shy, reclusive God of ours, who refuses to come out from behind the curtain of reality and make himself unequivocally known to the world. In a way Bultmann was right: theology is anthropology. Or better, theology is ecclesiology: the church is that group of people in the world that has taken upon itself the responsibility, the challenge, of acting as though YHWH exists and is a significant, active presence. We say that the church is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Flip this over and we say instead that it is the church that plays out, enacts, embodies, incarnates the reality of a God who is defined by covenant and mission - just as Jesus played out, enacted, embodied, incarnated the return of YHWH to Zion when he rode into Jerusalem. Our God is what we enact.

In what way does NT christology redefine God? The equation 'Jesus is God' is usually taken to mean that Jesus is divine, or that he shares in the godhead. But what if we turned it around so that it becomes not a statement about Jesus but a statement about God? Not Jesus is God-like but God is Jesus-like, God shares in the humanity of Jesus, God is defined by the story of Jesus, God has irrevocably associated himself with one who gave himself so that others might have life. What this may suggest is a different response to the challenge of pluralism: rather than fight for the supremacy of our God (as Elijah 'fought' for the supremacy of YHWH over Baal on Mount Carmel), we enact the self-giving love of God in the midst of the world. If the true God is in fact Jesus-like, why should we expect the majority of humankind to worship him? It is only those who are prepared to acknowledge the supreme self-giver as Lord, who are baptized into his death in order to share in his life, who will willingly and joyfully and honestly worship the one whom he addressed as 'father'. Perhaps that's overstating the point, but it helps counterbalance the more common mistake which is to exclude the distinctive Jesus narrative from our definition of the godhead.

Incidentally, the Mount Carmel incident (1 Kgs.18:19-39) was not a contest between Israel and the Canaanites but a contest within Israel, because king Ahab had introduced worship of Baal into Israel (1 Kgs.16:31-33; 18:18). Idolatry becomes a problem chiefly when it intrudes into the life and worship of Israel. This is when YHWH gets jealous. This needs to be thought through, but it may have implications for our attitude towards other religions and non-religions. Perhaps we need to allow for the fact that the god that the world knows is not quite the same as the God known to Christ-followers. The god encountered in the court of the nations is not quite the God encountered in the sanctuary, behind the walls of covenantal commitment.

No votes yet

Comments

God does not intervene in the world

Andrew, some comments under various headings:

The polytheistic context
I take it as a given that unreflective acceptance of God no longer exists in the developed world outside the USA. Certainly it does not exist among the educated middle classes. Even among those who are believers, there is often a sense of uncertainty, even embarrassment.

So I have no difficulty in accepting your postulate of a pluralistic context in which modern discussion about God takes place.

But I would resist the idea that this implies that we should accept that our worship of Jahweh is the worship of a tribal God, one God among many. I think that description fits most of the references to God in the Old Testament but the Yahweh whom Jesus referred to as his Father is precisely not a tribal God- He is a God for everyone.

I would also question the suggestion that the natural state of humanity is paganism. According to a contribution by Robert Brow in “The World Religions” the assumption that religion proceeds by a series of evolutionary steps from animism to polytheism to monotheism is no longer accepted by many anthropologists. It is suggested that religion in its primitive state is based on a creator God and animism and polytheism is a falling away from that. I am not sure how reliable this assertion is- does anybody else have a better knowledge of what anthropology says on the point?

God of reason versus the God of stories
I agree that it is not possible to describe the God of faith in abstract or philosophical terms (Aristotle and many others have believed that the existence of God could be demonstrated and a few basic predicates ascribed to Him but I personally do not find such proofs convincing).

You suggest that it is by telling stories about God that we make sense of Him. After reading NT Wright I am powerfully impressed by this approach but it neglects the way of private communion which has always been very strong in Christianity, under the influence, I suppose, of Greek philosophy. I am thinking in particular of some of the great mystics such as Meister Eckhart or the author of the Cloud of Unknowing; or, in our own times, Simone Weil. Or, Dietrich Bonhoeffer- he was not a mystic, but his private prayer (as disclosed in some of his poetry) is heart-rendingly moving.

I have a special problem with the “telling stories” approach and it is that it relies so heavily on the Old Testament. The story of God’s interventions in the OT is one that I find difficult to accept because it portrays a God who could be vicious, irascible, jealous, petty and very, very violent (see Bible Atrocities on the web). As Jack Miles says (p 238) in his book God, A Biography
“It is no exaggeration to say that to judge from the entire text from Genesis 1 through Isaiah 39, God does not know what love is.”

The shy reclusive God
Andrew’s description of God as “shy and reclusive” answers my own understanding and experience of God. Why is it that God does not intervene in the world despite events which have caused terrible suffering? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Christianity. And as Andrew says, it is this which defines God for a Christian:

God is Jesus-like, God shares in the humanity of Jesus, God is defined by the story of Jesus, God has irrevocably associated himself with one who gave himself so that others might have life. What this may suggest is a different response to the challenge of pluralism: rather than fight for the supremacy of our God (as Elijah ‘fought’ for the supremacy of YHWH over Baal on Mount Carmel), we enact the self-giving love of God in the midst of the world. If the true God is in fact Jesus-like, why should we expect the majority of humankind to worship him? It is only those who are prepared to acknowledge the supreme self-giver as Lord, who are baptized into his death in order to share in his life, who will willingly and joyfully and honestly worship the one whom he addressed as ‘father””

Tribalism, monotheism, paganism, mysticism, pacificism

Paul, these are some very interesting comments. They lead off in several different directions, but they are worth pursuing.

But I would resist the idea that this implies that we should accept that our worship of Jahweh is the worship of a tribal God, one God among many. I think that description fits most of the references to God in the Old Testament but the Yahweh whom Jesus referred to as his Father is precisely not a tribal God- He is a God for everyone.

Agreed. Even in the OT YHWH is for the most part understood as the one true God; and conversely in the period of the early church there was a struggle to establish the lordship of Christ in a thoroughly pluralistic religious environment. I think what I wanted to say had more to do with how we see ourselves and our belief system in the world. The tribal God of the patriarchs is a metaphor for the oddness and powerlessness of the Christian faith in the world - or at least in the ‘developed world outside the USA’.

I would also question the suggestion that the natural state of humanity is paganism.

Perhaps the point about monotheism is that as soon as you have a number of conflicting versions of monotheism you are only a short step from paganism and polytheism anyway. Even if we can legitimately posit a primitive state of monotheism, the reality is that it pretty quickly (and probably universally) disintegrates into multiple, localized, competing deities and beliefs.

Two particular thoughts, however, suggested to me that paganism in some form or another is the natural religious state of humankind. First, one gets the impression from reading the OT that Israel’s commitment to one creator God was an exceptional state of affairs: they were a unique people among the nations, chosen to be a people for God’s possession in the midst of plurality. Second, monotheism takes a lot of social effort to sustain it on a large scale. Even with its massive legal and religious infrastructure Israel barely managed to keep idolatry and superstition at bay. With the collapse of the cultural and political edifice of western Christendom, there has been a resurgence of paganism. Islam has needed to impose a high level of control in order to maintain uniformity of belief.

I agree with your point about the absence of mysticism from the stories - mysticism is not an especially biblical notion. I suspect that the wisdom tradition in Israel, which stands somewhat apart from the narrative, rather filled the role that mysticism has played in the spiritual life of the church. There may even be an overlap between mysticism and wisdom that is worth exploring. Bonhoeffer might be a good example of what that overlap would look like.

I also entirely agree with you that the portrayal of God in the OT stories is extremely problematic. It appears that the point occurred to both of us at the same time: see ‘A God of violence?’ I would rather not disown the stories, though, simply because we are embarrassed by them. They seem too integral to the overall story. But I don’t have simple answers.

no simple answers

The phrase in the preceding comment by andrew, ‘no simple answers’, sums it up to me - but that’s not the same as saying there are ‘no answers’, or that the issues should not be investigated further.

For instance, it seems that by the time of Jesus at least, and for some time before that, the full rigours of the Mosaic law in its harshest strictures had not been applied. Even in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the difficulties of maintaining full racial purity were becoming apparent - eg in the ambiguity over dealing with inter-racial marriages. (If this can be regarded as a slight extension of the issue of ‘violence’).

I realise that there are formidable difficulties to face in the violence sanctioned by God in the O.T., in the light of our post renaissance, post enlightenment, even post modern mindset (where tolerance has become the highest virtue - and everything is tolerated apart from intolerance).

However, I do think we should not pretend that apologetics for the God of the O.T. have not been attempted, and these should at least be taken into account. I don’t think there has been a great evangelical cover-up.

In this, we may need to take account of several issues: that we tend to rate ‘love’ as a virtue separate from ‘holiness’; that we see ‘judgement’ as an expression of harshness, rather than a merciful limitation of sinfulness; that ‘sin’ can tend to be something we diminish in its significance for the damage done to God’s universe; that ‘God takes no pleasure in any man’s death’ (Ezekiel 18:32), and that one of the most haunting cries of this prophet, uttered over an Israel about to be judged, was ‘Why will you die, O house of Israel?’

We may need to take into account that a God who sought repentance rather than having to exercise judgement gave the Amorites, occupants of the land Israel was called to slaughter, four generations to repent (Genesis 15:16), and archaeology has uncovered some of the gruesome practices which they urgently needed to turn from.

We may need to bear in mind that the role God gave to Israel to execute judgement on the inhabitants of Canaan does not seem to have been extended to any other generation; that David was forbidden to build the temple because he was a man of blood - which seems at least to suggest ambiguity in God’s attitude towards him as a warrior leader.

I think it is stretching it somewhat to say that between Genesis 1 and Isaiah 61 the God of the O.T. knew nothing of love . I find the opposite to be true - that the profoundest revelation of God to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7 reverberates throughout the O.T.(‘the gracious, compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’ etc), and that this was how He wanted most profoundly to be known; that the prophets present a picture of the depths of God’s love which in its emotional intensity is rarely matched even in the N.T.

These are somewhat arbitrarily selected examples which counter the view that God was a God of violence in the O.T.; it does not mean there are simple answers, still less ‘proof texts’ which can solve everything for us. I do not believe ‘God is a God of war’ and therefore we need to have a theology of warfare. My view is that God works through cultures and situations that are less than perfect: He worked through cultures where violence and warfare were endemic; He worked through a patriarchal system which was deeply imperfect; He worked through people whose lives were deeply flawed (and often changed them in the process); He even sanctioned (apparently) violence perpetrated by the tribes of Israel against one of their own tribes.

I do think that when Jesus came, a new order also came which was quite different from the order which had hitherto prevailed - even amongst God’s people: which to that point represents for me the best that could be obtained when working within an ‘old creation’ paradigm. The ‘new creation’ which Jesus came to inaugurate was of a different order altogether - and was that toward which the ‘old’ had been tending.

I don’t think, by the way, that Jesus ever advocated ‘pacificism’; there is a world of difference between that and ‘passive resistance’ - the latter suggesting action, rather than resignation.

I do think that paul hartigan’s final paragraph summed up the identification of God with Jesus superbly - and could not be bettered. But it’s a long way from that to say that God does not intervene in the world any more. Isn’t the expression of the selfless love of God through people in itself an intervention of God in the life of the world? Are there not also many examples of God intervening supernaturally in people’s lives, over and above anything that could be said to be a purely ‘human’ expression of God’s selfless character?

I don’t wish to seem a boring old advocate for unfashionably outdated views, still less to suggest that there are simple answers for everything. But I do think we need to face the fact that there are questions about God which people have wrestled with before, and with integrity presented some tentative ways of looking at ‘problematic’ issues. It is much more simplistic to me to suggest that the God of the O.T. was entirely divorced from the God Jesus represented. The O.T. narrative is indeed our narrative - but the narrative assumes a paradigm shift with the coming of Jesus - it’s not just a straight line that can be extrapolated from the ‘old’ into the ‘new’.

I was quoting from Andrew

Peter you referred to my final paragraph. I agree with you that it sums up the identification of God with Jesus superbly- however they were not my words, I was quoting from Andew

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.