The Christian faith is not a theory of the universe. It is not a set of beliefs about the world. Nor is it a theory about the nature and actions of God. And it isn’t even a theory about Jesus of Nazareth. Instead it is trusting the living God.
It is knowing the God who reveals himself by acting in the world to know and love human beings. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the passionate, tenacious maker and keeper of covenant with people like you and me.
The Christian faith is trusting the true and living God; it’s not a system of beliefs, not a set of right answers with which we can rest secure. Because a person is a Christian she may know things about the world she otherwise would not know; she may think about the universe in ways she would not otherwise have thought. What she knows is true in virtue of her being a Christian may, and ought to, have interesting, important and surprising implications about the ways of the world.
Believing the right things can make it harder or easier to trust God, but trusting God is not a matter of having the correct theories about God.
How many, I wonder, want to keep God (comfortably for themselves) in the box. They don’t want their God to be infinite and incomprehensible!
We’re always tempted to try to avoid the risks and uncertainties of encountering the living God by building a safe place for him, a strong and beautiful house of theory which explains the universe and makes sense of our lives. Of course we give him his rightful place at its center. And we are careful to defend this theological, philosophical structure against the infidels.
But have we let the living God speak for himself? Or have we shut him up, preferring to hear our answers to our questions about him rather than his questions to us?
St. Paul was talking sense when we said ‘see to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ’ (Colossians 2:8).
‘See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…;’ how are we to take St. Paul’s advice? Is ignorance the best defense?
Since we have the Truth, why should we even bother with philosophical theories of the universe? Why not stick with the simple faith?
The fact that I am here, and the fact that Christian liberal arts colleges exist, shows that some of us think that philosophy is something Christians need to pay attention to. The same apostle who warned us about philosophy and vain deceit said it is our task to ‘destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.’ (10 Corinthians 2.5).
We are not to ignore philosophical thought; our job is to take it captive for Jesus Christ. The mere fact that there are philosophical things to know doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for us to know about them. There are plenty of things we’re better off not knowing. Some things might be bad for us to know: how to dispatch your roommate with an ordinary clothes hanger, how to conjure up a demon; other things are just trivial, not worth the time it takes to know them: how many things are there in New York state that start with the letter ‘Q’, or who killed Laura Palmer. Bringing every thought into captivity to Christ surely doesn’t mean we should waste our time thinking about this stuff.
One of the most important ways in which, it seems to me, we have been deceived by philosophical theories is in the way we think about God. It is clear that the Christian conception of God down through the centuries has been deeply influenced by Greek philosophy. In fact I suspect that an important part of the reason the Christian churches have had a hard time letting their hearts and minds be open to the unconditional good news about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, and have instead become moralistic and authoritarian, is because they have acquired a mistaken idea of God: a depersonalized, dehumanized God, one that cannot be easily related to the true and living God of the Scriptures. Christendom has often worshipped not the God of the Bible, but the God of the philosophers.
Think about the God of the Bible and how different he is from the God of the orthodox theological tradition. The God of the Bible walks in the garden in the cool of the evening and looks for Adam and Eve; he asks questions; he does things and waits to see what happens; he acts and waits to see how human beings react; he says he is going to do one thing and then he changes his mind; he gets angry and then his anger abates; he makes threats and then relents; he changes; he is moved to joy and anger by the doings of human beings; he is emotional; he wrestles with Jacob; he portrays himself as a father, a mother, a warrior. He reveals himself in the history of Israel as a real person, not cool, passionless, remote, but concrete and complex like human beings, only more so.
He won’t leave us alone; he insists on being with us. He argues, he bargains, he implores, he woos, he suffers.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that ‘real things are sharp and knobbly and complicated and different’ (Miracles, p. 172). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the living God of the Bible, is, of all things, a real thing.
Sometimes people don’t like to do God the honor of thinking he is a real thing; apparently it seems somehow impious, as though treating God as though he were real is ‘putting him in a box.‘ But God is capable of speaking for himself. He has revealed what he is like in the history of Israel, in his word, and above all on the cross.
The God of the Bible is alive. He is steadfast in his love but he is unpredictable in his actions. Yet we can know something of his nature because he shares himself with us.
The ‘God’ of ancient philosophy, the philosophical invention of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, is the ‘God’ that Christian theology adopted.
The God of the ancient philosophers is an abstract object; he has all the reality of the square root of 16. This so-called God is not alive. He is beyond time and change, not the Ancient of Days but the Eternal One. The God of the philosophers is passionless, incapable of being moved to hot anger and tears by the human condition. He is serene and untroubled. The God of the philosophers knows everything about the future; he can’t interact with human beings as free creatures on whom the as yet open future in part depends.
The God of the philosophers is simple; there is no depth or complexity in his personality. As an abstract object, he is captured in the nets of our philosophical theories. He has his prominent place in our neat and rationally explicable scheme of things. We know what he’s like and he is basically predictable.
The God of the philosophers, the God of much of the theological tradition, is a creature of the human mind and, as such, is ultimately in our control. To bow down to something made by the human mind is no less idolatry than to bow down to something made by human hands. And it’s a more dangerous, because a less obvious, form of idolatry.
Philosophical conceptions of what God has to be like, no matter what the Bible says, also infect our thinking about God incarnate.
The tendency has almost always been to imagine Jesus as something other than fully human, as not subject to the same constraints and infirmities as the rest of us. We have portrayed him as all-knowing and infallible, as though he were not really a male human being born in first-century Palestine but merely a god inhabiting a human body.
The philosophically-based theology that mesmerized Christianity for centuries has no place for the Jesus who lived a life of faith and trust with his father, having nothing to go on but the witness of the Spirit and his Father’s written Word.
The theological tradition, following Plato, has taught that Jesus did not really die. He did not face extinction; he merely became temporarily disembodied. His spiritual soul, the immaterial entity he really is, went right on living.
The tradition does not conceive the incarnation of God himself into a sinful world as an outrageous and desperately risky act of free covenant love. It rejects the notion of God becoming one of us, becoming nothing but a bunch of molecules like you and me. It cannot accommodate the God who makes himself vulnerable and falls into the hands of those who do not want him to be himself but who want to control him and who, failing that, want to kill him.
The tradition has tried to refine and dehumanize the living God to make him philosophically acceptable. How can these philosophical theories about God have been reconciled with the witness of the Bible?
Innumerable passages in the biblical witness to the living God and his unexpected doings are designated as ‘anthropomorphic’; we are told that God doesn’t really change his mind, he doesn’t really undergo change, he isn’t really effected by what we do, he really does always know what human beings are going to do next.
All this, we are informed, are just the Bible’s unphilosophical way of speaking. This is very intimidating.
Anyone who thinks Holy Scripture might mean what it says looks pretty unsophisticated, as naive as the person who imagines God the Father as being an old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne. And of course not everything the Bible says about God is literally true.
There are lots of metaphorical truths about God. His eyes don’t literally run to and fro on the Earth (2 Chronicles 16.9) There is of course room for faithful disagreement as to precisely which of the things the Scriptures tell us about God should be taken literally and which metaphorically.
The crucial question is whether, as our faith seeks understanding, we let Plato, or Aristotle, or Whitehead, or Wittgenstein, or anyone tell us what God is like, rather than letting God speak for himself.
As often happens, effective criticism of what goes wrong in philosophy comes from inside philosophy. Today many philosophers are realizing that their ideas about God do not come from God but from non-Christian philosophers, and that faithfulness to God requires that we turn back to God’s own account of what he is like.
In contemporary philosophy there are increasingly many reasons to believe that the ideas of God in the theological tradition don’t make much sense on their own and, more important, that they cannot be made to fit the living God we meet in the Bible.
The reality of the authority of the Bible is that it is always there to criticize the thought and action of the Christian Church. The word of the living God is powerful and ultimately eludes Christians’ best efforts to control it and make the God of whom it speaks palatable.
The authoritative word of God judges and criticizes our religious and philosophical talk about him. By means of it God can graciously liberate us from the grip of the philosophies that have so distorted our thinking about him.
My conviction is, it is the calling of late 20th-century philosophy to turn our theories back to God, to listen to him speak in the Scriptures rather than imposing our conceptions of what he has to be like on him.
It is exciting because there is hope that things are really going in that direction. But what matters is not whether any particular philosopher or school of philosophers is right or wrong on any given issue. It is that the voice of Scripture is again, after being silenced for centuries, being taken seriously.
My hope is that our philosophical theories will, by God’s grace, be conformed to his word. For what finally matters is not what philosophy thinks of God, but what God thinks of philosophy. Once again the tools of philosophy seem to be available to deliver us from the God of the philosophers and give us back to the God of the Scriptures.
Human beings in their fallen condition naturally want to know God as he is in himself. But this is not the way God has chosen to be known. We know God only as he acts on our behalf in our space and time. And what we see are not merely appearances of him, not symbols for him, for beyond those we see the true nature of the living God, God himself showing us who he is, walking, talking, sweating, bleeding, alive, dead, and alive again in our tricky and dangerous world.
The God we know in the Bible is not obvious. He transcends the powers of our minds and imaginations. He is a stumbling block to anyone who thinks God should conform to the concepts and categories of our philosophies.
Knowing him cannot be reduced to adopting a theory about him. Having the right beliefs about him cannot take the place of trusting him. At the end of the day what distinguishes the saved from the lost is not that the saved believe the true, and the unsaved false, theories about him. The ultimate question is whether the living God is graciously present in our lives or whether we have shut him out.
One way to shut him out is to replace him with the unreal, impersonal God of the Greek philosophers and of far too many Christian theologians. One way toward saying yes to his presence in our lives is to rethink our ideas about him, critically testing them against the biblical witness to see if we have let the true and living God speak for himself.
Donald H. Wacome, Ph.D.
5 December 1990 from: http://home.nwciowa.edu/wacome/gbgp.htm
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