Orthodoxy and Defining God

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Challenging conventional doctrine, Creeds, Open theology | Posted on 16-11-2013

bibleI’ve been having a variety of discussions with friends lately on the topics of orthodox dogma, the creeds, and related concepts.  Regular readers of this blog are well aware of my objection to creeds generally, and to the Nicene Creed in particular.  I have recently realized that part of the problem with credal and dogma


tic pronouncements is that they take not just parts of the Bible, but whole concepts out of context and give them a centrality in “belief” that is completely foreign to the Biblical teaching of a life lived in faith(fulness).   There are many examples I could use, but for illustrative purposes let’s take a look at  a sample of the bedrocks of orthodox theology, the “Three Omnis:” (for reference, I’m quoting definition phrases from the Blue Letter Bible website at http://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/attributes.cfm, which is fairly representative of the conservative position on these points)

  1. God is omniscient — God “knows all that there is to know”
  2. God is omnipotent — “God has the unlimited power to accomplish anything that can be accomplished”
  3. God is omnipresent — “God is everywhere present in the fullness of His being”

People put these concepts to a variety of uses, but I find two in particular crop up fairly frequently in my discussions with other believers.  One is an essentially credal idea…these are just “right things” that we must think about God or we’re wrong.  As the oh-so-humbly-titled website “All About God” says:  “This is the description of the God of the Bible. All other ideas about God are, according to the Bible, false gods. They are from the imagination of mankind.”  The italics in that quote are my emphasis … I note it’s not other gods that are called “false gods,” but rather “other ideas about God.”  One could be forgiven for wondering whether “true” ideas about God might have supplanted the true God as the thing to be worshiped–but I digress.  No differently than the ecumenical councils I’ve bashed before, this use of the “omnis” comes down to essentially the same attitude displayed in the Athanasian Creed, which states in article 27 “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity” and again in article 43 “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”  In other words, the root concept of credalism is “you must think/believe this or you can go to hell.”

There’s a second application of the “omnis” that I think may be even more dangerous.  When theologians make an assertion about God — for example God’s omniscience — and then start analyzing that assertion in philosophical terms, I find that the assertion tends to take on a life of its own.  Riffing on the theme that “God knows everything,” theologians and philosophers seem to get wrapped up in the “everything” that God must know, and soon they’re making silly pronouncements of the sort that William Lane Craig made in Four Views on Divine Providence, when he stated “…the open theologian’s God turns out not to be omniscient…Thus, the open theologian must deny divine omniscience and therefore reject God’s perfection–a serious theological consequence indeed.” (location 1857 in the Kindle version).  Put more simply, if God doesn’t know what we think he ought to know if he’s omniscient, then he mustn’t be God, or mustn’t be perfect, or mustn’t be something else a perfect God “ought” to be.

My problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that it seems to me that we wind up in the hubristic place of defining God through our theology, instead of forming our theology around God’s self-revelation.  I love how John Sanders said something similar in one of his footnotes in The God Who Risks:  “I think that those working from the concept of the most perfect being have often been too quick to believe that they are correct in their intuitions regarding perfection and so too ready to interpret the biblical text in light of them.”  Sanders is right, and not just about perfection, but about nearly every “must-believe” component of theology.  Let’s take a look at what some biblical texts actually say about God’s omniscience, using the very “prooftexts” (their word!) from BlueLetter Bible:

Psalm 147:5 — God’s “understanding is infinite,” stated in a hymn of praise.
Ezekiel 11:5 — “I know the things that come into your mind” essentially says that God is aware of the evil his people have been committing — and he intends to judge them for it.
Acts 15:18 — essentially God knows his own works, really more a statement of God’s self-knowledge than anything else.
Romans 11:33-35 — another hymn of praise to God for his incredible knowledge, surpassing human understanding.
1 John 3:20 — “God is greater than our hearts, and knows everything” is stated as a comfort against our own self-condemnation and for God’s love.

Of course, the prooftexters do not consider verses such as Jeremiah 3:19, in which God through Jeremiah says that “he thought” Israel would be faithful, but they weren’t (see also Isaiah 5:1-7).

Interestingly, not one of these verses, in its context, is primarily a theological statement.  Yes, the biblical authors are talking about God’s knowledge, but whether it’s truly infinite or whether it’s just massively greater than our own isn’t really the point.  They do not define the character of God for its own sake, or for the sake of our “right knowledge” of God.  Rather, the reality of God’s vast knowledge provides the grounds for some other point they are making.  These passages testify that because God is all-knowing, God is worthy of our praise, knows what he’s talking about, can’t be fooled by us, and is greater than whatever our minds might dream against him or even against ourselves.

The same pattern holds true if we look at prooftexts about God’s omnipotence:

Jeremiah 32:17 — “Nothing is too hard for you [God].”  This is in the context of Jeremiah prophesying the destruction of Israel, and basically says God’s going to accomplish what he says.
Matt. 19:26 — “With God, all things are possible” is stated in the context of the disciples wondering if anybody can be saved, after Jesus’ camel/needle’s eye statement.
Mark 14:36 — Jesus, praying “let this cup pass from me,” reminds his Father that “all things are possible for you.”  This is a statement of faith in the context of obedience.

And one that is not in BlueLetter’s list …

Luke 1:37 — “Nothing will be impossible for God” literally says “Not powerless is any decree of God.”  This is a statement of faith that God can and will do what he says, in the context of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary.

As with the texts on omniscience above, the scriptural texts on God’s omnipotence are all about God having both the means and the faithfulness to accomplish what he says he will do.  The same holds true for statements of his omnipresence, which I will not belabor here.   And this is the crux of the matter.  When the Bible speaks (as it often does) about the superlative nature of God’s power, knowledge, or any other trait, it is in the context of worship, or in a call to obedience.  It’s not essentially didactic, and certainly not about constructing right theology.  That shouldn’t really be a surprise to us, because in point of fact, scripture is nearly always more concerned with how we relate to God in obedience and trust, than it is whether we think the right stuff about God.  That’s why James points out that even demons have good theology (James 2:19).  That’s why Jesus, right after warning about false prophets (no doubt a not-so-veiled reference to the religious authorities of his own day) informs his disciples “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21).

So am I suggesting that the “omnis” aren’t true of God?  Of course not–at least not as scripture itself defines them (I do think the theophilosophical concepts may be in error).  But I am most definitely suggesting that when we develop exquisite doctrines about the “omnis,” and then use those doctrines to re-interpret scripture, we err mightily.  When we use those philosophical constructs to define what God “must” be, especially in contrast to (or in extrapolation beyond) what God has revealed of himself, we err.  And when certain Evangelical authorities (I use the term loosely) use those doctrines to declare another follower of Jesus to be apostate, they are abusing the word of God.

Theology can be a good thing.  Properly used, it encourages the body of believers to remain faithful to the God who is great enough, powerful enough, and trustworthy enough to accomplish in and through and for us, all the good he has promised.  Theologians can and should observe who God is and what God has said and done.  They can and should think and analyze and debate and challenge the ways we interpret and respond to God’s words and deeds.  But theology must know its place … and it must always remain subordinate to God’s own revelation.  It, and we, must never presume to define the infinite God.

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