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Faculty Publication: Dr Graham Shearer, 'Beholding the invisible God in the pages of Scripture' - Parts III & IV


These articles first appeared in Primer 08, 'How Great a Being' (FIEC, 2019) and are republished here with permission:

Part III - Answering Objections

a) Why seek coherence?

Many will feel uncomfortable with Calvin’s approach. Does he not end up flattening the text with his own framework of what God is like? Many evangelicals will be impatient with concepts like ‘anthropomorphism’ or ‘analogy’ and instead insist that the text means what the text says! Here, though, we come across a curious feature of the way that contemporary British evangelicals engage with Scripture. Where we find two or more texts saying things that seem to be in tension historically, the evangelical instinct is, rightly, to seek for an explanation that brings the two into coherence. For instance, did Jesus clear the temple at the start of his ministry (John 2) or at the end (Matt 21), or how exactly did Judas die? This is virtually the ABC of evangelical biblical interpretation and apologetics and it springs from the correct assumption that as the word of God, the Scriptures must be free from contradiction.

When we turn to matters of theology, however, this desire for coherence is significantly reduced. We are urged not to ‘impose a framework’ on the text and simply let it speak for itself. This, though, is strange because the only reason to believe that the historical statements of Scripture are coherent is because the one who authors it is a coherent being. Our belief in the historical accuracy and coherence of Scripture rests, therefore, on a commitment about the nature of reality: that God is a God of truth and that, therefore, truth ultimately coheres. But if that is the case, surely we should expect his statements about himself to be coherent also?

It follows, then, that reading texts which speak of God regretting or changing his mind (e.g. Gen 6:6 or Hos 11:8) in the light of other texts like Rev 4:11 and Mal 3:6, is not to undermine Scripture’s authority but flows directly from our belief in it. If Scripture was not the word of God, we would have no need to explain Gen 6:6 as teaching anything other than that God changed his mind in repentance. It is only because we believe that Gen 6:6 and Mal 3:6 and Rev 4:11 all come from the same authoritative source that we have grounds to pursue a conversation between them and expect that conversation to end in a harmonious whole.

Systematic theology, therefore, should never be understood to undermine the authority of Scripture; rather, to pursue a theological system is to testify that we believe Scripture’s authority and the implications of that authority. We might put it like this: the classical doctrine of God should not be seen as a theological holiday from, or exception to, the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, for it is, in fact, its only true foundation.

b) Shouldn't We Just Start With Jesus?

Some readers may have followed the preceding discussion with increasing impatience. Haven’t we started in entirely the wrong place? Shouldn’t a distinctively Christian doctrine of God begin, not with the notion of God as Creator, but with God as he reveals himself to us in Christ? And here, surely, is an insurmountable difficulty for the classical doctrine of God, for when we look at Christ we see one who hungers, thirsts, grows, suffers and dies and yet claims to reveal God unambiguously, to be one with the Father and, crucially, accepts his disciples’ worship. If we accept his claims (and what use is evangelical theology if we do not?) then we have in Christ the revelation of a God who can change, a God who is open to new experiences and new relationships. Isn’t the early church’s understanding of God as immutable and impassible something that owes more to Greek philosophy than the revelation of God in Christ? A triumph of Aristotle over the Apostles?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails to appreciate the context in which Jesus claimed the rights of divinity, by accepting worship. There were plenty of human figures who claimed divine honours. The unique thing about the early church’s worship of Jesus was not that they worshipped a man – the entire Roman Empire did something like that when it confessed Caesar as Lord – but the kind of God they thought Jesus was, namely the uncreated Creator of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was that Jesus claimed to be this God in human nature that was so radical and revolutionary. Maintaining the immutability and simplicity of Jesus’ divinity was not, therefore, an unfortunate intrusion of the philosophy of Aristotle or Plato to an otherwise pristine Jewish faith but the aspect of Christianity most indebted to the revelation of the Old Testament. The early church teaching about the unchanging, absolute and infinite nature of Jesus’ divinity owed little to Greek philosophy and everything to the very Hebrew conviction that to worship anything other than the uncreated Creator is idolatry.

It was to rescue Thomas from that charge of idolatry (and Jesus from the charge of blasphemy) that the early church maintained that when Thomas worshipped the risen Jesus in John 20:28, he was worshipping one who was divine, in full possession of the unchanging perfection of deity. Additionally, and somewhat paradoxically, only the notion that Jesus is fully God protects the integrity of Jesus’ full humanity. It is only when we realise that Jesus’ divine nature is unable to suffer, die or even change, that we realise that he experiences those things in his human nature, a human nature just like ours except for our sin.

The early church developed this account of Jesus’ two natures by asking what the incarnate life of Christ reveals about God, and setting out their conclusions in the Chalcedonian Definition of A.D. 451. Put simply, that definition ascribes two natures to the single person of Christ: a divine nature which he has from eternity as the Second Person of the Trinity, and a human nature, which he assumes at the moment of conception in Mary’s womb. Chalcedon seeks to do two things: first,to emphasise the unity of the natures since they belong to a single person, the Son; and second, to secure the distinction between the two natures which are recognised “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union.” In this way, the Chalcedonian Definition allows us to ascribe change and suffering as genuinely real experiences of his human nature (and therefore of his person) while maintaining that Christ’s divine nature remains unchangingly perfect and infinite.

Part IV - The Implications of Classical Theism

We have covered a lot of ground and done so relatively quickly. Perhaps, though, this discussion has felt like a long, slow, grim march of denials: “oh well, actually it doesn’t mean that,” “sorry, I’m afraid you can’t say that”, “actually that was in regard to his human nature so what you just said is probably heresy.” Why keep trudging on, learning these unfamiliar and counter-intuitive concepts? Well, just as a man who learns a language for the sake of love must have his grammar corrected if he is ever to understand his beloved, so we should study the grammar of classical theism in order to better embrace the worship of the heavenly throneroom. For once we have become more familiar with the way biblical revelation works, we will find in classical theism not a dour, static God but one who is, in the words of Heinrich Bullinger, “the abundant fulness, that satisfies all men and all things: he is the everlasting well of all good things, which is never drawn dry.” The affirmation that God is simple, unchanging, and perfect does not drain him of life but ensures that we ascribe him the maximum life possible, untouched by creaturely limitation or suffering. It is this God of infinite love, power, wisdom and goodness, who is love itself, who is goodness itself, who is life itself, who speaks to us in Scripture. It is this God of eternal perfection who steps into his creation in Christ. If we fail to see the God of classical theism in Scripture, we fail to see the most precious thing of which the Scriptures speak.

What difference, then, does believing in and cherishing God as unchangingly, eternally perfect make? We can draw out just one implication of our discussion. If ultimate reality is found in the one who is, rather than in any historical process of becoming, then it re-orientates our assessment of human purpose. Of course, the eternal God is directing the process of salvation-history, but the goal of that process is the worship and praise of the eternal Father, Son and Spirit not only for his work in creation and redemption but simply for who he is.

This means that the final goal of human action is not achievement but worship; it is not usefulness but adoration. An approach to Scripture that concentrates on God’s acts but not on his being, will always tend toward a task-orientated, activist Christianity where the urgent question is always, “are we advancing the Kingdom?” And we will almost always imagine that the Kingdom is advancing quicker in the church of 500 than in the church of 50 or through the gifted personal evangelist or Bible teaching rather than the stammering introvert. And, no doubt for the best of motives, the pull of pragmatism will always tug at our hearts and practice. Church services will be viewed as ‘shop windows’ for the visitors; any teaching regarded as peripheral to the gospel, ecclesiology, the sacraments, even the doctrine of the Trinity itself, can be side-lined if inconvenient; and the question will return, again and again, have I, or we, done enough? Exhaustion, burn-out, and breakdown cannot but be far behind.

But if we view the end of the Bible story, and therefore the purpose of human life, as worship of the Triune God, then we can bring the end into the middle of the story, here and now. Each Sunday, each church, no matter what size, can attain to the goal of human existence as they worship God in spirit and truth. The paraplegic, the housebound, the elderly can worship God with just as much piety as the bold Bible teacher or energetic evangelist and therefore bring just as much glory to God as they do so. Grasping the transcendent, unchanging, infinity of Father, Son and Spirit, swings the compass of hearts towards what is eternal rather than time-bound, what is infinite rather than finite. It liberates us from pragmatism and activism, because our first question becomes “did I worship God truly?” not “did I advance the kingdom?” Our value no longer arises from our gifts and achievements but from our status as adopted children of the infinite Father.

Such is the liberty and the joy available to those who discover the same God in the Scriptures as Augustine, Gregory, Calvin and innumerable other saints down the centuries. It may be, however, that the way we read the Scriptures will have to change in order to do so. We will have to relearn the grammar of analogy, accommodation and anthropomorphism again to truly grasp what God has revealed in his word. This may be a challenging and humbling process. Could it be that our very desire to take the word of God seriously has led us to downplay concepts, like accommodation and analogy, that those before us have understood as essential to understanding it correctly? Could our methods of interpreting the Bible actually obscure and minimise our vision of our Creator? If so, they do so at a great cost.

Anselm of Canterbury, the great 11th century theologian understood the knowledge and love of God as the supreme Triune Creator to be what Jesus tells us to ask for so that our “joy may be complete” (John 16:24). Of that knowledge he prayed,

"Let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it. Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the ‘joy of the Lord (Matt 25:21), who is God, Three in One, ‘blessed forever. Amen.’ (Rom 1:25)." (Anselm, Proslogion, chapter 26).

May Anselm’s prayer be answered in us all.

Questions for further discussion:

1. Do you think we have emphasised what God has done for us at the expense of thinking about who God is? What do you make of Graham’s suggestion that this produces a church culture in which we emphasise activity over the worship and adoration of God?

2. Graham has spoken about accommodation, anthropomorphisms, and analogy. Go back and check you understand what each of those mean and why Graham thinks they are worth learning.

3. One question the debate around the classical doctrine of God forces us to ask is the value we place on historical creeds such as the Apostles' Creed, the Chalcedon Definition, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and so on. What status do these early confessions have in the life of your church or the training of your leaders? What status should they have, do you think?

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