Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

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Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): part 3

The Identity of God


The Evangelical perception of God is confusing, as if God is a complicated mix of many contradictory identities: Is he an angry, violent God bent on judgment and destroying sinful creatures? Is he a gentle, inclusive God defined primarily by love? Is he as nice as Jesus was? Is he really three different "beings"? Is he a "he"?

This minefield is difficult to navigate, and though it is tempting to ignore the hard work of discovering God's identity and just go with whatever your tradition has always said, a faulty, or less-than-biblical, conception of the Christian God is at the root of many damaging philosophies. The following is a brief outline of some of these schools of thought.

Stoicism/Pantheism, Epicureanism/Deism & the Judeo-Christian Alternative

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9

Two major, ancient schools of philosophy have deeply infected the modern, Evangelical conception of god: Stoicism and Epicureanism.** Though there is much to be said about these philosophies, this discussion here will be limited to the relevant pieces of each.

First, one central doctrine of Stoicism taught that the entirety of creation was composed of material known as "God". This God was in everything one could see, including oneself. This whole idea is obviously closely related to Pantheistic thought, and in some ways laid groundwork for its continued prominence. Interestingly, one Greek word for this Stoic God was "Logos", which is translated into English as "word." In the masterful prologue to John's Gospel, he intentionally and repeatedly uses this word "Logos" to position Jesus as an alternative to the Stoic conception of a universal God.

There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
— Epictetus

Second, and in direct contradiction to Stoicism, is the Epicurean notion of God. Epictetus, considered the founder of this philosophy, seemed to be dismayed over the prevailing superstitious ideas of a God, or many gods, who would randomly interfere with the goings-on of the world, and were believed to punish you in conscious torment after your death. In response, he decisively taught that if any gods did exist, they were profoundly disconnected from and uninterested in our world. The world around us, and the ongoing development of humanity, was entirely the result of natural causes. Incidentally, the rise of Deism (which many of America's founders were subscribed to) is a natural continuation of Epicurean thought.

Evangelical Christianity is not insulated from the impact of these philosophies. New Age movements declaring that God is in each of us, that God simply needs to be discovered in one's own heart, are simply modern manifestations of Stoic thought. Though Christianity rightly teaches that God is imminent, that God is close to us and involved in our lives, we can err dangerously close to a pantheistic philosophy when we forget that for God to be holy, and for there to have been a Fall, the Creator is in some distinct way separated from the created (though the redemptive movement of the Bible profoundly declares this separation was eliminated in Jesus, and will eventually be eliminated throughout the rest of the creation, but I'm getting ahead of myself....) On the flip side of this, the modern sweep of the New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like), and the unending fight between science and religion, is really simply a new manifestation of Epicureanism. If we can observe and explain every natural process surrounding us, then God is clearly not involved in the world in any meaningful way.

So, where is the Evangelical Christian left in all of this? Who is it that we worship? Will the real God please stand up?

In many ways, I believe Christians need to reexamine our connection to ancient Judaism, for it provides a beautiful alternative to this philosophical quandary. Rather than ignoring or fearing our connection to this ancient religion, but instead seeking to humbly understand it, we can glean marvelous wisdom and insight, particularly into the character of the God we worship.

If it were possible to travel back in time, to one of the few centuries before Jesus was born, and ask a devout Jew, "Who is God?" he would not respond with any of the following words: immutable, omnipresent, impassible, or omniscient. He certainly wouldn't say the name of God, since vocalizing the name of the divine being was strictly considered blasphemy in the ancient Jewish world, possibly at the threat of being stoned. Instead, he would likely explain that God is the one who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, the one who made a promise to their father Abraham, and the one who would eventually bring about a Messiah to fully restore his people.  

We evangelicals have grown too fond of talking about God in terms of "attribute ontology," primarily describing God in terms of characteristics. Interestingly, many of these attributes which are frequently connected to God in modern vernacular (omnipresent, omniscient, et al.) can be more readily linked to the vocabulary of ancient Greek philosophy than the vocabulary of ancient Jewish worship. The point here is not to suggest that all these terms are incorrect, or inaccurate (though I do think some are much more helpful than others) but is rather to suggest a move away from "attribute ontology" and instead towards "event ontology."

When Moses spoke to the burning bush in the desert, he said, "When I go back to the leaders of my tribe, who am I supposed to say sent me?" And God replied, in those famous words, "I AM WHO I AM." (Exodus 3.14) I like to think this was God saying, "I'm the one who is here, right now. I have shown up to take care of this mess, and I'm always going to show up to take care of every mess, because I promised to do that, and I always keep my promises. My identity speaks for itself. I AM WHO I AM."

God shows up. When we speak about God, how much more powerful, and helpful, it is to speak about the events in which God has been revealed in the world, and even in our own lives, rather than trying to describe convoluted philosophical attributes of a supreme being. Among many other things, the Bible is a narrative of events that show how God has "showed up" throughout human history. As Christians, we stand on the tradition of our Jewish forefathers, and we can declare that God has faithfully showed up to God's own people through the ages, and ultimately showed up in a meek, Jewish Rabbi in the first century. God shows up, and will continue to show up, out of faithfulness, grace, and love in order to restore our lives, our communities, and ultimately our world. This is the God we worship.

God and Gendered Language


Before closing, I find it important to make a note on "gendered language" in reference to God. The Evangelical tradition has resolutely decided that the only pronoun which should be used to refer to God is the male "he." A quick survey of our books, sermons, and worship music shows this to be true. Jesus was male and referred to God as his "father", so the thinking goes, and this therefore reflects that God is in some way more masculine than feminine in identity. Well-known evangelical pastors have subscribed to this, and I find it extremely important to wave a cautionary flag before we limit the biblical revelation of God to one gender and support the idea that women somehow bear less of the image of God than their male counterparts. An honest look at the ways biblical writers describe God simply does not allow us to limit God to being male.

First, both "male and female" were created in God's image, equally (Genesis 1.27). God is then repeatedly described, in God's own first-person language, as a mother (Hosea 11.3, Isaiah 49.15, Isaiah 66.13). Twice, God is described as a mother animal caring for her young (Deuteronomy 32.11, Hosea 13.8). Isaiah described God as a woman in labor, and Jeremiah even speaks of God as the Queen of Heaven! (Isaiah 42.14, Jeremiah 44.25)

Furthermore, Jesus describes himself as a mother hen, wishing to gather her young (Matthew 23.37, Luke 13.34). And lastly, immediately before the famous story of the Prodigal Son, which is in large part the source of our God-as-Father imagery, Jesus portrays God as a woman looking for a lost coin in her home (Luke 15.8).

In summation, I am not advocating that we simply switch all our pronouns to "she" when speaking of God, for that would be to continue to limit God to one gender. I'm also not advocating that we refer to God as an impersonal "it!" Rather, we need to recover a more complex conception of the God we worship, and we need to examine ourselves: why are we so comfortable with always referring to God as "He," and so uncomfortable with the idea of ever referring to God as "She," especially when the writers of the Bible didn't seem to have an issue with it?

As Evangelicals, we limit our own capacity to worship when we speak only of philosophical attributes and the male gender in reference to our God. God is bigger than this, the ultimate and loving father, mother, queen, and king. God is the one who has faithfully shown up, and will continue to faithfully show up, until the world is put back to rights, declaring "I AM WHO I AM."

This is our God.

**For more on this subject, both Greg Boyd and N.T. Wright have written extensively on the impact of Greek philosophies on American Christianity.