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GOD (Hebrew ’ĕlōhîm, ēl, ’elyôn, shaddāy, yahweh, Greek theos). The Bible does not contain a formal definition of the word “God,” yet God’s being and attributes are displayed on every page. The greatest definition of the word in the history of Christendom is the one found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q.4): “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” It is fair to say that this definition faithfully sets forth what the Bible constantly assumes and declares concerning God.
Biblical view grounded in God’s self-revelation
Evangelical Christianity traces to divine self-revelation all authentic information about God’s reality, perfections, and purposes. This supernatural disclosure is universally given in nature, history, and Conscience, and in the special redemptive events of Judeo-Christian history climaxed by the incarnation of the Logos. In the inspired Scriptures God has addressed to man, as fallen and sinful, an objective, propositional declaration of His nature and work centering in redemptive rescue.
The nodetitle reveals God as the eternal Spirit, the infinite Creator and preserver, judge of all the universe, and redeemer of all who put their faith in Him. Its characterization of the living God is everywhere related to divine disclosure. The summary by the Westminster divines remains highly serviceable: “God is a Spirit, Infinite, Eternal, and unchanging in His being, Wisdom, Power, Holiness, Justice, Goodness and Truth.” Whereas modern theory expounds Love as the core of divine being, and deprives other attributes of equal ultimacy in the divine nature, this statement defines love (as a manifestation of goodness) in a way that does not subordinate the righteousness and justice of God.
Scholastic view based on rationalistic proofs
The medieval scholastics tended to shift discussion of the case for theism from revelation to speculation, and as a result the exposition of God’s nature acquired rationalistic metaphysical overtones. Immortality of the human soul, are logically demonstrable, as a necessary inference from the universe. Thomas also asserted that man thus acquires a knowledge only of the divine existence but not of the divine essence. He further distinguished between univocal and analogical knowledge, denying that man’s knowledge of God coincides at any point with God’s knowledge of Himself. The scholastics thus compromised the importance and primacy of divine revelation and rested the case for theism first and foremost on natural theology., in the 13th century shaped the traditionally official theology of the Roman Catholic Church. His Summa contended that, apart from any appeal to divine revelation, the existence of God, and the existence and
Modern transition from speculative theism to naturalism
With the rise of modern philosophy, speculative theism further displaced Biblical theism. From Descartes onward, the case for the supernatural is typically referred to nature and to man; no longer is it grounded in an appeal to special divine disclosure, the incarnate nodetitle, and the inspired Scriptures. Medieval theorizing had prepared the way for this speculative trend, and Protestant reformers vigorously protested it, as seen in the writings of Calvin and Luther. Descartes, a distinguished Jesuit mathematician, remained a professing Catholic despite his assertion of skepticism as a philosophical method. He predicated all truth, including proof of God’s existence, upon prior establishment of the reality of the self. From innate ideas he derived the existence of God as perfect being, omniscent, omnipotent, and infinite. Descartes’ scheme embraced a curious circularity: in the clearness and distinctiveness of man’s ideas he grounded man’s certainty of knowledge regarding his own existence and God’s, yet he invoked God’s veracity as the guarantee of this knowledge.
By its speculative rather than scriptural orientation of the question of God, modern philosophy was led to successive and extensive revisions of Christian doctrine. Unitarian theism insisted on the unipersonality of God as against trinitarianism, so that the divine triunity was an early casualty. God’s role as creator remained, although pantheists viewed the universe and man in terms of emanation rather than of creation ex nihilo. Divine redemptive activity was less and less understood in Biblical categories.
Yet, in its beginnings, modern philosophy (Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel) was theistic or idealistic rather than naturalistic in intention and mood. But once the case for theism abandoned revelation as its ground, and a Biblical basis was ignored, the exposition of the supernatural was increasingly vexed by instability. The ground of belief was shifted away from divine disclosure to human reason, experience, intuition, or other facets of man’s awareness. Although supernaturalistic in its beginnings, modern philosophy moved swiftly and suddenly toward naturalism.
Neo-Protestant reactions and concessions.
Kant, although a professed theist, had surrendered all cognitive knowledge of metaphysical realities; he considered God a regulative ideal demanded by man’s moral nature but insisted that knowledge of suprasensible reality is unattainable. In the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics Kant mentions the possibility of an analogical noncognitive notion of God: “a concept of the Supreme Being sufficiently determined for us, though we have left out everything that could determine it absolutely or in itself”—thus discarding “objective anthropomorphism” (sec. 58). Here one readily finds anticipations of more recent theological emphases.
Hegel stressed Reason, but transmuted the Christian emphasis that God is revealed as truth and spirit into a spiritual monism; his pantheistic theory of the Absolute forsook the scriptural doctrine of God as a reality transcendent to nature and man. Although he retained a trinitarian approach, Hegel recast history as the differentiation of the Infinite into finite manisfestations by a dialectical process. He deliberately chose the term Geist as a governing principle. He thrust aside Kant’s restrictions on man’s competency to know metaphysical truth, but his abortive doctrine of theled to unbiblical notions of man’s reason as the candle of the Lord. In The Spirit of Christianity he miscarried the Biblical view of man in the image of God to a perverse emphasis that man as spirit can grasp and comprehend the divine Spirit in his present condition apart from mediated revelation, and sought to reinforce this notion by an exegesis of selected passages from John’s gospel. In deference to his speculations of evolutionary pantheistic immanence, he erased the adverse noetic consequences of the fall of man, concealed the need of once-for-all divine revelation and redemption, and through his false metaphysics misstated even the doctrine of general revelation. This denial of God’s transcendence, and of divine wrath against man as sinner, and of the need of miraculous redemption—predicated on immanentistic evolutionary assumptions—became decisive elements of classic rationalistic modernism.
During the late 19th century and into the second decade of the 20th, the religious philosophies of Kant and Hegel were theologically most influential. Kant had differentiated God from man and the universe but he had condemned man to cognitive ignorance of the supernatural; his concealment of the reality and intelligibility of divine revelation inspired a vast variety of anti-metaphysical theologies. Hegel promoted human competence in the realm of metaphysics by unabashedly making man a part of God; thus he obscured the real presence of God in his transcendent confrontation of man as a finite creation and moral rebel. In either event the religious spirit of the age set itself over against revelation in the Biblical understanding, and consequently lent itself to arbitrary notions of deity.
Despite the fabulous supernaturalisms advanced by the metaphysical idealists of the 19th century, or perhaps encouraged by it, the modern movement in philosophy continued away from theism toward humanism or naturalism; idealistic theory was constantly beset by waning faith in God. Karl Marx, in revolt against Hegel, described the real world not as an evolutionary manifestation of Absolute Spirit, but as a process of dialectical materialism—with economic determinism as its critical center. John Dewey retained the term God while he rejected the supernatural; empirical scientific method had become for him the sole arbiter of what modern man can know and believe. The humanists welcomed liberal Protestant concessions that disowned the miracles of the Bible, but pressed the modernists additionally to reject the absoluteness of Jesus of Nazareth on the ground of its equal incompatibility with empirical methodology as the definitive criterion of knowledge. The perverse misunderstanding of divine revelation led on, therefore, not only to a rejection of idealistic speculative theology, with its confusion of God’s acting and speaking with man’s history and religious life, but automatically and uncritically also to rejection of the God of Biblical revelation so long obscured and nullified by the heaven-absorbing idealists.
Freed from dependence on and answerability to Biblical revelation, modern religious philosophers swiftly and successively assailed one or another facet of the inherited Judeo-Christian view of God. Naturalists waged a comprehensive frontal attack on the basic emphasis that God is Spirit—an immaterial and invisible mind and will. The naturalistic philosophy could tolerate no reality superior to and independent of the space-time continuum; whatever gods it accommodated were simply capitalized aspects of the space-time process. But lesser assaults on the Christian definition of God were also common. As had John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, so Edgar S. Brightman in the 20th rejected the infinity of God for a finite deity. Henry Nelson Wieman, contrary to the traditional emphasis on God as eternal and unchanging, dignified the moving front of the evolutionary process as divine. Not a single divine attribute affirmed by historic Christian theology was undisputed in the recent modern period; in fact, many neo-Protestant theologians not only denied a distinction between divine goodness or benevolence and justice, but some even promoted a “new morality” that in God’s name approved conduct contravening the divine commands in Scripture.
An overview of early 20th century theological speculation will disclose its oscillation between innate, historical, and experiential approaches to the doctrine of God. Belief in God was grounded in finite man’s feeling of anxiety or cosmic loneliness; or as an awareness of divinity involved in man’s sense of absolute dependence; or viewed as a subjective necessity of human nature; or as a precognitive intuition; or as a psychic response to the mystery of the universe. Or this belief was derived from empirical reflection upon nature, or affirmed as a requirement of man’s moral nature, or regarded as an inference either from the decline of civilization or from supposed evolutionary progress.
The Hegelian orientation of 19th century religious thought underlay the anthropocentric character of much of its theology. All questions about God were raised in the context of human experience on the assumption of an essential kinship and partial identity of the human and divine Spirit. This secularizing religious trend was called into judgment by the theology of crisis through its vigorous reassertion of special divine revelation—the Word of God confronting man from without, and making an absolute demand upon him. Yet the single most influential factor shaping neo-Protestant theology had perhaps been Kant’s anti-metaphysical dogma that the limits of human reason exclude cognitive knowledge of supernatural reality. Even Barth, who strove energetically to rise above Ritschl’s disparagement of knowledge in favor of trust as the essence of Christian experience, held in his earliest writings that the quest for conceptual knowledge of God characterizes speculative philosophy and not prophetic-apostolic declaration. Even when Barth later insisted that the believer has religiously adequate knowledge of God, he hedged this concession: the believer acquires this knowledge only as a bonus of personal divine confrontation. Thus Barth still left in doubt the universal validity of the believer’s conceptions of God even on the basis of special revelation. Neo-Protestant theology has characteristically shunned metaphysics as an illicit concern, or at least as outside the orbit of divine revelation. It depicted the Biblical interest in divine transcendence as simply kerygmatic—that is, as expressive of faith-constructs rather than of cognitive trust about supernatural reality; hence, the religious exposition of divine transcendence was distinguished from philosophical affirmations about metaphysical transcendence in a way that stripped cognitive rights from the theologians and conferred them—if any—wholly upon the philosophers.
Nonetheless the rise of neo-orthodoxy after World War I marked a new theological era increasingly predicated on divine transcendence, special revelational disclosure, and wrath against sin. By the 1930s, crisis theology, or dialectical theology as it was widely designated, achieved the open collapse of classic modernism as a formative theological influence in Europe. Both Barth and Emil Brunner espoused the view that God meets human beings paradoxically in the Word, and personally makes that Word his own. Against Ritschlian theology, Barth insisted that divine wrath has New Testament as well as Old Testament reality: Jesus’ crucifixion supremely exhibits the fact that God meets man in wrath and grace in the New Testament as he met Israel in the Old Testament. Yet Barth carried forward the modernist subordination of divine righteousness and wrath to love, and inadequately related the latter to the core of God’s being. In expounding God’s perfections, Barth considers righteousness and mercy, wrath and love, simply as variants of the same scriptural theme.
For all the neo-orthodox reaffirmation of divine transcendence, its delineation of divinity was vulnerable through its compromise of the historical evangelical acknowledgment of scripturally revealed truths about God. The dialectical theology had the merit of restoring some elements of Judeo-Christian revelation, but it obscured others, and in fact explicitly rejected propositional scriptural revelation. Barth’s warning that modernism’s loss of the self-revealing God made unavoidable the loss of God Himself, was too indefinite. The lesson taught by neo-orthodoxy is that the loss of an inscripturated revelation leads to the loss of the Judeo-Christian God who acts and speaks for Himself.
’s existential theology, projected as a counter-thrust to the Barthian view, soon won its way. Bultmann insisted that Barth’s essential emphasis that God transcendently reveals Himself in personal confrontation requires neither the Biblical miracles, nor a correlation of revelation with the Biblical history. Bultmann therefore dismissed interest in the historical Jesus, and shifted the center of Christian faith to the kerygmatic, or apostolically-proclaimed Christ. Barth’s theological effort to sustain quasi-objectivity for God, against an approach that seemed wholly to subjectivize God, proved unavailing; Bultmann’s alternative emphasized the reality of God while wholly dispensing with larger remnants of an evangelical theology on which Barth had insisted.
Many contemporary theologians assail the modernist theology of the recent past for suppressing the once-for-all uniqueness of the Christ-event in its exposition of divine revelation. Yet this criticism proceeds not from evangelical but rather from existential motivations. It is charged that the entire past theological tradition—both evangelical and modernist—misunderstood the “true” nature of the revelation event, now redefined as recurring personal confrontation. This reconstruction of the doctrine of revelation rests on a radical exaggeration of God’s transcendence by current dialectical and/or existential theologians. Consequently they deny that revelation is mediated objectively in historical events or in human concepts and language, and dismiss the revelatory status of Scripture in order to insist on contemporaneous disclosure. Sören Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the leap of faith that alone bridges the gulf between eternity and time, his notion of the moment filled with eternity, inspired this correlation of faith and Christ-event in contrast to the Biblical and evangelical understanding of revelation. Here the Christ-event no longer bears the meaning of an occurrence open to historical investigation, nor is “once-for-allness” associated with a content of revelation mediated by divinely chosen prophets and apostles.
In the Bible the events of holy history—supremely the crucifixion and resurrection of—carry a revelation-meaning that the inspired writings define in the context of prophecy and fulfillment. But Bultmann’s philosophical bias forces his dismissal of all history as ambiguous; instead he assimilates revelation wholly to contemporary personal experience. Bultmann disavows as revelation the sacred truths delivered once-for-all by the Bible prophets and apostles; revelation he redefines rather as an eschatological event that happens again and again in the existential response of persons throughout the life of the Church.
Barthian dialectical theology was unable to stem a declension to the existentialism of Bultmann, with its “demythologizing” of the miraculous elements of the New Testament. The Bultmannian approach in turn was unable to arrest a further decline. For the so-called Mainz radicals, Herbert Braun and Manfred Mezger, reduced God to the anthropological dimension of love in intrapersonal relationships. From the left, existentialist theologians have been pressed to indicate on what ground they insist that it is only in the Word (Christ) that God confronts men (Schubert Ogden), or why, quite apart from insistence on the supernatural, agape in interpersonal relationships may not as authentically define divine confrontation and response?
Recent modern theology emphasizes the hiddenness of God, mainly on the basis of dialectical or existential projections of divine revelation as extra-rational. A passage from a recent book by J. Rodman Williams serves to illuminate this ready transition of existential theories to the secular point of view:
“Existentialism, philosophical and theological, atheistic and non-atheistic, non-Christian and Christian, is quite closely related to the obscurity of God. It matters not whether this be the ‘silence of God’ (Sartre), the ‘absence of God’ (Heidegger), the ‘concealment of God’ (Jaspers), the ‘non-being of God’ (Tillich), or the ‘hiddenness of God’ (Bultmann)....The obscurity of God might indeed be called ‘the Eclipse of God’ (Contemporary Existentialism and Christian Faith , pp. 63f.).
Evangelical theologians have resisted attempts to equate such treatments with Luther’s stress on the hidden God. G. C. Berkouwer rightly indicts a “completely unbiblical concept of God” that separates the God of revelation from the lives of believers and compromises “the absolute trustworthiness and sufficiency” of His revelation (Divine Election , 125). Berkouwer repudiates the conception of a God who discloses just enough of Himself to keep man in despair of ever knowing the real God. God is hidden to the worldly-wise and proud; He is revealed to the humble who seek grace. The problem of revelation is not divine paradox but human pride. The paradox theologians, Berkouwer notes, postulate an inverted natural theology, by locating the offense of Christianity in an abstract dialectic (based on the supposed infinite qualitative difference between God and man) rather than in its demand for repentance and rescue (The Work of Christ , 34).
Ecumenical chaos in theology.
By the last third of the 20th century the neo-Protestant ecumenical scene was in complete disarray respecting the nature and reality of God, and in Protestant circles only evangelical scholars championed the case for Biblical theism on the ground of revelation and reason.
Secular views and death-of-God speculation.
Some philosophical theologians attempted a revival of interest in ontology. Among these was, who defined ontology, however, not to designate a spiritual reality “beyond the world,” but to refer to a structure of orders of being supposedly encountered in man’s meeting with reality; the immanent ground of being replaces the supernatural transcendent God. His notion that the modern scientific world-view annuls any possibility of faith in the supernatural God of the Bible is patently arbitrary. The supernatural has been a problem for every secular worldview, prescientific or scientific. The transcendent Creator-Redeemer God of the Bible was no less alien to the thinking of Plotinus and Seneca, Descartes and Hegel, than to Bishop John A. T. Robinson. The bias against the Biblical view springs from a readiness to taper the methods of knowing reality to empirically-based rationalism.
countered Tillich’s view by insisting that God is a mysterious source of order above and beyond the orders and evils of the world. But Niebuhr, too, rejected objectifiable knowledge of God, and grounded affirmations of divine transcendence in the supposed dialectical experience of man in relation to the divine. Hence, the assertion of transcendence implied an epistemological predicament rather than metaphysical affirmation defining God’s perfections.
The recent secular tendency to rest the case for theism wholly upon empirical scientific investigation of reality rules out in advance the existence of a supernatural God, by delimiting the field of reality to areas of inquiry that fall within this methodology. But it has also provoked the rise of linguistic theology, which defends the validity of language about trans-empirical supernatural reality as functionally meaningful, but not as conceptually true. But if religious language merely reflects a psychological or experimental necessity in man, and the cognitive validity of religious ideas is ruled out, then no reason can be adduced for preferring one religion to another, or any to none.
One outcome of modern theological declension toward a wholly secular view of life was the emergence of “death of God” speculation, which revived a theme already found in Nietzsche. Some writers, like Gabriel Vahanian, by their reference to the “death of God” simply refer factually to the modern cultural development wherein the reality of God has increasingly become an irrelevance. A Jewish rabbi has said, “God is dead as seen from Auschwitz.”
Others, like Thomas J. J. Altizer, contend that in the crucifixion of Christ, God literally died, and that since the events of the gospels the human Jesus alone has formative significance for Christianity.
It is noteworthy that neo-Protestant theological formulations have had a shorter survival span as the decades have passed. Of all the short-term options in neo-Protestant theology, the death-of-God view has most swiftly run its course. The vast majority of theologians today readily identify themselves with the comment of John B. Cobb Jr., that the reality of the referent of “God” as part of one’s intellectual conviction is “a matter of life or death” for one’s spiritual existence as a Christian. Already the contemporary scene shows signs of a new quest for God. Theological concentration on this theme is still more evident in theological journals and in paperback publications than in larger tomes, but the call for new devotion to systematic theology is also heard. This mood does not characterize all branches of the Church; in Europe young seminarians disillusioned by the constantly changing frontiers in theology are taking a “wait and see” attitude that defers specific commitments, while in America, where more of the old liberalism survives on seminary campuses than elsewhere, many students doubt that a theology is possible, and more are unable to identify their commitment in terms of specifics.
Evangelical evaluation of influential current views
The 20th century has been an age of extensive travel in theology no less than in tourism. The doctrine of God has emerged in recent modern thought as a main departure point for highly novel excursions. Although the many speculations about deity so conflict and compete that no identifiable “contemporary view” of God exists, a number of distinguishing features characterize some of the more influential modern theories. A survey of the slant and emphasis of these more recent views will aid us in comparing and contrasting them with the historic Christian doctrine of God, and in assessing the current trend in the light of the Biblical revelation of God.
Avoidance of empirical orientation.
Recent modern theology exhibits a marked disinclination to base the case for theism on empirical arguments from man and the world, and a tendency rather to view the traditional proofs of God as an endeavor to confirm or justify a belief antecedently held or received on other grounds.
The contemporary outlook, in other words, avoids the view of Aquinas, who held that by experience alone, apart from revelation, one can logically demonstrate God’s existence by the so-called “fivefold proof.” Except by a rather small circle of scholars seeking to revive an emphasis on “natural theology,” empirical evidences, where now adduced, are cast at most in a supportive role. There is a divided response to the critical theory of Kant, who limited the content of man’s knowledge to sense experience and rejected rational metaphysics, but postulated God as a “regulative” ideal. Those who exalt scientific empiricism as the only method of verification tend to shun faith in the supernatural entirely, and are prone to promote a wholly secular theology, although some linguistic theologians perpetuate the notion that the role of religious theory in man’s life is psychological rather than cognitive. But much recent modern theology connects the case for theism with divine revelation, by stressing God’s self-demonstration in His words and ways as the basis of faith, or moves behind empirical considerations to man’s primal ontological awareness of a religious reality.
For the wrong reasons some influential Christian spokesmen in the recent past have totally dismissed all empirical considerations.
Kierkegaard espoused the view that, as absolutely different, God the “wholly Other” poses a limit to human reason. He asserted the certainty of God’s existence, but held that the philosopher must leap to a conclusion beyond proof and evidence, because faith by nature supposedly involves an act of will that cannot be rationally justified. Whereas Kant made non-cognition of God a basis for faith, Kierkegaard tied faith in God to a direct paradoxic divine-human confrontation. So radically did Kierkegaard disjoin eternity and time that man’s epistemological predicament assertedly requires a divine Teacher who gives truth in the form of Absolute Paradox—the infinite in the form of a servant.
The bankruptcy of natural theology became a leading motif of neo-orthodox theology (see esp. Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1 and I/2), and then of existential theology. These movements emphasize personal revelational disclosure and individual response; they repudiate objective metaphysical knowledge on any basis, and disparage universally valid truths about God. Barth considered the theological anthropology of Hegelian idealism a special target, since it viewed man and nature as extensions or manifestations of God. To Barth, all association of divine revelation with man and the universe seemed objectionably to imply that these are God’s necessary environment. Hence Barth’s insistence that there is no way “up” to God by proofs or arguments from human consciousness or nature led him at the same time to repudiate a general divine revelation in man and the world.
Emil Brunner, however, championed general revelation. He refused to brush aside the speculative arguments for God as insignificant, and stressed that philosophical theism is the closest approximation of God possible to reason independent of special revelation. But, like Barth, he insisted that the living God is known only in paradoxic personal confrontation.
Dooyeweerd likewise eliminates metaphysics as a rational science. yet he insists on a revelation of God in nature, a general Word-revelation, which man as sinner holds down and perverts. God’s common grace conserves the fallen cosmos, but provides no basis for the autonomy of reason in the natural sphere, and no ground for natural theology; common grace can itself be understood only in terms of God’s special grace in Christ.
Contemporary expositions of Thomistic philosophy have acquired a defensive character, partly because neo-Protestant theology reasserted the priority of special revelation, and partly because of evangelical and other criticisms of the medieval “fivefold proof.” Whereas Aquinas appealed in his pursuit of natural theology to reason without faith, in order to arrive at reason with faith, and whereas neo-Protestant theologians like Barth promote a theology of faith beyond reason, evangelical thinkers like J. Gresham Machen,, Gordon H. Clark, and Cornelius Van Til emphasized faith and reason, or revelation and reason, to combine the priority of divine revelation with the intelligible revelational significance of man and the universe. Clark shows that the Thomistic arguments and their modern reconstruction are invalid (Religion, Reason and Revelation , 36ff.).
George F. Thomas grants that the empirical fivefold proof does not yield logically certain knowledge of God, but holds that they “approximate” the truth, and espouses a modified form of Aquinas’ arguments. More significantly, he relates the empirical arguments to a belief in God otherwise arrived at, and hence as making faith more reasonable (Religious Philosophies of the West , 320). This reconstruction leaves in doubt the serviceability of the arguments as empirical proofs.
Among evangelical scholars, J. Oliver Buswell Jr. and Stewart Hackett have revived emphasis on the empirical arguments for God. Buswell grants that the theistic arguments cannot logically prove God’s existence, but assigns them the force of probability (Aof the Christian Religion , 72); he adds to the Thomistic arguments an inductive form of the ontological argument, and holds that the arguments establish “a presumption in favor of faith in the God of the Bible,” and that unbelief is morally culpable (ibid., p. 100). He stresses that personal faith is a divine gift, but that the Holy Spirit uses the inductive arguments in persuading and converting sinners. It may be replied, however, that the arguments supply an occasion rather than the rationale for faith, and that the Spirit actually reinforces un-suppressed facets of the imago Dei in the context of God’s revelation.
A. N. Whitehead made no effort formally to demonstrate God’s existence, but rather appeals to man’s religious intuition and seeks to confirm God’s existence in conjunction with metaphysical considerations. Somewhat akin to the cosmological argument is his appeal from the “forms of definiteness” (rather than from their existence) to a primordial mind as their causal support, if not their absolute creator. Similarities to the teleological argument underlie the movement from the subjective aim of actual entities seeking satisfaction through value experience, to God as the final cause presenting “lures for feeling.” Whereas the cosmological-teleological appeal survives in the emphasis that the world’s order and value are best explained by God’s purpose to realize maximal good, religious intuition plays an essential role, and from it Whitehead derives assurance that God will conserve whatever good is attained in the world. More recent statements of process philosophy have been provided by Charles Hart-shorne, D. D. Williams and Schubert Ogden.
The importance of man’s primal ontological awareness has been reasserted in a variety of ways. Frederick Herzog stresses a precognitive feeling of reality that raises the religious question in every man’s experience. Tillich considered the sense of human finitude as at the same time an awareness of God, or the Ground of Being. Even John B. Cobb, Jr., who carries Whitehead’s philosophy more fully in the direction of natural theology, concedes an elemental human intuition that the order of the world requires a transcendent explanation. William Horder thinks the worldwide sense of awe and reverence over the mystery of the universe evokes theological language, but that God the Mystery reveals Himself only to the response of personal faith. But it is apparent that the Barthian denial of any human point-of-contact for divine revelation is under increasing pressure. The significance of man’s primal ontological awareness of a religious reality is again being probed, and while most contemporary discussions shy away from cognitive implications, a climate is emerging in which the traditional evangelical understanding of man’s intuitive experience of God can find new visibility.
Clark insists that it is impossible to construct a valid logical argument for the existence of an infinite God from finite empirical data—whether man or the world, and rests the case for theism wholly upon rational a priori considerations rooted in divine revelation.
Cornelius Van Til contends that the unbeliever cannot reach a theistic conclusion based on empirical proofs because nonbelievers and believers assertedly view reality on wholly divergent premises. While the believer derives the knowledge of God from revelation rather than from nature and man, the theistic evidences serve to confirm the believer’s faith in the reality and nature of the living God.
The doctrine of God in contemporary thought is now widely connected to divine self-revelation, or to intuitive considerations, or to both; an empirical grounding of the case for theism is now largely avoided, and appeals to man and the universe most frequently appear as attempts to justify or confirm belief in God already held and acquired in another way.
Correlation of religion with all human concerns.
The schematic correlation of the claims of religion, philosophy, history, and science into a comprehensive world-life view holds intellectual fascination even for the contemporary mind. Despite the anti-metaphysical mood of our age, the most formative and influential writers integrate theological perspectives with the main concerns of modern life and learning in a synthetic overview. Even theologians whose knowledge-theory leads them to disown universally valid religious truth, propound systematic treatises relating their theological principles to all life and experience. Barth has written the largest and profoundest Church Dogmatics since the Thomistic age. Although he detaches Christian revelation from commitment to any particular world-view (Church Dogmatics, III/2, p. 447), he nonetheless discusses philosophy, science, and history on the margin of dialectical revelation. Much of the power of Tillich’s speculative ontology is surely due to the fact that his Systematic Theology propounds a philosophical apologetics addressed not simply to believers but to man as man; theological perspectives assertedly grounded in revelation are correlated with philosophical considerations derived from an analysis of the human predicament. Whitehead’s philosophical vision derives its appeal in large measure from his attempt to synthesize metaphysical interests (the cosmical attributes of God asserted by the classic philosophers) with the personal perfections of the living God of Biblical revelation in their bearing on major scientific developments and universal human concerns; he blends Judeo-Christian and Greek motifs in a bold religious ontology that seeks to vindicate ultimate meaning, purpose, and value while emphasizing the limitation of science in an age when the scientific outlook is widely correlated with nat uralism. Teilhard presents scientific and confessional approaches side by side in his rational synthesis of experimental, historical, philosophical, and religious concerns.
Dooyeweerd gives Judeo-Christian revelation a significance for every frontier of human theory and action in a radical critique of theoretical thought, and insists that Christian philosophy not only best explains the meaning of reality and life but it also unmasks the basically alien religious motives of the secular alternatives.
Clark insists that Christian presuppositions alone can suggest a satisfactory world-view, that for their solution the problems of science and history and ethics and politics require theistic premises, and that all mediating positions between Biblical Christianity and atheistic naturalism are reducible to incoherence.
It is evident that the dialectical-existential revolt against rational persuasion, and the recent anti-mind mood, have not destroyed the modern interest in intellectual synthesis. Those thinkers influential in serious circles today seek convincingly to correlate their explanation of reality and life with the whole range of human concerns.
Emphasis on human decision and initiative.
The diminishing modern emphasis on divine election, divine creation, divine revelation, and divine redemption, as scripturally understood, has dwarfed interest in the Biblical view of God and stunted its power in modern life. The modern stress on human competence in respect to man’s present fortunes and final destiny suppresses a recognition of God’s decisive role in man’s life and affairs. It is significant that a vigorous reassertion of even isolated aspects of the Biblical view—as in the neo-orthodox emphasis on divine initiative—tends to revive interest in the historic Christian conception of God. But a lasting impact is thwarted because the scriptural view is fragmented and combined with current speculations.
The Bible doctrine of divine election is a stark reminder that nobody would escape divine wrath were it not for God’s gracious intervention in a fallen world. The declaration that God in sovereign mercy elects a fallen remnant to salvation in Christ notifies all sinners that the slightest hope of their redemptive rescue depends wholly upon divine initiative. This emphasis pervades Clark’s exposition of election, which combines the traditional Reformed view that God mercifully elects some and justly reprobates others, with the “supralapsarian” position that God willed to save some and to reprobate others before He willed to create any. This ties the bare possibility of salvation to the gracious will of God alone; whatever difficulties this exposition of election may pose, it wholly inverts the popular modern notion that man is the sovereign master of his destiny.
The modern theologians who retain and reformulate the doctrine of election usually destroy the urgency of personal decision for Christ. Despite many divergences in their theology, Barth and Brunner dismiss Calvin’’s view that God’s decree of election predetermines the redemption of some and reprobation of others. Yet they cannot dilute the scriptural view into mere foreknowledge—since the Biblical references to foreknowledge also imply foreordination—and the resultant effort to preserve a crucial role for divine election leads to highly fanciful theories. Barth regards Christ as the electing God and elected man; since all mankind is comprehended in the election of the man Jesus, and none are excluded, universal election seems the logical and inevitable outcome. Brunner too insists that election is only in Christ, but avoids universal salvation by asserting an area outside Christ, in line with traditional theology; yet his postulation of a possibility of decision-for-Christ after death and hence of salvation for everyone in the life to come robs the doctrine of election of force.
Berkouwer criticizes these arbitrary compromises. He rejects as wholly speculative Barth’s notion that the historical Jesus is the electing One who embraces all mankind. He emphasizes that Scripture views this lifetime as decisive for spiritual destiny, whereas universalism and an open-ended doctrine of salvation destroy the urgency of present commitment. Berkouwer agrees with Barth and Brunner in rejecting reprobation as a logical corollary of election; moreover, he shares Barth’s contention that election is not a discrimination by sovereign divine decree prior to grace, a happening predetermined in eternity, but rather is a present event. He does not, however, clarify why what is now happening cannot also have been a matter of past divine foreordination.
Most recent expositions dilute the doctrine of election still further. George Thomas limits both divine foreordination and foreknowledge; God is not the ultimate cause of all events, and divine knowledge does not extend to future contingent events. Here divine initiative is compromised beyond the tolerance of both Reformed and Thomistic theology.
Reinhold Niebuhr existentializes the doctrine of election—along with the concepts of “creation-fall-redemption.” It remained for Bultmann, however, to dismiss an eternal divine decree as sheer myth, although insisting that God so determines man’s life in addressing him that by faith he is compelled to speak of Him. The atheistic existentialists retain the dramatic emphasis that human decision defines man’s ultimate destiny, but dispose entirely of Bultmann’s “ghost-God.” The confrontation of the transcendent becomes for them simply the claim of man’s higher destiny upon his consciousness; in man’s own response lies the power to decree the future course of history and the universe.
For Tillich, the immanent “Ground of Being” structures all selves and things and preserves them. If any doctrine of election survives, it signals little more than the universal “givenness” of things in its bearing on the finitude of life, rather than a divine decree to rescue doomed persons from sin’s penalty and power.
Whitehead’s denial of divine omnipotence weakens God’s concrete causal power in the universe, and removes any assured final outcome of history. Whitehead sees God as the source of the order of nature wherein new values arise, and as the final cause that guides creatures in conceiving these, but God has only a persuasive relationship to the world of temporal entities as the source of its subjective aims.
Teilhard wholly sacrifices the election motif to a progressive spiritual evolution in space-time, though organic humanity, to a Center in the universal activity of the cosmic Christ that maximizes the personalization of all humanity. Redemption is not grounded on the historical death of Jesus; Christ’s incarnation, rather, enables Him to subdue, control, and purify the evolutionary ascent of consciousness.
Although he protests recent assertions of God’s metaphysical dependence upon the world, George Thomas compromises both God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge by suspending God’s steadfast purpose upon changing human situations and acts. On the basis of the “divine repentance” passages in the Bible he rejects God’s absolute unchangeableness, incorporates temporal succession into God’s eternity, and admits change into divine immutability.
As a main characteristic, therefore, modern religious thought inflates human initiative and contracts divine freedom. This suppression of the Biblical view of the Creator and Redeemer who by His sovereign decision fashions a special calling for mankind, and as Lord of the Covenant provides salvation for some of His fallen creatures, has fatal consequences for the doctrine of God in modern life. For such a diminution of the role of sovereign divinity in relation to human destiny presumes to make man the master of his fate at every critical turn, and by the same token, dispenses with God in the strategic decisions of life, relating him only to secondary human concerns. But the God of the Bible refuses to let history take its own course, and to abandon the course of events to man’s arbitrary will; He works out His sovereign goal in the lives of men, and makes even those who resist Him fulfill His purpose.
Just as a weakened doctrine of God’s predetermination deprives divine decision of forceful significance for human destiny, so recent expositions of divine creation likewise obscure God’s effective causal power in the universe, and particularly in relation to man’s existence. Radical secular theologians, who contend that science has discredited miracle and has debased the supernatural, necessarily deprive the Biblical view of creation of intellectual value.
Bultmann thinks nature is controlled only by immanent forces and that modern science precludes the miraculous; therefore he dismisses as an illusion the view of God as a creative source. Tillich, too, dispenses with the supernatural; God survives not as Creator, but as a quasi-pantheistic ground of all being. Niebuhr expounds the creation doctrine in terms of existential experience rather than of causal explanation, and Brunner similarly substitutes the newer notion of divine address in interpersonal confrontation for the traditional understanding of divine creation in terms of cosmic causality. Even Barth’s view, that Genesis is “saga” rather than myth or fairy tale, seems to equivocate about the causal-historical implications of creation.
Whitehead finds evolutionary theory and the newer views of matter incompatible with materialism, but he allows no finality to any formulation of truth, whether philosophical, scientific, or religious. Whitehead readily combines Greek and medieval emphases; the personal energy and sovereignty of God are adjusted to a rational teleological order partly immanent in God. As a result, God’s love and purpose for the world are viewed as necessary expressions of His nature, and divine will and initiative are restricted. Whitehead writes: “It is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God” (Adventures of Ideas, 528). The assimilation of God to immanent process is seen in Whitehead’s emphasis that the plurality of individual units of becoming (actual entities) that compose the world, and exemplify creative novelty, arise through concrescence as an interplay of newly arising and perishing aspects. Panpsychism is evident in Whitehead’s relating of all entities to a larger world of objects through the experience of feeling (prehension); eternal objects are potentially present components of actual entities—much as the eternal ideas or forms in classic Greek speculation—and through them actual entities assertedly gain a mental pole along with the physical, and are guided toward a “satisfaction” that requires the interdependence of God and the world. Measured by the scriptural doctrine of creation, his theory grossly distorts the Judeo-Christian revelation of a sovereign Creator independent of the universe and vastly diminishes the creative causal energy of God.
Teilhard’s philosophy combines faith in God’s creative origin of the world with the scientific possibility that the world arose by accident; his retention of the creation-concept seems, therefore, to serve little rational purpose. His exposition of the omnipresence of potentially divine substance relies more heavily on motifs derived from Leibnitz and Kant than from Moses. Teilhard asserts that the simple primordial elements of reality, harboring an inner spiritual energy, have evolved progressively into different orders of advancing complexity of psychic concentration. In creating the final universe devout human beings collaborate with Christ to promote world spiritualization through the ascendency of spiritual forms while the incarnate Word simultaneously penetrates the world of reality. Such a view is far removed from the more Biblical emphasis of Oscar Cullmann that the crucified and risen Christ inaugurated a new age and a new creation on the basis of supernatural conquest of sin and death. Teilhard looks for the completion of an ongoing creation through cosmic evolution guided by a partially immanent Logos as its spiritual center, whereas Cullmann foresees the supernatural rescue of a fallen race and cosmos through the redemptive historical incarnation of the transcendent Creator.
So heavily has the theology of the recent past indebted itself to the dogma of evolutionary progress that divine or superhuman forces survive mainly in the guise of an immanent directive principle. Statements on the beginning of things lack Clark’s firm emphasis that the cosmos owes its origin and purpose to an omnipotent creative Logos, and Dooyeweerd’s insistence that God as sovereign supernatural Creator is the source of cosmic existence, order, and enduring meaning.
To affirm God as Creator, as Biblical Christianity does, is to depict everything else as creature and creation—contingent in reality, dependent for its existence and survival, and vulnerable to doom and disappearance. That alongside God nothing need have been or need be, except for a divine decision and deed; that all the days of man’s years—many or few—are a time for existence and survival and destiny that the sovereign Creator has given; and that God’s will and power alone keep us from slipping over the brink of non-humanity, or non-creatureliness, or of non-existence—all this is implied in a recognition of the Creator God. But where religious philosophy entertains all premises but divine creation by a supernatural will and act; where the appearance of men and things is discussable only in a context of pre-existent materials and perpetual process; and where miracle is disallowed—while all marvels of the universe are readily referrable to chance—there the Creator God already counts for so little that the term creation is retained only by falsifying its proper universe of discourse. The modern secular world-view does not discuss man in dependence upon God, and in distinction from Him, but in the context of the cosmos, and in differentiation from organic-chemico-biological processes and from the lower animals.
Hence, this lordly capstone of evolutionary emergence does not consider himself threatened and terrified by nothingness as a real alternative facing finite creatures. What does the almighty Maker of heaven and earth any longer mean to homo sapiens who speaks universally of gods but is deeply sceptical about the living God who speaks as Lord of the universe? What recognition then remains for a sovereign Creator who might withdraw His support of the cosmos or repent that He had made man?
Modern gods mark in actuality a reversion to the antique Epicurean philosophy or world-view in which atoms gain more importance than spirit. Epicurean speculation generously lodged its gods in the interstellar spaces, in the vacuums between the worlds; modern evolutionary speculation has reserved room for the supernatural only in some neutral zone between philosophy and mythology, or at the frontier between learning and liberation.
It is not God as Creator only who is exiled by this secular mentality but also God as Redeemer. For when differentiation of the cosmos from primeval chaos and its reality and continuance are no longer referred to the divine Creator, what force then remains for a doctrine of incarnation whereby God refuses to let fallen mankind slip over the abyss of nonexistence, by Himself mercifully assuming creation’s cause after the Fall, and by declaring that man remains the object of God’s purpose for the cosmos in transporting human nature into the world to come? It is a matter of self-congratulation for modern secular man either that he banishes God as a contemporary irrelevance in a culture satiated by the spirit of naturalism, or that, despite his own achievements, he tolerantly retains God as a partner for the promotion of his own purposes.
Dilution of the supernatural character of revelation.
Wherever an evolutionary view of man and the world eclipses God’s causal energy in creation and redemption, the doctrine of divine revelation either undergoes a parallel distortion, or mediating theologians hopefully shift to revelational encounter the whole weight of the case for God’s reality.
If the creation concept is severed from miracle and attached to immanent process, and the redemption motif is reduced to a divine-human mutual assistance pact, the doctrine of revelation is in turn readily subverted into the notion of human discovery, and retains little to commend it as divine. Whitehead, for one, shuns the term revelation entirely, replacing transcendent disclosure by man’s rational quest. He insists, moreover, that religious experience carries no direct intuition of a personal God, and renounces all title to final truth, refusing to credit the special claim of Judeo-Christian religion. His doubts about ultimate personality lead on inevitably to a rejection of transcendent revelation; loss of God as personal implies the necessary forefeiture of the Biblical disclosure.
Whitehead’s dismissal of divine disclosure more consistently reflects philosophical implications than does Tillich’s retention of the idea of revelation alongside his disavowal of personality in God. Tillich dismisses a supernatural divinity as merely the product of myth and cult, and reinterprets the traditional doctrine within the context of his own special metaphysics. Revelation he identifies not with an objective universal disclosure of the supernatural God through the Logos, but with a mystical a priori; the divine is assertedly disclosed in the depths of everyman’s experience as an intuition of the Unconditioned. The content of this supposed revelation is conditioned by man’s temporal-historical existence and is not cognitive but symbolic. Tillich rejects a literal historical incarnation of the Logos; the orthodox doctrine is viewed simply as the way Christian faith expresses the triumph of New Being, even as the cross is for Tillich but a symbol of the self-negation of the finite. Tillich’s “theological answers” to philosophical problems thus speculatively subvert the self-revealing God of the Bible, for he deliberately erases the divine perfections of supernatural transcendence and personality, and substitutes a conjectural doctrine of divine disclosure.
If Tillich’s depersonalization of God destroys revelation in Biblical dimensions, Teilhard’s inter-personalization of all reality through “christification” is hardly a preferable option. For by postulating Christ as the spiritual center of the universal cosmic process, Teilhard obscures the uniqueness of agape historically revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and erodes the possibilities of once-for-all revelation. Teilhard sees the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a highly polished mirror of the mystery of the universe, reflecting the prospect of ultimate metamorphosis for ourselves and our environment through personal renunciation and fulfillment. When one recalls Teilhard’s emphasis that in the realms of knowledge and of faith quite divergent explanations are possible, he soon senses that this theory of evolutionary cosmic transformation speculatively replaces revelation by gnosis and obscures man’s radical corruption and redemptive need.
Whereas Cullmann, too, holds that Jesus inaugurates the new creation as a prospect known to faith rather than to empirical proof or logic, it is faith in the Biblical witness on which he insists. The incarnate Logos is both the critical center of general history and the decisive center of salvation history in God’s redemption of man and the cosmos. Cullmann thus defines divine revelation in terms of historical saving events and their scripturally-given meaning, in welcome contrast to recent existential and dialectical theories.
Nor does Niebuhr convincingly preserve the factuality of divine revelation in his emphasis on a dialectical tension between Christ as infinite norm and man’s trans-rational spirit. Niebuhr’s radical contrast of the eternal and the temporal deprives divine revelation of direct historical exposure, even in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Only man’s existential freedom to transcend nature and history anchors Niebuhr’s idea of revelation, which he disjoins from rational or conceptual information. The result is an anti-rational, anti-historical view of divine-human relationships, propounded in terms of dialectical paradox. This underlies Niebuhr’s hostility to acceptance of the literal truth of the Bible and to the evangelical view of revelation that rules out the self’s supposedly ideal freedom from rational categories. Niebuhr’s alternative has more costly consequences than its loss of rational and historical revelation, its surrender of objective divine communication identifiable with scriptural information about God and His works, its shattering of the identification of Christ the divine norm with Jesus of Nazareth. For Niebuhr’s speculative revolt against objectively given divine disclosure, and his attenuation of salvation history into existential self-analysis, also jeopardizes the very reality of God. Bultmann’s view had deprived revelation of historicity and objectivity, let alone verbal intelligibility; existentially expounded, revelation became merely a source of spiritual knowledge about ourselves rather than information about God and His redemptive intervention in history. Here anthropology displaces theology and revelation tells us nothing about God as a distinct being. By their further reduction of the notion of revelation, the Mainz radicals Braun and Mezger equated God’s identifiable reality with interpersonal relationships.
To his credit, Barth, even if belatedly, sought to remedy certain weaknesses of “kerygmatic” theology by connecting revelation somewhat more firmly with conceptual thought and historical events. At the outset crisis-theology disparaged conceptualization, verbalization, and historical mediation of the Word of God in its emphasis on personal revelation. Since divine revelation assertedly occurred outside the normativity of thought and on the rim of history, sacred events and sacred Scripture were regarded at best as pointers to revelation, which was located exclusively in direct interpersonal confrontation. A hallmark of “kerygmatic” theology—both dialectical and existential—was its insistence that revelation is a special faith-knowledge for believers only, not truth valid for all men whether or not they accept it. But as existential theologians inspired by Bultmann increasingly disparaged the importance of Biblical history and of intelligible knowledge of God, Barth more fully asserted the quasi-historical and quasi-intellectual character of revelation. Thus Barth modified dialectical revelation to include a conceptual knowledge of God and held the historical environment to be an indispensable suburb of revelation. This was, of course, still a long way from a rational revelation consisting of universally valid propositions about God, and from historical revelation in the traditional evangelical understanding; as Barth saw it, the adequacy of theological concepts is assured only by a subjective miracle of grace, and revelational history remains outside the range of scientific historical inquiry. The very ambiguity of a theology of revelation that denied objectivity and universal validity, and yet insisted on quasi-historical and quasi-propositional divine disclosure, was too great a liability to forestall further dilution of Barth’s view by existentialist theologians. The Barthian era began with a bold call to faith in the self-revealing God, while it rejected the Bible as God’s objectively-given Word; evangelical theologians saw in both dialectical and existential dogmatics a threat to faith in God and to revelation alike. The theological drift of the recent past indicates that loss of the Bible as the Word of God issues sooner or later in the loss of the self-revealing God as well. Attempts to revive faith in the revelation of the Judeo-Christian God that “derevelationize” the Bible—that is, refuse to identify the Bible with revelation, and in fact contrast Scripture with revelation—dilute the concept of revelation and dissipate its theological power. The recent modern notions of revelation cannot bear the weight of the case for Biblical theism, and readily suppress the supernatural features of the Christian view in deference to humanistic emphases.
Distortion of sacred Biblical motifs.
Another noteworthy feature of contemporary theology lies in the conspicuous reliance on sacred motifs of Biblical theology even by mediating and speculative scholars. Whereas the scriptural motifs are often distorted through an alien and arbitrary content, their ready retention attests that no framework has been found to interpret human experience superior to the controlling themes of the Bible.
For all Niebuhr’s existential transmutation of Biblical concepts into a subjective tension in human experience between the ideal and the actual, he appropriates the whole range of sacred scriptural motifs from creation, and fall through resurrection and second coming, and structures his theology by them.
Tillich, too, despite his explicit repudiation of the supernaturalism of the Bible, symbolically retains not only the “fall” (a cosmic alienation or ontological predicament rather than a historical event), “salvation” (ontological reunion), “the cross” (self-negation), “parousia” (fulfillment of creaturely existence in the eternal), and “hell” (a degree of spiritual non-fulfillment), but also “Father, Son, and Spirit” as a metaphorical depiction of a threefold dialectic of separation and reunion.
Teilhard combines an evolutionary “christification” of reality, through Christ as the universal principle of vitality and cohesion, with the entire gamut of traditional terms—from creation, incarnation, kingdom of God, death, and resurrection, parousia, and Omega as the end—reinterpreted almost to the point of semantic illegitimacy.
Whitehead, too, poetically adopts many familiar Judeo-Christian concepts while annulling important essentials of scriptural theism; thus he speaks of God’s love, wisdom, guidance, purpose, and salvation, whereas he leaves divine personality in doubt.
We are not saying merely that the Judeo-Christian revelation of reality is so comprehensively authentic that no serious interpreter can expound main features of the human scene, however speculatively, without unwittingly borrowing some of the elements inherent in the Biblical view. That is also true. But here we are noting that so effectively do the controlling motifs of the Judeo-Christian revelation of God and the world explain the human predicament that brilliant modern writers are reluctant to abandon these scripturally-derived categories, even if they proceed to re-interpret them in highly speculative ways.
Attempted reformulation of transcendence.
The definition of divine transcendence remains a critically controversial feature of contemporary theology, for it governs one’s view of God’s relationship to man and to the whole range of being and life. The understanding of transcendence is confused today because even modern writers who deny the supernatural retain the term as a central feature of their religious philosophy. It is now widely used merely to depict an existential relationship, not to describe an ontological perfection. But Judeo-Christian theology has no authentic Biblical character unless one moves beyond the existential confusion of the self with God, to a supernatural transcendent reality.
Bultmann refers to the transcendent unknown, but he insistently dismisses the miraculous and supernatural as synonymous with the mythological. He insists that as a metaphysical reality God is inaccessible to all objective description, in other words, that we have no ontological knowledge of God. God has reality only for faith; only if we describe existential relationships do we avoid mythological language about God. The result is that all affirmations of transcendence concern facets of man’s own existence, not some independent entity. Although Bultmann insists on God’s reality, his existential orientation of transcendence is vulnerable to further dilution, as when the Mainz radicals Braun and Mezger discuss interpersonal relationships as God’s only identifiable reality.
Tillich denies the supernatural and transcendent as an objective reality above and beyond the world. In the context of total divine immanence he speaks, however, of the transcendence of the infinite Ground of all being, or the infinite Abgrund that swallows all finite being. The Biblical ontology of an infinite-supernatural realm alongside finite created beings is here displaced by a speculative nonsupernatural ontology consisting of nonsupernatural Being-itself, finite being, and “nonbeing,” their differing interrelations describable in terms of transcendence.
So far has contemporary theological thought drifted from Biblical moorings that its speculative expositions of transcendence deviate radically from the Judeo-Christian revelation of God’s relationship to the created world. Once again, an excessive view of divine immanence is gaining ground to condition God’s relation to the world process, and divine transcendence is compromised to restrict God’s power to what He is actually doing in the world. At worst, transcendence is expounded simply as a human relationship or experience and not at all as a divine perfection. The distinction is clearly emphasized by the French Communist theoretician Roger Garaudy, who insists that transcendence is not a supernatural perfection but the human ability to progress through continuing evolution.
Niebuhr’s existential orientation of theology issues in an ambiguous supranaturalism. He rejects ontology, or a static rational description of metaphysical reality. He depicts man’s capacity for self-transcendence (the extension of self-consciousness in infinite regression) as a dimension of the eternal; the transcendence of God is expounded by way of analogy from human self-transcendence. Yet he does not relate the human self, as Tillich does, to the ground and aim of every self, but rather to another self, the personal God. He does not reject, as Tillich, a two worlds supernaturalism as the background of a transcendental view of man and history, but insists that God is a mysterious source of order above and beyond the orders and evils of the world. Yet he explicitly repudiates Biblical supernaturalism as prescientific and crude, and precludes all rational objectification of God, so that his views constitute more an assault on the metaphysically transcendent God of miracle and objective revelation than an exposition of a coherent alternative. His provisional dualism of the transcendent and the historical rests not on the supernatural as a separate order of existence, but rather on a dialectical tension that structures man’s self-consciousness that intuits God as free and outside the normativity of reason. But Neibuhr’s exposition weakens rather than preserves, let alone strengthens, the Biblical revelation of divine transcendence. For while he seeks to preserve the distinction between man and God by an epistemological construct, Niebuhr nonetheless obscures God’s ontological distinctiveness, since he ascribes to man—despite a doctrine of creation—such aspects of noncreated reality as infinity and freedom as integral elements of human self-transcendence. Elements of divine and human attributes thus are no longer fully distinguishable, but somehow blend together into a mutual identity that subverts the Biblical doctrine of transcend ence.
Teilhard considers the supernatural not a finished realm of being but a transforming ferment, and God is viewed, moreover, as partly immersed in cosmic reality. Platonic and Gnostic more than Biblical in orientation, this exposition is correlated with modern evolutionary theory. God’s omnipresence is viewed as a creating, preserving action of spiritual transformation that controls the evolution of the cosmos; however, the last emerging term of the evolutionary series, Omega, also stands above or outside this process as a transcendent center of psychic concentration. But Teilhard’s importation of change into the supernatural, and the involvement of God in evolutionary process as a necessary feature of His being and work, seriously compromises the Biblical view.
In expounding divine immanence, Whitehead, too, subordinates essential aspects of ultimate reality to change. God is an eternal principle of order transcending the processes of nature, yet He is not wholly beyond process and growth. God is a unique, concrete actual entity with both conceptual and physical prehensions. In His “primordial” (conceptual) nature, God is infinite, eternal, unchanging, aboriginal, and independent, transcending temporal actual entities. But He lacks fullness of actuality and consciousness, and requires temporal actual entities; hence, Whitehead postulates God’s “consequent” nature as meshed to the creative advance of the world, conscious but always incomplete, and involved in time and change. Care for the world is a necessary expression of His nature. This interdependence of God and the world, on which Whitehead insists, seriously distorts the Biblical view that the transcendent Creator is not dependent on the creation, while it is completely dependent on Him. In Whitehead’s view, God’s “primordial” nature initiates the realization of values in temporal actual entities, through provision of subjective aims as final causes. But it is as true on Whitehead’s theory to say that through the conservation of values the world “completes God” as that God completes the world, since supposed deficiencies in the divine nature are overcome through God’s prehensions of the temporal world.
George Thomas criticizes Whitehead’s formulation of divine transcendence as obscuring the personality of God, and seeks to avoid his “excessive” statements of God’s potentiality and involvement in change. The result is a somewhat higher compromise between the Biblical revelation and modern theory, even if it aims to adjust God’s relation to the world agreeably to historic Christian perspectives. While Thomas affirms that God as supernatural mind and will has transcendent personality and power, He conditions divine power in respect to absolute possibility and limits divine foreknowledge. He resists the exclusion from the divine nature of all divine potentiality; God’s eternity does not exclude succession in time and experience. He discards the traditional Christian exposition of God’s absolute independence, eternity, immutability and perfection, and admits incompletion into the divine nature, and asserts that His immutability does not exclude change. He thinks that “the problem of the relation between permanence and change, actuality and potentiality in God’s nature has yet to be worked out in a satisfactory way” (op. cit., p. 133). Thomas rejects the traditional theistic insistence on God’s unchangeableness, supposedly in view of Biblical reference to God’s “repentance” (cf.
Charles Hartshorne also builds upon and goes beyond Whitehead’s view to affirm pantheism. Whereas for a pantheist like Spinoza God is identical with the world, for a pantheist like Hartshorne God as a concrete reality includes the world in Himself; although His abstract essence transcends particular actual entities. The deviation from Whitehead is seen in the fact that in the latter’s metaphysics God transcends the world both in His essence and experience; He is conditioned by the world, but does not include it, nor does it determine Him, although it is immanent in God who transcends it. Hartshorne too develops a view of God’s supposed “incompleteness” and “relativity” to the world alongside insistence on the “absoluteness” and perfection of the divine essence. But this Whiteheadian theory nonetheless compromises the transcendence of the God of the Bible by its notions that only in His “primordial nature” is God eternal, unchanging, and infinite, and that in God’s “consequent” nature these metaphysical attributes are subordinated to a divine dependence on the world. Through this subordination of permanence to change, and of reality to process, a danger arises, as George Thomas remarks, of a further decline “to the immanentism of Hegelian idealism, which affirmed that the Absolute Spirit realizes itself and comes to consciousness only through its manifestation in the world, or even to theistic Naturalism, which seems to regard God as nothing more than the value-producing aspect of the creative process itself” (ibid., p. 386).
Edgar S. Brightman, most influential of American personalists, stressed that personality but not substance is the ultimate principle that explains all else, and emphasized God’s unique personal reality in distinction from finite, created selves. Contrary to most personalists, however, he, too, depicted God as finite. Against the existential and anti-rational rejection of the objectivity of God, personalism distinguishes God from other selves as the Supreme Mind who so mediates between finite minds and objects that knowledge is possible. Most personalists consider God as nontemporal and supertemporal, and hold that He can initiate change without enmeshing Himself in it. Whereas panpsychists, like Hartshorne, consider everything in the universe to be mind or soul of which material substances are simply a phenomenal form, personalists like A. C. Knudson, R. T. Flewelling and Brightman hold rather that nature is the rational externalization of divine causality under space-time forms. God is immanent in the world not substantially or existentially, but volitionally and functionally. Nature has phenomenal reality, not ontological reality. It is said to be a part of God, the energized and externalized divine thought of the Personal Infinite under the forms of space and time, and in conformity with law and evolutionary process. This theory imperils God’s free immanence in nature. Although personalists speak of a created universe, it is difficult to see how a divinely imagined universe would differ from a real universe consisting solely of God’s thoughts; hence, either divine ideas are necessarily creative, or creation is an illusion. Moreover, miracle is precluded. Contrasted with nature, finite created selves are held to be other than God. Hence, God’s transcendence consists not in otherness to nature and man, but rather in that He is more than nature, and other than man. In view of the problem of evil, Brightman contended that God’s nature inc ludes an uncontrollable irrational surd, so that God is finite. But even where personalists assert divine infinity they obscure God’s transcendence not only by their confusion of nature with God, but by their insistence on the continuity of human values and the divine, and their rejection of a doctrine of special divine initiative and disclosure contrary to revealed religion. Divine revelation is held to be functional rather than cognitive. Although personalists emphasize logical coherence, their rejection of rational revelation and their suspension of the interpretation of reality and life on empirical considerations leaves vulnerable all affirmations about the living God. It is noteworthy that, although personalism has lost momentum, the most influential movement in contemporary theology has combined the exposition of God as person with the unique divine self-revelation affirmed in the Judeo-Christian salvation history and Scriptures.
Only in the dialectical theology shaped by Barth does contemporary neo-Protestant thought assert God’s sovereign independence and transcendence of the universe in direct opposition to the recent modern exaggeration of divine immanence. Barth unreservedly affirms God as the sovereign supernatural Creator—ontologically, morally, and epistemologically transcendent, and standing to His creation in a relation of free immanence.
Transcendence is not here developed primarily as a dimension of human experience, as in the case of existential theory, but defines the supernatural and miraculous freedom of God in respect to the created universe. Existentialist philosophy is surely right in going beyond scientific naturalism to recognize a significant freedom in man, even beyond the freedom of mind over matter or of will over natural process admitted in some forms of idealistic metaphysics. It recognizes in human experience a transcendence of the cosmos involving the self’s own history, bounded only by the outer limits of man’s existence. But simply because it expounds a transcendence immanent in human existence and in the cosmic process, it cannot assuredly affirm man’s inescapable relation to a transcendent God who defines His origin and destiny. If what we know in spiritual confrontation is ever and always an aspect of human experience, so that we cannot surely discriminate this “beyond” from our alter ego, God may be a term for the pious content of human consciousness. When religious experience is uncertain whether it is shaped by the concrete confrontation of God or by the elevation of a phase of man’s own consciousness to divinity, because the divine is presumed to be identical with man’s deepest, or highest, or inmost self, the question of obedience or disobedience to God easily becomes one of spiritual schizophrenia. Existential theory obscures the intelligible revelation of One who transcends man from without, and as Creator qualifies man to transcend the limits of other creatures, implicating him in knowledge of and decision for or against his Maker, establishing his ineradicable responsibility to the Eternal, and offering the gracious prospect of redemptive renewal and unending communion with the living God.
While Barth does indeed shatter the existential limitations of transcendence, his dialectical theology seriously distorts important aspects of the Biblical view. From the outset the emphasis on ontological transcendence—as against immanentistic world views—rejected all necessary involvement of deity in nature, spoke of God “begrounding as the Ungrounded” (rather than Tillich’s “Ground of all being”), and emphasized that “whoever says God says miracle” (Commentary on Romans, 4:3-5). The assertion of epistemological transcendence traced all knowledge of God to divine self-disclosure, with the Logos as the revealer of the uniquely transcendent God; while that of moral transcendence emphasized that God is the sovereign source of the distinction between right and wrong and the holy judge of sinful creatures. But Barth’s doctrine of transcendence was almost deistic in overtone, particularly in its epistemological emphasis; the reduction of all knowledge of God to paradoxic statements cancelled the conceptual value of all affirmations about God’s perfections. Barth’s earlier writings limit the mind’s knowing faculty, in respect to the divine, to the practical (as opposed to the cognitive reason), and eroded the knowledge of God directly mediated by the words and teaching of the Bible. This exaggerated notion that divine transcendence rules out universally valid truths about God even on the basis of revelation underlies Barth’s strictures against a general divine disclosure in nature as well as against any religious a priori or intuitive knowledge of God in man as divinely created; direct personal revelation, paradoxic rather than propositional, was the sole remaining option.
Sören Kierkegaard’s influence had left its clear mark upon the statements of transcendence fashioned both by dialectical theologians and existential theologians. Kierkegaard stressed the radical disjunction of eternity and time and the unqualified otherness of God, and this in turn required a distorted view of revelation and redemption. The extreme segregation of eternity and time, more Platonic than Biblical in focus, so divorced God’s revelation from human history and human concepts and human language that the knowledge of God was deprived of all claim to objectivity and universal validity, and the historicity of the redemptive acts was imperiled.
While in theology the negative result of these emphases did not become fully evident until after Bultmann’s forfeiture of the importance of the mediation of Jesus of Nazareth, the existentialist orientation of philosophy had long taken an atheistic course under the inspiration of Heidegger. Before that, of course, Nietzsche had espoused the thesis that God had become man’s rival or enemy, and more recent existentialists like Sartre and Camus stressed the silent or absent God. In The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) Camus contends that whereas men ought to accept the nonrationality of life, and pretend to be happy, they kill themselves intellectually by propounding theologies of hope and consolation. The God-affirming existentialists, like Dostoevski and Kafka, insist that man can be truly himself only before God. Bultmann’s version of existentialism was consciously projected as a restatement of the New Testament aimed to interest modern secular man in the God who meets men in faith—but Heidegger lampooned Bultmann’s reinterpretation as an attempt “to make theism out of my atheism.”
Cullmann’s noteworthy effort to overcome the radical existential disjunction of eternity and time has the merit not only of anchoring divine revelation in the stream of history, but allows for scripturally revealed knowledge of God’s acts and their meaning. Not every historical occurrence stands in direct historical connection with the historical mission of Jesus Christ, but He is the controlling center of Biblical salvation history and from this midpoint all history is to be understood and judged. Yet quite in line with the paradox theologians, who formulate divine transcendence so as to erase man’s cognitive knowledge of the eternal world, Cullmann shuns interest in metaphysical truth or ontological affirmations about God’s being as scripturally off-limits. Moreover, he violates this reticence over ontology by insisting that time is in God, thus exchanging one vulnerable position (that time cannot become the bearer of divine disclosure) for another (that time is an aspect of divine self-experience).
The correlation of extreme divine transcendence with metaphysical agnosticism was inherent in the dialectical and existential exaggeration of the eternity-time relationship. Although Barth in later years struggled to moderate the tensions to give human thought about God a more significant role on the basis of revelation, Brunner in later stages of his theology stressed transcendence so radically that he spoke as readily of divine mystery as of God’s revealing activity. It is noteworthy that insofar as death-of-God writers like Altizer and Van Buren have had an exposure to the Christian understanding of God, their views have been mainly derived from the dialectical theology of the recent past in which an almost deistic doctrine of transcendence has thinned to unintelligibility and erased from history the content of God’s self-revelation.
But paradox theologians have not been the only contemporary thinkers to shun ontological concerns while emphasizing divine transcendence. Dooyeweerd does not share the recent modern infatuation with dialectic and Existenz, but is nonetheless critical of metaphysics as a misguided finite aspiration to exceed human limits and to inherit the eternal mysteries. Critics have not been slow to point out that Dooyeweerd’s own exposition of the nature of the real world, particularly of the cosmonomic ideas, is itself thoroughly metaphysical. But more important than the inconsistencies in Dooyeweerd’s own views is the basis on which he presumes to reject metaphysical knowledge. For the Dutch philosopher holds that reality is meaning, and that God is the origin of all meaning, but He does not restrict meaning to logical meaning; the ultimate cosmological principle has the character, so Dooyeweerd contends, of law rather than of logic. Law, he asserts, is the boundary between God and the cosmos, and reason is subordinated to law as an explanatory principle. The central motif of Scripture is consequently expounded as nontheoretical; although divine Word-revelation is presented to faith, this is not given as concrete Word-revelation.
A twofold tendency therefore characterizes the renewed emphasis on divine transcendence—on the one hand, even scholars who repudiate pantheism are disposed to involve the being of God in cosmic process, and to define God’s nature and ways through a theory of religious knowledge that annuls the reality of transcendent revelation; on the other hand, even where scholars preserve divine transcendence a disposition remains to obscure the rational quality of revelation, and the role of divine Mind in relation to human thought and meaning, so that the reassertion of transcendence implies no recovery of ontological knowledge.
Tenuous role of reason in religious experience.
The weakest link in the case for theism in recent modern theology is the tenuous role assigned to reason in relation to supernatural realities. The significance of reason in the religious realm is now constantly demeaned both in defining God’s own perfections, and man’s special status as a creature destined for spiritual knowledge. The great theological emphasis of the past, that God is the infinite Mind, the ultimate source of truth and its universal ground, who seeks man’s worship “in spirit and in truth,” has fallen victim to our antimetaphysical, antirational age. Theologians hurry over, and sometimes entirely ignore, the rational perfections of God, as if Biblical Christianity discloses God only as sovereign Will. Emphasis on impenetrable divine mystery is made a badge of piety in dogmatics, and claims to a logically consistent knowledge of God’s nature and ways are deplored as irreverent pretension. The exaggeration of eternity-time tensions in the dialectical theology fostered by Kierkegaard has moved reason to the margin of religious experience and substituted a blind leap of faith for intelligible human response to the divine claim upon man’s total being. Widening concessions to evolutionary naturalism tend to relate man’s reflective self-consciousness solely to developmental processes, and all thought, theology included, is viewed as conditioned by contemporary history and culture. Even those aspects of knowledge-theory are now ignored, which over long centuries constrained great thinkers of all ages to insist that only a Supreme Mind mediates the interaction between finite minds and their cosmic environment that makes valid knowledge possible. Theologians who go so far as to assert that God created reason, as does Brunner, will then under the spell of a dialectical theory of religious confrontation, insist that man’s reason cannot grasp God, and that spiritual response is ideally extracognitive. Only in later writings does Barth preserve a measure of significance for the conceptual aspects of revelation; even then, however, his assertion that on the basis of personal miracle the believer’s concepts of God gain individual adequacy (but not universal validity) simply grants too little too late. Berkouwer allows more room for the rational significance of revelation, but tends also to shun rational consistency and coherence while emphasizing that the truth of God is known to faith—a tenet that does not of itself settle the question of the relation of faith and reason.
Dooyeweerd does indeed stress the human mind’s uniqueness: the self can abstract modal aspects from experience, transcend time, and synthesize logical and nonlogical aspects of experience because of its unique relation to God, the divine source of meaning. Much of this had been said by personalists, unfortunately in a context of philosophical idealism that ruled out a Biblical view of revelation and reason. Dooyeweerd’s frame of reference is evangelical theism, on the commendable premise that Judeo-Christian thinkers should organize the data of human experience through criteria derived from revelation. The satisfactory identification of those categories is prob. not Dooyeweerd’s contribution; also his formulation of the connection of revelation and thought is not adequate. But his sure stress on God as the origin of all meaning deserves reinforcement today.
No less important is a revival of the historical Christian emphasis that God is logically explanatory of all else, particularly in a wayward age when weary minds despair of the adequacy of frail human hypotheses to explain the drift of our times, let alone the drama of human destiny. That God is a personal, living, immutable Mind; that reason is an eternal Divine perfection; and that truths are the eternal thoughts of God, are emphases not absent among evangelical theologians in our day, though perhaps none better than Clark has sensed their great importance for this turning time in the history of dogma. In his writings one often finds a reminder of the further implications that the laws of reason are descriptive of the activity of God’s will, that the logical structure of the cosmos is grounded in the Logos, that God is the ultimate ground of intelligibility, and the laws of logic are an essential element of the imago Dei in man, that divine revelation is intelligible or rational and that God is to be known through conceptual categories, that language as well as thought must be related to a theistic basis, and that the medium of human concepts and words therefore poses no barrier to the precise communication of the Word of God.
In summary, these are some noteworthy features of recent modern theology: the shift from an empirical-grounding of the case for theism to divine revelation or to primal intuition; the special influence of writers whose explanation of religion is correlated with the whole range of human concerns; the emphasis on human decision and initiative in deciding man’s destiny and the ultimate future; the dilution of the supernatural character of revelation, or the attempt, where this orientation is retained, to support the reality of God by revelational encounter alone; the profanation or distortion of sacred motifs by religious interpreters who find in them a superior framework for the comprehension of the human situation; the faltering attempt to preserve the category of transcendence by theologians who reject or modify the Biblical view of God; the tenuous role assigned to reason in the recent modern expositions of the supernatural.
By the same token it may be said that modern religious thought now often speaks of God without discriminating the living God from false gods by the criteria of revealed religion, and that it postulates new characteristics of divinity, and hence new gods and newly authoritative writings.
In the Bible the true God is known by these marks: that in eternity past He decreed both to create a remnant of creatures who would share His fellowship forever, and to redeem them through the incarnation of His Son in human nature, that He created the universe out of nothing in an orderly way, and man in His image for obedient fellowship; that He made known His holy will and, when the first parents violated it, banished them from paradise but offered redemptive rescue; that He showed His displeasure over sin by the Noahic flood, while renewing the promise of salvation for the godly remnant; that He chose Israel as a special people to worship and serve Him in a sacred land—sending Moses as lawgiver, and declaring the standards by which all nations were to be judged, and by which the Jews were to honor Him; sending prophets to keep hope alive in the coming Redeemer, and to warn them of the evil of their ways in view of the divine purposes in time and eternity; raising up a priesthood to enforce the need of sacrifice, and anticipating the day when the Greatwould Himself be the sacrificial offering for the sins of men; that He came in the fullness of time as the incarnate Logos, and in Jesus Christ lived a sinless life among men, displaying His power over Satan, sin, and death, and inviting men by the Gospel of His crucifixion and resurrection for sinners to receive new life and the forgiveness of sins, and the sure prospect of eternal bliss; that He ordains the Church as a witness to the spiritual blessings available through Jesus Christ, its living Lord, and as a mirror to the world of the reality of the kingdom of heaven; and that He will climax history by the vindication of righteousness centering in the return of the Messiah in power and glory for the judgment of the nations, the resurrection of the dead, the conformity of believers to the image of their risen Redeemer, and the final doom of the wicked.
The God of the Bible is the God who reveals Himself, who speaks for Himself through chosen prophets and apostles, who addresses His words and truth to men in the written Scriptures; and who comes in the flesh to withstand the fiercest temptations of Satan by the confident appeal: “It stands written!” What stands written in the Bible remains for His followers the authentic delineation of the nature and will of God. Modern religious thought has no superior access to the God of the ages; it can at best clarify the revelation of God in Christ and the Bible, but if it ignores the Bible and Christ in its exposition of divinity, it must inevitably substitute a modern deity for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and God manifest in Jesus Christ, and the best that can be said for such a deity is that it is subject to change without notice and subject to burial without mourners. But with the Father of lights “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (
I. God Is a Spirit. These words mean that God is a nonmaterial personal being, self-conscious and self-determining.
The definition contains three adjectives, each modifying seven nouns. The descriptive units in which these words are combined are not logically separable but are inextricably woven together, and thus they delineate the unity and the integrated complexity of God’s attributes. The analysis cannot be exhaustive but only descriptive.
II. God Is Infinite. The infinity of God is not an independent attribute. If we were to say, “God is the infinite,” without specification, the meaning would be pantheistic, equal to saying, “God is everything.” In using the word “infinite,” we must always be specific:
A. Infinite in his being. This doctrine is intended to teach that God is everywhere. The omnipresence of God is vividly brought out in such Scriptures as
It is easier to conceive of God’s omnipresence by saying, “Everything everywhere is immediately in his presence.” Finite creatures can act instantaneously in a limited area. Everything within one’s reach or sight is immediately in his presence, in the sense that distance is no problem. So in an absolutely perfect sense, everything in the universe is immediately in the presence of God.
B. Infinite in his wisdom. This phrase designates God’s omniscience. The Bible throughout regards God’s omniscience as all-inclusive, not dependent on a step-by-step process of reasoning. God’s knowledge does not increase or diminish when the temporal events of his redemptive program take place. He eternally knows what he has known in the past and what he will know in the future.
C. Infinite in his power. These words point to his omnipotence, his ability to do with power all that power can do, his controlling all the power that is or can be.
D. Infinite in his holiness, justice, and goodness. These words signify God’s moral attributes. Holiness is regarded in the Bible as his central ethical character. Basic ethical principles are revealed by the will of God and derived from and based on the character of God. “Be holy because I am holy” (
E. Infinite in his truth. This is the attribute that designates the basis of all logic and rationality. The axioms of logic and mathematics, and all the laws of reason, are not laws apart from God to which God must be subject. They are attributes of his own character. When the Bible says that “it is impossible for God to lie” (
There is no mere tautology in the Bible, as though the multiplication tables were true by mere divine fiat. As in ethics, so in rationality, the biblical writers constantly appeal to the truth of God’s immutable character. “He cannot deny himself” (
Just as the adjective “infinite,” in the definition we are considering, applies to all the specified attributes, so the words “eternal” and “unchangeable” similarly apply to all.
F. Eternal. This means without temporal beginning or ending, or in a figurative sense “eternal” may designate (as in the words “eternal life”) a quality of being suitable for eternity.
That God existed eternally before the creation of the finite universe does not imply a personal subject with no object, for God is triune. (See Trinity)
The idea that eternity means timelessness is nowhere suggested in the Bible. This false notion doubtless came into Christian theology under the influence of Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover,” the influence of which is strong in. That the Bible does not teach that God is timeless is an objective, verifiable fact.
G. Unchangeable, in Bible language, points to the perfect self-consistency of God’s character throughout all eternity. This is not a static concept, but dynamic, in all his relations with his creatures. That God brings to pass, in time, the events of his redemptive program is not contradictory. The notion that God’s immutability is static immobility (as in Thomism) is like the notion of timelessness and is contrary to the biblical view. The God of the Bible is intimately and actively concerned in all the actions of all his creatures.
III. God Is Known by His Acts. Supremely, “God...has spoken to us by his Son” (
IV. God Is Known in Fellowship. That God is known by faith, beyond the mere cognitive sense, in fellowship with his people, is one of the most prominent themes throughout the Bible. Moses, leading his people in the Exodus, was assured, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And Moses replied, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (
Other gods are referred to in the Bible as false gods (
For the ancient Greeks, the divine plenitude of life was reflected in a full Pantheon of gods, and it was to these “gods many” (1 Cor. 8:5) that the ordinary man looked for the supply of his religious needs. Though they were beyond the reach of death, the common lot of mortal men, the gods could not alter the dark counsels of fate, for they were themselves of the same order of being as men. Inasmuch as the Greeks conceived of the divine majesty in terms of man-the highest creature in the hierarchy of being-the noblest qualities with which they endowed their gods were human also.
For the Greek philosophers, the word “God” (theos) was a general term gathering up into itself all the impersonal, metaphysical forces and powers whereby order struggles out of chaos. God was the great sustaining Reality, the final necessary and adequate Condition of the existence of world order. In this process of rationalizing and ethicizing the Olympian deities, the philosophers did not necessarily deny the presence of the divine in the world; rather, in many instances they affirmed it. But they thought of God in terms of the regularity of being and immanent righteousness, more than in terms of the personal categories which dominated the Homeric world.
There was no possibility, therefore, in Greek philosophic thought, that man should enjoy a personal relationship with God, much less that God should assume our human mode of existence. That God should be a God-who-is-for-man is a view alien to Greek thought. By the same token it was unthinkable that man should address God in prayer as a loving Father. Man, indeed, may be moved by erotic attraction to the perfection residing in the diving Being, but this experience is not prayer in any sense of personal communion. Rather, since the thought of the philosophers about God and the cosmos tended toward identity, religious experience became the inner freedom and blessedness of self- fulfillment through striving toward higher forms of existence.
In contrast with Greek religious speculation, where the movement of thought is from the world to God, the biblical view of God is the other way. The Bible always speaks of God as a personal God who comes to man in his self-revelation.
In the Old Testament, the general word for God is “El,” denoting a personal object of religious perception and pious awe having to do with power, a power which man cannot master, but which fills his religious consciousness. Hence “El” is contrasted with “man” in passages like Ezekiel 28:2 and Hosea 11:9. Significantly the term is interchangeable with God's personal name “Jahweh” (commonly translated “Lord” in our English versions) in a way that makes it clear that the two are synonymous. Note the expression, found from time to time in the Old Testament, “Jahweh Elohim,” where Elohim is in explanatory apposition: “Jahweh, that is, God.” The use of the plural when referring to Jahweh can have no numerical significance, since “Elim” occurs as the plain plural of “El,” while “Elohim” is used of other individual gods in the Old Testament such as Baal of Sidon. We may therefore regard Elohim as a “plural of amplitude in addressing God”; to speak of Jahweh as Elohim is to confess that the God whose name is Jahweh possesses the quality of El in the fullest measure.
Though her faith in Jahweh was confronted by a plurality of deities in the surrounding world, through many a crisis Israel came to leave behind all thought of a tribal, national God and to recognize that God by His power fashioned and rules the whole world. Faith in this one, personal, all-powerful God was pledged in the covenant established between Jahweh and His people by the hand of Moses. This sense of Jahweh's absolute uniqueness was not obtained by rational argument, but by the impelling experience of the divine reality. Jahweh is He who helps, delivers, judges, and consoles His people. Hence He must be taken seriously in His transcendent power and steadfast love. Israel's monotheism, in other words, is not the end product of polytheism, driven by some inner motif of unity to a more satisfying concept, but a confession of God's overpowering reality in the lives of his people. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:2,3 RSV).
Since faith in Jahweh, the God of Israel, is the only proper response to His mighty acts of redemption, the prophets attacked the power of heathen piety by noting the obvious fact that the gods of the heathen can neither hear nor speak. Fashioned in wood and stone, the symbols of nature's forces numinously conceived, they are of no avail to help in time of trouble. They are a silent mystery and their devotees deluded fools (Isa. 44).
This monotheism (confessed in Deut. 6:4) comes to its finest expression in the second part of Isaiah. The overthrow of the nation of Israel, in the natural course of things, would have marked the demise of the worship of Jahweh. But Israel's history is not natural, as is evidenced by the fact that her national tragedy was the occasion for the prophet to affirm Jahweh's sovereign lordship over all the nations of the earth. Jahweh is God alone, unique and incomparable in His power and wisdom, the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of all human history (cf. Isa. 41:1-5; 43:10,11; 44:7,8; chaps. 45,46).
The Old Testament doctrine of God is the presupposition of all that the New Testament writers teach about Him. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, almighty, holy, living, and faithful, is the God who is uniquely revealed in Jesus the Christ. Only now man's reverence and awe as a worshiper of the true God is informed by a heightened intimacy of relationship. This is because Jesus taught His disciples to call God “Father” (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2) and gave them His Spirit, by whose inner witness they were enabled to cry, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15,16). Since Jesus is uniquely God's Son (Luke 10:22), and since His Spirit indwells His followers, Christians could hardly conceive God's unity, so stressed in the Old Testament and reiterated in the New, in terms of an undifferentiated monad. The great events of redemptive history, incarnation, and Pentecost which precede the writing of the New Testament explain why the doctrine of the Trinity, though not expressly elaborated in the New Testament, is nonetheless there in primordial form. Hence the spontaneous use of threefold expressions when speaking of God on the part of the apostolic community (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:13; Eph. 4:4-6; 2 Thess. 2:13,14; 1 Pet. 1:1,2).
In the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, biblical religion confronted Greek philosophy, and of this encounter Christian theology was born. So far as the Christian doctrine of God is concerned, we may say that the Old Testament revelation of God, culminating in the work of, provided the church with the substance of its faith, while Greek philosophy supplied the intellectual categories and concepts for the systematic articulation of this faith. The marriage of Greek and biblical thought is a fact to be accepted, but not with uncritical approval. On the one hand, “the fullness of time” may be seen in that Greek philosophy had prepared men's minds for the theological task confronting the church. This task was to work out the implications of God's final self-revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ, so as to meet the need of the catechumen and the challenge of the heretic and pagan. On the other hand, there was always the threat of distortion, since Greek thought is not only other than, but in a sense alien to, the thought world of the Bible.
As we have seen, the accent in Greek philosophy was on the impersonal Ideal, whereas the Bible is concerned with a personal God who speaks to His people and acts in history to redeem them. Because of this essential difference, philosophy can never be more than the handmaid of theology. Some Christian thinkers have sought to deny even this modest place to abstract, rational thought about God, but this is patently an overreaction. It is a fact that philosophy has provided the critical categories of thought with which Christian theology has gone about its task, and indeed, if one accepts the providence of God and the ultimate unity of truth, it is difficult to see how the theological task of the church could have been pursued in any other way.
There have been persistent theological problems; these concern the being and existence of God and his relationship to the world, especially His relationship to man. In an article of such limited scope one can do little more than offer the briefest survey of the answers Christian thinkers have suggested to these problems. It must always be remembered that these Christian answers which take the form of doctrinal formulations of the church are the extension of faith. Dogmatic pronouncements about God define truths concerning which there is a broad consensus and concerning which the church has an obligation to preach and teach as it upholds the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The central confession of the church is that Jesus is Lord, and the elaborated, explicit form of this confession is the doctrine of the Trinity.*
The church answers the question of God's being by the fundamental affirmation that God is a Trinity. Although the dogma of the Trinity contains no definition or classification of the attributes nor inference of specific attributes from the nature of the divine Being, yet when discussed, the attributes describe the Trinity in Unity which is the Godhead.
The above position is stated as preferable to that of the medieval Thomists and Protestant scholastics who discussed the doctrine of the Trinity only after they had defined God's essence as pure actuality (actus purus) and established His existence and attributes on general principles of reason. Such a metaphysical approach has its merits and is certainly to be preferred to the antimetaphysical stance of German liberalism whereby pronouncements about God are turned into pronouncements of religious experience (Schleiermacher) or statements of the ethical values of the kingdom of God (Ritschl). Such a theological method can hardly escape the criticism of Feuerbach that all theology is anthropology. On the other hand, metaphysics tends to alter pronouncements about God from confessional statements to be used in worship, to general statements of reason, uniting God and the world in a rational system in which the doctrine of God is more philosophic than biblical (see). Because of our reservations about such an approach, in this article we shall first discuss the divine attributes and only then raise the question of the proofs of God's being and existence.
The theologians' difficulty in classifying and ordering the divine attributes confirms one in the opinion that our understanding of God is inadequate to comprehend His essence, though we may postulate a genuine analogy between His being and the properties which we ascribe to Him. The more metaphysical attributes are God's aseity or independence, which means that God is unlike anything He has made; God's infinity, which includes both His eternity (He is beyond temporal limitations) and His immensity (He is beyond spatial limitations, i.e., omnipresent); and finally, God's impassibility (He is pure actuality, devoid of mere potentiality). As Augustine has said: “To God it is not one thing to be, and another to live, as though he could be, not living; nor is it to him one thing to live, and another to understand, as though he could live, not understanding; nor is it to him one thing to understand, another to be blessed, as though he could understand and not be blessed. But to him to live, to understand, to be blessed, are to be.”
The more religious attributes describe God in the perfection of His intelligence, will, and holy love. His perfect intelligence we call omniscience; His perfect will omnipotence; while holy love refers to His justice (wrath) and His grace (mercy). Since these attributes are based on God's self- revelation in history, they should always be understood in the light of that revelation. God's infinity, for example, is not simply His independence from time and space, but His lordship over them as displayed in the Incarnation, wherein He freely reveals Himself in time and space.
Of equal importance to faith with the question of God's attributes is the question of how we should conceive and speak of God's relationship to the world of which man is a part. This is the question of God's immanence and transcendence. Pantheism tends to press the divine immanence to the point of identity between God and the world. Whatever is, is God, and nothing can be conceived apart from God. Deism takes the opposite tack and stresses the divine transcendence. God is so apart from the world as to be an absentee Lord, the laws of nature being sufficient unto themselves. The biblical view is described by the word “providence,” which is the doctrine that God preserves and governs all His creatures and all their actions, by a personal exercise of His power, freely, according to the counsel of His will and for His own glory. Classically, this providential rule of God has been construed in terms of causality. But to affirm that God is the ultimate “cause” of everything that comes to pass has raised difficult questions, so far as evil is concerned, for no theologian will say that God is the author of evil. In contemporary thought, moreover, causality is an impersonal category of science, which makes it especially problematical as describing the divine agency in the area of the free and responsible acts of men. It is best, therefore, to think of God's providence in such personal categories as are suggested by the biblical titles of Ruler, King, Lord, and Father.
Traditional theology has been much concerned to prove the existence of God. While such an effort is entirely understandable, it has no express biblical warrant. For the writers of Scripture, God's presence and power in the world were as self-evident as the axioms on which the traditional demonstrations of His existence were supposed to rest. It is possible, therefore, to view the traditional arguments for God's existence as clarifications of mental concepts derived from revelation. Contemporary theology is marked by efforts, not to prove God's existence as an eternal and absolute Being, but to reconstruct our thought about God in terms of evolutionary process. Such “Process Theology” stresses the thought that God is not only eternal, but also eminently temporal, affected in His being by all that transpires in the creation. Since the universe is a changing, dynamic, living reality, God must also be conceived as changing, dynamic, and living; open to the possiblities of creation, actualizing his potentialities. Many modern existentialist theologians have gone further than this in their departure from the traditional thought of the church about God (see Existentialism). If God is transcendent in any sense, it is a hidden transcendence in the depth of Existence. To speak about God is to speak about man's existence. His transcendence is the transcendence of man's inner life. Hence the complaint of God's “silence,” “absence,” “concealment,” “eclipse,” even “nonbeing” and “death” on the part of many religious existentialists. Much of the disarray of contemporary theology could be due to the fact that modern man does not want a sovereign God to rule over him. As Augustine once pointed out, however, man's freedom is not preserved by banishing God, but by serving Him.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(’Elohim, ’El, [`Elyon], Shadday, Yahweh; Theos):
I. INew TestamentRODUCTION TO THE GENERAL IDEA
1. The Idea in Experience and in Thought
2. Definition of the Idea
3. The Knowledge of God
4. Ethnic Ideas of God
(8) Semitic Monolatry
II. THE IDEA OF GOD IN THE OLD TESTAMENew Testament
1. The Course of Its Development
2. Forms of Its Manifestation
(1) The Face or Countenance of God
(2) The Voice and Word of God
(3) The Glory of God
(5) The Spirit of God
(6) The Name of God
(7) Occasional Forms
4. Pre-prophetic Conceptions of God
(1) Yahweh Alone Is the God of Israel
(a) His Early Worship
(b) Popular Religion
(c) Polytheistic Tendencies
(d) No Hebrew Goddesses
(e) Human Sacrifices
(2) Nature and Character of Yahweh
(a) A God of War
(b) His Relation to Nature
(3) Most Distinctive Characteristics of Yahweh
(b) Law and Judgment
5. The Idea of God in the Prophetic Period
(5) Creator and Lord
(6) Compassion and Love
6. The Idea of God in Post-exilic Judaism
(1) New Conditions
(2) Divine Attributes
(3) Surviving Limitations
(a) Disappearing Anthropomorphism
(d) Ceremonial Legalism
(4) Tendencies to Abstractness
(5) Logos, Memra’, and Angels
III. THE IDEA OF GOD IN THE NEW TESTAMENew Testament
1. Dependence on the
2. Gentile Influence
3. Absence of Theistic Proofs
(1) In theChrist
(a) Its Relation to Himself
(b) To Believers
(c) To All Men
(2) In Apostolic Teaching
(a) Father of
(b) Our Father
(c) Universal Father
5. God Is King
(2) Its King
(c) Their Relation
(3) Apostolic Teaching
6. Moral Attributes
(3) Righteousness and Holiness
7. Metaphysical Attributes
8. The Unity of God
(3) The Church’s Problem
I. Introduction to the General Idea.
1. The Idea in Experience and in Thought:
Religion gives the idea of God, theology construes and organizes its content, and philosophy establishes its relation to the whole of man’s experience. The logical order of treating it might appear to be, first, to establish its truth by philosophical proofs; secondly, to develop its content into theological propositions; and finally, to observe its development and action in religion. Such has been the more usual order of treatment. But the actual history of the idea has been quite the reverse. Men had the idea of God, and it had proved a creative factor in history, long before reflection upon it issued in its systematic expression as a doctrine. Moreover, men had enunciated the doctrine before they attempted or even felt any need to define its relation to reality. And the logic of history is the truer philosophy. To arrive at the truth of any idea, man must begin with some portion of experience, define its content, relate it to the whole of experience, and so determine its degree of reality.
Religion is as universal as man, and every religion involves some idea of God. Of the various philosophical ideas of God, each has its counterpart and antecedent in some actual religion. Pantheism is the philosophy of the religious consciousness of India. Deism had prevailed for centuries as an actual attitude of men to God, in China, in Judaism and in Islam, before it found expression as a rational theory in the philosophy of the 18th century Theism is but the attempt to define in general terms the Christian conception of God, and of His relation to the world. If pluralism claims a place among the systems of philosophy, it can appeal to the religious consciousness of that large portion of mankind that has hitherto adhered to polytheism.
But all religions do not issue in speculative reconstructions of their content. It is true in a sense that all religion is an unconscious philosophy, because it is the reaction of the whole mind, including the intellect, upon the world of its experience, and, therefore, every idea of God involves some kind of an explanation of the world. But conscious reflection upon their own content emerges only in a few of the more highly developed religions. Brahmanism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the only religions that have produced great systems of thought, exhibiting their content in a speculative and rational form. The religions of Greece and Rome were unable to survive the reflective period. They produced no theology which could ally itself to a philosophy, and Greek philosophy was from the beginning to a great extent the denial and supersession of Greek religion.
Biblical literature nearly all represents the spontaneous experience of religion, and contains comparatively little reflection upon that experience. In the Old Testament it is only in Second Isaiah, in the Wisdom literature and in a few Psalms that the human mind may be seen turning back upon itself to ask the meaning of its practical feelings and beliefs. Even here nothing appears of the nature of a philosophy of Theism or of religion, no theology, no organic definition and no ideal reconstruction of the idea of God. It never occurred to any Old Testament writer to offer a proof of the existence of God, or that anyone should need it. Their concern was to bring men to a right relation with God, and they propounded right views of God only in so far as it was necessary for their practical purpose. Even the fool who "hath said in his heart, There is no God" (
Thecontains more theology, more reflection upon the inward content of the idea of God, and upon its cosmic significance; but here also, no system appears, no coherent and rounded-off doctrine, still less any philosophical construction of the idea on the basis of experience as a whole. The task of exhibiting the Biblical idea of God is, therefore, not that of setting together a number of texts, or of writing the history of a theology, but rather of interpreting the central factor in the life of the Hebrew and Christian communities.
2. Definition of the Idea:
Logically and historically the Biblical idea stands related to a number of other ideas. Attempts have been made to find a definition of so general a nature as to comprehend them all. The older theologians assumed the Christian standpoint, and put into their definitions the conclusions of Christian doctrine and philosophy. Thus, Melanchthon: "God is a spiritual essence, intelligent, eternal, true, good, pure, just, merciful, most free and of infinite power and wisdom." Thomasius more briefly defines God as "the absolute personality." These definitions take no account of the existence of lower religions and ideas of God, nor do they convey much of the concreteness and nearness of God revealed in Christ. A similar recent definition, put forward, however, avowedly of the Christian conception, is that of Professor W. N. Clarke: "God is the personal Spirit, perfectly good, who in holy love creates, sustains and orders all" (Outline of Christian Theology, 66). The rise of comparative religion has shown that "while all religions involve a conscious relation to a being called God, the Divine Being is in different religions conceived in the most different ways; as one and as many, as natural and as spiritual, as like to and manifested in almost every object in the heavens above or earth beneath, in mountains and trees, in animals and men; or, on the contrary, as being incapable of being represented by any finite image whatsoever; and, again, as the God of a family, of a nation, or of humanity" (E. Caird, Evolution of Religion, I, 62). Attempts have therefore been made to find a new kind of definition, such as would include under one category all the ideas of God possessed by the human race. A typical instance of this kind of definition is that of Professor W. Adams Brown: "A god in the religious sense is an unseen being, real or supposed, to whom an individual or a social group is united by voluntary ties of reverence and service" (Christian Theology in Outline, 30). Many similar definitions are given: "A supersensible being or beings" (Lotze, Asia Minor Fairbairn); "a higher power" (Allan Menzies); "spiritual beings" (E.B. Tylor); "a power not ourselves making for righteousness" (). This class of definition suffers from a twofold defect. It says too much to include the ideas of the lower religions, and too little to suggest those of the higher. It is not all gods that are "unseen" or "supersensible," or "making for righteousness," but all these qualities may be shared by other beings than gods, and they do not connote that which is essential in the higher ideas of God. Dr. E. Caird, looking for a definition in a germinative principle of the genesis of religion, defines God "as the unity which is presupposed in the difference of the self and not-self, and within which they act and re-act on each other" (op. cit., I, 40, 64). This principle admittedly finds its full realization only in the highest religion, and it may be doubted whether it does justice to the transcendent personality and the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In the lower religions it appears only in fragmentary forms, and it can only be detected in them at all after it has been revealed in the absolute religion. Although this definition may be neither adequate nor true, its method recognizes that there can be only one true idea and definition of God, and yet that all other ideas are more or less true elements of it and approximations to it. The Biblical idea does not stand alone like an island in mid-ocean, but is rather the center of light which radiates out in other religions with varying degrees of purity.
It is not the purpose of this article to deal with the problem of the philosophy of religion, but to give an account of the idea of God at certain stages of its development, and within a limited area of thought. The absence of a final definition will present no practical difficulty, because the denotation of the term God is clear enough; it includes everything that is or has been an object of worship; it is its connotation that remains a problem for speculation.
3. The Knowledge of God:
A third class of definition demands some attention, because it raises a new question, that of the knowledge or truth of any idea whatsoever. Herbert Spencer’s definition may be taken as representative: God is the unknown and unknowable cause of the universe, "an inscrutable power manifested to us through all phenomena" (First Principles, V, 31). This means that there can be no definition of the idea of God, because we can have no idea of Him, no knowledge "in the strict sense of knowing." For the present purpose it might suffice for an answer that ideas of God actually exist; that they can be defined and are more definable, because fuller and more complex, the higher they rise in the scale of religions; that they can be gathered from the folklore and traditions of the lower races, and from the sacred books and creeds of the higher religions. But Spencer’s view means that, in so far as the ideas are definable, they are not true. The more we define, the more fictitious becomes our subject-matter. While nothing is more certain than that God exists, His being is to human thought utterly mysterious and inscrutable. The variety of ideas might seem to support this view. But variety of ideas has been held of every subject that is known, as witness the progress of science. The variety proves nothing.
And the complete abstraction of thought from existence cannot be maintained. Spencer himself does not succeed in doing it. He says a great many things about the "unknowable" which implies an extensive knowledge of Him. The traditional proofs of the "existence" of God have misled the Agnostics. But existence is meaningless except for thought, and a noumenon or first cause that lies hidden in impenetrable mystery behind phenomena cannot be conceived even as a fiction. Spencer’s idea of the Infinite and Absolute are contradictory and unthinkable. An Infinite that stood outside all that is known would not be infinite, and an Absolute out of all relation could not even be imagined. If there is any truth at all in the idea of the Absolute, it must be true to human experience and thought; and the true Infinite must include within itself every possible and actual perfection. In truth, every idea of God that has lived in religion refutes Agnosticism, because they all qualify and interpret experience, and the only question is as to the degree of their adequacy and truth.
A brief enumeration of the leading ideas of God that have lived in religion will serve to place the Biblical idea in its true perspective.
4. Ethnic Ideas of God:
Animism is the name of a theory which explains the lowest (and perhaps the earliest) forms of religion, and also the principle of all religion, as the belief in the universal presence of spiritual beings which "are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man’s life here and hereafter; and, it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads naturally, and, it might almost be said, inevitably, sooner or later, to active reverence and propitiation" (E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, I, 426-27). According to this view, the world is full of disembodied spirits, regarded as similar to man’s soul, and any or all of these may be treated as gods.
Fetishism is sometimes used in a general sense for "the view that the fruits of the earth and things in general are divine, or animated by powerful spirits" (J.G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 234); or it may be used in a more particular sense of the belief that spirits "take up their abode, either temporarily or permanently, in some object, ..... and this object, as endowed with higher power, is then worshipped" (Tiele, Outlines of the History of Religion, 9).
Idolatry is a term of still more definite significance. It means that the object is at least selected, as being the permanent habitation or symbol of the deity; and, generally, it is marked by some degree of human workmanship, designed to enable it the more adequately to represent the deity. It is not to be supposed that men ever worship mere "stocks and stones," but they address their worship to objects, whether fetishes or idols, as being the abodes or images of their god. It is a natural and common idea that the spirit has a form similar to the visible object in which it dwells. Paul reflected the heathen idea accurately when he said, "We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man" (
The belief in many gods, and the worship of them, is an attitude of soul compatible with Animism, Fetishism, and Idolatry, or it may be independent of them all. The term Polytheism is more usually employed to designate the worship of a limited number of well-defined deities, whether regarded as pure disembodied spirits, or as residing in the greater objects of Nature, such as planets or mountains, or as symbolized by images "graven by art and device of man." In ancient Greece or modern India the great gods are well defined, named and numerable, and it is clearly understood that, though they may be symbolized by images, they dwell apart in a spiritual realm above the rest of the world.
There is, however, a tendency, both in individuals and in communities, even where many gods are believed to exist, to set one god above the others, and consequently to confine worship to that god alone. "The monotheistic tendency exists among all peoples, after they have reached a certain level of culture. There is a difference in the degree in which this tendency is emphasized, but whether we turn to Babylonia, Egypt, India, China, or Greece, there are distinct traces of a trend toward concentrating the varied manifestations of Divine powers in a single source" (Jastrow, The Study of Religion, 76). This attitude of mind has been called Henotheism or Monolatry--the worship of one God combined with the belief in the existence of many. This tendency may be governed by metaphysical, or by ethical and personal motives, either by the monistic demands of reason, or by personal attachment to one political or moral rule.
Where the former principle predominates, Polytheism merges into Pantheism, as is the case in India, where Brahma is not only the supreme, but the sole, being, and all other gods are but forms of his manifestation. But, in India, the vanquished gods have had a very complete revenge upon their vanquisher, for Brahma has become so abstract and remote that worship is mainly given to the other gods, who are forms of his manifestation. Monolatry has been reversed, and modern Hinduism were better described as the belief in one God accompanied by the worship of many.
The monistic tendency, by a less thorough application of it, may take the opposite turn toward Deism, and yet produce similar religious conditions. The Supreme Being, who is the ultimate reality and power of the universe, may be conceived in so vague and abstract a manner, may be so remote from the world, that it becomes a practical necessity to interpose between Him and men a number of subordinate and nearer beings as objects of worship. In ancient Greece, Necessity, in China, Tien or Heaven, were the Supreme Beings; but a multiplicity of lower gods were the actual objects of worship. The angels of Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam and the saints of Romanism illustrate the same tendency. Pantheism and Deism, though they have had considerable vogue as philosophical theories, have proved unstable and impossible as religions, for they have invariably reverted to some kind of polytheism and idolatry, which seems to indicate that they are false processes of the monistic tendency.
(8) Semitic Monolatry:
The monistic tendency of reason may enlist in its aid many minor causes, such as tribal isolation or national aggrandizement. It is held that many Sere tribes were monolatrists for either or both of these reasons; but the exigencies of intertribal relations in war and commerce soon neutralized their effects, and merged the tribal gods into a territorial pantheon.
Monotheism, ethical and personal: One further principle may combine with Monism so as to bring about a stable Monotheism, that is the conception of God as standing in moral relations with man. Whenever man reflects upon conduct as moral, he recognizes that there can be only one moral standard and authority, and when God is identified with that moral authority, He inevitably comes to be recognized as supreme and unique. The belief in the existence of other beings called gods may survive for a while; but they are divested of all the attributes of deity when they are seen to be inferior or opposed to the God who rules in conscience. Not only are they not worshipped, but their worship by others comes to be regarded as immoral and wicked. The ethical factor in the monistic conception of God safeguards it from diverging into Pantheism or Deism and thus reverting into Polytheism. For the ethical idea of God necessarily involves His personality, His transcendence as distinct from the world and above it, and also His intimate and permanent relation with man. If He rules in conscience, He can neither be merged in dead nature or abstract being, nor be removed beyond the heavens and the angel host. A thoroughly moralized conception of God emerges first in the Old Testament where it is the prevailing type of thought.
II. The Idea of God in the Old Testament.
1. Course of Its Development:
Any attempt to write the whole history of the idea of God in the Old Testament would require a preliminary study of the literary and historical character of the documents, which lies beyond the scope of this article and the province of the writer. Yet the Old Testament contains no systematic statement of the doctrine of God, or even a series of statements that need only to be collected into a consistent conception. The Old Testament is the record of a rich and varied life, extending over more than a thousand years, and the ideas that ruled and inspired that life must be largely inferred from the deeds and institutions in which it was realized; nor was it stationary or all at one level. Nothing is more obvious than that revelation in the Old Testament has been progressive, and that the idea of God it conveys has undergone a development. Certain well-marked stages of the development can be easily recognized, without entering upon any detailed criticism. There can be no serious question that the age of the Exodus, as centering around the personality of Moses, witnessed an important new departure in Hebrew religion. The most ancient traditions declare (perhaps not unanimously) that God was then first known to Israel under the personal name Yahweh (Yahweh (YHWH) is the correct form of the word, Yahweh being a composite of the consonants of Yahweh and the vowels of ’adhonay, or lord. Yahweh is retained here as the more familiar form). The Hebrew people came to regard Him as their Deliverer from Egypt, as their war god who assured them the conquest of Canaan, and He, therefore, became their king, who ruled over their destinies in their new heritage. But the settlement of Yahweh in Canaan, like that of His people, was challenged by the native gods and their peoples. In the 9th century we see the war against Yahweh carried into His own camp, and Baal-worship attempting to set itself up within Israel. His prophets therefore assert the sole right of Yahweh to the worship of His people, and the great prophets of the 8th century base that right upon His moral transcendence. Thus they at once reveal new depths of His moral nature, and set His uniqueness and supremacy on higher grounds. During the exile and afterward, Israel’s outlook broadens by contact with the greater world, and it draws out the logical implications of ethical monotheism into a theology at once more universalistic and abstract. Three fairly well-defined periods thus emerge, corresponding to three stages in the development of the Old Testament idea of God: the pre-prophetic period governed by the Mosaic conception, the prophetic period during which ethical monotheism is firmly established, and the post-exilic period with the rise of abstract monotheism. But even in taking these large and obvious divisions, it is necessary to bear in mind the philosopher’s maxim, that "things are not cut off with a hatchet." The most characteristic ideas of each period may be described within their period; but it should not be assumed that they are altogether absent from other periods; and, in particular, it should not be supposed that ideas, and the life they represent, did not exist before they emerged in the clear witness of history. Mosaism had undoubtedly its antecedents in the life of Israel; but any attempt to define them leads straight into a very morass of conjectures and hypotheses, archaeological, critical and philosophical; and any results that are thus obtained are contributions to comparative religion rather than to theology.
2. Forms of the Manifestation of God:
Religious experience must always have had an inward and subjective aspect, but it is a long and difficult process to translate the objective language of ordinary life for the uses of subjective experience. "Men look outward before they look inward." Hence, we find that men express their consciousness of God in the earliest periods in language borrowed from the visible and objective world. It does not follow that they thought of God in a sensuous way, because they speak of Him in the language of the senses, which alone was available for them. On the other hand, thought is never entirely independent of language, and the degree in which men using sensuous language may think of spiritual facts varies with different persons.
(1) The Face or Countenance of God:
(2) The Voice and Word of God:
(3) The Glory of God:
The glory (kabhodh) of God is both a peculiar physical phenomenon and the manifestation of God in His works and providence. In certain passages in Exodus, ascribed to the Priestly Code, the glory is a bright light, "like devouring fire" (24:17); it fills and consecrates the tabernacle (29:43; 40:34,35); and it is reflected as beams of light in the face of Moses (34:29). In Ezekiel, it is a frequent term for the prophet’s vision, a brightness like the appearance of a rainbow (1:28; 10:4; 43:2). In another place, it is identified with all the manifested goodness of God and is accompanied with the proclamation of His name (
(4) The Angel of God:
(5) The Spirit of God:
The spirit (ruach) of God in the earlier period is a form of His activity, as it moves warrior and prophet to act and to speak (
(6) The Name of God:
(7) Occasional Forms:
The questions of the objectivity of any or all of these forms, and of their relation to the whole Divine essence raise large problems. Old Testament thought had advanced beyond the naive identification of God with natural phenomena, but we should not read into its figurative language the metaphysical distinctions of a Greek-Christian theology.
3. The Names of God:
All the names of God were originally significant of His character, but the derivations, and therefore the original meanings, of several have been lost, and new meanings have been sought for them.
To distinguish the God of Israel as supreme from others of the class ’Elohim, certain qualifying appellations are often added. ’El `Elyon designates the God of Israel as the highest, the most high, among the ’Elohim (
’El Shadday, or Shadday alone, is a similar term which on the strength of some tradition is translated "God Almighty"; but its derivation and meaning are quite unknown. According to
Another way of designating God was by His relation to His worshippers, as God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (
(3) Yahweh (Yahweh).
4. Pre-prophetic Conceptions of Yahweh:
(1) Yahweh alone the God of Israel.
Hebrew theology consists essentially of the doctrine of Yahweh and its implications. The teachers and leaders of the people at all times worship and enjoin the worship of Yahweh alone. "It stands out as a prominent and incontrovertible fact, that down to the reign of Ahab .... no prominent man in Israel, with the doubtful exception of Solomon, known by name and held up for condemnation, worshipped any other god but Yahweh. In every national and tribal crisis, in all times of danger and of war, it is Yahweh and Yahweh alone who is invoked to give victory and deliverance" (Montefiore, Hibbert Lectures (3), 21). This is more evident in what is, without doubt, very early literature, even than in later writings (e.g.
(a) His Early Worship:
(b) Popular Religion:
(c) Polytheistic Tendencies:
When the people had settled down in peaceful relations with their neighbors, and began to have commercial and diplomatic transactions with them, it was inevitable that they should render their neighbor’s gods some degree of reverence and worship. Courtesy and friendship demanded as much (compare
And where Yahweh was conceived as one of the Baalim or Masters of the land, He became, like them, subject to disintegration into a number of local deities. This was probably the gravamen of Jeroboam’s sin in the eyes of the "Deuteronomic" historian. In setting up separate sanctuaries, he divided the worship, and, in effect, the godhead of Yahweh. The localization and naturalization of Yahweh, as well as His assimilation to the Baals, all went together, so that we read that even in Judah the number of gods was according to its cities (
(d) No Hebrew Goddesses:
In one respect the religion of Yahweh successfully resisted the influence of the heathen cults. At no time was Yahweh associated with a goddess. Although the corrupt sensual practices that formed a large part of heathen worship also entered into Israel’s worship (see Asherah), it never penetrated so far as to modify in this respect the idea of Yahweh.
(e) Human Sacrifices:
(2) The Nature and Character of Yahweh:
The nature and character of Yahweh are manifested in His activities. The Old Testament makes no statements about the essence of God; we are left to infer it from His action in Nature and history and from His dealing with man.
(a) A God of War:
In this period, His activity is predominantly martial. As Israel’s Deliverer from Egypt, "Yahweh is a man of war" (
(b) His Relation to Nature:
(3) The Most Distinctive Characteristic of Yahweh:
The most distinctive characteristic of Yahweh, which finally rendered Him and His religion absolutely unique, was the moral factor. In saying that Yahweh was a moral God, it is meant that He acted by free choice, in conformity with ends which He set to Himself, and which He also imposed upon His worshippers as their law of conduct.
(b) Law and Judgment:
The first line of advance in the teaching of the prophets was to expand and deepen the moral demands of Yahweh. So they removed at once the ethical and theological limitations of the earlier view. But they were conscious that they were only developing elements already latent in the character and law of Yahweh.
5. The Idea of God in the Prophetic Period:
Two conditions called forth and determined the message of the 8th-century prophets--the degradation of morality and religion at home and the growing danger to Israel and Judah from the all-victorious Assyrian. With one voice the prophets declare and condemn the moral and social iniquity of Israel and Judah (
The unity of God was the leading idea of Josiah’s reformation. Jerusalem was cleansed of every accretion of Baal-worship and of other heathen religions that had established themselves by the side of the worship of Yahweh (
But the monotheistic doctrine is first fully and consciously stated in Second Isa. There is no God but Yahweh: other gods are merely graven images, and their worshippers commit the absurdity of worshipping the work of their own hands (
(5) Creator and Lord:
(6) His compassion and love are expressed in a variety of ways that lead up directly to the New Testament doctrine of Divine Fatherhood. He folds Israel in His arms as a shepherd his lambs (
6. Idea of God in Post-exilic Judaism:
Monotheism appears in this period as established beyond question, and in the double sense that Yahweh the God of Israel is one Being, and that beside Him there is no other God. He alone is God of all the earth, and all other beings stand at an infinite distance from Him (
(1) New Conditions.
Nothing essentially new appears, but the teaching of the prophets is developed under new influences. And what then was enforced by the few has now become the creed of the many. The teaching of the prophets had been enforced by the experiences of the exile. Israel had been punished for her sins of idolatry, and the faithful among the exiles had learned that Yahweh’s rule extended over many lands and nations. The foreign influences had been more favorable to Monotheism. The gods of Canaan and even of Assyria and Babylonia had been overthrown, and their peoples had given place to the Persians, who, in the religion of Zarathushtra, had advanced nearer to a pure Monotheism than any Gentilerace had done; for although they posited two principles of being, the Good and the Evil, they worshipped only Ahura-Mazda, the Good. When Persia gave way to Greece, the more cultured Greek, the Greek who had ideas to disseminate, and who established schools at Antioch or Alexandria, was a pure Monotheist.
(2) Divine Attributes.
(3) Surviving Limitations.
(a) Disappearing Anthropomorphism:
We have evidence of a changed attitude toward anthropomorphisms. God no longer walks on earth, or works under human limitation. Where His eyes or ears or face or hands are spoken of, they are clearly figurative expressions. His activities are universal and invisible, and He dwells on high forevermore. Yet anthropomorphic limitations are not wholly overcome. The idea that He sleeps, though not to be taken literally, implies a defect of His power (
In the metaphysical attributes, the chief limitation was the idea that God’s dwelling-place on earth was on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. He was no longer confined within Palestine; His throne is in heaven (
"In Judah is God known:
His name is great in Israel.
In Salem also is his tabernacle,
And his dwelling-place in Zion"
That these are no figures of speech is manifested in the yearning of the pious for the temple, and their despair in separation from it (Pss 42; 43; compare 122).
This involved a moral limitation, the sense of God’s favoritism toward Israel, which sometimes developed into an easy self-righteousness that had no moral basis. God’s action in the world was determined by His favor toward Israel, and His loving acts were confined within the bounds of a narrow nationalism. Other nations are wicked and sinners, adversaries and oppressors, upon whom God is called to execute savage vengeance (
(d) Ceremonial Legalism:
God’s holiness in the hands of the priests tended to become a material and formal quality, which fulfilled itself in established ceremonial, and His righteousness in the hands of the scribes tended to become an external law whose demands were satisfied by a mechanical obedience of works. This external conception of righteousness reacted upon the conception of God’s government of the world. From the earliest times the Hebrew mind had associated suffering with the punishment of sin, and blessedness with the reward of virtue. In the post-exilic age the relation came to be thought of as one of strict correspondence between righteousness and reward and between sin and punishment. Righteousness, both in man and God, was not so much a moral state as a measurable sum of acts, in the one case, of obedience, and in the other, of reward or retribution. Conversely, every calamity and evil that befell men came to be regarded as the direct and equivalent penalty of a sin they had committed. Theis a somewhat inconclusive protest against this prevalent view.
These were the tendencies that ultimately matured into the narrow externalism of the scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s time, which had substituted for the personal knowledge and service of God a system of mechanical acts of worship and conduct.
(4) Tendencies to Abstractness:
Behind these defective ideas of God’s attributes stood a more radical defect of the whole religious conception. The purification of the religion of Israel from Polytheism and idolatry, the affirmation of the unity of God and of His spirituality, required His complete separation from the manifoldness of visible existence. It was the only way, until the more adequate idea of a personal or spiritual unity, that embraced the manifold in itself, was developed. But it was an unstable conception, which tended on the one hand to empty the unity of all reality, and on the other to replace it by a new multiplicity which was not a unity. Both tendencies appear in post-exilic Judaism.
The first effect of distinguishing too sharply between God and all created being was to set Him above and apart from all the world. This tendency had already appeared in Ezekiel, whose visions were rather symbols of God’s presence than actual experiences of God. In Daniel even the visions appear only in dreams. The growth of the Canon of sacred literature as the final record of the law of God, and the rise of the scribes as its professional interpreters, signified that God need not, and would not, speak face to face with man again; and the stricter organization of the priesthood and its sacrificial acts in Jerusalem tended to shut men generally out from access to God, and to reduce worship into a mechanical performance. A symptom of this fact was the disuse of the personal name Yahweh and the substitution for it of more general and abstract terms like God and Lord.
Not only an exaggerated awe, but also an element of skepticism, entered into the disuse of the proper name, a sense of the inadequacy of any name. In the Wisdom literature, God’s incomprehensibility and remoteness appear for the first time as a conscious search after Him and a difficulty to find Him (
By a "happy inconsistency" (Montefiore) they affirmed His immanence both in Nature (
(5) Logos, Memra’ and Angels:
III. The Idea of God in the New Testament.
1. Dependence on the Old Testament:
The whole of the New Testament presupposes and rests upon the Old Testament. Jesus Christ and His disciples inherited the idea of God revealed in the Old Testament, as it survived in the purer strata of Jewish religion. So much was it to them and their contemporaries a matter of course, that it never occurred to them to proclaim or enforce the idea of God. Nor did they consciously feel the need of amending or changing it. They sought to correct some fallacious deductions made by later Judaism, and, unconsciously, they dropped the cruder anthropomorphisms and limitations of the Old Testament idea. But their point of departure was always the higher teaching of the prophets and Psalms, and their conscious endeavor in presenting God to men was to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (
2. Gentile Influence:
Gr thought may also have influenced New Testament thought, but in a comparatively insignificant and subordinate way. Its content was not taken over bodily as was that of Hebrew thought, and it did not influence the fountain head of New Testament ideas. It did not color the mind and teaching of Jesus Christ. It affected the form rather than matter of New Testament teaching. It appears in the clear-cut distinction between flesh and spirit, mind and body, which emerges in Paul’s Epistles, and so it helped to define more accurately the spirituality of God. The idea of the Logos in John, and the kindred idea of Christ as the image of God in Paul and He, owe something to the influence of the Platonic and Stoic schools. As this is the constructive concept employed in the New Testament to define the religious significance of Christ and His essential relation to God, it modifies the idea of God itself, by introducing a distinction within the unity into its innermost meaning.
3. Absence of Theistic Proofs:
Philosophy never appears in the New Testament on its own account, but only as subservient to Christian experience. In the New Testament as in the Old Testament, the existence of God is taken for granted as the universal basis of all life and thought. Only in three passages of Paul’s, addressed to heathen audiences, do we find anything approaching a natural theology, and these are concerned rather with defining the nature of God, than with proving His existence. When the people of Lystra would have worshipped Paul and Barnabas as heathen gods, the apostle protests that God is not like men, and bases His majesty upon His creatorship of all things (
4. Fatherhood of God:
(1) In the Teaching of Jesus Christ:
(a) Its Relation to Himself:
(b) To Believers:
(c) To All Men:
While God’s fatherhood is thus realized and revealed, originally and fully in Christ, derivatively and partially in believers, it also has significance for all men. Every man is born a child of God and heir of His kingdom (
See Children of God.
(2) In Apostolic Teaching:
In the apostolic teaching , although the Fatherhood of God is not so prominently or so abundantly exhibited as it was by Jesus Christ, it lies at the root of the whole system of salvation there presented. Paul’s central doctrine of justification by faith is but the scholastic form of the parable of the Prodigal Son. John’s one idea, that God is love, is but an abstract statement of His fatherhood. In complete accord with Christ’s teaching, that only through Himself men know the Father and come to Him, the whole apostolic system of grace is mediated through Christ the
As in the teaching of Jesus, so in that of the apostles, we distinguish three different relationships in which the fatherhood is realized in varying degrees:
(a) Father of Jesus Christ:
Primarily He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (
(b) Our Father:
He is, therefore, God our Father (
(c) Universal Father:
The apostles’ teaching, like Christ’s, is that man in sin cannot possess the filial consciousness or know God as Father; but God, in His attitude to man, is always and essentially Father. In the sense of creaturehood and dependence, man in any condition is a son of God (
5. God is King:
After the Divine Fatherhood, the kingdom of God (Mark and Luke) or of heaven (Matthew) is the next ruling conception in the teaching of Jesus. As the doctrine of the Fatherhood sets forth the individual relation of men to God, that of the kingdom defines their collective and social condition, as determined by the rule of the Father.
(1) The Kingdom of God:
(2) Its King:
But who is the king?
Generally in Mr and Lk, and sometimes in Matthew, it is called the kingdom of God. In several parables, the Father takes the place of king, and it is the Father that gives the kingdom (
(c) Their Relation:
But there can be only one moral kingdom, and only one supreme authority in the spiritual realm. The coordination of the two kingships must be found in their relation to the Fatherhood. The two ideas are not antithetical or even independent. They may have been separate and even opposed as Christ found them, but He used them as two points of apperception in the minds of His hearers, by which He communicated to them His one idea of God, as the Father who ruled a spiritual kingdom by love and righteousness, and ordered Nature and history to fulfill His purpose of grace. Men’s prayer should be that the Father’s kingdom may come (
And as Christ is the revealer and mediator of the Fatherhood, He also is the messenger and bearer of the kingdom. In his person, preaching and works, the kingdom is present to men (
(3) Apostolic Teaching:
6. Moral Attributes:
The nature and character of God are summed up in the twofold relation of Father and King in which He stands to men, and any abstract statements that may be made about Him, any attributes that may be ascribed to Him, are deductions from His royal Fatherhood.
That a father and king is a person needs not to be argued, and it is almost tautology to say that a person is a spirit. Christ relates directly the spirituality of God to His Fatherhood. "The true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers. God is Spirit" (
(3) Righteousness and Holiness:
Righteousness and holiness were familiar ideas to Jesus and His disciples, as elements in the Divine character. They were current in the thought of their time, and they stood foremost in the Old Testament conception. They were therefore adopted in their entirety in the New Testament, but they stand in a different context. They are coordinated with and even subordinated to, the idea of love. As kingship stands to fatherhood, so righteousness and holiness stand to love.
(a) Once we find the phrase "Holy Father" spoken by Jesus (
7. Metaphysical Attributes:
8. The Unity of God:
It is both assumed through the New Testament and stated categorically that God is one (
(1) The Divinity of Christ:
Yet it is obvious from what has been written, that Jesus Christ claimed a power, authority and position so unique that they can only be adequately described by calling Him God; and the apostolic church both in worship and in doctrine accorded Him that honor. All that they knew of God as now fully and finally revealed was summed up in His person, "for in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (
(2) The Holy Spirit:
Moreover, the Holy Spirit is a third term that represents a Divine person in the experience, thought and language of Christ and His disciples. In the Johannine account of Christ’s teaching, it is probable that the Holy Spirit is identified with the risen Lord Himself (
(3) The Church’s Problem: