What Can We Know About God?

Course: A Guide to Christian Beliefs

Lecture: What Can We Know About God?


A well–known hymn of praise, found in many hymnbooks, opens with the words:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.

The rather negative tone with its stress on God's invisibility and unknowability typifies many people's conception of God. Certainly there is a sense in which God is incomprehensible and beyond our understanding, and it would be wrong for us to think of him as an "object" that we can grasp and comprehend like any other object in the universe. But the theme of our previous chapter was that, although we cannot by searching find out God, yet God has revealed himself to us in ways that we can understand. Since we are creatures made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), it is possible for us to have some understanding of the God who made us. God has revealed himself by means of human language, and so long as we realize that human language is a true, but inadequate, vehicle for communicating the reality of God, we can make some progress in understanding. God has graciously accommodated himself to our feeble and sinful minds by speaking to us in a personal revelation, and so we must remember that the person himself is greater than the revelation. In Jesus we see, as Charles Wesley put it,

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

Provided we remember that he is greater than our understanding, and that human words cannot do justice to him, we can still say much about him.

God in Three Persons (Ephesians 1:3–14)

The Bible reveals God to us in three ways. In the Old Testament, particularly, we read about God the Creator and Lord of the universe. He alone is God, for the idols of the heathen are in no sense real gods (Psalm 96:5; Isaiah 45:12–18). On the basis of the teaching in the Old Testament the Jews became convinced monotheists, i.e. believers that there is only one God (Mark 12:28–34; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4).

It was against this background that the early Christians came to believe that Jesus shared the nature of God, and we can see that it was a remarkable step for them to take. Jesus himself claimed to come from God and spoke of him in a unique personal sense as his Father (Matthew 11:25–27). When he rose from the dead, Christians saw in this a confirmation of the status that he had claimed for himself, and they said that God had given him the title of "Lord" (Acts 2:36). The writer of one of the Gospels described him as the Logos (Greek "word"), a being separate from God and yet called God (John 1:1; cf. 20:28). The church knew him as the Son of God (Acts 9:20; Romans 1:3f.: Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 1:1f.); it prayed to him (Acts 7:59; 1 Thessalonians 3:11ff.); it worshipped him as Lord (Romans 10:9–13; cf. Philippians 2:9–11); and it applied to him titles used of God in the Old Testament (Philippians 2:10f.; cf. Romans 14:10–12 and Isaiah 45:23; 1 Peter 2:3; cf. Psalm 34:8).

The Old Testament contained references to the Spirit of God as one of the means by which God spoke and acted in the world. This Being was more fully revealed in New Testament times. He was spoken of as "another comforter" (i.e. "strengthener" or "advocate") sent from God to take the place of Jesus with his followers after the ascension (John 14:16f., 26; 16:7–11, 13–15, 26). He was described in personal terms (Romans 8:26f; 15:30; 1 Corinthians 12:11; Ephesians 4:30; 1 Timothy 4:1) and regarded as divine (2 Corinthians 3:17f.).

The striking thing is the way in which the earliest Christian writings name God the Father and Jesus his Son alongside each other (Galatians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:1) in a way that must have shocked the Jews with their belief in the uniqueness of God the Father. The Holy Spirit too was linked with the Father and Son in a way which suggests irresistibly that all three Beings stood on the same level (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 2:18; 4:4–6; 2 Thessalonians 2:13f.; 1 Peter 1:1f.). The actual term "God", however, is rarely used directly of Jesus and never of the Spirit.

This understanding of the Father, Son and Spirit arose out of Christian experience as God revealed himself in Jesus and then in the life of the church, and the New Testament writers seem to have accepted it without thinking too deeply about its implications. But the problem was inevitable: how could this belief in three divine Persons be reconciled with the Old Testament idea of only one God? During the first two or three centuries of Christian history, many attempts were made to solve this problem. Various solutions were tried that proved inadequate. One solution was to suggest that the Father alone was God and that the Son and Spirit were lesser, created beings, superior–quality angels, so to speak. Another suggestion was that "Father", "Son" and "Spirit" were three roles played by God, rather like one actor appearing in three different parts in a play. Neither of these solutions did justice, however, to the plain facts revealed in the New Testament, namely that the three Persons were each fully God, and that God was at one and the same time existent as three Persons.

It is doubtful whether the problem of the being of God can be solved in the sense of giving an explanation of it. Christians have been content to affirm the doctrine in a form that takes account of all the facts, and to try to find human analogies that may throw some light on it.

Some people find these analogies helpful, although obviously none of them must be pressed too far. All of them start from the point that the biblical teaching reveals one God (the basic Old Testament doctrine) who is nevertheless revealed in a threefold way (the New Testament revelation). The problem is then to state how one God can combine unity and diversity. At an impersonal level we may think of how an atom is a unity composed of various kinds of particles. A biological organism consists of a unity of different indispensable parts. The human personality unites intelligence, feeling and will in such a way that we can hardly conceive of the whole without its parts or the parts without the whole. Other analogies have been drawn from personal relationships. Thus a husband and wife who are bound together by the closest ties of love can be one in thought and purpose and yet are clearly capable of independent action, which is nevertheless in harmony with the wills of both of them. In the same way, Jesus spoke of his relationship as a Son to the Father in terms of mutual knowledge and a common purpose (John 5:19f.; 17:21, 23).

These two types of analogy may be of some help. The former emphasizes the unity and the latter the distinctness of the parts of the whole. Together they point to the need to stress the oneness of God and the distinctness of the Father, Son and Spirit. The term that has come to be used for the three members of the Godhead is "Persons." Whatever its original meaning — which was more that of the "roles" played by actors — it inevitably conveys to modern readers all that is meant by human personality. This development in usage is understandable and legitimate. Father, Son and Spirit do each show the characteristics that we associate with human person–hood, and in particular the capacity to enter into relationships with other persons. It may be most helpful to think of the Trinity as a unity of three Persons, joined by the closest ties of love and common purpose, so that they appear as one God. This is certainly suggested by the way in which Jesus is regarded as the Son of the Father. This way of speaking was misunderstood in the early church to mean that the Son was "begotten" by the Father at some remote point in time past, but it was generally realized that to say this was to press the metaphor of human fatherhood further than was legitimate; what it means is that the Son stands in a perpetual relation of sonship to the Father. The Bible does not offer any comparable way of speaking about the relation of the Spirit to the Father, but the early church developed the thought that the Spirit "proceeded" from the Father and the Son (cf. John 15:26). This manner of speaking states the relationship without explaining it.

To speak of God as the Trinity is to affirm that he exists as one God and yet in three Persons, all equally divine.

God is Spirit (John 4:24)

The basis of the biblical understanding of God is the doctrine of the Trinity. Our next step must be to consider the character of the God who is revealed to us in this threefold manner. We shall base our discussion on a series of affirmations made by John in his Gospel and First Epistle. These affirmations were not meant as a systematic and comprehensive summary of the nature of God, but nevertheless they do offer a very handy summary of the biblical teaching.

The first, and most difficult, of these affirmations is that God is spirit. The difficulty is obviously that we have just spoken of one particular Person of the Trinity as "the Spirit" and now we have to affirm that this word applies to the Father also. At the same time the word is popularly used of the soul of a person as distinct from his body, or of the life–breath that animates his body, or of superhuman beings. In general, the word is used of non–material beings, and it is this idea that is present when we speak of God as spirit. His manner of existence is basically different from our human bodily existence (cf. Isaiah 31:3).

On the negative side, this warns us against thinking falsely of God as having a human or material body like the superhuman figures of Greek gods. He is not to be confused in any way with man–made idols, and the Bible strongly forbids any attempt to make material representations of him (Exodus 20:4–6). Any such representations are bound to be crude and misleading. Our normal physical and material ways of thinking completely break down when they are applied to God.

On the positive side, the term "spirit" implies that God's existence is on a higher level than ours. It is true, real existence, free from the limitations and corruption associated with bodily existence. The idea that God is free from physical limitations, and so is all–knowing, all–powerful and all–present, is bound up with the thought that he is spirit. In John 4:24 spirit and truth are closely associated. What is spiritual is therefore ultimately real and lasting. God is eternal spirit.

God is Love (1 John 4:8)

God as spirit is the basis of reality and truth. These qualities come into clearer focus when we consider the biblical revelation of his character as loving. Love involves at least two people, the lover and the beloved. The Bible makes it clear that the Father and Son are bound together by mutual love (John 5:20; Colossians 1:13), and it is reasonable to conclude that the Holy Spirit shares in this loving activity although the Bible does not explicitly state this. God's love for the world is then an extension of this eternal loving relationship within the Trinity so as to include the world, and human love is meant to be a copy of this love (1 John 4:11).

But love is a word with several different meanings, and it is important to understand what the term means when it is used of God. There are at least two Greek words translated into English as love. One is the word erōs, which often expresses the desire to have or possess the object that one loves, and so to obtain pleasure and satisfaction. Such love is called forth by the sheer desirableness of its object, and its aim is essentially selfish, it aims primarily at its own good, and its watchword is "get". This word is not used in the Bible. The other word is agapē. The kind of love often expressed by this word aims to give pleasure and satisfaction to the object of its affection, rather than to the lover. It does not simply love the lovable but it reaches out to the unlovely and unlovable and makes it lovable. It is fundamentally unselfish and altruistic, it aims at the good of the beloved, and its watchword is "give". Naturally this does not mean that the lover himself gets no satisfaction or pleasure out of his love. His satisfaction is that which comes from giving to others and sharing their joy, and of course the agapē of one person can be matched by the answering agapē of another.

There are other concepts of love as well as these (see C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves), but this comparison of the two concepts of love that have come to be broadly associated with these two Greek words will suffice to make our point. The kind of love that is shown by God is agapē. It is this word that is used in the Bible for his love, and it is fair to say that the concept of giving love largely developed from the use of this word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe the love of God. We might go so far as to say that men arrived at this concept of love only from seeing what love meant in the case of God. The idea of love as giving, in distinction from desire or friendship, is bound up with the revelation of God's character. "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). These two verses sum up the matter. God's love is concerned with the welfare of the undeserving and confers benefit on those who have no title to it nor show any love to him. Human love is possibly never free from self-seeking. God's love is given freely to all people without discrimination and seeks only their highest good. Here is the pattern for a human love that cares for all people regardless of their race, colour, language or place in society.

This, then, is the kind of love that is shown in the fellowship of the three Persons of the Godhead. It led to the creation of the universe, and it brought the Son of God to earth to win back rebellious mankind into joyful fellowship with God. It is this love that lies behind the ascription of the title of Father to God. He is Father primarily of Jesus as his Son (John 5:20). It is very significant that the Bible scarcely ever uses the term "father" of God's relationship to mankind in general. It is only when people respond to his redeeming love and become his spiritual children (Matthew 6:9, 15) that they enter into a family relationship with him; only then are they entitled to call him their Father. The popular modern idea that God is the Father of all people and that they can expect all the privileges of his fatherly goodness without undertaking any filial responsibilities has no basis in biblical teaching and needs to be clearly exposed as an error. If God's love is available for all mankind, it remains true that entry into a relationship in which he is known as Father is reserved for those who are prepared to respond positively and wholeheartedly to his invitation.

God is Light (1 John 1:5)

In the Bible light is a symbol of various ideas, such as holiness, goodness, truth, knowledge and salvation. It is thus a natural symbol for God, who is the supreme embodiment of these qualities (Psalm 27:1; Malachi 4:2; John 3:19; 8:12: 2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:8f.; Revelation 22:5).

God's character as light can express his separateness from us (1 Timothy 6:16), but it can also signify that he gives guidance and direction to us in the darkness of this world (1 John 2:8–11). Above all the symbolism of light in its purity speaks of the holiness of God. We should not distinguish this attribute of God too sharply from his love, as if these were two different aspects of his character. The temptation for some thinkers has been to regard holiness as almost the opposite of love, if not actually incompatible with it. It makes better sense to say that holiness and love are like the obverse and reverse sides of the same coin. They are two complementary, personal aspects of the character of God.

It has been said that holiness is what makes God different from mankind, and certainly something of the mystery and majesty of God is summed up in this word. But at the heart of God's holiness there lies the moral quality of righteousness. He is just in all his ways. Justice can be understood negatively in terms of treating people as they deserve, and, in particular, of meting out the appropriate punishment to a wrong–doer. God's justice, however, is predominantly positive, for it expresses itself primarily in love and mercy even to the undeserving. Justice means seeing that people get what they deserve when good things are being handed out, as well as that penalties are given to those who deserve them. The gospel itself can be regarded as a revelation of the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17). It is precisely because he is faithful and just that he forgives the penitent sinner (1 John 1:9). He is a righteous God and therefore a Savior (Isaiah 45:21). God's love is righteous love, so that it is not a matter of arbitrary sentiment; his righteousness is loving righteousness, so that it is not a matter of austere payment of what is owed. True love is seen in justice, and true justice in love.

The concrete expression of God's holiness and righteousness is the moral law, which he has given to mankind as the way of life they must follow. Love is meant to express itself in harmonious relationships. Just as the life of the triune God is marked by perfect harmony, so the life of people in their relationships with others and with God should be marked by harmony. This means that there must be some rules regarding the expression of love in human relationships. The essence of God's law is accordingly that we ought to love God and one another (Mark 12:29–31). This basic law, however, needs to be expanded into a great number of commandments that express the obligations of love in different circumstances.

These commandments are given to mankind in the context of God's love and concern for them. In the Old Testament they mostly appear as part of the covenant made by God with the people of Israel. They were spoken in the context of God's love for the people, expressed in his deliverance of them from their slavery in Egypt. He summoned them to be his people and promised them his fatherly care, on condition that they would obey his commands. Similarly, in the New Testament the concrete instructions for daily life appear in the form of an explanation of what it means to respond to the love of God revealed in Jesus. This does not mean, however, that God's commands are binding solely on those who agree to accept his covenant and grace. Ultimately they express his will as the creator of mankind, and they are rooted in the moral law that finds its source in him. If this way of life is not followed by a person, the consequence is the breakdown of life itself; human relationships become destroyed and the life of people together fails to achieve its purpose. The tragedy is that we have refused to acknowledge the demands of God's love expressed in his law. We would prefer to be free from it, and we imagine that our way is better. When love is thus denied the possibility of existence, God's holiness is felt as an alien force, and it cannot be experienced in any other way than in wrath and judgment.

When we refuse to accept God's way, we become the objects of his wrath. This is the inevitable consequence of our attitude, since there can be no room in a moral universe governed by the law of love for those who live for themselves and refuse to submit to the law that structures the universe. If a person rejects the holy demands and the loving offers of God, he must be rejected and suffer exclusion from the presence and life–giving power of God, as the penalty of his rebellion (Matthew 23:31ff.; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12).

This is why God's holiness symbolizes his separation from mankind. It is not because of our finiteness that we are separated from God. It is because of our sin that we exclude ourselves from him, for no sinner can stand in the presence of God (Malachi 3:1f.). The Bible implies that if it were not for our sinfulness, we could enjoy fellowship with their Creator (cf. Genesis 2:8; 5:22–24; Exodus 33:11). This fellowship has been destroyed by sin, and God's holiness is now a barrier to the approach of sinners into his presence. But God himself has taken the initiative in reopening a way to fellowship through the gospel (1 John 1:3, 7). He wants us to come back into fellowship with him and to share his holy nature (2 Peter 1:3–11), and so he gives himself freely in love, bearing our sin and taking its evil effects upon himself in order that we might be freed from it and be fit to come into his presence. It is the very greatness of this holy love that makes the sin of mankind in rejecting him all the more heinous and culpable.

Questions for Study and Discussion

  1. On the basis of such a passage as Ephesians 1:3–14, what would you say is the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity for the Christian in his spiritual life?
  2. Do you think that it is fitting to address prayers to the Son or the Spirit as well as to the Father?
  3. With the aid of a concordance examine the teaching of the New Testament about God as Father: what evidence, if any, is there that he is the Father of all mankind?
  4. "The divine attributes of justice and mercy … do not need to be reconciled, for they are never at war" (J. Denney): discuss.
  5. Make a list of the different kinds of human love. What light do they throw on the nature of God's love?