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A Clarification

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In my last post, I talked about cataphatic theology, which emphasizes God as revealed, and anaphatic theology, which emphasized God as mystery. I argued that while both have their place, the higher of the two is anaphatic theology since God is so far beyond our comprehension and our theological systems that even the best of them fail to capture who God is completely. And I would add here that when we absolutize our theological systems without recognizing the limitations of our formulations about God, we run the risk of turning them into idols–mental images that conceal more about God than they reveal.

What I didn’t say is that cataphatic theology does tell us real truth about God accommodated to human language and to our ability to understand. Thus when God tells Moses He is the slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, those words describe God in a way that is comprehensible to us; they convey true Truth about God in normal human language.

This is in contrast to Islam, for example. Allah is described as merciful, yet anyone who reads the Koran would be hard pressed to find a merciful Allah there. When pushed, Islamic scholars will tell you that Allah is merciful because he says he is, but we have no idea what that word actually means when applied to him.

When we talk about the Bible being accommodated to human understanding, it means that when Scripture says God is merciful, it means exactly what it sounds like it means. Cataphatic theology has it right: God is merciful in a way that we can understand.

The anaphatic perspective would add that there are limits to our understanding of mercy (particularly as it relates to justice), and that though God is merciful, His mercy utterly transcends our ability to comprehend it completely. This does not mean that the cataphatic perspective is wrong, just limited.

The point is that cataphatic theology is a valid and necessary pursuit, and we should do our best to understand God through His revelation to us. Without question, we must be committed to this. And there are some things that are truly non-negotiable for Christians. No question there either. But we must also be careful to recognize the limits of our ability to understand God and not try to put Him in a box. Quite simply, He won’t fit.

Mystery Revealed

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To the seraphim who surround God’s throne, the outstanding characteristic of God that they ceaselessly proclaim is His holiness, pointing to the fact that God is in His essence an impenetrable mystery. That is objectively, metaphysically, and ontologically the absolute truth about God.

But it is not who God is to us.

When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God told him he wouldn’t be able to survive it. But God told Moses He would put him in a cleft in a rock and hide him as His glory passed by, and that as He passed, He would proclaim His name to Moses. In Hebrew, names were believed to reveal nature, and so God was proclaiming His nature to Moses and in the process revealing who He is to the Israelites.

What did He say?

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:6-7)

In His essence, God is unknowable and holy; to us, however, God’s nature is to be merciful and gracious. What He wants us to know about Him is His patience, His steadfast love and faithfulness, and his forgiveness. For humanity, that is who He declares Himself to be.

He remains holy, however, which means that He must judge the guilty. While God spends most of His self-revelation on His graciousness, mercy, and forgiveness, this needs to be balanced with a recognition that judgment is also part of His character.

The fact that God reveals Himself means that although He is beyond our ability to know or understand, there are things about Him that we can know. God accommodates His revelations to us to what we need to know about Him and to our ability to understand. Focusing on divine revelation and affirmations of what we can know about Him is called cataphatic theology, in contrast to anaphatic theology which emphasizes the limits of our understanding and focuses on what God is not.

The Eastern Orthodox churches tend to emphasize anaphatic theology (God as mystery) while acknowledging that cataphatic theology has its place; the Reformed along with much of modern evangelicalism emphasize the cataphatic (God as revealed) almost entirely, with at best a nod of the head toward anaphatic theology; the Roman Catholic Church argues that anaphatic and cataphatic theologies complement and balance each other.

Although I am a Reformed evangelical, I lean toward the Orthodox outlook here. I certainly believe that it is important to study revelation and to do our best to understand it, but I also think we need more epistemological humility when we do theology, recognizing the limits of our ability to understand the God whom even the seraphim see as a mystery. The deeper I go into the Bible, the more I recognize that He is a mystery beyond what I can understand.

And recognizing that should make us more willing to work with those whose theologies differ from ours on some points, since it is certain that there is far more to God than our theological systems recognize. It should also make us far more careful about limiting the way God works and what faithfully following Him looks like beyond what is expressly taught in Scripture.

God as Mystery

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In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
(Isaiah 6:1-3)

Throughout the Bible, whenever anyone has a vision of God’s throne, it is surrounded by the four seraphim (Ezek. 1, Rev. 4). They are the creatures closest to God’s throne and thus many Christian and Jewish thinkers believed them to be the highest order of supernatural creatures.

As the creatures closest to God, the ones who presumably know Him best, the seraphim have a deep and profound understanding of God’s nature. The thing that they continually proclaim about God is His holiness.

In Hebrew, to emphasize something, you repeat it; repeating something three times is the highest degree of emphasis possible. In the case of God, holiness is the only characteristic that is repeated three times. For the seraphim, holiness is the ultimate, highest description of who God is.

So what exactly is holiness?

The basic meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart” or “separated.” The items in the Temple were holy because they were set apart from common use. From there, the meaning extends to people’s behavior, so that we are to live lives that are separated from sin. That is the most common understanding of holiness today, the idea of being morally pure and upright in behavior.

God is certainly holy in that sense, but the seraphim are saying something even more profound than that. The seraphim are in awe of God’s absolute holiness—the fact that He is absolutely separate from everything else in existence. Everything else is created, including the seraphim themselves; God is the uncreated Creator. Everything else is finite; God is infinite in every way and in every capacity. Everything else is sustained by God; only He is self-sustaining. In short, in the words of St. Augustine, God is “other, completely other.”

To put it differently, God is incomprehensible. Nothing about Him is in any way like anything else. This is the heart of apophatic theology, an approach to understanding God through negation, that is, describing what He is not and recognizing the limits of human language and thought to grasp His holiness. Since our minds cannot conceive God’s ineffable nature, and since human language is utterly inadequate to contain Him, the best that we can do is to recognize how unlike everything He is and recognize the limits of even our best language to describe Him as He is.

For example, medieval theologian Duns Scotus argued that to say “God exists” is misleading, since we always think of existence in terms we understand from the physical world. Yet God does not exist in the same way a rock, tree, or mountain exists, and thus our statement that He does exist is inadequate and can lead us to a misunderstanding of God because of the limits of human experience, thought, and language. This may seem an odd argument but it is an important point: many atheists base their arguments against God’s existence on a human understanding of existence, thus failing to recognize the difference between the nature of God’s existence and anything we know or experience.

But this is not the end of the story. God has chosen to reveal who He is to us in terms accommodated to our ability to understand them. We can thus say that to some extent God is a mystery—something that has been hidden but now is revealed. We may not be able to fully understand God, but what we can know of Him has been revealed to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ.

And what is most remarkable is that who God is to us by His own self-revelation is very different from who He is to the seraphim. We will return to this in a later post.

God of Mysteries

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There is none like you, O Lord;
you are great, and your name is great in might.
Who would not fear you, O King of the nations?
For this is your due;
for among all the wise ones of the nations
and in all their kingdoms
there is none like you. (Jer. 10:6-7)

Some time ago, I read a comment by one of the New Atheists that said something to the effect that as we have learned more about the Universe, it has shown itself to be more wonderful and magnificent than any god that he had ever heard of.

I thought at the time that this was a bizarre statement. In the historic Christian and Jewish tradition, God created the Universe. However wonderful it may be, the God who conceived it and made it must transcend it by far.

So much for the wise ones of our age.

God delights in mystery. The Greek word mysterion refers to something that once was hidden but now is revealed. As we look at the Universe with our increasingly sensitive and sophisticated equipment, mysteries are being revealed about the Creation that no one imagined before. The beauty of the Universe that we see in NASA photographs, the discovery of new astronomical bodies that do not behave the way they should, the utter weirdness of the subatomic world, all are mysteries that have now been revealed to us and that push us to try to comprehend them.

These mysteries have been hidden since the Creation, known only to God and the angels, but now after untold years have been discovered by humanity. God has waited this long for our “wise ones” to find what He has done in the Creation, and He must take real joy in our uncovering the secrets He built into the physical world. There are undoubtedly more revelations to come.

And, of course, He delights in revealing the greatest of all Mysteries to us, which is Himself.

But that is a subject for another post.

Windmills

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In places where there was no running water for waterwheels, medieval Europeans invented windmills to power machines. These early windmills developed into the kind we associate with Holland, buildings whose upper floors rotated like weather vanes so they could catch the wind just right, with enormous sails that turned in the breeze. When not needed, the blades could be locked and the sails taken down, but when the sails were up and the blades free to turn, windmills could generate a surprising amount of power. They powered all kinds of machinery: pumps for draining wetlands, mills for grinding grain or fulling cloth or making paper, all kinds of work that would be difficult, tedious, or impossible to complete by human effort alone.

The Greek word for wind is pneuma, which also translates as spirit or breath. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the Wind that blows where it will unseen by human eyes, but that can be felt and can provide power well beyond human capacity. The Holy Spirit enables our fellowship with the Trinity and with one another, as well as empowering our service to others. But for that Wind to be effective, we must align ourselves with where it is blowing and unlock our sails and let them turn. If we do, the Spirit’s power will be at work in us for His good purposes.

May God make us windmills.

Labeled

I am a featured speaker on “Labeled,” a documentary exposing the unethical eugenics practices in American hospitals today. As someone with a mentally handicapped sister, this documentary hits very close to home for me. This is an important issue we should all know about if we truly believe every person is made in the image of God and is thus created equal and endowed by his or her Creator with the right to life. So check out the movie, and get educated on the issues.

For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty

This book, published by the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, is now available. It is a discussion of the problem of poverty by a wide range of Christian theologians, economists, and thinkers, who are wrestling with the best, most biblically faithful approach to solving the problem of poverty. I wrote the introductory chapter. If you are interested in biblical economics, I highly encourage you to read For the Least of These.

True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism

True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism, edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, launches today! It’s a response to the New Atheists written by some of the top scholars and apologists in the English-speaking world. Authors include Gilson, Weitnauer, William Lane Craig, Chuck Edwards, David Marshall, Lenny Esposito, David Wood, Peter Grice, Timothy McGrew, Samuel J.Youngs, Sean McDowell, John M. DePoe, Randall Hardman, Matthew Flanagan, and yours truly, contributing a chapter on Christianity and Slavery. It’s definitely worth your time.