Teaching a recent series on the nature of God over recent weeks I was asked by several members of our congregation, most of them quite mature Christians, why they had not heard about some of this stuff before. We like to teach doctrinal series as an alternative to the usual pattern of preaching through a book of the Bible in any one season. Recent series on Christian belief have included The Work of Christ, The Apostles’ Creed, and The Atonement, but none previously have provoked this puzzlement or felt so fresh for contemporary evangelicals.
It got me thinking why that would be. Do we not believe that God has a nature or essence at all? Do we believe that if He does, we cannot teach about it because it is too holy (holiness being part of his essence, ironically) or too unknown (which is a denial of the doctrine of revelation and of Christ all in one go).
Our series was not especially “new”. We explored God’s
- unchangeableness (immutability)
- majesty (infinity)
- wisdom (omniscience)
- oneness (simplicity)
All of these and more have for centuries been standard ways of naming God’s “attributes”, whether we see each of them as incommunicable (true of God fully, but of us never) or communicable (true of God fully and of us potentially). None of them alone describes God fully, and no words are ever able fully to describe the immortal, wise and invisible God (Romans 16:27, 1 Timothy 1:17) in any case. Yet that should not stop us humbly saying as much as we can about God, for the sake of honouring his majesty and grasping his perfection.
So why do so many evangelical churches rarely, if ever, preach about them?
One answer might be that they are not seen as biblical, since some of these words such as ‘immutability’ or ‘simplicity’ are not used explicitly of God in the Scriptures. In part they owe their language to Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and Platonism. So God’s unchanging character, his “faithfulness”, is a huge Biblical theme, but his inability to change or develop in knowledge or in nature from his eternal perfection is less so. Calvin preferred to preach about how God acts towards us, not what God is in Himself, feeling this to be the focus of Scripture.
Yet it is hard to argue that these ideas are not fully Christian as theology has adopted them. They are an accurate picture of the God of the Bible in his essence. They have been preached and written about from the earliest Christian centuries in the works of theological greats such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine and Aquinas.
So if we as evangelicals should welcome and not be fearful of speaking about the nature of God, why do we not do so more? I can see two reasons:
The emphasis on Biblical Theology as a way of interpreting Scripture has led us to a focus on the activity of God and a neglect of his nature. Biblical theology in the work of Graham Goldsworthy and others has been an invaluable approach to tracing the patterns and purposes of God’s work in salvation history. It has rescued the one Biblical gospel from death by a thousand cuts at the hands of liberal fragmentation and existentialism. Yet I wonder if this focus on the activity of God through the Biblical story has made us neglect systematic theology in general (which attempts to put together the overall truths of God) and the doctrine of God in particular. It has been striking to me how hard it is to find recent works at a popular or undergraduate level about the nature of God. Pete Sanlon’s excellent “Simply God” and Gerald Bray’s “The Doctrine of God” are notable recent exceptions, but there is a dearth of evangelical writing in this area, leaving JI Packer’s “Knowing God” as still to my view the best around, though written over 40 years ago.
The other reason I suspect evangelicals have steered clear of exploring the nature of God is that within our own movement we have emphasised the immanence (closeness to us) of God at the expense of his transcendence (greatness over us). Both aspects of God’s relation to us are precious. However evangelicalism in the last hundred years has moved away from seeing God as majestic, holy and “other”(with notable counter-voices such as Karl Barth and, more conservatively, JI Packer again, along the way) in pursuit of a God who is primarily forgiving, helping and guiding. Puritans such as Stephen Charnock preached sermons about God’s simplicity (meaning His perfection, not his being easily understood!) and in the early 1900s AW Tozer wrote about “The Knowledge of the Holy”, but more recently, God has become “smaller” to us. Put bluntly, we have created an image of God as a “plastic Jesus” who fits in our pocket, ready to bring out when we need him to fix a problem, but not one who awes us, humbles us, and leaves us lost for words.
What can we do to rediscover the otherness, greatness, purity, and perfection of God? I’d love to see more evangelical churches preaching on these themes directly, or when they arise in expository sermons, as a healthy corrective to the “how to” practical sermons that have become common. Let God become bigger to us again.
Such topics as those above are not dry or irrelevant. They bring us face to face with God as He truly is (Isaiah 6), and nothing changes our lives as much as that encounter.