Sunday, June 24, 2007

Theology Sundays: All Powerful

The Apostle's Creed really has little to say about God the Father, except that He is "the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." The Nicene Creed merely adds, "creator of all that is, seen and unseen." We have here no comment that God is all knowing, everywhere present, or that God is love or self-sufficient.

Divinity in the ancient world related primarily to two characteristics the gods had: power and immortality. The gods did not die, and they had a power that was much to be feared. When God tells Moses that He has made him "like a god to Pharaoh" (Exod. 7:1), God is saying that Moses has a power beyond the human that Pharaoh should fear. It is thus no surprise that the Apostle's Creed should mention that God is Almighty even though it does not mention many other attributes.

The fact that God is creator relates to His power. To say He is the creator of "all that is, seen and unseen" is to say that He holds authority and power over all things. The mention of unseen things makes it clear that it is not just the visible human domain that God rules. He rules over all spiritual powers that inhabit the space between earth and heaven, as they pictured the universe.

No one can question that God is powerful in the Old Testament. In the theology of Deuteronomy, those who serve God correctly do not suffer, although sometimes a group or family can suffer for the sins of their members. The deuteronomistic theology of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and other parts of the Old Testament holds that loss in battle or life can only occur because of sin. The assumption is that God can defeat any other god, so if Israel loses a battle, it is because someone has sinned.

But interestingly, the question of why God doesn't simply destroy all the other gods is barely asked. It is assumed without argument that He could (Ps. 82), but the question of why He doesn't destroy them isn't asked. He clearly wins every encounter. Dagon falls before the ark. Baal's servants look foolish and eventually, dead, before Elijah's God. But God only seems to encounter these deities when they come to him in the shape of interaction with foreign peoples.

The hardships of the Babylonian captivity weighed heavily on this deuteronomistic theology. The generation that suffered did not see itself suffering for its own sins. "Our fathers ate sour grapes but our teeth are set on edge," went their saying (Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2). Psalm 44 records their sense of loss, "All this has come upon us though we have not forgotten you... If we had forgotten the name of our God... would not God discover this?" (44:17, 20-21).

Israel returned from Babylon with some new elements in their understanding of God's relationship with them and the world. Between 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 we see the rise of the Satan as an agent of God who tests the loyalty of His subjects. Job now suffers not because of wrong he has done (as in deuteronomistic theology) but because his loyalty is being tested by the Satan in a wager with God.

The situation changes somewhat when Alexander the Great creates a world in which all peoples interpenetrate. Now Israel must take more seriously the relationship of God to the rest of the world. If there is only one God over all the world, then how is there evil in the world that resists His rule? The intertestamental period thus sees a number of new concepts emerge that will be foundational for the New Testament.

One is the proliferation of demonology. Now that the "gods" of the nations are no longer seen as gods, the language of demonology rises to take its place, grown on Greek soil. The next is the beginning of explanations of a "Fall." The community of 1 Enoch points to the offspring of the "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" in Genesis 6, from whose dead bodies the spirits of demons are born. By the time of Paul, Satan and Adam are recognized as the true culprits. Satan is no longer an agent of God but a more independent opponent.

Other circles, like that of Qumran, turn to concepts of predestination to explain God's sovereignty in the face of evil. Their small group becomes the only group that will be saved. Paul does not normally operate in the categories of the theology he expresses in Romans 9, but that chapter represents one path to explain the sovereignty of God in the face of apparent chaos and opposition in the creation. Everything that happens is orchestrated by God.

There is also the development of eschatology. The Old Testament by and large has no concept of history moving toward any particular conclusion. It looks rather to the resolution of whatever crisis Israel happens to be in at the time. To a high degree, even the Jewish writings of Jesus' day did not look for some cosmic resolution to the sin problem. They looked more to the restoration and political dominance of Israel.

However, certain apocalyptic movements such as Enochic Jews and Essenes did formulate Israel's "return from captivity" in more cosmic terms. The New Testament generally fits against the backdrop of this apocalyptic background. For Paul the resurrection will involve the liberation of an entire creation enslaved to the power of sin and elemental spirits (Rom. 8:19; Gal. 4:9). When Christ returns and all his enemies are finally put under his feet, "then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). God's authority and power will then be without question. Thus although God's enemies may still be kicking, God is still almighty and only allows them their current force. The entirety of Revelation portrays in the most vivid terms that God wins.

As Christians, we believe that God is fully powerful. Satan is a joke compared to His power. Gnosticism in the second century threatened the idea of God's complete power by suggesting that there might be other powers that God did not create, as well as that the materials of the creation might exist apart from God. The Christians of the second and third centuries emphasized the doctrine of ex nihilo creation in response to such Gnostic claims.

Christians thus believe that there is nothing in the creation, seen or unseen, that God did not create, even Satan. This of course raises the problem of evil, but Christians have answers to these questions as well, questions we will consider later.

But if God created the world out of nothing, then there is nothing about this creation that God does not have power over. You cannot lift 1000 pounds unless you are 1000 pounds strong. And so to create a universe out of nothing implies that there is nothing that God cannot do in relation to this creation.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Does that mean leaders are considered GOD? Does God, then exist apart from them? No, because only what transpires through man manipulating his environment "creates" under the "mandate" of the "creator". It is really a scientific and business model. God and theology are "used" in this sense. It is no differnt than any other model in this world. It is political and social.
The Scriptures illustrate what "happens" to the nation when leaders rule "wrongly"...the whole nation suffers...We cannot "create" Christ in another, but we can "help" or "hinder" through encouragement.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

This developmental view that is evident from your blog is a "progressive" revelation of God through history. Isn't this what Islam believes? that Muhammed was the last Prophet? and Jesus is a Prophet? It seems that the Church, as we all are, was/is "stuck" within its historical circumstances. We only "see through the glass darkly". That is why a larger "view" is needful, besides the Scriptures...Scriptures have been idolatrized just like the Church was in the Medieval Ages. A new reformation needs to "happen" and it is an integration of the disciplines with Scripture...just as the Church was integrated with Scripture/individuals in the modern age...God, the Father, Maker of heaven and earth creates and created...(we do believe He is still alive, i.e. creating)..."my God" has died and is dying, which has been an "angering occurance"....that is, my "idea" of God (idolatry)...everyone, I beleive, needs an open-ended least, at this point in history... everyone, please forgive my "anger" over the death of my "God"...

Ken Schenck said...

It does seem to me that Christians need to have some sense that God has over time unfolded more and more of the details of who He is both in Scripture and then in the church. Within the Scriptures, however, the biggest "new item" is the realization of Jesus as the Christ, which constitutes the central faith of Christianity with all that it entails. For me, a focus on the resurrection grounds our faith in history, in the real world, and alleviates our fears that this is merely a coincidental flow of ideas.

Also, I personally see a tremendous difference between Mohammed's "revelation" and the Christian Scriptures. For one thing, the Koran is largely one man's perspective and it repeats the same basic thoughts over and over again. In the Bible we have a rich diversity of persons and situations with real wrestling with centuries of problems. Rather than one man repeatedly boasting how God is going to destroy those who disagree with Mohammed, the Bible represents 1000 years of victory and failure, hope and despair. It has Job and Revelation, 1 Peter and Joshua.

Some of my thoughts...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The ideas you espouse are the complementarity view of the science and theology debate...Master/Slave....leader/servant. patronage model..I have and STILL "see" a need for a model for equality before God (human rights), irregardless of "position" (less hierarchy, balance of power and mutuality)...AND a balance of our culture of individualism and community...I have not "seen" (personally experienced on a "regular basis") that in the Church here in Marion. Hear me, when I say this, according to a book by a cognitive scientist from Berkley,(I believe his name is Lakoff), Freedom (an important cultural value for Americans) is understood with "conservative lenses" and "Progressive" lenses and this affects everything from the way you see "God" to the way you view the role of government in are saying we need both for our vision to be right and I would is based on the "middle road" view of wisdom in Buddhism....We certainly cannot "worship" our theology, but then, again, we cannot respond without a context...I had understood that context to be a nurtrant "progressive" model early on and as of late...but my encounter with evangelical fundamentalism ala Gotthard, Dobsom, et al...made me neurotic concerning the "fall" and my parenting...I could never "measure up"....and I have been "defensive" ever since, going back to a more "progressive" model...for it is more embracing of difference and grayness....Commitments to one view, though, are necessary to fulfill identity and integrity issues, I think.

Some of my heart via my "thoughts"....

Scott Hendricks said...

Meant to post this realization earlier: Trisagion mentions the two classical characteristics of divinity you mentioned:

Holy God,
Holy and Strong,
Holy and Immortal,
Have mercy on us.