Friday, January 19, 2018

2.2 The Progress of the Biblical Understanding of God

Thus far in a future book.

Chapter 1: What is Biblical Theology?
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Basic Approaches
1.3 History of Biblical Theology
1.4 This Book's Approach

Chapter 2: Theology of God
2.1a The Rule of Faith of God, part 1
2.1b The Rule of Faith of God, part 2

2.2 Progress of the Biblical Understanding of God
1. Many sciences make a distinction between precision and accuracy. If something is inaccurate, it is wrong, but a measurement can be more or less precise. If I am trying to hit the side of a barn with a B-B gun, I probably have a fairly large target in mind.

But say that I have painted a series of concentric circles on the side of the barn, down to a bull's eye that is not very big at all. Precision is a matter of how close I get to the bull's eye. If I hit the outermost circle, I have still hit the target, but my aim is not very precise. My shot is accurate, but it is not precise.

In the same way, let me suggest that Abraham's understanding of God was accurate but not nearly as precise as Moses' understanding of God. Let me further suggest that Isaiah's understanding of God was more precise than Moses'. Then Paul's understanding of God was arguably more precise than Isaiah's. And if you would, the understanding of God in the Nicene Creed is more precise perhaps than even Paul's was.

On one level, these understandings do not contradict each other, but they become more and more precise as God clarified and refined the understanding. Joshua 24:2 tells us that Abraham's father and ancestors were polytheists--they worshiped many gods. Genesis and Exodus suggest that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshiped the true God, but they did not yet know him as Yahweh. They knew him as El Shaddai or "God Almighty" (cf. Exod. 6:3).

When Abram met Melchizedek in Genesis 14:17, Melchizedek is said to be the priest of El Elyon (14:19), the priest of "God Most High." Although we immediately and rightly assume that this God is in fact Yahweh, the one true God, it is significant to recognize that El Elyon was the king of the gods in the Canaanite pantheon. That is to say, certainly the Canaanites understood this God to be one among many gods.

The point is that while we have more precise understandings because we stand at the end of the canon and the unfolding of revelation, these understandings were not exactly the same for the biblical authors or the individuals mentioned in the Bible. [1] When we hear about "God Most High," we know this is the only God, Yahweh, the one true God. For Abraham, he was the most appropriate object of worship. For Isaiah, he would have been the only appropriate object of worship. For Paul, he is the only God that truly exists, and other so-called gods are demons (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20).

2. Another possibility to consider is the very real possibility that our understanding of the universe has become greater over time. The natural implication is that our sense of the greatness of God has expanded as well. So Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Athanasius (church father at the Council of Nicaea in AD325) and us today--we all believe that God is the greatest Being that exists. But is it not the case that our sense of what the "greatest" might be has increased exponentially since Abraham?

So the "greatest" God for Abraham would surely have been the most powerful, but what would the most powerful Being have been for him? Isaiah 45 may understand the greatness of God on a level that was beyond anything that Abraham might have imagined. Isaiah 55:9 suggests that God is beyond the capacity of human understanding.

Then the New Testament and the early centuries of Christianity wrestled with the Trinity, which was surely beyond anything the Old Testament authors imagined. Similarly, when the doctrine of creation out of nothing crystallized in the late 100s AD, the understanding of God becomes even greater than is clear in Scripture. Now we understand more precisely God as the creator of all matter and not just the one who shaped the chaos that had always been.

I would personally argue that developments in physics in the last century have suggested a universe that is greater than anything a biblical author or an Aquinas or a Luther could have dreamed. Now space--emptiness itself--is something that God must have created. The scope of the universe, the theory of relativity, the strangeness of the quantum world--our conception of greatness has vastly increased. Accordingly, surely our sense of the greatness of the God who made it all out of nothing has become immensely greater.

3. The rest of this chapter aims to follow the progress of biblical understanding about God as it developed within the canon. We do not engage in this investigation as mere analysts of history. We have a theological presupposition. Our theological presupposition is that these developments were moving toward a goal, namely, the rule of faith about God that we set out at the beginning of this chapter. We thus have a theological end point in mind as we process the history of the biblical texts and the more and less precise theological perspectives along the way.

[1] Various scholars debate whether all the people mentioned in the Bible actually existed in history. Such debates are ultimately irrelevant for our point here. We are asserting by faith that God has been walking with humanity since our beginning and that God has been steadily revealing God-self to us over time. What the precise names and dates were of those with whom he walked are irrelevant to this general sense of this unfolding of revelation.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...


I got a couple of fine quotes out of this post -- don't worry, I won't publish them.