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Pilgrim TheologyCore doctrines for christian disciples
By Michael Horton
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Michael Horton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKnowing God
Can we know God, and if so, how? No one comes to that question from a neutral, unbiased perspective. Right out of the gate, we all have some assumptions that predispose us to accept some beliefs and discount others. Our beliefs are part of a web or paradigm. Some of these convictions are explicit. We're conscious of them, particularly when someone asks us to weigh in on them. Many others are implicit or tacit. Habitually using the same route to get to work each day, we are not always vividly aware of the road we travel upon or the various subway stops along the way. But if we're first-time visitors, the various roads, signs, turnoffs, or stations become objects of our focal awareness. The same is true with respect to our religious convictions.
According to "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence." Unfortunately, many Christians reinforce the impression that faith and reason are like an old-fashioned pair of scales: as one goes up, the other goes down. However, this misunderstands both faith and reason. Reason is no less biased than faith, and faith—genuine faith—is no less intelligent than reason. In both cases, everything turns on the object and the justification: in other words, what we believe and why we believe it. Faith in God as he has revealed himself in his Word, consummately in Jesus Christ, is not a subjective leap. Nor is it merely an act of will. It involves a personal commitment, to be sure, but a commitment to a truth claim about something that has happened in history, which is available for public inspection. Some people trust in Christ with minimal arguments and evidence, just as most of us believe that the earth orbits the sun without investigating the science behind it. Yet in both cases, the arguments and evidences are there for anyone who is interested in pursuing the claim further. Whatever one concludes concerning the claims of Christianity, they cannot be dismissed as belonging to an irrational sphere called "faith" that is sealed off from reason.
"After being dead for three days, Jesus rose from the dead, bodily." This is the heart of the gospel, the central truth claim of Christian proclamation. It is not an eternal truth of reason, since there was a time when Jesus was not incarnate, much less raised. Nor is it a logical truth, like "All unmarried men are bachelors" or "a triangle has three sides." Yet it cannot be reduced to a subjective personal commitment, as if to say, "We should all live as if Jesus rose from the dead."
Acts 17 records the apostle Paul's famous speech in Athens. The seedbed of Western thought, Athens had been home to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—and to any school vying for the minds and hearts of civilization. After discussing and debating the resurrection in the synagogues and the marketplace, Paul received the invitation to address the Areopagus, where the leading philosophers "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (Ac 17:21). Luke tells us that the two major schools represented were the Epicureans and the Stoics (v. 18). In the view of Epicureans old and new, god or the gods—if they exist—are conveniently tucked away in their heaven, quite unconcerned with and largely oblivious to worldly happenings. Nature and fate rule the world. At the other end of the spectrum, the Stoics believed that nature itself was divine and every living thing had a spark of divinity in it. Imagine a daytime talk show with New Atheists and New Agers on the panel and you have a serviceable idea of Paul's audience.
Paul began his speech, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god'" (vv. 22–23a). "Religious" here is a double entendre in Greek; it could as easily be translated "superstitious." In any case, the compliment turns out to be offered tongue in cheek. Trying to cover all of their bases, the Athenians were so religious—or superstitious—that they had the equivalent of a manger scene, Hanukkah lights, a winter solstice flag, and a statue of the Buddha or storm god Thor on the lawn at city hall. Paul does not say, "Whoever bet his money on Apollo is closest to the winning number." He does not pick out one of the idols to tweak in the direction of the biblical God. Rather, he says, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (v. 23b).
Paul tells them that this unknown God is the Creator and Lord of everything—visible and invisible—who gives everything and doesn't need anything, least of all from us. Thus, God is completely independent from the world (vv. 24–27). Paul is declaring that God is clearly distinct from the created order. So much for the Stoics. On the other hand, the Epicureans don't have it right either. This God, though distinct, freely relates the world to himself and enters it as he pleases, so near to us in his self-revelation that we have no excuse for ignoring him (vv. 27–28). If God is our Creator, then we have no business worshiping golden images fashioned by human art (v. 29).
What Paul says about God's relationship to the world would have sparked a lively debate by itself, but the apostle hurries on to his central point: "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (vv. 30–31). While those in his illustrious audience thought of themselves as the trustees of the world's wisdom, Paul included the golden age of Greek philosophy in "the times of ignorance." But Paul isn't talking philosophy anymore. He moves on to focus his audience's attention on a historical event that has happened just a little more than seven hundred miles away, a little more than two decades ago. Suddenly, the subject has shifted from philosophy to history—and not just any history, but the very particular (and peculiarly Jewish) expectation of a final resurrection of the dead. Why would this shift have been so jarring?
Epicureans believed that dead people stay dead. Reality consists of atoms and is therefore material. Thinking is simply the random swerving of atoms. Given the fact of evil and suffering in the world, the gods are (or god is) either evil or impotent—or, more likely, they just do not care about the world. From these doctrines, the Epicureans developed a particular way of living and discipleship: the chief end of human beings is to maximize happiness, and this can be best attained by avoiding extremes. You had best make this life count, because it is the only one you have. From Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud to Richard Dawkins, modern atheism is largely neo-Epicureanism.
The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that nature is divine. God is the world and the world is God, consisting of passive matter and active energy (Logos or reason, also identified with fate). If you believe that you are suffering, you will suffer; if you dedicate yourself through meditation to inner calm, then you will avoid suffering. Stoicism was revived in the Enlightenment, especially by Baruch Spinoza, and its chief patterns of thought and life may be seen in German idealism (especially Friedrich Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel) as well as in Romanticism, American Transcendentalism and a host of theosophical movements (such as Christian Science and New Thought) that feed into what is often identified popularly as the New Age movement. Many similarities have been drawn also to Eastern religions and philosophies.
The following table explains some common terms that are helpful for our theological journey:
Polytheism Belief in many gods.
Pantheism All is divine.
Panentheism All is within divinity; the divine and worldly principles are mutually dependent.
Deism God created the world but does not intervene miraculously within it.
Atheism God does not exist.
The deities of ancient polytheism were consigned by most Greek philosophers to the myths and cults of popular piety. Based on the definitions in this table, Epicureanism fits most closely with deism and atheism, while Stoicism is basically pantheistic or at least panentheistic.
A revived Platonism was also important in the first century. At first, Platonism might seem to be closer to the biblical view of reality, since Plato held that there was one god (though not personal) who transcended the world. However, Plato's worldview divided reality into the "upper world" (perfect, spiritual, unchanging, divine, and eternal forms) and a "lower world" (imperfect, material, ever-changing, temporal). Out of a cosmological drama, doctrines emerged, provoking distinct ways of experiencing and living in the world. Platonists believed that the transcendent One could not have created the material world since it represents a "falling away" from divine perfection, so the world was instead created by a semidivine workman (or "demiurge"). They believed that the soul is immortal (eternally existing in the upper world), but that it has been imprisoned in a material body. Our lives should therefore be dedicated to contemplation of the eternal forms, by transcending our bodies and fastening our souls' gaze on their divine origin in the upper world. The good life is that of the philosopher, who can give his or her life to the soul's ascent. "Salvation," therefore, is death—the liberation of the divine soul from its bodily prison.
None of these ancient schools—indeed, none of the religions of the East or West—had a map for understanding God and the world that even came close to resembling the gospel that Paul proclaimed in Athens that day. By pursuing either happiness or virtue, Epicureans and Stoics (then as now) were trying to find the best path for personal and social improvement by their own effort. The drama of creation, the fall, and redemption within history and of the consummation at the end of this age was incomprehensible to those who presupposed an entirely different story. The notion of God's coming cataclysmic judgment of the world, already rendered certain by the resurrection of the incarnate Son, was a stumbling block to Jews. Understanding what Jesus and his apostles were claiming, many of their fellow Jews charged Christianity not with being incomprehensible or irrational but with being blasphemous and false. However, for Greeks and those unfamiliar with the Jewish story (the Gentiles), the gospel was simply folly (1Co 1:23).
So what happened in the theater of the philosophers that day? "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, 'We will hear you again about this.' So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them" (vv. 32–34).
I. Knowledge of God
How you know something depends on what it is that you are studying. Knowing your spouse is different from knowing atomic energy or the history of Renaissance art. We cannot come up with a universal method and criteria for knowing God before identifying the sort of God we have in mind.
In his speech before the Greek philosophers, Paul affirms the biblical teaching that God is neither separated from the world (pagan transcendence) nor one with it (pagan immanence). Though independent of the world, God is free to act in it as he pleases. God is qualitatively distinct from the world—that is, transcendent. And yet this same God created the world, pronouncing it good. In this, we see that God is immanent, present in the world, entering into a covenantal relationship with human beings and sustaining all of his creatures. God judges and saves human beings, even to the point of actually assuming their humanity, bearing their curse in his body on the cross, and raising their humanity to the Father's right hand in his resurrection and ascension. The prophets and the apostles believe more deeply in God's transcendence of and independence from the world than the most ardent deists and more deeply in God's immanence than the most ardent pantheists. No religion faces, welcomes, and proclaims this paradox as does the Christian faith. No religion is more convinced simultaneously of God's radical difference from creatures and God's radical identification with them.
God's radical difference from creatures is sometimes referred to by theologians as God's incomprehensibility. The difference between God and creation is not merely quantitative ("more than"), but qualitative ("different from"). This marks the chasm separating biblical faith from polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism (see page 28). In its attempt to conquer heaven, the fallen heart climbs ladders of rational speculation, mystical experience, and moral effort. However, the vision of God in his majestic glory is deadly, according to Scripture. No one can see God's face and live (Ex 33:20); the immortal, invisible and eternal God "dwells in inapproachable light" (1Ti 6:15–16). No mortal "has known the mind of the Lord" (Ro 11:34). "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa 55:8–9). At the end of our zealous ascent we discover God as blinding glory, terrifying justice, and a love that destroys unlovely and unwelcome intruders. Any union we achieve with divinity in this enterprise will be like that of a dry branch within "a consuming fire" (Heb 12:29). If this were all we were told, then we might throw up our hands, concluding with radical mystics and skeptics throughout the ages that we cannot know God—at least in a rational way that can be put into words. However, Scripture tells us more.
Together with the absolute incomprehensibility of God (transcendence), Scripture affirms just as clearly the free decision of God to condescend beneath his majesty and reveal himself to us as he sees fit. Although we cannot ascend to God's incomprehensible majesty, God stoops to our capacity, descending and accommodating his speech to our understanding. We know God not according to his essence, but according to his works. This formula, found frequently in the ancient fathers (especially in the East), was repeated often by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological successors. We know that God is merciful, for example, because he has acted mercifully in history and revealed these actions as well as their interpretation through prophets and apostles.
A. How We Know God
So we can know God truly precisely because he makes himself known to us. We do not rise up to God; he descends to us. As God assured Moses, we cannot behold God in a beatific vision, because we are mere creatures—and sinners to boot (Ex 33:20). And yet God condescends to reveal himself by hiding himself in a gracious display of accommodated speech—even as he hid Moses and allowed his "back" (33:23) to pass by as he proclaimed himself as the one who freely shows mercy on whom he will.
Staring into the sun will blind us, yet we can find contentment simply being warmed by its rays. In the same way, trying to ascend to heaven to capture God's essence with our speculative, moral, or mystical gaze would not just blind us; it would destroy us. "They are mad who seek to discover what God is," Calvin says. "What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?... The essence of God is rather to be adored than inquired into." God shows himself "not as he is in himself," Calvin cautioned (invoking the ancient fathers), "but as he is toward us"—in his energies (works), not in his essence. God clothes himself in frail human language— and, ultimately, with the incarnation, in our human nature.
Furthermore, we dare not approach this God apart from the Mediator, his own Son who became flesh. A God who eludes our comprehending gaze—who masters but is never mastered—is a terrifying prospect for the sinful heart until Christ steps forward as our mediator. Calvin reminds us,
In this ruin of mankind no one now experiences God either as Father or as Author of salvation, or favorable in any way, until Christ the Mediator comes forward to reconcile him to us.... It is one thing to feel that God as our Maker supports us by his power, governs us by his providence, nourishes us by his goodness, and attends us with all sorts of blessings—and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ.
Apart from the gospel we flee from God's self-revelation, dressing folly in the robe of wisdom and ungodliness in the garments of virtue. It is ultimately an ethical revolt against the God who made us. There is no other "God" who exists, much less who is worth talking about, than the Father who is known in his Son and by his Spirit according to his Word, Calvin adds. In other words, we cannot just talk about a divine being, with certain ideal attributes, and then somehow add the Trinity and Jesus Christ to this understanding of the divine being. No, we must come to the Father in the Son by the Spirit through his Word.
Through revelation, the incomprehensible and utterly transcendent God places himself within our reach. The sovereign God, who eludes our attempts at mastery, by speculation, good works, or mystical experience, places himself in our hands as a free gift. Instead of being consumed, we are reconciled, redeemed, and made adopted heirs of his kingdom in the Son and by his Spirit, through his Word. Just as we are created in God's image and likeness, yet intersecting with divinity at no point, our knowledge is a creaturely version of truth, which God accommodates to our capacity and reveals through ordinary speech and speakers. As the infinite Creator, God alone possesses absolute knowledge. Every fact is interpreted, and we need God's interpretation if we are to know reality properly.
Excerpted from Pilgrim Theology by Michael Horton Copyright © 2011 by Michael Horton. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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