The Power of Restored Doctrines: Taking God Away from the People—and Bringing Him Back.
By H. Wallace Goddard
Imagine Abraham Lincoln asking you to go fishing with him. Picture Moses asking you to go camping and boating with him. Envision Magellan asking you to go exploring with him. Any of those would be big. I want to tell you something even bigger: God asks us to become His personal, continuing associates. He wants us to be His friends. He wants us to KNOW Him intimately. He wants to spend time—even eternity—with us!
God invites us to know Him personally. In fact, He describes knowing Him as the central purpose of our existence.
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)
Wow. That’s hard to comprehend.
A parable or a portrait?
Many believers talk and think about our relationship with God in familiar terms. We think of Him as a real person who is personally engaged with us. He is mindful of us. In fact, He cares so deeply that He would send His beloved Son to rescue us from a world of sin.
There are those who believe this is an example of humans’ imposing their puny experience on an unfathomable truth. They believe God is unknowable, and that God has given us descriptions of Himself as a parable of some much-more-transcendent reality that we cannot comprehend.
In contrast to this latter view, it is possible that our earthly experience is intended to show us the nature of eternal things. Maybe our earthly relationships are much like our heavenly ones. Maybe our Father in heaven is much like our fathers on earth—only immeasurably better.
Either view is possible. Yet, with careful scrutiny and reflection, it should become clear which view is more plausible.
In this series, let’s approach the message of the Bible as nave learners—without any of the preconceptions imposed on us by centuries of theological speculating and wrangling.
God as seen by philosophers and theologians
In the first article in this series [See http://www.meridianmagazine.com/myth/081118craft.html ], we suggested that any truth from God should be sweet; it should edify, enrich, and enlarge us. Let’s apply this test to some of the historical statements about God. Then let’s test them and see if they speak peace to our souls. Do the historical views that follow fill us with sweet awe, or with turmoil and bewilderment?
One orthodox view of God is that “the essence, or true being, of God in unknown and unknowable. All that we can know is God’s activity, his actions among us” (Hill, p. 75)
Gregory of Nyssa takes this so far as to argue that spiritual development leads to progressive darkening. After all, God is both unknown and unknowable. As we progress spiritually, everything becomes darker. “Moses’ journey begins with a moment of illumination, as he meets God in the burning bush and turns from the path of darkness to light. But he soon realized that although he has left forever the darkness of God’s absence, he is plunging toward a deeper darkness still—the darkness of God’s presence” (Hill, p. 75).
So we come to the bleak conclusion: “This is truly the vision of God: never to be satisfied in our desire to see him” (Hill, p. 76).
Pseudo-Dionysius takes the next step in evolution of God: “Nothing can really be said of God at all. God is not mind or soul; he is not life or love; he is not power or light; he is not unity or trinity. Nothing can truly be said of him, and nothing can truly be denied of him, He simply transcends the ways in which we normally think of objects” (Hill, p. 105).
One of the great theologians of historical Christianity was Thomas Aquinas who concluded that God transcends all earthly categories. Hill describes Aquinas view of God: “he lacks qualities like motion, location, shape, color. In fact, he has no qualities at all. This is the notion of divine simplicity, and it for Aquinas the most fundamental fact about God” (Hill, p. 157, emphasis in original). God is without body, parts, or passions. He is unknown and unknowable.
Hill further describes the God of Aquinas. His was “a very impersonal, abstract notion of God. He is existence itself, infinite and perfect, unlimited, beyond time. This is the classical’ Christian doctrine of God, and it might be thought to bear little relation to the dynamic and interesting God of the Old Testament or the loving Father of the New” (p. 159).
Yes. The God of the Bible was shanghaied by philosophers. The real and personal Father of the Bible had been replaced by a mystery—fully unknowable and unapproachable. We are left entirely alone and bereft in the universe.
God was still not liberated by the theologians of the 20th century. Karl Barth’s “theology stems more than anything else from the profound sense of the otherness of God. God, for Barth, is immeasurably beyond human beings and has nothing in common with them” (p. 268).
Nothing in common with us. Complete otherness. If anything will create feelings of alienation, Barth’s chasm between the Creator and the created should do it.
Rudolf Bultmann did not bring God any closer to ordinary mortals. “Bultmann argues that God is so great that we cannot know him or speak of him sensibly at all. Like Barth, Bultmann stresses that God is not an object—he is the ultimate subject. He is not an existing thing; he is the basis for the existence of everything” (p. 280). It is hard to know how to feel loved, taught, or protected by Bultmann’s God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous 20th century theologian, added insult to God’s near-fatal injuries. “God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. . . . He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. . . . Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering” (pp. 289-290).
This mass of theological confusion gets further tangled. Paul Tillich argued that “God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. If God is a being he is subject to the categories of finitude. . . . When applied to God, superlatives become diminutives” (p. 298).
By trying to understand or describe God, we diminish Him. God, according to philosophers and theologians, is completely mysterious and unapproachable. Phew!
Admittedly, I have collected descriptions of God’s nature from different times and philosophies of Christianity. Yet all of that confusion shows the sorry state of Christianity’s portrait of its God. The central character of the Christian story is unavailable.
Another caveat: Most Christians are not caught up in theologians’ discussions. Many of the rank-and-file Christians would say that Jesus came to make God known and knowable. This is commendable. Yet, at the same time, the theologians seem determined to take God away from the people. They make Him an unknown and unknowable mystery.
It would be interesting to do a survey of ordinary Christians to learn their reaction to Christianity’s official pronouncements. Many may see mainline orthodoxy as a terrible mass of confusion.
The power of restored doctrine
At this point, you may be thinking so what? Why do I care how God is defined? The nature of God is more than an academic issue.
It matters immeasurably in our lives. If Satan can take God away from us, he has largely won the battle for our souls. We will slump into hopelessness in the absence of a vibrant, loving, involved, and devoted God.
This removal of God can happen at an institutional or an individual level. An entire church or nation can lose its connection with a real and present God; individuals can become personally estranged from the Father who granted them life. Latter-day Saints believe that the ancient Church that Jesus established strayed from the truths that gave it power. We also understand that every human being is regularly tempted to stray from the Light of life, whether through busy-ness and distraction, or anger and bitterness.
Old Scratch has several strategies to take God away from us: Make God unknowable, unapproachable, or impossible to please. If God is a mystical energy field, how can I, a flesh-bound human, have a relationship with It? If He is involved with matters far more important than I, how can I hope that He will take an interest in me or rescue me? If He is a cranky perfectionist, what hope is there for my erring soul?
At the center of vibrant, meaningful living is a compelling relationship with God. And Latter-day Saints describe a God who is as real and available as a dad reading the paper in the living room. In the rest of this section we are going to embark on knowing and taking back our God.
Hill, J. (2003). The History of Christian Thought. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
I heartily recommend that anyone interested in LDS theology read Stephen Robinson’s Are Mormons Christians? Chapter 7 on the trinity and the nature of God is especially pertinent to this article.
To discuss this or other articles by Wally Goddard, please visit www.DrWally.org
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