Nature of God Seminar, Dallas, June, 2009
Let’s Argue with God
Just how involved is God with his creatures—man in particular? Is God the “unmoved mover” described by Aristotle? So “perfect” that any kind of change in God, a perfect being, would be a change for the worse. Hence, God is unchangeable and not moved to change by humans; God is immutable, impassable (not capable of being affected or acted upon). Classical Theism agreed with Aristotle and has attributed these characteristics to the Yahweh of Scripture. But something is wrong with this picture. Why pray to an unmovable God? The God of the Bible invites prayer, responds to prayer, changes his mind, and even willingly enters into arguments with men, who have on occasion, amazingly, prevailed with God.
By Kenneth Westby
Understanding God and his nature is where theology must begin. There are three basic ways to know about God: 1) His works of creation: what he has made reveals much about him as an artist’s gallery of art reveals something of the artist. Man has always been in awe of earthly creation, the cosmos, and the mystery life; 2) His revelation: his words and actions in history give specific information about his character, expectations, plans, and power. These revelations of God and about God have been preserved by men in Scripture; 3) Personal experience with God. This can be profound and involves walking with him, communing with him, and knowing him in a spiritual, personal sense.
The first two ways to know God are largely objective, the last, subjective, but no less real. The study of creation tells us much about God and the science of Intelligent Design directs attention to acknowledging an Intelligent Designer. Man’s awe of creation needs to be focused on the Creator, and with heightened awe, worship him as Source of all things.
God’s revelation contained in the Bible tells us about the kind of deity God is and is not. Our focus here is upon the second, and perhaps most important, way to know God, his words, his actions, and the accounts of witnesses to them as contained in the Bible. This is God’s track record and is the most specific guide we have toward knowing him.
The Doctrine of God
No religion or religious philosophy is any better than its conception of God. How God is understood affects how people relate to and worship God. Not all conceptions of God are equal, not all are biblical, and not all are even logical.
Many assume the doctrine of God is a settled product of 4th and 5th century Greek and Latin theologians and enshrined in their venerated creeds. To challenge the traditional orthodox understanding of God is to invite condemnation and charges of heresy. Should we not expect to find the doctrine of God firmly rooted in Scripture? If traditional creeds present a different description of God from that found in the Bible, which should trump the other?
Man is a religious creature and it seems he has always been on a pilgrimage to understand the gods or the ultimate Deity. The variety of religions, gods, superstitions and beliefs fill the world and largely define the past history of mankind. Even the so-called monotheistic faiths of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity greatly differ in defining God and his nature.
Among the various Christian faiths the traditional orthodox doctrine of God formulated by the Roman Catholic Church dominates. It took its form centuries after the New Testament documents were completed. In many important respects it presents a picture of God not found in Scripture. A sincere seeker striving to understand God must ask whether the understanding of God can be locked up and beyond challenge in the creeds and councils from bygone ages—all products of fallible politicians and bickering theologians.
While tradition should not be on a par with the Bible it can be respected and valued. Yet church tradition as well as our own presuppositions about God must be objectively reexamined in light of Scripture—the unique location of God’s own self-revelation. God has self-revealed much about himself from his personal name (Yahweh), to his character, to his plans for those made in his image. He challenges us to learn of him.
The subject of this little paper is anything but little. We will attempt to understand something of the breadth of God’s divine nature, and how he interacts with his sons and daughters. The knowledge about God is high and wide.
In his ideal state man would be continually seeking to understand his Creator God and striving to become like him in mind and character. Knowing God is the highest of human pursuits, the zenith of knowledge, and the only human achievement for which God invites us to boast. The prophet Jeremiah records an amazing quote by God describing himself:
This is what the LORD [Yahweh] says:
“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this:
That he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,”
Declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)
The purpose of this paper is to better understand and know our great and wise God. Do the verses above add to your understanding and knowledge of God? Do they raise new and important questions about God?
The first of the three big questions every mortal must ask and seek to answer is “Who Is God?” We might answer that he is the uncreated Creator, the Savior, the Sustainer, and the King of the Cosmos, the Supreme Sovereign. What may be more important to us personally, however, is discovering “What is God like?” Knowing God is to know what he like, his character, and what his attitude is toward those of us made in his image.
How do you conceive God? What is your picture of God? How would you describe him?
Can we consider God a “person” possessing personality, individuality, and emotions? Is God capable of feelings of joy or sadness? Can he be “moved” by his creatures? Can humans change God’s mind? Is he dynamically involved with his creation? Has he predestined all events that take place, both good and evil? Does he know everything about the future?—your future? Does he live inside or outside of time as we know it?
Classical theism attempts answering these questions by offering its traditional package of divine attributes—omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, immutability, impassibility, and eternity as timelessness. God is often defined a “Godhead,” a Trinity of three “persons.” We are told by theologians that this complex and difficult to understand arrangement must remain a divine mystery. Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Trinity contributes to most people’s confusion about God—including many who claim to be Christian.
It may be fair to say that for most people God remains a mystery, an unknown and a far-removed being. Classical/traditional theology (Gk. theos=deity, logos=discourse; knowledge of God) has done more to heighten the confusion and mystery rather than bringing light and clarity; it has laid a heavy covering fog upon what is the most important knowledge on earth.
How can the One God monotheism of Scripture be reconciled with three beings in a Trinity, each called God? Does mono mean one or three? When one prays does he or she pray to God as a single divine being, or to three divine beings united in a mystical triad?
No doctrine is in itself sacrosanct: all doctrines are open to reexamination, and the constructive task of theology is never finished because God always has new light to break forth from his Word. Does God invite us to investigate him and his relationship with us?
Then those who fear Yahweh spoke among themselves,
Yahweh listened carefully and heard them.
Then a scroll memorializing those who fear Yahweh,
Those who ponder his name,
Was written in his presence.
“They shall be mine,”
Says the Yahweh of Hosts,
“A special possession for the day which I am creating.
I will act favorably toward them,
Just as a man acts favorably toward his son who serves him.”
To “ponder his name” is to think deeply of God, his virtues, his nature, his actions, and his plans. In this paper we will specifically challenge for reexamination the traditional concept of God as static perfection, unmoved by his creatures, and having predestined all things. We will suggest that the God of Scripture is dynamically involved with his creation, and is emotionally moved by it.
We will further suggest that God can and does change in response to circumstances and human requests, that he does not know the future perfectly, that the future is partly open and partly set. The biblical record will reveal that we humans have the freedom to affect the future—both our own and God’s.
Man Made Free
God in his grace has granted humans significant freedom to cooperate with or against God’s will for their lives. This can be seen from the first give-and-take relationship in Eden. God is sovereign and in his sovereignty has chosen to create such a world of free agents made in his image. He has chosen to enter into a dynamic relationship with his sons and daughters. God is not static or inert regarding human actions. His clearly stated aim in creating man to be free is that man will freely love him.
The Universal Covenant states it well: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:12; and Jeremiah 7:23, 31:33; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:7; Ezekiel 11:20, 36:28; Isaiah 43:6-7; Hebrews 8:10, and many more). It is as simple as that. This covenant is a relationship between God and his sons and daughters.
The terms of the Universal Covenant are clearly given in Scripture but can be summarized:
From God: “I love you as your God, your Creator and your Father. Obey me and walk in my ways. I will be with you to bless you and to give you life.”
From man: “I will love you, Yahweh my God, with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
God has proposed a filial bond, a special partnership, a give-and-take relationship between Divine and mortal, between Creator and creature, between Father and son, Father and daughter. God wants what he began in Eden, fellowship with those made in his image.
His Grand Plan—the Divine Project—is the bringing of the entire human family to be His people. How he is accomplishing that in the face of evil, opposition, and unpredictable human freewill is complex almost beyond comprehension. What God wants from his children—their love freely given—can only be had if they are truly free to give it. God does not practice exhaustive determinism by predestining some to love him and some to hate him, some to be saved and some to be lost, some to float on the clouds forever, some to writhe in agony forever in hell’s fires. Sorry, John Calvin, your doctrine portrays a cruel and unjust Deity, quite unlike the God of Scripture.
The Intelligent Design people have a term for the myriad systems observable in life forms and celestial systems—irreducible complexity. In other words, the system, be it the human eye or the Milky Way, is so complex that it could not function unless it was wholly created specifically for a designed function by its designer. It could not have hit-or-miss evolved to such functional perfection and complexity.
That God will ultimately bring the entire human family to freely embrace him as their God and conform to his wise and good will is amazing on the face of it. But to do it with pervasive evil present suggests that God has taken a risk in his Divine Project. He has. He has risked that his love will eventually overcome all odds and win. Love is God’s essence—his attributes, his power for instance, are many, but it is the heart of God that will compel men to seek him. We read in Jeremiah what God said was in his heart of love: kindness, justice and righteousness (see other creedal statements about the heart of God in Hosea 6:8; Micah 6:8; Zechariah 7:9; Matthew 23:23).
To know God is to love him; to love him is to want to become like him. Once mankind is given a true picture of what God is like the battle between Good and Evil will begin to turn. Once the earth is full of the true knowledge of God (Isaiah 11:9) the victory will be won and the Divine Project realized. The apostle Paul, speaking of the riches of God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience, challenged the Christians in Rome to realize that it’s “God’s kindness that leads you toward repentance” (Romans 2:4). And so it will be for the entire human family.
God will use his power to insure all humans have an opportunity to know the One True God. He will lovingly offer to be their God and for them to become his people. The choice will be theirs. Some few may chose to reject God and his offer of eternal life, but I expect the results will be glorious and overwhelming.
There is Intelligent Design in this plan and it would be wise for us to discover it.
The Dynamic God-Man Relationship
When people are in relationship they don’t always see things the same way. They sometimes disagree. Among humans this is about as common as mosquitoes in Minnesota. But does God tolerate dialogue with humans on a give-and-take basis? Even disagreements? Even negotiations? Even arguments? Even complaints. In fact, it can be said that God actually invites such candid, heartfelt, and at times heated interchanges with his “partners.” After all, if God is to be our God and we are to be his people, this is an ongoing relationship involving almost every aspect of our lives. What is a relationship if one person “feels” and the other person does not? God is a person and must have feeling to relate to us and us to him. The Bible offers many insights into the feelings of God from those of joy and pleasure and love, to grief, hurt, disappointment and anger.
Prayer to a static, unchanging, unmoving God who has determined all future things and predestined every good and evil event before they even take place would be a waste of time. Prayer would be a charade, a silly device of a God holding the strings to us hapless puppets. But we serve an active God who invites, hears, and answers prayer. Prayer can change things because God, in his wisdom, acts upon them.
Prayer serves, says Samuel Balentine, “as a microcosm of one of the Hebrew Bible’s most important theological claims: the relatedness of God and humanity.” Prayer brings human and divine together in power sharing. Through prayers we see that God sovereignly chooses not to govern the world without our input.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the sincere realness of our relationship with our heavenly Father more than candid talk and interaction. This personal relationship matures with time and exercise. Here is where the second way to know God we discussed at the beginning can lay the groundwork for the third and perhaps most profound personal “knowing of God.”
There are examples that illustrate such a genuine personal relationship. God has had personal relationships with cooperative and uncooperative persons, with hostile and friendly. God wasn’t able to keep Adam and Eve in Eden, but he didn’t forsake them. Cain, on the other hand, couldn’t be honest with God, refused to repent and lived out a life of hostility toward God. But let’s look at some of those who became friends with God.
We think of Enoch, Noah, Shem, and of course, Abraham. He negotiated and bargained with God. God allowed it. More than that, he invited it. He wanted Abraham to partner with him in the future judgment on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenged God and argued that the “Judge of all the earth” should not kill the righteous with the wicked. God and Abraham then began negotiating the minimum number of righteous that could save the cities from destruction. Abraham would not let up and was afraid God might be tired of this haggling, but human lives were at stake. “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” God said, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18 & 19). You know the rest.
Moses and God went at it on a number of occasions. Most of the time God accommodated Moses’ objections and fears. Moses once convinced God not to destroy the people as God was justly contemplating doing. They had a long history together with God dealing with Moses face to face more than with any other prophet in Israel’s history.
Divine channels are open to argument and bargaining. Bargaining with God likely requires an established “working relationship” prior to the confrontation. This was the case with both Abraham and Moses. Candid discussion is a necessary factor in any mutual relationship. Remember God’s end game. He wants our freely given love and worship. He could have made himself the great Meticulous Dictator, but chose to be a Father. There is a difference.
The story of Jacob’s encounter with God is a good example to finish with (Genesis 32). Here is a somewhat scoundrel of a man who both cheats and gets cheated. He is Abraham’s grandson, knowledgeable of the One True God, aware of birthright blessings and all the rest, but has been content to live by his own wits and guile—until he hears his brother Esau is coming his way with four hundred soldiers. He cheated Esau twice and fled to keep the powerful hunter from killing him. He was worried. His riches and family could all be lost and his life too. He was desperate. He sent off his family and possessions in hopes they may be spared and he stayed by the Jabbok river alone. It drew dark and he must have prayed.
He is attacked by a “stranger” and they wrestled and fought through the night. In time Jacob guessed this person’s identity and so refuses to let go until he is blessed. He is blessed and given a new name, Israel: “he who strives with God.” The blessing? Well, what did Jacob need in his predicament? He needed favor from his brother so he would not be killed, and his family and two decades of hard work and wealth not lost. He got it all.
Afterward, Jacob acknowledges that he had an extraordinary encounter with God. Jacob had wrestled with God and prevailed. Consider that God did not overwhelm him with his superhuman power, scorching sun-like glory, or anything of the kind. He entered the match in such a way as to ensure a “fair fight.” Was not this a test to see what Jacob was made of? God found out that Jacob was made of stout stuff and even after telling Jacob to release him as the day was breaking (what kind of hold did Jacob have on him?), Jacob said no, not until I have your blessing. Clearly, Jacob was appealing to his superior, his God, for help.
Despite the fact Jacob had character flaws (as did Abraham and every other man and woman God has ever entered into a relationship with), God was favorably disposed toward him. But who took the initiative in this encounter? Who engaged Jacob? It was God who came upon the frightened man in the dark of night. Jacob could not have wrestled with God had God not desired it. Isn’t it truly gracious of God to make himself available in such a timely, earthy, and very physical way?
That episode was unique in its circumstances as most such God-encounters (theophanies) have been (walking in the garden, the burning bush, a fiery chariot, a still small voice, etc.). They nevertheless give insight into the willingness of God to have a give-and-take partnership of sorts with his beloved sons and daughters. It shows his willingness to adjust to human requests.
God takes our requests and concerns seriously as would any loving father. On one occasion Moses said to God in Exodus 4:1, “What if you are wrong about this? What if they will not believe you sent me?” This comment by Moses was a direct refutation of the assurance given by God in 3:18 that the elders of Israel would listen to Moses. Apparently God thinks Moses has a good point and gives him three signs to employ to verify his commission by God. On other occasions God does not grant Moses’ petition (Exodus 32:31-34). Moses, despite his close relationship with God, does not receive everything he requests. This is how relationships work.
God is willing to take the risk to enter within a divine-human relationship with those made in his image. He wants it to become a mutual walk together grounded in kindness, mercy, justice and righteousness. He wants to be our God and for us to be his people—his beloved sons and daughters. He bids us, “Walk with me and talk with me...even argue if you like.”