Who is God?

Having demonstrated that “God uses” language has little Biblical precedent, and that the idea of a person being used does have negative connotations in secular use, we now turn to its wider implications. This part of the discussion begins with the foundational work of exploring who God is, and the teasing out of certain principles that might guide the way that we choose to talk about God and God’s actions.

Foundational Principles
Kung (1980) suggests that in Descartes’ work we see a transition point from a prevailing world view that works from certainty about God to learn about self, to one that is certain of self and works towards God. (p.15) This methodology, however, seems to have failed. Similarly, Buber (1957) argues that the reason that Kant’s thinking ultimately fails to resolve is because it looks for the absolute of God in a place that it cannot be found, in the contingency of the inner workings of the human heart. He writes “the encounter with the original voice, the original source of yes or no, cannot be replaced by any self-encounter.”(p.18)

Furthermore, as we will see later, it seems that one of the difficulties in post modernity is that a lack of trust in concepts of self have meant that the self is no longer experienced as solid ground from which to work towards God. The project of modernity has failed to provide authentic explanations of self, God, or any other aspect of reality and we are faced with what amounts to a council of despair in postmodernity.

Standing over against that is the Christian tradition that continues to invite us to return to the methodology of working from God out. This tradition is exemplified by Calvin, whose methodology of developing a doctrine of God is described by Karkkainnen. (2004, p.104) He describes how “Institutes of Christian Religion” begins by asserting that knowledge has two parts: that pertaining to God which is primary and comes by revelation through creation and scripture, and that pertaining to humanity which is secondary to knowledge of God.

This understanding of Calvin’s methodology is seen as foundational by Gunton (1997, p.91) who also sees it as distinctive in the writing of Richard of St Victor. This methodology is one that continues to be fruitful in contemporary theology. For instance, Webster (in McCormack, 2008, p.108) contends that it is important that our concepts of God, in this case God’s aseity, are developed from God’s self-revelation, not as dependent or even in contrast to our notions of creatures as contingent. It is not that God is non-contingent but that God is self sufficient, self-defined, and self-existent.

The criticality of beginning with our conception of God, and working from there, to this discussion is further highlighted by Johnson. (1992) She begins her exploration of God’s identity by asserting that the way in which we speak about God is absolutely fundamental to our beliefs and behaviour because speech is formative. Thus what is said about God shapes the community, the individual lives of the members of the community, and the way that they relate to each other and to God. (p.3) The implication of this argument is that if we get the way that we speak about God wrong, or allow it to become imbalanced, then we run the risk of deforming our communities and our own lives. She notes in Liberation Theology an analysis of how this has been seen to occur in history, quoting Segundo “Our falsified and inauthentic ways of dealing with our fellow men are allied to our falsification of the idea of God.” (p.14)

As a further example of an inadequate and imbalanced view of God leading to misconceptions about humanity Johnson examines the classical theist concept of God. She argues that this was constructed through medieval and early modern times and can be typified by its controlling metaphor of King. God is transcendant, other, One, infinite along every dimension where creatures are finite in all. She considers that this leads to God’s immanence being obscured or forgotten. Johnson goes on to describe the challenges to Theism that emerged through the 19th and 20th centuries. Atheism attacks theism as a projection of human consciousness onto the ceiling. The existence of radical evil and suffering leads others to decry the seperateness of the theistic concept of God. (p.19ff)

In response to these challenges, she discerns that a new set of ways of talking about God have emerged. Many of these emphasise the immanence of God and God’s intimate involvement and love for the creation. (p.21)

Is God a Person?
It seems to me that the ways of talking identified by Johnson have their roots in the understanding of God as a person. In order for us to assess the validity of these ways of talking about God we therefore have to decide whether or not it is appropriate to describe God as a person.

Kung (1980, p.631) addresses this question. He argues that the concept of God as a person, or even personal is not found in the Bible, but that it was introduced in the early church as a very useful metaphor when trying to describe the Trinity. This assertion is supported by Johnson (1992, p.7) who argues that words about God that are not used in the Bible may be used if they authentically say something about God that is revealed in Scripture, tradition and current faith experience. She uses as an example of this Aquinas’ defence of referring to God as person, when this is not found in the Bible.

Kung (1980) goes on to argue that God is not a person as a human is a person, God is beyond personhood. However, God created personality so God cannot be impersonal. This implies that God cannot be less than a person. The conclusion drawn is that God is not an “it” underpinning all being in the creative spirit. Kung suggests that a more adequate concept would be that God is transpersonal or suprapersonal. What, however, must not be lost is the fact that the Bible reveals not a faceless, empty object or universe but a God who can be met. “God can be heard and addressed: that he comes among men saying “I” making himself a “thou” for them, one who speaks to us and to whom we can speak.”(p.632) Therefore, whatever term is settled upon, any concept of God has, if it is to be faithful to the Biblical revelation, must include the idea that God can be addressed.

In a parallel vein, Buber (1957, p.19) critiques Hegel’s philosophy which he characterises as portraying God as using all creatures, including people, as instruments of God’s own self-realisation and never entering relationship with them. Buber argues that the major flaw in this portrayal is that it does not describe the God that is, and has been, encountered in history.

Any understanding of God must begin with God’s self-revelation in Scripture and history. It is important that our understanding of God is not distorted, not just because of the impropriety of speaking unworthily of God, but also because of the damage that such understanding and speech about God can do to people. It does seem, however, that we may speak of God as having aspects of personhood, especially when we consider the possibility of relationship and speech with God.

The Trinity
A key development in contemporary theology that gives us some of the language that can be used to explore these ideas of who God is with respect to personhood and relationship is the rediscovery of the Trinity as a controlling theme of God talk.

This development is described by Johnson. (1992) She suggests that the classical theology of the Trinity was insistent on the “pattern of proceeding” which was based on the definitive role of John 20:21 and 14:26 in the conception of the Trinity, and the imperative requirement to keep the Persons of the Trinity separate without making them different. (p.194) However, she asserts that this is a hierarchical model, consisting of assymetrical relationships . She notes the Classical theological counter argument of radical equality, in which difference is only in ways of relating, not in substance or nature. She acknowledges that, in theory “sequence does not necessitate subordination” but maintains that for all practical purposes the hierarchy keeps returning. (p.196)

Describing the development of Trinitarian thought, Johnson cites Rahner’s argument that “The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa.” Rahner (1997) proposes this axiomatic thesis in the course of the argument he is making against the separation of the discussion of who God is and what God does. He does not believe that salvation history can be separated from our understanding of God as Trinity; “There must be a connection between God and man.” (p.21)

This assertion is supported by Moltmann (1981, p.158ff), who discusses the history of the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity. He argues that the traditional distinction arising from Platonist ideals leads to an imposition upon the nature of God from outside. He argues that any distinction between the two must come from within the Trinity rather than be imposed from without. On this basis, and given that he cannot accept that the Cross event can have reality in the economic Trinity but not the immanent Trinity, he supports Rahner’s assertion that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.

He clarifies this by further explaining that he sees this as meaning not that the two are identical but that there can be nothing that is in the economic Trinity that is not also in the immanent Trinity. We cannot know the whole of the Trinity, but that part that we see revealed in the work of the Trinity in salvation history is a true revelation of the reality of the Trinity as it is. (p.161)

If this is accepted as being the case, then it is apparent that there is a problem with a model of the Trinity that is experienced as hierarchical and destructive to relationship, because it implies that in some sense that destructiveness is present in the reality of Godself.

Johnson (1992, p.200) does note the postmodern apophatic position that we cannot know the inner life of God, we see through a glass darkly. Nevertheless, whilst acknowledging that we cannot say everything about the Trinity, Johnson holds that we can say something, and that something has to be based on consistency between the revealed God and the actual God.

This assertion is informed by her understanding of Barth, that “God corresponds to himself, that is, God really is as he has shown himself in revelation”(p.206) This reading of Barth is also found in Fiddes (2000, p.30) who asserts that whilst language cannot describe the whole of God, nevertheless it is seized by God in order to allow humans to talk meaningfully, if not completely, about God. Johnson (1992, p.216) goes on to argue that what is common to all orthodox conceptions of the Trinity is that of mutual relatedness. The way in which this relatedness can be expressed is up for debate, but relatedness is indisputable, and the nature of the relatedness cannot be separated from who God is.

Moltmann (1991, p.xii) insists that it is possible to go further than this, and asserts that the apprehension of the Trinity as eternal perichoresis, which he traces back to the Cappadocians, has become the dominant model accepted in modern theology. He further argues that this has important implications for many branches of theology, with the God whose very nature is that of communion and fellowship supplanting previous, unhelpful, models of monarchy, hierarchy and patriarchy.

This conclusion appears to be supported by Grenz (2004), who concurs with the assessment that the cumulative work of Boff, Zizoulas and LaCugna has led to the general acceptance of “the basic appropriateness of seeing in the relationality of the three divine persons the key to understanding the triune dynamic” (p.163) However, he also identifies certain strands of theology, such as the work of Urs von Balthasar, that have called this into question, primarily concerned that this collapses the immanent into the economic. (p.222) This concern is echoed by Brueggemann (1986) who suggests that “We are so preoccupied with God’s relatedness, God being for us, that we do not attend enough to God’s hiddenness, God’s weighty concern for God’s self, God’s own way in heaven and on earth.” (p.71)

In this exploration of who God is we have demonstrated some important principles for our ongoing discussion. Firstly we have noted the importance of working from God out, and seen how this methodology provides an objective basis for speaking of God and humanity. The importance of speaking as rightly as possible of God, because of the power of that speech to form the reality we experience, has been explained. We have seen that God is not impersonal, but is more than personal, and that furthermore we have seen that God is relational. We have also heard the note of caution that seeks to remind us of the otherness of God, a God whom we cannot appropriate to our own agenda.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *