Bible, Tradition, Theology part 1: The Nature of God

Once again I have Phil Rutledge to thank for an occasion to think not only about theology’s content but the ways in which I do theology.  Responding to our recent podcast on origin stories, Phil asks a battery of questions including the significance of the epithet Shaddai often appended to the Hebrew el, the effects of Clark Pinnock’s work on doctrines of divine omnipotence, and what the opening phrases of Genesis (and various English translations of those phrases) reveal about God’s nature.  I’ve realized as I’ve worked on this essay that it’s going to take a few posts to get to all of that, so please bear with me.

To start with the last question, I’m always a bit reticent to make very many declarations at all about divine nature except as a function of revelation.  (Readers who click over here for next week’s midweek post will see me wrestle with that reticence as it involves doctrines of Trinity.)  When I teach Sunday school or preach from the pulpit, I tend to stick pretty closely to the text of Scripture precisely because I’ve seen so many squirrelly things happen when theologies start elsewhere, then come to the Bible.  I have a deep and abiding respect for theologians like C. Michael Patton who are open about the fact that their philosophies of religion are prior to the text of the Scriptures (I do appreciate honesty in a theologian), and I recognize that nobody comes to the Bible as a blank slate, but I still hold that the Bible’s text has content proper to itself, and I believe that what’s intelligible about that text as encountered in prayer and in proclamation should hold an ultimate critiquing power over whatever theological constructions the Church proposes.  That’s my own take on the classical Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and although the vocabulary might be different, I do think that I’m operating within its spirit.

Prayer, Preaching, and Theology

I make note of two particular uses of Scriptures because, as anyone who’s been around the humanities in the academy is no doubt aware, just about any text can do just about any job, and the Bible is by no means immune to such things.  Acknowledging the potential for Scripture to come to all sorts of uses, I’ve come to agree with Stanley Hauerwas that theology’s most natural homes are in prayer and in preaching, and I try to let the forms as well as the content of those two pursuits inform my own answers to metaphysical, theological, and other questions as much as I can.

Part of the rhetorical moment of the prayer is that the world, which surrounds and constitutes the soul praying, stands contingent.  In other words, as a result of prayer, the God to whom the Christian prays might opt to make the world different than it would have been otherwise, and among the possible changes to that world are changes in the part of the world that the one praying calls “myself.”  In this sense a change in the faithful’s desires from avoidance of consequences to faithful facing of consequences is as much a “response” to prayer as is a check in the mail, the disappearance of cancer, or other “responses” more friendly to empirical apprehension.  The point is that, after the manner of the Psalms, most Christian prayer (I’ll refrain from commenting on other sorts) seems to assume that the world might be different as a result of the prayer.

Likewise the sermon, because a preacher speaks it to a congregation, assumes that the preacher’s act of narrating those present into the stories of the Bible, encouraging their faithful witness in the face of temptation or reassuring them of God’s faithfulness when doubt comes so easily, that act seems to assume that the act of teaching by means of oratory is itself an important action in ethical senses.  Certainly the spoken word is not magical; enough people have slept through my own sermons or (in more recent months) spent the span of time sending and receiving text messages that I’d be a great fool to believe thus.  Nonetheless, expositing Scripture on behalf of those gathered always assumes the ethical possibility that the exposition might change the minds, enliven the imaginations, or in the rarest cases alter the wills of those gathered, and that radical and dangerous contingency is what makes preachers keep writing their sermons week after week.

What lends preaching such powerful potential, I must add here, is not by any means the relative skill of the orator, though infomercials remain to remind us just how powerful a slick talker can be for getting people to part with their cash.  Rather, the God (if I must choose between elohim or theos, I’ll take both) who features sometimes as the speaker of an oracle, at other times a character within a narrator’s tale, at other times still the audience for a bit of lament poetry uses the power of those texts interpreted publicly to move the mind and the imagination and the will.  Likewise I’d deny any inherent “power in prayer” except as a placebo, but I do acknowledge that the very human practices of prayer often serve as a vehicle through which God works on the world.  I try to root my own doctrine of Scripture in what the Bible says about its own texts, namely that it’s good for instruction, reproof, edification, and other such things, and as best as I can tell, preaching and prayer are two handy avenues through which those functions can happen.

Preaching and the Nature of God

It’s those realities through which I try to look at Scripture, and although I’d grant to any Calvinist (especially Michial and David, since they’re two of the more pleasant Calvinists I know) that the divine nature might be something really quite different from the God who features so prominently in those narratives and oracles and Psalms in Scripture, and although I’d never begrudge anyone a bit of speculation about what the divine nature might be separate from those things, I do object when the working assumption seems to be that the Bible gets such central things as God’s relationship to Creation wrong on very basic levels.  That assumption can take on names like anthropomorphism, concession, and even evolution, but all of them seem to assume that the theologian, whether classical or progressive, must rescue the Bible from its own naivete.  I’m more inclined to think that such theologies have as their aim to rescue skittish mortals from a more dangerous vision of God than they’d prefer to encounter.

As I noted before, taking a homiletic and praying approach to Scripture means that certain other modes of approaching theological questions tend to take a back seat.  To give one example of what’s happened when theology-proper moves in other directions, I take the doctrine of God as Unmoved Mover as a good example.  I think that one must do some serious interpretive acrobatics to get from the discussion of movement and rest in the text of Aristotle’s Physics and the discussion of relationships between physics and mathematics in Aristotle’s Metaphysics to the god of natural philosophy that Aquinas describes in Summa Theologica.  (In other words, I consider part of the genius of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to be the systematizing of Greek discussions to answer Islamic and Jewish and Christian questions.)  In other words, what some would call a “Greco-Roman” understanding of divine stasis I read more as a Christian-era attempt to let the Greeks in even though the Greeks most often cited weren’t all that interested in Christian-era questions.  As far as I can tell, most of those inquiries happened either in monastic or university settings, and while exposition of Scripture was also going on, what bits of the Bible make it into the discussion of the Unmoved Mover tend to be one-verse proof-texts that serve (in my view, and I’m happy to read rebuttals) more often as credentials for university philosophical proofs than as interpretations of Biblical texts as the primary exhibits.

Because I think that preaching is at its roots a public exposition of the Bible, when I think of the nature of God, I turn to texts like Exodus before I go to Aristotle or even Aquinas.  And when I read a text like Exodus 4 (which was on one Sunday morning in the late Clinton years my lectionary text to preach), if I allow the Bible as it seems to want to be preached to critique the systems of Aquinas and his successors, I note that something happens in Exodus 4 that gives me a starting point for doing theology that insists upon reflection: in verse 14, God gets angry.

This is no doubt one of those stories that Plato would have excised had his Athens learned about heavenly beings from Exodus rather than Iliad.  After all, as Plato argues in in Republic, to change means to change either from worse to better or from better to worse.  If a being becomes better, that being wasn’t a god in the first place, and if the being is susceptible to becoming worse, that vulnerability means that the being is not a god.  (Incidentally, I think this is a much more compelling argument, as far as arguments go, than are Aristotle’s passages about motion and mathematics.)  Yet Exodus, held universally (that is to say by Pharisee and Sadduccee, by Rabbi and Priest, by Protestant and Catholic, though not by Marcion) to be Holy Writ, does not seem to waffle on that, and when I preach that text, I do tend to take the basic relationship between Moses and YHWH that the text relates to be right.  Moses refuses commission, and YHWH’s anger burns against him, and YHWH commissions Aaron to serve as helper.  In other words, events in the part of the world that we call Moses affect YHWH in ways that divinely inspired text sees fit to call burning anger.

Of course I’m not the first to encounter this text.  In order to preserve a medieval-systematic view of things, Aquinas compares God to a stone pillar with faces etched various faces: the pillar itself does not change at all, but when one travels around the pillar, one might see a calm face or an angry face.  And later, Hegelian-flavored criticism of the passage hold that the “anthropomorphic” angry-god is nothing more than a primitive, tribal understanding of the Ground of Being.  Some especially clever readers have even speculated that God is eternally angry at Moses in that moment, that there’s a core of immutable Being behind the facade that Moses sees.  As should be evident, all of these ways of reading Exodus 4 discern the “nature of God” in the passage, but that’s only the beginning of the discussion: what comes after we all look at the text together makes for the really interesting stuff.

When I think about the passage in terms of how to preach, I know that I’m relating the story to people who likely have never had the sort of weird encounter with God that Exodus describes.  (To be fair, I’ve only preached at my Pentecostal college once, and after a semester and a half there, I get the impression that my students would claim far more such experiences than do my fellow-congregants at Athens Christian Church.)  But I always talk about that encounter as happening after Moses flees Egypt and before Moses returns, and I did note when I preached the text that God, if I understand subjects and verbs right, does become angry as a result of the discourse at the burning bush.  Broadening my angle a bit, I note that the pattern wherein God becomes angry is not uncommon in the Bible, and it’s almost always a result of something that mortals do.  So while I’ve not up to this point speculated about what God looks like from the perspective of an angel or from the security camera in Heaven’s throne room, I do make certain assumptions about the divine nature based on the fact that I’m trying to get the narrative across.  When one is concerned with getting the narrative right, one can point to the moment before God speaks and to the moment after God speaks; to God’s relationship with humanity in certain moments and say that God’s anger burned against them; and to those stories as the contexts within which most (not all, but most) assertions about God’s nature in Scripture happen.

In other words, although I’ve not said much (if anything) about what God’s nature is as separate from moments of revelation, the forms of that revelation point me towards treating God-and-humanity (because neither happens without the other in the Bible) as something that changes, something that requires covenants on the parts of both parties and reminders by prophets (on God’s side) and lament Psalms (on humanity’s side) to reinforce those covenants.  I believe God when God says that God will be faithful always, and it means more, not less, because the world that Scripture creates is one in which any moment could be a moment of unfaithfulness.  I also believe the Psalmists when they sing lament Psalms that call on God to remember those promises–there’s a confidence that God has the ability and the faithfulness to follow through, but there’s also an unflinching awareness that the world has become a treacherous place and that God needs to do something about it.  (If you’re hearing echoes of Exodus in both sides of that, perhaps my point is sinking in.)  Perhaps more than anything, I believe that when I preach I preach to those who are continuing those stories in the present moment, and when I pray I pray as someone who is still in significant ways inside that story, and looking at such things from inside, the narrative makes a fair bit of sense even when one lets its subjects be subjects and its verbs be verbs.

Since I’m now beyond the scope of a brief post, I’m going to put off until my next mid-week essay (which will actually happen in two weeks since I’ve got to get a book review online sooner rather than later) a discussion of Pinnock and of divine power.  As always, I don’t think that mine is the only way to make sense of revelation, and I welcome any comments and questions that folks would send my way.

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