Category Archives: Theology Proper

The Study of God

IS GOD EVERYWHERE?

We have tackled the weighty questions of ‘Does God Know Everything?’ and ‘Can God Do Anything?’ Now we turn our attention to ‘Is God Everywhere?’

I have procrastinated a long time in writing this post. The concept of omnipresence is very abstract and complicated. We must delve into the brain-teasing subject of the spatial relationships of spiritual beings, objects, and places. While this is a favorite area of inquiry for me, we can quickly spiral off into tangents with no practical value to our day-to-day lives as Christians. On the surface, it does not seem that omnipresence is even a doctrine worth spending time on. Omniscience and omnipotence have immediate implications for Christian belief and life whereas whether or not God is “present in all places at all times” (Merriam-Webster) or ‘spatially infinite’ appears to be rather academic. Why did early theologians even bother themselves with this infinite attribute?

Allow me to share a perspective that will hopefully illuminate why this discussion is both helpful and relevant. Some people may assume a religion like Hinduism is polytheistic. Polytheism, in contrast to monotheism, means belief in multiple gods. However, Hinduism is more accurately defined by pantheism or even perhaps panentheism. In a pantheistic system, the divine penetrates and permeates all things: a rock is divine; a tree is divine; a mosquito is divine, the West Nile virus that mosquito is carrying is divine… Now, I do not pretend to be an expert on the incredibly diverse religion of Hinduism, but this concept of pantheism is also found in Taoism, the New Age movement, as well as in the fictional Jedi religion of the Star Wars series. Pantheism is today, in its many forms, an influential worldview.

In contrast, Christianity presents a worldview with a clear distinction between Creator and Creation. God is eternally pre-existent and qualitatively different from everything that came after him. The ‘creature’ (e.g., you and me) is closer in essence to the nothingness from whence it was called into being than to the infinite God that transcends the physical cosmos. Christians can categorically say “this is God” and “this is not God.” So, how do we reconcile this theological proposition of God being “present in all places at all times” with the clear Creator / Creation distinction? How could anything not be divine if God is fully present throughout all creation? Or, perhaps the common perception of omnipresence is off base.

Our discussion will necessitate an examination of the Transcendence and Immanence attributes of God, a look at the Biblical data where language depicting proximity and presence of the divine is used, and a discussion of how the doctrine of omnipresence radically differs between the different persons of the so-called Trinity.

To save time, I will go ahead and share my hypothesis upfront and then examine each member of the Trinity in more depth in subsequent posts:

Current Hypothesis:

God the Father is, by his nature, transcendent and necessarily separate from the physical universe. It would be more accurate to say that the cosmos exists within God rather than to think of God the Father as being present within the cosmos. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). “… in him we live and move and exist.” (Acts 17:28a)

God the Son, especially post-Incarnation as Jesus Christ, has a physical body and, although he can go anywhere he wants, cannot be in more than one location at a time. “Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them.” (Matthew 24:25-16) Jesus has a physical form by choice (albeit now glorified) that precludes omnipresence. “… Christ Jesus, who although he existed in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (see: Philippians 2:5-6)

God the Spirit is who we would most consider to represent the classic depiction of omnipresence. The Holy Spirit can fill the entire universe and be everywhere at all times, although it does not necessarily follow that he IS everywhere at all times. Although the Spirit of Yahweh has operated throughout Biblical history, Jesus specifically mentions asking for the Father to send the Spirit. Elsewhere we read about the Spirit being poured out on all flesh at a future point in time. So spiritual-spatially, this Spirit did not seem to be everywhere at once at all times in the past. Today, Christians can experience the Holy Spirit simultaneously on opposite sides of the planet. A key is this: most descriptions of God being near or distant seem to speak to relational closeness and distance, rather than physical proximity. In the most well-known passage that is used as evidence of the doctrine of omnipresence, the psalmist poetically intones, Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will lay hold of me.” (Psalm 139:7-10, emphasis added)

To be continued…

H IS FOR HERESY?

Heresy

“It seems to be a general feature of the history of Christian thought that a period of genuine creativity is immediately followed by a petrification and scholasticism, as the insights of a pioneering thinker or group of thinkers are embodied in formulae or confessions…” (McGrath 1986, 151).

“A major principle of the Reformation was reformata et semper reformanda – reformed and always reforming. How is continuing reform of evangelical faith and life possible if being evangelical requires firm adherence to a humanly devised cognitive structure of doctrinal content?” (Olson 2002, 39).

I have a deep respect and admiration for theoretical physics. I find that field fascinating. To me, systematic theology and theoretical physics represent the highest intellectual achievements of mankind – the first in regards to Special Revelation and the second in regards to General Revelation.

Christian theologians could learn a lot from theoretical physicists.

In physics, my perception is that scientists stand on the shoulders of giants and collaborate over decades through rigorous, meticulous research. Hypotheses become theories and theories become laws. New discoveries upend or expand previous understanding of the cosmos. Concepts such as falsifiability, replicating experiments, and using theoretical models to make accurate predictions are of one fabric with the scientific method.

However, when it comes to theology, we tend to find lone theologians creating their own systematic theologies, or we find many others accepting the party line of a particular ancient creed or confession. Some act as if the last word on theology was decided in the 1500s by a handful of white, European males. Certainly subsequent centuries of archeology, manuscript evidence, and language studies can shed no additional light on our beliefs (sarcasm).

It is in this spirit that I embark on reading three different books that espouse what I would have in earlier years considered heretical and false outright, based on their differing views from what I was taught at home and in church. Each of these books has had an impact or received high praise, even from those who do not agree. I endeavor to challenge myself and be exposed to contrary ideas with an open mind and without fear.

The books are:

1. ‘Most Moved Mover’ by Clark Pinnock

This book advocates open theism, which is contrary to what I am discovering to be my Classical Arminian leanings. I was raised, without knowing it, with an Arminian perspective (although not Classical Arminian). However, recalling conversations with my father, who was also the pastor of my church, I see that he actually embraced some openness without explicitly identifying it that way.

2. ‘Kingdom Come’ by Sam Storms

This book advocates amillennialism, which is contrary to my Mid-Trib / Pre-Wrath eschatological leanings. I had accepted the doctrine of the Rapture as a given for many years until I started studying the Bible for myself and found no support for it. I currently do not believe in any kind of “rapture” nor the doctrine of imminency.

3. ‘The Fire That Consumes’ by Edward Fudge

This book advocates annihilationism, which is contrary to my traditional views on eternal suffering in the final judgment. Technically, the author labels his view as ‘conditionalist.’ My interest in this topic was piqued when I realized that the Bible describes the lake of fire as eternal, and that Satan and his angels will suffer for eternity there, and that the unregenerate will also go there… but it did not clearly state that the unregenerate will also suffer for eternity there! Hmmm…

semper reformanda!

CAN GOD DO ANYTHING?

Flexing Biceps

Is God all powerful? Does he have limitless capability to accomplish whatever he chooses? Is God omnipotent?

The short answer is yes.

Matthew 19:26 informs us that “with God all things are possible.” In Genesis 18:14, God rhetorically asks, “Is anything too difficult for Yahweh?” Likewise in Jeremiah 32:27 – “Behold, I am Yahweh, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for me?” Job was finally able to confess in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

But theologians are quick to point out some things that perhaps God cannot do:

  1. God cannot do what is intrinsically impossible / nonsensical / logically contradictory.

For example, God cannot make 2+2=5. Also, God cannot create a square circle or a four-pointed triangle. Such concepts simply have no reference in reality – they are nonsense. Saying that God cannot do those things in no way diminishes his greatness. Indeed, God graciously allowed us to have our (finite) capacity for perceiving and understanding things such as logic and mathematics in the first place.

What about the age-old ‘gotcha’ question, “Could God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?” Well, some theologians talk about God having certain limitations due to his very nature. For example, if God truly is an infinite being, the idea of anything exceeding him would be a logical impossibility. “Infinity plus one” is not greater than infinity. Thus, this question would fall into the same nonsense category as creating a four-pointed triangle.

  1. God cannot lie.

This is scriptural. Titus 1:2 references “… God, who cannot lie…” This is a fascinating truth and one that I will have to devote an entire post to in the future. Is it truly impossible for God to tell a lie, even if he wanted to? If that is the case, I am capable of doing something that God himself cannot! Is he incapable of lying or is it that, as the source of all truth, whatever he says or wills manifests itself as reality / truth? Or is it more a matter of incompatibility, that God has permanently willed not to lie and shall never reverse that ethical course?

In other words, it will take some further thought and digging for me to determine if this is a matter of innate ability, permissibility, or possible circumstance. At this point I do not know.

IN CONCLUSION

Similar to our post on omniscience, we can arrive at a statement that all Christians should be able to agree with in good conscience: “God is able to do anything that can possibly be done.” For all intents and purposes, God is truly infinite and unlimited in power. Anything that might fall outside of his ability, apart from lying, must be so detached from our experience of reality that it can never apply to us or effect us.

AWESOME GOD

According to the source of some knowledge, Wikipedia (and a NASA scientist), the total estimated mass-energy of the observable universe is 4×1069 Joules. Compare this to 9×103 Joules for the energy in a single AA alkaline battery or 2.1×1017 Joules for a 50-ton hydrogen bomb, the largest nuclear weapon ever tested.

Now I am clearly a soft-science guy. But if you understand math then you understand the magnitude of the energy in the universe. And God created that universe. Easily. Not only that, but he can suspend and resume all the known laws of the physical universe at will (Joshua 10:12-13).

We can only deduce that God himself contains exponentially, unimaginably more energy or potential energy than 4×1069 Joules, if he can make, unmake and otherwise bend all of creation to his will without breaking a metaphorical sweat. But most likely, the measure of God’s energy is qualitatively different and truly outside our mortal, human understanding of physics.

Either way, I am humbled. I am like a cheap, science fair potato-battery in comparison to his power!

DOES GOD KNOW EVERYTHING?

knowledge

In a previous post I concluded that God is necessarily an infinite being. The concept of a beginning point no more applies to God than it does to the mathematical concept of infinity. God’s eternal existence is the basic underlying truth of reality. In this post I will seek to answer the question of omniscience – does God have infinite knowledge?

Omniscience is not a biblical term, but it is certainly used regularly in the discipline of theology. The current Merriam-Webster definition of omniscient is:

  1. having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight
  2. possessed of universal or complete knowledge

Does scripture make any statements about the limits (or lack thereof) of God’s awareness, understanding, insight, or knowledge? In fact, it does.

“Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; his understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5).

Well, that seems to wrap it up pretty easily! We do not even have to mention the myriad verses that testify to God’s knowledge about the exact number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30), our inner thoughts and motives (Jeremiah 20:12), the exact length of our individual life spans (Psalm 139:16), or how the basic physical properties and forces of the universe operate (Job 38:4). We certainly confess that his thoughts are “higher” than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9) and we realize that his understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:28b).

Any Christian within the bounds of orthodoxy should be able to agree with this basic statement – “God knows everything that can be known.”

But here is where we move into controversial territory. Can the future actually be known? At least in regards to soteriology, it seems that a lot of arguments and mysteries boil down to this subject of foreknowledge. What exactly does God know about the future and how does he know it?

There are five main perspectives within Christianity that I will very briefly list:

  1. Process Theology – God’s knowledge is evolving along with the rest of reality.
  1. Openness – It is impossible to know the future decisions of free creatures, and therefore even God cannot know.
  1. Actual Foreknowledge – God can actually observe the future somehow.
  1. Molinism – God innately knew all possible versions of reality involving the decisions of free creatures and chose to create one of those versions (a hybrid of actual foreknowledge and determinism).
  1. Determinism – God controls every detail of what happens in the future.

Which of those five perspectives do I find most convincing at this point in my theological quest? God knows the answer to that question, but you will have to wait until my post on foreknowledge!

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

IS GOD INFINITE?

infinityI understand that this may be perceived as arrogant, but I have almost perfect ‘belief’. Perhaps it is a “gift of faith” (1 Corinthians 12) – God has allowed me from a young age to accept many claims about him as true without any creeping shadow of doubt. There have been only five minutes of my life in which I experienced doubt regarding the overall Christian proposition of reality. I do not profess perfect faithfulness, or understanding, or knowledge, but as far as the believing aspect of faith, I recognize a God-given strength.

I am defining faith here in the sense of the classical Christian Theological Virtue, described by Thomas Aquinas –“faith is the habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent.”

Even before I experienced personal spiritual rebirth, I had no problem intellectually assenting to many biblical propositions – the Earth was created in six days, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, etc. My shortcoming lies more in the Theological Virtue of hope, I do not always live as if what I assent to will come to pass (in my own life); in other words, I am still working on trusting – “I know God can provide anything to anyone, but will God REALLY provide for ME?”

There was only one claim about God that I had significant trouble grasping, even after becoming a Christian. It was not that I did not believe it, but rather I had trouble comprehending it- that God has always existed. Contemplating a self-aware being that was not created or begun but has always existed, forever, would send me into deep existential crisis. How could something never have had a beginning? What would such a being think of itself? Wouldn’t God find it odd that he had always existed and always been conscious of that existence… stretching backwards into eternity? I could not wrap my mind around it. I found it haunting.

This crisis was solved for me in the ‘infinite regress’ argument of Aquinas. His basic cosmological proof states that, in our experience, “everything we know is caused by something else. There cannot, however, be an infinite regress of causes, for if that were the case, the whole series of causes would never have begun. There must, therefore, be some uncaused cause (unmoved mover) or necessary being” (Erickson 1998, 130).

The simple solution to an infinite regress is an infinite being. It is, in fact, the only logical explanation. The idea of an uncaused cause is not the impossible thing, but rather the idea of no uncaused cause!

Upon reflection, I have never had a problem grappling with the mathematical concept of infinity. I can easily conceptualize it in the abstract. Even as a young child one instinctively understands it:

“My G.I. Joe’s power shield is 100 times stronger than yours!”

“Oh yeah? Well mine is a MILLION times stronger!”

“Oh yeah? Mine is stronger times INFINITY!”

Argument over.

I realize that there have been a number of counter-arguments put forward in response to the cosmological proof, but it satisfactorily works for me. God is a necessarily infinite being, and like the abstract mathematical concept of infinity, he does not have a beginning or end as an irreducible part of his essence. Infinity minus one is still infinity. Infinity minus a million is still infinity.

In our next posts, we will more specifically examine certain claims about the infinite nature of God:

1. Omniscience – Does God have infinite knowledge?

2. Omnipotence – Does God have infinite power?

3. Omnipresence – Is God everywhere (spatially infinite)?

4. Omnichronological – How does the infinite God experience time?

HOW MANY GODS ARE THERE?

clouds
How many gods are there anyway? God himself gives us the answer to that question:

“Thus says Yahweh, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, Yahweh of hosts: ‘I am the first and the last, and there is no God besides me. Who is like me? Let him proclaim and declare it; yes, let him recount it to me in order, from the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place. Do not tremble and do not be afraid; have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me, or is there any other Rock? I know of none.” (Isaiah 44:6-8)

We can also see the Shema, famously expressing the heart of Judaism:

“Hear, O Israel!Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The New Testament agrees:

“You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” (James 2:19)

Christianity, along with the other two Abrahamic religions, affirms a unique transcendent monotheism.

In his book ‘The Bible Among the Myths,’ Oswalt (2009) observed that the “single most obvious difference between the thought of the Old Testament and that of Israel’s neighbors is monotheism. The Old Testament vehemently and continuously insists that Yahweh is one and that no other being is in the same category with him. But sometimes today it is said that since Israel still believes in a divine being, there is not really that much difference from the surrounding cultures. But this will not do. How many monotheistic religions are there in the world today? There are only three: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where do these three get their monotheism? All from one source: the Old Testament.

This means that only once in the history of the world has a culture contrived to attain and maintain the idea of the absolute unity of deity. On every side of it peoples far more brilliant than Israel were maintaining with vehemence the multiplicity of deity. Israel alone insisted on the oneness of God, even in the end to the death if necessary.”

Oswalt has also observed that “in comparison to the other literatures of the ancient Near East, the Bible is characterized by a worldview that is sharply different from all the rest. I have called the Bible’s view transcendence and the other one continuity. In the first, the divine is other than the cosmos; in the second, the divine is inseparable from the cosmos. This difference is so significant that even today there are only three religions that believe in true transcendence: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and all of them have derived that conviction from one source only: the Bible.”

WHAT IS REVELATION?

jacobsladder

The word ‘revelation’ found in New Testament passages such as Luke 2:32, Romans 2:5, Galatians 1:12, Ephesians 3:3, and Revelation 1:1 (to cite a few examples) is the Greek word apokálypsis. You do not have to be a Greek scholar to recognize the English word ‘apocalypse.’ However, in English we have come to associate apocalypse with the cataclysmic end of the world. In reality, apocalypse means uncovering or unveiling.

Read Paul’s words in Galatians 1:11-12 with a simple translation change, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through an apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”

When theologians talk about revelation they are primarily concerned with the following question: how can we know anything about God at all? If God is transcendent, or infinite, or outside of the created cosmos, how can finite, mortal creatures approach him or discover something of his nature?

John the Apostle was fond of pointing out that “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18a; also 1 John 4:12a) and “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). So how can we discern a God that is “invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) to us? The answer is that God has to pull back the veil, let us peek behind the curtain, and reveal a part of himself.

Humanity cannot reach a knowledge of God completely on their own. But what about general revelation and the associated natural theology, in which individuals discern attributes of God from what has been created? We must admit that God has given human beings the ability to sense and perceive as well as minds capable of understanding and reaching conclusions. Therefore, even our most “independent” observations and conclusions are only possible because God first allowed their possibility by the decisions he made when designing and creating us.