Doctrine of God
I define theology as reflection on and self-awareness about our central values. How do we order our sense of what matters most? What is our hierarchy of values? And how do the way we live, the choices we make, the priorities we follow express our hierarchy of values? Our answers to these questions constitute our “theology.”
The word “theology” means, literally, the study of God (the Greek word for god is “theos”). Seeing our theology as constituted from our hierarchy of values, we could say that which stands at the top of our hierarchy of values, that which shapes how we actually live our lives, is our “god.”
As we reflect as Christians on what shapes our lives, traditional doctrines may help clarify our reflections. We then talk about the doctrine of Christ (“christology”), the doctrine of God (called “theology proper”), the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and so on. I believe the doctrine of Jesus Christ, christology, should be our “master doctrine.” As we confess Jesus as the definitive revelation of God, we are saying (or, we should be saying) that in Jesus’ life and teaching we see our normative model for ordering our values and convictions. Jesus’ faith, convictions, values, and way of living shape the values we want to be our core values.
Because Jesus provides our basic hierarchy of values with his life and teaching, we draw on the general shape of those values in reflecting on the rest of the central themes of Christian theology. Jesus’ message should determine how we think of God, the Holy Spirit, the church, and everything else.
Questions about God
So, let’s we turn to the doctrine of God. Our understanding of God will be very, very different if we look at God through Jesus-centered lenses rather than to start with some kind of definition of God that doesn’t pay much attention to Jesus.
Who is God? What does God do? When do we see God? Where is God present? Why care about God? How does God work? Seeking to answer these questions might help us get a sense of “news of God.” Are we looking for good news or bad news?
Many people want a God who is bad news. That is, most likely, they want a God who is bad news to their enemies. Generally, when we hear people arguing for the need to emphasize God’s harsh, wrathful side they are thinking that that harshness and wrath needs to be expressed toward someone else, someone they do not like.
Throughout history, God has often been associated with human vengeance and retribution. What kind of values, what priorities in life would lead people to construct a view of God that centered on bad news? Why would we need a God of wrath? Probably we could find countless possible answers to these questions. One thought that comes to mind links together feelings of fear and insecurity with a desire for a God who will punish those toward whom we feel fearful.
Remember, though, that we are attempting here to develop theological affirmations in light of Jesus. So we must ask, does Jesus’ portrayal of God (and his own embodiment of God’s will for human life in his own ministry) base itself on fearfulness and insecurity? Is the God of Jesus a God who would smite Jesus’ enemies? Hardly.
According to Jesus, we best imitate God when we love our enemies. God is gracious to those who don’t deserve it. Jesus tells a story where a father (likely symbolizing God) offers unconditional acceptance to the returning rebellious son with no recompense required (the parable of the “Prodigal Son,” Luke 15:11-32). He tells another story that follows a close linking of love of God and love of neighbor and makes clear that in Jesus’ view, the “neighbor” is embodied in the enemy (the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” Luke 10:25-37).
Hand in hand with a God of wrath, and just as problematic in relation to the message about God we get directly from Jesus, we also find in the Christian tradition a God who is distant and above the fray. This absolutely “sovereign” God of Christian theology is confessed to be without passions, unchangeable, incomprehensible, always the actor never a re-actor.
Such a notion of God runs into many difficulties. This kind of “sovereign” God all too often has been the God of powerful people who practice precisely the kinds of ethical behavior that Jesus saw as most problematic: excluding those considered to be unsuitable for the “pure” community of faith, focusing on legalistic minutia and neglecting the weightier matters of the law such as justice and compassion, lording it over people under their power, remaining aloof from the sufferings and struggles of vulnerable people. Why might so many Christians have felt the need this kind of separate-from-us God?
This is what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about God: God “is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own power (chapter II, article I).”
What kind of “news” would we most likely associate with such a God? It could well be news that is intimidating, fearful, and impersonal. Why would such news be attractive? It certainly would place less responsibility on human beings to challenge political and religious domination systems. It’s a kind of God who would reinforce patriarchal social relationships and diminish movements toward empowering marginalized and vulnerable people.
Again, this kind of God is not much like Jesus (or Jesus’ portrayal of God). Jesus’ God, the one he affectionately called “Abba,” does not seem to be distant and patriarchal nor to exercise a monopoly on power. Rather, Jesus’ “Abba” is notable for his approachability, his tender care for vulnerable people, and his message of empowerment. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
God in light of Jesus
So, in light of our commitment to share Jesus’ hierarchy of values, what kind of news of God should we be looking for? Where do we expect to hear about God—and what do we expect to hear when we hear about God?
The word for “news” in the Bible is “gospel.” The gospel is news—and a certain kind of news, good news, glad tidings. This idea of the news about God as gospel seems quite different than the bad news about God we have just noticed. Are there any limits to the “goodness” of the gospel of God? If we consider news of God in light of Jesus, we will see why the news is good news.
Who is God? God is Jesus’ Abba. When we hear Jesus say “father” we too easily misunderstand his point. His point is not that God is male. He’s not saying God is the great, all-powerful patriarch standing above everyone else. No. When Jesus calls God “Abba” he means to convey that God is like a loving parent. Jesus uses Abba as a term of endearment.
Think of it like this. You are a young child and you see your parent with a hand raised. Do you flinch, expecting a blow of discipline? Or do you reach out your hand to share in the embrace you know is coming? Two very different views of the parent. Two very different views of God. Jesus’ Abba is the one who reaches out to embrace.
The great story that shows this is Jesus’ parable, “The Prodigal Son.” Remember when the wayward son returns home, beaten down by his failures, hoping simply to be hired as a servant to his father. “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20).
Who is God? Jesus’ loving parent, whose holiness leads to healing mercy, not the punishment one would expect from a “Holy God.” Jesus (following Hosea—see Hosea 11) redefines holiness. God indeed is holy. However, this holiness does not destroy human beings who violate it—it enters their world and brings them healing and transformation.
The news of God concerning God’s basic disposition toward humanity may be summarized by the words Jesus quotes from Hosea: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 quoting Hosea 6:6). These words may be reframed as a description of God: “In my deeds, I express mercy not retribution.”
Where is God present?
Where is God present? We answer this question by looking at the story of Jesus. We assume that Jesus’ life makes clear where God is present in the world.
If Jesus shows us God, we see God present in the brokenness, in the pain and suffering, in the humiliation and shame of vulnerable humanity. God’s holiness leads God to bring healing to sinners, not condemnation. God does not push imperfect human beings away. Rather, God in Jesus does enter the fray, eating and drinking with sinners and lepers and others in need.
As much as any of the accounts of events in Jesus’ life, the story of his ointment by the woman “who was a sinner” illumines how he embodied God’s presence (Luke 7:36-50). We also affirm that God is present wherever new life enters the world—literally when babies are born, more figuratively when one’s cold heart is melted, when dead relationships are restored, when hope takes the place of discouragement, when faith is kindled in the ashes of despair. Where there is life there is hope; where there is life there is God.
We see such a restoration of life and hope in the story from Luke seven. We see renewed life in many other of the stories of Jesus, when he forgives the woman caught in adultery and shares the water of life with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he brings sight to the blind and freedom to the demon possessed. God as present in such healings continues.
The news of God basically reports on the enhancement of life, the fulfillment of God’s purposes in creation, the reconciling to God of all things (Colossians 1:20). The definitive news that helps us discern what news truly is God’s good news is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the story of Jesus life, teaching, death, and resurrection.
God’s characteristics (“attributes”) in light of Jesus
God is loving. God is Jesus’ “Abba” (“daddy”) who loves unconditionally, toward whom we may turn with genuine trust and find genuine security. God initiates healing action toward God’s enemies (see Romans 5), always desiring the best for all God’s creation.
God’s love does include holiness and justice. As a just God, God desires to heal that which is broken. God’s justice seeks wholeness in its response to injustice—healing the alienation, not simply punishing it. As a holy God, God desires to clean up that which is dirty. God’s holiness does not destroy that which is not holy, but seeks to transform it.
God does not heal or clean up as a means of making people loveable; God initiates the healing and cleaning up because God finds us loveable already (even while we are broken and dirty).
However, human beings experiencing brokenness who refuse to respond to love perceive the love as harsh. God’s love also includes “wrath.” “Wrath” may be understood as God allowing the consequences of refusal of love to be manifested. These consequences are not best understood so much in terms of punishment, but more as aspects of God’s work to bring long-term healing to creation. The Book of Revelation portrays this work as a process of creation being cleansed of the powers of evil.
God is personal. God has (or, we could say, is) personality. God is relational. God cares for specific people, not only people in general. God feels and expresses emotions (especially grief and joy). God is self-conscious and rational. However, God is not a “person” like we are. Because God is not a person, God cannot be reduced to a particular gender. God is both he and she, and God is neither he nor she.
Because God is not a person like we are, to speak of God “existing” is not a helpful practice. God does not exist as a person, with such “existence” carrying the implication that God could not also exist. In contrast, we are better of speaking more in terms of God simply being.
God is powerful, rather than “omnipotent” (all-powerful). God being powerful means that God is able to accomplish God’s purposes. God is not defeated by sin and evil. The power of God is the power of love, though, not the power of dominance and control.
God endures over all time and is always present (that is, there is no “sacred”/“secular” split). The best analogies for God’s power are persistence, persuasion, awareness, and consistency. God’s power is like the power of water gradually making a path for itself. This understanding of power contrasts with the notions of power as coercive, arbitrary, overwhelming, and like a bulldozer.
God is knowledgeable, rather than “omniscient” (all-knowing). God’s knowledge is personal. God knows me and you and all people, our relationships, needs, and sorrows. God’s knowledge is not so much knowledge of “facts” as of people. God is more like the wise, deeply loving matriarch in a close-knit community than like an infinite computer.
God hears all and remembers all more than foresees all. God’s knowledge does not have to do with God knowing about everything before it happens. It is not the knowledge of facts and figures. God is not the universe’s master computer. God’s is like the knowledge of lovers and friends, parents and children.
God knows that love wins out, but not precisely how. God does not override our freedom and responsibility. To speak of God having a “plan” for our lives is not so much that God has prepared a detailed blueprint for each of us. Rather, it is that God created life in such a way that faithfulness to God leads to happiness, contentment, and joy.
God is steadfast, rather than “impassible” (unchanging). God’s will is consistent, dependable, always seeking healing. This will of God of God is steadfast, never changing—it cannot change. God is responsive and changeable in “tactics” in relation to human beings because human consciousness of God does (must) change. Since God’s power is the power of love, it must be responsive to the actions and needs of those who are loved. God’s steady love, thus, is inherently dynamic and responsive and takes the shape of the new elements of the relationship God has with an ever-changing creation.
God’s “plan” has more to do with God’s will to love and heal than with God predetermining events and never wavering from this detailed “script.” Going back to the story of creation in Genesis and following the twisting path of the human quest for living in relationship with God, we see that God’s purposes with creation have to do with loving relationships. Since God’s creatures have their own integrity and will, God does not set out to manipulate them like chess pieces to carry out a pre-determined “game plan.” The entire dynamic of the human/divine relationship includes the openness to the future characteristic of love.
God is seen most definitively in Jesus. The central element of a Christian concept of God based on Jesus’ message is that God is most clearly revealed in Jesus. Jesus saw God as compassionate, empathetic, forgiving (see the Sermon on the Mount [“be merciful as God is merciful,” Matthew 5:48] and the parable of the Prodigal Son), caring, saving, and liberating.
God may be seen in Jesus’ way of life—peaceable, indiscriminately loving, subversive of human power structures, and steadfast in face of resistance.
We may also speak of creation itself reflecting consistency with God as revealed in Jesus. Jesus was with God in creation. As Colossians one tells us, “In [Jesus Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17; see also John 1:1-4 and Hebrews 1:2-3).
Theologically, we might infer from this affirmation of Jesus’ presence in creation itself that the way the world works reflects the same characteristics of God that Jesus’ life and teaching reflect. We will reflect more on this possibility in chapter five on creation below.
God is “Trinity.” Although the Trinity is not a direct element of Jesus’ own teaching about God, we should try to reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity in relation to Jesus’ good news.
Trinitarian doctrine needs to be understood as part of the Christian confession of God as one. This doctrine recognizes that the one God relates to the world in various ways. The “trinity” motif specifies that God specifically relates to the world in three distinct ways. (1) God relates to the world as its as creator and sustainer (God as “father”). (2) God relates to the world as incarnated in Jesus, who embodied God’s will for human life completely (God, the “son”). (3) God relates to the world as an immanent, all-pervasive presence (God, the “spirit”).
If we understand Jesus to be the basis for our hierarchy of values, we will understand the doctrine of the Trinity as another way of discussing why Jesus’ hierarchy of values should be seen as normative for Christians. If we understand Jesus is part of the Trinity, one of the three expressions of the one God, we will have a strong basis for recognizing Jesus’ way as God’s way. We will also have a strong basis for discerning the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit in the world and in our communities of faith. We will recognize the Spirit as confirming the message of Jesus throughout time and space.
Christian reflections on God as Trinity emphasize both God’s three manifestation and the reality that nonetheless we believe that God is one (“monotheism”). Each expression of God is all God. There is no differentiation in will or strategy or concern among the three members of the Trinity. God is always the God of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of Jesus.
1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, third edition (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 197.