Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Introduction to the doctrine of God

Here is part 1 of my lecture on the doctrine of God for the North West Partnership training course:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness...To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One...Have you not known? Have you not heard?The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:12-17, 25, 28)

Over the course of our four sessions on the doctrine of God we are going to cultivate a deep appreciation for paracetamol and ibuprofen. We are going to feel incredibly small and ignorant, shallow and sinful. At the same time that we are shrinking in our own eyes we are going to have a growing understanding and awareness of the sheer greatness of God. We are going to think great thoughts about God, humbling thoughts. Those thoughts will lead us to reverent praise as we magnify Father, Son and Spirit.

Where should we begin in our thinking about God?

We could start with God as he is in himself, with God as he exists in his independence from creation, in his self-sufficiency, in his inner eternal Trinitarian life. From this starting point we could consider his being, nature, and attributes (again thinking of God in himself). From here we could go on to think about God as our Creator and of his wise and holy providence. Once we have grasped something of these matters we could then logically turn to the knowledge of God as our Redeemer in Christ. That would be a logical and helpful method to follow. There is however an important caveat to be added before we set off. Even if we started out in our thinking with God's eternal existence “in himself” we have to remember that even our knowledge of God in himself is our knowledge of God as creatures. It is a knowledge that is dependent on God's disclosure to us of that inner eternal Trinitarian life that he has as God.

Even when we consider God as he exists in himself we do so as recipients of revelation suited to our capacities as finite creatures made in God's image and as beneficiaries of God's goodness in so revealing himself. This truth can be stated as follows:

We can never know God as God knows himself. We will always know God in a way suited to and limited by our creature-hood.

Recognizing this at the outset of our thinking about God, and as we consider what knowledge of him we do possess, and are able to possess, is of critical importance. Much theological mischief is done when we fail to understand the difference between ourselves as creatures and God as Creator in the realm of knowledge. Turretin stated the Creator-creature distinction as follows:

Thus although theology treats of the same things as metaphysics, physics and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation...For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:17

Secondly, we must take into account that we begin in our thinking about God not as those with the “primal and simple knowledge of God to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright,” (as Calvin puts it in Institutes 1:2:1), but as those ruined by the fall, who did not see fit to acknowledge God (Rom. 1:28). An illustration may help here. There is some graffiti scrawled on a wall in mid-Wales that says “Cofiwch Dryweryn” (Remember Tryweryn, pron. tre-ware-in...and don't forget to roll those "r"s). Tryweryn is a village in North Wales. You can find it on a map, there are houses there and a church. But you won't be able to drive though the village, talk to the residents, or attend a Sunday service. No one lives there anymore. In the 1960s Tryweryn was flooded to create a reservoir was to supply water for homes in Liverpool. In our thinking about God we must take into account where we stand in redemptive history. No one lives in the Garden anymore. We no longer know God as Adam and Eve did. If we fail to account for this ethical change in our knowledge of God, in addition to remembering our finitude and creature-hood before God's majesty, we will go badly astray in our evangelism and apologetics.

Whilst we can think logically of the knowledge of God in himself (his inner eternal Trinitarian life), and of God as Creator, we do not know him truly until we are acquainted with the gospel. It is through the gospel that we attain to the knowledge of God in a profitable way. Turretin expresses this with admirable clarity:

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself...but as revealed...Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity...for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word).

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:16