Chapters 3 and 4 in Gerald Bray’s God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology are together shorter than chapter 2. So, I’ve combined highlights. From here on out, the students are reading about 2 chapters a week, so I’ll post my highlights on Fridays (since we cover one chapter Tuesday and the other Friday). Here’s what I took note of this week:
The Christian Worldview
At the heart of the Christian worldview is the belief that the universe is a coherent whole. Without that belief, modern science would be impossible. The greatest intellectual battles the early church had to fight focused on the doctrine of creation, which was contrary to the prevailing philosophies of the time but had to be asserted if the Christian revelation was to make any sense.
Today it is fashionable to point to the case of Galileo (1564–1642), who was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for his scientific beliefs. Few people pause to consider the fact that Galileo was condemned not because he opposed the teaching of the Bible but because he had revealed the inadequacy of the ancient Greek science which the church mistakenly regarded as equally infallible. The real lesson from that and other similar episodes is not that the Bible is wrong but that Christians must not commit themselves to any scientific theory as if it were absolute truth or build a theological system on what might one day turn out to be shifting sand.
We must also remember that only a tiny minority of highly educated people who have lived on earth for the past century or two have claimed to be able to explain the workings of the universe on a purely materialistic basis. What about everyone else? Should we entrust our fate to a handful of intellectuals who think they are more intelligent than the rest of the human race? Is no other kind of knowledge—artistic sensitivity, for example, or technical skill—of any significance or value? Do we really believe that Shakespeare or Rembrandt knew less about the human condition than Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins? These questions and many more like them spring to mind when we reflect on the audacity of the people who make such claims.
Strange as it may seem, the existence of evil teaches us that God’s love is something greater and more fundamental to his being than even his goodness is. Those who reject God because they think that the existence of evil is incompatible with his goodness have made the classic mistake of equating goodness with love, and assuming that the one must necessarily imply the other. Of course, we agree that God is both good and loving, and if everything else were as perfect as he is, there would be no distinction between them. Where the difference appears and the primacy of his love over his goodness is revealed, is when that goodness is rejected or denied. If God were good but not loving, he would condemn and destroy anything that turned away from his goodness. Conversely, if he were loving but not good, he could not turn against anyone who rejected his nonexistent goodness. Nor is there anything remarkable about a good God who loves creatures who are as good as he is; that is just what we would expect. But the Christian gospel says that, in his love, God has reached out to those who have rebelled against him and embraced evil. It is the wonder of God’s love that he can transcend his own goodness, reach out to those who have denied it, and reconcile them to himself.
The natural world is a complex system of interacting organisms that sustain each other in a balanced environment specially designed for each one of them. To study these organisms is to enter a world of microscopic perfection where everything is finely tuned to a degree that makes it inconceivable that it could all have happened by accident. Today there is a growing number of scientists and philosophers who recognize that this fine tuning is one of the most powerful arguments for the existence of God. Christians would go even further and claim that not only does this fine tuning support the fact that God is the Creator of all things, but it shows us that he is also a God of love. It is true that some animals survive by eating others, and many live on plants as well. Yet somehow each species manages to survive and prosper, with none being made extinct due to the greed of another. The sad exception to this rule is man—we are the ones who destroy our environment and upset the natural balance that it contains.
Speaking About God
We can know God’s love by experiencing it, but the depths of our experience can never be adequately defined in words. Something will always be left unarticulated, because there is a dimension to the love of God that cannot be captured in concepts available to our finite minds. To put it a different way, although we receive God’s love in its fullness, we can never know it fully because our finitude makes it impossible for us to plumb the depths of the divine being.
In making this claim, proponents of the way of negation are reminding us of an important truth: love cannot be reduced to a logical formula, or adequately analyzed by the mental constructs of our human brains. There is always something more to love than this, that cannot be neatly packaged by our minds and which, in some of its manifestations at least, may even appear to contradict our innate certainties.
Many people equate the way of negation with mysticism, but although the two are closely linked, they are not identical. The way of negation is a philosophical position, whereas mysticism is a spiritual experience, although both can be expressed in intellectual terms and each has given rise to a respectable body of theological literature. People who are inclined to derive their knowledge from books and to process what they learn along the lines laid down by rational thought need to be reminded that, important as those things are, they are not enough.
Some mystical traditions have claimed that a mystic does not need to participate in the worship of the church or receive the sacraments, because he has risen to a higher spiritual level and can dispense with such mundane things. There is no ground in Scripture for believing that, and anyone who treats mysticism as a way to escape from the fellowship of other Christians cannot be believed or followed.
Recognizing the value of the way of negation is important, but it is not the whole story. Our mystical union with God must be proclaimed to the world in language adequate to communicate it, because God’s love reaches out to people everywhere and invites them to come into that union. God did not make the world with the intention of hiding himself from it, but in order to express his glory in and through what he has made. Human beings are created in his image and likeness and have been given the capacity to relate to him. Because we have thoughts that we can express in words, it must be possible for us to talk about this, the most fundamental aspect of our being, and to do so in ways that can be communicated to other people.
As finite creatures we live within certain boundaries, but God is present there just as much as anywhere else, and it is there that we are called to testify about him. In order to help us do this properly, God has accommodated himself to our limitations and made our relationship with him possible. The way of negation must therefore be balanced by the way of affirmation, which is the positive proclamation of that love of God which comforts us in our finitude and spurs us on to seek the higher knowledge that only our ultimate transition to eternal life will provide.
Just as a human father procreates outside himself (unlike a human mother) so God has made us outside his own being. We have not emerged from some kind of divine womb, but have been created out of nothing, along with the rest of the world. Just as a human father has the responsibility to provide for his children, to discipline them, and to prepare them for adult life, so God provides for us, rebukes and chastens us when we go wrong, and shapes us so that one day we shall be able to take our place next to him in his heavenly kingdom.
What we call “theology” is an expression of this way of affirmation. Despite its limitations, it is a way that is coherent and devoid of internal contradiction, because it derives from the self-revelation of the one true God. For something to be free of contradiction does not mean that it is necessarily free of paradox, and it is important not to confuse these things.
Every human being is created in God’s image and likeness, and is therefore privileged to have a relationship with him, but the quality of that relationship varies enormously from one individual to another. For most people it is broken and dysfunctional, because we have rebelled against God and are no longer willing or able to enter into the kind of communion he intended us to have with him. But for some people, the brokenness of the past has been put right and fellowship with God has been restored. In the context of the human race as a whole, these people may be few in number, though they are an enormous company drawn from every nation, tribe, and language. They are bound together by nothing more than their shared experience of the love of God at work in their lives, but that love is everything to them—it is no less than a new birth, a new creation in which the old has been transformed and revitalized without being denied or discarded.
To the outsider, theology is puzzling or simply meaningless, so it cannot be regarded as a science in the same way that chemistry or biology are. But to the believer theology is both meaningful and perfectly rational, because it is an expression of our common experience of God. Moreover, theology is of vital importance to us, because it is the spur we need in order to deepen our relationship with him. In the end, it is the only form of knowledge that really matters, because it alone will remain in eternity, long after every other kind of science has passed away.