I decided to move these weekly posts to Saturday rather than Friday. This week, we’re back to two chapters in God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. These two, and the next two, are rather meaty, so I’ll have to be selective with the highlights I share. I’ll try to give a selective quote from each heading in these two chapters. That’ll keep it somewhat short, but these posts will still typically be the longest I share on a regular basis. Without further setup, here’s the quotes.
Divine Substance and Divine Nature
Faced with a world that demands an exclusively human Jesus, and which is always trying to interpret human feelings as the work of the Holy Spirit, it is the Father who reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways and that, compared with him, we are impotent and unable to create even the simplest natural phenomena.1 The Father is not the personification of the divine being, but the person of the Godhead who reminds us of what God really is and to whom the work of the Son and the Spirit in our lives is directed.
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the same being, but they are in control of it, not the other way around. The persons can and do communicate with us, and, by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts we are privileged to share in their divine being by being allowed to participate in some of its characteristics, or attributes.
For God to be angry is not out of character for him but an expression of his nature in relation to particular circumstances. The God who loves us as his creatures also hates us as sinners who have rebelled against him, because he cannot tolerate us in that condition. The paradox is that he hates us because he loves us; if he did not care one way or the other, he might easily be indifferent to us and either do nothing or (more probably) destroy us without giving the matter a second thought. It is God’s love that has led him to redeem us, but he has done so because that same love has led him to hate us as we are—in him, the two apparent opposites are reconciled into one. Those who find this difficult to understand need only reflect on the way that parents treat their children when the latter get into trouble or cause embarrassment. There are things that we may be prepared to tolerate in other people’s children, and even find amusing at times, things that bring out our anger when we see them in our own offspring. This is not a double standard but a reminder that, when we are dealing with those whom we love and have a special responsibility for, we are less tolerant than we might otherwise be. In the same way, God disciplines those whom he loves, however hard it may be to accept it at the time, and if we are the recipients of such discipline then we ought to be grateful and thank him for taking such good care of us.
God is All Powerful
It is undoubtedly hard to understand how an all-powerful and loving God can permit the continued existence of evil in the world, when presumably he could snuff it out whenever he wanted to, but although this difficulty has haunted Christian theologians from the beginning, it is easier to live with its problems than with those that would be created if his absolute sovereignty were to be denied. A world controlled by God is a world in which he can always act to save us, even if there are forces in it that are prepared to attack and enslave us. If he were not ultimately in control of those forces, we could have no assurance that he is able to help us and could easily find ourselves in the depths of despair. In the end, it is easier to live with the problem of why God allows evil to exist than it would be to live with the problem of why evil forces should be able to thwart his will.
Can God Change or Suffer?
Against this modern perception that God is capable of inner change there stands the ancient and all but universal tradition of theology which says that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” In other words, God is not merely invisible, but he has no internal variations and is not susceptible to any outside influences either. Whatever his nature is, it is above and beyond anything that can engage directly with the created order.
What God is Not
The incomprehensibility of God is an idea that causes difficulties today because the meaning of the word is narrower than it was in ancient times, when “comprehend” had both a physical and an intellectual meaning. That is still true of a word like “grasp,” which we can do with our minds as well as with our hands, and so it would perhaps be better to speak about God’s “ungraspability,” even if there is no such word in the dictionary. God’s incomprehensibility means that he cannot be measured or contained either physically or mentally. Whatever impression we have of him can only be partial, and even if it is accurate as far as it goes, it can never be definitive.
The Goodness of God
An important subcategory of divine attributes is the one we generally classify as God’s moral qualities. Here it is his essential goodness that springs to mind as the most basic concept, and everything associated with that—his truthfulness, faithfulness, and purity—depends ultimately on that goodness. It is because God is good that he is truthful, because he is good that he is reliable, and because he is good that he is consistent.
What God Lets Us Share With Him
The word “holy” basically means “separate,” but God can be separate only if there is something for him to be separate from! It therefore makes no sense as far as his own being is concerned, but it does become meaningful when we talk about his relationship with his creation, which by definition is totally different from him and therefore completely “separate” (i.e., “distinct”) from his being. God’s holiness includes everything about him that sets him apart from the world, but over the years it has come to be understood primarily in relation to his moral and spiritual character.
Unfortunately, the fact that most modern Christians no longer interpret the concept of holiness as a series of taboos has often led, not to a deeper walk with God but to a different problem which is just as bad if not worse. Instead of recovering a biblical sense of holiness, the modern church is in danger of losing any clear idea of what holiness means or why it matters. The sad fact is that nowadays hardly anyone asks what they have to do in order to be holy, because they do not really want to be. There are people today whose parents would not have shopped on a Sunday because of the fourth commandment who now divorce and remarry almost as a matter of course, completely forgetting Jesus’ teaching that those who do such things are committing adultery. Worse still, ministers of the church are often just as bad as anyone else, and so are hardly in a position to exhort their flocks to more godly behavior! As a concept, holiness has virtually disappeared from the Christian vocabulary, and we have to admit that the main reason for this is that it has also disappeared from the experience of many Christians.
The God of The Old Testament
The teaching of Jesus was primarily concerned with the fulfillment of God’s promises that he would redeem Israel from its sins, rescue it from its enemies, and establish it forever as a righteous nation reflecting his eternal glory. Most Jews who thought about how this would be accomplished had come to believe that, at the end of time, God would send the Messiah, or “anointed one,” who would rally the people to his standard, expel the foreign invaders who had subdued them, and set up an empire in Jerusalem that would dominate the world. Messianic figures were not unknown in Jesus’ day, though they were invariably discredited by their failure to do any of the things expected of them. Undoubtedly there were some who thought of Jesus in the same way, and had he openly proclaimed himself as Messiah, they would have assumed that he had come to fulfill their Messianic expectations and would then have been devastated by his failure to do so.
The Old Testament gives us no clear example of a prayer addressed to God as Father. The closest it comes to this is when Isaiah says, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”16 Isaiah is acknowledging God as Creator, and using the term “Father” to express that, but although he goes on to plead for mercy to be shown to Israel because they are his people, he does not mention the concept of spiritual sonship. That concept does occur in the Pentateuch, both in Moses’ challenge to Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go and later on when they were in the desert.
We can therefore understand why it was that, when Jesus spoke of his Father, the Jewish leaders were scandalized that he would dare to refer to God with such familiarity. In their understanding, to call God “Father” was to claim to be divine, since a child has the same nature as its parent. Even Jesus’ own disciples did not understand what he was talking about and wanted him to show them the Father, somewhat to his exasperation! We may therefore conclude that, however legitimate it might have been for an ancient Israelite to call God his Father, such language was not used in ancient Israel and would have provoked a negative reaction from anyone who introduced it. If some modern Jews are prepared to speak in this way, it is almost certainly because they have been influenced by Christians and have expanded their traditional language to accommodate an ingredient of the Old Testament revelation that was not appreciated by their ancestors.
The Father of Jesus Christ
In other words, the Creator is God the Holy Trinity working together and not just one of the divine persons acting on his own. The history of the early church reminds us that identifying the Father alone as the Creator is risky because it opens the door to saying that the Son and the Holy Spirit must be creatures, and if they are creatures they cannot be God. There is no neutral ground here—the divide between the Creator and his creation is absolute, and one must be on one side or the other. If the Son and the Holy Spirit are truly God, as the New Testament tells us they are, then they must be co-Creators with the Father, who therefore does not (and cannot) stand in a creator-creature relationship to them.
What God said to the ancient Jews remains fully authoritative as his eternal Word, which is not canceled out or overturned by the coming of Jesus, but at the same time, the revelation of Jesus takes us to another level of perception. The first thing it does is enable us to recognize both the Son as God and God as his Father. Second, it restates the standard New Testament view that the Son is the Creator of the world, alongside the Father, and therefore is not a creature. Finally, it defines sonship in legal terms—the Son is the heir of all things, a position to which he is entitled precisely because he is himself God. Taken together, these three elements constitute the key ingredients of our belief that the God of the Old Testament is now revealed to us not as the Father alone but as the Father in fellowship with the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Person and Work of The Father
Divine love is not something added to the persons of the Godhead as if it were an external, controlling force. On the contrary, it springs from the inner desire of each of the persons of the Godhead to know the others in this way, and to relate to them in the manner appropriate to their identity and function. Because the second and third persons of the Trinity love the first and have given him the honor of precedence within their relationship, and because he has responded to their love by taking on himself the task of representing the divine being in its eternal transcendence and unity, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are in every respect the Father’s equals, defer to him in the way they do. That deference is not a sign of subjection but a recognition that what the Father represents is what they really are, and that to deny him would be to deny themselves and render meaningless everything that they are and do.
To sum up, it is the Father’s special role to be the anchor person in the Trinity. He is the one who rewards the obedient, to whom we must give thanks, and to whom all glory and worship must be given. It is with that aim in view that the Son came into the world to reveal the Father, and that is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes by his indwelling presence in the hearts of believers. In assuming these responsibilities, the Father is not superior to the other persons of the Trinity nor does he dominate them. On the contrary, he has given them all that he has in himself and works together with them in everything that he does. The authority he possesses is an authority given to him by the other persons of the Godhead, and he exercises that authority in collegiality with them. This is the context in which we come to understand the person and work of the Father, and to honor him as he is revealed to us in and through his Son and his Holy Spirit.
The power of the Father was never more visible than on that first Easter morning when the Son returned from the dead, and yet he remained as invisible as ever, working in the hearts and minds of the disciples of Jesus and bringing them to faith without ever stepping down from the throne of his sovereignty over all creation. Even at that point, the Father’s ultimate plan and purpose remained a mystery, which it was not given to the Son to reveal. When Jesus was asked by his followers after his resurrection when the kingdom of God would be ushered in, he replied that he could not tell them the answer, because the time was known only to the Father, whose plan would not be revealed until the final consummation of all things.