Session One: God
All disciplines have certain “assumptions”, foundational beliefs that are just assumed to be true. Nailing down exactly what these are in Christianity isn’t easy…. And often different things are stressed. But today we’ll look at some common points.
All religions assume that there is a SUPER-natural, something outside and beyond the natural or physical realm. We of course can’t prove this via physics and science because it doesn’t belong to nature, it’s outside that. We argue that this is reasonable and credible; and Scripture seems to argue it’s manifest even in nature (Romans 1:19-21, Psalm 19:1-3). For Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) supreme in this is the Divine, God.
“In the beginning, God….” (Genesis 1:1). Christianity begins with the affirmation that God exists. Like the Bible itself, we don’t attempt to “prove” this in any absolute or mathematical sense, we rather affirm that it is a great reality… THE great reality! Perhaps the most important reality of all! Christianity is “monotheistic” affirming that there is one and only one God.
We affirm that God is the Creator (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 11:3), He is eternal (Psalm 90:2), He is not evolving (Malachi 3:6), He is all-powerful (Genesis 17:1), all – knowing (Psalm 139:1-4), all – present (Jeremiah 23:24), morally perfect (Leviticus 19:2), just (Deuteronomy 32:4) faithful/dependable (2 Timothy 2:13), compassionate (Psalm 145:9-10) and filled with unconditional love (1 John 4:8). And that’s a mouth full!
While most people believe in some supernatural reality, Christianity affirms that God is much more than a “first cause” (deism) or “life force” (pantheism) or some “unknowable it” (monism). We affirm that God is PERSONAL – with attributes very much like a person. “God is love!” (1 John 1:8), “God was sorry” (Genesis 6:6), “God hears us” (1 John 5:14), “God hates such things” (Proverbs 6:16), “God cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7) and so on – personal characteristics! These are more than pious anthropomorphisms; they affirm that our God relates to us, in personal, intimate ways!
Our conviction that God loves and saves and forgives and answers prayer and so much more all flow from this conviction that God really is and He really cares and is really involved in our world and lives. He is not some abstract Reality or philosophical concept or cosmic Force that may be used or manipulated or evaded or simply must be accepted; He is not “out there” somewhere – aloof and unaware. No! He is the “Immanuel” – the God WITH us and FOR us!
In Christianity, everything is from the perspective of this God. Christianity is a very God-centered religion! Eastern and native religions are man-centered, all about man and man’s quest to find God or appease God or become God or manipulate God. Christianity reverses that; Christianity is about God becoming man in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
God is Holy!
In some “native” religions, the Divine is very much as we are – sinful, made in our image. The gods can act horribly and sinfully. And this makes them terrifying. Indeed, a “god” who is above us and strongly impacting us who is sinful, well, that’s a terrible thing!
Christianity affirms that God is morally perfect (Leviticus 1:2, Isaiah 6:3, 1 Peter 1:15-16, Revelation 15:4). God simply cannot sin… it,s simply entirely outside of His nature and being. A toaster cannot fly simply because it’s not its nature, it’s not what it does.
This attribute is one He holds as of great importance… and one that is to characterize His children. We were created in this… and we are to called to this holiness, reflecting this divine quality (Matthew 5:48… more on this in a future session).
Like monotheism, this quality of God seems first to have been affirmed by Judaism (there’s no evidence of anyone affirming the Divine as holy before Moses); This seems more stressed in the Old Testament, but it’s foundational also in the New because our failure to be holy is the basis of our need for salvation and the Savior. And of course, Christians are to be marked by their morality (and the next point).
”God is love!” (1 John 4:8). Indeed a “god” who is very real and very powerful – but nnot moral and loving – is a “god” to FEAR! But Christians affirm that God is, above all, both morally good and loving!
“God loves” is the concept for which Christianity is best known. For Muslims, the central ‘hub’ is “God is one.” For Judaism, it’s “God is holy.” While we agree with both of those things, our “hub” is that God is LOVE – everything flows from that affirmation and conviction! God LOVES! Me! It’s the root, the foundation, the starting-point, the key point of Christianity.
The entire New Testament is supersaturated with this concept! The word “love” appears 51 times in just the single book of First John – which is only 5 chapters long! John 3:16 is probably the most quoted verse by Christians – and for good reasons!
“Agape” is the Greek word for it. The word means unconditional love, love that is poured out irrespective of merit or the worthiness of the recipient. Not unlike how parents are passionately in love with their yet unborn child – who has not yet done ANYTHING to deserve all the love and sacrifice Mom and Dad are lavishing on him/her. Agape is unconditional, unmerited. It flows from the lover (God) to the object of that love (us) irrespective of what we deserve.
The two great Christian festivals both stress this unmerited, unconditional LOVE of God. At Christmas, people ignored Christ, the innkeeper relegated Him to a barn, King Herald even tried to kill Him! AND YET – God’s LOVE prevailed. On that cold, silent night, in that barn, amid the straw and animals, the Savior was born for you and me. At Easter, the people rejected Him, deserted Him and betrayed Him. The religious leaders (who clearly knew better) subjected him to a mock trial so absurd even they must have been embarrassed, they twisted the arm of the Roman governor who clearly wanted nothing to do with this, they tortured Him and horribly crucified Him. AND YET – God’s LOVE prevailed! Jesus died for you and me. The Bible puts it this way, “Not because we love Him but because He loves us.” (1 John 4:10).
This fundamental embrace of God’s unconditional love is at the very root of Christianity.
God doesn’t just sit up there, somewhere, passive and aloof. No! Ours is a God of ACTION. Christianity tells the story of what GOD has done, which perhaps is why most of the Bible is history – HIS story. Christian teachings are about what GOD has done and what GOD does; the arrow is from God to us! The emphasis is NOT on what we do for God but on what God does for us.
Think of all the Christian holidays, every one is about what God has done for us! Christmas, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – every single one of them is about God loving us, God seeking us, God doing for us, God giving to us, God blessing us, God saving us. God acts! For us! He is the active giver, we are the passive receivers.
The universal symbol of the Christian religion is not a heart but the Cross, because Christianity is not about emotion but action. God’s love was not just a warm, fuzzy feeling in God’s heart like the “gods” of other religions that smile down upon us but don’t do a thing for us. No, God’s love is an active, doing, giving, blessing reality because if love doesn’t have a “so that” when so what?
Christians tend to define God with VERBS (loves, cares, forgives….) rather than with nouns; we are much more focused on what God does than on metaphysical discussions of what He is.
Appreciating the significance of this is critical to understanding historic, orthodox Christian theology. If we forget this and lump Christianity together with all the false religions, if we assume that it’s what we do for God, how we please and bless Him, then much of Christianity will make no sense.
Christianity is about the loving, living, trusting, personal RELATIONSHIP that exists between God and us. The very word “Christian” means “to be in Christ.”
So much of the Bible stresses this very point. “You shall be my people and I shall be your God” (Leviticus 26:12), “We are the children of God” (1 John 3:1), “Because we are His children, God sent the spirit of His Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba, Father’ (“Abba” means Daddy).” (Galatians 4:5). “We abide in God and He in us” (1 John 4:13), “I am with you always!” (Matthew 28:20),
It is no coincidence that God uses the term “Father” to speak of Himself and uses the term “children” to refer to us – both strong RELATIONAL terms. It’s no coincidence that Jesus begins His model prayer with the words, “Our Father.” And it’s no surprise that when Christians speak of God, they almost always do so with relational terms and allusions. So does God!
This is the basis of Christian morality. “We love because God first loved us!” (1 John 4:9). “A new commandment I give to you, that you love as I first loved you.” (John 13:34) Note the order! We do not love so that God will love us, no! We love because God first loved us! As God’s love for us lead to action, so our love for Him and others leads to action. God first gives to us, then we share with those around us. OUR morality and love flow from GOD’S morality and love – out of the relationship we have with Him.
This is also the basis for Christian comfort. There’s the story of a hospital that was having problems in the nursery. The walls were painted plaster, the ceiling the same, and the floors hard tile. As a result, every noise in the nursery echoed and reverberated so that the crying of one baby would wake up all the others and soon there was a constant din of wailing! One nurse suggested that they play music to calm them, but this only added to the noise. Then another nurse had a radical idea. She taped the sound of her heart beating. That’s all, just the sound of her heart beating. It worked. Christians understand that! We are comforted as we hear the sound of God’s heart beating for us. We may not know the future, we may not escape the storm, but we are in His loving arms, close to His heart, and we can hear it beating – for us.
In addition to these affirmations, we also affirm that…
God is Triune!
One of the most ecumenical teachings of Christianity is the Trinity (it’s the only doctrine celebrated in the Church Year – on Trinity Sunday). But it wasn’t easy!
The Bible, from Genesis – Revelation, is a profoundly MONOTHEISTIC (“one God”) book, proclaiming this truth loudly over and over (1 Corinthians 8:4, Isaiah 44:6, Deuteronomy 6:4). BUT, also from Genesis through Revelation, there is also a certain multiple-ness about God. How do we embrace this – affirming both and denying neither?
Some verses seem to stress the “three ness” of God (1 Peter 1:3, 1 Corinthians 13:14, Matthew 3:16-17, Galatians 4:5, John 5:23, John 20:28, John 19:30, Philippians 2:10-11, Acts 5:3-4, Psalm 139:7-8), often showing the “persons” very independently. These – taken alone and out of context – could suggest that there are 3 “gods” yet Scripture says there is ONE God.
Just to make things even more difficult, Scripture says that all 3 “persons” are equal in existence – none before or after the other (all eternal – no beginning or end).. There is, however, a difference in authority, a certain “chain of command” within the Trinity.
This was one of the “issues” early Christians really struggled with, and the debate threatened to tear Christianity apart. Some stressed the “three-ness” saying there are 3 Gods but they are so united in love, will and purpose that we may speak of them as if one (one in purpose rather than essence). Others said that there is one God but He has 3 roles or jobs or functions (rather like masks – thus the Greek term “persona” – mask – from which we still have the term “person” when speaking of God) but it’s the same God behind each one. Ultimately, these “explanations” and extremes were rejected (heresies still heard!). God IS one but God IS Father/Son/Holy Spirit. We cannot stress one over the other but must keep them in balance. We should affirm what God says – and leave it there! God is a TRI-UNITY, 3 in unity; He is TRI-UNE, Three-yet-One or Three-in-One. The ‘physics’ of this is simply left entirely to mystery – but the result is that we affirm that God IS one but there is some very real “three-ness” about Him that is equally true. The Nicene Creed (ca. 325 AD) was written in part to affirm this Trinitarian understanding. All this is “spelled out” in its final form as part of the Athanasian Creed – one of the three ancient “Ecumenical Creeds” embraced by Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Protestant denominations.
In historic, traditional, orthodox Christianity, we speak much of MYSTERY. Scripture calls us to be “stewards of the MYSTERIES of God.” It means we won’t always be able (in fact, perhaps usually not be able) to “wrap” our puny brains around the things of God – nor do we need to. It’s okay to ask questions, seek understanding (and that’s helpful) but we need to be careful that we don’t say too much, that we don’t think too highly of ourselves and our brains, that we don’t reverse things because we are to believe God, God has no need to believe us. It’s okay (often wise) to be humble before God, to admit we don’t fully understand things. These are often LOFTY things! Sometimes we just need to stand in awe of our God…. And believe. Luther said, “Humility is the basis of all sound theology.”