Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sixty-Six Divine Descriptors

Theologeek that I am , I personally find poetry in the sesquipedalian technical terms of theology such as ‘soteriological’, ‘sublapsarian’, ‘perichoresis’, etc. I take particular pleasure in rolling summary divine ‘attributes’ off my tongue such as ‘omnipotence’, ‘omnipresence’, ‘omniscience’, ‘omnibenevolence’, and the like. And indeed it is their actual meaning that I most appreciate. Some find them cold and cerebral but I find them useful and helpful. I’ve even coined one of my own to sum up an oft neglected attribute of God: that God is ‘omnisophical’, all-wise.

My enjoyment of such terms notwithstanding, the Bible of course does not speak like this. True, it does at times ascribe to God that he is ‘Almighty’ or that he ‘knows all things’, but usually the above attributes are described by contemplative poetry (e.g. ‘where can I go in all the world and You won’t be there with me?’ = omnipresence) or in historical circumstances or prophetic utterances or ‘apocalyptic’ visions (e.g. angelic beings covered in eyes = omniscience). But I do believe all of the above attributes are described and affirmed in no uncertain terms throughout the Bible’s pages.

But another stimulating dimension to the way the Bible describes an infinite-personal God is that it does so by pictures and stories, particularly through literary genres and styles and forms and devices.

On a whim one day I listed the majority of the 66 books of the Bible with a summary statement based on a book’s form, style, prominent subject matter or theme and ascribed this to God’s character. Many are to be expected, but some I find fresh and surprising. Some of them are provocative and would require qualification and clarification. Anyone could easily make their own list that would bring out many different nuances than mine and yet would no doubt overlap a great deal in essence. I find it exhilarating and expanding and intriguing to think of God in this ‘biblical-canonical’ way. It shows both ‘the God of the Bible’ as well as the ‘Bible of God’ to be more wide, weird, warm and wonderful than we might usually conceive of.

I start with the New Testament, perhaps slightly more familiar in theme to us (though even here there are some intriguing bits), and then go on to the perhaps less familiar Old Testament. If you just say aloud the summaries one after the other it has a powerful effect I think.

Matthew (‘The Kingdom of God’)
Mark (‘The Secrecy of God’)
Luke (‘The Humanity of God’)
John (‘The Word of God’)
Acts (‘The Movement of God’)
Galatians (‘The Freedom of God’)
Philippians (‘The Joy of God’)
James & Jude (‘The Wisdom of God’)
1 Peter (‘The Fiery Ordeal of God’)
Hebrews (‘The Finality of God’)
Revelation (‘The Unveiling of God’)
Genesis (‘The Creativity of God’)
Exodus (‘The Presence of God’)
Leviticus (‘The Holiness of God’)
Numbers (‘The Journey of God’)
Deuteronomy (‘The Treaty of God’)
Joshua (‘The War of God’)
Judges (‘The Horror of God’)
Ruth (‘The Redemption of God’)
Samuel (‘The Politics of God’)
Kings (‘The Tragedy of God’)
Chronicles (‘The Retelling of God’)
Ezra (‘The Repatriation of God’)
Nehemiah (‘The Rebuilding of God’)
Esther (‘The Comedy of God’)
Job (‘The Perplexity of God’)
Psalms (‘The Beauty of God’/‘The Consolation of God’)
Proverbs (‘The Pathway of God’)
Ecclesiastes (‘The Enigma of God’)
Song of Solomon (‘The Erotica of God’)
Isaiah (‘The Majesty of God’)
Jeremiah (‘The Anguish of God’)
Lamentations (‘The Grief of God’)
Ezekiel (‘The Strangeness of God’)
Daniel (‘The Sway of God’)
Hosea (‘The Ardour of God’)
Joel (‘The Day of God’)
Amos (‘The Justice of God’)
Jonah (‘The Inclusiveness of God’)
Habakkuk (‘The Unorthodoxy of God’)
Haggai (‘The House of God’)
Zechariah (‘The Pictures of God’)
Malachi (‘The Approach of God’)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On theistic history as 'over-determined'

In a stimulating discussion on historiography I heard a historian on the radio today describe a theistic view of history as ‘over-determined’. This is revealing. It shows what non-theists despise and fear in a Christian view of things. I can somewhat sympathise with the historian if he merely misunderstands that the theistic position is that all is ‘written’ in a deterministic sense that makes a mockery of our human story, as if we’re not doing anything truly significant in the unfolding of history but rather that all is a Divine Puppet Show. But I do think that’s a misunderstanding – even on the strongest Christian view of God’s sovereignty he is still good and holy and just and loving in his ‘rule’ or ‘authorship’ of history and his demands on us and overtures toward us as creatures made in his image clearly show he expects significance from us, personal and communal choices of far-reaching import, not that we’re mere links in a cosmic chain of cause and effect or that our apparent agency is just that, an appearance and not a reality.

However, I don’t think the revulsion of the non-theist is as unmixed as that – a mere misunderstanding. As a Christian I think this epithet of ‘over-determined’ also reveals our inherent fallen instinct to hate and oppose God for limiting our freedom, for putting a boundary on our significance and placing it squarely under his own divine glory. Again, I think this ‘bounded significance’ is misunderstood as an evil, for on the contrary I would argue that it is in fact our greatest good and unleashes human potential under God as no rebellion against our Maker’s rights over us can ever do. If anyone wants to ask just how it so unleashes us, I will attempt another article to explain something of what I mean.

I can see too how this misunderstanding would lead someone with professional interest in the matter to fear that a theistic historian looks only (or mainly) for divine and not human causes in the past. But of course this does not follow from a true understanding of theism. Whilst the theistic historian assumes a divine Hand or Plan overall and behind all, and will indeed be open to seeing evidence of this, even apart from ‘special revelation’ that makes such divine activity explicit (e.g. Holy Scripture), he or she will still be on the same hunt for what every historian of whatever ideological stripe is after: fairly interpreted facts from which to speculate about causes and explanations of past occurrences. It is a matter of both/and, not either/or. It is the same in all other disciplines and arts. Theism enriches and enlarges rather than diminishing or reducing. It should be well known that the reductionism is all the other way. It is those whose philosophy dictates before research ever gets started ‘thus far and no farther’ that are in danger of excluding facts and causes.

Interestingly, I think it is this same misunderstanding of a biblical philosophy of history that fuels present trends in the more ‘liberal’ and ‘emergent’ theologies that seek to limit God’s rule so that our lives don’t feel ‘over-determined’. (I’m referring to an in-house debate amongst my ‘co-religionists’ as to the nature of God: some argue experimentally that God is ‘open’ or ‘in process’ while others argue that such a being would not actually be God at all but some sort of Super-Creature in some kind of symbiosis with the universe and that the atheists would be right after all—that all is imminent with no transcendence, that all is ontologically dependent with Nothing to depend on.) Indeed, I strongly suspect it is the pressure from socio-cultural influences such as I heard on popular radio that are the original inspiration for many of the ‘experimental’ theological moves being made, rather than first and foremost a fresh reading of the Scriptures that has required reformation of the church’s long held views. A different way of reacting to such challenges from culture is of course to explain and defend and show the beauty and goodness of the very doctrine under attack, rather than altering it to fit the sensibilities of those in opposition to a scriptural worldview. It is not theological progress to go down a dead end alleyway.