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"In the beginning, God' (Genesis 1:1).
God comes first. Before anyone else is mentioned, He is there."— The Bible

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Who is God?

Philosophical theology is chiefly concerned with the abstract question of the existence of God. Berkouwer, however, insists that the question of God should be asked religiously: “‘Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity, and passing over transgression … ‘ (Micah 7:18)” (A Half Century of Theology, p. 77).
To ask the question of God religiously is to see this question as “the one theme that really lies at the bottom of everything else” (p. 76). It is to call in question the detached objectivity of philosophical theology. It is to open oneself to the “different atmosphere” of “Micah’s question”, the atmosphere of “a latent doxology, a ‘rapturous hymn’ (A. Weiser), that leaves all doubt behind as it revels in admiration of Israel’s God” (p. 77).
While Berkouwer is critical of philosophical theology, contending that “Many of the questions of our time arise not in doxology but in doubt” (A Half Century of Theology, p.77), he does not opt out of the apologetic task of presenting a reasonable faith to a sceptical and unbelieving world.
His main criticism appears to be directed against the kind of philosophical approach which seems to be preoccupied with the God of natural theology.
To discuss the traditional arguments for the existence of God is, for Berkouwer, a far cry from asking the question of the loving God (pp. 76-77).
The God of the old natural theology can be discussed abstractly while the living God can never be removed to such a comfortable distance.
The contrast between the living God and the God of the proofs is, to a certain extent, a matter of emphasis rather than an absolut contrast.
Handled sensitively within the context of the Anselmic dictum, “I believe that I may understand”, philosophical arguments can perform a positive function in Christian theology. Their function would not, then, be that of ‘proofs’. Rather, they might function as an aid to Christian theological reflection concerning the meaning of faith in God.
This positive function within Christian theology rests on the recognition that arguments for God’s existence are not viewed as incontrovertible proofs and that the God of Christian theology is the God of revelation whose nature may not be simply read off from such arguments.
Removed from this context of faith in the God of revelation, the God of the proofs remains a pale reflection of the God of the Christian faith. The God of the proofs remains at the periphery of human existence. When the god of the proofs is identified with the God of the Christian faith, agnostic and atheistic philosophers are provided with the ideal excuse for their scepticism and unbelief. Man can justly be indifferent to a ‘God’ who has been indifferent to him. Such a ‘God’ hardly merits man’s attention.
If philosophical theology is to be taken seriously by the God of the Christian faith, then it must take seriously the God of the Christian faith - the God who has taken mankind seriously.
Berkouwer insists that the question, “Does God exist?” implies the further question, “Who is God?” (A Half Century of Theology, p. 77).
This latter question is to be understood as “a most existential and relevant question … not a theoretical question about God’s existence as a ‘thing’” (p. 77).
The question of God is, then, a deep question which is raised by the question of meaning and purpose in man’s entire experience of life.
The thoroughly existential character of this question involves man in asking further questions about this God: “What do we mean by his presence in the world? Where does he reveal himself here and now?” (p. 77).
Thus, when the enquirer asks the question, “Does God exist?” in an attitude of openness, he soon finds himself faced with the question of revelation as a present phenomenon impinging on his life.
An openness to God and his revelation allows the possibility of asking the question of God doxologically.
* Doxology is the only appropriate alternative to doubt. Doxology does not depend on the foundation of a faith that is built on a natural theology. On the basis of God’s salvation (and not that of natural theology’s attempt to prove God’s existence), the believer is deeply moved to worship God (General Revelation, p. 134).
* Doxology does not assert itself, claiming blind faith (Holy Scripture, pp. 351-352) and blind obedience (A Half Century of Theology, pp. 157ff).
* Doxology offers humble and grateful obedience to the God whose revelation brings meaning and purpose to man’s life. Christian faith involves “acceptance … with joy and willingness” and an obedience to “Christ whereby he is never out of view” (Holy Scripture, p. 350).
* Doxology does not hanker after the perfect system (Faith and Justification, pp. 21-22).
* Doxology acknowledges that the revelation of God is richer than any man-made system of thought (Divine Election, pp. 276-277).
* Doxology does not involve a retreat into sheer mysticism with its scant attention to the words of Scripture (Holy Scripture, pp. 289-290).
Berkouwer’s approach to the question of God and his revelation accentuates several important points:
(a) The way of authoritarianism is excluded, because of the limitation of man’s knowledge, since God, in his revelation, remains hidden.
Berkouwer writes, “we must not speculate beyond the boundaries which God in His wisdom has set us” (Divine Election, p. 15). He emphasizes the faith - character of theological statements (pp. 25-26). When theological affirmation is understood as a confession of faith which is relative to divine revelation, it is preserved from the kind of authoritarian assertiveness which fails to recognize sufficiently the limitation of theological understanding.
In his discussion, “Election and the Hiddenness of God” (Divine Election, (Chapter Four, pp. 102-131), Berkouwer emphasizes that God’s hiddenness is not to be set over against his salvation. He rejects a concept of God’s hiddenness which “separates the God of revelation from our lives and mitigates the absoluite trustworthiness of that revelation” (p. 125).
Even in confessing God’s salvation, faith acknowledges that it does not know everything about God (pp. 120-121, especially the citation of Isaiah 45:15 - “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Saviour of Israel”).
Although our knowledge of God in Christ is confessed to be true and reliable (p. 124, especially the citation of John 14:9 - “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”) , we must not presume upon complete knowledge . The attempt to attain to complete knowledge is admonished for its spiritual pride when Christ speaks of these things which are hidden from “the wise and understanding” yet revealed “unto babes” (p. 123, citing Matthew 11:25).
It is with these words of Christ that Berkouwer ends his study of divine election (p. 330). He emphasizes that the knowledge of God is not to be sought apart from a simple faith which looks to Christ as Saviour.
(b) The way of rationalism is excluded because man’s thoughts cannot be compared with those of God, whose revelation remains the mystery of revelation.
A rationalism which purports to reduce the mystery of revelation to the level of human reason is quite illegitimate because faith recognizes that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (p. 81, citing Isaiah 55:9).
Even in the knowledge of God through his revelation, the believer acknowledges his inability to comprehend God fully.
An excellent discussion of the fundamental importance of “God’s Incomprehensibility” for theological reflection is found in H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), Chapter I, pp. 13-37.
(c) The way of mysticism is excluded because God’s revelation, though not comprehensive, is clear.
A mystical experience which cannot be communicated in words is far removed from the Christian experience of salvation for which the words of Scripture have a “decisive importance” (Holy Scripture, p. 289).The way indicated by Berkouwer is a way that combines positive commitment and openness. Both these characteristics of his thought are clearly observable in the ‘Foreword’ to A Half Century of Theology, pp. 7-9.
This way promises to be helpful in overcoming the problem of polarization. It does this by addressing
(a) the rationalistic impasse between “mindless fideism and faithless rationalism” (B. Demarest’s discussion of Berkouwer’s view of the relation between faith and reason, review of A Half Century of Theology in Themelios, Vol. 4, No. 1 (New Series), September 1978, p. 41);
(b) the authoritarian impasse between those who accept and those who reject;
(c) the scholastic impasse between those who subscribe to the system and those who do not;
(d) the mystical impasse between those who have the experience and those who do not (Berkouwer’s theology is experiential, but it is not experience - based in the sense that nothing can be said to those who have not had the experince except, “You’ll understand once you’ve had the experience).

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