Friday, May 31, 2019

Thinking about God through the books of the Bible

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Jeremiah 9:23-24  "Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord."

Introduction: Why it is so important to think about God

The great 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon comments in a sermon about the benefits of thinking about God. J.I. Packer begins his classic book, "Knowing God" (readers can click on the Amazon link to see more information about this amazing book here: ), by quoting Spurgeon:

"The proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father."

"There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity."

As Packer begins to develop why he is writing his book "knowing God", he lays out in his second chapter how pursuit of God through studying His being and perfections can benefit us:

1. Those who know God have great energy for God. 

2. Those who know God have great thoughts of God.

3. Those who know God show great boldness for God. 

4. Those who know God have great contentment in God. 

Review of the last post that began thinking about God from general revelation and focusing upon thinking about God through the special revelation of the Bible

In our last post we considered thinking about God by way of general revelation, religious experience and natural theology. (curious readers can review the last post by clicking on the link here: ).

In this post I want us to consider how we can think about God through His special revelation in the Bible and by the Person of Jesus Christ. The way we will pursue such thoughts is by considering key passages, themes or summaries of each book of the Bible that will draw for us a Biblical portrait of God with regard to His being, attributes, names and identity.

In Genesis, God is the Providential Creator. 

He is the Creator of all space, time, matter, life and humanity (Genesis 1:1, 2-25, 26-27). As the eternal Sovereign exercising authority as King over what He decreed, God reigns with no rivals, declaring all He has made "good" (Genesis 2:1-4). God made man as a covenantal being, meaning that God pledged Himself to man and desired man to pledge himself to God through obedience. Man broke this original "covenant of works" (Genesis 2:16-17). God knew man would fall and already intended to offer man, through His covenant with Adam's wife, a covenant of grace (Genesis 3:15). Both Adam and his wife respond by faith, as indicated by Adam's naming of her as "Eve" or "mother of all who live" and God's clothing of them in the skins of animals sacrificed on their behalf. God's covenant of grace is expressed repeatedly, most notably in His dealings with Abraham (Genesis 12, 17, 22), Isaac (Genesis 26) and Jacob (Genesis 28,32,35) and the various covenants He would make with Israel (see Romans 9:1-5). 

In Exodus, God is the Redeemer.
In Exodus 3 we find God calling Moses to go to Pharaoh and exclaim: "let my people go". When Moses inquires as to the identity of the One commissioning him, God replies in Exodus 3:14 "God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

In Leviticus, God is Holy
In Leviticus 11:44 we see God issue the command: "be holy, for I am holy." God "holiness" is His "otherness". The holiness of God speaks of the concentration of all of God's moral perfections, such as mercy, goodness, love, justice, forbearance." 

In Numbers, God leads His people.
For 40 years Israel wondered in the wilderness as the result of their unbelief. God led them by His self-revelation of theophanies as a "pillar of cloud" by day, guarding them from the burning heat of the desert sun, and as a "pillar of fire" by night. God was demonstrating that "darkness and light" are the same to Him, since He sees all and knows all things. As Numbers 23:19 reminds us - “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?"

In Deuteronomy, God is the living God.
The first major division of the Bible, Pentateuch, formerly introduces us to God. By way of His names we see two major designations: "Elohim", found 2706 times, is in proper contexts referring to God as He is as God, the Almighty, eternal, Divine Being that makes covenant with His creation and people. The second name is God's personal name, "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" (pronounced "Adonai" in the Hebrew Bible), found 5766 times in the Old Testament. This most common name of God reveals how God is in His being as "the self-sufficient one". 

Whenever God first revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3, He was revealing Himself as the theologians refer, a se, a Latin phrase referring to God's self-sufficiency or "aseity". We see then that God is the Creator, the Providential Sovereign One that is the Redeemer of His people. The remainder of the Historical books of the Old Testament reveal further truths.

In Joshua, He Captain of Salvation.

Judges, He is our Deliverer.

Ruth, He is our Kinsmen Redeemer.

1 & 2 Samuel, He's the Prophet's message.

1 & 2 Chronicles, He is the Sovereign God.

In Ezra, He is the Faithful scribe.

Nehemiah tells us that God is the Finisher of what He begins.

Esther presents God as always on time.

In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Joshua through 2 Kings are regarded as the "former prophets". The Jews used this designation to indicate that God's prophetic voice threaded its way through the history of his people Israel as they became entangled in the affairs of the surrounding nations. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jews placed Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles as the final books, since they summarize the entire history of God's dealings with His people from the beginnings of creation until 90 year period following their return from exile in Babylon. 

What follows are the prophetic books as we find in our English Bibles. God always had a word in the foreground of what He was otherwise orchestrating to prepare for the arrival of the Eternal Son in His incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. 

In Isaiah with see God as the Supreme King.

Jeremiah portrays God as hope in the midst of sorrow.

Lamentations describes God present in the pit of our despair.

Ezekiel focuses upon the glory of God - craving Him when He seems absent and rejoicing at the prospect of His return.

Daniel reveals the Ancient of days and the second Person of the Godhead, the Son.

Hosea shows God as the faithful spouse.

Joel makes known to us God in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Amos reveals God as Truth

Obadiah reveals how God humbles the proud.

Jonah depicts God as the Great Foreign Missionary seeking the lost.

Micah states there none like our God.

Nahum presents God having His way in the storm.

Habakkuk reminds us that God hears our prayers.

Zephaniah describes God as rejoicing over His people.

Haggai presents the coming Messiah as the One to be desired.

Zechariah points the way to God as the fountain of salvation.

Malachi closes out the Old Testament by announcing the Lord as having the power to heal the wound of sin.

In our English Bibles we find 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books. Each time God revealed Himself, there followed an additional body of written Divine revelation that connected to the previous collection. God's self-disclosure or "revelation" was progressive, much like the beauty and scent of a rose is progressively observed and sensed as the petals "progressively" unfold. 

The major prophetic periods of the Old Testament were Moses, Elijah/Elisha and the writing prophets. Each period was prefaced by God disclosing Himself as Creator, Redeemer, Sovereign King and as a plurality of Persons united in one being. 

400 years would transpire between the close of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew. Although scholars often refer to this period as the "silent years" (due to no composition of Divinely-inspired books), nonetheless, God was preparing history for the arrival of Jesus Christ. 14 non-inspired Jewish writings, called "the Apocrypha", give us an idea of what the Jewish people were thinking in the centuries leading up to Christ's first coming or "advent". We can tell from that body of writings that the Jews were looking for their Messiah. Once Jesus came on the scene, He represented the final and decisive revelation of God in history (see Hebrews 1:1-2). The New Testament stands as the final collection of inspired documents expounding the life, death, resurrection, ascension and soon-to-return of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew, Jesus is Royalty.

In Mark, Jesus is Servant.

In Luke, Jesus is Perfect Man.

In John, Jesus is truly God in the flesh.

In Acts, He is preached among the nations.

In Romans, all who believe on Him are declared "righteous" or "justified".

1 Corinthians emphasizes Jesus as the believer's Sanctifier by His Holy Spirit.

2 Corinthians reminds us that God's glory is revealed on the face of Jesus Christ.

Galatians tells us that He is the true Gospel.

Ephesians reveals He is the believer's inheritance.

Philippians details how the Son as truly God came to experience life as truly man in His incarnation.

Colossians expounds on Jesus as the exalted, ascended Lord.

1 Thessalonians tells us Jesus is returning for His church.

2 Thessalonians describes how He will return to defeat the forces of evil.

1 Timothy unfolds Christ as the Shepherd of His church.

2 Timothy unfolds Christ as the theme of inspired, inerrant scripture.

Titus reveals how Jesus is our God and Savior.

Philemon emphasizes the importance of forgiving one another, just as Jesus did us on the cross.

Hebrews unfolds the glory of Jesus as our High Priest, exalted in the heavens. 

James reminds us that God is immutable, without shifting or variation of shadow.

1 Peter presents Jesus as our Chief Cornerstone.

2 Peter alerts us to Him returning in the glory of the Father.

1,2,3 John presents Christ as our beloved Master.

Jude promises that believers in Christ will have His preserving power to the end. 

Revelation is the final revealed book ever composed, portraying Jesus Christ as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. 

The New Testament books focus their attention on expounding the Person and accomplished work of the Son of God. However, we must not forget that we see the work of the Person of the Holy Spirit carrying on the work of the Son following His ascension into Heaven in the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is calling all kinds of people, from every nation, in every century of history, to place their trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Once the response of faith is given to the Gospel call of the Spirit, the "salvation accomplished" by the Son becomes the "salvation applied" by the Holy Spirit. 

Closing thoughts on thinking about God through the Bible

As we consider the survey we undertook in thinking about God through the books of the Bible, we've noted God's being, attributes, activities and identity. He is the immaterial, eternal, infinite, immutable, without parts, constant in His emotional life, immortal, omnipresent, omniscient, all-wise, all-good, holy, just, loving, merciful, transcendent yet immanent, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Completer of all things created and all persons that are redeemed in saving faith. God alone is able to create something from nothing, raise life from death and provide salvation. 

This One God is revealed in His identity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with all three Persons equal in power, glory and only differing by identity. Such an important exercise of thinking about God through the books of the Bible is what we call "Biblical Theology". Whenever we aim to think further about how we can organize such thoughts about God in a system that would provide a resource for practical efforts such as preaching, teaching and evangelism, we call such an effort "systematic theology". 

In order to evaluate whether our method of thinking about God through the Books of the Bible is on the right track, theologians have come to use a specific method of thinking about God called "Perfect Being Theology" - which will be the focus of our next post. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Thinking about God through general revelation, religious experience and natural theology

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Acts 17:24-25 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us


A.W. Tozer's classic book - "Knowledge of the Holy" begins with this most insightful quote: 

"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever
been greater than its idea of God".

How does one begin to think about and know about God? Two answers come to mind: 

1. Knowing about God through what is called "general revelation".

2. Knowing God through what is called "special revelation". 

In today's post, we will consider the first of these (as well as give some brief definitions). 

Knowing about and thinking about God through His general revelation in creation and the conscience.

"Knowledge about God" is accessible to all people. In the Old Testament we see a clear example of this through what theologians term, "general revelation", in Psalm 19:1-4 -

"The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. 4 Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun."

General revelation is called such because it is generally accessible to all people as much as knowledge of the external world or knowledge of other people having minds. Such general revelation is a feature of our world which is perceptible by our mental faculties (that is, reason, intention, the human will) which have the ability to draw conclusions about God's Divine nature through all He has made. 

Albert Einstein, the noted 20th century physicist, observes that the ability comprehend anything in our universe is indeed incomprehensible.  Whether observing the grandeur of the universe, watching a sunrise, listening to a beautiful piece of classical music or reflecting on what is meant by terms such as "beauty" and "the good-life", all count as places to discover God's general revelation. Why? Because God's general revelation operates on the basis of "truth", "goodness" and "beauty", which are germane qualities embedded in His very nature as God. 

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This "general revelation" by God is further expounded in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-20 -

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."

Such innate knowledge about God grants to every human being a base-line profile of the Creator, namely, 

1. God is the sum of His moral perfections. As the Supreme Moral Being, God is the source of moral standards that govern the human conscience - called in Romans 2:14-15 the "law of God" inscribed on the heart. 

2. God possesses such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence or absolute perfections. Unless God is the absolute cause and Sustainer of the universe and life as we know it, there is no sufficient natural explanation to account for the order, meaning and purpose we rightly discern in our world.

This first level of "knowledge about God" comes to us through "general revelation" and is apprehended by people through what theologians call "common grace" (see Matthew 5:45, Acts 14:25, 17:22-25). As people respond to this general revelation of God, the mixture of His general revelation and the frailty of human thinking affected by the fall of Adam and Eve leads to people proposing all sorts of various religions. General revelation requires the special revelation of God through the Bible and Jesus to take us from mere "knowing about God" to "knowing God". 

Two routes of thinking about God from general revelation - religious experience and natural theology

Two sorts of responses are observed as one surveys how people interact with God's general revelation by His common grace working all around them in creation and the conscience. 

1. Religious experience of God through knowing about Him in general revelation and then coming to know Him in special revelation.

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The first way, and most common way, is by route of religious experience of God. Various sorts of religious experience can range from how people perceive God's general presence in the natural realm to the specific way He draws people to trust in Jesus through the hearing of God's Word - the Bible (compare Romans 10:8-17). As human beings relate to God's general revelation, to the degree people demonstrate an openness to truth, God will in turn make available to them further "light" through the special revelation of His word. Professor John Hick explains this first route of knowing about and thinking about God was exhibited by people in the Bible, as cited by William Lane Craig - 

"God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine . . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives."

As a Christian, I don’t believe in the God of the Bible because He is a conclusion to a series of theistic arguments (which I'll mention near the end of today's post). Granted, I find such arguments providing a secondary foundation for why the God of the Bible best explains reality and human experience. Instead, I am a Christian because God was apprehended by me in a moment of trust He initiated when I was a ten-year-old boy, sitting in a Sunday School class hearing the Gospel of salvation. 

It was only through God leading me to Himself through the Gospel that I discovered how He had made the way for me to be deemed "good enough" by placing simple trust in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9). 

The work God did in my heart enabled me to journey from what I had "known about Him" in general revelation to my need to "know Him" through the special revelation of the Bible and Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah quotes God in Jeremiah 29:13 

“You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart”.

James in the New Testament writes these words in James 4:8a 

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” 

It is from this transformative  experience 35 years ago, and several subsequent, ongoing experiences with God through the Bible, that I have found certainty in knowing God and thinking about Him. 

2. Knowing about and thinking about God through reflections upon general revelation or what is called "natural theology".

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Experience of God is one way a person can have genuine knowledge of God. However, there is a secondary route in which we can discover that belief in God is most reasonable. Throughout Christian history, various older thinkers (such as Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas) and newer ones (Brian Leftow, William Lane Craig, Ed Feser) have taken the general revelation of God in creation and the conscience and offered systematic reflections of what we can know about God through what is called "natural theology". 

Natural theology will often include various theistic arguments or "proofs" for God's existence such as "the moral argument", "the cosmological argument" and several other types of well-reasoned arguments. Natural theology does not deliver "certainty" of God, but rather the level of knowledge that counts as rational grounds for belief in God - namely, "beyond a reasonable doubt" or "high degree of probability" in comparison to arguments against God. 

Natural theology gives us a "second route" for thinking about God. A well-rounded natural theology will approximate the clearest and surest revelation of God that we find in the Bible (even though natural theology draws from observations largely independent from the Bible). Just as general revelation is designed by God to prepare the unbeliever to respond positively to His special revelation in the Bible and Jesus, the human efforts behind natural theology can pave the way for understanding why belief in the God of the Bible is most reasonable, and thus potentially remove any obstacles that stand in the way. 

Closing thoughts

In today's post, we considered knowing about and thinking about God through what is called "general revelation" and its attendant routes of "religious experience" and the project of "natural theology". In the next post, we will continue by looking at how we can think about and know God through the "special revelation" of Himself in the Bible and Jesus, as well as the project of what is known as "Perfect-being" theology.