Sunday, July 30, 2023

Post #1 The Doctrine Of God - A Map To Explore The Doctrine Of God


    In today's post, I begin a series of posts that will explore the doctrine of God, sometimes referred to as "Theology Proper". I'll admit that the prospect of studying the doctrine of God can be challenging, mind-expanding, and ultimately worshipful. The nineteenth century Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon began with these comments in a sermon he preaching on the doctrine of God in January of 1855,

"It has been said that “the proper study of mankind is man.” I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; 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."

Spurgeon continues,

"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. Other subjects we can grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, “Behold I am wise.” 

    But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumbline cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with solemn exclamation, “I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.” No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God....".

Where to start?
    The big question when approaching such a study is where to begin? In a recent interview hosted by Dr. Matthew Barrett, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Mid-Western Seminary, he, along with other scholars who specialize in the doctrine of the God (Dr. Scott Swain, Dr. Fred Sanders, and Dr. J.V. Fesko), commented on how there are various entry points into studying "The Doctrine of God". (Readers may access Dr. Barrett's informative conversation with these men here )

1. God's nature. Some begin with the nature of God. The doctrine of God covers the being (nature) of God, His attributes, and His acts in creation, providence, and redemption. Some theologians have begun with God's nature. This starting point helps us to see what makes God different from everything else, and why He is worthy of our worship. Examples of theologians of the past who do this approach include Thomas Acquinas in His classic work "Summa Theologica".

2. Comparing human nature. Others will draw analogies from human nature or how human beings have a built-in awareness of God. Theologians such as Wayne Grudem in his "Systematic Theology" tend to begin with this approach.

3. Names of God. Still others will use the names of God as an entry point to studying the doctrine of God. One will notice how often God made known a name about Himself when making Himself known to His people throughout the Bible.

4. God's attributes. A fourth method or starting point for studying the doctrine of God is to begin with the attributes or perfections of God, and then work toward grasping the nature of God to which the perfections point. In Dr. Barrett's book "None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God", we find Him working through such attributes as God's self-sufficiency (a.k.a "Divine Aseity"), omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and other perfections. One thing we remind ourselves of is to note that though we can truly know God, we can never fully comprehend God (an attribute known as God's "incomprehensibility").

5. The Trinity. A fifth starting point, which the ancient church fathers commonly did, was to begin with the Trinity. Take for example the great creeds of the Christian church, such as the Apostle's Creed. It begins "I believe in God, the Father, Maker of Heaven and Earth". This opening line assumes a particular understanding of "God" in regards to His nature as the One truly and living God. What follows in the Creed are twelve points or truths that flow from the doctrine of the Trinity. In later creeds (such as the Nicene Creed) we see this pattern of beginning with the Trinity more unfolded.

6. Arguments for God's existence. One final starting point we can mention is what is more common among those thinkers who engage in Christian apologetics or "defense of the faith". Typically, one will notice how they labor to show what "God is not" by contrasting the Biblical doctrine of God with other worldviews and then supporting the Christian revelation of God through what are called arguments for God's existence.

    For our study over the course of these next several posts, I'll mainly use the outline of the Doctrine of God spelled out in Wayne Grudem's 2nd edition of his "Systematic Theology". I'll likely start by first noting the key names of God that point us to God's nature, attributes, and Triune identity. Grudem's outline serves as an example of what I call a "map" for exploring the doctrine of God. Any major systematic theology written over the centuries will arrange the study of the doctrine of God in its own distinct way. Grudem's outline represents a general order and method that has been followed by other writers throughout the history of the church. I'll comment briefly under each of the headings so as to help clarify the order of the "map" for exploring the doctrine of God.

I. The Existence of God.

    When we speak of God's existence, we are concerned with understanding how we know He exists by our inner awareness, as well as showing He exists through various arguments or "proofs". The 11th century theologian Anselm of Canterbury developed the followingway of expressing how God exists, "God is the greatest conceivable being, of which non-greater can be conceived". Scripturally, Hebrews 11:6 gives us this important principle that relates God's existence to Biblical faith "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him."

II. The Knowability of God.

    God has made Himself knowable by way of revelation in creation and the conscience (called "general revelation") and through the Bible and Jesus ("special revelation").

III. P1 The Character of God: Incommunicable Attributes.

    In this point and the next, we come across a category of God's attributes known by theologians as "incommunicable attributes". The term "incommunicable" means that the attribute or perfection is unique to God. We often use the term "communicable" to describe, say, the common cold as a "communicable disease" or laughter as a "communicable" behavior. In other words, whatever trait or action someone has or is, that very thing is transferrable to another. The idea of incommunicable means that certain attributes of God (such as He being eternal, omnipresent, without beginning) are unique to Himself. These remarks apply to the next point (point "IV").

IV. P2 The Character of God: Incommunicable attributes.

V. The Character of God: Communicable Being Attributes

    What I noted in "point III" about communicable attributes is applicable here. Certain attributes of God, such as "love", "mercy", "goodness", are shared by God with us. We, in our creaturely way, being made in His image, have something in common with God. We could say that God's incommunicable attributes prompt worship of Him, whereas His communicable attributes make possible fellowship with Him - especially by His people who know Him by faith. These comments cover the points below (points "VI" through "IX").

VI. P1 The Character of God: Communicable Moral Attributes

VII. P2 The Character of God: Communicable Moral Attributes

VIII. The Character of God: Communicable Attributes of Purpose & Intellect

IX. The Character of God: Summary Attributes.

X. Introducing the Doctrine of the Trinity

    In the first nine points of our "map", we have noted the being and attributes of God. I sometimes summarize God's being as considering "what kind of God God is" and His attributes as concerning "how God is the kind of God He is". In this next major portion of the map of the doctrine of God, we go from consideration of God's being and attributes to that of His identity as the Trinity. I sometimes refer to this as "who God is".  

XI. Three statements that summarize the Biblical teaching of the Trinity.

A. God is Three Persons.
B. Each Person is fully God.
C. There is One God.

XII. Errors that have come in denial of the Trinity.

    In understanding what the Bible teaches about the Trinity, it is vital to understand what the doctrine of the Trinity does not teach. Errors about the Trinity, broadly speaking, will either deny the unity of His nature or the distinct identities of the members of the Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). 

XIII. What are the distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

    When we say "distinctions", we refer to the eternal relational distinctions that the Father has with the Son, the Son with the Father, and that the Holy Spirit has with the Father and the Son and they with Him. The Father's relationship with the Son is referred to by theologians as "eternal generation". The Holy Spirit's relationship with the Father through the Son is referred to as "eternal procession". This area of Trinitarian doctrine is called "the doctrine of processions", since we are interested in how the Father relates to the Son and the Spirit, and how they in turn related to Him and to one another. The beauty of the Trinitarian life comes forth in this area of the Doctrine of God.  

XIV. The different functions (or roles) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are appropriate to their distinct identities.

    In the study of the doctrine of the Trinity, certain activities are appropriate to each of the Persons. For example, in creation, the Father is the planner, the Son is the provider, and the Holy Spirit is the applier. All three Persons together are the One Creator God. Theologians call this section of Trinitarian doctrine that deals with how each of the Divine persons handle areas of creation and redemption "the doctrine of appropriations". To keep in mind that the Persons of the Trinity never do anything without consideration of one another in unity as One God, a corresponding doctrine connected to this is what theologians refer to as "the doctrine of inseperable operations".  

XV. The Person of the Holy Spirit.

    This area of our map focuses attention on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, an area of Bible doctrine called "pneumatology". 

XVI. Understanding and Applying the Doctrine of the Trinity.

    In our next post we will begin our approach to this study by considering God's power and nature by way of the key names used for Him in the Bible.


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