How ought we think about God? (part 2)

In my previous post, I mentioned four sure-fire ways to get it wrong; four ways to think about God that are ultimately incomplete as we try to align our concept of God as close as humanly possible to the reality of God. Still each of the approaches mentioned do hint at a more robust approach to modeling God, an approach that is best encapsulated in Anselm’s motto: faith seeking understanding.So, how should we think about God? I propose the following three-step approach that brings all of our resources (historical, revelation, rational, experiential) to bear on the question of God’s nature.

First, we begin with Scripture (I’m obviously assuming it true here–if you are not there, just consider this a conditional exercise: what would be the best way to model God assuming Christianity and the Bible true).  In the Biblical text we learn important truths about God. To name a few, we learn that God is the creator of all things distinct from himself (Gen. 1:1), supreme (Psalm 145:3), all-knowing (Psalm 139:1-4), all-present (Psalm 139:7-9), all-powerful (Genesis 18:14), self-existent (Exodus 3:14), unchanging in character (Psalm 102:25-27), eternal (Psalm 90:2), spirit (John 4:24), wise, loving, good, holy, just, sovereign, free, perfect, and personal. The list could go on. We learn many important and true things about God from Scripture. But we can’t end here if we are attempting to get as far as we can in modeling God—a “purely biblical” approach to modeling God is too open-textured—since many of these attributes (listed above) require philosophical analysis to fully understand—as rational agents, we can push on. Still, I suggest that any adequate model of God must conform to the following control (or regulating principle):

Regulating principle #1: Our model of God must be consistent with Scripture.

Secondly, add to our knowledge of God through Scripture the deliverances of religious experience. While we can’t lead with religious experience, we can’t do without it either. Scripture is clear that it is not enough to simply know about God; such knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the religious life. Religious experience’s chief value is existential (having to do with the religious life of the believer), still there is an epistemic benefit as well. What can we learn about God through our experience of God? I think that Rudolf Otto was onto something in his book “The Idea of the Holy”—we experience God as wholly other, a being worthy of our worship. Thus, a religiously adequate conception of God, as we continue to fill out the biblical portrait of God would include the additional regulating principle:

Regulating principle #2: Our model of God must present God as a being worthy of worship; a being who is wholly other.

Finally, add to Scripture and religious experience rational theology. As creator of all reality distinct from himself, God is ultimate in terms of explanation. Thus, by examining creation, we can learn about God’s nature. Since God is the creator of all reality, it follows that all reality (in some way) illuminates the divine. So study, as Francis Bacon reminds us, God’s other book—the book of nature to learn about the His character. Let’s call this kind of theology Creation Theology and the regulating principle of such a theology as follows:

Regulating principle #3: Our model of God must uphold God as the creator of all reality distinct from God.

Further, as a worship worthy being, God is supreme, or supremely great. Such a high conception of God does provide a further guide for us in thinking about God. In his greatness, God is a being with the greatest possible combination of great-making properties, where a great-making property is any property which it is intrinsically good to have. Let’s call this kind of theology Perfect Being Theology and the regulating principle of such a theology as follows:

Regulating principle #4: Our model of God must uphold God as maximally great.

As we engage in Biblical theology, and fill in our conception of God through religious experience (always operating under the control of biblical revelation) and rational theology (always working under the control of the biblical revelation and religious experience) we should also consult the rich tradition of thinking on God’s nature over the past 2,000 years of church history. While we need not follow our fathers on every jot and title, it is always wise to consider the arguments and positions of those who have gone before us—chances are we will not stumble unto something that hasn’t been addressed or thought of before as we strive to understand the character of God.

Why bother going beyond the Bible and religious experience in our model of God? Why engage in philosophical hair-splitting over the nature of omnipotence, omniscience, aseity, sovereignty, omnibenevolence, and so on? Well, following Augustine, “one loves best what one knows best.” And what a better way to know God that the strive with all of our strength to understand who he is—which, as we expand our exalted conception of God, only leads to worship of this great being who is the very fount of our existence and hope.

2 Responses to How ought we think about God? (part 2)

  1. Jeff says:

    Thanks for your thought provoking essay. I read it twice, seeing if I was missing something. Perhaps I am. It seems to me that your principles 2-4 are all merely subsets of #1–they are all contained within scriptural revelation.

    I was particularly hoping for insight with #2, since our direct experience with God through prayer and worship gives us additional insight to God. Perhaps it should be worded as: “Our model of God must present God as a being Who cares about each person individually.”

    For principle #3, I would word it as: ” Our model of God must uphold God as the creator of all reality and allow knowledge of creation to provide further insight on His Nature.”

    For me, principle #4 is superfluous; He is already revealed as Infinite and Eternal and Creator of all–it is not possible for anything to be greater.

    Thanks for letting me comment on your essay. I hope I stimulate you like you have stimulated me.

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hello Jeff,

      I really like your modifications of my principles 2-4–I think you are right on the money. I do agree that everything could be construed as being subsumed under #1, but think of 2-4 as further fleshings out of ways to approach and learn things about God. I think this is a fascinating topic! Blessings, Paul

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