Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Druchesis II: God the Father Almighty

Two weeks ago I began a series of reflections on the Apostles' Creed, oddly (or aptly) titled Druchesis. Last week I simultaneously attended a conference and came down with a cold, so the second installment was delayed. So, here's an attempt to unfold the significance of the first phrase of the first article: "I believe in God the Father Almighty."

This statement contains three terms worthy of reflection: God, the Father, Almighty. These three terms imply three claims: (1) God is God. (2) God is Father. (3) God is Almighty. Let's consider each in turn.

(1) God is God.

I believe in God. God is the first object of belief in the creed. And rightly so. Christian faith begins with God. Although we began with some reflections on faith in our first installment, this must never be taken to imply that our own faith and its needs and concerns supply the starting point of Christian theology. We enter with our faith, for it is the appropriate stance before the subject-matter of our reflection: God. So faith is the starting posture, but not the starting point. True faith is consumed not with itself but with its object, God himself.

So, what does it mean to "start" with God. Well, it means reminding ourselves that God starts with God. God does not come from us; we come from God. God is who he is prior to what we make of him. God is not just a big version of us (a.k.a., the big man upstairs). God is not a necessary postulate of the human mind, a projection of our dreams and wishes, a fulfillment of our needs and desires. If God is any of these things, he is these things after he is God in himself. God is God. That is the first thing theology must say. Before we specify who God is in relation to us, we must say who God is in relation to himself.

Of course, right there we bump into a difficulty. For how can say anything about God himself? How can we know God in relation to himself? Do we not only know God as he relates himself to us? Do we not only know God as we believe in him, not as he is in himself prior to our belief in him? These are not just academic questions. These are genuine questions that emerge within the life of faith. On the one hand, we only know the God that we know. We only talk about God or talk to God as we believe in and understand him. On the other hand, when we talk about or to God, we really believe we are talking about or to something or someone other than and beyond the images in our head. We believe God truly is God.

Thankfully, this is not an irresolvable difficulty. And I really do mean "thankfully" (that's not just window-dressing). God in his grace has chosen to reveal himself as he truly is. God is the God who makes himself known as God. That is a gift worthy of our thanks and praise. We can talk about and to God as God truly is, for God reveals himself. We can and must say God is God, but only because God reveals himself.

Perhaps that last bit is too abstract a way of putting this. Let me put it another way: God is the God of the Bible. God is not just an idea about which the Bible supplies information. If that were so, we might ask whether the Bible is the only such source of information and whether the information it yields is adequate. But God is not just some idea. God is rather a character in a story. God is the central character in this particular story. God is a person who speaks and acts. God introduces himself, names himself, identifies himself in and through this specific story. God creates the world. God elects Israel. God speaks with Abraham and to Moses and through the prophets. God sends his son Jesus. God pours out his Spirit on his church. God is the God who does these things. To start with God means to tell God's story. The God who appears in this story is who God is in himself. Therefore, when we say that God is God, we say so not to keep God at a distance, enclosed in himself, but to point to this God, the God of the Bible, as the one and only true God. We can and must say God is God, but only because God is the God of the Bible.

So, what can we say about the God of the Bible? Who is the God who reveals himself? What else can we say about God beyond the fact that God is God? Such questions could prompt us down many different paths, provided we are guided by Scripture in our answers. But since taking this next step corresponds nicely to the next term in the creed, let's follow the church's lead and develop our understanding of God in terms of his fatherhood.

(2) God is Father.

God is certainly spoken of as "father" throughout Scripture. We find it in the teachings of Jesus. We find it in the letters of Paul. We find it embedded in the imagery of Israel's prophecy and poetry. What do we mean when we speak about God as Father? What do we mean when we address God as Father?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that God is like a father. God is fatherly. He loves and cares like a father. When we say this, we are employing the procedure of analogy. We are trying to describe what God is like by pointing to something similar. When we employ analogies, we always have to be careful to note the dissimilarity as well. This is always true of analogies, but it is especially when we use them for God. God is like a father, and yet he is also quite unlike our earthly fathers. We must always acknowledge the limits of theological analogies, especially because language that is intended to be positive (e.g., a caring and providing father) can so easily become twisted in light of negative experience (e.g., absent or abusive father). And even the positive aspects of the analogy are limited, because God is not just an father but the greatest father there could ever be, the first and primary father by which all other fathers are judges. So, when we use analogies, God's own unique activities should inform what we mean by them. Provided we remember these limitations, we can and should use analogies, and especially those found in Scripture.

But the creed does not here say that God is like a father. Rather, the creed speaks of God the Father. The definite article seems to be implying that, even as we employ analogical language here, we are not merely describing what God is like, but picking out who God is. Who is God? God is the Father. Of course, such an answer immediately demands a follow up question: the father of whom? You see, "father" is not only an analogical term, it is also a relational term. One could perhaps be fatherly by exhibiting certain father-like characteristics without in fact being a father. But to be a father one must have a child. If God is not only fatherly, but also a father, God must have children. Does God have children?

Well, in fact, he does. Christians speak of themselves as children of God, and not without reason. To be a Christian is to be adopted as God's child. But does this mean God was not a father before Christians came along? No, because God had already chosen the people of Israel to be his children long before. But what about before he called Abraham? The early chapters of Genesis as well as some vague references in the prophets indicate that God is in fact the father of all people and of all creatures. God is the father of all.

But what about before there was anyone or anything to be father of? Although it may sound a little strange, Christians believe that God has always been a father because God has always had a son, and his name is Jesus Christ. We will say more about Jesus when we come to the second article of the creed, which is dedicated to him, but we cannot avoid mentioning him here because the eternal fatherhood of God is grounded in the eternal sonship of Jesus. And this move is not thrust upon us by some speculative necessity, but is rather a heralding of the good news. For the adoption of Christians, the election of Israel, and the creation of the world are grounded in the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ. God is our father because, first and foremost, he is the Father of Jesus.

(3) God is Almighty.

We have said much already about the identity of God--who God is. But we must also say a bit about the character of God--what God is like. Since I wrote a rather extensive series on the attributes of God two years ago, I refer you directly there. I don't think I would demur much from that presentation. However, I will say something here about the almightiness of God, both for the sake of creedal exposition and because my entry on God's omnipotence in the aforementioned series merely raised a classic question and did not attempt even a brief exposition of God's power. So, in light of of what we have said about God's identity, what does it mean to say that God is Almighty?

God is mighty. God is strong. God is powerful. But God is not just mighty, strong, powerful. God is all-mighty, all-strength, all-powerful. As the classical attributes of God put it, God is omnipotent. The "all" or "omni" is the point here. All candidates for god claim to be mighty. People call on gods for their strength, especially in times of trouble. What makes God the true God is his almightiness. Anything less than all-powerful is not God. The rules governing analogy apply here too. God is powerful, but unlike the various competing powers we encounter, God is all-powerful.

The importance of the "all" in the almightiness of God is crucial historically. The antecedents to the Apostles' Creed were developed during the controversy over gnosticism in the early church. One of the dangers certain key Christian leaders saw in gnosticism was its tendency to posit a fundamental dualism: an eternal competition between good and evil. Although this helps to solve the problem of evil (the bad things that happen can be attributed to the evil power), it undermines the lordship of God. In this scheme, God may be the central character in the story, but he is not the ultimate author of the story. Even if we root for him in the narrative, we have questioned his lordship over the narrative. So the early Christians put forth the almightiness of God to rule out this other way of telling the story.

But here we can easily hit a snag. For the almightiness of this God is revealed in weakness. This God rules over his people, yet at the same interacts with them, listens to them, and even becomes one of them and suffers and dies. Now that is a strange sort of almightiness. There is a habit in the Christian tradition of distancing God from all these impotent moments. These moments in the story are called "anthropomorphisms," or in the case of Christ it is said that only his "human nature" expresses such weakness. This is a bad habit, for it traps God within his almightiness. We must not allow omnipotence to become an abstract concept that can rule over what God can and can't do. God is omnipotent with a specific purpose and so in a certain way. God is not simply omnipotent, full stop. God is omnipotent in a way that befits his identity as God for us, and so in a way that advances his story with us. In some cases, this may very well mean that God overpowers his creatures. In other cases, God rules through weakness. In either case, God rules not by might or by power in their usual senses, but by his Spirit. God's power is the power of his Spirit, who is himself as he drives his story. The form which his power takes in particular cases is not arbitrary, but fits each case within the context of God's larger story. In this way -- and only in this way -- God is almighty.

Any thoughts?
  • Does my exposition of the statement "God is God" successfully account for both God's priority over against us and his relationship to us? Is the appeal to "revelation" here appropriate? Are divine priority and relationality theological values worth upholding?
  • Are my brief comments on analogy helpful?
  • Is the move to link God's fatherhood to Jesus the right move? What are some consequences of making this move? What are some consequences of not making this move?
  • Is the "all" in God's almightiness really as crucial as I suggest? Could God's power be spoken of without the "all" or "omni" attached? Are such alternatives satisfactory?
  • Does my talk of purposeful almightiness make sense? Is it a good idea?


Bob MacDonald said...

What strikes me about the creed is that we might approach it as postulates or a set of things we start with. But within the liturgy it is not the entry but the response to the ministry of the word. The creed can be seen in this place as adoration and praise.

JohnLDrury said...

Bob - Good point. Agreed. Worship is the proper context of the creed, and where they developed. What it means classically for a creed to be canonized is that it is authorized for use in worship. A doxological response is about all I'm looking for when I share these reflections. In other words, I'm aiming to say, "Isn't this stuff we get to believe really cool? Isn't God great?"

Michael Cline said...

Ahh, big cup of free coffee, a little devotional Greek reading out of Matthew, and John Drury on the Apostle's Creed--what a Monday morning! Thanks be to God for Google Reader.

My favorite two lines in the entire post: "God is not simply omnipotent, full stop. God is omnipotent in a way that befits his identity as God for us, and so in a way that advances his story with us."

Beautiful John! For God is almighty, but in a way that is foolish in the world, in weakness.