A few years ago I wrote a post about this topic that I am still happy with. Recently a friend challenged me to think about some deeper theological issues, and I wrote him a response, but there is an element of that is an extension of my former post that I want to publish here. There is and earlier post that I will share, because I think this also gets to some challenges with our identification with a church and doctrines that we need to deal with. But both of these posts deal with our duty to understand the scriptures, and to correctly interpret and apply them, first in our own lives, and then in our interactions with others.
What I am writing about deals with a very specific challenge to human understanding of the attributes of God, and how those attributes of God transform into the doctrines of the Church. God is sovereign, loving, just, merciful, holy, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, infinite, immutable, self-existent, self-sufficient, faithful, good, wise, and transcendent. In “The Knowledge of the Holy”, A. W. Tozer adds “incomprehensible” to that list. A sovereign God determines who will be saved, but a just God requires righteousness, a merciful God provides a way to attribute righteousness although undeserved, an eternal God is not bound by the time, so omnipresence, and omniscience, and immutability appear to be related to God’s eternality. Self-existence, Self-sufficiency, transcendence and infinitude don’t to me present many doctrinal challenges. God’s holiness separates him from us, because he cannot tolerate our sin, but his faithfulness preserves His concern for His creation that we are apart of. God’s goodness and wisdom, define the words, and they are not really in conflict, except that we ask why a God who is good would let sin happen.
My friend’s questions were around the nature and process of salvation. This presents some conflicts between God’s sovereignty, His eternality, His justice, and His mercy. Can we have a God who either determined “in advance” who would be saved, or who knew “in advance” who would be saved, also be just and merciful at the same time? How can we reconcile these things together. Can a God who allows some to be saved and some to be condemned be considered merciful? Can a God who allows those who have sinned and deserve death to be saved be considered just? If He created man, knowing that man would be deceived and rebel, causing our current situation can that be considered good? Did God allow so many of the people who came before, to experience trials and tribulations so that we could learn from them who He really is? Is that why the Bible (especially the Old Testament) is full of stories of broken people who God uses to accomplish His purpose? These are some really hard questions.
So let me go back to the attributes of God. We were made in his image. Does that mean that we possess ALL of His attributes, or that we should aspire to them? Clearly the answer to that is no. There are the attributes that we cannot aspire to: infinitude, eternality, self-existence, self-sufficiency, transcendence, immutability, sovereignty, and the “omni’s”. Those attributes are what makes God, God and us not God. Not only do we not aspire to them, but we need to ponder them to realize how different God’s nature is from ours. So what about the others: loving, just, merciful, faithful, good, wise? These are what we should aspire to, we should emulate.
Let me add an attribute: Relational. God is relational, he is three persons in one entity – a triune God, and each of his persons is in relation to the other two. By his nature being relational, he desires to be in relationship with us. That is (at least partially) what we were created for, and we desire to have a relationship with Him. Except when we aspire to some of His differentiating attributes, especially sovereignty. When we try to be “all sovereign”, it is rebellion. That is how it all went wrong.
So now that we have talked about God’s attributes, what does that possibly have to do with the literal interpretation of scripture? Well, everything. We only know those attributes because of God. All of our knowledge of goodness, justice, mercy, and the other attributes starts with God. And for the most part, it comes through the scripture. And so I am forced to go back to Job 38, where God speaks:
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this who darkens counsel
with words without knowledge?
3 Get ready for a difficult task like a man;
I will question you
and you will inform me! – New English Translation
When we try to resolve the questions above, we end up questioning God about one or more of His attributes. As He answered Job, he also answers us – who are we to question?
While we can name that attributes of God, and while we can begin to understand what they mean through the scriptures, we cannot in our current state comprehend. Tozer was correct – God is not completely comprehensible to us. When I get hung up on questions like this, it is useful (for getting un-hung) to remind myself of the attributes of God, and decide which attributes are involved in the hang up. Most frequently, it is eternality. I am bound by time. My thinking and my language is completely bound in the context of time and space. God, being eternal and transcendent is not bound by either time or space. While I can say those words, I cannot conceive them. To me they are a negative. It is the absence of something that defines my own existence. I can scarcely imagine what might possibly be, but I dare not declare that I know. In these cases I am forced to retreat to faith, in the God who created it all, who established everything that I experience. So I stretch to understand, desiring to know my God, and I also rest in the confidence that what I can’t understand is in His hands.