(The following is an encore presentation of a post from the dearly departed Sibboleth blog. The series, posted here this week, will serve as an introduction to the project of this particular blog: what it’s called “Storied Theology” and what it means to speak of a “story-bound God”.)
When our idea of the fundamental fabric of the universe is law (as has been the case in numerous traditions throughout Christian history), we end up with saying some strange or, better, all-too-familiar-but-not-exactly-Christian things about God. When we think of God, what really starts to matter are eternal, unchanging attributes; descriptions that articulate in the clearest way possible that God is other; and, as we’ve discussed with law itself, quite earthy depictions of God get catapulted up into the realm of ideal, trans-historical norms.
An anecdote that lodged itself in my mind: a Turretin scholar was doing a presentation to some pastor-types on God’s self disclosure to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” The punch line of the presentation? “This is God revealing to Moses who God is in Himself–this is who God is in His ontology.”
When everything that really matters is outside of space and time (covenants, law, grace) then divine self-disclosure, showing us what really is true of God must also be outside of time. Of course, I find this claim concerning ontology to be ridiculous. But it is a way of thinking about God that fits perfectly within the system. And in this, the Reformed Tradition is not any more or less guilty than any other–it has adopted a large swath of the church’s posture in thinking that what really matters about God is that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, etc.
All of this assumes that we know who God is and that our real challenge is to figure out what God is. The implication, though, is that what God is will tell us what God is like. And once we’ve gotten to that point, I’d argue that we’ve gone down the wrong trail altogether. To find out what God is like, we need to get our minds around who God is.
And here’s the punchline: the most pervasive way of saying who God is in Scripture is tied to this-worldly particulars: YHWH is the creator, but one who creates in a certain way and not in another; YHWH is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole point of the Exodus narrative is to “introduce” Pharaoh to this God that Pharaoh does not know (and to show how YHWH’s power stacks up to the powers of other gods). God is “the Holy one of Israel”, such that the fate of Israel is reflective of God’s own character and standing in the world.
And, as Christians, our confession about God is tied up with the Christ event: we say that God is the One who justifies the ungodly; we say that God is the One who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist; we say that God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We have not spoken of the Christian God when we have spoken of a “spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” We have talked about an ideal for a divinity. We speak of the Christian God when we speak of the God who has acted to send His own Son, to give that Son up for us all, to raise that Son from the dead, and to see to it that the message of this son is sent to the ends of the earth. (You may have read something like this somewhere.)
In other words, one of the most important pay-offs for being willing to have our transhistorical theological categories exchanged for the biblical categories is that it creates space to reconceive of the identity of God as put on display in the biblical narrative itself: a God who is relentlessly on mission to draw the world to Himself.