The Outer Limits
I have a problem when I try to add essays to my website. I want to put them in the same section as other essays on related topics, but sometimes an essay could fit into more than one section. When that happens, I put the essay where I think you are more likely to find it. If I add several essays that have more in common with each other than they do with the essays in an existing section, I have to create a new section, and I might have to move existing essays to the new section.
This a metaphor for theology, which is the discipline of gathering and organizing information about God so that it all fits together and makes sense to us. It’s more difficult that organizing essays on my website. There is more information about God than will fit in our brain, so despite our best and most earnest efforts, our theology is always going to have loose ends, inconsistencies, and even contradictions—though we must strive to eliminate them.
Aspiring theologians must humbly accept the following:
- You cannot be as smart as God. Reading the Bible or constructing a theology does not make you an infallible expert. Trying to be as smart as God is a sin (Genesis 3).
- You cannot know more information than is in your sources. You might have to interpolate information, but don’t do it beyond necessity.
- You cannot expect your theology to be perfect. God is perfect, but your understanding is not (1 Corinthians 13:9).
Sources of Information About God
We begin with our rational faculties. You must develop a discipline of critical thinking, which you can get from a class in philosophy. (In fact, philosophy was a prerequisite for theology in my seminary.) You can use that skill to know some things about God before you even begin (Acts 17:22-29). For example, you can be pretty sure that your reading lamp is not God.
The Primary Source, the Bible
The Bible consists of the scriptures you would find in a Jewish synagogue, which are divided up and rearranged as the 39 Old Testament books in your pew Bible in church; the content is the same. For Christians, the Bible also includes the 27 books of the New Testament. This list of books has the broadest acceptance in the ancient church and were widely quoted as authoritative in about the first two centuries.
First-century Jews, the ancient church, many Protestant denominations, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Roman Catholic CHurch, also include the books of the Apocrypha in their Bibles. They are used for corroboration and history, as well as a source of liturgical wording, and function as a kind of ”recommended reading” list.
The Old Testament (with or without the Apocrypha) and the New Testament make up the “canon” of Christian Scripture.
The Secondary Source, Ancient Church Theologians
Entire denominations have been founded on the idea that if everyone just read the Bible, they would come to the same conclusions and have unanimous interpretations. It doesn’t work that way because the reader can get in the way of the meaning. Readers are limited by their knowledge of biblical languages and the ancient context, as well as their own preferences and biases. Theologians must make sure that they are getting their theology out of the Bible, rather than putting it into the Bible. For example, the issues that people of the first century dealt with are different than the issues we deal with today. We should learn how first-century Christians dealt with their issues to find ways of dealing with our own, but we must not cross the line and insert our issues into the first century, where they don’t belong. It is not easy to avoid this problem.
As a result, we have to check our work, so to speak, against the earliest Christian theologians who had fewer limitations than we do, because they shared the cultural and historical context of the biblical writers. Ancient theologians include people like Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch, as well as documents such as the Didache and the Epistles of Egeria.
Our Basic Theological Tasks
The first and most fundamental theological question is: “What is God?” That leads to the second-most question, which is “What is God Like?” We have to know what sort of God we are dealing with before we can work out doctrines about the creation, the incarnation, salvation, Christian living, as well as what happens in the end.
What God IsSince we are doing Christian theology, we consult our sources and reason out what God is like.
When Christian missionaries begin to evangelize a tribe that has not had any contact to the outside world, they do not have to explain the concepts of gods or angels. Those concepts are universal, but different societies think of them in different ways. In some societies, there is more than one God, with different territories, constituencies, or areas of expertise. Sometimes the highest is the only one who is worshipped, or in the case of Hinduism, the highest god is never worshipped.
All of our Christian sources maintain that there is only one God, who has a personality, a will, who deals with each of us on a personal basis, and who can be pleased or displeased with our behavior. The Christian God is a personal God, not in the sense of a private God, but in the sense that God is a person. God is in charge of everything, and other subordinate heavenly creatures called angels or demons.
Some people notice that early Christians referred to pagan gods as demons (δαίμονες), which offends our modern sensitivities. You don’t win converts by insulting them! However, in that day and age, it wasn’t an insult at all, since the pagans themselves called their gods demons, and the word “demon” had no moral content for them. Their demons could be good, evil, or neutral. For Christians and Jews, angels were servants of God, and insubordinate angels were called demons.
The best way to evangelize is to start with the potential convert’s beliefs and terminology and show them a better way. Referring to other people’s gods as as demons is a good way to insult, offend, and repel prospective converts today, but in the first century, it was actually a good jumping-off point. We can imagine an ancient conversation in which a pagan might say, “These days, I am worshipping the demon Fred, who promises his followers fame and wealth,” and the Christian or Jew would say, “The demon is likely deceiving you. Wouldn’t it be better to worship the highest God?” The pagan would think about that and say, “That’s not a bad idea, but who is the highest God?”
God Is the Creator and Proprietor of the Universe
“The sovereignty of God” is a phrase one hears very often in the context of Calvinism and fundamentalist theology. Other Christians might prefer to say that God cannot be obliged, which is the same thing. This is the observation that if God is the creator and proprietor of the universe, nothing is greater than Him. God does not have to meet any requirements and no one can place an obligation on Him.
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children [Greek: sons] are free.
Matthew 17:25b-25, NRSV
What God is Like
In historic theology, we call the characteristics of God “attributes,” which we derive from our sources. They can be divided into three categories:
- Positive Attributes
- Negative Attributes
- Moral Attributes
To that we add the concept that nothing—and no one—can place an obligation on God. In other words, God doesn’t have to meet any requirements and can do anything He wants.
Positive attributes attempt to tell us what God is and are largely characteristic of western theology. For example, God id omniscient (knows everything) and God is omnipresent (is everywhere at the same time).
The problem with positive attributes is that they require us to know as much about God as God does. They also say too much. We run into problems such as “If God is everywhere, and Jesus is God, then how can Jesus be in a specific place?” or “If God knows how I will choose, then do I really have a choice?”
We can solve this problem by defining the positive attributes as things that God can choose to do, but He is not required to do them.
Negative attributes attempt to tell us what God is not and are largely characteristic of eastern and ancient theology. For example, God is immortal (cannot die) and incomprehensible (cannot be fully known). The advantage of negative attributes is that they recognize the limits of human knowledge.
The problem with negative attributes is that they say too much. We run into such problem as “If God cannot change, and Jesus is God, then how can He die on the cross?” or “If God is incomprehensible, then how can we know Him?”
We can solve this problem by saying the negative attributes are things that God is not required to do, but can if He wants. We can acknowledge that Jesus doesn‘t have to die on the cross, but He can if He chooses to. We can know God in the sense of being his friend without comprehending God in the sense of knowing everything about Him.
Moral attributes attempt to tell us about God’s character, and are largely characteristic of Hebrew theology. For example, God is righteous, just, and treats everyone the same.
The problem with moral attributes is that it’s easy to run into moral dilemmas in the Old Testament, such as “How can God be just if He lets the Hebrews kill all those people?”
We can’t really solve these problems very well, so it is a branch of theology all to its own, called “theodicy,” which comes from the Greek words “θεος” and “δίκαιος” and means “the study of the righteousness of God.”