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genesis

May 23, 2007

This is the second article in a short series dealing with the tendency Christians have to put God in a box (click here for the first article). Several people, commenting on this first article, remarked that this is a topic usually reserved for people attacked Reformed theology rather than defending it. Bear with me and I think you’ll have to agree that we, even as Bible-loving Christians, can put God in a box. We can find ourselves feeling insecure about Him unless we have contained Him within a structure of our own making. We saw yesterday that God has revealed Himself to us in the Scripture in a way that is incomplete, yet in a way that we can understand—in a way that is sufficient and true but not exhaustive. This revelation of Himself provides a framework within which we can begin to comprehend Him. To close the article I suggested that there are three predominant ways we box God and these correlate with the three emphasizes of Reformed theology - the doctrinalist, the pietist and the transformationalist. Today we will examine the first of these.

The tragedy of the Fall is often seen most vividly in times of war. It is overwhelmingly tragic when humans fight against humans, destroying lives, tearing apart families and plunging whole nations into terrible chaos. There is often a strange irony in war, where each side claims to be fighting for God. The American Civil War pitted a nation against itself, with each side being blessed by the presence of some inspiring, godly men who felt they were fighting for the Lord. In the Second World War, while millions of Christians were praying for God’s help in defeating the Nazis, the German army marched against nation after nation wearing belt buckles inscribed with the words, “God with us.” Each side in these conflicts felt God was on their side and that He was neatly boxed and bundled ready to be called on to wage war against the enemy.

Christians can box God in just this way, even through their knowledge of Him. Let me affirm that doctrine is of critical importance to the Christian walk. I love doctrine and love theology! Few things excite me as much as learning something new about God and about coming to a more accurate understanding of who God is and how He acts. The Bible continually exhorts us to be sure of our doctrine and to ensure that we are walking rightly before God. There are many passages of Scripture that speak to this. In Ephesians 3 Paul expresses his willingness to suffer for Christ, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Ephesians 3:10). Paul exhorts Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). There are repeated warnings in Scripture that we ensure we do not allow ourselves to be deceived by false doctrine. The Bible paints a clear picture of the importance of doctrine—of knowing God precisely as He has revealed Himself to us.

So while we dare not downplay doctrine, at the same time we must admit that it can lead us to place limitations on God. This should not convince us to conclude that the fault is with doctrine in general or with biblical doctrine in particular. The fault is with us. Today we’ll look at three ways Christians are prone to box God through their doctrine.

Boxing God With Our Ignorance

We have the responsibility to know and believe what God has revealed of Himself in the Scripture. Sometimes, though, we get it wrong. So the first way we can put God in a box is through our misunderstandings of Him and His nature. Furthermore, we may also try to define God in a way that is simplistic or that is inconsistent with who He is. A classic example would be the statement that “God is love.” Of course this is true for the Bible affirms that God is the very embodiment of love. Love is part of the very fabric of His being. But this is simplistic if we do not take into account God’s other attributes, such as His wrath. If we create a definition or understanding of God that overemphasizes one of His attributes at the expense of others, we have constructed a false view. We have put Him in a box of our own making. In the end we have created a view of God that is based on ignorance. Quite simply we do not know God as we should based on the information He has given in His Word.

I am sure you can see the danger here. Most of the false views of God we encounter are based on just this type of ignorance. People, sometimes deliberately but more often acting out of ignorance, ignore an aspect of God that they do not understand or that makes them uncomfortable.

We see then, that to avoid constructing this type of box, we need to know Him and to know Him as He truly is. We need to study all that His Word tells us about Him, His character, His attributes and the ways He acts. We need to always keep in mind the limitations of language that we discussed yesterday—that God’s attributes are infinite, yet we can only define them by comparing them to the finite examples we know and understand. When we say that “God is like” something, we mean that He bears a vague resemblance to it, not that He truly is the same as it.

In the example above, we cannot accurately say that God is love until we have reconciled His love with the other attributes He has seen fit to reveal to us and until we have seen how this attributes work themselves out. God’s love cannot be separated from or dealt with in isolation from wrath and justice. Just this morning I finished reading a book dealing with penal substitution and was grateful to see how often the authors emphasize how many of God’s attributes were seen clearly and without conflict at the cross. God’s love, justice, wrath, mercy, grace and so many others were all in full display at the cross. Those who consider penal substitution a vulgar or distasteful doctrine so often portray God in such a way that they ignore one or more of His attributes that are clearly revealed in Scripture.

Boxing God With Human Wisdom

A second way we can put God in a box is through creating or assuming knowledge of Him that He has not revealed to us. When we understand our limitations, we will have to conclude that there are some things that are simply too wondrous for us to comprehend. There are some areas where we need to understand and believe what Scripture tells us, but probe no deeper. Yesterday we read the verses of Psalm 131, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” David’s humility and confidence need to be ours. We are to let God be God, realizing that there are some things that He has withheld from us based on necessity (those things that we simply cannot understand) and based on His wisdom.

Perhaps the clearest example of something that is beyond our comprehension is the doctrine of the Trinity. We can know and understand from Scripture that God exists as three persons, yet one being. We can understand some of what this means and can begin to grapple with the nature of the Godhead. Yet we can never come to a complete understanding of a doctrine so wondrous. The same is true of the correlation between human responsibility and Divine sovereignty. We know they both exist, yet we cannot always understand how they relate. The best of men, the greatest of theologians, have had no choice but to admit their own inability when faced with such grandeur.

And so we must, in humility, refuse to create a full, complete or exhaustive understanding of God in those areas He has kept silent. While we can have confidence that He knows these things and that they are consistent with His nature, we should not jump to conclusions about the finer details. Where God has kept silent, so should we, in an attitude of awe towards Him. If we feel we have mastered the doctrine of the Trinity, we have placed God in a box of our own making, for the reality is that God does not give us sufficient information about this doctrine for us to ever master it.

Boxing God by Sola Theologica

A third way we can put God in a box is by making theology an end in itself. We are all prone to this error, but perhaps Reformed Christians more than others. In our flawed, limited understanding of God, we can make an idol of theology. Rather than studying God with a view to making theology a practical outpouring of the wonder of who He is, we succumb to theology-ology, or “the study of the study of God.” This lazy study leads only to puffed-up knowledge with little practical application. An unbeliever can study the study of God as easily as a Christian, for it does not depend on the Spirit to apply the words to our lives.

Jesus warned “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). In the last days there will be many who have accumulated vast knowledge of God, but who have never truly known Him. They will know about God without ever knowing Him. They will be cast into the lake of fire despite their great knowledge of the Bible and biblical theology.

The warning for us is that we must continually seek the Spirit’s help in applying Scripture to our lives, so that it does not become empty knowledge and an end in itself. Our knowledge of God is useless if it remains only in our minds. All we know about Him should spur us on to worship Him in spirit and truth and to motivate us to take what we know to the world, that others may rejoice with us.

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It bears mentioning once more that the Bible does not contain God. Rather, the Bible contains God’s sufficient (but only partial) revelation of Himself. Yet because God is rational and truthful, we must understand that He will act in accordance with this revelation (lest He prove irrational). Thus any understanding of God that is dependent on doctrine that is outside of the clear teaching of Scripture must be rejected. We can have confidence in the framework of knowledge God provides in the Bible. We can have confidence that it is truly true, even if it is incomplete.

When we study the Bible we must understand that God’s Word is not given to us so that it might restrain or contain God. On the contrary, the Word is given to restrain and contain us! We need to be subject to God, not as He is found in a single verse of Scripture or as He is found in our imaginations, but as He has revealed Himself through the entirety of His revelation.

In our next article we will look at how we are prone to put God in a box through our piety.

December 05, 2006

There is a sense in which this blog is, for lack of a better word, living or dynamic. What I mean is that I sometimes write articles and return to them a year or two later and post them again, but only after refining them. As my understanding of various topics increases, I find myself drawn back to certain topics, wanting to improve upon and add to what I wrote in the past. I expect this cycle to continue so that as the years go by, a small number of articles may be improved upon several times over.

A couple of years ago I wrote about three related terms: revelation, inspiration and illumination. Today I’d like to briefly revisit those terms for they are critical concepts for Christians to understand. While most believers are at least vaguely familiar with the concepts surrounding revelation and inspiration, it seems far fewer understand illumination. Yet the three of them function together and, while distinct, rely on each other to form an important set of doctrines. It is important that we keep these concepts apart in our minds. We must not confuse them, for they are in no way synonymous. We will look at revelation and inspiration briefly and then turn to illumination.

Revelation

Scripture tells us that God has revealed Himself to humans in two ways. The first of these is known as Natural Revelation. The word “natural” speaks about nature, so the first way God has revealed himself is through nature - through all that He has created. Since we cannot see God, to learn about Him we must see Him indirectly in what He has made. For example, if I am a being that God created, I can learn something about God by looking at myself. Similarly I can learn about God from nature. I see that the universe is orderly and not chaotic and this teaches me about God’s character. If God created the universe, I can deduce that He is a God of order and not chaos. Similarly, I can learn from nature that God loves beauty and variety. There is much that nature reveals to us, but also much that it cannot reveal. The Bible tells us that nature is sufficient to teach us that God exists. It also speaks to us about our fallenness and sin but cannot tell us all we need to know to be saved from our sin.

The second way God has revealed Himself is through “Special Revelation.” This includes direct verbal communication such as Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall, words of prophecy, the times when God became man through Jesus Christ and finally, the Bible. There is some disagreement among Christians about whether direct revelation and prophecy have ceased since the “closing of the canon” (which is to say since the completion of the Bible). Christians who believe in the continuation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit believe that prophecy and direct revelation continue today but are somewhat less than infallible. Christians who do not believe in the continuing miraculous gifts believe that these forms of revelation have largely ceased and that we are to rely exclusively on Scripture. Regardless of a person’s perspective on the continuing gifts, the majority of what we learn about God is contained in the Bible. The Bible tells us much about God that natural revelation does not - who He is, what He has done and how He interacts with humans. While we may know of God’s existence through natural revelation, we can only be saved by what we learn through special revelation.

Inspiration

The Bible teaches that it was written by humans under the direct inspiration of God. To understand inspiration it is helpful to examine what this does not mean. First, it does not mean that it was written in a clever way or by a brilliant person. We may say that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an inspired story, but this is not what we mean when speak of the Bible being inspired. The Bible may be inspired in such a way, but this is not what the doctrine of inspiration teaches. Second, this does not mean that God gave people thoughts and ideas that they then expanded upon and wrote down. Rather, God was involved in both the thoughts and the actual words so that the words of the Bible truly are God’s words. Third, this does not mean the words are the words of men and only become God’s words as we read them and as He helps us understand them, for this makes Scripture far too subjective. Fourth, it does not mean that the people acted like robots or automatons, writing down God’s words in a trance-like state without thought or feeling, for if that had been the case we would not be able to explain the different styles and personalities that are evident in the various authors.

So what does it mean, then, that God inspired men to write the Bible? To understand this, we must understand that God is eternal and all powerful. God arranged and formed the lives of the people who wrote the Bible so that he was in control of their backgrounds and their personalities. It means that God used people - their thoughts, experiences, backgrounds and personalities - to write His words. If they spoke in simple words it was because God had decided in eternity past that they would not be highly educated. If they spoke in complex words and argued their points with great clarity, it was because God had dictated that they would be highly educated and have brilliant minds. The words they chose were the words God had determined from eternity that they would use. The author’s words were their own, yet at the same time, because God had so directed their lives, they were His words too.

Inspiration, then, is what God used to transmit to us the special revelation contained in the Bible.

Illumination

These concepts lead to one further concept that seems to receive far less attention than the other two. Illumination refers to God’s work in the lives of believers to make us able to believe and understand the words of the Bible. This does not mean the Spirit gives us new revelation - rather He applies to our lives the truths contained in His existing revelation. This doctrine depends on an understanding of human sin. Because we are polluted by sin we are not able to fully comprehend God’s revelation. Thus we are dependent on Him to illumine our hearts to see and understand it.

While illumination depends on prior revelation, it must be differentiated from it. As I mentioned earlier, most Christians do not expect God’s direct special revelation in our lives. None should expect infallible direct revelation in our lives. Instead we have the privilege of looking to his full and final infallible revelation in the Scripture and having assurance that the Spirit will illumine those words for us. Many Christians confuse these. When they suddenly come to understand a deep truth in Scripture, they may believe that God has spoken to them, seemingly indicating a type of revelation. What has happened, though, is that God has illumined their hearts to understand a truth from His word.

We see many examples of God’s illumination in the Bible. King David, in writing Psalm 119 asked the Lord “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law.” In the twenty fourth chapter of Luke Jesus, when appearing to the disciples after His resurrection, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” Following His ascension, He sent the Holy Spirit to be our guide and to illumine the Scriptures for us. Paul referred to this many times, often praying that his readers would experience it. Perhaps the clearest example is in Ephesians 1:17-18 where we read “…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” Today we continue to experience the privilege of having the Holy Spirit work through us to bring light to the Scriptures.

Illumination is what separates believers from unbelievers when we read the Bible. An unbeliever may read the Bible and view it merely as a religious or historical document, much like I would read the Koran or the Book of Mormon. But when a Christian reads the Bible, the Spirit guides him to see not merely history and religion, but the very words of God. And even more important, He allows the person to apply the great truths of the Bible to his life. He initiates change through the words of the Scripture. Being a Christian, then, is a necessary prerequisite for the Spirit’s illumination.

It would be easy to think that with the Spirit’s help we can understand everything the Bible contains, but this is not necessarily so. We know there are some concepts that are too great for us and that God has chosen to remain hidden to us. For example, with the Spirit’s illumination we can see the Trinity in the Bible and even understand aspects of how the Trinity works, but we can never truly understand the inner workings of the godhead and comprehend how three can be one. Similarly we may not ever know why God allows certain events to happen while keeping other ones from ever taking place. God gives us knowledge of the Bible that is true, but not exhaustive.

We might also like to think that the illumination of the Spirit precludes us from doing thorough, carefully study of the Bible, but again, this is not so. While we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us as we study His word, we must still labor to fulfill the Bible’s commands to “cut it straight” - to accurately handle the word. In this way we can have assurance that the Spirit has, indeed, helped us to see truth and not error. As with most other things in life, God still commands us to work hard and to dedicate ourselves to the task. Just as we would not sit back and expect God to provide for us financially when we refuse to do useful labor, in the same way we should not expect Him to illuminate the Word for us when we are not diligent in seeking the truth.

Application

In Revelation, God takes His words and thoughts and conveys them to a man. In Inspiration the man, under the power of the Holy Spirit, takes these thoughts and puts them on paper. And in Illumination, these words go from paper into the hearts of men, aided by the Spirit. In brief, then, revelation is from God to man, inspiration is man to paper and illumination is paper to man. The entire process is governed by the Holy Spirit.

So let’s make this practical. What does the concept of illumination really mean to me and to you?

First, it gives me assurance that God can and will speak to me through His word. I do not need to rely on my own intellect and ability, but can have confidence that God Himself is working in and through me to bring light to the words of the Scripture. Neither do I need an expert to mediate God’s Word to me. Rather, I can rely on God Himself to reveal the meaning of Scripture.

Second, I must seek the Spirit’s illumination when I study the Scripture. I should invite Him to guide me as I read and continually turn to Him, asking Him to help me when I am stuck or perplexed. I should not be tempted to rely on my own efforts.

Third, I must be diligent in my studies. The Spirit works through my efforts, not apart from them. If I am not properly engaged in studying the word, I can not expect Him to help me. It is one of God’s mysteries that our study becomes more rewarding, more meaningful, as we dedicate greater effort to it. While we must rely on the Spirit, He expects us to be diligent.