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.
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.