A couple of years ago I got thinking about the idea of putting God in a box. This is a charge people often level at conservative Christians and Reformed folk in particular. It is not unusual for us to hear that we seem to feel that we have got God figured out, stuffed and mounted on the wall. And to some extent this may be true. I began to write about this and soon came up with a short series of posts. I’ve been thinking about this again recently and wanted to take the opportunity to revisit this series, tear it apart and try to do it again. So over the next few days I want to talk about our propensity to put God in a box, see how this is happened and what we can do to escape this temptation. I hope you’ll find the series both interesting and useful.
My family used to own a beautiful cottage in the woods near one of the most picturesque villages in Ontario. This village was once a center of commerce along the Rideau Lake system – a series of canals and both natural and artificial lakes that span the 200 kilometers between the cities of Kingston and Ottawa. The canal system was built in the early part of the nineteenth century to provide a quick avenue of travel should hostilities once again break out between the United States and Canada. Today it stands as a part of this nation’s history and as a peaceful and beautiful vacation destination.
This village, named Chaffey’s Locks after Samuel Chaffey, one of its first inhabitants, now has a population of only a hundred people. Yet it was once a bustling town centered around a series of rapids flowing between two lakes. Because of the thirteen foot difference in elevation between the lakes, a dam and a lock had to be built in this town. The dam held back the water and created a fast-flowing series of rapids that provided the energy to run Chaffey’s mills. Farmers from miles around came to the town to use these mills, and it grew, quickly becoming one of the most important towns along the Rideau. Though Chaffey died of malaria only seven years after founding these mills, by the time of his death his milling complex consisted of grist, carding and saw mills and a distillery. The town was prospering.
The importance of the town was inseparable from the dam. It was this dam that held back the water, confining it and then allowing it to be released with the power to drive the mills. Without the dam the town would have been no more important than any of the other villages dotting the length of the system of lakes and canals.
Most Christians, whether they will admit it or not, have dammed God in much this way. We have erected barriers around Him, seeking to constrain Him within a system of theology. We often seem to think that the tighter we box Him in, the greater the power we will be able to bring to bear when we release Him. In the same way that water, when placed under enough pressure can drive the wheel of a mill, or can even cut through steel, so we believe that God is at His most powerful when He is most constrained within a system of theology.
In this article series I would like to examine some of the ways we have put God in a box and suggest ways we can free ourselves from this box. It is worth noting that while I suggest we are the ones who put God in a box, we are also the ones who need to be freed. That is simply because we may put God in a box in our minds, but this in no way affects His character or His ability to act. God cannot be bound except in our minds.
Before we begin, we need to reconcile God’s revelation of Himself with our ability to understand Him. In other words, has God put Himself in a box? God has given us knowledge of Himself, both through Creation and through the Scriptures. But the Bible is clear that this is not complete knowledge — it is only and exactly what we need to know about Him. He told us no more than we need and no less than He considered beneficial. Whenever we study God, we need to acknowledge that He defines the limits of our study. James White writes, “If we wish to know God truly, we must be willing to allow Him to reveal to us what He wants us to know, and He must be free as to how He wants to reveal it. He has given us a treasure trove of truth about Him, but He has not deemed it proper to reveal everything there is to know (if such is even possible). We dare not go beyond the boundaries He has set in His Word” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity, page 34). As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, God has given us true knowledge but of Himself, but not exhaustive knowledge. God is the one who sets the limits as to what we can know and how much we can know.
Thus while God reveals Himself most fully through the Scriptures, this does not place Him in a box. He gives us His Word so that we can know and understand Him, but only so far as finite humans can understand an infinite God. “He defies our categories and our feeble attempts to comprehend Him. If He didn’t, He wouldn’t be God” (The Forgotten Trinity, page 42). God is not contained in Scripture — He is merely revealed in part and in a way we can understand.
There is a difficulty inherent in attempting to define what is indefinable. The barrier is language. How can a finite mode of communication such as words, do justice to what is infinite? In truth, it cannot. Words cannot adequately express who God is and how He works. Humans communicate by means of examples. We compare one thing to another and compile a database in our minds of like objects. Many years ago I used to work at a Starbucks and people would often ask me what the different types of coffee tasted like. To answer I would try to determine whether the person often drank high quality coffee or if he usually drank coffee from the local donut store. If he was accustomed to donut shop coffee, I might say “this coffee tastes like a very strong cup of Tim Horton’s coffee.” Of course there may be other varieties of coffee that taste more like this new one than Tim Horton’s, but those flavors have not yet been inputted into his database. As he continued to visit the store and as his knowledge of coffee increased I was able to provide more concise and more accurate descriptions based on closer comparisons. “It has a lighter, smoother taste than the flavor you drank last time you were here.” Or “this coffee has a strong, earthly flavor much like the Sumatra.” In either case I still use only use comparisons but I can draw more accurate comparisons because his frame of reference has increased.
This process works quite well. Or it does until we attempt to define something that is truly unique. Much of God’s revelation of Himself, even the portion of it that He has given to us, is truly unique. There is nothing we can use to adequately compare with God’s omnipresence or with the Trinity, to provide only two examples. And so our language limits us from true understanding. (For more on this, see chapter 2 of The Forgotten Trinity).
Thus we need a spirit of humility as we approach the Word of God, knowing that it tells us many things about God, but not everything. And while we can truly know God, we cannot know Him fully. We would do well to keep several passages in mind. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Again, we must remember that while what He has revealed of Himself is entirely truthful, it is by no means complete. In Psalm 131 David affirms that there are some things that He can never understand. “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.” David’s response is important. “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 is at peace, resting in his understanding that God does have full knowledge and that He is fully in control, even of those things we do not understand. This leads him to exhort his people to “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.” David’s understanding of his own limitations leads him to worship the One who knows all.
It may be helpful to view God’s revelation of Himself as the framework that defines the edges to a box. God has revealed Himself to us within this framework. While what He has told us is surely truthful, it may not be complete. When God tells us within Scripture that “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) we can have confidence that He means it. He will never leave nor forsake those who believe in Him. When Scripture assures us that God is not the author of sin, we know that the words are true and that God is in no way culpable for the sin in the world. And when we read “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) we can have confidence that God does mean “all things.” He does not send us purposeless calamity. These things that God tells us He will not or cannot do serve as a framework around which we can understand Him. The fact is, if God did not provide us with a framework within which we can understand Him, we would be unable to comprehend Him in any way. To repeat an important point — God is not contained in Scripture — He is merely revealed in a way we can understand.
I would now like to move on to show how we are prone to place God in a box. Within the Reformed tradition there are three major emphases that have flourished in the past. I believe they provide a helpful framework through which we can understand the ways we box God.
The first emphasis is the doctrinalist. This emphasizes adherence to doctrine and theology as taught in the Bible and in the creeds and confessions of the church.
The second emphasis is the pietist. This emphasizes God’s work in one’s daily life and a close, personal walk with God.
The third emphasis is the transformationalist. This emphasizes the importance of relating the message of the Bible to the world.
These three emphasizes may overlap to some extent, and there is a sense in which we are making false distinctions, yet they provide a helpful breakdown. We will examine each of these three in further articles.