What does it mean to say “God”? Many today would have to answer this question as Augustine did when asked for a definition of time: “When I am not asked I know very well, but when I am asked I do not know at all!”

The doctrine of God is a confused area in Western theology. Each of its three departments—the divine attributes, the Trinity, and God’s relation to the world—is disputed territory. This is basically because agreement is lacking as to how the doctrine should be constructed and defended. Different intellectual methods for doing this naturally produce different theological results.

Hybrids often prove unstable, and the Western heritage of theism is a hybrid. It grew out of the apologetic theology of the early centuries, in which much was made of the thought that Greco-Roman philosophy was a providential preparation for the gospel.

This theism, which found its fullest statement when Thomas Aquinas formulated it in Aristotelian terms, was a blend of reasoning from philosophy and the Bible, the former appearing to provide the frame into which the latter has to fit. But that changed with the Kuyperian, Barthian, and neo-Lutheran movements of this century. Each of these, in its own way, drew on Luther’s and Calvin’s criticisms of natural theology. But they pushed Luther’s and Calvin’s arguments to the point where it seemed that any appeal to reason to support or confirm scriptural revelation would be out of place. As a result, some aspects of theism in its traditional form have become widely suspect among mainstream theologians.

This means that when facing challenges to theism, Protestant theologians have not always known what to say. They have sometimes been tempted to take up panicky and defeatist slogans like that fathered by the late John Robinson: “Our image of God must go.” But that is not the way of wisdom. Certainly some rethinking is called for, but it is minor modification, not abandonment of traditional theism, that we need.

The Anatomy of Theism

It will help us to review the ingredients that make up historic Christian theism. Here is a check list of the usual items, expressed in as simple a way as the thoughts allow.

1. God is personal and triune. God is as truly three personal centers in a relationship of mutual love as he is a single personal deity. God is always Three-in-One and One-in-Three, and in all divine acts all three persons are involved. “He” when used of God means “the”—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

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2. God is self-existent and self-sufficient. God does not have it in him, either in purpose or in power, to stop existing. He exists necessarily. The answer to the child’s question “Who made God?” is that God did not need to be made, since he was always there. He depends on nothing outside himself, but is at every point self-sustaining.

3. God is simple, perfect, and immutable. This means he is wholly and totally involved in everything that he is and does, and his nature, goals, plans, and ways of acting do not change, either for the better (for, being perfect, he cannot become better than he is) or for the worse.

4. God is infinite, without body, all-present, all-knowing, and eternal. God is not bound by any of the limitations of space or time that apply to us, his creatures, in our present body-anchored existence. Instead, he is always present everywhere, though invisibly and imperceptibly. He is at every moment cognizant of everything that ever was, or now is, or shall be.

5. God is purposeful and all-powerful. He has a plan for the history of the universe, and in executing it he governs and controls all created realities. Without violating the nature of things, and without at any stage infringing upon the human free will, God acts in, with, and through his creatures to do everything that he wishes to do exactly as he wishes to do it. By this sovereign, overruling action he achieves his goals.

6. God is both transcendent over and immanent in his world. On the one hand he is distinct from the world, does not need it, and exceeds the grasp of any created intelligence that is found in it. Yet on the other hand he permeates the world in sustaining and creative power, shaping and steering it in a way that keeps it on its planned course.

7. God is impassible. This means that no one can inflict suffering, pain, or any sort of distress on him. Insofar as God enters into an experience of suffering, it is by empathy for his creatures and according to his own deliberate decision. He is never his creatures’ victim. This impassibility has not been taken by the Christian mainstream to mean that God is a stranger to joy and delight. Rather, it has been construed as an assertion of the permanence of God’s joy, which no pain clouds.

8. God is love. Giving out of good will, for the recipient’s benefit, is the abiding quality both of ongoing relationships within the Trinity and of God’s relationship with his creatures. This love is qualified by holiness (purity), a further facet of God’s character that finds expression in his abhorrence and rejection of moral evil.

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9. God’s ways with mankind, as set forth in Scripture, show him to be both awesome and adorable by reason of his truthfulness, faithfulness, grace, mercy, patience, constancy, wisdom, justice, goodness, and generosity. For these glorious qualities God is eternally worthy of our praise, loyalty, and love. The ultimate purpose of human life is to render to him worship and service, in which both he and we will find joy. This is what we were made for, and are saved for. This is what it means to know God, and to be known by him, and to glorify him.

10. God uses his gift of language, given to mankind, to tell us things directly in and through the words of his spokesmenprophets, apostles, the incarnate Son, the writers of Holy Scripture, and those who preach the Bible. God’s messages all come to us as good news of grace. They may contain particular commands, even threats or warnings, but the fact that God addresses us at all is an expression of his good will and an invitation to fellowship. And the central message of Scripture, the hub of the wheel whose spokes are the various truths about God that the Bible teaches, is and always will be God’s unmerited gift of salvation, freely offered to us in and by Jesus Christ.

Traditional Theism Under Fire

Now, what are the present-day problems with this venerable understanding of God? They come down to its sources and method. The positions themselves, as stated above, are plainly biblical. But the Platonist-Augustinian-Thomist tradition of philosophical theism has persistently held that knowledge of God’s reality and of several of the above facts about him can and should be gleaned by rational analysis apart from the Bible’s witness. This is where the uncertainty centers.

Karl Barth, in the powerful, Bible-based reassertions of trinitarian theism of his Church Dogmatics, spurned the help of this kind of rational theology. (It has traditionally been called natural theology.)

This did more than any other twentieth-century contribution to produce a pendulum swing against attempts to wed theology to philosophy. To be concerned lest philosophy becomes the dominant partner in this marriage is right and proper. Barth, however, wanted to go further, and divorce them—a different agenda altogether.

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Barth himself would use philosophical concepts as tools to help investigate biblical teaching. But he would not let these concepts become grids limiting in advance what God is free to say to us through Scripture.

Barth’s protest, though justified within limits, threw the doctrine of God into great confusion. It opened the door to a selective reading of the Bible, free of coherent rational control, and operating without regard for any of the traditional fixed points. That is what we face today in many quarters. The pendulum still swings between Thomist and Barthian extremes, and shows no sign of coming to rest.

Karl Barth’s Theism

Barth’s contribution, though disruptive in the way just described, paves the way for some clarifications of the doctrine of God that we badly need.

Granted, his attack on the basis of natural theology—that is, the recognition that our existence and God’s have something in common—was certainly overdone. Granted, too, Barth’s denial of general revelation through the created order was a mistake. (His refusal to recognize general revelation, apart from the gospel, in Romans 1:18–32 and 2:9–16, seems little short of perverse.)

Neverthelss, his polemic against the claim of natural theology, to establish for us foundation truths about God as a kind of runway for revelation, now appears as a largely justified attack on nineteenth-century attempts to domesticate God. (Barth’s break with liberal theology began around 1915, when prominent German theologians blithely spoke of “using” the Christian faith “for purposes of conducting” World War I.) And Barth’s insistence that all our doctrine of God must come from the Bible was healthy and right.

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So it will not be enough to dismiss Barth as eccentric and then slump back into traditional postures and parrotings. If Barth with his type of biblicism did not do well enough, we must try with ours to do better. To that end I now venture some comments on the doctrine of God as today’s evangelicals have received it.

Three Important Purgings

There are three important respects in which the traditional doctrine needs purging. It needs to be purged of elements of natural theology, elements of mystification, and elements of rationalism. Let me explain.

First, elements of natural theology need to be purged. Against Barth, I affirm that general revelation is a fact, and its impact will again and again produce thoughts about God that, so far as they go, are right. (Like those of Epimenides and Aratus that Paul cites in Acts 17:28.) Many are confident that rational apologetics (a form of natural theology) can, under God, trigger and crystallize such thoughts and insights. Unlike Barth, I see no reason to doubt their confidence.

Yet I contend that natural theology needs to be eliminated from our attempts at theological construction. There are five reasons.

First, we do not need natural theology for information. Everything that natural theology, operating upon general revelation, can discern about the Creator and his ways is republished for us in those very Scriptures that refer to the general revelation of these things (see Ps. 19; Acts 14:17, 17:28; Rom. 1:18–32, 2:9–16). And Scripture, which we rightly receive on the grounds that it is God’s own word of testimony and law, is a better source of knowledge about God than natural theology can ever be.

Second, we do not strengthen our position by invoking natural theology. On the contrary, claiming that biblical truths rest on philosophical foundations can only give the impression that the biblical message about God’s redemption is no more certain than is the prior philosophical assertion of God’s reality. And God’s reality, on this scenario, must be established by reason—unaided by revelation. Thus revelation becomes distinctly dependent on philosophy.

Third, all expositions of the analogy of being, and all attempts to show the naturalness of theism—all “proofs” for God’s existence and goodness, in other words—are logically loose. They state no more than possibilities (for probabilities are only one kind of possibilities) and can all be argued against indefinitely. This will damage the credit of any theology that appears to be building and relying on these arguments.

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Fourth, the speculative method for building up a theology is inappropriate. As Louis Berkhof has observed, such a method takes man as its starting point, and works from what it finds in man to what is found in God. “And in so far as it does this,” Berkhof writes, “it makes man the measure of God.” That, of course, does not “fit in a theology of revelation.”

Fifth, there is always a risk the foundations that natural theology lays will prove too narrow to build all the emphases of Scripture upon. Thus, for instance, in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, natural theology purports to establish that there is one God, who is the first cause of everything. But nothing is said about the personal aspects of God’s being. This personal dimension is central to the biblical revelation of God, setting it in stark contrast with (for instance) the divine principle in Hindu thought.

Thomas’s approach, however, encourages the theologian to downplay the biblical stress on it, to treat God as an impersonal object rather than a personal subject, and to see himself as standing over God to study him rather than under God to obey him.

It seems right to limit our use of natural theology to the realm of supportive apologetics (showing biblical faith to be reasonable), and not to give it any place in our attempts to state what the biblical faith actually is.

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Exit Mystification

In retooling traditional theism for today, we need, secondly, to purge elements of mystification. By “mystification” I mean the idea that some biblical statements about God mislead as they stand, and ought to be explained away. A problem arises from a recurring tendency in orthodox theism to press the legitimate and necessary distinction between what God is in himself and what Scripture says about his relation to us.

To be specific, sometimes God is said to change his mind and to make new decisions as he reacts to human doings. Orthodox theists have insisted that God did not really change his mind, since God is impassible and never a “victim” of his creation. As writes Louis Berkhof, representative of this view, “the change is not in God, but in man and man’s relations to God.”

But to say that is to say that some things that Scripture affirms about God do not mean what they seem to mean, and do mean what they do not seem to mean. That provokes the question: How can these statements be part of the revelation of God when they actually misrepresent and so conceal God? In other words, how may we explain these statements about God’s grief and repentance without seeming to explain them away?

Surely we must accept Barth’s insistence that at every point in his self disclosure God reveals what he essentially is, with no gestures that mystify. And surely we must reject as intolerable any suggestion that God in reality is different at any point from what Scripture makes him appear to be. Scripture was not written to mystify, and therefore we need to ask how we can dispel the contrary impression that the time-honored, orthodox line of explanation leaves.

Three things seem to be called for as means to this end.

First, we need exegetical restraint in handling Scripture’s anthropomorphisms (phrases using human figures to describe God). Anthropomorphism is characteristic of the entire biblical presentation of God. This is so not because God bears man’s image, but because man bears God’s, and hence is capable of understanding God’s testimony to the reasons for his actions. The anthropomorphisms are there to show us why God acted as he did in the biblical story, and how therefore he might act towards us in our own personal stories. But nothing that is said about God’s negative or positive reactions to his creatures is meant to put us in a position where we can tell what it feels like to be God. Our interpretation of the Bible must recognize this.

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Second, we need to guard against misunderstanding of God’s changelessness. True to Scripture, this must not be understood as a beautiful pose, eternally frozen, but as the Creator’s moral constancy, his unwavering faithfulness and dependability. God’s changelessness is not a matter of intrinsic immobility, but of moral consistency. God is always in action. He enters into the lives of his creatures. There is change around him and change in the relations of men to him. But, to use the words of Louis Berkhof, “there is no change in his being, his attributes, his purpose, his motives of action, or his promises.” When one conceives of God’s immutability in this biblical way, as a moral quality that is expressed whenever God changes his way of dealing with people for moral reasons, the biblical reference to such change will cease to mystify.

Third, we also need to rethink God’s impassibility. This conception of God represents no single biblical term, but was introduced into Christian theology in the second century. What was it supposed to mean? The historical answer is: Not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation. Not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief, either. It means simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.

This understanding was hinted at earlier, but it is spelled out here because it is so important, and so often missed. Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity. If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.

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Problems of Rationalism

The final step needed to spruce up traditional theism is to purge it of elements of rationalism. Just as the two-year-old son of a man with a brain like Einstein’s could not understand all that was going on in his father’s mind if his father told him, so it would be beyond us to understand all that goes on in the all-wise, and not in any way time-bound mind of God.

But, just as the genius who loves his boy will take care to speak to him at his own level, even though that means reducing everything to baby talk, so God does when he opens his mind and heart to us in the Scriptures. The child, though aware that his father knows far more than he is currently saying, may yet learn from him all that he needs to know for a full and happy relationship with Dad. Similarly, Scripture, viewed as torah (God’s fatherly law), tells us all that we need to know for faith and godliness.

But we must never forget that we are in the little boy’s position. At no point dare we imagine that the thoughts about God that Scripture teaches us take the full measure of his reality. The fact that God condescends and accommodates himself to us in his revelation certainly makes possible clarity and sureness of understanding. Equally certain, however, it involves limitation in the revelation itself.

But we forget this, or so it seems; and then appears the rationalism of which I am speaking. It is more, I think, a temper than a tenet, but it produces a style of speech that in effect denies that there is anything about God we do not know. By thus failing to acknowledge his incomprehensibility beyond the limits of what he has revealed, we shrink him in thought down to our size. The process is sometimes described as putting God in a box.

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It is certainly proper to stress, as against the sleep of reason in the world and the zaniness of subjectivism in the church, that scriptural revelation is rational. But the most thorough-going Bible believers are sometimes required, like Job, to go on adoring God when we do not specifically understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.

We should avoid like the plague any talk that suggests that we have enlisted him on our side, and now have him in our pockets. Confidence in the teaching of God’s written Word is to be maintained all the time. But this stance of theological triumphalism is something quite different, and is to be avoided.

God the Image Maker

This review of traditional theism, and suggestions for its possible refinement, has been heavy sledding. How can it all be pulled together? Can we focus our theism in a phrase? I welcome the suggestion that we should speak of God as the image maker.

This phrase binds together the main theistic thrusts that our secular world needs to face. Say “God,” and you point to the infinite, eternal, self-existent, self-revealing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Say “Maker,” and you point to the fundamental relationship between God and us. He is the Creator, we are his creatures.

Say “Image Maker,” and you point to the basis and presupposition of our knowledge of God—namely, the fact that he made us like himself. Included in that image are rationality, relationality, and the capacity for that righteousness that consists of receiving and responding to God’s revelation. We are able to know God because we are thinking, feeling, relating, loving beings, just as he is himself.

I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but it seems fairly clear to me that pressure on conservative theology is still building up from exponents of religious relativism and pluralism. This is so both within the church (where some think that the more theologies there are, the healthier and merrier we shall be) and outside it.

I expect over the next few decades to see the quest for a synthesis of world religions gain impetus, with constant attempts to assimilate Christianity into other faiths. We may expect a generation of debate on the program of moving through and beyond syncretism to a nobler religion than any that has yet been seen. That notion, which has emerged more than once in liberal circles, looks like an idea whose time, humanly speaking, has come; and countering it, I predict, will be the next round in the church’s unending task of defending and propagating the gospel. If this guess is right, we shall be badly at a disadvantage if we have not taken pains to brush up our theism, since the question of theism—whether or not we are going to think about God the Christian way, or some other way—will be at the heart of the debate. So I hope we shall take time out to prepare ourselves along the lines suggested—just in case.

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Sidebar vignettes also by. J. I. Packer; used with permission from Eerdman’s Handbook to Christian Belief (1982).

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