The Hermeneutical Centrality of the Doctrine of God
The theological topic that has served as the catalyst for my most recent wave of theological passion has been the doctrine of God. The doctrine of God is deeper and much more complex than I could have ever imagined and the theological discourse is rich, at times intense, but most ultimately edifying.
Prior to coming to seminary, I had the belief that what one understood about ‘God’ was wholly derived from Scripture. That was quickly shaken out of me as soon as I began to study the attributes of God for one of my papers. I began with the study of the assertion that God is eternal which is typically understood that God (1) does not have a beginning and (2) does not have an end, however, many of the books that I read introduced a third component which asserted that God (3) does not experience temporal succession. This simply means that God does not go from moment to moment but instead, He exists in one eternal moment. This third element is the assertion that is most closely related to the “timelessness” of God. If God is timeless then He can not experience temporal succession, nor can He experience temporal location or extension. All of this was fascinating for me as they did not at all comport with my understanding of God. The first question that came to my mind was how do these theologians derive this doctrine from Scripture? Many of the theologians I was reading strongly asserted that all doctrine needs to be derived directly from Scripture, however, I had a difficult time seeing the explicit or even implicit assertion of God not enduring a temporal succession. On the contrary, it seemed plainly obvious from reading Scripture that God does in fact endure some form of temporal succession. The proof-texting that was used to support this idea of timelessness often was, in my opinion, a really poor use of Scripture and borderline inappropriate. This problem is duplicated for many of the other attributes of God including immutability, impassibility, and especially divine simplicity. It was clear that this was not as open and shut as many of the theologians I was reading made it seem. So I set out to explore these different attributes further and most theologians I was familiar with weren’t discussing them at all in-depth, however, the philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians were dealing with them extensively and deeply. Since that moment, I have been thrust deep into the conversation of religious language, Classical Theism, models of God, you name it, and each step in exploration has been both edifying and spiritually invigorating for me, though it has also been tremendously challenging at times as well.
As I have studied the doctrine of God, I have come to realize how important one’s presuppositional understanding of God plays into their interpretation of the biblical text. We bring a lot of baggage to the word ‘God’ in Scripture and it is evident to me that when we do that, we morph our interpretation of the text.
If God is impassable, then nothing external to God can cause God to be moved to any particular state. This would mean that creatures do not have any influence on God. So when someone who espouses the doctrine of impassability comes to verses like Deuteronomy 32:19-22 (ESV) they are met with an immediate challenge.
19 “The LORD saw it and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
What is the proponent of impassability to do with this explicit statement from God that He was moved to anger by the actions of creatures? There seem to me to be three options (1) deny impassability, (2) reformulate the doctrine, or (3) re-interpret the Scripture. There have been some who have taken the latter option and have said that God is not actually moved to anger, instead this should be taken as an anthropopathic statement in that God is using condescending language for our human understanding of the situation, but He in His being is not actually moved to anger. This reinterpretation is tremendous to me as it seems to be almost contradictory, if not deceptive, on God’s part in revealing Himself as being moved to anger to the Israelites when He is in fact not. Naturally, if this is the case, how can we be sure that anything God has revealed about Himself could be literally true?
However, on the other hand, there are great practical implications, philosophical reasoning, and historical Christian support for the doctrine of divine impassability from some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church. The idea that God is passable is not so easily argued and the denial of impassibility seems to be difficult when you take the whole model of God together. So what are we to do with these doctrines? How do we reconcile this strong support with the plain teaching of the biblical witness?
We see this extend into less philosophical debates that deal with God’s attributes that are categorized as his communicable attributes like His love, His goodness, His holiness, His sovereignty. What we understand about these communicable attributes both in their definition and their scope can play a tremendous role in how we interpret different passages. We often take a communicable attribute of God, such as His love, and then predicate to that attribute what we believe it would mean for God to be loving across a certain set of circumstances, and then we reinterpret passages according to this overlayed understanding of God’s love. Thus the verses that speak against homosexuality are not an expression of God’s desire for heteronormative relationships, but instead, they are just cultural ideas that got into text and we know this because God is love, and being love He would want all people to have the opportunity to experience the romantic loved that they innately desire. The same can be said for His sovereignty. Some will assert that for God to be sovereign, there could not be a maverick molecule that was not exactly where God wanted it to be and determined it to be, otherwise, He could not be in control and He could not be sovereign. We then take this understanding of sovereignty and carry it with us throughout the biblical text so when we see that Jonah plainly appeared to choose to be disobedient to God’s command in the text, it was God in His secret will directing Jonah to be disobedient to His own commands because if Jonah freely chose to be disobedient to God, then God would not be sovereign and in the minds of some, God could not be God. Therefore, it could not be the case the Jonah made a choice to disobey God.
It is clear biblically that God is sovereign. It is clear biblically that God is love. However, we often predicate meaning to those attributes and then use those attributes as an interpretive lens as we are studying Scripture. I think it is plain to see how problematic this approach can be and the implications it can have for the meaning that we derive out of Scripture.
My intent with this article is not to open a debate on classical theism or to make an assertion about what it would mean for God to be loving or sovereign but it is instead to draw attention to the role that the doctrine of God plays in how we read and interpret Scripture. It’s an attempt to step back and look at the baggage that we bring to the text when we read the word ‘God’. My hope in drawing attention to this is to exhort a deeper and more comprehensive examination of the doctrine of God.
In my limited experience, most Christians either do not have a firm awareness of their presuppositional baggage, or they are comfortable with committing themselves to the doctrines that are being passed down to them in biblical packaging that says “from the Bible” without realizing that the package is empty. If we are going to study the Scripture and study it well, we must start with the doctrine of God. Otherwise, with our presuppositions, we could be unintentionally reading meaning into the text that isn’t there or we could be working to unsay things that God has revealed to us to be true. There will be no getting around using our understanding of the doctrine of God as an interpretative lens through which we read Scripture, it is a central part of the hermeneutical process. With that being the case, it would seem to me that we ought to be faithful in our study of the doctrine of God by diving deeper and wrestling with some of these issues and examining their relationship to the biblical text and what God has revealed to us about Himself.
How much time have you spent studying the doctrine of God? Do you feel it is as necessary as I have argued above? What do you do with passages that demonstrate God as changing His mind, existing in time, experiencing emotion? Let me know in the comments below.