Today, Christian theology is a very broad field of study. There is the basic (but porous) division between biblical, systematic, historical, and philosophical theology, and within each of these are numerous sub-fields covering everything from the human condition to the nature of the biblical "covenant" to eschatology. But in its etymology, "theology" is simply the "logic" (study) of God (theos), the contemplation of the divine, a task that has engaged us for thousands of years and will continue to do so for as long as he remains beyond our full comprehension (that is, forever). It is to this narrower, more proper sense of the word "theology" that we now turn. At the slight but necessary risk of reductionism, I break down this study of God into two major parts: nature (what God is like) and acts (what God does). Each of these further breaks down: His nature into essential and moral attributes, and his acts into his roles as creator and sustainer.
Essential attributesAt the beginning of God's essential attributes (those intrinsic to his nature as "God") is his self-existence. This sounds banal, but God's nature as the self-existent one, the ultimate Reality, is both the most basic part of his nature and a major point of contact with philosophy. In the words of Aristotle, God is the "unmoved mover", the first cause without whom nothing else would exist. Or in God's own words, "I am who I am" (Exo 3:14, RSV). Similarly, in Orthodox iconography Jesus is always portrayed with the Greek words ho ōn, "the existing one" who has life (or existence) in himself (Jhn 5:26). Our existence seems concrete enough, but it is contingent on a number of things prior to ourselves. But there is nothing prior to God. As Tillich correctly (but incompletely) asserted, He is the ground of being for everything else that is. (Erickson 277-279)
Besides this, God is infinite in nearly every way we can imagine. He is omnipotent, or infinite in power, able to do all that he pleases (Psa 115:3). We see this demonstrated from the very first chapter of Genesis, where God simply speaks and the elements of the cosmos come into existence and obey his will, or Jesus' commanding the storm in Mat 8:23-27. It is the meaning of God's frequent title, "almighty" (Gen 17:1, 2 Cor 6:18). With God, all things are possible (Mat 19:26) and nothing is too hard (Jer 32:17), so that he is "able to do abundantly more than all we ask or think" (Eph 3:20); none of his purposes can be thwarted (Job 42:2). To avoid frivolous paradoxes like "Can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?", it's important to remember that God is able to do all that he wills to do; of course he does not will to act against his nature or create contradictions. The fact that God is not able to lie, break his promises, or create square circles is a strength, not a weakness.
God is omniscient, or infinite in his knowledge. This means, for one, that he has a perfect awareness of the operation of his whole creation, as he explains to Job in Job 38-41. "Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do" (Heb 4:13). He is never ignorant of a situation, never lacking the necessary information to make a judgment. And his comprehension of this information is likewise infinite; "his understanding is beyond measure" (Psa 147.5). God's thoughts are as high above ours as the heavens are from the earth (Isa 55:8-9); the doxology in Rom 11:33-36 praises "the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God". We can never presume to correct God; we can never know better than God; he can only trust that his counsel is all-wise.
God is eternal, or infinite in time. God boldly describes himself as "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (Rev 22:13); earlier he is praised as "the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come" (4:8). Being self-existent, it stands to reason that God has always existed and will always exist. It is a matter of speculation as to whether God progresses through time the same way we do (but with a perfect knowledge of the future) or whether he is outside our endless succession of moments; I lean toward the latter. C.S. Lewis holds this view, saying that "what we call 'tomorrow' is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call 'today'. All the days are 'Now' for Him." (Lewis 140) Additionally, God is constant; he does not fade, diminish, or change in any way through time (Psa 102:26-27 Mal 3:6, Jas 1:17).
God is also omnipresent, or infinite in extent, though with qualifications. Unlike we who can only be in one place at a time, God is not limited to occupy a certain location, nor does he need to travel from (say) one place of worship to another. He is "present" everywhere and "absent" nowhere. "'Do I not fill heaven and earth?', says the Lord" (Jer 23:24). Heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool (Isa 66:1); this is obviously not a literal statement but a powerful depiction both of God's lordship over the whole universe and his filling it. A corollary of this is God's immanence, or his constant presence with us. Because God is not bound by spatial constraints, "he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27), and Jesus is able to say "I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mat 28:20). David in Psalm 139:7-12 depicts this beautifully: even when he turns and flees from God, he can never escape his presence and his love.
But none of this should be taken to mean that God has a physical presence, even one that fills the universe. God is spirit, not made of matter or bound by any of the constraints of physicality (Jhn 4:24, Act 17:24); he is invisible (1 Tim 1:17) and no one has ever truly "seen" him (Jhn 1:18, 1 Tim 6:15-16), nor is it even possible for corporeal man to do so (Exo 33:20). Additionally God is transcendent, qualitatively higher and other than anything in the material world. This fact is part of the basis of the commandment against making idols of him (Exo 20:4). So Jesus, even with a human body, told his disciples that "I am not of this world" (Jhn 8:23). With no flight and no direct knowledge of the sky, the Bible is prone to using elevation as a metaphor for God's transcendence; he is "seated on high" (Psa 113:5), "enthroned in the heavens" (Psa 123:1); as previously mentioned, God's thoughts and ways are far above ours like the heavens above the earth (Isa 55:8-9). Verses that do seem to depict God with humanlike features or expressions should be understood as anthropomorphisms to communicate truth beyond our full understanding, rather than as literal truth.
Straddling God's natural and moral attributes is his personal nature. God is not distant and aloof from the world like the god of the deists, or an impersonal force, power, energy, etc. He is a distinct person with a name (given in Exo 3:14, mentioned in Gen 4:26, 12:8; Psa 20:7) who throughout the Bible is shown to have a specific will, desires, thoughts, and ideas, capable of interaction with created beings like us despite his transcendence (Genesis 3 portrays God very dynamically, for instance). Exodus 33:11 says that "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." Everything we are that makes us distinct persons, God also is, albeit in a qualitatively different and higher way than us.
Moral attributesWe move on to God's moral attributes (those that make him a morally good deity instead of neutral or evil). God is righteous, practicing steadfast love, justice, and righteousness on the earth and delighting in them (Jer 9:24). Gen 18:25 rhetorically asks "Shall not the judge of the earth do right?" (the answer is clearly 'yes'). Similarly God's commands are perfect, sure, right, pure, true, and righteous (Psa 19:7-9), corresponding to his good nature. Somewhat related to this, God is true, meaning both that he never lies (1 Sam 15:29, Tit 1:2) and his very word is truth (Jhn 17:17), and that he is the only true god, supremely worthy of our love and worship. (Jer 10:5-10, Jhn 17:3).
God is also holy. This intensifies God's righteousness; it means his absolute purity from all unrighteousness. God is morally perfect (Mat 5:48), unable to be tempted by evil (Jas 1:13). God repeatedly calls his people to be the same, as he is (Lev 11:44-45, Mat 5:48, 2 Cor 6:14-7:1). In light of this fact that the world and the people in it are not perfect, this means that God is morally as well as ontologically transcendent. Identification with him means separation from uncleanness in the corrupt world, though never a lack of concern for those in it (Isa 57:15). This was evident throughout the Mosaic law (see all the mentions of the word 'holy' in the book of Leviticus) and expressed with physical metaphors like the washing of hands; in the New Testament it is a more spiritual dissociation from the world and association with Christ (Jhn 17:14-16). God's holiness means that he is resolutely opposed to the sin and corruption in his creation, and if we want to follow him we have to change our allegiance.
As the Bible says, God is not merely loving but is love (1 Jhn 4:8,16). This doesn't mean we can project our own conceptions about what love is onto God or vice versa since our knowledge of both is incomplete, but that as we grow both in love and in personal knowledge of God, we can trust that they will align exactly. God demonstrated his love by electing Israel from among the nations to be his treasure (Deu 7:7-8) and sending his son for our salvation (Jhn 3:16), particularly by dying for our sins (1 Jhn 3:16, 4:10). God is benevolent, unconditionally concerned for the welfare of all of his creatures (Psa 57:10, 86:5, 103:13, 145:16), especially the lost, weak, or vulnerable (Deu 10:18, Mat 9:36). He is gracious, lavishing his love on us not according to merit but unconditionally, according to his mercy (Rom 5:6, Eph 1:4-8, Tit 3:3-7). He is patient, quick to forgive and slow to anger (Exo 34:6-7, Psa 86:15), in the hope that we will turn to him (Rom 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9,15). And he is faithful, dependably fulfilling all that he promises us (Num 23:19, 1 Th 5:24; this is also implied by his truthfulness).
God is also just. This means that his commands are, ultimately, enforced; no one is "above" his law. "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay', says the Lord." (Rom 12:19) Like a just judge, he punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous (Deu 7:9-10, Psa 58:11); life is ultimately 'fair' because of him. This does not mean that the wicked are punished immediately or as we may expect (Psalm 73 expresses dismay at this); God can even use one wicked nation to punish another (as Habakkuk learned). But on a larger scale, goodness will be rewarded and evil punished according to God's justice, specifically by the risen and glorified Christ. (Acts 17:31) God's justice means more than simply balancing the moral scales, though; it is his love and mercy distributed, especially to to those who are poor, vulnerable, and oppressed, who are viewed as recipients of justice irrespective of their moral status. (Exo 23:6; Psa 103:6, 140:12; Isa 1:17; Zec 7:9-10, Mat 12:18 [cite more in footnote]).
It's necessary here to correct a misunderstanding of justice as the necessity to punish sin or to demand "satisfaction" (something like Anselm's "debt of honor" owed by man to God for his sins (Pelikan 113) or a penalty for sin (Institutes 2.12.3)) as recompense for it. Combined with God's holiness as a sort of allergy to sin, it becomes a need to maintain a "divine spiritual economy" (Erickson 259) that is imbalanced by sin and, according to the demands of God's justice, must be set right by prosecution of the offense. This view of God's justice, which for us means that everyone faces God's wrath and deserves the punishment of hell for their sins (to satisfy God's need to punish sin, restore the moral economy, etc.), is viewed as conflicting with his love; the two are reconciled, it is supposed, by Jesus' work on the cross, in which Jesus took the punishment our sin requires (restoring the moral economy) and imputed to us his perfect, "alien" righteousness by which we merit salvation according to God's justice.
This view of God's justice implies that what we really need to be saved from is not so much our sin itself as God's wrath for our sins, that we would somehow be better off (or at least more comfortable) if he just left us in them, that his justice (rather than sin and death) is the enemy (Institutes 2.16.2) we are delivered from. We don't long for God's justice so much as we are mercifully spared from it. As well, it views justice through the lens of legalistic guilt and merit, making the upholding of an abstract moral economy the "point" of God's justice and painting him as "a distant bank manager, scrutinizing credit and debit sheets." (Wright 163) We are right to see this justice as in tension with God's love—it makes him capable only of accepting fair restitution for a debt rather than truly forgiving any sin. This justice is inward rather than outward-focused like God's other moral attributes, satisfied by receiving a repayment for debts owed rather than by giving mercy to the wronged and restoring the world to the way it should be. The punishment of those who pervert God's justice is a means to the end of restoring it, not the end itself.
The TrinityAs I stated above under God's transcendence, God is qualitatively higher and different than us, beyond our full comprehension. This is never more obvious than when dealing with two of the central mysteries of God and the Christian faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Trinity is the mystery that Christians worship one Godhead existing in three divine persons, each of whom is fully God. More precisely, the ecumenical council of Constantinople (381), at the leading of the Cappadocian fathers Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, established the orthodox formulation of the Trinity as "one ousia in three hypostaseis". (Erickson 305) The Greek words used here are difficult to translate accurately; "Godhead" and "persons" are some of the best attempts. Because of the confusion this teaching causes, it is a common object of criticism, especially from Jews and Muslims. It's worth noting that the threeness and the oneness are not in the same respect; otherwise the doctrine would be self-contradictory on its face.
Adding to the confusion, the Bible nowhere explicitly spells out the doctrine (Constantinople saw its first clear expression), yet it contains enough evidence pointing to it that the Trinity is considered as established a dogma of the church as anything else. First, the scriptures strongly testify that there is only one God. The shema in Deu 6:4-6 is the strongest statement of God's unity; Paul also affirms that "there is one God" in 1 Tim 2:5. But simultaneously, the divinity of the Father (Mat 6:26-30), Son (Mar 2:8-10, Jhn 8:58, Phl 2:5-11, Heb 1:1-4), and Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19-20) is affirmed. In a few places we see all three working together (Mat 3:16-17, Gal 4:6) or mentioned at once (Mat 28:19) in what appears to have become an established formula of the early church.
The Trinity is one of those doctrines that no one could have thought of unless they believed it were true. It is one of the most distinctive parts of Christianity. Far from the abstract, heady piece of theology some make it out to be, it is really central to Christian faith and worship. It means that even before anything was created, God was already love in himself. A little like the discovery of light as a spectrum, the acts of God in the Bible are revealed to have been done not by a unitary individual but by three united Persons, each of whom never acts alone. The eternally loving, self-giving relationship of the members of the Trinity (described as perichoresis, literally "around-dance") is the heavenly prototype of how God intends for us to live towards one another. And in its ultimate mystery (for we can never expect to understand the triune nature of God completely), we are constantly reminded of God's sublime transcendence.
The IncarnationThe other central mystery of the Christian faith is the Incarnation, the fact that the second person of the Trinity became human and lived among us on earth. Jesus, we commonly say, was (and arguably still is) fully God and fully human. How exactly this can be, given the apparent incompatibility of human nature with Jesus' essential attributes as God, was a perennial question that occupied several centuries of early church history; most of the early heresies and theological controversies centered around the status of Christ. The orthodox understanding of the Incarnation was most fully articulated at the ecumenical council of Chalcedon (451), which states in part that Christ is "true God and true human ... of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity ... This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, divison, or separation. The union does not destroy the differences of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis." (Gonzalez 301) More concisely, we may say that whereas the God as Trinity consists of one divine Godhead (or nature) and three Persons, Jesus is one Person with two natures, divine and human.
The biblical evidence for Christ's divinity has already been given, but it's worth reiterating that (contrary to what some skeptics claim) Jesus made more or less explicit claims to being God. The clearest is his assertion that "before Abraham was, I am" (Jhn 8:58), a claim both to coeternity with God and of God's name and self-existence as revealed to Moses in Exo 3:14, which prompted his audience to immediately try to stone him. Likewise he says that he will be enthroned in glory with the angels and judge the nations (Mat 25:31-33), seated at the right hand of Power (Mat 26:64, Mar 14:62). Rather than deny his divinity when accused before Pontius Pilate of making himself to be the son of God, he is silent (Jhn 19:7); likewise, he does not rebuke Thomas when he calls him "My Lord and my God!" (Jhn 20:28). Paul also testifies that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God". But at the same time, Jesus' humanity is evident throughout the gospels: he is born as a baby, grows up normally, he gets hungry and eats, gets thirsty and drinks, gets tired and sleeps, and ultimately dies as a human. John opens his gospel by testifying that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jhn 1:14) and Paul likewise says that Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phl 2:7).
The Incarnation is even more fundamental to the Christian faith than the Trinity. For Christ to be capable of saving us, he had to be God, but to redeem every part of humanity, he had to become fully human. (Ware 21) The Incarnation is a powerful and unique rebuke to dualism, monism, and every other way of imagining the relationship between flesh and divinity. God's becoming man demonstrates, in the strongest possible terms, the importance of the physical, which is often neglected in Christian theology and practice. Jesus did not take on flesh to save souls alone, but whole people. His crucifixion and resurrection set the pattern for us all, promising the redemption of the created world as well as the souls within it. As I have previously written, the dual human/divine nature of Christ also serves as a guide for our understanding of the scriptures, which are also fully human and fully divine.
God as creatorThough there is much more that could be said, we turn now from the nature of God to his acts. At the risk of oversimplifying, these break down into two main categories: creation and providence. First, the Bible consistently testifies that God is the creator of all things. This is the intent of the first two chapters of Genesis. Against the backdrop of similar ancient Near Eastern creation accounts like the Enuma Elish or Atrahasis, we see how Genesis contrasts the true God with the gods of Israel's pagan neighbors. No origin is given for God; as mentioned above, he is self-existent, unlike the gods of other creation myths who are often depicted as self-created, arising from primordial chaos. Unlike other creator deities, god creates alone and without a hint of struggle or difficulty, simply with a word. Unlike in Atrahasis, God is strongly distinguished from humans; he created them and is transcendentally higher than they are (barring the Incarnation). He does not create to fulfill any need of his own because he has no needs; from the beginning, his purpose is benevolent, not selfish.
It is also helpful to see what later scriptures make of the creation. Psalm 19 opens with praise to the glory of God as depicted in his handiwork; though God is transcendent from his creation, we can learn something about him by observing it. Job 26:1-14 and Isa 40:12 poetically describe God's acts of creation with a variety of human metaphors: binding up the waters of heaven with clouds, stilling the sea (an ancient symbol of chaos), measuring out the heavens, weighing the mountains. In the New Testament we get some broader statements: John 1:3 strongly asserts that God (with the Word, Jesus) created all things; nothing was made apart from him (see also Eph 3:9; Rev 4:11, 10:6). Though Genesis itself does not depict creation ex nihilo (from nothing), instead adopting the ancient Near Eastern functional understanding of creation as forming an ordered cosmos out of primordial chaos, by the first century this had strengthened to the understanding that "that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Heb 11:3); being the only eternal and self-existent being, God "calls into existence the things that do not exist." (Rom 4:17)
Creation vs. Science?In the past century or so a good deal of ink has been spilled about how God created the world and everything in it, and the apparent conflict between the biblical and scientific accounts of origins. Two main areas of tension are the age of the earth and the manner in which life (especially humans) came about. In the first case, whereas the Genesis creation account describes the creation as occurring in six days and suggests an age for the earth in the thousands of years, the study of geological strata and radiometric dating indicates that the earth is in fact billions of years old. (Lamoreux 422-427) In the second, the Bible describes the de novo (instantaneous, complete) creation of plants, animals, and humans "according to their kinds" (Gen 1:21,24,25). But the best scientific theory of origins is the theory of evolution, which, based on a fossil record that consistently diversifies and develops over time, postulates that all species evolved over time from a common ancestor via gradual genetic change and natural selection of advantageous adaptations. (Mayr 12-19)
Other evidences for evolution include the identification and tracking of similar features or morphologies between species (for instance, five-fingered mammalian forelimbs) (Mayr 22-27), the fact that embryos of disparate species all pass through very similar stages during development which serve as common foundations from which later structures develop (Mayr 27-30), the existence of vestigial features like teeth in baleen whales or eyes in cave-dwelling animals (Mayr 30-31), the biogeographic distribution of similar and different species which is explained by common ancestors inhabiting distant continents when they were connected (Mayr 31-34), and genetic similarities between species that allow us to estimate the age of their common ancestor with some precision (Mayr 34-39). The theory of evolution explains all of these observations intuitively and consistently. As a side note, it is important to treat evolution as what it is: a scientific theory based on empirical evidence, not a religion or philosophy. Theological or moral arguments cannot alter or disprove it; one fossil found in the wrong geological layer can.
A common way for Christians to respond to these evidences is concordism. This is the belief that the Bible, being the inspired word of God, speaks truth in a way that, being true, will nonetheless be in accord with the knowledge of science or at least not contradict it when both are understood properly. With this in mind, several possible theories are advanced to reconcile the scientific evidence of the age of the earth with Scripture. One of the most popular is the gap theory, which holds that there Genesis 1:1 describes an initial act of creation billions of years ago which suffered a catastrophe and fell into chaos in 1:2; a gap of billions of years takes place before God resumes creating in 1:3. (Erickson 350) The age-day theory holds that the Hebrew word for "day" in Genesis 1, yom, can also refer to an age or epoch, thus allowing the six days of creation to be aligned with different periods in natural history (and explaining how "days" could pass before the sun was created on the fourth day) (Erickson 351). To reconcile the evidence for evolution, the theory of progressive creation is advanced, which holds that God created species ("according to their kinds") instantaneously over a period of time (as they appear in the fossil record), which may have then diversified via the less-controversial process of microevolution. Continuing gaps in the fossil record could indicate points at which God created a new biblical "kind". (Erickson 353-354)
I do not find concordism to be a fruitful way to read Scripture. It tends to produce interpretations that feel forced and ad hoc, not quite doing justice to either the scientific or the biblical evidence and often creating more questions than they answer. For example, the age-day theory must explain how the ordering of God's creative acts in Genesis 1 appears to differ from the order given by science (e.g. the emergence of terrestrial plants before aquatic lifeforms and the sun) and the one given in Genesis 2, as well as cosmological features like the firmament (1:6-8) that have much more corroboration in contemporary ancient Near Eastern literature than in science. The gap theory must explain why God let the earth continue in a state of chaos for billions of years before resuming his creation. Progressive creation must explain why God would create so many species only to let them go extinct in the distant past, apparently before any humans sinned to bring death into the world.
Concordism implies a very literal theory of inspiration (the biblical authors did not fully understand the scientific truth they were writing, even though it bears a striking resemblance to contemporary creation myths) and doesn't seem eager to line up with science; progressive creation accepts microevolution but denies macroevolution when the same basic mechanism is held to be behind both. Additionally, its reliance on gaps in the fossil record is problematic given the tendency of gaps in scientific knowledge to close, not widen. We do much better to hold a view of God that is consistent with what we do know rather than what we don't. Another evidence for the truth of the theory of evolution is that it is predictive, lining up nicely with newly discovered evidence rather than requiring extensive changes to accommodate it. But it seems like concordist theories for reconciling science and Bible are only interested in getting past the current evidence (or even only a subset of that), hence the pointing to gaps.
I believe we best honor the Bible (and its divine author) when we do not expect it to contain modern, scientific truth. Reading it incarnationally, as both divine and human, we realize that the biblical authors communicated God's revelation through them using the literary forms and scientific knowledge of their own culture, not ours. Like Jesus, the Bible is the truth of God in human form. We treat Scripture faithfully when we treat it as it is, a collection of ancient (but nonetheless God-inspired) literature, not inerrant divine oracles free from any influence of their originating culture. When we read Genesis with its human (ancient Near Eastern) context in mind, we see that the idea of divine, de novo creation of man and the cosmos was not revelatory to its ancient Israelite hearers; it was the "common sense" explanation of where we came from, and it predated Genesis by hundreds or thousands of years (Walton 44-49). A modern analogue would be a creation account that glorifies God as the initiator of the Big Bang and author of the laws of physics. Comparative study of Genesis helps us to see how it differs from contemporary accounts, and thus what was revelatory about it, e.g. the fact that God has no origin and created alone, with a word rather than a cosmic struggle, and that he created man for dominion over the creation and relationship with him rather than for servitude.
Theologians have expressed alternatives to concordism even before the scientific revolution gave us any definite reason to doubt the Bible's scientific validity. In his treatise The Literal Meaning of Genesis, St. Augustine writes:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.In other words: if we interpret the Bible in a way that contradicts things that are common knowledge even to non-Christians, we harm our witness to the gospel and lead people to think that the authors of Scripture and God himself share our ignorance. When we use the Bible to argue against things that nonbelievers know well to be true, we destroy its credibility to them. The book of God's words and the book of God's works should not, ultimately, disagree with each other, and the potential to misunderstand either is close at hand.
It may seem as though Augustine is arguing for concordism after all (saying we should read the scriptures consistently with science rather than contradicting it), but there is a difference between accepting a scientific theory as true and rethinking our reading of Scripture in light of it, and filtering it through our current understanding of Scripture into something altogether different and, to the world, false. The mistaken interpreter in Augustine's example presumably believes his interpretation accurately describes the natural world. We no longer read the Bible like concordists when it comes to the solid firmament holding up the waters of the heavens (Gen 1:6-8, Psa 19:1, Job 37:18), the taxonomy of bats (Lev 11:13-19), or the earth's place in the universe (Jos 10:13; 1 Chr 16:30; Psa 19:6, 83:1; Ecc 1:5; Matt 5:45); we realize that, as ancient people, the biblical authors were simply less knowledgeable than we are on these subjects, and that their ignorance on such subjects in no way inhibits God's ability to speak his word through them.
God as sustainerIn its theology of God as the creator of all that is, Christianity has some parallels with deism. Where they diverge is the matter of God's providence. Christians do not believe that after creating everything visible and invisible and setting up the laws of the universe just so, God stepped back and passively let it all unfold. Rather, he continues to be actively, lovingly involved in his created order. The first way he does this is by sustaining all things. At the most basic level, this can mean simply supporting the continued (contingent) existence of all things; recall that all things "hold together" in Christ. (Col 1:17) Elsewhere we see that Christ is "upholding the universe by his word of power" (Heb 1:3), ruling over not only his image-bearers but stars and planets as the king of all. God's providence is also depicted over the realm of nature, providing for the birds of the air and grass of the field (Mat 26:31); Psalm 104 beautifully (and rather savagely) illustrates God's providence sustaining the whole animal kingdom. Jesus taught that God providentially gives sunlight and rain to the righteous and the unrighteous (Mat 5:45). We also see his sustenance at work in us, particularly in preserving the faith and standing of those who love him, as Paul powerfully argues in Rom 8:28-39.
The Old Testament, especially, reflects an ancient worldview that sees God as the author and actor behind all the workings and phenomena of nature, one that we have tragically lost sight of as science has "explained" nature to us in a way that seems to exclude divine activity. But, as I argued for creation above, the two perspectives are not incompatible. For example, we can view God as the reason that the world is "rational" or regular at all, surprisingly aligned with the workings of our minds, and that we can inductively study it and expect the laws we derive to apply in new situations. "From a purely empirical standpoint, there is no real basis for such an expectation." (Erickson 365) Questions like these, that science leads us to but cannot answer itself, are fertile common ground for integration with a theology of God as sustainer. We can also gain an increased understanding of God's providence in nature through scientific knowledge. In the chaos of the early universe and solar system, as well as in the physical constants that seem "fine-tuned" for the development of life, we get a sense of how incredibly improbable it is that we exist to wonder at it all. A modern scientific view of the world can lead us to wonder at God's creation and providence just as much as an ancient one.
God's providenceGod also providentially governs the created order. This governance is hard to cleanly separate from sustenance, but it is more dynamic and specific than constant and general, the working out of a specific and comprehensive design or purpose to a definite end. This is what we mean when we say that God is "sovereign" or that "his kingdom rules over all" (Psa 103:19); he is in control and "accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will." (Eph 1:11). God's governance extends over nature, where it blurs together with his sustaining work (Psa 135:5-7); over the lives of individuals (1 Sam 2:6-7) and their thoughts and plans (Pro 19:21), over kings and nations (Dan 2:21), the course of human history (Acts 17:26), and even seemingly random occurrences (Pro 16:33). In the New Testament, and especially in Jesus himself, we see examples of a faithful awareness of God's providential plan as a driving force. Paul was set apart to be an apostle before he was born (Gal 1:15), and Jesus was "delivered up [to be crucified] according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). Jesus himself often viewed his life as consciously fulfilling prophecy (Mat 26:64) and also appealed to God's plan when speaking of future events (Mar 13:7-10, Luk 21:20-22).
Of course this doctrine has some puzzling implications. How does God exercise his sovereignty over our actions, which (it seems to us) are freely chosen? In particular, is God in control over sinful actions and, if so, why does he allow them to happen? Proverbs 16:4 seems to answer "yes" to the latter: "The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble." Romans 9:22-24 also seems to affirm God's sovereignty over "vessels of wrath made for destruction". And there is not much room for excluding acts of sin from the all-inclusive verses about God's providence given above. The question begs itself: how can this be? If God detests sin and is in control over all things, why does he allow it? Is he somehow responsible for acts of sin? It seems as though either God's sovereignty over all things or his concern for sin will have to be relativized somehow.
God's sovereignty and human freedomThe two major ways that Protestants attempts to reconcile these poles are Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinism, named after its the reformer John Calvin, rethinks (though, he would maintain, does not deny) God's goodness in order to uphold his majestic sovereignty over all things. It affirms that nothing happens apart from God's foreordination according to his will; "the will of God is the supreme and primary cause of all things, because nothing happens without his order and permission." (Institutes 1.16.8) In cases where God appears to permit/ordain acts of evil, it responds that we are unable to fully see the full workings of God's providence, so who are we to question his plan? (Institutes 3.24.17, Rom 9:20) Calvinism rests its case on verses like the above-cited ones that affirm the sovereignty of God's plan for all things. In relation to our will, it is compatibilist; the will is never truly free but enslaved in its affections either to sin or to God, so "free" will as we experience it is fully compatible with God's rendering certain human decisions. In answer to the questions "Why do acts of evil happen? Why isn't everyone saved?", Calvinism calmly replies, "because God foreordained everything that happens from eternity past for his glory, according to his good pleasure."
Arminianism, named after its originator James Arminius, conversely seeks to redefine God's sovereignty to uphold his morally perfect goodness. While not denying God's omnipotence, it does not believe that sovereignty means that God is meticulously in control of everything that happens. Rather, he chooses to limit the extent of his sovereignty to allow moral agents like humans to make real choices. This view is held not out of an a priori commitment to a philosophical notion of "free will", but "because they see [free will] everywhere assumed in the Bible, and because it is necessary to protect God's reputation." (Olson 98) An overly meticulous view of God's sovereignty is at odds with all the real moral choices people face in the Bible. And more seriously, Arminians vigorously deny that God in any way wills or ordains sin, evil, or eternal damnation, for this would make his goodness and justice totally incomprehensible to us. In relation to the will, Arminians are incompatibilist; they believe free will is incompatible with meticulous divine determination (i.e. an action that is predetermined cannot really be "free"). It views God's sovereignty over free moral agents in terms of influence and response rather than cause and effect, reflecting their personhood and ability to make real choices. (Forlines 12) In response to the questions "Why do acts of evil happen? Why isn't everyone saved?", Arminianism would answer, "Because people are sinful and reject the living God."
Overall, I agree more with the heart of Arminianism's theology and its critiques of Calvinism. If God wills that people sin and reject him, even unto their utter destruction, and this is according to his 'good' pleasure, then it would seem that God is 'good' in a way that is so removed from our understanding of goodness to be meaningless to us. How can we trust that his other attributes, like integrity or love, are not equally confounding? (Fischer 29-36) It carries the awkward implication that, if God ordains all things to his glory, then the consummation of God's glory is somehow dependent on sin and evil. It also creates a puzzling disconnect between God's stated will for man in the scriptures and his sovereign will, especially in passages like Mat 9:27-31 or Luk 5:12-16 where Jesus tells someone to do something but apparently wills for them to do something else. But I also think Arminianism gives more ground than is warranted to philosophical conceptions of "free will", particularly in its stance of incompatibilism. And both systems tend to view conscious decisions as the basic building block of God's sovereignty over humans. I propose that this is the wrong place to start.
I find it more fruitful (and, hopefully, more biblical) to begin with the heart. Calvinism has some conception of this with its view of "free will" as the freedom to do as one pleases (Erickson 328), but it still mostly focuses on the decisions that come from this pleasure. But if we consider the affections, the limits of our "free will" quickly become obvious. I can't consciously control my affections. I can't simply decide to like or hate something and find that my feelings have changed. I don't even know where many of my affections come from or go. I strongly suspect that this is a truth of the human condition; "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jer 17:9). Yet I can't deny that my heart has a strong, albeit mysterious, maybe even determinative influence on my "free" choices. To the extent that I can't influence my heart, God can. Via the heart, we glimpse (but in no way understand) a mechanism by which God's sovereignty and our free will can combine. "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will." (Pro 21:1) I believe that God can be sovereign over this impenetrable chaos without being responsible for sin.
Similar to Arminius, I would question the notion of "meticulous providence" that is gravely threatened by God not being in full control of anything. Instead, I would identify it more closely with his omnipotence, as the ability to accomplish all that he purposes to do, especially (in the context of the created world) redemption of all things to the perfection envisioned in (among other places) the the end of Isaiah and Revelation, to his ultimate glory. This places the aim of God's will firmly back within the Bible, making it "merely" mysterious rather than incomprehensible. God's plan is bigger than the salvation of individual souls; this is of course something he desires for all (1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9) and so he has made provision for it and invites all to salvific knowledge of him through Christ. Yet, in light of the fact that not everyone ultimately comes to love God, we must admit that apparently his sovereignty is not absolute down to this level. As Arminianism holds, this is not because God is unable but because he limits the exercise of his sovereignty to allow people the freedom to embrace or hate him.
When we think about God's sovereignty at this more general level of his plan, we see how sinners can in no way threaten it; they can only exclude themselves from its fulfillment. They do not "break" his sovereignty by pushing away from him, though they may bring sorrow to themselves and others. God does not ordain anyone's sin, but being omniscient he of course knows of it and incorporates it into his providence, working good out of evil (seen most clearly in the crucifixion of Jesus; see also Gen 50:20). Given that God's plan is as eternal and changeless as he is, it is misleading to say that he "responds" to our decisions as if they were somehow new to him.
As a capstone to everything else, I will say that God is mysterious. In many ways that we have seen he is like us (by his design), but at the same time he is transcendent, incomprehensible to us. We must never make the mistake of thinking our descriptions of God can ever fully define him. "Mystery" here does not mean that God is simply absurd to us, but that a full knowledge of God is his alone. The monk and bishop St. Gregory Palamas famously wrote God's true essence is unknowable to us, but we can still know him truly through his energies, the outward, active manifestations of his glory and grace. God's energies (from the Greek energēs, literally "in-working") are not simply tacked-on to his still-hidden essence (Erickson 237); "they are God himself in his action and revelation to the world," (Ware 68) that is, God himself inasmuch as we can ever know him. All of our finite attempts to describe the infinite have to stop somewhere, and so I end my discourse.