Recovering an Engaging Doctrine of God for the Church’s Moral Witness

by
July 11, 2014

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

A.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But the problem is not just that belief is no longer the default, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualities being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The SecretThe Power of Now, and Eat, Pray, Love. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the reheated leftovers of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God gets the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem, particularly for the Church’s public, moral witness.

Worship and Witness, Idolatry and Darkness

Upon arriving at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Israel learns that she was chosen as the special object of grace from among the nations to represent God before the nations as a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. This would happen both in the Lord’s loving care for her as well as in her worshipful obedience to the covenant commands (Exodus 19:4-6).  It’s no quirk of numerical happenstance that the command against idolatry comes at the head of the 10 Commandments, Israel’s instruction in the way of the Lord (Ex. 20:2-7). The people of God are to worship God alone–the rest of the commands are justified with respect to God’s name, character, and saving actions. Our obedience to them reflects a right knowledge of his holiness, love, and righteousness. At the core of biblical ethic is biblical worship, and at the core biblical worship is a biblical doctrine of God.

It is for this reason that Israel commanded not only to worship the true God, but to worship God in truth–in a manner consistent with his revealed character. This is precisely why they are not to make false images, either of wood and stone, or as J.I. Packer reminds us, the even more pliable material of cultural preference and psychological projection in the way Feuerbach (Knowing God, pg. 42). Misconstrue God and you’ll inevitably misconstrue and, eventually, rebel against his commands.

What’s more, the public character of the laws must be re-emphasized: the command came at the head of the national covenant charter, not only the private catechism. As Jewish scholars Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit note, the charge of idolatry in Israel was one with political and social implications, not simply personal, pietistic ones (Idolatry, pg. 234). Israel was not only to be a nation of pious individuals, but a nation that qua nation ordered its public life according to its understanding of God, the righteous king. A public confused about God, would inevitably fall into confusion, immorality, and chaos, adopting as its principles the death-dealing ways of foreign deities such as Chemosh and Molech, or the vitalistic, orgiastic cultural patterns of the Baals and Asherahs. As the Apostle Paul says, after idolatry comes the darkness (Romans 1).

We can see just this confusion at work in any number of disturbing trends in contemporary culture. Not thirty years ago, Oliver O’Donovan sketched out the implications of the loss of our concept Creator God in his brief, but penetrating analysis of the changing state of medical ethics in a technological society, Begotten or Made?. For O’Donovan, the crucial distinction between begetting or making, biological nature as given and raw material to be manipulated via technique, had become so distorted as to be non-existent. Blurring those lines across which no man ought pass has pitched us headlong into the moral confusion regarding superficially innocuous elective surgeries, abortion, and quite presciently transgender confusion. All of this stems from the more fundamental and culture-wide confusion between creature and Creator, nature and its Author.

Recovering An Engaging God

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:14)

If the Church is going to have a word worth speaking into the culture, or indeed, the courage and wisdom to speak it in life-giving ways, she desperately needs to recover a vision of her sovereign, holy, loving, indeed, engaging God.

A weak doctrine of God, stripped of transcendence and holiness, leads to anemic public engagement. Without a transcendent, holy God who is Other and before all things, we naturally fall into the tendency to identify the movement of the Spirit with the progressive culture of the age. Instead of the divine, disruptive ruach, you get the zeitgeist, which was part of the problem with German, liberal Kultur-Protestantism. At the personal level, this is the God who never contradicts any of my impulses and urges; the God whose Spirit simply is my spirit. Or, trending in the opposing direction, the God who is not the concerned covenant Lord leaves us with the moralistic, therapeutic deism in which God is so detached from our everyday living as to not be concerned about these sorts of things.

In either case, why would the Church ever speak up? If her God makes no claims upon the world, or, in any case, not any really demanding ones, then what is there to witness about?

Alternatively, a view of the holiness of God conceived without love leads to the acerbic, compassionless, combativeness of the Javert-like moral crusader. Here we have a public witness, but it is a false one that betrays a distorted view of its great Subject. No, the holiness God is that of a burning, inconceivably pure love that, while provoked by sin, is ultimately salvific and gentle with the broken–a bruised reed he will not crush. The Holy One of Israel is a comforter and the rock upon which the weak, the widow, the orphan, and the powerless depend. Otherwise, the world will rightly shut its ears against the clanging gong of our loveless proclamation. Only when the Church knows the holy compassion of her God will she be able to speak, and indeed, live, in a way that is true to the forgiving, gracious One she recognizes as her Lord.

Theologians and ethicists cannot avoid doing business with their conception of God if they are to equip the Church to be an adequate witness in the world God has decided to save. Only a deep understanding of the God of the commands will ground our ability to preach, teach, and elucidate the commands of God to a culture deeply entrenched in idolatry. Even more, pastors, the resident theologians of the local church, need to preach deeply, robustly theocentric sermons that press our congregants beyond the dominant therapeutic modes of spirituality on offer.

Before the Church can pronounce, “Thus says the Lord” to the world, she must know how to joyfully exclaim “Behold your God!”


Derek Rishmawy
Derek Rishmawy is the director of college and young adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He got his BA in philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and his MA in theological studies at Azusa Pacific University. Derek blogs at Reformedish and Christ and Pop Culture. You can follow him on Twitter.