By Jack Hoehn
There is a confluence of ideas coming from within and without the Seventh-day Adventist church that suggest places this church can go with its theology and mission. Jack wants to talk with you about some of them. This article is # 2) of a series available on the Adventist Today website, and others will follow.
The Bible Does Not Define God. It begins very simply assuming God, “In the beginning, God….” The Hebrew for God is Elohim, a name known to the pagan pre-biblical world as the head of their pantheon of gods. Later when Moses meets this God, he does not know what to call him. And “the god in the bush” reveals himself as the existent one, I AM, or YAHWEH. But even then, God does not clearly wipe away their false ideas all at once. In condescension to ancient Near East religions, his 10 commandments don’t identify him as “the only God there is,” but simply require his people to “have no other gods before me.”
God came down and met Moses and his people, using their ideas, their culture, their religions, and slowly began to lift them up from where they were towards where he was.
The lack of a divine revelation of what God is and his nature did not keep philosophers from trying to figure it out. Greeks and ancient Christians knew that things exist and that existence has a cause, so they postulated a causer. There must be the “ground of all being.” We can call him “god.”
The classical philosophy of god was refined into Christianity by Thomas of Aquinas, and is followed to this day by Thomists. Making god as big as possible they decided he must move everything but be immovable himself, the “unmoved mover.” And since change would suggest to them that what was before was not perfect, they decided this god “cannot change.” Since their great god is the source of all knowledge, he must know everything. Even things in the future must be known (how, they don’t specify), since their all-knowing god would be imperfect if he could learn anything in the future. This god must know not only the past and the present but also the future perfectly. He acts on his creatures but none of his creatures can act on him, for this would mean he is less than perfect. Finally, since he is god and we are creatures, we can’t hope to know him. Because he is god, he is unknowable. Even revelation, they claim, doesn’t tell us what God is, only what he is not.
Problems with Philosophy
I’d argue that this classical view of god sadly makes the concept of free will and choice nonsensical. If God knows all his creation has done, is doing, and will do, where is choice? Also, if God created all, what about evil? The all-controlling god of the Greeks and Thomists made a world with evil. Philosophers earn their bread by discussing such questions, but St. Paul has suggested to Christians that “the world in its wisdom knew not God….” So perhaps we should take a different approach to knowing God. Perhaps the simplicity of the Bible stories was intended to answer this question: who is God and what is he like?
Bible stories do not easily fit a timeless, unchanging, unknowable being. Biblical images of God portray God as moving in sequence with humans from the past into the future. God in the Bible presents himself as being impacted by and responding to human activity. The God of the Bible changes his plans in light of actions that humans take. And the God of the Bible suggests that things his creatures experience (grieving, getting angry, being frustrated, suffering out of love) have divine counterparts. Classical theists say these are just “anthropomorphisms,” that God just pretends to be like us. Would Jesus then become the greatest fake of all, God pretending to be human, and suggesting his Father was like him?
Perhaps the Bible Knows?
Philosophy figures out god by reason, but is human reason infallible? We have reasons to think not! What can we know about this God from Bible stories? We have suggested that Bible ideas and stories are fallible and subject to misunderstanding. Earlier stories are expanded and corrected by later stories. But is there a plot? Is there a progression? Is there increasing congruence as the story proceeds? Can we begin to understand that god in the bush is God Almighty and see enough of his characteristics to awaken not only admiration, but also a real love?
William T. Hyde
Adventists historically declined to have a theology. They claimed to have “the Bible as our only creed.” But in 1966 as a religion major at Pacific Union College I purchased a typewritten paper booklet called “Theology of an Adventist” and sub-titled “A Biblical Theology” by William T. Hyde. The first part of the book explained why Adventists had opposed having or studying theology, as it was associated with what the church leaders considered apostate Christianity. But Professor Hyde felt we did have a theology and we could make clear what in fact our Adventist theology was.
Classical God Words
Several classical non-Biblical words are used in theology, but Professor Hyde attempts to give Biblical support to those concepts.
—OMNIPRESENCE. Adventists accept that God, as not physical, is everywhere. We believe Jesus gave this attribute up when incarnated in Mary’s womb. Adventists believe this giving up of omnipresence is eternal for the Son.
Knowing All that Can Be Known
–OMNISCIENT. Bible texts say God has “perfect knowledge,” “His understanding is infinite,” “I declare the end from the beginning,” I “show things that are to come hereafter,” and “God knoweth all things.”
Professor Hyde then applied these texts to the classical philosophical theology that suggests this means “the Godhead knows everything—near or far, past or present, or even future.”
However, now we need to listen to a later Adventist theologian, Richard Rice, and his presentation that the Bible texts show that God knows “all that can be known.” And that in fact the Bible presents a God who knows everything that has happened, everything that is happening, and he knows everything that he will do to bring about his good purposes for the future. So, God can with confidence know “the end from the beginning,” but that ending may have several paths to reach the end!
God’s creation of free-willed agents implies that by his design their choices will determine how God’s loving and eternal ends will be met. This is known as the Openness of God, and is likely a very useful modification of William Hyde’s 1966 presentation of omniscience.
All Powerful but Not Magic
–OMNIPOTENT. This word actually is found in the King James translation of Revelation 19:6. The Greek is pantokratōr, and in other places in the Bible is translated as Almighty. The Hebrew cognate is shaddai, which suggests strong in battle, or perhaps another possible origin might suggest the Mighty Nourisher, as shad is the Hebrew for a woman’s breast. God of the burning bush told Moses he revealed himself to Abraham as “God Almighty (Nourisher?).” Ellen White comments that he who unites with God in Christ “has joined himself to a power that no strength can overthrow.”
All-Powerful, able to do whatever is necessary, a power that no strength can overthrow, a power that supplies all our needs as does a mother’s breast for her infant, does not mean God can do anything. In fact, the Bible lists several things that God cannot do. Titus 1:2 tells us that God “cannot lie.” Jeremiah 33:25 suggests God will not stop “the fixed laws of the heavens,” or natural laws that he has established. And Jeremiah 31:3 says he cannot stop loving us. So, can God do anything? Yes, he can do anything that may be done. But the intelligent life that he has created has contingencies, and those contingencies he does not magically reverse. If he gives you freedom of choice, he does not overrule the validity or results of your choice. He will respond to your choices, always in love, but he does not disregard them or ignore them.
Wait a minute, you might object, I don’t want a restricted God. I want a powerful God, a mighty God, a God in control of everything. I want a Sovereign God. I want power in the blood. I want justice on my enemies. I want a perfect Eden Creator. And I want a God whose prophecies always come to pass, exactly as prophesied!
Welcome to the human race! All humans have wanted that kind of god. That is why we have made these kinds of gods in our image, after our fallen likeness. We needed unseen powers to give us rain when we needed it, and not give us floods. We needed good harvests, so we have had sun gods, mountain gods, storm gods, and sea monsters, and we tried to keep them happy. We wanted to control nature and our neighbors and we wanted gods to help us do it. So, we tried to control these gods with our sacrifices, our obedience, our worship acts.
All the Old Testament early stories knew these kind of gods from the ancient near-East religions (ANER) their culture knew. Elohim (a named god that ANER all knew as one of the boss gods) introduces himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob using names and identities similar to their known gods. They thought of God in those terms and even presented him as a “Mighty Warrior King.” But that is not the end of the God story, only the beginning of it. The Old Testament began to overthrow those “as we like them” ANER warrior gods one by one. And introduce us to God. The Old Testament is followed by the New, where the Son of God comes to make known the Father to us.
Wisdom and Religion Don’t Get God
The Son was clear: we really didn’t fully know God in the Old Testament. Speaking to the Jews who had the best religion available till that time, he informs, “My Father, whom you claim as your God… you do not know him.” On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah, heroes from the Old Testament, show up then quickly disappear, as the Father commands, “This is my Son, hear him.” And the disciples then saw “Jesus only.” The God in the books of Moses hints, the God of Elijah suggests, but only the Son of God fully reveals the attributes of the Father. Old Testament Bible students didn’t get the real nature of God.
Paul made it clear to the Corinthian church that the real God is pretty much the opposite of the classical gods of philosophy and Old Testament religion.
“Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law?
Where is the philosopher of this age?
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him,
God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached
to save those who believe.
Jews (with the best religion available) demand signs
and Greeks (with the best philosophers) look for wisdom,
but we preach Christ crucified:
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
The Open Cross God
The God of Christian Triumphalism, the Emperor God, the Warrior God, the Power God, the Controlling God, the Nationalistic God, the Tribal God, the My Race God, the Old Testament God is not the true God.
The God of early Adventists was also an incomplete God. They were still struggling even with the Trinity! The God of Ellen White as a child and youth is a different God than the God of her maturity.
I don’t know where your understanding of God is, but I know my understanding of God is growing and changing from the God I thought I knew, to the God Jesus knows. The God revealed, not just on Mount Carmel as more powerful than Baal, but the God revealed as willing to give it all up for love on Calgary is not at all like the gods we fallen humans might wish to have. That is why the cross is called a scandal! What! we exclaim. God is self-sacrificing and non-violent like that?
Adventists need to become more open not to the classical God of philosophy, the religious Jewish God of the Old Testament, the Christian Emperor God of Rome, the Reformer’s God, or the early Adventist God. All those gods surely showed parts of God, but there is only One full and true revelation of God. We need to reacquaint ourselves with the crucified, non-violent, non-controlling, self-denying, long-suffering, slowly creating with immense patience, open to us and responding in love to our choices, God that Jesus reveals most fully on his cross.
Can we become more open to the Openness of God? Can we give up the partial gods we thought we knew? Can we worship the God who is not like us, so we can also become, by his long suffering, patience, and kindness, not like us?
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and on-line versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA/Religion major from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the SDA church for 13 years when serving as a missionary doctor in Africa. His patients know him as John B. Hoehn, M.D.