Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Character of God

With respect to “Apostolic Succession,” one Roman Catholic provided this chain of events:
God the Father passed His authority on to Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:18), Who passed it on to the apostles (cf. Luke 10:16 and Matthew 28:19), who passed it on to their successors.
Before we begin to believe assertions like that one, we need to begin at the beginning, and work to understand “what we’ve known (as humans) and when we’ve known it.”

John Frame, in his two works, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing ©2002) and The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing ©1987), is very helpful in understanding both “God the Father” and “His authority” from a biblical perspective.

Knowing God
There is a very pious-sounding thread that runs through Christian theology known as apophatic theology, which, in simple terms, may be defined:
(from Greek ἀπόφασις from ἀπόφημι - apophēmi, "to deny")—also known as Negative theology or Via Negativa (Latin for "Negative Way")—is a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.
Further, “In Orthodox theology, apophatic theology is taught as superior to cataphatic [positive] theology. While Aquinas felt positive and negative theology should be seen as dialetical correctives to each other [that is, “logically reasoned through the exchange of opposing ideas”], like thesis and antithesis producing a synthesis, Lossky argues, based on his reading of Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, that positive theology is always inferior to negative theology, a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation. This is expressed in the idea that mysticism is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence.”

There’s that faker, Pseudo-Dionysius, informing leading Orthodox theologians of what’s the right way to understand things.

Frame puts this into perspective. He says, “Scripture does teach that God is incomprehensible in a sense…. But it never denies God’s knowability. Scripture never suggests that the human mind is incapable of knowing God or that human language is incapable of speaking truly about him. Nor does it distinguish one aspect of God (his inner essence) from other aspects (his attributes and acts) and deny us knowledge of the former. Indeed, the covenant presence of God implies we cannot escape knowing him, for we cannot know anything else apart from him” (Doctrine of God, 110).
Scripture teaches that God has made himself known to man. This revelation is universal and clear. As we have seen, man’s ignorance of God is a culpable ignorance. As Paul says,
what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)
And, beyond this revelation through nature, God has revealed himself through prophets, apostles, and biblical writers, creating a definitive written revelation, the covenant constitution of the people of God….(Doctrine of God, 200).
Frame here begins a section discussing what is “knowable and known” about God, and yet is “mysterious, wondrous, and incomprehensible.”
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deut 29:29)
He concludes from this and other passages that “the biblical writers never see the incomprehensibility of God as detracting from the reliability or authority of his revelation. The mysteriousness of God is never the basis of a general agnosticism. God’s revelation is mysterious, but it is a genuine revelation.”
My approach rejects the broad assertions of agnosticism that are often found in theological works.\... We should not press the way of remotion (via negativa), as did pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Erigena (but not Aquinas), to say that we can know only what God is not, not what he is. Negative statements by themselves are useless: for example, one can know a thousand things what a Siberian husky is not, without having any useful knowledge of what he is.

Nor should we accept the claims of more recent thinkers who have described God as “wholly hidden” or “wholly other.” This kind of general agnosticism is foreign to Scripture. The Lord of Scripture is not wholly hidden. He is knowable and known to all through nature, and his revelation in Scripture is perfectly adequate to its purpose. (Doctrine of God, 205-6).
The Authority of God
This is where God’s authority comes in. We can know God’s authority, and as Frame immediately follows, “As we have seen, Scripture tells us that God is the ultimate controller, and that we are his possession, not the other way around. The more we meditate on this clear revelation, the more it rebukes our pride, our claims to self-sufficiency. It is those who deny this revelation, preferring to think of God autonomously, who seek dominance over their Creator. Nor is clear revelation opposed to grace. Rather, it is itself a gift of grace, and it sets forth consistently the message that we have nothing and are nothing, except for God’s grace” (Doctrine of God, 206).

Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God begins by describing “God, the Covenant Lord.” The Old Testament in fact is extraordinarily clear that God Himself stresses that He is in charge, that he is jealous of His own authority, and He actively works to assert it.

What follows is thick with Scripture references, but thanks to Reftagger, it should be easy just to mouse-over and see what these references say about God and the authority which Roman Catholics wrongly assert ended up in the hands of the popes:
Who is this God that we seek to know? Scripture describes Him in many ways, and it is dangerous to seize on any of them as being more basic or more important than others. In seeking to summarize Scripture’s teachings, however, we can certainly do worse than to use the concept of divine “lordship” as our point of departure.

“Lord”(Yahweh in Hebrew) is the name by which God identified himself at the beginning of His covenant with Israel (Exodus 3:13-15; 6:1-8; 20:1f.). It is the name (Kurios in Greek) that has been given to Jesus Christ as head of the New Covenant, as head of His redeemed body (John 8:58; Acts 2:36; Romans 14:9). The fundamental confession of faith of both testaments confess God—Christ—as Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4ff; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11). God performs His mighty acts “that you may know that I am the Lord” (cf. Exodus 7:5, 17; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 29f.; 10:2; 14:4, 18; 16:12; Isaiah 49:23, 26; 60:16); Psalms 83:18, 91:14; Isaiah 43:3, 52:6; Jeremiah 16:21, 33:2, Amos 5:8).

At critical points in redemptive history, God announces “I am the Lord, I am he” (Isaiah 41:3, 43:10-13, 25, 44:6, 48:12; cf. Isaiah 26:4-8, 46:3f.; Deuteronomy 32:39f, 43; Psalm 135:13; Hosea 12:4-9, 13:4ff, Malachi 3:6, which allude to Exodus 3:13-15). In such passages, not only “Lord” but also the emphasis on the verb “to be” recall the name-revelation of Exodus 3:14. Jesus also frequently alludes to the “I am” in presenting His own character and office (John 4:6, 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19, 18:5ff; cf. John 6:48, 8:12, 9:5, 10:7, 14; 11:25, 12:46, 15:1, 5). One of the most remarkable testimonies to Jesus’ deity is the way in which He and His disciples identified Him with Yahweh of Exodus 3—a name so closely associated with God that at one point the Jews became afraid even to pronounce it.

To summarize those points, throughout redemptive history, God seeks to identify himself to men as Lord and to teach and to demonstrate to them the meaning of that concept. “God is Lord”—that is the message of the Old Testament; Jesus Christ is Lord”—that is the message of the New (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 11-12).
“As controller and authority, God is “absolute,” that is, His power and wisdom are beyond any possibility of successful challenge,” Frame says. When a Roman Catholic says “God the Father passed His authority on to Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:18), Who passed it on to the apostles (cf. Luke 10:16 and Matthew 28:19), who passed it on to their successors,” what is he truly saying?


The 27th Comrade said...

John, I do not know if you did notice, but I went and dropped a link to your previous post over at Arturo's blog, and the discussion there anticipated this post.

John Bugay said...

Another victim of the spam filter:

The 27th Comrade has left a new comment on the post "The Character of God":

John, I do not know if you did notice, but I went and dropped a link to your previous post over at Arturo's blog, and the discussion there anticipated this post.

Hey 27th, I appreciate the link. Seems like your comment there, though, didn't have much to do with the original post.

I said what I did about apophatic theology to say that we can and do know positive things about God's character. And when we know God, we are not inclined at all to believe that He would (even lend) His authority to a string of bad, bad popes.

Who is KarlH? I'm glad the post tweaked him (made him "rage").

Edward said...

Quite an impressive argument Mr. Bugay! I have been dealing wih Catholics for years now, and the thing that has always amazed me is their willingness to rest so much of thier faith on the whims of one man, that is until it becomes inconvenient. Then they run mental hurdles trying to excuse the perversity and/or heresy of their pope by creating the muddled distinction between the fallible vs infallible man.

After poking around here a bit, I am convinced that this has been time well spent. Thanks.

John Bugay said...

Edward, thanks, and welcome to Beggars All. I hope you'll stick around and tell us more about yourself.

The 27th Comrade said...

The people who pin God's authority on any man other than Jesus just do not understand what God is. You can know those who have encountered the majesty of God in something like what happened in Isaiah 6. That chapter may have been eclipsed by the start of Institutes, as you quoted recently, but it is a hard call.

The reason I wrote on the other side, critical of apophatic theology, is because if one looks at things apophatically, it is easy to fail to realise the sheer canyon that separates man's feeble attempts at holiness and the holiness of God, over whom seraphim call out to one another "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Holy one of Israel". In many ways, this apophatic stance is to blame for Calvin sounding weird when he says "Total depravity". After all, depravity is hard to see in relation to "the Abyss".

John Bugay said...

Hi 27th. I am thinking of Isaiah 6 and also Revelation 4-6. I recently learned about the extensiveness of the citations from the Old Testament in the book of Revelation.

I'm preparing a blogpost on Revelation 12, and the pure Old Testament imagery that's present there. Those who think that the early church would have thought "Mary" as the woman in Revelation 12 are purely imagining things.

So back to "apophatic theology": not only do some folks ignore what's actually written in Scriptures; but they fill in the gaps, so to speak, with their own imaginations.