How do we Know God?

Some start with the philosophers . . .

With merely intellectual pursuits, men often confine themselves to purely speculative philosophy. They conjure up a god which is either a “first cause” needed to justify a particular philosophical construct, or else is a mere bundle of philosophical “attributes”.

As observed by Vladimir Lossky, in his book on Orthodox Theology:

  • The god of Rene Descartes is a mathematician’s god.
  • For Gottfried Leibniz, God is necessary to justify the
    pre-established harmony between our perception and our reality.
  • Immanuel Kant needs the idea of God in the moral sphere.
  • The god of Henri Bergson is a god of creative evolution.
  • The god of Aristotle is the “unmoved mover”.

In the minds of each of these philosophers, God was a logical construct necessary as a precondition for their pet philosophical constructs. They start by “doing theology” so that they may conjure up a mental picture of God. They start with some rarified philosophical construct regarding the nature of God, and then only afterwards begin to ask how such a God could have taken on flesh. 

Some start with the Old Testament . . .

There are other writers who comb through Scripture, trying to identify and catalog various attributes of God. They isolate various adjectives, attribute them to God in a superlative fashion, and then assume that this bundle of philosophical attributes can define the Being of God.

A classic example of this can be seen with the Protestant writer, A.W. Pink.
His book on God’s attributes includes a separate chapter for each one:

  • The Solitariness of God
  • The Decrees of God
  • The Knowledge of God
  • The Foreknowledge of God
  • The Supremacy of God
  • The Sovereignty of God
  • The Immutability of God
  • The Holiness of God
  • The Power of God
  • The Faithfulness of God
  • The Goodness of God
  • The Patience of God
  • The Grace of God
  • The Mercy of God
  • The Love of God
  • The Wrath of God

In 12 of these 16 chapters, Pink begins his prooftexting in the Old Testament.  While he does not neglect the New Testament, he certainly does not view it as primary.  And even with the New Testament quotations, the focus is less on the person of Christ, and more on these isolated “attributes” being studied.

For writers of this ilk, the overall assumption seems to be that the various “attributes of God” can be identified and cobbled together to form a picture of “who God is”.  They form a mental construct of a god who is infinitely supreme, sovereign, omniscient, holy, powerful, faithful, good, patient, gracious, merciful, loving, wrathful, and immutable.  Only after this composite picture is formed do they begin to ask how such a God could have taken on flesh.

Jesus is the correct starting place . . .

But the Incarnation of the Word is the starting point for true theological understanding, not an ending point concluding a train of speculative reasoning.  We do not begin with the Father, in an attempt to figure out who Jesus is.  Instead, if we want to know the Father, we begin at the face of Jesus.

But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:14-16)

But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. (John 5:38-40)

Among some of those who name the name of Christ, I have noticed a tendency to interpret Jesus in light of the Old Testament. In those Scriptures, we think we find a wrathful God, thundering from on high, obliterating entire cities in order to exercise divine vengeance upon evildoers. We also take cues from extrabiblical philosophers, such as Plato, convincing ourselves that God is utterly “simple”, and that there is no distinction between His essence and His energies. Before we turn the first page of the New Testament Scriptures, we form mental constructs to describe “who God is” . We visualize a bundle of divine attributes, such as holiness, justice, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. We package all of these attributes together into a bundle, and then we label that idol as “God”.

Then we tack on the three Persons of the Trinity, just to make sure we still sound “Christian”. When we meet Jesus in the New Testament, we conclude that He is the incarnate version of this mental construct we labeled as “God”.

Thus, we ask ourselves questions like, “How is Jesus to be identified with the God of the Old Testament?” “Since the OT God was wrathful and vindictive, and since Jesus IS God, Jesus himself must be wrathful and vindictive. So how does that all work out?”

But this thought process is entirely backwards.
This is an epic example of getting the cart before the horse.

Jesus should not be treated as the endpoint to our chain of reasoning about God.

Rather, Jesus is the very beginning.
If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father,
for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.

Meet Jesus.
Meet Him first.
Learn from Him how God thinks, behaves, and loves.
See His gentleness, see His firmness, see His compassion.
See Him healing, see Him bringing freedom, see Him weeping.

See Him humble Himself to the point of death,
stretching out his bloody arms on the wood of the cross,
for your salvation and mine,
and then confess,

“This is God.”

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 2 Corinthians 3:14-16, Colossians 2:9, John 14:9, John 5:38-40, The Incarnation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How do we Know God?

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