God of the Living— Part Two

The Prolegomena to the discussion of Biblical Theology in God of the Living is far from perfunctory. It sets up the discussion in various ways. From the outset the authors make clear that God is not knowable in himself by mere human inquiry, only as God reveals himself to us. This means that the doctrine of God is inevitably linked to a doctrine of revelation. But that is not all. This volume is not merely Karl Barth all over again. The authors stress that God must be experienced to be truly known. People recognize and even know God because they have encountered God and have been recognized and freed by God. Thus they speak of “the experience of God and the knowledge of God that results from it” (p. 2). This in turn leads to the desire and capacity for theological reflection and proclamation to others about God. But the authors want to make clear that the doctrine of God is first and foremost “instruction by God himself” and this God no longer links life with death, but rather with hope. The goal of doctrinal formation is not merely knowing about God, or arranging ideas about God in a plausible and logical fashion, but of actually facilitating the knowledge of the real, living God, and so of taking up the Anselmian project of ‘faith seeking understanding’.

Let me be clear that these two authors do not treat the Bible as some sort of theological textbook, where theology is extracted and abstracted from history. Nor do they do their theologizing in a pre-critical manner. Indeed, they assume the results of ‘higher criticism’ in various ways, without argument. For example on p. 3 they identify the song of Moses in Deut. 23 as “a late post-exilic text”. I would disagree, and in any case how one could confidently assert such a thing when it comes to dating such material is a mystery.

The authors read Deut. 32 to link election, salvation and judgment. Israel is God’s chosen people, but this in no way makes them immune to God’s wrath. On the other hand, the non-Israelite nations are viewed as groups that have their right to exist based only on how they relate to Israel.

The authors quite naturally place a great deal of emphasis on Jeremiah 31.31-34 and they stress “the gift of perception is formulated in an unmistakable break with the previous paths to awareness. The Torah will be inscribed directly on Israel’s heart so that learning will not longer be required to achieve knowledge of God. Instead awareness is the immediate result of the placement of the Torah in the heart. This eschatological transformation is so decisive that it is conceived as a new covenant, based, in contrast to all previous covenants” (p. 4).

The authors realize however that the OT speaks of other ways to gain knowledge of God. For example, they recognize that Proverbs says that some sort of knowledge of God can be gained from observing God’s creation, and God intended this to be the case. I would stress that this is in fact the tradition of knowledge that Paul speaks of in Rom. 1.18-32. But that sort of knowledge is not said by Paul to be a saving knowledge of God. Thus the author’s are right when they add “In the New Testament the knowledge of God is possible only in Jesus Christ and is communicated solely through him”. (p. 5– see Col. 2.3).

The connection between OT and NT discussions of knowing God is that humans can only know God if the knowledge is given. It cannot be acquired by mere human endeavor. True knowledge of God is only possible for those who have already been known by God, the one whom God recognizes, and thus they love God and neighbor. Knowledge as apprehension and thus grasping and defining the other is knowledge that Paul says puffs up rather than builds up. The authors suggest that life without knowledge of God is self-defeating. They put it this way “human beings can appreciate their lives only when they recognize God as the source and savior of their lives and acknowledge God as Lord of their lives” (p. 7). But lest this all sound like head knowledge, the authors also rightly stress that loving according to the NT is a key means of knowing God. 1 Cor. 8.3 says that one who loves, is known by God. 1 John 4.8 says that the one who loves is born of God.

Lest we think these authors are closet Pentecostals, with their emphasis on the experience of God, they can turn around and say equally clearly “”the craft of exegesis developed in academic theology is not the only path to the knowledge of God, but it is ,indeed, the indispensable path for the intellectual responsibility of faith. The doctrine of God presented here is defined by the convictions that appropriate understanding of the voices of the biblical witness without scholarship in the history of literature and religion is deficient and that the appreciation of its binding character for a given moment is not sustainable without carefully reconstructing history and without exploring the logic of the biblical understanding of God. Other paths to understanding must, if they wish to avoid the path trod here, must be based solely on intuitively obscuring the difference between past and present or on claims that one possesses the Spirit. Both paths have limited authority but underestimate the pertinent distinction between divine and human word and, furthermore, by repressing theological discourse, stand in danger of falling to distinguish the Spirit from the spirits.” (p. 8).

The authors resist the tendency to make theology a subheading under anthropology and more particularly under the anthropological exploration of human religious experience (see James, Schliermacher etc.). The authors note that of course Biblical Theology is most closely related to the enterprises of constructing OT and NT theology. Their approach however is to find a central idea or theme (the God of the Living) suggest it is central to all else, and build their presentation accordingly.

There is some meaningful reflection on the role of the LXX is Christian theologizing and how Christians conceived of the OT on p. 10 especially in the footnote. The authors are correct that the Greek OT became THE OT for early Christians, to such a degree that Jews largely abandoned their Greek translation of the OT.

What is distinctive about this volume is it involves a dialogue between an OT and a NT scholar, as a joint venture, but also as a corrective, since no one scholar is a master of the whole canon. The authors strive to make clear the intensely inter-related nature of the two Testaments when it comes to the understanding of God and the divine nature. The author’s take the Emmaus road encounter in Lk. 24 as a sort of hermenutical key to what sort of aims they should have. They add “The notion that skillful interpretation of Scripture can transform disappointed into burning hearts is not just a matter for preaching but— at least in preparation for it— also the task of academic exegesis. Ultimately as the Bible understands it, the burning heart is also the understanding heart.” (p. 11).

The authors will emphasize in the first six major chapters God’s great heart desire for relationship with his human creatures. Section one is called Foundation, section two Development, which roughly corresponds to God’s being and God’s doing when it comes to God’s will for relationship with us. But God does not merely wistfully hope for relationship. God is being in relationship (the Trinity) to begin with, and on top of that God incarnates himself in the person of his Son in order to establish real lasting relationship with his creatures. “Thereby, God’s being is being God to the benefit of humankind [God’s plans are for our well being, not for ill] being human therefore is participation in divine life” (p. 13). Undergirding all this is the notion that because God is a constant giver of life, and since life is a gift, we should be freed to give love and life to others.

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