When We Say The Word “God.”

When We Say The Word “God.” September 16, 2020

Knowing the answer before the question is asked is the privilege of the teacher. I taught a Bible Study some time ago where the Hebrew word elohim was discussed. The word can be translated either god, God, or gods. Aaron’s words in Exodus 32:4, “these are your gods, O Israel who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” regarding one golden calf are the exact same as those used by Jereboam I in 1 Kings 12:28 about two calves. It is an interesting point of Scripture and also of culture.

What Is God?

Attending that Bible Study was a Coptic Christian. He is a native of Egypt. The man had a Bible translated into his native Arabic. Knowing the etymology of the word, I put him on the spot. “What word is used for God in your Bible?”

Allah,” he replied.

The eyes of the other people in the class widened. Of course, Arabic is a Semitic language. Arab Christians use that word all of the time. It is the same as our use of “God.” It is a generic term we have given a specific meaning. Up to that time, the members of my class assumed the deity worshiped in Islam was another one entirely from our own. It is sad to say but American evangelicals even fear the word. Many do not know the declaration “Allahu Akbar” means “God is Great.” Many would claim it was a horrible statement and then sing the chorus, “How great is our God.”

It brings us to the question, “what do we mean by “God” when we say it?” Is the Christian understanding of God different from the Islamic understanding? No doubt. But we should understand Christianity has a different theology from Judaism. But those differences do not negate attributes of God we hold in common with Islam and Judaism.

Do The Differences Matter?

Protestant Christians nominally hold to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. He has a divine nature and a human nature together in the one person that is part of the Holy Trinity. My Coptic student comes from a tradition that believes both the divine nature and human nature of Christ are combined into one nature. Does that difference matter? It resulted in mutual excommunications after the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. The different groups today say they are in dialogue and accept each other as Christian but are not in communion. They do not share the sacraments. It may be argued that differences that no longer make sense to modern people still appear to matter. But it is equally legitimate to say that these differences only matter to the people who are in charge of the institutions.

Jesus is the primary difference between Christians and all other religious adherents. St. John Chrysostom believed the new belief from Arabia, Islam, was another monophysite heresy. It turned out to be more than that. Our difference about God centers on Jesus because of the belief that Jesus is the embodiment of the divine nature. Because of this, he reveals something about it.

Is This A Different God?

The Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber said our views of God say more about us than they do of God. This truth is often made very plain.

One Christian will claim, “I don’t believe God is an old man sitting on a throne in heaven looking down on us.” Another will say, “God is a just and merciful spirit that energizes all life.” And yet someone else will say, “I believe Jesus as God’s Son shows us God is a loving father willing to go to any lengths to save His children.” Each of these claims are true. They are also false to some extent. But they are all Christian beliefs that fit almost all the dogmatic formulations of the ancient churches. The Christians who say any of these things can be Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Liberal Protestant, or Evangelical. It is still important to say that these ideas have come from the dogmatic formulations and how they have been expressed over the centuries.

Neither Muslims nor Jews would understand God in these ways unless they lived among a Christian majority. Then the adherents of the two belief systems would better understand the differences from Christianity. We are all monotheists believing in the one God. We are different people who because of the shared roots in the Near East attempt to define the same God.

Distant Relatives

Different people attempting to define the same God gives us a closer kinship than practitioners of the religions rooted in the Far East or the Indian subcontinent. We are distant relatives but still cousins. The real difference is not among believers. It is between the believers and God. C. S. Lewis once said his prayers did not change God but himself. He recognized what Barth called the Other in God. I have no desire to say Muslims, Jews, and Christians should develop the exact same understanding of the deity anymore than I desire all Christians to read the Bible the same way.

Given the divide between believers and God, we should recognize we are on the same side of that divide. When we understand God to be wholly other from us, we recognize our position as neighbors in the Christian sense of Luke chapter 10 in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is about a distant religious relative who helped a person without doing a theological inquiry first.


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