Doing Theology 2, Talk about God
I am touching on a subject that has been written about and debated extensively. I have delayed this post for two weeks because I feel utterly inept to adequately address a complicated subject. But I believe it has pastoral implications that are relevant, and that this is not merely an academic exercise. The subject is the language we use to talk about God. When someone says, “God is love,” they are making a profound statement about who God is that impacts how we relate to him. They are making a theological statement of immense importance.
Previously, I said I would begin a series focusing on not the content of theology, but its method. How we do theology communicates something about what we believe as well, not just its content. This is illustrated in the way churches put together their worship centers. Old Lutheran churches have an elevated podium where the Bible is read signifying its holiness. The focus on the worship is on the Word, the Bible. Theologians, may or may not be effectively contributing to their beliefs by the way they organize categories of Christian thought or by the language they use.
God has communicated to us primarily through language. He has both described himself using direct and clear language, “I am the Lord your God.” (Ex 20:2). He has described himself metaphorically, “The Lord is my rock” (Ps 18:2). He has not only said what he is like, but also what He is not like, “for he is not a man, that he should regret.” (1 Sam 15:29). God does not merely describe what he is, but also what he will be, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Ex 34:6-7). Here we see that God is not only a rock, a firm foundation and unmoved by the trends of culture, but also he is living and personal. He is one whom we can trust and desires that we know him. We do not always know what he will do, but we do know it will be good.
One of the burdens in attempting to address language, is the issues of subjectivity or relativism and objectivity or foundationalism. Most people don’t know all the technical lingo but simply hear that either all religions use different words to refer to the same thing, or that a person beliefs are absolutely correct. I think to focus on either one will not serve the readers of this blog best and many others have taken up the task better than I could. But I would essentially lean upon God’s revelation of himself and that I am in a dynamic relationship with Him through Jesus Christ and being led by His Spirit to grow in what I know and what I don’t know.
There is not a clear and easy path to describe who God is. There is no one single statement that captures all of who God is. There is no one metaphor. There is however faithful and unfaithful statements about him. I also do not believe that our words are merely descriptive. They can be when discussing the past, but they can also affect the future. When I said, “I do” on my wedding day it was not a descriptive statement, it was a reality changing moment. When Jesus said, “it is finished.” Reality was going to be drastically different from then on between him and those who trust in him. My point is, that when I preach I am saying things about God (hopefully rooted in God’s revelation of himself through Jesus in Scripture) that could drastically affect the relationship a person has with God. God created the heavens and the earth by his words. Jesus healed, forgave, and accomplished God’s purposes by his word. He not only described what was, but he declared what will be.
After every conversation that I have where God comes up, I am haunted by what was said. I am haunted by both what was faithful and edifying and what was not. Yet, I try to not be burdened by the immensity of the power of my tongue. The Spirit moves in us to sanctify us, to make us whole as we grow in knowing God more fully through Christ Jesus. The Bible guides us and shapes how we speak of God. The church gives us a safe community and a tradition that illustrates faithful and unfaithful uses of theological language. God can redeem all things and is gracious and faithful to lift up the humble. We may have to seek forgiveness more often then we like for our tongues. But we need not fear and by the power of his Spirit we can confidently speak words of wisdom that “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (Jam 3:17).