Friday, September 01, 2006

What is the Character of God?

The chaplain ran to help the man lying on the beach of a South Pacific island, who had been hit by a shell. The young man was dying, and as the chaplain administered the morphine to him, the young many looked into the chaplain's eyes and asked "Surely you must know--- what is God like?" The chaplain, my former college Bible Professor Bernard Boyd said-- "God is suffering love, he is just like the Jesus who died for you. And at this very moment he is with you in this pain for he said-- "inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." (for more on this see the poem by Geoffrey-Studdert Kennedy "The Sorrow of God").

When the question arises about the character of God, it is hard to know where to start, since there are so many facets and dimensions to the God of the Bible, but the writers of the NT were rather clear on this matter--- God's character, is most fully, completely and accurately revealed in the Jesus who came, self-sacrificially served, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again, and sent the Holy Spirit to illumine, empower, guard, and guide us. God, in other words, is the most self-giving, self-sacrificing being in the universe, and so it is no surprise that the author of 1 John will say things like "God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God in them." (1 John 4.16). To be sure, this love is a holy love, a purifying fire, a sanctifying grace. It is not pure indulgence, or forgiveness without a cost or a price. Holy love, best describes the character of God.

If you begin your portrait of God at such a juncture, and take seriously what Jesus says in Mk. 10.45 about his self-sacrificial ministry of love for the sake of others, and also take seriously Jn. 3.16-17 then you know that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world for he desires that none should perish, but rather all come to a saving knowledge of Christ. 1 Tim. 2.3-6 neatly sums these things up: "God our Savior...wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all."

Now if you begin with these profound deep hued colors as you paint the portrait of God, attempting to reveal God's character, then you will realize that God, who is most certainly portrayed as all knowing and also all powerful in the Bible, exercises his power, his lordship, his sovereignty if you will, in order to save a lost world.

God's power and might is not exercised in a self-centered, self-seeking or narcissistic way. God, is not a glory grabber, nor is he like a child constantly seeking our undivided attention, and demanding we glorify Him and thank him for everything that ever happens to us in life. To be sure we are to give thanks and praise God in all circumstances, but nowhere are we required to praise him for all circumstances. And why not?

The answer is simple--- God has not predetermined all circumstances in the universe in advance, and so many of our circumstances in life are in fact evil and sinful and God wants no credit for them nor should we thank him for them. God wants no part of being credited with being the author of sin or evil. Angels and humans can be thanked for those facets of life. God can, as Rom. 8.28 promises, weave all things together for good, for God is the most powerful of all beings in the universe, but God in his wisdom has in fact empowered other beings in the universe, and they have wills and minds of their own and they are not always in compliance with what God wants.

Why am I saying these things? Because of late it has become popular to suggest that God indeed has chosen to exercise his sovereignty in such a fashion that not only has he rigged all things in advance, he has done it all for his own praise and glory!!! In short, God is being portrayed as a narcissist. Now this view of God certainly may play well in some parts of our narcissistic culture-- we know all too well the cry "It's all about me."

However, when we look at Jesus, it is perfectly clear that here is the last person who walked the earth to have suggested--- "I'm here for my own glory, I'm here because it's all about me." To the contrary he was so other-directed that in his view it was all about saving others, not himself, and all about glorifying another, namely his Father, not primarily himself.

But there is more. Jesus came so that we might share in the divine glory, indeed have the very divine presence within us. It seems in fact that God is a glory sharer, not one who jealously guards all the power, all the credit, even all the praise for himself. Listen to what Paul says. He tells his converts in Thessalonike that Jesus will come back to be glorified 'in his people', not merely by his people, but 'in his people' (2 Thess. 1.10). He tells them that he is praying that Christ will be glorified in them and they will be glorified in him as well (vs. 12), an amazing statement. In fact Paul goes so far as to say that he prays that "by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith." (vs. 11). How amazing. God honors and participates and empowers and helps fulfill our purposes when they are godly. I guess its not just all about his purpose, his power, his plan, and his glory. God it appears, loves, honors, and empowers us so that we by his grace may freely respond to his purposes, plans, overtures, wooing, guidance, and the like.

Now doubtless God could have exercised his sovereighty in another way. Doubtless he could have predetermined all of world history in advance. Doubtless he could have decided that there would be no freedom of choice for human beings. He could have predetermined things in advance and set thing up so that humans thought they had freedom, thought they were not being manipulated or coerced, never 'felt' compelled, but in fact the game was rigged. And worst of all, it was rigged so that the majority of human beings would be predetermined to be lost, now and forever-- say what they would, do what they will, come what may.

I can't speak for others, only for myself. If I was a loving parent who had planned to have a lot of children created in my image, children that I claimed and promised to love, I have to ask-- Would I predetermine in advance that some would be good children and others wicked? Would I be happy with the notion that some would be irrevocably saved and others eternally lost before they even drew a breath? Could I even remotely conceive that this would be what a loving parent would plan in advance for their children? Well no. That would be like those parents we have heard about of late who decide to have children so they can sell them off as sex slaves in due course and better gratify and help themselves to live a good life. Fortunately, the Bible doesn't say that we have a God like that. It does not claim that God has predetermined in advance all of what life will involve and there is a good reason why not.

Had God predetermined in advance everything about us, we would never have been able on a lesser scale to be like the God who is free and loving and fulfill the great commandment-- namely to love God freely and fully with all of our beings, and love neighbor as self. You see love, as defined in the Bible cannot be pre-programmed or rigged. It cannot be coerced though it can be courted. It must be freely given, and freely received. There is a reason why the dominant image of the relationship of Christ and his church in the NT is that of the bridegroom and the bride, the Lover and the Beloved, not the Scientist and the Robot, or the Dictator and his yes men. The reason is this-- though God could have done otherwise, he chose to relate to us in a personal way, and desires that we freely respond to his love, his grace, his saving purposes.

There is hardly any more audacious portrait of God's character in the OT than the one we find in Hosea. God draws an analogy between his relationship to Israel, and that of the prophet to his prostitute wife. Needless to say, it has not gone well. Will God then abandon his people whom he called and chose, and who responded to the call at least initially? Will he wipe the slate clean and start over with another crop of children? Will he consign these to Hades and find some others? Well, God could have done this of course. He could have acted on the basis of divine fiat, even after the fact. He could have said, "Well I've tried this giving them some freedom and room to manuever and freely respond thing, but its not working out, so from now on we're going with plan B-- fatalism, pure determinism, the sort of thing that some of Mohammed's followers often believe about God."

But in fact, God does not choose to act that way--- listen to the very voice of God as recorded by Hosea in Hosea 11.1-11 (excerpts)-- "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to Baals and they burned incense to images. But it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them....My people are determined to turn from me, Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them. But how can I give you up, Ephraiam? How can I hand you over, Israel?...My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim, for I am God and not a human being-- the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the LOrd; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west."

Notice carefully what God says-- he has treated his children like a good and loving parent. He led them with cords of kindnesss, with ties of love. Not with iron rods. Precisely because God is God, and not a fickle human, he has decided to go on calling to his people in love and wooing them. He cannot hand them over to destruction and still be the loving God he is depicted to be in this passage.

Of course he could execute his fierce anger. Goodness knows we have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. But he has chosen not to let his wrath overrule his love, his power overrule his compassion. Rather he has chosen the harder route of calling, leading, guiding, goading, loving, sacrificing, so we may respond freely and love him with all that we are. You see humans at their highest and best were meant to reveal the image of God to the world. And when we love God and others we are at our highest and best, and we do indeed reveal the divine character in the deepest crevices of what God is like.

My old Bible teacher was right-- God revealed his deepest character in the person of his Son who came and died that we might have life and have it abundantly. God is suffering love-- just like Aslan. And yes indeed, he roars with a mighty roar so we will come trembling back to Him. But when we do, he treats us just like this picture of a parent and a child in Hos. 11. God as it turns out is not a narcissist or a manipulator or a dictator. God is the greatest sacrificer that one could imagine, who leaves all other generous, kind, loving, self-giving creatures an indelible example to try and live up to, hence the great commandment.

When you think of God, don't think of an armchair general who has rigged the game all in advance so things all go exactly as he has planned. Think of him as being like Aslan, or better yet like Christ on the cross. Doubtless in uncertain times like ours we like to be told-- "don't worry, all things have been determined in advance when it comes to salvation and it will all work out for God's glory." We like to hear about eternal security.

What we forget is that the price of such ideas is we must give up on love, the real Biblical character of love, because love involves both freedom and risk. Loving relationships involve freedom and risk-- this is the essence of what it means to be personal, to be loving, to be created in God's image. Hos. 11 makes it oh so clear--- God has risked all, even his only son, in order to love us. And though he could have simply played his powerball game, his trump card, though he could have exercised his sovereignty in a way that he avoided all this heartache, he did not do so. Why? He did it all for love, so the world would be full of people set free indeed by the love of Christ, and loving him right back.


Lynne said...

As a "recovering calvinist", I want to say thank you for this post. For years i believed with my head what I had been taught, but along life's way my heart came to believe in a God of very different character, and for a long time I suffered because the two were out of synch. Where I come from, straight calvinism is "sound theology" and, if you find yourself reacting to its harshness, the standard response is that your "flesh" rejects it! I have been working on this issue for a while, trying to reconstruct my theology straight from scripture, and separating the truth from the teaching -- this is the first piece of reasoned theology on the subject that I have come across and found genuinely helpful -- intellectual armour against the charges of "unsoundness". I have actually come to believe that the God of true calvinism owes more to Plato than to the Bible. Again, my thanks.

byron smith said...

Thanks for your posts. I continue to enjoy them. I agree that any system that needs to screen out passages like Hosea 11 can become inhuman. I'd love to hear your reading of the language of 'predestination' in the NT.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Byron: You will want to have a look at the long excursus in my Romans commentary on predestination. The short answer is that language is used of Christ, and applies indirectly to those who are in Christ. Christ is the one destined in advance from before the foundations of the world to be our savior. Texts like Rom. 8.29-30 tell us about the destiny of those who are already Christians. They do not tell us how they became Christians in the first place.



cfg said...

I was really glad to read a post so affirmative of the character of God as revealed in Christ.

It reminds me of what Greg Boyd says again and again..."God looks like Jesus Christ." If it doesn't look like Jesus, it's not God. And therefore it's of wills other than God's.

The openness / warfare model makes so much sense to me. I just 'discovered' it a couple of years ago and for the first time in my life (and I was brought up a Christian) I feel like I've found a theology that actually makes sense to me, is coherent, affirming and life-giving. And something I feel confident about expressing to others as good news!

Jesus reveals a God who fights evil, not accepts it (let alone 'wills' it). I want to pray the way that he did, to come against evil, to heal the sick and cast out demons - that's our model of ministry. Greg Boyd calls it a 'theology of revolt'!

Ben Witherington said...

Mike: Most anyone who knows me, knows that I have done a detailed exegetical commentary on Romans and all the other NT books. This reflection has more to do with the theological images of God conveyed by the several texts I do cite and they are important--- texts from the OT, and from the Johannine and Pauline epistles to mention a few.

Romans 9 is a text where Paul explains clearly enough how God's historical purposes work out involving election and selection within election for specific historical purposes. The election is corporate in nature, and does not involve choosing some to be saved and some to be damned regardless of their response to the Gospel. As Paul will argue rather clearly in Rom. 11, God broke off various members of the people whom he foreknew because of their lack of faith, and he can graft them back in if he so chooses, just as he grafted in Gentiles into the elect group by grace and through faith. In other words, its not all about God's choosing, it is also about the faithful response or lack thereof which is not predetermined. The vessels of wrath fit themselves for destruction is how the Greek of Rom. 9 reads.

As for would I be any less obligated to worship God if God is not as I have said the Bible envisioned him? Well this is a choice I don't have to make, thank goodness. God is as Christ revealed him to be, and that's all I need to know whatever other imponderables there maybe. I take it as given that what I do know of God in Christ is consistent with what I do not know, and so God's revealed will is consistent with whatever else may be true about God's will.



Ben Witherington said...


There is no disrespect intended in what I have said. Of course these are difficult issues. But there is a place for a passionate presentation of one's own conclusions based on a lot of hard work. I went to a Reformed seminary, and I know very well the arguments on the other side.

My concern however is that we think through the theological implications in regard to God's character of our exegesis. If something misrepresents God's character as we know it in Christ, then it is likely that there is something profoundly wrong with the exegesis.



Ben Witherington said...

No, I have some serious problems with open theism. I do not think God is a work in progress, nor do I think God's character changes. I also do not think that God is limited in any absolute way by the existence in the universe. All God's limitations are self-chosen.

Mike Mitchell said...

I would like to respond to Mike's comment about the epistemological problem in Dr. Witherington's argument about angels and humans being soley responsible for evil.

Mike says this is not possible because created beings cannot know that which was not revealed (and I suppose, created) by the Creator. But if one defines evil as that which deivates from the will of God, then it's not necessarily the case that evil was "revealed" to corrupt people, but rather that the people created evil when they deviated from the will and purposes of God.

As C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, evil is purely derivative; it is a parasite, existing only as a distortion of what is good--namely the will of God.

cfg said...

As far as I'm aware, none of the open theists that I've come across believe that God's character changes, nor that He is a work in progress. Not absolute, but self-chosen, limitations (as you suggest) are exactly the way I have heard it expressed. Whose views are you expounding? I haven't heard anyone argue what you suggest they do, (although I admit I have limited experience - perhaps there are some people who do think that!)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Clare from Durham in the U.K. (which is my alma mater-- I miss it).

The debates I have had with open theists, one of the regular things they have argued for are: 1) there are things God doesn't know (which flatly contradictions what the Bible says about God knowing all possibilities and actualities; and 2) they suggest that God changes his mind about things; and 3) that God grows in knowledge etc; and 4) this means that in some respects God changes. I understand their concern about the later notion of immutability. I quite agree that the incarnation means that God at some point incorporated a human nature into the second person of the Trinity. This implies a kind of change, though not one of character. Even more problematic is the notion of the impassibility of God-- God being not subject to passions or deep emotions. So, I have some agreement with some of their points, but in regard to the issue of God the Father being in the dark about some things.

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cfg said...

Thanks for your comments Ben, that makes things much clearer. With regard to the issue of things that God doesn't know, I've found persuasive the argument that God knows *every* possibility. I came across another blogger who has posted a a letter from Boyd, which I found helpful in thinking differently about what 'omniscience' might mean.

Sorry if this is dragging the conversation off-topic! If you'd rather continue by email I can be found at c . f . g . miller @ durham. ac. uk (no spaces!) - I'm a post-grad in Durham, among other things!

It's useful to have this discussion with a scholar who holds a view which I myself held until probably quite recently, as everything is still in the formative and investigative stage for me. I appreciate hearing your views, as it's quite hard to find people in opposition who have actually considered the position fully, are not Calvinists, or who don't preface their views with 'Boyd is a heretic nah nah nah' etc.

Ben Witherington said...

Clare: I have sent you an email message to your Durham account.

Ruud Vermeij said...

Clare and Ben,

I don't think the Open Theism subject is off-topic. I'd regret it if you continue the discussion in private.
Ben, maybe you can write a new topic about it, if you like. I'd like to hear more about it.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking post.

yuckabuck said...

Well, here is the John Piper comment that percival looked for at the very beginning of this discussion-

As a convinced Wesleyan Arminian, I really love the main thrust of John Piper's work. I think it is very biblical, and a much needed corrective to much evangelical thinking. However, I of course reject all the Calvinism that goes along with it. Maybe it's because I was introduced to his "Desiring God" ideas at a conference where I did not have to listen to anything explicitly Calvinistic, as in his books. I still listen to those tapes and are always blessed by them.

The bible says that all things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos, or Piper or Witherington. (1 Cor)

yuckabuck said...

The problem between many discussions between Open Theists and Calvinists is that there is the frequent assumption that Foreknowledge equals Determinism. Just because God "foreknows" what will happen, does not mean that those involved have no free will in the matter.

This was pointed out to me in an introductory philsophy class at Geneva College by the late Dr. Byron Bitar. (Geneva, of course, is a bastion of Calvinism.)

The "knowing" of God and the "doing" of what God has foreknown are not necessarily logically connected. I can "know" that my kids will choose pizza for dinner over meatloaf, without their choosing being in any way predetermined by my knowing it will happen.

From the little I read of Pinnock, it seems that this fear, that allowing God to have extensive foreknowledge would logically lead to determinism, helped lead him into an Open Theist position.

I believe that Arminianism is not a logical contradiction, and that one does not need to choose between Calvinistic determinism or the lesser view of God of the Open Theists.

Ruud Vermeij said...

Does the Bible support the idea that God is above time, or time-less, or whatever we like to call it? Or is this a scientific idea we imported in theology? Is there any such thing in Jewish thinking?

graham old said...

Great post, Ben. Thanks.

My 9 year-old daughter sometimes tells me things that she's heard other Christians say or believe. And then she responds, incredulously, "It certainly doesn't sound like Jesus!"

PamBG said...

Thanks for this article. Linking to it.

cfg said...

Ruud - sorry, I only just spotted your post!
Personally, I'd be glad to have the discussion but I didn't want to hijack the post!

A thought.. For Open theists the openness question hinges not on the character of God, but the nature of the future. They believe in an omniscient God, but say the future is only 'partly determined'. God predetermines whatever he wants to about the future (leaving it 'partly open, partly closed'), but he doesn't need to micromanage. The future is not known because it is essentially unknowable (although often predictable!)

MG said...

Dr. Witherington,

I appreciated this post greatly, especially what you had to say about Hosea, and that the character of God is revealed in Jesus.

I also wanted to thank you for your Romans commentary, which really opened my eyes, especially in relation to Romans 7 and 9-11.

I have some questions about your arguments concerning Romans 8:28-39. My email is: m m _ a a _ g g @ hotmail .com (with no spaces) If you have time I'd appreciate the opportunity to have an exchange on this subject. Thanks!

Chuck said...

Wow, you have a nice blog here.