Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is The Nature Of God Created By Our Own Understanding?

In a Monday May 17th article in USA Today, Dr. James McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN. expounded on the cultural perception of the character and nature of God. Exploring the differences between Eastern and Western religion, Dr. McGrath suggests that evolving cultural perceptions of God may be the reason that Americans are split as to the character and nature of God or what God is like.

Within Society, Who Gets The Credit For Good & Evil?

Using the the hit series Lost,  Dr. McGrath expounds on the conflict between good and evil in Taoism and its concept of yin and yang, as as contrasted to Judeo Christian monotheism's concept of separate, purely good and purely evil sources. Dr. McGrath claims that the latter type of understanding may be the culprit for many of our changing attitudes about the source of good and evil. He says this:
"In Judaism and Christianity, monotheism raises issues on how to account for evil in the world. As evil comes increasingly to be blamed on subordinate malevolent figures such as the devil, we find actions that were once attributed to God later being attributed to Satan. In the Bible, for instance, compare 2 Samuel 24, where the Lord incites David to carry out a census, with the later 1 Chronicles 21, which says that Satan was responsible."
Truly speaking, the Judeo Christian concept of God, good and evil are decidedly different from Buddhism and it's sibling Taoism as we've discussed in The New Enlightenment Pt. 6. There we examined Tiger Woods and his reversion to Buddhism as his source of attempting to overcome evil. More in depth discussion on Yin and Yang and the problems of Buddhist understanding of good and evil is available in that post.

Is Scripture In Conflict?

According to Dr. McGrath our understanding of the nature of God is evolving and has evolved over the years even leaving some scriptural evidence as proof. The issue I would like to undertake in this post centers around the biblical difficulty that Dr. McGrath presented. There are 3 conflicts I would like to address:

1- The supposed conflict between 2 Sam. 24:1 and 1Chron 21:1.
2- The supposed conflict over whether God hardened Pharaoh's heart or whether Pharaoh hardened his own heart and Ex. 10:1
3- The supposed conflict over whether God has an evil spirit as he sent such against Saul, 1 Sam. 16:14 & 1 Sam. 19:9. 

I: The First Supposed Conflict

Scripture records

2 Sam. 24:1 ~ "And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah."

1 Chron. 21:1 ~ "And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel."

These scriptures record the same event, but appear to arrive at two different conclusions as to the cause. There are a few things that must be noted regarding the books themselves. The books of 1st and 2nd Samuel as well as 1st and 2nd Chronicles were originally written as one book. Chronicles, however was given a Hebrew name "Daily Matters" which is a title equivalent to "Chronicles", thus the name Chronicles. The difference within Chronicles was that certain details were prevalent throughout the book that were presented in sometimes a more direct, detailed manner than were recorded within Samuel and the Kings. Thus the point of emphasis was the difference in the books. Chronicles seems to provide certain details that neither the books of Samuel nor the Kings provide. 

What does that mean? It means that Samuel may specify the event or action, but Chronicles, while specifying the same event, goes further and points out a cause or the root of the problem. Armed with an understanding of the nature and context of both texts and the knowledge that they are describing the same events we can better see the problem, displeasure of God, David's actions and resultant judgement of God. Upon examination, the basis of the texts are summed up in the following:

1- God is never out of control or looses control of what belongs to him. Since all belongs to him, he is never out of control.
2- The actions of satan, in an ultimate sense, are only a tool for God to use in his dealing with the people.
3- satan instigated the will and pride of David to consider the power of numbers rather than the power of God. In an ultimate sense it was satan using the pride and arrogance of David to oppose the very kingdom that he was King over.

David takes ownership for his own actions later within scripture. Additional insight into David's actions are further summed up in the following scriptures:

II Sam. 24:10 ~ "And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people And David said unto the LORD I have sinned greatly in that I have done and now I beseech thee O LORD take away the iniquity of thy servant for I have done very foolishly"

Then again in the book of Chronicles with slightly more detail:

1 Chron. 21:17 ~ "And David said unto God Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed but as for these sheep what have they done let thine hand I pray thee O LORD my God be on me and on my father's house but not on thy people that they should be plagued"

As stated, in both texts we observe David taking ownership of his actions. David is only aware of his actions and not the actions of satan, so his account focuses on his own inclinations. He readily admits his failures therefore his personal assessment was that he owned and was responsible for his failure. Chronicles not only reveals the root cause of the problem but goes further and adds the additional detail that David did not want God to punish the people because of his failure. 

The Critic's Expectation

The problem for many is in the expectation of God. The critic asserts that "God should keep satan away if he cares". Therefore, according to the critic, God shouldn't test his people to any extent if the possibility of failure exists. A former Christian, who succumbed to sexual sin and eventually lost his faith,  accounts that his biggest question of God was why God failed to keep him from satan. Regarding his failure he notes:
"The biggest question of all was why God tested me by allowing her to come into my life when she did if he knew in advance I would fail the test?" [J. Loftus "Why I Became An Atheist" Prometheus Books 2008, pg. 26]
Unlike David, the problem in Mr. Loftus's comments are revealed, a lack of ownership for his own sin and indiscretion and a view and expectation that God should somehow insulate him from a potentially harmful and devastating temptation. There was no consideration for his own personal condition, nor the right of God to put whatever belongs to him to the test thereby proving its value and worth.

The Christian should note however that God's rule and authority extends eternally and over everything, and he can even use satan as a measure and method to reveal man's character (Job 1:8-13) and at times to buffet  men for his own purpose (2 Cor. 12:7). David was aware that God was not to blame for his actions, neither is God to blame for ours today.

Conclusion & Proposal 1

In agreement with Dr. McGrath, I propose that Americans are split over the nature of God and what he is like. This is due in part to lack of biblical teaching and increased liberal scholarship on many issues such as this. In contrast or opposition to Dr. McGrath's assertions, I propose that scripture does not support nor sustain  a conflict in the nature of God. An evolving understanding of God does not change his actions nor his intents. God remains unchangeable. Our understanding of him may change and is subject to change, but he is yet unchangeable.  

In summary, Dr. McGrath provided nothing more than a look at a novel speculation, however when examined that speculation is what it is... a mere speculation.   



The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament
By John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck

God, The devil & Lost In USA Today
Exploring Our Matrix Blog, Dr. James McGrath


  1. Pastor,

    I am reminded by the Creator of all things, who said himself, "My ways are not your ways, my thoughts, are not your thoughts", I find myself also reminded, "You love me, because I first loved you." Yes as believers', as scripure would say, "We have the mind of Christ", but Christ himself said, "There are things, I can tell you, but your not able to understand them yet." God is inifinite, we have finite understanding/knowledge, so how can his nature be totally found out by our understanding, scripture once again states, the bible was written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit, not written based upon there own understanding. Christ also came that we might have some understanding of the nature and character of God, he tabernacled among us. Once again thought provoking post.

  2. Tony,

    I believe you're right, we often try to define and codify what is infinite with our finite minds and resources and that will never happen...The scripture says:

    Romans 11:33~"O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable [are] his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

    We can't quite grasp it, even though we aspire. He's communicating to us and we must receive what he's giving not because he's somehow unable to do better, but because we can't perceive any better in our best day.

    We know his character is not evil, we should begin with that presupposition when examining complicated issues, but our desire to sometimes be like "the world" blinds what we see and the way we see it.

  3. Did you see the end of Lost? It showed universal salvation...all paths led to being saved...that was a mess.


I've switched to real time comments for most posts. Refresh your screen if you post and do not see it right away. Please send me an email if you try to post a comment and cannot do so. Dunamis1@netzero.com. Thanks.