Learning About God
The God Who Would Be Known
Recently my wife and I took a few hours off to visit a local nature preserve. You know how quiet and peaceful that can be. Imagine you’re out there in nature enjoying your walk, and talking with . . . God. That’s what Adam and Eve did, wasn’t it?
We don’t walk and talk with God the same way Adam and Eve did, but the God of the universe Who holds our very existence in His hand wants to show Himself to us as well; He wants us to know Him. He not only wants us to know Him, though; He wants us to know about Him.
Sometimes Christians will say they don’t need a lot of doctrine; they just want to know God personally, to just experience Him, without complicating things by adding all that theological gobbledy-gook. With a little bit of reflection, however, one can see how important knowing about God is to knowing God.
If my wife were to try to talk to me about her interests or desires or anything about herself, and I were to say, “You know, dear, I hate to get confused with all that information. I just want to experience your presence; I just want to relate to you personally,” you might understand if she experienced some confusion! What does it mean to “know” someone in our experience without knowing things about the person? The most it could mean is that I just want the feelings that come with being near someone I love.
My own joy in her presence, however, rests on certain knowledge about her. How much joy would any of us experience in the presence of, say, a known axe-murderer?! It’s amazing what a little knowledge can do for one’s “experience!”
Resisting any knowledge about my wife would also indicate that I don’t really have much interest in her; I’m only concerned with myself and my experience. What greater way is there to let someone know you really care and are interested than to want to learn about him or her?
Have I convinced you of the need to know about God in order to truly know God? If so, I hope you’ll invest some time in studying theology. You needn’t read a massive work on systematic theology. A writer whose work I’m benefiting from is Alister McGrath. He’s a well-respected theologian who makes theology accessible for the layperson. R.C. Sproul and J. I. Packer are two others from whose writings you would benefit. In fact, Packer’s popular book, Knowing God, would be a great place to start.
You might still be hesitant because you know that it’s possible to substitute the “knowing about” for the “knowing personally.” How can we let what we know about God feed our personal knowledge of Him? Listen to this suggestion from J. I. Packer: “The rule for doing this is demanding but simple. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”(1)
In this essay we’ll just touch on a few subjects of importance in knowing about God: revelation; the Trinity; God’s sovereignty; and idolatry. I hope this will be helpful to you as you continue the wonderful journey of knowing God.
The God Who Can Be Known
In a debate on the existence of God between Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland and atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen, Nielsen argued that, for the educated person, “it is irrational to believe in God.”(2) Why? Because there is nothing in our experience to refer to when we say “God” that gives meaning to the word. If we want to argue, for example, that a certain table exists, we can point to the table or we can describe it in terms we understand. Since we can’t point to God and we can’t understand what God is in Himself, we can’t talk about Him meaningfully, Nielsen says.
So, where does this leave Christians? Does it leave us with an irrational faith? Can we know about God? If so, how so?
We are able to know God because of revelation. Revelation means “disclosure.” As New Testament scholar Leon Morris says, “Revelation is not concerned with knowledge we once had but have forgotten for the time being. Nor does it refer to the kind of knowledge that we might attain by diligent research. It is knowledge that comes to us from outside ourselves and beyond our own ability to discover.”(3) The last book of the Bible is called Revelation because it reveals the plans of God which were otherwise unknowable.
Revelation is necessary because of the nature of God. He can’t be seen by us (Jn. 1:18; I Tim. 6:16; I Jn. 4:12); we can’t know his depths or His limits, Zophar told Job (Job 11:7; cf. Rom. 11:33); and no one knows His thoughts except the Spirit (I Cor. 2:11). Jesus said, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Mt. 11:27). Thus, if God and His ways are to be known, they must be revealed by Him to us. As Deut. 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever. . .”
How has God revealed Himself to us? Rom. 1:20 says that we know God exists through what He has made (i.e., nature). We see the hand of God in the historical events recorded in the Old Testament, such as the Exodus and the establishment of Israel and the regathering of God’s people under Ezra and Nehemiah (cf. Ps. 9:16; 77:14; Eze. 20:9). Our own conscience bears witness through a knowledge of moral law (Rom. 2:15). God has made Himself known specially through Jesus and through the written Word of God (Jn. 15:15; Mt. 11:27). Recall Heb. 1:1,2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son.”
Through revelation we know of God’s glory (Is. 40:5), His righteousness (Is. 56:1), and His righteous judgment (Rom. 2:5). We know his plans (cf. Dan. 2:28,29; Eph. 3:3-6) and what He desires of us (cf. Micah 6:8). Even the message of the Gospel is referred to as a mystery now made known (Mt. 13:35; Rom. 16:25; I Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:3-6).
If atheists like Prof. Nielsen refuse to acknowledge the reality of God, that doesn’t negate what we know to be true. Our belief in God doesn’t depend upon the confirmation of others. Besides, God has made Himself known in a tangible way in Jesus as well as in nature, history, conscience and Scripture. At the day of judgment, those who rely upon the excuse “Not enough evidence!” will be in for an awful surprise. God has revealed Himself, and we can know Him.
There’s probably no more baffling doctrine taught in Scripture than that of the Trinity. Christians say that God is three in one. How can that be? How can there be one God, and yet we name three persons– Father, Son, and Spirit–as God?
Attempts have been made to find some comparison in our own experience that can make this truth understandable, but they all fail at some point. Some say the Trinity might be like steam, water and ice–three forms which H2O takes. But this analogy fails because the same quantity of H2O doesn’t assume all three forms at one time. The analogy of an egg also fails because the three components–yolk, white and shell–are completely different. God isn’t three separate parts in one unit. The Bible teaches that there is only one God, and that He is unified in His being. It also teaches that there is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, distinct from one another, all existing at the same time. One being, three persons. A mystery, for sure, but not a contradiction.
Theologian Alister McGrath offers a helpful illustration. If a scientist takes a sample of air for some kind of testing, he has real air in his sample but not all of the air. He just has a sample, but he expects that what can be found in the rest of the air can be found in the sample; they are identical in nature. As McGrath says, “Jesus allows us to sample God.”(4) When people saw Jesus, they saw God. This is a better illustration, but it still isn’t perfect.
Is this doctrine important? As McGrath notes, it is the foundational reality underlying our belief that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19). God could reach out to us effectively because He reached out Himself. It was God in Christ who acted on our behalf; it wasn’t some mere human emissary who brought us a good word from God. And it is the Holy Spirit–God again–who continues to minister in us while we wait for the glory which is to come.
The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t only a difficulty for Christians: it’s also a favorite target of critics who seek to undermine our faith by finding flaws in it. Apart from the logical question of how one God can be three persons, critics also point to the fact that it was centuries after Christ that the doctrine was formulated. They say it was an invention of the church.
It shouldn’t seem surprising that there was a delay in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. As noted earlier, it’s the theological explanation of the teaching that was present from the beginning, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” As the church came under attack and as Christians thought through scriptural teaching, they gradually developed fuller and more sophisticated doctrines. They weren’t making up new beliefs; they were more fully explaining what they already believed.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a necessary component of Christian belief. Any description of God which doesn’t include all that this doctrine includes is inadequate. Far from being theologically burdensome, the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential part of Christianity.
The Sovereignty of God
Along with the doctrine of the Trinity, an issue that is equally baffling is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. The Bible indicates that God is fully in control of this universe, yet it also makes clear that we have real freedom. Our decisions are significant. Our prayers, for example, do make a difference. How can we be free and our actions be meaningful while God determines the course of history?
In recent years a view of God called the “open view” has gained a hearing among evangelicals. According to this view, “God does not control everything that happens.”(5) God often changes His plans to meet the changing situation brought about by our decisions and actions. As one writer says, “God’s will is not the ultimate explanation for everything that happens; . . . history is the combined result of what God and his creatures decide to do.”(6) Among other things, this means that God doesn’t know everything that is going to happen in the future; He is learning as we are.(7)
What do we learn from Scripture about this subject? First, we learn that God is unchanging in His being and perfections or attributes. In Malachi 3:6 God says “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” James tells us that in God “there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (Jam. 1:17)
Second, we learn that God is unchanging in His purposes. “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation,” says Ps. 33:11. In Is. 46:9-11 God says clearly that what He has planned from long ago He will bring about.
Third, we learn that God knows the future already. Is. 46:10 says He “[declares] the end from the beginning.”
While acknowledging God’s control of history leading to His own ends, we must also acknowledge that He does respond to our actions and petitions. In Gen. 6 we read that God was “grieved in His heart” that He had made man, so He acted to wipe out everyone except Noah and his family. In Numbers 14 we read of a time when God said He would wipe out the Israelites, but He relented after Moses interceded for the people.
What are we to make of this? As writer Mark Hanna has noted, we tend to make adjustments in our theology to compensate for this tension between God’s sovereignty and our free will. To do this, however, only creates problems elsewhere in our theology. What we must do is leave the tension where the Bible does.(8)
Why is the reality of God’s sovereign control important? It’s because God is unchanging in His being that we can trust Him to be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). It’s because God has knowledge of the future which is settled that predictive prophecy is possible. It’s because God knows in advance what people will do that he isn’t blind-sided by evil. Thus we can trust Him to know what is ahead of us; our future is ultimately in His hands, not the hands of people.
Although some people have theological problems with this, for others the problem might be personal. In other words, maybe we just don’t like the idea that anyone else–even God–has ultimate control over us. For those who are truly and joyfully submitted to God, however, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and complete foreknowledge is a source of comfort, not of annoyance.
A Jealous God
In Isaiah 44 we read about a man who makes an idol from a tree. Part of the tree he worships; he calls on it to deliver him. The other part he burns for cooking and for warming himself. Isaiah 44:19 shows the ridiculousness of what he is doing with these words:
No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!”
Idolatry is setting something up in place of God. Paul sums it up in one simple phrase: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25). Those things to which we devote ourselves and which end up ruling our lives, thus taking precedence over God, become our idols.
Writer Richard Keyes speaks of nearby idols which give us a sense of control over our lives, things as ordinary as a clean house or even a stamp collection. Keyes also speaks about faraway idols, those things that give a sense of meaning to our lives such as financial security or progress in science. Nearby idols give us an immediate sense of security; they’re substitutes for the immanent activity of God in our lives. Faraway idols give us a sense of purpose and meaning; in them we put our hope. They are substitutes for the transcendent rule of God over our world.(9)
In response to the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, God often revealed Himself to be a jealous God. “They have made Me jealous with what is not God,” He said. “They have provoked Me to anger with their idols” (Deut. 32:21). Why would God respond this way? Because first, God deserves all glory, for all good things come from Him (Jam. 1:17). And second, because created things can’t do what God can and wants to do for us. In Is. 42 we read: “Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it. . . . ‘I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.’” (42:5-8). He is the creator and life- giver. There is no one and nothing like Him.
In contrast to this, idols are created, they aren’t eternal, and they are incapable of providing what we really need. Theologian Carl Henry brings to mind Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al when he refers to idols as “the false gods who never show.”(10) Ba’al couldn’t respond to his prophets no matter how much they shouted and danced and prayed (I Ki. 18:17-40). As the psalm writer said, “They have mouths, but they cannot speak; They have eyes, but they cannot see” (115:5). The problem is that idols by nature are not gods at all (Jer. 2:11; 5:7; Acts 19:26; Gal. 4:8). Thus it is that when such things as money or power or athletic prowess become our idols, we find that they cannot deliver us from everything that would destroy us.
We began this essay talking about the God Who would be known. To set up an idol in His place is to reject what He has told us about Himself and His desires. Today there are many other gods which call for our allegiance. We must continually recommit ourselves to the One Who won’t share His glory with others.
1. James I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 18.
2. J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? The Great Debate (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 48.
3. Leon Morris, I Believe in Revelation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), 10.
4. Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine,(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997), 205.
5. Pinnock, Clark, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.; InterVarsity Press, 1994), 7.
6. Ibid., 15.
7. Ibid., 16.
8. Mark Hanna, Crucial Questions in Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), 59-60.
9. Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” in No God But God: Breaking With the Idols of Our Age, ed. Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 37-48.
10. Carl F. H. Henry, The God Who Shows Himself (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1966), 5.
©1998 Probe Ministries.