Theology for the Community of God
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Theology for the Community of God

Stanley J. Grenz

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eBook - ePub

Theology for the Community of God

Stanley J. Grenz

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About This Book

This proven systematic theology represents the very best in evangelical theology. Stanley Grenz presents the traditional themes of Christian doctrine -- God, humankind, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, and the last things--all within an emphasis on God's central program for creation, namely, the establishment of community. Masterfully blending biblical, historical, and contemporary concerns, Grenz's respected work provides a coherent vision of the faith that is both intellectually satisfying and expressible in Christian living. Available for the first time in paperback.

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The Doctrine of God

The first major affirmation of the Christian faith is our acknowledgment of God. Therefore the first focus of our systematic theology is the doctrine of God, the exploration of the reality of the God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ. The delineation of the doctrine of God most suitably carries the title “theology,” for this term connotes “the word concerning” or “the study of God” (logos + theos). For this reason, the doctrine of God is sometimes referred to as “theology proper.”
Our construction of the doctrine begins with the foundational questions as to whether there is indeed a reality that corresponds to our word “God” and whether we can know this God (chapter 1). We examine the Christian testimony that we have come to know the true God, in that this God has given himself to be known. And we explore the Christian assertion that our acknowledgment of God illumines our experience of reality.
After setting forth the credibility of the Christian claim that we can know the God who is, we turn our attention to the major task of our doctrine of God. Our goal is to describe the one whom we have come to know in Jesus. We seek to declare what this God is like and how God relates to the world. Our description begins with the triune life of the God revealed in Christ (chapter 2). We conclude that the God we know is none other than the Triune One, the eternal community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and consequently the God who is love.
Our study then moves to the character of the triune God (chapter 3). Because he is three-in-one, the God we know is internally and externally relational. On this basis we seek to understand God as the incomprehensible, self-determining, and free person; the living Spirit who is the source of life; and the faithful “I Am,” “the one who will be.”
Our doctrine of God concludes with an examination of God’s relationship to the world (chapter 4). According to Christian theology, the God we know is the Creator of the world. He orders all history toward his purpose. God directs his activities toward the establishment of community, which will be present in its fullness when God’s sovereignty is fully displayed. This description forms the link to the second part of our systematic theology, anthropology, for it leads to the conclusion that creation derives its meaning from this purpose of the Creator as revealed in Jesus Christ.


The God Who Is

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
Hebrews 11:6
Foundational to our entire world view is our testimony that we have come to know the only true God. We understand ourselves, our experience, and even the world itself from the perspective of our acknowledgment of the God who chooses to be known by his creatures. This fundamental confession has marked the people of faith throughout history. Therefore, as we order our lives by means of reference to God we are linked with the faith community that spans the generations.
Despite its antiquity, our Christian confession does not enjoy universal acceptance. For this reason, before launching into our systematic presentation of the nature of the God in whom we have placed our trust (our doctrine of God), we must inquire into the possibility of faith. Our exploration will focus on two historically important questions which remain controversial today: Is there a God? And can humans know God? Our positive responses to these questions lie at the foundation of the construction of our systematic theology.
While logically separable, the discussion as to whether God is and whether God is knowable cannot be divided. If God existed but were not knowable, faith in him would be irrelevant to our lives. Conversely, the experience of knowing God, more so than any intellectual argument, confirms our claim that God exists.

The Reality of God in an Era of Atheism

God’s existence is foundational to the faith of the Christian community. But God’s reality is not self-evident. In fact, belief in God has come under attack from many quarters in the modern era. Many critics claim that God’s existence is incompatible with empirical observations which confirm either the blindness and randomness of the natural forces that shape our universe or the presence of evil in the world. Others dismiss the God-hypothesis as philosophically suspect, being incompatible with human freedom1 or linguistically nonsensical.2
Human questioning of the reality of God is not new. Already in the Old Testament wisdom literature we find evidence of the presence of this question among the thinkers of the ancient societies. The book of Psalms, for example, tackles the problem head-on: “The fool has said … there is no God” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). Yet, we ought not to equate the position of the ancient “fool” with the intellectual atheism of modern Western philosophy. The modern variety simply was not an option in the ancient Near East. The skepticism spoken of by the psalmist did not focus on the intellectual, but on the moral or practical denial of God’s existence; the fool lived as if there were no God.3
While many people today continue to live in accordance with the practical atheism of the ancient “fool,” intellectual atheism has exercised a more visible influence on the Western philosophical climate. In the face of this challenge we boldly testify that “God is.” We begin our quest for the foundation of our confession with an exploration of the historical trajectory that led to the modern atheistic challenge.

In the Era of the Bible: Which God?

Ironically, first-century Christians were subjected to charges of atheism. Not only did their loyalty to Jesus preclude them from worshiping the gods of Rome, they denied the existence of the pagan pantheon (1 Cor. 8:5-6). As the accusation against the early believers indicates, the modern intellectual probing of the question, Does God exist? was not the primary debate in the ancient world. Instead, the biblical era was characterized by conflicts among rival tribal gods. The question of God’s existence focused on determining which god was worthy of homage and service.4
The Rivalry of the Gods The people of the ancient Near East venerated many localized, tribal gods. Further, they believed that events in the world revealed the relative strength of the various tribal deities. The strong god was the one who could perform mighty acts.
In keeping with the ancient understanding, the book of Exodus presents the plagues as signs indicating that Yahweh was stronger than the Egyptian gods; Israel’s God could do wonders which the deities of Egypt could not imitate.5 Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea became a further sign of Yahweh’s power (Exod. 15:11-16). Forty years later Yahweh parted the waters of the Jordan River so that the children of Israel could enter the land of Canaan. This demonstration of power struck terror in the hearts of the Canaanites (Josh. 5:1). At a subsequent low point in Israel’s history, Yahweh vindicated himself and his prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18).
To the ancient peoples one mighty act stood above all others, the provision of victory in battle.6 They viewed military conflicts not merely as contests of rival armies, but as struggles between rival deities. A successful military venture evidenced the triumph of the god of the conquering tribe, who by providing this victory had proven himself stronger than the deity worshiped by the defeated people. Hence, when the army of Assyria surrounded Jerusalem, the invading general taunted not only Israel but also their God, as he recounted the inability of the gods of the nations to protect them from the advancing conquerors (2 Kings 18:32-35).
This criterion, the provision of success in battle, led to a crisis when foreigners devastated the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In response, however, the prophets offered an innovative claim: These defeats were not indications that Yahweh was unable to protect his own, but signs of his judgment on their sin.7
In the Old Testament, the determination that Yahweh was the true God led to an aversion against paying homage to any other god. The prophets declared that if Yahweh is indeed mightier than all rivals—if he is the God Almighty—then he alone is worthy of worship.8 Their claim concerning the exalted status of the God of Israel motivated the prophets to speak out relentlessly against idolatry in the land. This critique was eventually successful, for the exiles who returned from captivity in Babylon were uncompromisingly monotheists. Only one God, Yahweh, was to be worshiped.9
The Universality of God Not only did the Old Testament respond to the problem of the gods, the prophets of Judah posed another far-reaching question: Is Yahweh merely Israel’s tribal god, or is he also the God of all humankind? This issue carried far-reaching theological significance. Could only Israel worship Yahweh? Or was their God the only true God, so that all the nations of the earth should join in the worship of the Holy One of Israel?10
Although this burning issue was not resolved until the New Testament, the prophets anticipated the final answer. Zechariah, for example, pointed to a day when all nations would worship in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:16). His vision employed apocalyptic imagery to assert that Yahweh was the universal God and therefore to be worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.
The early church inherited the debate concerning the universality of God. At the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) the inclusivists won a decisive battle. The church leaders concluded that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to join the community of faith. The writers of the New Testament confirmed the Jerusalem decision. Paul, for example, declared that through Jesus Christ we know that there is only one God, who is God over all. The idols worshiped by other peoples are nothing (1 Cor. 8:4-7) or even demonic (1 Cor. 10:18-22).
In this manner, the ancient form of the query concerning the divine reality found its solution. The biblical community of faith responded to the question by affirming the supremacy and universality of Yahweh, the God of the patriarchs and the Father of Jesus Christ. He alone is worthy of worship throughout the entire world.

In the Christian Era: Does God Exist?

As the church expanded into the world dominated by Greek culture, the form of the question concerning God came to be altered. The older theological problem—Which tribal god is stronger and therefore to be worshiped?—became the intellectual question concerning the existence of God.
This change was a result of contact with the Greek philosophical tradition. The philosophers had embraced a type of monotheism, for they acknowledged a creator God beyond the pantheon the people worshiped. The proclamation of the gospel within this intellectual context raised the question of the relationship between the God of the Christians and the First Cause of the world whom the Greek thinkers acknowledged. In response to this new challenge, many Christian thinkers wedded the gospel with the theism of the philosophers. To facilitate this, they carved out a new, philosophical approach to theology.
In addition to espousing a type of monotheism, the Greek philosophers focused their attention on intellectual argumentation. They debated the possibility of setting forth intellectual proofs for theological beliefs, including the existence of the one, creator God, the First Cause. Christian thinkers adapted this concern. In the new setting the ancient question concerning the divine reality assumed the form of intellectual demonstrations of God’s existence.
Initially the arguments Christian philosophers devised were not merely apologetic devices aimed against unbelief. More importantly, they provided intellectual confirmation of, and support for, the faith stance that preceded intellectual reflection. Hence, Anselm of Canterbury could echo Augustine’s famous dictum, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”11 However, with the pursuit of an intellectual demonstration of God’s existence came the opposite possibility, that of skepticism and even atheism. When this occurred, the proofs devised by Christian philosophical theologians traded their catechetical intent for an apologetic purpose. “Faith seeking understanding” was replaced by an understanding that provided the prerequisite for faith. Beginning with the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, Christian thinkers developed three basic types of theistic proofs.
The Ontological Argument A first group seeks to prove that God exists a priori, that is, independently of, or prior to, our experience of the world. This proof is also called “ontological,” because it claims to demonstrate God’s existence by means of a consideration of the mere idea of God. Ontological proofs begin with a commonly held definition and show that by necessity the God who corresponds to the definition must exist. Each of the two “classic” formulations, those of Anselm of Canterbury (a.d. 1033-11...

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