“As the heavens are higher than the earth,” says the Lord, “so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). How can human minds comprehend an infinite God? Isaiah’s writing only emphasizes the virtually immeasurable distance between God and His creation. David sings of “One who sits enthroned on high,” a God “who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:5-6).
In the face of such distance and such difference, God seems completely unknowable. There’s little wonder that for the last century or so, our culture has insisted that “God” can be nothing more than the invention of our culture—a projection of human imaginings and a quest toward wish fulfillment. And if that is indeed the case, then who are we to decide whose religion is truly right or wrong? More to the point, how can God’s people be so confident that the God of Christianity is true?
IMMANENCE VS. TRANSCENDENCE
The questions we’re asking revolve around a prominent theme in Christian study. The questions contrast what we might call God’s immanence and God’s transcendence. Don’t let the words throw you. For God to be “transcendent” means He is above and beyond creation; He exceeds the limits of human understanding.
But we also affirm that God is “immanent,” meaning He chooses to reveal Himself to us in specific ways. So while Isaiah records that God’s thoughts surpass our own, He also tells us that God has chosen to speak to His people so that we might understand Him:
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
We call the study of God “theology.” At its simplest, the word theology comes from the Greek words theos (meaning “God”) and logos (meaning “word” or—in common usage—“study of”). Theology is the study of God. We might say that theology is the story we tell about God and His relationship to all creation. When we study God Himself, we call this “theology proper,” referring more specifically to the story we tell about God and His nature and character. Why “story,” you ask? Because it’s not enough to treat God as a set of disconnected pieces, nor should we consider God’s character traits outside the realm of His activity. Like a story we must understand how the pieces of information about God can be organized into a meaningful picture of who He is and what He is up to.
There is a temptation, of course, to play by society’s rules when it comes to “doing” theology. Theology becomes reduced to a set of principled arguments. If the modern world denied the relevance of God, then surely it must be up to the Church to “prove” the reality of God.
The thing is, I don’t know that God can be “proven”—at least not in our modern sense—nor does He need to be.
To the Church in Corinth, Paul makes an extended argument about the capacity for God to reveal Himself in ways that defy our usual appeals to human wisdom:
6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)
Do you understand what Paul is trying to argue here? Paul’s audience was made up of people who’d come to organize their faith around their favorite pastors and public speakers. But Paul was saying we should not anchor our faith in the cleverness of human arguments nor in the charisma of our pastors. What, then? Paul tells us that it is God’s Spirit that enables us to know God personally. The knowledge of God comes from none other than God Himself. This is why Jesus Himself taught a religious leader named Nicodemus that God’s Spirit, like the wind, “blows wherever [He] pleases” (John 3:8). There is something deeply surprising—nay, truly miraculous—about the regenerative knowledge of God that can only come from God Himself.
A GOD WHO KNOWS US
As strange as this sounds, God indeed chooses to reveal Himself in this unique way to people, and cultivate faith in ways that can only register surprise. John Shore, writing for the Huffington Post, tells of how he moved from being a “rabid anti-Christian” to becoming a convert through a surprising encounter he had with God in the course of a workday:
“…one day I was sitting at my desk at work…when this feeling started coming over me that in about four seconds had my undivided attention….I wasn’t the great, honorable person I started out to be, that I’d meant to become –that I actually thought I was. I was just another guy so busy thinking he’s constructing the perfect home that he doesn’t realize how long ago he stopped using a level….The worst part was that, accompanying that less-than-peachy view of myself, was the very real knowledge that I was never, ever, ever going to change….I wasn’t going to get better. I wasn’t going to become stronger, or wiser, or smarter, or more honorable. It just wasn’t going to happen….
So I’m kneeling there, blinded by my sad, stupid little fate, when, from up and off to my left, I hear a disembodied voice say something:…“Isn’t this what Jesus is for?”…
And do you know what I knew at that moment—what instantly imprinted itself upon me? That the story of Jesus is historically true. That it happened. That God, desiring above all else to show the people he’d created that he loved them, became a human, and came to earth, and sacrificed himself, and in every way did every thing he possibly could to show people exactly how deeply and terribly he loves them….It wasn’t, like, wisdom at all. I wasn’t suddenly filled with the Mind of God, or anything like that. My soul didn’t light up. Angels didn’t sing for me…All that had changed was that I was now sure that the story of Christ, about which I had always scoffed (if I ever thought of it at all), was true.”
Every other field of study represents a subject that you can master. If I study biology, it’s because of my intent to master the study of life. If I study psychology, it’s because of my desire to master the knowledge of the human soul. If I study mathematics, it’s because of an attempt to master a particular skill set. But theology isn’t a subject we can ever master; to study theology is to allow God to master us.
I pray that’s true of each of us throughout this series.