The following post is from Dr. Sean McDonough, Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Most readers of this piece will already know that the word "theology” consists of the Greek words for "God” (Theo’s) and "word/speech/account” (logos). What we sometimes forget is that this logos is our account of God, and not God’s account of himself. Theology walks down the path of human language. Trouble, as it often does, lies on either side of this path.
On the one side, we may be tempted to despair that we can say anything meaningful at all about God. This sentiment has been around for ages, but it is particularly popular in the modern non-Christian world. All our words about God, to cite the popular fable, are just the gropings of blind men describing an elephant. (The twist, of course, is that the enlightened tale-teller knows it’s an elephant – but this never seems to get noted.) Christians, who have experienced God’s Word in the deeds and words of Jesus the Messiah, can steer clear of that danger pretty easily.
The other trap is one to which evangelicals are perhaps more prone; and that is imagining that our language about God is simple and exhaustive, and thus – unlike all other human speech — needs no qualifications. Indeed, for some people the search for just this kind of unequivocal speech about God constitutes the essence of the theological task.
The first sign that God himself does not seem to endorse this sort of talk comes from the nature of Scripture itself. If the goal of theology is to give a perfectly straightforward, reasonable account of God, we have to admit the Bible does a pretty poor job of it. We have compilations of stories from a distant place in a strange language, none of which explain themselves very much. We have commandments which are rather more straightforward…but while some of them make instant sense ("don’t mislead a blind man on the path”), others remain obscure ("don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk”). Even the clearest summary statements about God can raise some questions even as they answer others: "The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious, showing mercy to thousands and judgment to threes…” So, yes, he is more merciful than judgmental: but how does he decide when to be which?
In response to this we often try to be clearer than Scripture itself. "The most important thing to know about God,” some will assert, "is that he pursues his own glory.” Now, there are any number of Scripture passages that back up this assertion, and thus every Christian ought to heartily affirm it. But as soon as we put the thought into a specific language and speak it to actual people, problems arise. To take the most pressing one: the idiom "to seek one’s own glory” in modern English carries overwhelmingly negative connotations. The bare statement, "God seeks his own glory,” is in danger of painting a portrait of God as a megalomaniacal dictator, the Kim Jong-Il of a cosmic North Korean kingdom. Surely we must do better than that.
But what can we do? We can’t simply shrink back and refuse to speak about God. He has said and done too much in our presence to make that a viable option. We have to speak. But if we take the Scripture as our guide, we will be liberated to speak of him in a fully human language comfortable with paradox and qualifications. We will be happy to let God’s speech about himself provide the model for our speech about him.
We will also embrace stories as meaningful forms of theological discourse, not mere tales to be moralized or theologized before they are of any use. To return to our example of "God seeking his own glory”: we could rightly devote an entire tome to explaining that God’s pursuit of his own glory is a world away from our pursuit of our own glory, that his pursuit involves embracing those lower than himself rather than annihilating them. Those would hardly be wasted words.
But we could also simply read the story of the crucified Messiah, "lifted up” upon the cross, and see it all in a moment.
Sean McDonough, PhD
Professor of New Testament