February 7, 2013
by Michael P. Knowles
Just before Christmas, IVP sent me (among other things) an advertisement for the IVP Pocket Reference App (“A Library in Your Pocket”!). The appeal of this little marvel—so I was told—was that it would permit me to look up obscure theological terms such as aseity (which, for the uninitiated, refers to the nonderivative existence of God). The problem, however, is that I never know quite what to do with this more philosophical kind of God talk. I have no doubt that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, as well as transcendent, eternal and much else besides. Yet none of these categories help me to know God in any particularly meaningful way. If that seems too selfish, perhaps a better way of framing my complaint is to observe that these are not the terms in which biblical writers usually speak of God. Romans 1:20 (“eternal power and deity” [RSV]) and 1 Timothy 1:17 (“the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” [TNIV]) are about as close as any passage comes to the usual preoccupations of philosophical theology. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time seeing how such principles would be of much help to a parishioner overwhelmed by personal failure and sin, or at the bedside of a child dying of leukemia. If the primary responsibility of congregational leadership is to help form the body of Christ, so that we might live “for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12), such abstractions—however ultimately true—strike me as particularly unhelpful building material.
Even as congregational ministry is difficult and all-demanding, so the task of training future pastors is a weighty responsibility. The prospect of a more exacting judgment (Jas 3:1) arises from the fact that those of us who teach are responsible for equipping leaders with knowledge and skills that will enable them to lead their congregants to spiritual maturity, “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). As I tell my students in their introductory preaching class, their future congregants will be interested in knowing, above all, just one thing about their new pastor or preacher. And they will know it as soon as the unsuspecting newcomer begins to speak for the first time. They will want to know whether this person actually knows God. Most congregants will want an answer to this question because they too are seeking deeper intimacy, greater understanding or a fuller experience of God’s saving strength. Others will be interested because they are concerned to keep God at bay, but fortunately such folks are usually in the minority.
Where does such knowledge come from? From Sunday school onward we have been taught to quote Jesus’ answer to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). But what exactly does this mean? Jesus can hardly be referring to divine aseity, transcendence or omnipresence; the possibility of Jesus being omniscient or omnipotent may be debatable, but even this is far from clear. For more than a decade I have been plugging away (with many ups and downs along the way) at a study of the divine “character creed” from Exodus 34. This revelation of God’s character is given to Moses at a point in the life of Israel when, so to speak, the wheels have come off. Delivered from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites have unexpectedly reverted to more familiar patterns of worship. Having recently been warned that the one thing God demands above all else is for them to forsake other gods, forswearing every form of idolatry, they do the exact opposite, crafting a fertility symbol—a young bull—from the gold that they have somehow managed to finagle out of their former Egyptian neighbors. So great is his frustration that Moses smashes the tablets that record the now-broken covenant. Such is his confusion that, more than anything else, he needs to know God—not God’s omnipotence, omniscience or omnipresence, but the manner in which God actually deals with people as stubborn and ungovernable as those whom God has chosen for himself. The answer is unexpected:
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 34:5-7)
These divine characteristics are known in Jewish tradition as the “thirteen attributes of love”: they are widely echoed elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture, and have profoundly influenced Jewish and Christian (as well as Islamic) theological and devotional traditions. For me personally, this text has become a kind of theological “theory of everything,” the one, all-encompassing principle that underlies and unifies everything else in Scripture and the life of God’s people. This is no abstract speculation but rather a description of how God actually relates to broken and wayward creatures: with compassion and graciousness, with forbearance, faithfulness and forgiveness. One Hebrew term is repeated twice, yet it is all but impossible to translate into any Western language: ḥesed means, in essence, God’s unconstrainable, unmerited, life-saving love. These are the principles that forever guide and govern God’s covenant, God’s relationship with his people.
As it turns out, I am not alone in thinking such considerations to be all-important: the further I have looked, the more examples I have found of saints, scholars and ordinary people in every century celebrating God’s generous love, mercy, compassion, patience and willingness to forgive—not infrequently citing the very language of the Hebrew text or its subsequent renderings into Greek, Latin and the languages of our own day. Examples abound, almost without limit. Among the many from Christian sources, already in the first century the first letter of Clement declares, “The all-merciful and beneficent Father has compassion on those that fear Him; to approach him in sincerity of heart is to be repaid with His kind and gracious favors” (1 Clement 23:1). Or there is this wry comment from Saint Jerome (c. 345-420) on one of the more challenging aspects of the passage, which is the idea of multigenerational divine punishment:
As the Anglican scholar John Trapp (1601-1669) observes, “It is the comfort of saints, that they have to do with a forgiving God, that can multiply pardons, as they multiply sins.” Jesus himself insists that the essence of true piety is to imitate God: “Be merciful,” he commands, “just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
This, surely, is the meaning of his comment to Philip in John 14. By coming in human flesh, Jesus has given his disciples the opportunity to see God “face to face.” And not only to see God, as if at a great distance or in some abstract philosophical sense, but to know and be embraced by divine mercy, grace and kindness. This exchange between Philip and Jesus, it seems to me, is as good a model of “knowing God” as we are likely to find. We see here a disciple who seeks the face of God, discovers where God is to be found, and—with a shock of recognition—encounters divine mercy in person. “Knowing God” is not the same as “knowing about God,” even as knowing about God’s grace and compassion is very different from experiencing them in practice, in response to personal need. This is the difference between speculation and discipleship.
Let’s be clear: I’m delighted that the results of my long study have at last found their way into print. But in the end, this isn’t just about another book. For me, the process of reflecting on God’s “ways” has brought me again and again into the company of a great cloud of witnesses who have experienced for themselves the God of whom Moses spoke and whom Philip saw face to face. For me, the discovery has been very practical, and very deep. Of course, my knowledge and experience of God are far from complete, yet one day, I trust, I too will see him face to face.
Michael P. Knowles holds the George Franklin Hurlburt Chair of Preaching at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario and is author of The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in our Midst (IVP Academic 2012).