Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Repackaging God

God is who he is. This is first principles.

At least, this is what Moses was told when the angel of Jehovah appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush that was not consumed, and it is the name by which Israel was to know him.

Today, God being who he is presents multiple difficulties for his followers. The differences between the culture in which God spoke to Moses and the culture in which we live are vast. The things God is, did, and continues to do often require that we explain him as best we can to others.

But in doing so, we must always be careful that we do not apologize for him. That would be a mistake.

Apologetics and Apologies

God does not need us to repackage him for the masses. Our role is that of heralds and messengers, not that of marketers and salespeople.

Some of the questions about the character of God that we find in the Old Testament are easily explained with a little bit of study, and we may do this without apology. I have attempted something of the sort in our series called That Wacky Old Testament, in posts on the sacrifices and elsewhere. Our difficulties with such things as the exclusion of emasculated men from politics and priesthood, the laws against other sorts of self-mutilation, the apparent difference in value of men and women in Israel or the command to stone a rebellious Israelite child may be resolved (assuming we are willing to do a little digging) by carefully examining context and searching out other related Old Testament passages. We may even derive some occasional benefit from the pages of secular history.

Reliably Offensive

But no matter how carefully we dig and no matter how many explanations we are able to provide, you can be sure the character of God as reflected in his commandments will remain reliably offensive to our friends and neighbours. If it’s not the annihilation of the Canaanite tribes, expect it to be the fact that God hates divorce. If it’s not the burning of Achan’s family, expect it to be Paul’s instructions that women are to be silent in church.

If we are honest about what scripture teaches, from time to time something about the God we worship is going to rub people the wrong way. When the problem is a lack of information or a misunderstanding about the meaning and application of a command, we are wise to provide what details we can that may help make such things clear. But when the problem comes down to something as basic as the fact that God judges unrepented sin with death, or the principle of authority in God’s arrangement of human institutions, or that fact that acting on certain human desires is unacceptable among God’s people, we should not be embarrassed to say what the Bible clearly teaches.

Playing Judge and Jury

You and I are created beings. We do not stand side by side with our Creator as a jury of his peers, let alone stand above him. There is bound to be a point in our understanding of God’s character and instructions at which we stop and reverently acknowledge that we do not understand, but that by definition God’s ways are higher than ours and that we are incapable presently of understanding them perfectly or comprehensively.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
We must also acknowledge that we are creatures of our times, shaped and molded by the thoughts and influences of our generation. To imagine in our vanity that our society has acquired a perfect understanding of right and wrong, or especially that it has the slightest grasp of the long-term consequences of its preferred courses of action, is to overstep ourselves spectacularly and to great embarrassment.

Worse, seen from the natural point of view, we are finite. To the natural man, and especially from a modern and Western perspective, death is perceived to be the greatest possible calamity, the one thing to be avoided at all costs in spite of the fact that its clutches are all but inevitable. But people of other cultures and times have viewed a noble death in a good cause as vastly preferable to a slow, natural decline or the betrayal of one’s promises and values. Thus, death, whether meted out in the service of God in Old Testament times, or meekly accepted in the service of God in the history of the early church, is foreign territory to our minds, though the problem may well be our own cowardice or unwillingness to judge sin, not the mindset of the prophets, warriors and martyrs.

The Biases of Our Generation

In the end, we must let God be God.

To attempt to repackage him to appeal to the biases of our generation is the greatest folly. Presuming to speak for God falsely was unacceptable under Old Testament law. Doing so today is no more acceptable.

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