Sunday 9 November 2014

God Need Not Be Just

Allow me, as ever, to apologise in advance.

I'm afraid I've found a gaping hole in the traditional presentation of the Gospel message. This is a little awkward – sorry about that. Perhaps it will give you some reassurance that it’s not the biblical content of the Gospel that I've got an issue with. Instead, the problem’s in the way in which we sometimes break that story down into a narrative that can be explained in five minutes. Although it's obviously not the only way to tell the story, here’s the way I've often heard it told:

1) God created everything. He created humans out of love and wants to have a relationship with everybody.
2) Humans sinned/sin, spurning God’s love.
3) Because God is just, He cannot be in a relationship with someone who is sinful.
4) Jesus died on the cross in order to pay the price for our sins.
5) This means that we can now know God again. Because Jesus rose again we can have eternal life with God.

I wonder if that sounds familiar. This is, perhaps, a more charitable summary because it includes a reference to the resurrection, which a lot of Gospel summaries seem to file under ‘additional information that can be covered later’. As summaries go, though, it’s not so bad. It gives a clear impression of the alienating effects of sin, shows how Jesus’ death changes things and points towards eternity whilst leaving the ball in the court of the person who’s listening. I have no issue with points 1, 2, 4 or 5. But notice how point 3 provides a motive for why God does everything that follows. The cross and everything else are necessary because God is just.

I've got an issue with this. It seems to me that, under this construction, the sin-problem can be solved in one of two ways. Either we can stop being so sinful or God can stop being so just. It might seem ridiculous to complain about justice as a virtue. Justice is a good thing, right? But when that virtue is the thing that brings judgement for sin to pay upon humanity then it's a theological strut which is very much worth testing. Does God really see sin as a big problem because of some intrinsic aspect of His personality that leaves Him duty-bound to act in a certain way? Because the insinuation of the five-point summary is that God would really rather not judge people for sin, but that He somehow has to because that's how He just happens to be. Again, it prompts the question: is the problem with us...or with God?

These questions take us to the heart of how we perceive God's judgement, but also to the heart of how we perceive God Himself.

Over the past few months I have been reading, very sporadically, Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel, which contains his landmark article "God Crucified". One of Bauckham's foundational claims is that Jews in the Second Temple period didn't think that God consisted of various aspects or qualities which made Him divine. Rather, they thought in terms of who their God was - His unique character or identity.
The God of Israel had a unique identity. [The biblical writers have] a concern with who God is. The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy...typically defined divine nature by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on. [For biblical writers] the dominant conceptual framework of their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature - what divinity is - but a notion of the divine identity, characterised primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. (p6-7).
In other words, for Jews, divinity wasn't so much a quality that had certain defining features. It was a specific God, whose character they knew by what He did and what He revealed about Himself. I find Bauckham's distinction between divine essence and divine identity to be useful in talking about God's justice. It points towards the chief enterprise of theology - to understand (in part) the God which we have, not to map out the essential qualities of divinity itself.

What I’m saying is that we can insist neither that God behaves in a certain way, nor that He has certain elements to His character. He created us; we do not create Him. The God who we have should dictate our understanding of God, not the other way around.

Now I’m not arguing that God is unjust. I believe in His justice passionately. I believe that He loves justice (Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 37:28), that, "when it comes to justice, no-one can accuse him" (Job 9:19), that He does what is right (Psalm 11:7) and that His justice is both as deep as the great ocean and as high as the sky (Psalm 36:6, Psalm 71:19). But what is important is that the the reason why I believe in that justice - namely, Scripture. In the passages cited above, and dozens of others which I could have cited, God's justice is proclaimed. The reason this counts for anything is because it forms part of God's self-revelation in the Bible. It's a case of basing our theology on what God tells us about Himself rather than predicating aspects of God's character from philosophy.

So Scripture declares that God is just. It does not, in my opinion, say that God judges because He is just. I believe that we need to allow God to take agency for the things that He does rather than putting Him in a straitjacket based on divine qualities. The way God acts does indeed stem from His character, but His actions and His character are determined by Him alone, not by theological presuppositions. If God judges the guilty for sin then it is because He wants to. And if He rescues and saves then it is because He wants to. All we can do is try to understand Him and His actions to a greater degree, and that's more than enough work for a lifetime.

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