In dealing with the problem of evil, and many other issues that have a theological angle to them, we must begin by defining our terms, the most important being “god”. In other posts I showed there are various rival concepts of god on offer. With all these worldviews on offer what distinguishes the god of Christian faith from the rest?
This question is very difficult to answer because there are so many options so it is near impossible to compare and contrast them all. However, there are broad categories that these concepts do fit in. This allows us to deal with large swathes of specific theisms without going into tedious levels of detail. The other challenge in answering this question is internal. This is perhaps the more pressing issue for the believer.
Within Christian faith there are so many variations and differences. Of course this is not a surprise in itself because that is human nature. However, many professing Christians prefer to emphasize their differences to the extent that it can obscure fundamental points of agreement. For a meaningful discussion we need to establish some reference points. For the purposes of this post we will be discussing historic Christian faith.
What I mean by historic Christian faith is the belief system that ultimately has its origins from the early Jesus movement in first century Palestine. The history of the Christian Church is long and tortuous so simply appealing to the past is not enough. Throughout successive generations of Christians, the Bible has been an integral indispensable part of faith. In terms of history even though the Bible by no means gives a comprehensive record (or even claims to do so) of early Christianity, it is our best window into the world of Jesus and his early followers. The Bible as an ancient text anchors us in real time and space among real people.
From the biblical record, the period in which early Christianity belonged to was the Second Temple era. Before the so-called “parting of ways” Christianity was a sect within ancient Judaism. There were various “Judaisms” within that complex era of which we can anachronistically say, Christianity was among many children whoclaimed to be the legitimate heir of the faith of Abraham. The story of Abraham is the origin story of biblical monotheism and we need to head back to Genesis to understand its characteristics.
Genesis is absolutely essential to the biblical narrative. Everything ultimately proceeds from it. As far as Christian theology is concerned it is ground zero. Even from there the Bible highlights the differences between its brand of monotheism and the polytheism prevalent in ancient societies. Biblical scholars who study the ancient Near East, the period to which the Old Testament belonged, give us further context for understanding this distinction. In the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 there are a lot of similarities. They borrow the language and metaphors of that era to describe the creation of the world. However, they are also very subversive and even polemical as some scholars contend. (The BioLogos Foundation has excellent resources on this topic.) Instead of multiples gods involved in the creative act there is only one. Instead of the various elements of nature being divine you have a creation wholly distinct from its creator-god. Instead of setting up idol worship humans are made as God’s image within the cosmic temple of creation itself. You end up with a god who does not depend on his worshippers for absolutely anything. They depend on him for everything and it is him they should serve exclusively. There are other things that we can glean from Genesis alone but all humans bearing the image of God, the one God Abraham believed in, was very countercultural. How do we account for the rise of such a faith?
Even though Israel had one god they admittedly failed many times in their long history to be faithful to him. What caused in the second Temple period such a divisive break from easy going idolatry to strict monotheism? Scholars in the field have various responses which are hotly debated. The biblical narrative has its own complex theological response which I will sum up in one word: revelation.
Particularly in the prophets, there is a strong critique of polytheistic systems. Their basic allegation is that they are a human conceit (Isaiah 45:9-20; Jeremiah 10:1-15.) Paul takes up this very critique in Romans 1 where he develops the theology of Genesis 3. The basic problem is instead of serving their maker, they are serving the creation in order to serve their own desires. A refusal to be the image of God so they could fashion their own personal idols. The title of Professor Gregory Beale’s book sums up the contention of the Bible: We Become What We Worship. He goes on further to say in the same book,
God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation.
What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration.
This leads us to the conclusion: If polytheism is a human invention then faith in the God of Abraham is not an invention, it is a revelation. It is God personally representing himself apart from the design of his creatures. We must be careful here with the word revelation and not a smooth, uncomplicated download of accurate theological knowledge of the one true God. The biblical understanding of revelation requires three elements which are setup with the first two chapters of Genesis. There must be a god who is completely other than his creation, a transcendent being. Secondly, he has to be in his creation sustaining it with his presence. This means this god is interested in his creation not for what he can gain from it but has genuine pleasure in what he has made. Finally, he must not only be immanent, he has to present in human affairs. This is because he has made humans with a specific agenda, to be his image bearers in creation. Instead of passively receiving information we have a god who is active in the world and participates in human history to fulfil his purposes. The plot line of revelation becomes even more specific as it is focused on one human family, the family of Abraham.
As we can see, in terms of biblical theology revelation is grounded in human history. It is experienced. You find yourself in the revelation. It is not the monopoly of certain individuals but found within a community of people living in a real place and at a real time. Since God is our maker our understanding of him cannot be devoid of what he has made. When we make revelation out to be impersonal information, a “timeless truth”, untethered from real human lives, it not only loses its meaning but also its relevance for today’s struggles and challenges. Instead of the two separate categories of special and general revelation, which the Bible doesn’t have anyway, we should see them as a living continuum. However, it is by no means a smooth progression. From the story of Israel’s mission to redeem humanity we can see it’s a long winding journey filled with missed exits, wrong turns, pauses to find their bearings and lots of back tracking.
Revelation does not simply tell you who God is but also what he is doing. His nature and character are seen in and through his actions. In the New Testament the climax of God’s activity is Jesus. What is interesting about the Christian response to the question of god is that it is shaped around Jesus. What the Jews who became followers of Jesus asked wasn’t if Jesus was God. Jesus acted in a way that provoked the even more shocking question: Is God Jesus? To their own utter amazement, they found themselves saying yes.
Even before the emergence of Christianity the Jewish understanding of monotheism was unique. Christians took this further contending that God had both climactically fulfilled their hopes and subverted their expectations. He had surprised them by doing what he always said he would. YHWH had suddenly come into his temple. That temple wasn’t in Jerusalem but in the person of Jesus. This understanding of God in the person and mission of Jesus, as unlikely as it might seem, is very much in keeping with the spirit of revelation in at least two respects. Firstly, revelation is not a human invention so it is supposed to be astonishing (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10.) Especially coming from a far superior being, the Maker of All things, we should expect the unexpected. His ways are not our ways. Secondly, it is consistent with the narrative of a god who is present and active in the world. The incarnation is the ultimate expression of this. God became his living image. Not only that, he became a member of the family he had chosen to redeem humanity.
The brilliance of Christian monotheism is that no one was expecting it. It was a unique development that revolutionised a unique faith. Simultaneously consistent and familiar yet disruptive and challenging. Throughout the history of human race no group has answered the question of god in such a distinctive manner. We can safely say it came about not as a human contrivance but as a truly divine revelation from above.