Early and Late Modern Frameworks for the Doctrine of God
In the article, “Sharing in the Divine Nature: Transformation, Koinonia and the Doctrine of God,” LeRon Shults notes three important late-modern developments in the doctrine of God: the retrieval of divine Infinity, the revival of Trinitarian doctrine, and a renewed conceptualization of God as primal Futurity.1 These developments were facilitated in part by a shift in ontology from a substance metaphysic to a metaphysic of relationality. Implied in Shults’ embrace of these developments is a holistic approach that recognizes fundamental human longing for the divine within the categories of truth, goodness, and beauty. Shults emphasizes the biblical decree that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of God—but not a knowledge that objectifies God but rather a participation in the mutual knowing and being known within the Trinitarian Godhead. Our means of participation in this knowing is the Incarnation of the Word of God—Jesus Christ who lived in the power of the Spirit in order to reveal the Father. As a result, grace and God’s role in our salvation and sanctification are emphasized. Finally, Shults’ methodology is integrative and interdisciplinary, seeking to weave together the witness of Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition, and with simultaneous regard for conceptual, ethical, and liturgical implications affecting our ability to achieve transformational relationships.
Generally speaking, these methodological concerns represent responses to tendencies in theology and philosophy during the early modern period. Particularly in the 17th century, the neoclassicism that accompanied the rise of the Enlightenment reaffirmed Platonic and Aristotelian substance metaphysics. This resulted in a tendency to conceive of God as a single subject of immaterial substance who, before the beginning, ordained all temporal history. God was thought of as a quantitatively infinite mind that from all eternity willed everything that happens and exists. As a result, conceptual categories and to a lesser degree ethical categories tended to be prioritized over liturgical ones. Analytical thought dominated—a seeking to break things down to their smallest parts, to categorize neatly and define everything, including God, as objects of knowledge. The image of God was equated with reason and rationality. The doctrine of the Trinity was laid aside, resulting in an either/or methodology in which divine attributes were emphasized over against creaturely attributes, or, worse yet, divine attributes were defined over against other seemingly conflicting divine attributes (e.g. God’s transcendence and immanence). God was described in relatively static and linear terms, and questions about God tended to ask “what?” rather than “Who?” The death of Jesus was emphasized, while the Incarnation’s overarching implications for theological endeavor were overlooked. Paul’s teaching was weighted over the Gospels, as being implicitly opposed. Humanity’s role in salvation and sanctification were emphasized.
Early and Late Modern Contours in the Gender Debates
In the past decade, long-standing debates pertaining to issues of gender and roles within the context of family and the church have formalized through the establishment of two evangelical camps which seek to articulate and promote differing perspectives: complementarians and egalitarians such as Christians for Biblical Equality. These groups have each created statements explicating their respective positions, as well as larger works amplifying their own views and responding to the views of the other. Two of their works will be examined briefly for the categories and methodologies they employ. The purpose of this examination is to note the apparent correspondence with the early and late modern methodologies described above. To the extent that one prefers certain methodological and categorical emphases, this will likely result in assent for the corresponding position.
Today’s complementarians respond to CBE’s evangelical feminist position in the booklet Can Our Differences Be Settled?2 Through examination of the language and tone of this document, several categorical and methodological themes emerge. One such theme is the desire for order and control. These authors begin with a concern for unity where unity is defined as uniform interpretation of how God intends to advance his kingdom (p. 10). The fact that Christians disagree on an important issue means that something is broken and urgently needs to be fixed. This introduces a general discomfort with ambiguity and diversity that pervades the entire work. Furthermore, the authors are eager for conceptual unity in particular. They affirm this by saying that “the assumption of the entire New Testament is that we should strive for peace by striving to come to agreement in the truth” (p. 11). Furthermore, they note, wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable (James 3:17). Purity, defined as “hearty agreement in truth,” is a prerequisite for peace (p. 11). Peace, then, is a matter of Christians agreeing on which propositions about God and humanity are true. For them, something is good or beautiful to the extent that it is first of all true. Truth stands over goodness and beauty in a hierarchical relationship. Peace is conceived of in exclusively conceptual terms.
Another consistent theme throughout is a concern for clarity (pp. 12-13). There is consistent criticism of CBE for being ambiguous for its lack of response to the complementarians’ call for “truth,” and for allowing differing opinions and not producing a statement relative to the complementarian statement so that all differences of opinion between the camps are precisely defined (pp. 20, 22, 23, 25, 29). This again demonstrates a desire to control the dynamics of human gender through the definition of stark boundaries. There is a sense that gender and sexuality are objects of human knowledge to the extent that they can be fully defined and contained. There is no sense of the possibility that this issue might in fact transcend finite reason.
Likewise, complementarians define maleness over and against femaleness. Differences between male and female are emphasized as constitutive for one’s identity (p. 29). There is more concern for “what” men and women are or should do over and against “who” men and women are or even “how” they do what they do. This suggests employment of a substantial metaphysic—who one is is determined by the type of substance that one is made up of, i.e. whether of male substance or female substance. Thus, the fact that Jesus was incarnated with male (rather than generically human) substance would seem to be significant for their theology, and male labels and pronouns used of God subtly suggest that God is, if not male per se, then certainly more male than female. Biblical images are read as hierarchical (e.g. Christ as head of the church, husband as head of the wife are read as “boss,” rather than “source”) and emphasized (p. 28), while inequivocal images of mutuality such as Jesus’ treatment of women or Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:26-28 are not acknowledged. For the authors, the relationships among ideas and persons are always asymmetrical. While they also want to be able to say that men and women are equal in worth, they criticize CBE’s unqualified use of the word “equality” as implying identicalness. They are concerned to specify precisely what equality does and does not include. While they acknowledge that men and women are equally created in the image of God, they do not give an indication of what constitutes the image of God or how that equality is manifested in real life.
Finally, the authors of this booklet seem to hold a view that God is exclusively separate from creation (dualist), a single subject, and a first cause. There is no appeal made to the teachings of Jesus or the significance of the Incarnation as God to human being (anthropos) and no explicit mention of the Trinity. Jesus’ relationship to the Father is noted, but only to highlight its supposed hierarchical nature (p. 28), leaving one to wonder whether there exists some sort of hierarchy within the Trinity itself. Nearly all the passages employed are from Paul, and the witness of the Gospels is not employed as a hermeneutical control. In another document complementarians claim that “God is said to have ‘ordained’ masculine and feminine roles before the Fall” (p. 41). Truth is depicted as static and determined purely in the past. An “either/or” perspective is confirmed by the final affirmation of the document, which says that denial or neglect of the principles in the statement will result in destructive consequences within families, churches, and culture. Here again unanimity, on their terms—and with their terms—is demanded.
Interestingly enough, while the CBE statement, Men, Women and Biblical Equality, emphasizes mutuality and equality instead of hierarchy and asymmetry, there is in the statement itself no explicit appeal to the Incarnation, Jesus’ teachings, or the Trinity. Furthermore, a brief survey of recent theology articles in the CBE journal Priscilla Papers did not reveal an abundance of appeals to the late modern developments in the doctrine of God. However, Alan Padgett’s article, “What is Biblical Equality?,” presents a significant contrast to the methodology and categories employed by the booklet’s authors. Padgett establishes a Christological tone from the outset when he states that biblical equality is “in Christ” (p. 22).3 He justifies the CBE belief that God calls people to roles and ministries without regard to gender by saying that “the Bible and Jesus Christ teach it to us” (p. 22, emphasis added).
Padgett proposes a threefold definition of biblical equality based upon a Trinitarian framework. First, he states that all people are “equal before God [the Father], and are equal in church, home, and society” (p. 22). Next, he asserts that all people have equal responsibility to serve and minister, because gender is not an obstacle for Christ. Finally, biblical equality involves mutual submission, for “Christian love is the heart of life in the Spirit” (p. 22).
In expanding on these three dimensions of biblical equality, Padgett appeals consistently to the teachings and ethic of Jesus. He refers to the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, which is important to the Father because people are equal before him. He cites Jesus’ association with and acceptance of the marginal in his society, and particularly his countercultural embrace of women. He states that the church should read the Bible holistically, “with Christ at its center” (p. 23). Jesus taught the ethics of self-giving and spiritual love, and lived the ethics of love and mutual submission. As such, men and women should live in mutual submission to each other “in the name of Christ” (p. 25). In reference to Genesis, Padgett states that man and woman together become “one flesh” and “together they are in the image of God” (p. 23), and he closes with a doxological, Trinitarian prayer.
It is clear, then, that Padgett’s formulation of biblical equality is robustly Christological, and as such Trinitarian. Jesus came to reveal the Father through a life lived by the Spirit. There is immediately a sense that biblical equality and Jesus’ revelation of the Father in the Incarnation are inseparably linked. The Incarnation is the core revelation of the Father’s will and purposes and as such reveals a divine emphasis on mutuality and equality. Furthermore, the emphasis is on “who” men and women are—their identity “in Christ”—rather than a philosophical emphasis on differing polar essences. The notion that men and women together are in the image of God suggests that the image consists in relationality corresponding to the mutual knowing and loving of the Trinitarian relations.
In addition to Trinity, divine notions of Infinity and Futurity are also woven in, if only briefly. For example, rather than the implications of gender being a principle that was ordained from all eternity, Padgett describes God as one who calls us into service and ministry through the Spirit without regard to class, race, or gender. In multiple ways, Padgett incorporates a sense of creaturely contingence on the Infinite and on the limitations of finite language and categories. He says, “We must submit our thoughts to Christ as we seek to know the wisdom of God…we believe the Bible does teach human equality, but it does so in its own terms” (p. 22). Thus, he affirms the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom and acknowledges that we must allow God to reform and transform our language and categories to make them conform to divine reality. Furthermore, equality is not an abstract, context-free concept, but finds its definition primarily as equality “before God” and within the Trinity. Peace and unity are the work of God and are granted to us as gifts of grace through the reconciling life of Jesus. Padgett gives the sense that gender and equality participate in a reality that is bigger than we are and that they are not simply rational categories that humanity controls and manipulates through defining precise boundaries. Rather than defining one thing over against another, Padgett’s approach emphasizes the commonality and unity we share in Christ and integrates conceptual, ethical, and liturgical categories.
Practical Implications for Transformational Relationships
Transformational relationships are fostered through free and Spirit-empowered service that empowers and liberates others.
The first thing that can be said about transformational leadership is that it is servant leadership. God as Trinity is love, defined as mutual knowing and being known, loving and being loved in perichoretic unity. God’s being is a being for the other. As such, our being should also be a being for the other. The emphasis in transformational leadership is not the self, but the other. It is a giving of self—a knowing and loving of the other—that can only occur as we are secured and liberated by God’s knowing and loving us. As we find security and peace through participation in the infinite abundance of God’s self-giving life and in anchoring our life in his eternal infinite communion, we are set free to forget about ourselves, to lose our lives by giving them for the other, knowing that more for the other does not mean less for us. Our participation in God’s powerful and abundant life satisfies our need to preserve and defend self and eliminates a sense of scarcity or want. God’s strength frees us to be weak; God’s riches free us to be poor; God’s glory frees us to be humble. Jesus’ transforming servant leadership frees us to be transformational servant leaders. The home is not an asymmetrical relationship in which the wife alone gives to the husband for the sake of his ministry or calling, or loses her life and identity for the sake of his; rather, a transformational relationship produces a mutual self-giving union that enables each to be poured out in service to others. In the church, it is difficult to conceive that women are not equally equipped to be servant leaders.
Second, transformational leadership is exercised in freedom for the liberation and empowerment of the other. God freely creates, knows, loves, and sustains us. This creating, knowing, loving, and sustaining liberates and empowers us to share in the divine life. It sets us free to live a life we could not otherwise live. It sets us free to do things we could not otherwise do and to become who God created us and is calling us to be. In the same way our transforming leadership, enabled by God’s liberating and empowering life, liberates and empowers others to do things they could not otherwise do and to become who God created and is calling them to be. Leadership that seeks to control those who are led is not transformational. Leader relationships that perpetuate unhealthy dependence are not transformational. In both marriage and within the church, transformational leadership is liberating leadership. It consists in helping others to discover their God given gifts, identity, and calling, and then provides a safe and affirming environment that empowers people to dream, to ask questions, to try, to take risks. In the words of songwriter Sara Groves, “When you love me there’s nothing I wouldn’t try. I might even fly.”4 That is liberating transformational leadership.
Finally, transformational leadership is, of course, transformational. Transformation is outside the scope of our finite abilities. Transformation is a divine work carried out by the Spirit of God. While our serving and liberating leadership might foster transformation, real transformation is God’s domain. As such, transformational leadership is shaped by and oriented toward grace. It is God’s gracious intervention that brings about transformation. Because God is doing the transforming and not us, we must not presume to define the boundaries of transformation. We must not attempt to force people into a uniform pattern with a “one size fits all” mentality or point out polarities and dissimilarities. God’s creativity is boundless and God alone knows the fullness of whom God is calling each of his creatures to be. While we as transformational leaders are called to facilitate the process, we dare not attempt to determine the end result. This requires husbands and wives to trust God’s transforming work in their spouses, knowing that he who began a good work in them will be faithful to complete it. This also rebukes those leaders who would mark off certain end results as “out of bounds” for certain groups within the body of Christ, e.g. women.
Practical Implications for Spiritual Formation
The notion of divine Infinity, Trinity, and Futurity provides new language and categories for making sense of Christian spirituality. The retrieval of true Infinity makes God “bigger,” inspiring fear, awe, worship, and confidence that God is able to keep all of his promises. It inspires trust and peace through knowing that God can be truly present to me while remaining transcendent. Knowing that I am infinitely known, and that God has bound himself to me in that knowledge, fosters a tremendous sense of security and confidence, allowing me to live courageously and without fear of taking godly risks.
A more robust understanding of the Trinity (and the Incarnation) has quite radically transformed my sense of what it means to be a person, as well as what it means to be a Christian. God is inherently relational and has created people to be likewise relational. Jesus came to earth in part to reveal God’s relational essence and to restore our ability to exist in peaceful relationship with the Father. The kingdom of God advances as I dwell in peaceful relationship with the Father and as I participate with other people in relationships of mutual love and respect. Living in a society that tends to value “stuff” over relationships, I have been seeking to live in a way that reverses this tendency and employs “stuff” for the service of relationships (Luke 16:9). The image of the Trinity has significantly altered my ethical practice, but has radically transformed my motivation to practice active love.
The idea of primal Futurity is more difficult to grasp. Yet it inspires a sense of hope and instills an understanding of God and eternal life that is dynamic and freeing. It makes sense of the temporal anxiety that I experience and provides a model of creating time and space for other people to grow in Christ.
In general, Christian doctrine employing the categories listed above is more organic to who I am than the doctrine I was taught growing up. This new expression of doctrine conceives of God in a way that is truly good news, and it directly addresses my deepest fears, needs, and intuitions. It corresponds better to my experience and seems more real than abstract philosophical formulations about the nature of God. It draws upon the language and culture of biblical times and motivates me to seek a deeper understanding of ancient Jewish language and culture.
My spiritual formation is informed by a doctrine of God that is integrated and holistic. I think this in particular is an area in which I need transformation. I seem to struggle on the one hand with the effects of the Fall, including a fractured and alienated form of personhood, and with modernist methodologies on the other which tend to break Scriptural truths down into their smallest parts and separate their aspects and relationships from each other. I find it challenging at times to detect, let alone apply, spiritual truths in my life. I am disturbingly capable of believing and acting in incompatible ways. I am too often a hypocrite, sometimes ignorantly, but oftentimes willingly. I desire to integrate better doctrines and theology into the way I treat people and utilize resources in everyday life.
My spiritual formation has also more recently been informed by understanding female perspectives of God. I have learned that knowledge is not purely objectification of the other, but is a relationship with the other. I have learned more about what a holistic and integrated spirituality looks like. I have learned that God is neither male nor female. A few years ago my wife’s and my views regarding gender roles were complementarian, rather than egalitarian. Such a change in thinking is not isolated, but is part of a larger appreciation of Jesus’ life and mission and the implications thereof.
- LeRon F. Shults, “Sharing in the Divine Nature: Transformation, Koinonia and the Doctrine of God,” in On Being Christian…and Human: Essays in Celebration of Ray S. Anderson, ed. Todd H. Speidell (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002).
- John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Can Our Differences Be Settled? A Detailed Response to the Evangelical Feminist Position Statement of Christians for Biblical Equality (Wheaton: Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1992).
- Alan G. Padgett, “What is Biblical Equality?” Priscilla Papers (Summer 2002): 23-25.
- Sara Groves, “Fly,” CD, All Right Here (New York, Sony, 2002).