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It Matters Where We Begin

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As we saw in part one of this series, not every theologian begins from the same theological starting point.1 Different historical and cultural contexts have produced different questions and shaped the theological emphasis on a given era, over time influencing theological development. Some theologians build their doctrinal framework off the foundation of the Bible, others western philosophical concepts of God, others the Trinity, others sovereignty, etc.2 Very few of them have as the foundation and controlling principle the love of God. As Kevin Vanhoozer observed: “It is exceedingly odd that Christian theologians have themselves been somewhat indifferent–inattentive, neutral–with regard to the concept of the love of God, if we are to judge from their often oblique, indistinct, or awkward treatments of the subject.”3 This is strangely suspicious, given the entire metanarrative of Scripture has the love of God as its primary message.4

First John 4:8 and 16 state in no uncertain terms: “God is love.” From a grammatical standpoint, my friend Dan Wallace makes the critical point that the way this sentence is constructed gives the predicate nominative (love, agape) a qualitative sense, or is describing what the subject is like. This, coupled with the fact that the noun agape is abstract, what you see is an emphasis on the essence of the subject, as opposed to a definite (“the love”) or indefinite (“a love”) noun. In other words, the grammar is intentionally constructed to show unequivocally that the essence, not the secondary attribute or some quality possessed, but the essence . . . the essence of God is love.5

If the Scriptures define the essence of God as love, how can we know this is actually the case apart from the straightforward claim? As set forth in The Glossary Narrative Series, we observed the Creator’s fingerprint in the self-giving life cycle of the natural world, but a closer look at God shows this goes much deeper. Of all the ways God could have revealed himself to humanity (and creation in general), the one he chose to use is father. In the Hebrew Scriptures this is clearly seen in reference to God as the father of creation (Mal 2:10). But what kind of father is he? Interestingly, a handful of passages blend the concept of father with mother when describing God. In a rebuke to Israel, Deuteronomy 32:18 says, “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (emphasis mine). The prophets consistently depict God as a loving mother who lifts a child to the cheek, a nurturer and comforter who fiercely protects his children (Hos 11:3-4, 13:8, Is 49:15, 66:13). Our relationship to God is described as a weaned child, calm and quiet, content with her mother (Ps 131:2). Clement of Alexandria reinforces this imagery in The Paedagogus: “The Word [Logos] is all to the child, both father and mother, and tutor and nurse . . . the nutriment is the milk of the Father, by which alone we infants are nourished . . . [with] the Word, the ‘care-soothing breast’ of the Father. And he alone, as is befitting, supplies us children with the milk of love, and those only are truly blessed who suck this breast” (emphasis mine).6 I am not arguing God is Mother. Scripture clearly and consistently affirms God as Father; however, I am arguing for the type, or quality of father he is, and one of the most overlooked qualities of God the Father is the nurturing, caring, unconditional love of a mother: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Is 49:15) I rephrased this question in casual language to my wife, a mother of four: “Do you think you would ever be able to forget the children you’ve nursed?” Her response was immediate and emphatic . . . “No!” If this is true of a human marred by sin, how much more a perfect Father? Telling.

We know God as the Father (and in some sense Mother) of creation, but also as the Father who adopts Israel and the Davidic king. In the Hebrew Scriptures the term “son” of God was reserved for the Davidic king (2 Sam 7:14, Ps 2:7, 89:27), and was common adoption (or familial) language used by kings in the ANE for a loyal subject.7 The question remains, however, if being Father is essential to his being or if it is something he became. This is the question unequivocally answered by Jesus. Not only does Jesus refer to God as Father (pater), we also get a glimpse of what is probably the ipsissima verba (or the “very words”) of Jesus (Mk 14:36) in the Aramaism abba, which was “originally a term of endearment,”8 later said to be used by those indwelled by the Spirit (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6).9 Not only does Jesus use these terms to refer to God, he says something really fascinating: “Father . . . you loved me before the creation of the world” (Jn 17:24, emphasis mine).

The central creed of the Jews is: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). Most English versions rightly translate the word ʼeḥâd as “one,” but many understand this to mean something with the sense of “solitary,” or “not more than one.” The word is a bit more complicated than that though. The root (yaḥad) of the adjective ʼeḥâd means “to be united,” or for multiple parties, “to be one.” It’s the same word used in Genesis 2 to describe the man and woman becoming “one (ʼeḥâd) flesh” (Gen 2:24).10 If the author of Deuteronomy wanted to communicate Yahweh was one and only one, or not more than one person, he would have used yaḥîd, or “solitary.” The translators are right to render ʼeḥâd “one,” but the unified composite nature of the word should be explained.11

While the ancient Israelites were not trinitarian, the sense of plurality in God is definitely affirmed both in Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures. The unseen Yahweh was not the only one considered, or treated as God . . . the angel of the Lord was as well, along with the Son of Man figure depicted in Daniel 7:13-14. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh is presented as a deity who is both unseen and also seen. The texts with the various appearances of the angel of the Lord intentionally blur the distinction between the angel and Yahweh, suggesting the angel of the Lord is in some way a visible Yahweh, something the Jewish community had no problem with for centuries. “The notion of two Yahweh figures . . . was referred to as the ‘two powers in heaven’ and was endorsed within Judaism until the second century AD.”12 It began to fall away in the wake of the Jewish response to the trinitarianism of Christianity. While acknowledging the debate around the identity of the angel of the Lord, it is probably best to take these appearances as this second Yahweh who is the Logos. If some ambiguity exists around the angel of the Lord, there is none in Jesus’ claim to be the divine Son of Man depicted in Daniel 7, something crystal clear in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt 26:64, Mk 14:62, Lk 22:69). What is hinted at in the Hebrew text is made clear in Jesus. He is not just the Jewish Messiah, he is the Eschatological Judge, the King of the World, and the Divine Son of God.

Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the primitive Church attempted to piece together what had just taken place. This in no way means they invented, or made up the deity of Jesus . . . it is clear very early on they considered him divine.13 The substance of the primitive Christian creeds was faithfully passed down and later stated formally in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in  . . . one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

Because Jesus shares the same substance with the Father, he is the eternal Son of God. There was never a time the Father was not begetting the Son. If there was never a time the Son was not proceeding from the Father then God has always been Father, and Jesus makes it clear the Father has always loved the Son. “That is the God revealed by Jesus Christ. Before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.”14

It matters where we begin. If we have been trained or formed to view the Scriptures (not to mention life itself) through the lens of anything other than “God is love,” then we have gone wrong. And if we have gone wrong here, our mistake will color everything about us. So consider, how permeated is the love of God through your understanding and experience of the Scriptures, God, yourself, and the world you live in? If the answer is anything less than “completely,” then we have room to grow. But take heart, now we know where to begin.

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Notes

  1. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 19-20.
  2. John McIntyre, On the Love of God (London: Collins, 1962), 12-13.
  3. “Truth is never mere opinion.” Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book 1, Chapter 11. “You can’t ‘truth’ a belief by believing it. You can’t make a fact exist just by believing it . . . Truth is so important that we cannot fail to understand that it is unyielding in the face of beliefs.” Dallas Willard, “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” Christian Ethics Today 5, no. 2 (1999): 13.
  4. Willard, “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” 12.
  5. Luciano Cozzi, The Love of God in Biblical Counseling (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2016), 114.
  6. C. S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 49.
  7. “We have a terrible time understanding love, because we confuse it with desire. Desire and love are two utterly different kinds of things. Not only is desire not love; it is often opposed to love. Right action is the act of love, regardless of the desires of anyone involved.” Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 115.
  8. “Desire [Gk. epithumia] is the impulse toward possession or experience of its object. Desire ‘locks on.’ It cares for nothing else but its own satisfaction . . . Of course anyone caught in the grip of [epithumia] is already in real trouble. They will sacrifice what is good, for themselves and others, to get what they want.” Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare between the Flesh and the Human Spirit” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 6, no. 2 (2013): 154.
  9. Gary Chartier, The Analogy of Love: Divine and Human Love at the Center of Christian Theology (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2007), 16-17.
  10. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1960), 8.
  11. Too often this missed the mark, although this shouldn’t surprise anyone with an appreciation for context. Trying to interpret an ancient Near Eastern text through a Hellenistic lens is an attempt to “make it fit an alien frame of reference . . . [you] end up distorting it.” Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 25.
  12. Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 134-35, n. 1. The “two powers in heaven” doctrine affirmed “a second exalted divinity figure (a ‘second power’) that was both identified with and distinguished from Yhwh.” Michael S. Heiser, “Co-regency in Ancient Israel’s Divine Council as the Conceptual Backdrop to Ancient Jewish Binitarian Monotheism” Bulletin for Biblical Research 26, no. 2 (2015): 196. Philo refers to this doctrine in his second book on Genesis: “Nothing mortal can be made in the likeness of the most high One and Father of the universe but (only) in that of the second God [δεύτερον θεόν], who is his Logos . . .” Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis, 2.62. Quoted in Philo, Questions on Genesis, translated by Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library 380 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 150. Philo, a monotheistic Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, would have readily affirmed John 1:1-5, but John 1:14 would have shocked him.

About the Author

Nathan Wagnon is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Eden Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to retraining people to connect deeply with God, self, and others. Nathan received his BA in Biblical Studies from Ouachita Baptist University (2001), and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies (2006).

Following seminary, he joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman and deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF X, XII). During his time in the military, he co-authored a mentoring book for young men titled Checkpoints: A Tactical Guide to Manhood (NavPress).

In 2013 Nathan moved his growing family back to Dallas and joined the staff of Watermark Community Church as the Director of Equipping & Apologetics. During his time at Watermark, Nathan earned his Doctor of Ministry (Discipleship) degree from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, focusing on how people emotionally experience God, and how that unique relational dynamic either encourages or suppresses spiritual formation. After 9 years of vocational ministry, he transitioned off Watermark’s staff to start Eden Project in 2022.

Nathan is married to his wife, Margaret. They have four children: Nate, Miles, Jules, and Joy.
Read More

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It Matters Where We Begin

Notes

  1. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 19-20.
  2. John McIntyre, On the Love of God (London: Collins, 1962), 12-13.
  3. “Truth is never mere opinion.” Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book 1, Chapter 11. “You can’t ‘truth’ a belief by believing it. You can’t make a fact exist just by believing it . . . Truth is so important that we cannot fail to understand that it is unyielding in the face of beliefs.” Dallas Willard, “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” Christian Ethics Today 5, no. 2 (1999): 13.
  4. Willard, “Truth: Can We Do Without It?” 12.
  5. Luciano Cozzi, The Love of God in Biblical Counseling (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2016), 114.
  6. C. S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 49.
  7. “We have a terrible time understanding love, because we confuse it with desire. Desire and love are two utterly different kinds of things. Not only is desire not love; it is often opposed to love. Right action is the act of love, regardless of the desires of anyone involved.” Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 115.
  8. “Desire [Gk. epithumia] is the impulse toward possession or experience of its object. Desire ‘locks on.’ It cares for nothing else but its own satisfaction . . . Of course anyone caught in the grip of [epithumia] is already in real trouble. They will sacrifice what is good, for themselves and others, to get what they want.” Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare between the Flesh and the Human Spirit” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 6, no. 2 (2013): 154.
  9. Gary Chartier, The Analogy of Love: Divine and Human Love at the Center of Christian Theology (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2007), 16-17.
  10. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1960), 8.
  11. Too often this missed the mark, although this shouldn’t surprise anyone with an appreciation for context. Trying to interpret an ancient Near Eastern text through a Hellenistic lens is an attempt to “make it fit an alien frame of reference . . . [you] end up distorting it.” Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 25.
  12. Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 134-35, n. 1. The “two powers in heaven” doctrine affirmed “a second exalted divinity figure (a ‘second power’) that was both identified with and distinguished from Yhwh.” Michael S. Heiser, “Co-regency in Ancient Israel’s Divine Council as the Conceptual Backdrop to Ancient Jewish Binitarian Monotheism” Bulletin for Biblical Research 26, no. 2 (2015): 196. Philo refers to this doctrine in his second book on Genesis: “Nothing mortal can be made in the likeness of the most high One and Father of the universe but (only) in that of the second God [δεύτερον θεόν], who is his Logos . . .” Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis, 2.62. Quoted in Philo, Questions on Genesis, translated by Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library 380 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953), 150. Philo, a monotheistic Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, would have readily affirmed John 1:1-5, but John 1:14 would have shocked him.

About the Author

Nathan Wagnon is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Eden Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to retraining people to connect deeply with God, self, and others. Nathan received his BA in Biblical Studies from Ouachita Baptist University (2001), and his ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary in New Testament Studies (2006).

Following seminary, he joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman and deployed twice to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF X, XII). During his time in the military, he co-authored a mentoring book for young men titled Checkpoints: A Tactical Guide to Manhood (NavPress).

In 2013 Nathan moved his growing family back to Dallas and joined the staff of Watermark Community Church as the Director of Equipping & Apologetics. During his time at Watermark, Nathan earned his Doctor of Ministry (Discipleship) degree from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, focusing on how people emotionally experience God, and how that unique relational dynamic either encourages or suppresses spiritual formation. After 9 years of vocational ministry, he transitioned off Watermark’s staff to start Eden Project in 2022.

Nathan is married to his wife, Margaret. They have four children: Nate, Miles, Jules, and Joy.
Read More

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Love Misunderstood

I’ve always been fascinated by the way John begins the first of his short letters: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, . . .

From Pit to Prince

In Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald shares a beautiful story of a grandmother who deeply loves her granddaughter. Wishing her granddaughter to walk in . . .

The Wrath of God

As we bring this series to a close, it is imperative we address what is for many the elephant in the room, so to speak. . . .