Theology can be a beautiful thing. The ideas that we hold about God shape how we view the world we live in and our places within it. It can give us hope when things begin to go dark. Theology can also be toxic. Our ideas about God can harden our hearts towards others, even divide close friendships as we worry that those close to us are backsliding or stepping off of the path. In fact some of the ideas that we have historically held onto are the very things that have divided the church throughout time. The creeds were a means early on of determining who was in, and who was out. All of our denominations have largely been created as the fruit of bitter disagreements over doctrine or dogma.
The interesting thing about all of these divisions is that in most any case people on either side will be armed with their swords of the Spirit, the right verses in the right framing to support their view. And all of this diversity is coming from the same book.
When I was in high school I can remember there was a great emphasis in my church community on the authority and perfection of scripture. Some people who were outside of Christian community had said the bible was full of contradictions, and so it became the work of the church to more or less explain away these contradictions and somehow make the scriptures fluid.
The problem is, they’re not.
The bible is messy.
Within the texts there is debate; there is critique and commentary. There is even progression.
Think about how sacred history even begins, with the man Abram being to get up and go, to leave his father, his house and everything he knows for a place he doesn’t know. Abram doesn’t have this lengthy revelation of who God is. In fact this could be a big part of why Abram obeys God later on the second time Abram is told to get up and go, to sacrifice Isaac. All of the other gods demanded this, why wouldn’t this new God? All Abram knows is that this God demands that he move, and this God makes promises if he will. Its not really enough to build a theology around.
Speaking of other gods this is another really good example of this sort of progression that occurs within scripture. Jews have historically been cited as the original monotheists, but as far as their scriptures the Tanakh go, God isn’t the only god at all, rather YHWH has to contend and compete with other gods to win the hearts of the Israelites who keep choosing with worship these other gods. This is why God is described as a JEALOUS God. It isn’t until the period of the Babylonian exile, when the Old Testament was largely being compiled that the idea that the other gods were all false even emerged in their consciousness. They had to go BEYOND the text to get to know God more truly.
What about the sacrifices?
Sacrifices are another instance where we see this clearly. In Leviticus God ordains through Moses several institutions for sacrifice. It was a clearly laid out system so you could know that you have peace with God. The fragrance of the sacrifice was described as pleasing to God. Then things start to shift. Psalms 50 has the Psalmist complaining in God’s voice that he isn’t interested in sacrifices, God doesn’t need them to have his hunger sated. He owns the cattle anyhow. Hosea the prophet says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The prophet Jeremiah goes even further and has it written that God says “On the day I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I didn’t say a thing—I gave no instructions—about entirely burned offerings or sacrifices.” (7:22).
So it goes from God demanding sacrifices for relationship, to not needing them, to not really being interested in them at all, to saying, “Yeah, this wasn’t really my idea in the first place.” It isn’t until the writer of Hebrews takes a crack at this that we see what is at the heart of it all, arguing that sacrifices cannot remove sins, but were made to help with the human conscience.
It is easy to look at all of these statements, and place them next to each other and see contradictions. If this were one author at one point in time, we would think that person was schizophrenic. But it isn’t one author. It isn’t all from one moment in time. But just like any relationship, it starts with an idea of a personality, and then over time we find out what is true and what was maybe just our own ideals, flawed as they were, thrust into the mystery. We tend to do this with so many of our human relationships, why wouldn’t we do it with the divine?
I think this is why God was so insistent that the Israelites not make idols or attempted images of God. No matter how they tried, they would always miss the mark.
This is something that the authors of the New Testament really latched onto, and what made Jesus more important I would argue, than scripture even itself.
John wrote in his gospel that no one had seen God at any time… Only that isn’t really true on the surface. Moses saw the back of God, God appeared to Abram before the destruction of Sodom, Isaiah saw a vision of God on a throne. So either John is making stuff up, unaware of the story of his people, or he has something else in mind when he rounds off that statement by saying “God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.” (John 1:18).
Jesus makes God “Plain as Day”
Jesus, the only Son, is the way people see God, who God is. This helps make sense of his claims “If you see me you have seen the Father.” Or why the author of Hebrews says, “In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son.”
God was not really known before Jesus, not fully. God acted throughout history and humanity learned in big and small ways to recognize God, but they didn’t always get it right. Jesus however is the full picture of who God is, that we have not previously been able to see clearly. The “image of the invisible God.”
The word made flesh. If you see Jesus you see the Father.
So we don’t make images of this God, this God has given us his own image.
This is where I think that we have had a tendency to lose the plot. This is where our disagreements break us down. None of us have it all perfected. We all come to the text and we shade in the gray areas to make it match our ideal. We all attempt to use our doctrines and dogma to build our idols. Then we defend them when they are scrutinized. Before we know it, they become the measure that determines who is out and who is in. Maybe we have to stop. Maybe we have to let go. Maybe we have to be open to the idea that at any moment Jesus wants to reveal to us more of who he is. Couldn’t it be that what we have held onto was just an image of our own well intentioned idolatry?
I used to find it odd that the Israelites were punished so harshly for the incident with the golden calf. I mean, if you read the text, they were attempting to worship YHWH by name through that calf. But they were already locking into an idea of what that God was like. They hadn’t yet learned to relate to the image He was to give them.
We need theology. We need good theology, because our ideas about God can give us hope, and unify us. We need a theology that shows us a God who is love, and loves without limits. But we have to learn to be flexible with our theology. We have to allow Jesus to show us more and more of what God really looks like. Let go of the idols, and look to Jesus.