How Can We Know the Nature and Character of God?

May 21, 2015

I have heard it said, even in PCUSA General Assembly committee meetings, that God is unknowable. “God is so vast and so big that we cannot possible know or understand what God wants to do.” This is a bogus claim in the guise of humility. As I have written before, God wants to be known and has gone to great lengths to make himself known to his creation (cf. Deuteronomy 4:5–8, 32–36). Not only can we know about God—his nature and character—we can actually know God (more on that in a later post). Our investigation into God’s background is not a clandestine operation done despite some effort on God’s part to hide. No, God delights when we seek him, and he will be found by those who search for him wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 4:29). Tuck that assurance into your heart and mind while we proceed.

As we ponder the nature and character of God, it is important first to answer the question, “How do we know?” How is it that we can actually describe—with confidence and clarity—what God is like? We know by three ways:

God’s Fingerprints Throughout Creation. The apostle Paul makes this point most succinctly in the opening chapter of Romans:

19″For what can be known about God
is plain to [all, even those who are opposed to God],
because God has shown it to them.
20Ever since the creation of the world
his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,
have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

When I stand at the top of a ridge in the high Sierra Nevada, I am in awe of the beauty of granite, sky, and water (Psalm 8). When people pursue scientific inquiry down to the chromosomal level or up to the astronomical level, they are in touch with created things that are still smaller than the Force that put them in motion “in the beginning” (Genesis 1; Job 38). At the very least, an appreciation of nature moves us to ask, “Where did all this come from?” which is a question God recognizes as coming from a seeker.

The one who discovers, perhaps through observation of the natural world, that there must be a God behind it all has taken the first step of faith. Just the recognition of a Being not only bigger and better than we are but also greater and stronger than any other possible god has set us on a quest for truth. For ages, indigenous people around the globe have looked to the heavens and understood, perhaps wordlessly, that an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God exists somewhere, somehow. You can read accounts of these discoveries in an old book called Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson (Regal Books, rev. ed. 1984).

God’s Revelation Specifically in Scripture. Incapable as we are for finding God without help, God has put into words—the words of Scripture—his own singular story in order that we might be introduced to him. From the beginning of time at creation all the way to a projection of the end of time, God is interested, according to the Scriptures, in sharing his great benevolence and joie de vivre with us. Testimony of God’s presence and power was accumulated with the cooperation of many human writers through thousands of years of history. Organized into 66 “books,” the whole Bible is the Word of God written, “God’s Word in human words.” Holy Scripture, comprising Old and New Testaments, submits itself as the revelation and self-disclosure of God, the journal of God’s relationship to creation and to a people of Israel, the plan God implemented to reconcile everyone to himself, and the invitation to know God and experience Life in him. Everything we need to know is found here, if not everything we want to know—there is some mystery, after all, because it is true that God is bigger than we are and “out of sight.” By saying this, I am not contradicting my previous comments, but only saying that God has revealed himself and his will to us in the Scripture to a degree sufficient for our salvation and discipleship. The Word of God points us specifically and effectively toward the One who holds the keys to our future.

Don Richardson, previously mentioned, writes in his book about how native, unreached people on desolate islands for instance, had known for generations about a God who was above all gods. When missionaries identified him as Jesus Christ, they gave thanks that they could now address God by name. And so it is for us, when we receive the scriptural testimony from God, that we are exposed to the specific revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

God’s Embodiment in Jesus Christ. The third way we know about God is by taking a very close look at the One he sent, Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know God, get to know Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was not only holy, talented, smart, and gifted as a teacher; Jesus was God come in the flesh to save sinners:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14)

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
5in order to redeem those who were under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4f)

Jesus was not a different god than YHWH. Jesus did not come to correct excesses of an Old Testament tyrant. Jesus was and remains fully God even as he was fully human. That means, if a person wants to know God, then a person must get acquainted with Jesus Christ. If you see Jesus, you see the Father (John 14:7).

So much more to be said! Stay tuned . . .

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