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What Is Essential (and How Essential Is It)?

C. Michael Patton of Parchment and Pen lays out his opinion about how essential various elements of Christian belief really are, relatively speaking. James McGrath of Exploring our Matrix disagrees, claiming that many of Patton’s most essential doctrines are only found in the Johannine literature.

James is right to wonder where Christian conduct fits into Patton’s schema. As it stands, it isn’t really there at all, and that is surely a distortion of the gospel. The Great Commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor surely fits somewhere on a list of Christian essentials! At the same time, if you believe that salvation is by faith and not by works, can you really claim that any kind of behavior is “essential for salvation”?

I would respectfully disagree with James, however, that most of these essentials (at least in the “essential for salvation” category, are “supported primarily or exclusively by appeal to the Gospel and Letters of John.” Here are Michael’s top-tier essentials:

  • Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)
    All issues pertaining to the person and work of Christ:
  • Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)
  • Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)
  • Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave (1 Cor 15:3-4)
  • Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

I think you can make a case for Christ’s deity and humanity from Hebrews, and Michael himself appeals to a Pauline passage, the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” I know that verbiage is not conclusive, but it does tend to point in the direction of divinity, as do several of Jesus’ parables in the Synoptic Gospels (I’m thinking in particular of the Wicked Tenants, and the implications about the identity of “the son” who shows up at the end). the “Johannine thunderbolt” in Matthew 11:27, while also not conclusive, does seem to suggest that more people than merely John had at least an embryonic awareness that Christ was divine. As to the fact that humans are sinners in need of God’s mercy, honestly, what books of the Bible don’t teach that this is the human condition? And what New Testament books don’t teach that Jesus died and was raised to new life? The final item is the most problematic because, although the New Testament is pretty clear that all people are called to faith in Christ, I think humility requires us to admit that we may not have enough information to declare what God does with those who are not in a position ever to have meaningfully heard the gospel. Clark Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy is helpful here.

I don’t object in principle to naming one’s doctrinal “essentials,” and I would much prefer they be arranged in a hierarchy of one kind or another because that seems to foster much more fruitful dialogue with those who believe differently. And this is true even though I understand full well that you and I are going to disagree about where certain items belong in the pecking order.

The crusaders of both fundamentalism and liberalism (be they caped or otherwise) have a problem with hierarchies of belief. The fundamentalists put everything in the top tier so that any—and I mean any—deviation in any matter throws you into the category of a godless unbeliever: using a Bible other than the KJV, women wearing pants, men going too long between haircuts, you name it. But I have observed liberals put everything (at least of a doctrinal nature) in the bottom tier so that any—and I mean any—affirmation of doctrinal certainty is met with disdain if not open hostility. We moderate Baptists fully understand the first danger, but we have sometimes been so zealous to distinguish ourselves from fundamentalists that we have resisted admitting to any doctrinal non-negotiables.

For what it’s worth, I am much more amenable to the logic behind Catholic hierarchy of levels of teaching within the church, even though of course I would disagree with many of their specific conclusions. Also, it must be kept in mind that this hierarchy is an “in-house” schema, not strictly intended for ecumenical concerns or activities. Even so, I have found it helpful. Bishop Raymond Lucker discussed these various levels of teaching in an interview in The American Catholic back in 2001. Here is my summary with comments:

1. Divinely-revealed truth, which requires faith and assent. The opposite is heresy. In Catholicism, this is the category for such things as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection, love for God and for one another (hurray for orthopraxis!), the real presence in the Eucharist, the immaculate conception of Mary, etc. Obviously, as a Protestant I’m only willing to place in this category things for which I can find a firm, unambiguous biblical foundation.

2.Definitive non-revealed truths, defined as matters of faith and morals that “even though not revealed themselves, are required to safeguard the integrity of the deposit of faith, to explain it rightly, and to define it effectively” and having a “necessary and intrinsic relationship to the truths of faith.” These truths require firm assent and acceptance. The opposite is error. Examples include principles of natural law, seven sacraments, and a host of social-justice issues (human dignity and equality, condemnation of racism and sexism as evil, etc. Hurray again for orthopraxis!). I think I would put the Trinitarian and Christological formulations of the fourth and fifth centuries in this category: they are not explicitly biblical, although I believe they have a firm basis in what the Bible does unambiguously teach. Most social-justice issues probably still belong here, although I would promote some of the more basic or foundational ones to the first category.

3. Authoritative but non-irreformable teaching, also called “authentic but not infallible.” These are doctrines “to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith.” Here there seems to be an admission that things are not entirely clear, and that in fact we may eventually come to a different conclusion. This level of teaching requires “religious submission (respect, obedience) of will and intellect” and religiously grounded obedience. The opposite is dissent. Here Lucker lists examples including biblical criticism, evolution, the formula for the sacraments, teachings about (against) artificial birth control, and teachings about (against) the ordination of women, etc. I expect my list would look somewhat like his, although viewed from the opposite direction!

4. Disciplinary rules, which require obedience. The opposite is disobedience. Examples include rules for fasting, feasts of obligation, and celibacy of clergy. Again, my list would be similar, but transposed into a congregationalist key. I defer to my (local) church’s rules, customs, and procedures about using the liturgical calendar, how the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, decision-making processes, “chain-of-command”-type issues, and the like.

5. Theological opinion, which invites agreement. (The shift from “requires” to “invites” is significant, I think.) The opposite is difference of opinion, and sometimes the church will issue a warning about certain differences of opinion that could lead to error. Examples include the existence of Limbo and the specific applications of various moral principles. I would place end-times speculations, the authorship of various books of the Bible, beliefs about the genre of Job, Jonah, or Esther, and other speculative issues here. In a free-church context, this is bound to be a very large category—and the freer, the larger!

6. Pious practices and devotions, which invite imitation and encouragement. The opposite is personal preference. Examples include praying the rosary, going on pilgrimages, and other forms of private devotion. This is pretty self-explanatory. I would include here things that may fit well in one person’s life of discipleship that should not be imposed upon another’s: a personal quiet time, devotional reading, making the sign of the cross, particular acts of charity or service, etc.

This schema does not have a category for “beliefs necessary for salvation.” If you really want one, here it is: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).

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18 Comments

  1. Thanks for joining in this conversation! I perhaps should have expressed myself more clearly. I did not mean to contest that the divinity of Christ is a possible way of understanding various passages from Paul and the Synoptics. But the fact that there is uncertainty and debate about their meaning suggests that these authors were, at best, less than absolutely clear and explicit, and may have meant something else. And so what I really wanted to do was problematize the notion that something can be an “essential” of Christianity when there is debate whether certain of the earliest Christians actually held those views!

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  2. mikelioso says:

    I’m a big fan of a streamlined essentials for salvation chart. I think salvation would be understandable by even an unintelligent person and be articulated by Jesus personally and while He was alive (why do all the sermons and leave out the most important part?). The penitent thief seemed to get it with a few short sentences and other than dying didn’t any good deeds to prove his penitence.
    I would omit Christ bodily resurrection, the thief died unaware of Christ resurrection and the exact nature of the resurrection is more of a historical detail. Would the story change of God made Jesus a new body and left the old one in the tomb? Or if he was resurrected into a “spiritual” angel’s body? I suppose there were some that thought anything less but his dead corpse climbing out of the tomb wouldn’t be a proof of God’s favor on Him, since they would suppose, the world is full of restless ghost. From our perspective that Jesus still had the wounds or scars from his crucification doesn’t seem like a proof for resurrection. Couldn’t God heal his wounds if raised Him from the dead?

    As someone else pointed out it isn’t the belief in God that is important but the loving of God, and I don’t think it is necessary to know what God is to love God. How many people really have a correct definition of who or what God is?

    The essentials might merely be love God and love every body else and you will be saved. The problem for Paul may be expressed as “if I dont always love God and everyone else will I not be saved?” and the response could be condensed to “believe Jesus was right when he said you must love God and everyone else” the rest are only opinions on the best way to carry it out.

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  3. Craig says:

    “I don’t think it is necessary to know what God is to love God”

    One cannot love what one does not know. You might profess some generic love for humanity in the abstract, but what is this compared to your love for a spouse, or parents, or a child, in whom you have invested yourself and made yourself vulnerable. You are only able to love someone as you make yourself available to them. Anything else is just pithy sentimentality.

    Just so, God can love us and we Him as He makes Himself available to us. The Gospels’ claim that this is through the bodily resurrection of Christ is at the core of the New Testament’s truth claims.

    It matters who God is and who wensay He is.

    Craig

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  4. mikelioso says:

    Craig, it is possible to know someone without knowing what they are. There has been quiet a bit of argument over the centuries about what God is or can do and accompanying that the notion that if you believe the wrong facts then your not loving God. This is like two children who love their father, but one knows their father is an accountant but the other believes he is a cowboy. Does the ignorant child not really love his father because his definition of his father is wrong? I would say no, and thus the Christians who say Christ is of a similar substance as the Father loved Christ as much as those who said he was of the same substance. People love God not because they know what kind of being He is or what His name is but by his actions which are available for all to witness.

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  5. Craig says:

    “Craig, it is possible to know someone without knowing what they are. There has been quiet a bit of argument over the centuries about what God is or can do and accompanying that the notion that if you believe the wrong facts then your not loving God. This is like two children who love their father, but one knows their father is an accountant but the other believes he is a cowboy. Does the ignorant child not really love his father because his definition of his father is wrong? I would say no, and thus the Christians who say Christ is of a similar substance as the Father loved Christ as much as those who said he was of the same substance. People love God not because they know what kind of being He is or what His name is but by his actions which are available for all to witness.”

    Not knowing what your father does for a living is a category difference than not knowing your father at all, of knowing who  he is. The analogy does not hold. 

    Biblical notions of love are based on knowing and understanding, John 14:15 among other passages. A Muslim’s understanding of who God is is fundamentally different than a Christian’s for example, and the understanding cannot be reconciled. For Cheistians, who God is is irrevocably manifested in Christ. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Christians have had disagreements over the centuries, but in the end we agree on who God is.   

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  6. mikelioso says:

    Who is God that all Christians agree on?

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  7. Craig says:

    Really? Surely the conversation has not come to this.

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  8. mikelioso says:

    I’ll go ahead and throw out a textbook definition of the god of Christianity, this one from Michael Molloy’s “Experiencing the Worlds Religions”.

    “God the Father: Behind the activity of the universe is an invisible intelligence that created the cosmos as an expression of of power and love. …
    Despite the portrayal of God the Father as Male, we should note the Christian doctrine actually teaches that God, as a pure spirit, has no gender.”

    So an intelligent, invisible, spirit that created the cosmos. So what precisely is a spirit?

    Main Entry: 1spir·it
    Pronunciation: ˈspir-ət
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
    Date: 13th century
    1 : an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
    2 : a supernatural being or essence: as a capitalized : holy spirit b : soul 2a c : an often malevolent being that is bodiless but can become visible; specifically : ghost 2 d : a malevolent being that enters and possesses a human being

    So God is made of the same stuff as souls, ghost, and assorted supernatural beings? I’m pretty sure no one has a clue what those things are made of. It is conceivable that spirits are made of something that defies reason and natural science. That would seem to be the definition of supernatural, but such a thing would be beyond human definition since our thoughts are limited by reason and nature. Thus nobody would know what God is.

    I have heard of other definitions of God, like that which nothing greater can be conceived or the object of ultimate concern. None of these fully explain God’s nature. If you know what God is, you should say because the world wants to know. If you don’t know I don’t think it necessarily diminishes your love for God.

    By the way in the same textbook I got the Christian definition of God from they also had the Islamic definition of God as “an all powerful, transcendent God who has created the universe and controls it down to the smallest detail.” This sounds a lot like the definition for the Christian God, and I would argue that there have been bigger differences between religions identifying themselves as Christian than between these two (Islamic/Christian) definitions of God.( Of course in Islam, like Judaism, believes that God is a singular being not expressed as unified but somehow separate Spirit and Jesus, the son or “Logos”. But some self identified Christian denominations believe the same.)

    You have a number of sects that believe in God as a trinity and some (Arian, Ebionite, Jehovah’s witness) who do not. There are disagreements on whether God gives up control of men to allow them free will or if the actions of men are only the results of the will of God. There are differences on whether the Holy Spirit emanates from both the Father and the Son or only from the Father. Different denominations are all sure of the correctness of their theories but from the outside all that can be said is Christians don’t seem to understand fully the nature of God. Once again I don’t think this invalidates their devotion to God.

    I suppose you could argue that all those with the “wrong” answer don’t really know who God is thus are in love with the wrong god. That has been a popular position in Christianity. In that system you would have to replace “belief in God” with belief in theory x of God, which is common, I have known a number of pastors that believe that only their denomination is Christian. The problem with this view is that it puts a high premium on understanding obscure theology so salvation becomes a very intellectual exercises. This doesn’t seem to be the focus of Jesus’ known teaching and is then in the most basic sense, unchristian.

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  9. Craig says:

    “None of these fully explain God’s nature. If you know what God is, you should say because the world wants to know. If you don’t know I don’t think it necessarily diminishes your love for God.”

    As I said in an earlier commend, Christians have had their disagreements, but none of them have been over *who* God is. The description(s) of God you have pulled are more Hellenistic and either describe God by a negative or by comparing God to other known quantities. The Christian tradition (and that of other faiths) has resorted to this sort of language, obviously, but fundamentally, at the start of all talk of God in the Christian context, is that God is manifested in Jesus Christ. God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave and validated Jesus’ mission here on earth as the Messiah of Israel. Christians have been very clear on *who* they *believe* God to be, starting with the apostles, continuing with Ignatius, the Cappadocian Fathers, the ecumenical creeds and on. All of these are expansions of the gospel message that is at the core of the New Testament: “Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead.” That’s it. That’s all one has to “know” and confess. Paul affirms as much in Romans. There’s nothing obscure or scholastic about that.

    It’s not about knowing *theology*. It’s about knowing, and thereby loving, the person through whom God has revealed Himself. So again – one cannot love God without knowing who He is. This holds even beyond the Christian context – even if one’s only conception is that God is an unknowable, mysterious Watchmaker in the sky.

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  10. mikelioso says:

    God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave and validated Jesus’ mission here on earth as the Messiah of Israel.
    Good answer to who, most add in a lot of other activities God is supposed to have done to define who. It and the quote from Paul would certainly be agreed on by all self identified Christians outside a few Unitarians. Doesn’t answer “what”.
    Of course one can love God and not know God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave. Take John the Baptist for example, or Peter, John, and James before the resurrection.
    Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead
    This is rightly the core of Christianity as a religion. Paul says all who proclaim this will be saved(from God’s wrath) Paul, as the writer of 2 Peter said, is sometimes hard to follow. I doubt that he is laying out a magic formula for salvation here. Knowing it would require knowing about Jesus, specifically His teaching. Did Paul believe only those “who declare with their mouth, “Jesus is lord”, and believe with their heart God raised Him from the dead will be saved? This has the same problem as the above example. There is the idea that people before Jesus were saved by some other belief and only after His resurrection did the new standard come into play, but that would mean that people that might have been saved before Christ death might not be so after His resurrection, since it would take time for that fact to get spread around.
    So to sum all of this up, I don’t think declaring,”Jesus is lord” is necessary for salvation, nor believing in his resurrection, or having any particular conceptions of God.
    Thanks Craig for the discussion, I have enjoyed it, thanks Dr. Platypus for letting me use your comment space for it.

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  11. Craig says:

    Your original statement was “As someone else pointed out it isn’t the belief in God that is important but the loving of God, and I don’t think it is necessary to know what God is to love God. How many people really have a correct definition of who or what God is?”

    We have reviewed the Christian definition of *who* God is, and seeded the Christian answer to the question of *what* God is. (We can explore that path if you like because there is a very definitive, positive answer that is more than “intelligent, invisible, spirit”, but somehow, I don’t think that would alter your hold on your premise.) Muslims and Jews, as you allude, *believe* they know what and who God is, and they are surely not going to defer to some syncretistic conception of the Deity. Even the Deists had some idea of who and what they meant when they referenced God.

    To say it’s not possible to know which of these conceptions of God is correct is one thing, for this is the realm of faith, but that is not what you have asserted. You have asserted that God is not knowable. Further, you claim that God’s unknowability does not interfere with a human’s ability to love God. But if words have any meaning at all and are not mere empty abstractions, this assertion just does not make any sense and falls meaningless! Webster’s first definition of the word “love” is: “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” The very concept of what we mean by love is based on what the subject knows of the object of the love.

    “Of course one can love God and not know God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave.”

    One can love one’s existing conception of God (which, apart from the Jews, will by definition mean a *different* God than the One who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grace), but this is far different from saying one loves what something does not or can not know.

    “Did Paul believe only those “who declare with their mouth, “Jesus is lord”, and believe with their heart God raised Him from the dead will be saved?… So to sum all of this up, I don’t think declaring,”Jesus is lord” is necessary for salvation…”

    I’m not sure of the relevance of this point to the present discussion, so I’ll pass on debating this question. We are not discussing salvation (which is an activity on God’s part), as the question centers around humanity’s ability to love an unknowable deity.

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  12. Craig says:

    “which, apart from the Jews, will by definition mean a *different* God than the One who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grace”

    CORRECTION: Obviously, I made a typo at the end of this phrase. Please insert “grave” in place of “grace”. :-/

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  13. mikelioso says:

    “Did Paul believe only those “who declare with their mouth, “Jesus is lord”, and believe with their heart God raised Him from the dead will be saved?… So to sum all of this up, I don’t think declaring,” Jesus is lord” is necessary for salvation…”

    I’m not sure of the relevance of this point to the present discussion, so I’ll pass on debating this question. We are not discussing salvation (which is an activity on God’s part), as the question centers around humanity’s ability to love an unknowable deity.
    ————
    Sorry there, it was a response to the line
    “Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead.” That’s it. That’s all one has to “know” and confess.”
    Since the blog post I was responding to was on the necessary beliefs for salvation I wanted to bring back my conversation to that point. I’m not trying to demonstrate what is true about God, only what one has to know about God to be saved. I felt we had got off track.

    I’m hardly arguing that God is unknowable, I don’t know enough to make that statement. I only admit the possibility that it may not be possible to rationally comprehend God. We still don’t fully understand gravity. So if you have a answer to what God is, feel free to let me know. I have only the barest comprehension of what God might be, and from my time studying the issue have come to believe most folks are in the same boat (but there are no shortage of people who think they know).
    ———————
    My thought on how people can love God without the full understanding of who and what He is by loving those attributes of God that are most essential to Him. He is existence and truth. God is the source of all that exist, if something exist then it is real, and all that is real is true. So, if you love life and you love truth then you would love God since he is the substance to truth and existence. Beyond His causing to exist and his truthfulness I’m rather unsure of Gods attributes but I’m always happy to hear peoples ideas.

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  14. Craig says:

    Sorry there, it was a response to the line
    “Jesus is Lord and is risen from the dead.” That’s it. That’s all one has to “know” and confess.”
    Since the blog post I was responding to was on the necessary beliefs for salvation I wanted to bring back my conversation to that point.

    Ah, I understand. I am only debating one aspect of your original response, i.e., “I don’t think it is necessary to know what God is to love God.”

    Now, this is a narrow point and it easily leads into discussions regarding salvation. I would certainly be happy to expand the discussion to argue your statement that one can “omit Christ bodily resurrection” from essential beliefs about God – but this takes the conversation into an explicitly Christian context, and it seems we are not there yet, given the question at hand, namely, how can we love God when we don’t know what He is.

    —-

    “I’m hardly arguing that God is unknowable, I don’t know enough to make that statement.”

    Perhaps, then, I inferred too much from your previous statement:

    “That would seem to be the definition of supernatural, but such a thing would be beyond human definition since our thoughts are limited by reason and nature. Thus nobody would know what God is.”

    —-
    “So if you have a answer to what God is, feel free to let me know. I have only the barest comprehension of what God might be, and from my time studying the issue have come to believe most folks are in the same boat (but there are no shortage of people who think they know)”

    Again, it is hardly possible to go much further without, in my case, exploring specifically Christian answers that center around Jesus Christ. If you would like to take the conversation in that direction, let me know.

    But this does take us to the original point, does it not? People do not love some abstraction that they call God. They love the God of whom their beliefs and understanding (as limited as it might be) inform them. People love the God they know. This is my original counter-claim. Surely, we can agree on this principle.

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  15. mikelioso says:

    “If you would like to take the conversation in that direction, let me know.”
    ———————–
    Yes by all means!
    ———————
    “People do not love some abstraction that they call God. They love the God of whom their beliefs and understanding (as limited as it might be) inform them. People love the God they know.”
    ————————————
    The God that their beliefs inform them may not be true of what God really is. They love a concept of God but not necessarily God Himself. The phrase “Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)(is essential for salvation) is meaningless without a definition of God. So for the statement to be true one would have to believe in the definition of God. You say to love God you must first believe in God. So from this argument anyone who does not believe the definition of God does not love God. True?
    Now from the point of view of the Bible the definition cannot be “God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave and validated Jesus’ mission here on earth as the Messiah of Israel.”, sense the Bible presumes that the heroes of the Old Testament loved God, and I don’t think all the Godly Jews were prophets who saw these events. Then what is the definition?
    ————————————–
    I think the definition of God is that which created existence. Others may disagree. By this definition you can love God by loving existence, and by extension whatever made it even if you don’t call it God. Other people have other gods. They may love themselves above all or wealth, then they or wealth becomes god to them. To love existence is to have faith in the goodness of all its manifestations. As Job says “shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” Job 2:10

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  16. Craig says:

    “So from this argument anyone who does not believe the definition of God does not love God. True?”
    If you mean the one does not love the God so defined, then, yes, this is true.

    You seem to be concerned that a specific definition of God must be agreed upon for us to agree on the principle that one must know God to love Him. This is far too subjective in order to ever allow the principle to hold. So if that is the case, then your original claim must win out.

    But this is not so. My position is that for anyone to love someone or something, they must *know* that someone or something. And for this to be possible, God must be knowable. In other words, it matters who and what we think God is. That is the extent of my present claim. This is a conclusion based on the mere meaning of the word “love.” And you have conceded this point by your own understanding of who God is:

    “I think the definition of God is that which created existence. Others may disagree. By this definition you can love God by loving existence, and by extension whatever made it even if you don’t call it God.”

    There you have it. The God you (I assume) love is so defined by what you know. Not by what you don’t know.

    —————–

    Ok, now let’s move off of the original point at hand for which I entered this discussion. We either agree or we do not. All that can be said on that topic has been said, more than once.

    Re: the Christian understanding of God, you say:

    “Now from the point of view of the Bible the definition cannot be “God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave and validated Jesus’ mission here on earth as the Messiah of Israel.”, sense the Bible presumes that the heroes of the Old Testament loved God, and I don’t think all the Godly Jews were prophets who saw these events. Then what is the definition?”

    The Christian speaks from the perspective of the New Testament, not the Old Testament. And the NT’s very starting point is “God is who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the grave,” so suffused is the identification through the books of the New Testament that one might as well read it rather than trying to pull the available proof-texts for inclusion in an exhaustive list.

    —————–
    We’ve covered the Christian concept of who God is, and I will not debate this with you. It is the consensus of the one holy catholic and apostolic church of the ages, and I contribute nothing but its declaration.

    Now, as for the Christian identification of *what* God is, the Christian tradition has generally started where the Jews started for understanding, that is, the exodus event. God is what breaks into our present comfort and established patterns of power, overturning the sinful and oppressive regimes and wrongs of the past and opening the possibilities and renewal of the future to mankind (particularly the poor, weak and oppressed) and, subsequently, to the rest of creation. Of course, God is creator, (to appropriate the words of the Nicene Creed) “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” But this further understanding has been built through centuries of God’s revealing Himself to Israel and acting on behalf of Israel and, through Israel, the world. The N.T. is merely a development of this trajectory.

    To elaborate on the more generalized identification of God as we mean it when we use the term of “God” in the abstract, i.e., when we are not generally trying to speak of a single conception of *who* God is, I would point you to Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson. He explains with much more clarity and eloquence than I ever could on *why* it matters who and what we say “God” is:

    What can be said prior to God’s identification must, to be sure, be said. What do people use this word “God” for, that we ask so urgently to whom or what it is truly applied?

    The horizon of life and its concern is time, the inescapable already, no-more, still, and not-yet of all we know and will. Every human act moves from what was to what is to be; it is carried and filled by tradition but intends new creation. Just so our acts hang between past and future, to be in fact temporal, to be the self-transcendence, the inherent and inevitable adventure, that is the theme of all religion and philosophy. But also, our acts threaten to fall between past and future, to become boring or fantastic or both, and all life threatens to become an unplotted sequence of merely casually joined events that happen to befall an actually impersonal entity, “me.”

    Human life is possible – or, in recent jargon, meaningful – only if past and future are somehow bracketed, only if their disconnection is somehow transcended, only if our lives somehow cohere to make a story. Life in time is possible only if there is such a bracket, that is, if there is eternity. Thus in all we do we seek eternity. If our seeking becomes explicit, we practice “religion.” If our religion perceives the bracket around time as in any way a particular something, as in any way the possible subject of verbs (as in, e.g., “The eternal speaks by the prophets.”), we tend to say “God” instead of “eternity.”

    But already we are becoming intolerably indefinite, for manifestly there are many kinds of bracketing that can be posited around past and future, many possible eternities. There is, for example, the eternity of tribal ancestors who have become so old that nothing can surprise them any more and in whose continuing presence all the future’s putative novelties are therefore mastered by traditional maxims. There is the eternity of nirvana, where a difference of past and future is just not permitted. There is the eternity of existentialism, in which decision brings time momentarily to a halt. So multiform is eternity that the mere assertion that it is, that there is some union of past and future, that life has some meaning, is for practice as good as the suspicion that there is none at all. Life is enabled not by a posit that life means but by a posit of what it means. The plot and energy of life are determined by which eternity we rely on, and the truth of any mode of life is determined by the reality of the eternity it posits. If we speak of “God,” our life’s substance is given by which God we worship, and our life’s truth is given by whether this is the God that really is.

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  17. mikelioso says:

    There you have it. The God you (I assume) love is so defined by what you know. Not by what you don’t know.
    ————————————-
    Because I have concluded the definition is God. Someone else may not make that connection. They would still love God, just not know it was God or even a god. The symbols we use for God sometimes get in the way of identifying God. I sometimes think that is why the priest of Israel forbid the making of idols, lest anyone believe that is what God is (either the idol or whatever creature the idol depicts)

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  18. Craig says:

    There you have it. The God you (I assume) love is so defined by what you know. Not by what you don’t know.
    ————————————-
    Because I have concluded the definition is God. Someone else may not make that connection. They would still love God, just not know it was God or even a god. The symbols we use for God sometimes get in the way of identifying God.

    And so we come full circle, and the disagreement still stands.

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