Theology can often be seen as unnecessary, divisive, or impractical when it is anything but. The Bible says the default mode of the human heart is idolatry – replacing the one, true God with something else in our lives. One way we fashion a false god is by imagining God as we wish he was instead of worshiping him as he really is. Theology is simply “the study of God” and is the pursuit of smashing the idols in our heads and deepening our relationship with God by getting to know him as he has revealed himself in Scripture.
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There was a time when if you used the term “God,” the vast majority of people would know who and what you were talking about. Generally speaking, the West was “Christian;” people had at least a passing familiarity with the Bible and the majority of the population went to some form of Christian church (it was, after all, expected of polite society). But today, things are very different. While the studies show that the majority of Americans profess to believe that there is some sort of “other power,” it cannot—and must not—be assumed that we’re talking about the same thing anymore. “God” could mean anything today—it could mean the God of the Bible, the god of Islam, the earth… it could even be you. The existence of a personal God, and specifically as described in the Bible, is no longer an assumed concept in our spiritual-but-not-religious world.
So let’s talk a bit about God in the way the Bible does for a moment as we discuss his nature. Consider the psalmist’s joyful proclamation, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens”(Psa. 8:1). David gives praise to God because his name is “majestic in all the earth” and his glory is “above the heavens.” In theological terms, he is describing the transcendence and immanence of God—that is, he is both far above and beyond us and yet he is intimately involved with us.
When we say that God is transcendent, we are saying that he is above and beyond his creation. He is not a part of the world and it is not a part of him. The Bible illustrates this primarily by telling us that he is eternal. The Bible never shows us the starting point of the Creator. He has none. Instead, it begins with the starting point of creation. In the beginning, before the foundations of the world were laid, God was (Gen. 1:1). There has never been a time when God was not. He is “one who was and is and is to come . . . the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending” (Rev. 4:8; 21:6). This is our transcendent God.
While God is above and beyond us, he is also near; he is personal. This is what we speak of when we say he is immanent. He is intimately involved in his creation—and particularly with mankind. Not content to speak the man and woman into being, he actually formed them with his hands (Gen. 2:7, 22). The psalmist declares that God “formed my inward parts; [he] knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psa. 139:13). Jesus goes so far as to tell us that God “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). Indeed, Jesus himself is the epitome of the immanence of God—humbling himself to take on flesh, becoming like one of us so that he might redeem us. This is not the description of a far-off, unknowable, uninterested divine being. It is a deeply personal, involved and intimate view of God.
These twin truths come together in the doctrine of the Trinity, the truth that our God is one in essence and three in persons that exist in eternal, perfect, joyful communion with one another. He is the eternal heavenly Father, the maker of heaven and earth, who ordains the redemption of the elect and sent forth Jesus to accomplish it (Gen. 1:1; John 3:16; Rom. 8:29; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:3–5). He is Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the Word who was with God and was God, the one by whom and for whom all things were made, the one Lord to whom the Father has given all glory, honor, and power and the one who accomplishes redemption for us in perfect obedience to the will of God (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-22; Heb. 2:7, 9; Rev. 4:11; 5:12; see also Dan. 7:13-14). And he is the Holy Spirit, the Helper who applies Christ’s righteousness, making what was once dead in trespass and sin alive in Christ, and sealing and sanctifying God’s people for the day of redemption (John 14:16; Eph. 2: 4; 4:30; Rom. 15:16).
Consider for a moment the implications of denying these realities of God’s nature. If God is transcendent, then he is necessarily outside of creation. He is not confined to time and space as we are. Thus, to (as some suggest) reconsider the distinction between Creator and creation, we are ultimately forced to embrace a view of creation as eternal—which is paganism. This is explicitly condemned in Romans 1:25, where Paul writes that fallen man “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.”
Similarly, if we deny the immanence of God—and specifically the Trinity—we are forced deny that God can be known in any meaningful way. He becomes a singularity in the universe, which is the view at the heart of Islamic and Baha’i teachings about God (and as a result “needs” the universe). It’s a view that winds up making far too much of man, since, if God were indeed personal, he would need something or someone upon which to pour out his affections. But a god who needs is no god at all. And the God of the Bible, the one who is love, is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).
In professing Christian circles, those who deny the Trinity while attempting to maintain the immanence of God fall into the trap of thinking of the Father as the only one who is God; Jesus is a created being and typically the Holy Spirit is considered an impersonal force. This is best known as Arianism, a view held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others prefer to think of the members of Trinity as successive manifestations of being rather than distinct persons. This is Sabellianism, or modalism. And, perhaps ironically, denying the Trinity in this fashion reduces him to an unknowable singularity—just as when we deny his immanence altogether. The other error to which the denial of the biblical view of God leads is polytheism and pantheism. While you might hear those terms and think of Eastern religions like Hinduism, it’s also the view of Mormonism, which holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate “gods” (and also created beings). While they might be appealing to some, none of these are the God that the Bible reveals. They are “gods” made in our own image and likeness. They are easily controlled, easily manipulated and, ultimately, easily ignored. They have no authority. They have no power.
They don’t matter.
But here’s why all of what I’ve just written does matter. Imagine you’re playing with dominoes. You’ve set up all your pieces just so and you’re ready to push the lead one. If you’ve got it in the right place, when you knock it down, all the pieces will fall exactly as they should. But if it’s too far from the rest of your dominoes, it’s not going to work. Our understanding of God is kind of like that. If we get God wrong, we’ll get everything else wrong, too—including the gospel. And make no mistake; while we cannot know everything, there is much we can know because God has revealed it to us (Deut. 29:29). And if we can begin to grasp even the most basic truths of his nature and character, it changes everything.