Theo-centric?

In a previous post I asked for feedback on this quote:

And so the biblical mindset starts with the assumption that God is the center of reality. All thinking starts with the assumption that God has basic rights as the Creator of all things. He has goals that fit with his nature and perfect character. Then the biblical mindset moves out from this center and interprets the world, with God and his rights and goals as the measure of all things.

No prizes for guessing this comes from John Piper.

In the comments of the last post people mentioned lots of the same issues that I have with it.  Let me go through my beefs.  I’ll post this in stages.  Today I’ll just talk about the first sentence.

1) In the first sentence we are encouraged to be God-centred.  Good.  But which God?

Cue groans from across the blogosphere.  I know you’re thinking ‘Glen, go and drink some beer, shoot some pool and cut the man some slack.’   But before you think I’m just being nasty or pedantic, let me just say there’s nothing wrong with this sentence and I don’t at all begrudge Piper saying it.  You’ll find such sentences on my own lips.  I’m just picking up on this phrase to highlight some of the things that go on in theological discussions.

Here’s the point.  The person who cries ‘God-centred’ the loudest is not necessarily the most biblical.  (Nor is the person who cries ‘biblical’, but that’s another story).  The absolutely key question is what kind of God is central to our thinking.  And that question is not resolved in the slightest by saying He’s central.  In fact to say that ‘God’ is central to our theology is basically a tautology.

As Simone Weil says:

“No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving some good outside himself towards which his thought turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope. Consequently, the only choice is between worshipping the true God or an idol.”

We’re all God-centred.  The question is, which God?

I have little patience for theologians or bloggers who claim a superiority because they are ‘God-centred’.  Often it’s accompanied by the accusation that their opponent is ‘Man-centred’.  (And one of these days I’ll write a post about how they’re both wrong – we should be ‘God-Man (i.e. Christ)-centred’).  But really, in Simone Weil’s sense, we’re all ‘God’-centred.  What we really have to do is sort out who this God is who is central to our thinking.

But let’s note well:  the fact that our theology should be (and, in a sense, always is!) utterly consumed by and radically focussed upon God, in no sense tells you whether God Himself is consumed by and focussed upon Himself.  Those are two entirely separate questions.

One is about our theological method, the other is about the ‘theos‘ who, of necessity, stands at the centre of it.

Of course we should have our hearts and minds fixed on the living God, and of course if we fixed our ultimate affections elsewhere that would be idolatry.  Ok, great.  What bemuses me is the claim that God Himself must fix His affections on Himself lest He be an idolater too.  Do you see how theo-centrism as a theological method gets confused with theo-centrism as a doctrine of God?

And, more dangerously, do you see how such a method is in fact anthropocentric? It’s an argument that says ‘We would be idolaters to set our affections on lesser beings, so God must be an idolater if He did that.’  It’s a theology from below.  And yet I find it on the lips of the very people who want to accuse all around them of man-centredness.

So let’s be clear – everyone is already God-centred in their theology.  The real issue is what kind of God we’re talking about.  And the question of theo-centric method does not at all settle the question of God’s own being.  While we must be theo-centric, we have to admit that God Himself is higher than the ‘musts’ that apply to us.  The theologian who says God “must” love Himself higher than the creature has actually followed a theo-logic that is less than God-centred.

We do not by nature know the kind of being that God is.  And we cannot reason it out from the basis of how we find life as creatures.  To tell a person that ‘God’ must be at the centre of their thinking will not tell them anything really.  God cannot be assumed from the outset, He must be revealed.

The fact that all the gods of human religion are self-centred means nothing.  The fact that we are called to be ‘God-centred’ means nothing for God’s own life and being.  It neither means that God should be centred on us, nor on Himself.  The question of His own being is the key question and it can only be resolved as God reveals Himself.

Now I’m not saying that this first sentence from Piper commits him to any of the things I’ve outlined here.  As I’ve said, you could find the same sentence on my own lips.  I’m just trying to clear some ground and say what being ‘theo-centric’ is and isn’t and how it can and can’t be used in these discussions.

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More to follow…

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Posted on by Glen in Doctrine of God, theological debate, theological debates, theological method

About Glen

I'm a preacher in Eastbourne, married to Emma.

10 Responses to Theo-centric?

  1. David

    Very interesting post. It’s a question well worth asking ourselves when we consider our worship, our obedience, our repentance and so on exactly to whom it is we are offering these. So much of my Christian journey over the last couple of years (with a massive kick up the proverbial through listening to Mike Reeves’ talks) has been a painful re-orientating of myself away from who and what I thought God was towards who God has revealed himself to be. It is so easy to fix a fantasy/idol of God at the centre of out thinking. Your post has reminded me how frequently this fantasy God needs eviction.

  2. Heather

    Using human logic to try to explain God tends to fall short. In spite of His gracious revelation, we don’t have a complete picture and even well constructed arguments often have glaring weaknesses that just don’t match with what Scripture appears to actually say.

    This is the main reason I cannot in good conscience fully subscribe to any man-devised framework that I have come across.

    It frightens me when I find myself tempted to “settle” for a potentially flawed intellectual understanding of God’s nature or purpose rather than constantly stoke a burning desire to know who God IS (even if I cannot actually grasp Him).

    Don’t know if that makes sense.

  3. David

    I think that you’re right, Heather, to avoid man-made constructs of who God is; but am I right in thinking that this almost leaves you in a kind of discursive limbo regarding what to actually think about Him?
    In my understanding Jesus is the final (and complete) revelation of who God is, not the Bible, which means that knowing God is only possible if one knows Jesus; and because knowing Jesus is a relational matter, it is not a question of our grasping at an intellectual understanding of Him.
    This is not to downgrade the Bible to the status of a mere book. But I think that it is important to remember that St John described Jesus as the Logos (the Word, the reason, the discourse), which I think more than hints that God can be understood discursively – in fact, because we are all in language, He must be understood so. Of course even human relationships exceed the limits placed upon them by language and discourse, so how much more our relationship with God through Christ! This is one of the reasons why I think that our inevitably limited understanding of God in terms of language and discourse is not a bad thing, because who God is will always exceed the limits of what we can say about Him. So, for example, even to think that ‘God is love’ is to think something that can only be approached relationally in a way that exceeds human discourse; but that doesn’t mean that the proposition, ‘God is love’ is somehow insufficient as a statement of truth.
    David

  4. Glen

    Yes, let’s go very very deep with Jesus THE WORD. When we lay hold of Him by faith we have laid hold of the very depths of God. The Father has placed EVERYTHING in His hands (John 3:35; Matt 11:27). And everything the Father has given to Jesus He has made known to us (John 15:15).

    The great obstacle to understanding God is not a language problem (The Word of the LORD is flawless!). The obstacle is our sin. And in particular, our many fallen words and logics that obscure and misunderstand the true Logos. We must retrain ourselves again on Christ and Him crucified. There we being to grasp a knowledge that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:19) But at the same time we will have to let go of our predetermined words and logics.

  5. Heather

    David: ” but am I right in thinking that this almost leaves you in a kind of discursive limbo regarding what to actually think about Him?”

    Unfortunately, yes. And I recognize that this is bad, too :(
    Strangely, it is not the emerg “God is mystically in everything and completely unknowable” mindset that appeals to me. My big weakness IS the legalistic, “build a nice-sized box and cram God into it” way of thinking.

    I have to be especially guarded against making assumptions on some argument that sounds good but cannot be completely supported from Scripture. And I’ve often found myself frustrated as I look first to one side and then the other (forgetting, of course, to look UP) as the confusion increases.

    On a happy note, I recently came across a concept that completely took me off guard. And it has changed the way I read the Bible. The differences between Eastern and Western ways of thinking apparently are huge. Westerners love to logically work through things, using words and abstract concepts. Easterners are more “picture-oriented”.

    So, as you said, a western thinker would say something like “God is love”. And then try to develop a satisfactory definition of what “love” is–and then apply that back to God’s nature.

    An eastern-thinker would say something like “God is a Father” or “we are like sheep”. It gives the listener a mental image that he can grasp and relate to something he already understands.

    Much of the OT is “picturesque” and it is amazing how clearly the gospel message is displayed when I stop thinking ONLY about the meanings of the words and allow God to use them to paint a picture of what He is saying.

    Of course, as Glen said, we have sin often obscuring the truth. Even the meaning of God’s perfect picture can be obscured if someone had a terrible father or has never been around sheep or comes to the text with a preconceived idea that he wants the text to verify.

    Often, when examining various human conclusions about God, I am reminded of Romans 3:4 “…But let God be true, and every man a liar; as it is written, “That You might be justified in Your sayings, and will overcome when You are judged.””

    It isn’t that I constantly suspect that other Christians are being deliberately misleading, but rather that I need to remember that human nature (mine included) is deceptive.

    And in the end, I have no choice but to run back to God and ask my Daddy to show me what I need to know.

    There is, after all, only one source of truth.

  6. Bobby Grow

    Heather,

    This is what union with Christ is intended to curb (by way of theological method). This is what Christ’s vicarious humanity is supposed to provide ground for; i.e. knowing God. And this is what Jn. 1.18 means when it says that Jesus explains God to us (in the context of Him tabernacling 1.14 amongst us, as us). He gets ‘inside’ us and we thus get ‘inside’ Him (so to speak); and it is at this point I Cor. 2 rings most true (the spiritually discerned are able to discern spiritual things cf. 1.16 we have the mind of Christ). Knowledge of God for us in grounded in Christ’s cross-shaped life for us.

  7. Heather

    Thanks, Bobby.

    I have been really trying to understand what you all have been saying about “union with Christ”. And I appreciate the patience with my interjections, here and you your site.

    I’ve never questioned whether spiritual discernment only comes by way of being “in” Christ. I just never went much beyond that until recently.

    Regardless of whether I can understand the mechanism of salvation, I cannot escape noting how it molds the way I live my life. Everything is effected, from the choice of people whom I choose to call “friend”, to the things I find to be entertaining, to discussion topics of interest, to the way I respond to non-believers…

    Glen, your frustration with God having a theo-centric approach has kept me spinning for several days, now.

    On one hand, I acknowledge that He IS the center. Of everything. On the other hand, I absolutely believe that it is His other-centeredness that sets Him apart AS God.

    Still not sure how I would chart that out–or if I’m even supposed to.

    The danger of creating and worshiping a god/idol of self-delusion is terrifying to me.

  8. Glen

    Heather – this is *brilliantly* put:

    “On one hand, I acknowledge that He IS the center. Of everything. On the other hand, I absolutely believe that it is His other-centeredness that sets Him apart AS God.”

    That’s exactly what I’m banging on about – but put much more succinctly.

    Personally, I am given confidence that I am worshipping the living God precisely because of His gracious being. No humanly conceived god is like this. Only the true God – the God of the Gospel – is self-giving like this.

  9. David

    Glen’s last post directly relates to a doctrine of the Trinity – a doctrine which no human could ever have dreamed up! To borrow from Mike Reeves, God is love = God is the Father, Son and Spirit in loving relationship. Here is a link to an excellent series on the Trinity which may help you, Heather:
    http://theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/doctrine-of-god/trinity-1–why-we-have-problems-with-trinity.htm

    They certainly helped transform my understanding of God.
    And, of course, you are right to be worried about creating and worshipping a false idol based on our own delusions – Calvin said that the human mind was a factory for making idols! For me personally I still struggle with the trinitarian God revealed in Jesus and the god my own mind would naturally generate. Incredibly, I actually want a god who is legalistic and vengeful, because then I could just tick off all the boxes of what I had to do to make such a god happy (so to speak). But with the Trinity, I see that God isn’t interested in my attempts to please him – that, in fact, such behaviour is very lazy, because it ignores the hard work of a relationship.

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