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What exactly does “theocentric” mean?

Adapted from a previous post...

What does it mean to be God-centred?

Three answers:

As a description of theology, it's inescapable.

As a method of theology, it's indispensible.

As a doctrine of God, it's incorrect.

First, as a description of theology...

Simone Weil put our inescapable theo-centricity like this:

"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."

Or Luther in his larger catechism had this to say regarding the first commandment:

What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

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

It always bothers me when one Christian claims a superiority over another because they are 'God-centred'.  As a description of someone's theology, that's a plain tautology.  Trying to shout "God" most loudly is not the way forward in assessing the merits of various theologies.  "God" is central.  But we should be much more interested in the question: "Who is this God who is central to our theology?"  Since we're inescapably centred on this vision of ultimate reality, the identity of this God is the vital question.

But before we jettison the term "theo-centric", let's acknowledge a realm in which the term is useful.  As a theological method, theo-centricity is indispensible.  That is to say, as a way of knowing God, we must be God-centred.

Jesus said that the Father and Son are bound together in an eternal Family Secret (Matthew 11:27). Only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father.  If the verse ended there only God would know God.  But wonderfully the verse continues:

No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  (Matthew 11:27)

There is a way into knowledge of God.  But it's not our way to God, it's His way to us.  We do not know God, but God reveals Himself, through His Son and by His Spirit.  The trajectory is downwards.

When the Spirit reveals Christ as Word of the Father then we know God through God and by God.  And this is the only way to know God.  Therefore our method of theology must be theo-centric.  We must centre ourselves on where God has revealed Himself - in God the Word and by God the Spirit.

So theo-centrism is a useful term.

But... it can be a very misleading idea if we think of it as a doctrine of God.

You see we might grant that all people are focussed on some vision of God.  And we might determine to focus ourselves on God's revelation of God.  But it's an entirely different question to enquire whether God Himself is likewise consumed by Himself.

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.  But I have heard philosophical arguments from Christians to say that God 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.

God has actually revealed Himself in the Word who became flesh for all time.  If this God was the God we centred on, and if this revelation was the one to which we listened, we'd find no room for the self-centred God.

In this sense then, to be truly theo-centric means extolling the truly other-centred God.

 

18 thoughts on “What exactly does “theocentric” mean?

  1. Rich Owen

    Love it.

    But isn't it sad that such a simple appeal to Jesus *needs* to be made.

    We need another reformation, Glen.

    Rich

  2. Celal

    I always felt Van Til's method was tautological. Your post gives me a bit of a clue as to why i get that impression

  3. Paul Blackham

    Thanks for this Glen.

    I've been trying to think through some doctrinal teaching material for the New Year and it's so refreshing to remember the real God who turns our self-centred ways of thinking upside down. My selfish flesh understands all too well a god who can find nothing better than himself to think about. It always seems impossible to think of the eternal Living God who actually comes to serve rather than to be served! In the depths of my mess and sin I expect a god who commands me to submit to him and serve him... yet it always takes me totally by surprise when the Living God comes to serve me and set me free.

    The Living God is always much more than "that than which no greater can be conceived" by human minds.

  4. Celal

    Hello Paul ... Anselm has been useful for only about a 1,000 years and i see nothing wrong with his argument still. So, i hesitate to throw him over board that quickly.

    Glen .. i think i understand what you're saying. You cite no scripture but what you say seems to have the ring of John 17 to it. Is that what you're thinking about in the background as you write this ? Even there, sure the elect ( and i stress it is the elect) are caught up in what is happening but the main story is about the persons of the Trinity glorifying one another. So the "must" is there in John 17, isn't it Glen?

    Salvation according to Ephesians 1 is "to the praise of his glory" or "to the praise of his glorious grace" (mentioned 3 times just in that chapter). Even in salvation where is God most focused ? In Himself, isn't it ?

    In Romans 9 the Triune God fashions people for an eternal destiny for the sole purpose of displaying He eternal attribute of mercy and justice. Have you thought of this ?

    The "other centredness" of God outside of Himself in the way that you seem to be presenting it is to be found in the Incarnation where the Son presents Himself unreservedly for the salvation of everyone for a limited time only John 6:37b "whoever comes to me I will never drive away." But it's a limited offer, limited to the life time of the sinner, and it comes after John 6:37a "All those the Father gives me will come to me"

    Unless i'm missing something about what you're saying , i see plenty of evidence for God loving Himself higher than the creature -- either the saved or the damned creature.

  5. Rich Owen

    Celal,

    Thanks for the thoughtful contributions. Great to be challenged.

    Anselm's method is genius for sure, but the main issue I have with it is that it it's start point is reason and not revelation. His start point is not at the One place the Living God has disclosed himself. One could argue that turning away from the Father's chosen point of contact in preference of my reason is the most basic form of idolatry going.

    Re John 17, the wonderful perichoretic glory sharing isn't just an internal thing. Jesus' desire is to pass on what the Father gave to him. The other centred giving nature of love and glory is always focused on another and spreading. One to Three to many.

    I'm fascinated by the point you make from John 6, I'd never considered things that way - thank you for sharing it. I'm not quite convinced, but I'd like to think some more about it. Do you think that the very acts of creation and revelation also present othercentredness? Isn't the knowing that Glen mentions in Matt 11 also salvific? I'm not sure we can limit saving knowledge just to the incarnation can we? Didn't eg Abraham having saving knowledge of the John 6 variety?

    Great to have your input Celal.

    In Jesus

    Rich

  6. Rich Owen

    Celal, just been thinking about what you say on Romans 9. Sure, those attributes are indeed displayed, but I just can't conceive of divine attributes being divorced in some way from the Divine One who is the revelation of God. He is displaying mercy and justice in and through His Son. It's an act of othercentredness - all power, justice, dominion, mercy are conveyed from the Father to the Son for all eternity.

    Thanks for getting me to read Romans 9 though. Enjoyed it! I'd forgotten just how Christ focused that passage is. From start to finish, "the Christ who is God" is the focus.

    Praise Jesus for His mercy!

    Rich

  7. Celal

    Hello Rich, romans 1 speaks of an implanted knowledge of based on the power and perfections seen in Creation. Anselm just brings man back to his senses.

  8. Tim Gough

    Glen, ‘Who is this God’ is absolutely central! Absolutely! So in that vein & in love and good-spirits do accept my humble disagreement.

    Celal made some of the Scriptural points I wanted to raise, so I’ll take the philosophic route (as you raised) instead.

    I think, Glen, that you’ve actually been unfair by oversimplifying the argument. The argument basis for God being God-centred is actually:

    Prem A - God is perfect
    Prem B - God seeks perfection
    Conc - God seeks himself

    (and He does this through the mystery of working all things in accordance to the council of His will which incredibly is also for our best good... John Piper quotes spring to mind).

    You need to take down a premise before jettisoning the argument.

    I think you’ve erected a straw man by ignoring this argument and making it instead primarily about idolatry in God.

    Quote: ‘We would be idolaters to set our affections on lesser beings, so God must be an idolater if He did that.’ I think this statement works but only because its fabric is sewn into the perfection-seeking nature of God - it isn’t the argument in its own right.

    Further, I think your conclusion actually begs the question. You say that the Word made flesh was primary other-focused and not self-focused - thus God is primarily other-focused and not self-focused. In short, your conclusion I think is your argument.

    I finally think that you might have missed an important distinction between what it means for us to seek God and what it means for God to seek God. We are driven by revelation; God is not. We are casting our affections upon Him; He is living out the eternal perfections of Himself. Human theocentricity and divine theocentricity are simply going to be different. God doesn’t need to be anthropocentric or cold towards creation in order to be theocentric. God seeking God is totally different to us seeking God.

    Just some thoughts. Not to be a bummer, but because I, like you, am concerned with the Glory of God and to that end see this as an important topic to thrash out.

    Tim

  9. Rich Owen

    Hi Celal,

    Romans 1 is a good point to raise since the question is about revelation. But Anselm is still barking up the wrong tree.

    The "implanted knowledge" you mention is of the One Man who will judge us, so that we are without excuse, namely Jesus - the only revelation of divine power and divine nature. But Anselm doesn't start with Jesus. In fact, the point of Romans 1 is that we have this knowledge, but because of our wicked minds we supress it. The good arch bishop, by starting in his mind and not with Jesus is guilty as charged :)

    As I said before, it really is a work of genius, beautiful even, but his start point is misplaced.

    Have a great new year.

    Rich

  10. Glen

    Hi Celal,

    A lot of my thinking on this is laid out in a six part series called "We did it all for the glory of love."

    https://christthetruth.net/2010/04/21/we-did-it-all-for-the-glory-of-love-part-1/

    You rightly note that Ephesians explicates the glory for which God does all things - the glory of His grace. God will be known throughout all eternity for His utter self-giving: Glory!

    I can certainly imagine a god who is more concerned for himself than for us, and I couldn't fault such a god. But that's not the god I meet in the gospel.

    In incarnation He becomes flesh for all time.

    In death He takes hell that we might get heaven.

    In exaltation, Man is taken into God to rule forevermore

    In His return, God moves house to earth (making sense of His geo-centricity throughout the bible).

    Every event of the gospel tells me that He is more concerned for me than for Himself. And when I look to the central event - the cross - how can I deny that He endures curses so I can get blessings. However you slice it, it looks for all the world like He loves me more than Himself. If the cross *is* the glory of God - and John's Gospel tells me that almost every page - then I'm looking at a very different God to the self-interested god.

    Hi Tim,

    The god of philosophy is best left alone. Engaging him only justifies the sophistry that magicked him up in the first place.

    In Scripture Christ is made perfect through suffering for His people. Such perfection is utterly at odds with the 'perfection' of the god of philosophy. In the god of philosophy we are dealing with a theology of glory - something utterly at odds with the God of the cross. The two cannot be co-ordinated without losing the gospel.

    I'm not so interested in whether it's ok for God to seek God or not. Of course hypothetically, if "the divine being" was self focused a) who could object? and b) I suppose it would be different to our kind of self-focus. My issue is that I just don't think God *is* self-focused and I'm not sure what more Christ could do to show us His other-centred-ness!

    I'm basically interested in what the Gospel of Jesus reveals about the being of God. And what it reveals is that God descends to the depths of hell to bring hell-deserving people onto the throne with Him. This is His glory. And it's a glory that has nothing to do with self-interest.

    We might want to say that God seeks the expression of HImself in creation and redemption. But the minute we look at that expression we see the truth that He is utterly self-giving.

    Happy New Year one and all!

  11. Tim Gough

    Hi Glen

    Must say, nice artful dodge of my issues ;-)

    The ‘god of philosophy’ eh? My poor wife (philosophy grad) is writhing in agony. I’m passionate about the God of reality as He reveals Himself in Scripture. A God who I believe is unquestioningly perfect beyond all imagining and consistent throughout all eternity.

    Anyhoo ... we are obviously at odds on this. Bless us. I just wanted to encourage you to approach the arguments for God’s God-centredness a wee bit more even handedly. It simply doesn’t fall apart as quickly as your post would suggest.

    Happy New Year Indeed!

    Tim (and a recovering Katie)

  12. Glen

    Hey Tim - I'm a philosophy grad too. And only just recovering from it 12 years later! The god of philosophy is not and cannot be the God of Jesus. But I reckon it's been given a more than even hand in the western church since Aquinas! Enough is enough,

    Yours ever polemically

    ;-)

    Glen

  13. Paul Blackham

    Prem A – God is perfect
    Prem B – God seeks perfection
    Conc – God seeks himself

    That is probably a reasonable fit for Allah - which is why Allah never has any direct contact with humanity or the world. It is simply not perfect and therefore not worthy of direct engagement. Islamic eschatology ends with a paradise but one in which Allah is absent because he seeks perfection.

    It was premise B that shocked me. The utterly incredible thing that strikes us about the Living God of the bible is that "God seeks sinners". When Jesus describes the perfection of the Father in Matthew 5, He actually cites the Father's love for His enemies as well as His friends as the prime evidence of the perfection of the Father. We are to imitate the perfection of the Father by also loving our enemies.

    So...

    Prem A - God is perfect, in that He loves His enemies.
    Prem B - God seeks sinners
    Prem C - God seeks others rather than Himself

  14. Celal

    "The zeal of the LORD Almighty
    will accomplish this".(Isaiah 9:7)

    Accomplish what ? Answer : the Messianic Kingdom. IOW, a kingdom of redeemed sinners -- that's us made up of respectable and not so respectable sinners.

    I quote Isaiah 9:7 because it talks about God's "zeal" in this pursuit of "others" which will come to constitute the eternal kingdom of the Messiah.

    Why zeal ? Maybe the *zealousness* of God's "zeal" in this project of seeking and saving sinners is best understood because of and against the backdrop that "God hates the wicked" (Psalm 11:5) --- a sentiment that is there from Genesis to Revelation. That is other centred-ness too.

  15. John B

    How could God love sinners without there being anything in them worthy of his love? The eternal love of God is an insoluble and incomprehensible mystery...and it is the truth proclaimed in the gospel! God sets his affections on his people, but all glory is only in himself. The self-exaltation of God's glory is a virtue for him, and the joy of his people. In giving Jesus, God gives "the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys", "he is altogether lovely", the Son, perfect in purity, virtue, and beauty, who satisfies every longing and desire of his people. God's love is sacrificial and not at all self-centered. He is zealous for his glory, who he gives to His people, who he loves more than himself. Jesus is the glory of God.

  16. Glen

    Wasn't it Luther who said something like: 'God's love does not respond to worth but creates it.' That's just another way of unpacking the spreading goodness of the Father in the Spirit towards His Son, and over-flowing to the world. Such a Fountain of blessing should not be a problem in need of explanation (as though God *ought* to operate according to the self-focus of the pagan gods) - it's the starting point of our thinking.

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