JOHN G. STACKHOUSE, JR.John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is a student of church history at the University of Chicago. He has written for several periodicals, including The Reformed Journal.
“No religion has ever been greater than its idea of God,” wrote A. W. Tozer. “Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.” Tozer observed that we tend increasingly to resemble our idea of God, so it matters a great deal—in fact, more than anything else—how we think about God.
A few years before Tozer published those words, J. B. Phillips indicted the Christian church with the charge, Your God Is Too Small. Some, according to Phillips, see God as “Meek-and-Mild”; others see him as a “Heavenly Bosom”; and still others see God as a “Resident Policeman” or a “Grand Old Man.” None of these common pictures measures up to the awesome view of God that so enlarged the minds and hearts of biblical believers.
Biblical orthodoxy maintains that God is infinitely beyond human beings in every positive way imaginable—and unimaginable! Yet God has also come so close to us in Christ and in the Holy Spirit that he adopts us into his family and resides personally within us. The “opposites” are combined, a paradox affirmed.
This paradoxical understanding of God, if we give full rein to the Bible’s testimony of it, should burst through the small confines of our minds: a God so far “beyond,” so transcendent; yet a God so very close, so immanent.
Orthodoxy, as G. K. Chesterton has wisely written, frequently combines apparent opposites into paradoxes. Orthodoxy is unlike some kinds of liberalism, reducing God to a mere force within nature. And it is unlike some kinds of neo-orthodox theology, which put God so far beyond human beings that he could hardly be imagined to have anything to do with us at all.
God In “Real Life”
But what is the view of God you and I hold in “real life,” in our day-to-day minds? We clearly do not believe in the completely immanent God of some liberals nor in the utterly transcendent God of some neo-orthodox theologians. But we do not believe in the God of orthodoxy, either. Instead, we play both ends against the middle, taking from each extreme what suits us, and end up with a compromised, convenient view of God: God the Patron.
Consider some examples. Before a trip, we call on our divine Patron to watch over us. But as we drive, we conveniently forget that God really is watching over us, and we break the speed limit. God is close enough to protect, but not close enough to interfere with minor lawbreaking.
Far more serious is the routine of praying to God to bless neighbors or workmates as if that discharges our entire duty to them. We do not hear the still, small voice enlisting us to bless and help them. God, in this instance, provides an easy way to meet obligations to fellow human beings, yet requires little effort or inconvenience.
Most serious, perhaps, is the “cheap grace” gambit Dietrich Bonhoeffer exposed. We quickly call on God’s grace to alleviate guilt feelings when we sin—but God is nicely out of mind when we sin in the first place. This God is not so close when we want to do our taxes. Or when we want to tell our friends the latest gossip, or watch that ignoble TV show or movie, or see our neighbors in need—and do nothing about it. He is a divine Patron: at hand when we need him, far away when we would rather not be bothered.
The God Of Orthodoxy: No Patron
Orthodoxy, on the other hand, says that God is the One who made and owns the universe, including ourselves. He is the One to whom we must devote every helpful action, every pure thought and feeling. Orthodoxy also says God is the One before whom we must answer for every evil action, every sinful thought, and every untamed feeling. That is not exactly God the Patron. The Patron is not a God to fear, to wonder at, to kneel before.
Voltaire remarked that “God created men in his image, and they’ve surely got even with him for it.” Have we created an image of God, an idol, to suit ourselves? The Pharisees missed the blessings of knowing God in Christ because he did not look like what they expected—what they demanded—God in Christ to be like. As spiritual writer Abbé Evely asks us, “Are we quite certain we’ve outgrown that mentality?”
Do we truly believe the paradox of orthodoxy’s fully transcendent and fully immanent God? This proper view of God, pulling at the limits of our imaginations, would provoke us constantly to reflection, to wonder, to worship, to gratitude, to obedience, and to joy.
Have we resolved the central, astounding paradox of Christianity into a tame, drab, lukewarm compromise that fits into our puny world instead of drawing us up into another, grander one?
Is our God too “middle-sized”?
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