Mystery and Methodology: Thinking About God and Worship

Up now, slight man! flee, for a little while, thy occupations; hide thyself, for a time, from thy disturbing thoughts. Cast aside, now, thy burdensome cares, and put away thy toilsome business. Yield room for some little time to God; and rest for a little time in him. Enter the inner chamber of thy mind; shut out all thoughts save that of God, and such as can aid thee in seeking him; close thy door and seek him. Speak now, my whole heart! speak now to God, saying, I seek thy face; thy face, Lord, will I seek, (Psalms 27:8). And come thou now, O Lord my God, teach my heart where and how it may seek thee, where and how it may find thee[1]

Worship is, sadly, very often more about the worshiper than the God who is worshiped. Take a moment and think about the songs you typically sing in worship. How many of the songs are about how great your life is going to be in Heaven? How many of the songs are about the help God provides for your life? How many songs are about the greatness of God or your love for God? More than likely, many songs you sing aren’t even about God. How can they be for God if they aren’t about him? Preaching practices aren’t much more palatable. How many sermons are about who God is? How many more sermons are about how you should live or how to live your best life with little reflection on God himself? What about your prayer life? Are your prayers filled with petition (a honey-do list for God?) or praise for the holy One?

Perhaps, Christian, you have lost you way in worship because you have lost the Theos (God) of theology (the study of God and all things in relation to God). The children of Israel, for example, grew tired of waiting on Moses to come down from Sinai—from Sinai of all places—and began to create a god in their own image to take wherever they wanted to go. Perhaps we have forgotten God and see little reason to worship him. So, instead of worshiping him we try to meet our own felt needs. Until, at last, we realize that we can’t meet our own needs and give up on worship all together. Have you noticed an exodus from Christianity? What if there was a transcendent God who overwhelmed us? Like a beacon in the darkness of modernity, God’s transcendent holiness beckons his creatures to adore him and to be blessed with a properly ordered life through him. Jesus said, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (Jn. 4:23). To worship God, we must know God.

So, how well do you know God? “Few who occasionally read the Bible are aware of the awe-inspiring and worship-provoking grandeur of the divine character”[2] Jesus said, “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3 ESV). Psalm 27:4 says, “One thing I have asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” God has placed the emphasis of the Christian religion on knowing him and finding life through knowing him. But how can we begin to know God? Can we ever really understand him?

Go back in time just a bit. Go back before technology distracted us from life. Go back before electricity distracted us from the stars. Go back for a moment without distractions to be alone with God. Would you be satisfied with just God? Or would you sit beside the fulness of life with your face down toward your phone? Consider the following meditation on meditating on God.

Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite. And Thee would man praise; man, but a particle of Thy creation; man, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that Thou resistest the proud: yet would man praise Thee; he, but a particle of Thy creation. Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee. Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first, to call on Thee or to praise Thee? and, again, to know Thee or to call on Thee? for who can call on Thee, not knowing Thee? for he that knoweth Thee not, may call on Thee as other than Thou art.[3]

Augustine helps us to understand how we can be so in love with God that we can’t help but adore him. We will continue to be restless until we learn to be at rest with God. We will never be at rest with God until we are so overwhelmed by him that we refuse to look away.

The Mystery of God

The Lord allowed Moses to see a glimpse of his glory. This must have been a terrifying event for Moses. No one can see God and live (Ex. 33:20). To protect Moses from the overwhelming transcendence, God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, covered him, and allowed Moses to see the last wake of his glory (Ex. 33:21-23). The Lord then promised to reveal himself this way, “I will make all my good ness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’” Moses was able to “see God” by hearing the divine name.

From Exodus 33 we first, we see that we will never know God fully. There is nothing in creation to which we might accurately compare God. He said, “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike?” (Is. 46:5). “God cannot be domesticated.”[4] God is incomprehensible. The divine nature is not simply better than ours. He is not Superman among mere mortals. God is holy. God is transcendent. God is other. God is the otherness for which we seek. God is the spectacle we long to see. The Love we cannot but love in return. The Life without which we cannot live.

Anselm was right when he wrote, “Therefore, O Lord, thou art not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived, but thou art a being greater than can be conceived.”[5] The incomprehensibility of God is why we can readily confess with the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) that “Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics.”[6] Bavinck went on to say that theology must be filled with mystery because theology, the queen of the sciences “does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end looks past all creatures and focuses on the eternal and infinite One himself. From the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One.”[7]

Only God can fully understand God. You should not expect to understand what God is. We aren’t asked to understand him fully. We are expected to love him fully. Know that we cannot know everything about God. In fact, the comprehension of the divine nature is one of the marks of deity. The Holy Spirit comprehends the divine mind (1 Cor. 2:10-11) and revealed God’s will (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). Christ as the Word (Jn. 1:1) is the complete expression of God (Heb. 1:3). Theologians should not be discouraged in their inability to understand God. Rather, we gradually learn from Scripture what God is not and what is.

The mystery of God should not cause us to avoid the study of God. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers the history of Christian thought, said “The infinite cannot be contained in the finite…. It is impossible for a created mind to understand God infinitely; it is impossible, therefore, to comprehend him.”[8] God cannot be understood, but he can be known. As we learn more about God, the mystery heightens and devotion increases. We begin to recognize that the One who is far above is also the One in whom we live, move, and have our being.

The Study of God

Christianity is built upon God’s gracious self-revelation. God wants his people to know him. The entirety of the Christian religion is built upon God’s self-revelation. Without the divine initiative, all would remain in darkness. Paganism would rule our minds as we worshiped our own hearts (Rom. 1). But God has made himself known to us. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:1-2). The words of God continue in Scripture. The Scriptures are “God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). From his study of how the Scriptures quote previous Scriptures, B. B. Warfield rightly concluded “Scripture is thought of as the living voice of God speaking in all its parts directly to the reader.”[9] More succinctly, Warfield wrote, “What Scripture says, God says.”[10]

We learn that we can learn about God’s nature from the words God has revealed to us. God can be known because he has revealed himself to his people in Christ the living Word and in Scripture the written word. “God may be incomprehensible, but he is not unknowable. Any doubt is removed the moment God opens his mouth.”[11] God can be known because he has made himself known to his people. John of Damascus wrote:

God has not gone so far as to leave us in complete ignorance, for through nature the knowledge of the existence of God has been revealed by Him to all men. The very creation of its harmony and ordering proclaims the majesty of the divine nature. Indeed, He has given us knowledge of Himself in accordance with our capacity, at first through the Law and the Prophets and then afterwards through His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we accept all those things that have been handed down by the Law and the Prophets and the Apostles and the Evangelists, and we know and revere them, and over and above these things we seek nothing else[12]

God’s self-revelation should be a prized and precious treasure. Without God’s gracious self-revelation, all would be lost. Christians prize their copies of God’s word because it is through that word that faith is given and Christ is known.

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith remains a remarkable work of theology for several reasons. Perhaps most notably because Schleiermacher’s work represents the fundamental shift of many theologians in the modern era. That shift is from the exegetical theology of the previous 19 centuries, to the theological reasoning prevalent in the modern era. Schleiermacher did not begin with Scripture to “think God’s thoughts after him.” Instead, Schleiermacher began with his reasoning to discover truths about God—or at least what he believed to be true.

For Schleiermacher, “the piety which forms the basis of all ecclesiastical communion is considered purely in itself neither a Knowing or a Doing, but a modification of Feeling, or of immediate selfconsciousness.”[13] Since Schleiermacher theology emphasized what was felt and thought by the individual. In this way everyone has his or her personal truth based on what is felt in the moment.

The study of God should not begin with human reason. Theology is built on revelation. The God of the Bible “cannot be found out by searching. He can be known only as He is revealed to the heart by the Holy Spirit through the Word.”[14] Christians must hold to sola Scriptura or theology will be subject to one’s own intuition, the democratic process, or the influence of those in power. Scripture or “the sacred writings” are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Scriptures alone enjoy this position because Scripture alone is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Scripture alone then must be preached with authority (2 Tim. 4:2) and in view of judgment (2 Tim. 4:1).

Finally, we see that there is some knowledge of God that can be discovered by reason and experience of God. Some theologians, like Karl Barth, have dismissed natural theology as a proper method of ascertaining knowledge of the divine. Natural theology most certainly has its limitations. Specific doctrines cannot be learned from nature or experience. The knowledge of the Trinity, the Savior’s work, and saving faith are revealed solely through revelation.

However, some knowledge of God can be derived by God’s creatures from God’s creation. The Bible says, “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). The Bible affirms then that philosophy and other sciences can be useful for theological study. This truth is clearly displayed in the works of men like Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, Boethius, and Thomas Aquinas who utilized ancient Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle to better understand God. These philosophies were not accepted all together. Theologians utilized what was beneficial and discarded the rest.

The Adoration of God

            Christian, above all, desire to see God. The study of God highlights his incomprehensibility, but also brings us into his presence so that we might adore his splendid glory. God “is the sole object of all our love, precisely because he is the infinite and incomprehensible One.”[15]. Spurgeon said, “We have I believe, all of us who love his name, a most insatiable wish to behold his person. The thing for which I would pray above all others, would be forever to behold his face, forever to lay my head upon his breast, forever to know that I am his, forever to dwell with him.”[16]

            With a focus on God, how will your worship be different? How will your prayer life be different? What will you expect from sermons? Those who are preoccupied may just miss out on the world. But maybe that is a good reason to so adore your God.

[1] Anselm, Proslogium 1.

[2] Arthur Walkington Pink, The Nature of God (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), 11.

[3] Saint Augustine Bishop of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, 1.1. trans. E. B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[4] Matthew Barrett, None Greater (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 19.

[5] Anselm, Proslogium, 15.

[6] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 29.

[7] Herman Bavinck, RD, 2:29.

[8] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.12.7.

[9] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Revelation and Inspiration (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 94.

[10] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 92.

[11] Matthew Barrett, None Greater, 25.  

[12] John Damascene, Writings, “De Fide Orthodox” 1.1.

[13] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 5.  

[14] Pink, The Nature of God, 14.

[15] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:48.

[16] C. H. Spurgeon, “The Beatific Vision,” in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1856), 57.

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