Sunday, January 17, 2010

“Does God Have Feathers?”

As a new Christian I frequently heard an illustration of why God became a Man:
“If you saw an anthill that was about to be destroyed by a new housing project and you wanted to warn them, what would be the best way? You could sit beside their anthill and talk to them. You could set up signs around their anthill. You could produce tiny booklets and drop them into their anthill. None of that would work. The best thing would be for you to become an ant, go to them, and speak to them in their language.”
Now the point, of course, is that our God did just that—God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, assumed a human nature, came among us, and spoke to us both warnings of what is to come and promises of his salvation. The illustration breaks down at many points but chiefly in the fact that the difference between God and humans is far greater than that between humans and ants—after all, as 'creatures' we share the same ‘make-up’ (DNA) as ants!

When God became a human being, he chose to enter our world and to speak to us in our language, using words and concepts that we can understand. That simple statement raises questions that are enormously difficult—thick books have been written about it, doctoral dissertations have been advanced around it, different and opposing theological schools have been built around it. It has, in the last fifty years, produced ‘Feminist Theology.’ The virtual denial of it has produced a contemporary, defective view of God called ‘Free-will Theism.’

You don’t need to know anything about those things (or even want to know) in order to understand the basic implications of the fact that God became a Man. The idea that God spoke to us in our language is often described as ‘anthropomorphic’ (from the Greek for ‘human form’). This means that God allowed himself to be “described or thought of as having a human form or human attributes” so that we could understand him (Webster's Dictionary). In himself, God is ‘wholly other,’ completely unlike us; we have no way to understand the living God in his essence which is why he says:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55.9).
So that I can provide you just with the basic contours of what that implies about God and about the Bible, let’s consider three implications of God's accommodation to human language.

God Does Not Change

A basic characteristic of God as he revealed himself in the Bible is that he is eternal (Psalm 90.2; 102.27). This means he lives in a timeless ‘now’ and does not experience time as a measure of existence. As a result God does not change (Numbers 23.19; Malachi 3.6; James 1.17). Time is, after all, simply the measure of change.

Now God reveals himself in the Bible as deliberating, making decisions, even changing his mind (Genesis 1.26; 6.6). Since we cannot fully comprehend an eternal being who does not relate within time, God revealed himself in ‘human terms.’ We know from the very nature of God that he does not ever learn something he did not know, he doesn't need to gather facts and make a decision, and he cannot change his mind. He even tells us this:
“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23.19)
This verse must inform our reading of the Bible. Since we are created beings, bound by both space and time, we cannot understand an eternal, infinite, and spiritual being. We can only understand him by comparison to things we do understand and experience. God condescends to our need by revealing himself in our terms.

God is not a Man…or a Woman

Another implication of this idea is that, though God reveals himself in human terms, it does not mean that he is human even in the sense of having gender. Consider this foundational verse from Genesis 1:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1.27).
However we define the ‘image of God’ in the human, this verse makes it clear that it requires both male and female in community to express the image in the world. God characterizes himself as having both male and female characteristics (as we generally understand them) but it does not mean he is either male or female.

Feminist theology has done a lot with this basic fact and, I believe, they’ve taken a wrong turn. Some feminists have concluded that God is ‘androgynous’—neither male nor female but having characteristics of both. That seems to be like ‘making God in our image.’ To turn it around, God is an eternal, spiritual being—in order to reveal himself in human language, he uses both ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ to give us an adequate understanding of him in both his ‘soft and nurturing’ (female) and ‘firm and strong’ (male) characteristics.

We must wrestle with the fact that God, consistently and with no variation, revealed himself in the Bible in terms of the male gender—The Bible exclusively uses male pronouns (he, him, his) and male titles (King, Father, Warrior) to refer to God. It ascribes female characteristics to God by using similes (Isaiah 42.14; 66.13, God is ‘like a woman’ and he relates ‘as a mother’). The Bible never invites us to address God as “Mother” or “she”—that was only done in fertility religions in the ancient world. This does not make God a ‘Man’ (male) or assume male superiority, but the consistency of God’s revelation of himself in male terms is not something we can discard as merely ‘gender biased’ language.

God is Like…a Bird

A related implication of the fact that God revealed himself in human language is illustrated in the following verse:
“He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91.4).
‘Pinions’ are the large, quill feathers of a bird that are used in flight--usually a large bird, like an eagle. Most of us read this verse and don’t ask the question “Does God have feathers?” We may vaguely remember the difference between a simile (which compares two things by using the words ‘like’or 'as') and a metaphor (which compares two things without using the words ‘like’ or 'as'). We instinctively know that Psalm 91.4 involves a metaphor—it doesn’t say ‘God is like a mother eagle protecting her young.’ Instead it communicates the same thing using poetic language.

When God used human language, he revealed himself as a ‘rock’ (Deuteronomy 32.4; Psalm 62.2; and frequently), as a ‘fountain of water’ (Jeremiah 2.13; John 4.14), as a ‘dread warrior’ (Jeremiah 20.11), and in many other ways. In reading the psalms, we come across this use of language on nearly every page. In revealing himself in human language, he chose human terms, images, and experiences as the means by which he expressed his character, motivations and behaviors to us.

This is merely a brief overview of an immensely complicated subject. Yet we need to have some understanding of it if we aren’t to read the Bible—and especially the Psalms—in a crassly literal way and adopt outlandish ideas about God and his work. The living God who is great beyond our ability to comprehend, in order to make himself known in terms that we could understand and relate to, has revealed himself both in his living word (Jesus Christ) and in his written word (the Bible) using human terms, experiences, and analogies. Human language tells us accurately what God is like but it cannot fully communicate what God is in his essential nature.

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