Description: The theology of God is in flux. This is the essential observation that Bloesch (1995) offers at the beginning of God the Almighty: the long-standing and often very well defined positions championed by Catholic and Protestant theology alike are giving way to more contemporary understandings of God. These new theologies are unquestionably informed by the tenor of the times. The theological pendulum is swinging from the transcendent to the immanent, from a vision of God as supremely majestic and impassible to a vision of a God who is deeply empathetic and vulnerable (pp. 17-18). Jürgen Moltmann presents a case in point, with his emphasis on God as inseparable from creation rather than transcendent over it. “God is not an almighty despot but an all-encompassing Fatherly-Motherly Spirit that upholds us and nurtures us” (p. 18).
In many ways, much of the problem can be traced to a rather large case of embedded theology (Stone & Duke, 2013). Embedded theology is theology that believers, whether individual believers or any cross-section of the church overall, hold as unquestioned assumptions (pp. 14-15). The problem, of course, is that some of these assumptions may prove to be unfounded in a biblical sense. And so it is, Bloesch (1995) contends, with no small measure of classical theology: considerable parts of the edifice of theological interpretation that Christianity has inherited and internalized over the course of the centuries are not necessarily supportable from the scriptures (pp. 21-25). For example, a great deal of classical theology has been informed by Hellenism, by Classical Greco-Roman philosophy. From the sages of Classical civilization comes the idea of God as a supremely “immutable, self-contained, all-sufficient, impassible” and detached being (p. 21). To put it mildly, this view is irreconcilable with scripture, where God is depicted as a God so loving of sinful humanity that he sent his son to pay the ultimate price (p. 21).
However, Bloesch (1995) does contend that in attempting to redress the errors of classical theology, the new theologies of God display marked tendencies to stray into error on the other side of the spectrum. Where classical theology conflicts with the scriptures in portraying God as remote, lofty, and detached, Bloesch contends that the new theologies err doctrinally in flirting with concepts such as pantheism and panentheism. In pantheism, God is conceived of as inseparable from his creation, which is merely a manifestation of him. Panentheism, on the other hand, recognizes God and creation as distinct but sees them as mutually dependent. These theologies conflict with the scriptural portrayal of God as distinct from his creation and in no sense dependent on it, respectively (pp. 21-22).
The question of God’s gender has emerged as a flashpoint of contention between traditional approaches and their feminist and liberationist critics (Bloesch, 1995, p. 25). These revisionist approaches have attempted to portray God in more ‘gender inclusive’ terms, often in ways that are bisexual or transsexual. For these theologians, God may be Goddess, androgyne, or even transsexual, beyond human conceptions of gender altogether. Here Bloesch advocates a cautious approach, one that portrays God as transcending human sexuality and gender, while still recognizing that gender comes from him since he created man and woman in his image, and that he relates to us in gendered terms (pp. 25-26). While feminine imagery is not unknown in the Bible as a means of describing God, Bloesch observes that “the masculine is always dominant, and God is never addressed as ‘Mother’” (p. 26). Thus, while God is a far cry indeed from the pagan ‘Sky Fathers’ that feminist critics have likened him to, the scriptures are very clear that he can be thought of in terms of being a ‘he’ (p. 26).
The task of the theologian, according to Bloesch (1995) is that of witness (p. 27). The theologian is not an artist seeking creative inspiration; the theologian seeks to see and to understand what God has done, as revealed in Holy Scripture (p. 27). A good case in point is Bloesch’s treatment of rationalism and mysticism, which he likens to Scylla and Charybdis, respectively (p. 47). The rationalist approach, Bloesch explains, depicts the relation between God and us in terms of subject and object, a relation that is necessarily one of polarity (p. 48). Mysticism, on the other hand, emphasizes transcendence, going beyond the subject-object polarity to a view of God and us as an underlying unity (p. 48). Bloesch himself follows Barth in seeing God as one who “makes himself an object in our understanding even while meeting us as a subject in the divine-human encounter” (p. 48). Thus, rather than advocating for one extreme or another, Bloesch enjoins a position that he portrays as rather more complex and nuanced, one that involves the transformation and redirection of the subject-object relationship (p. 48).
An important and interesting ramification of this position pertains to the spirit-nature question. Philosophical idealism enjoins the differentiation of the two, such that God as pure spirit is, in effect, separate from nature (Bloesch, 1995, p. 49). Bloesch’s position is again one of transformation, of transfiguration: while affirming that God is spirit, he opposes the Platonist or Neoplatonist view of God as being entirely beyond nature. The problem with the Platonist and Neoplatonist view, Bloesch argues, is that it teaches a ‘disembodied’ God, and a vision of the afterlife as a purely spiritual and (quite literally) supernatural plane (p. 49). According to Bloesch, the Biblical view is that God is indeed spirit, but in the incarnation he also descended into the realm of nature (p. 49). Moreover, it is not necessary, Bloesch argues, to believe that God is entirely beyond nature in spirit form. Bloesch quotes Arthur Cochrane as an affirmation of his own position: “’Scripture speaks not only of God as a Spirit but of his nature as well—of his wrath and mercy, and of his face, arms, hands, and feet. Surely not all of these are to be understood symbolically…’” (p. 49). Bloesch holds that the afterlife is also best interpreted as a transfiguration of spirit and matter: of human flesh as well as human spirits (p. 49).
All of this leads Bloesch (1995) to the conclusion that the so-called “supernatural” realm is, in fact, the basis of the natural (p. 51). God the creator is a “supernatural” being in the classical sense of the term, but the “supernatural” is not somehow beyond the natural in the sense of being an extension of it, or existing in some elevated state above it. Rather, the supernatural is the ‘natural’ state, such that what we call ‘natural’ is dependent upon it (p. 51). This has considerable ramifications for how God interacts with us: he is both hidden and revealed. He is Deus absconditus, the God who is hidden from us in some respects, and he is Deus revelatus, the God who has revealed himself to us (p. 59). This much is almost intuitive if one reads the scriptures: after all, God reveals a great deal about himself and about us in his word, but nonetheless we know that his ways are not our own, and it would be the height of arrogance to suppose that we understand everything about him and his ways (pp. 59-60). It is because of our sin, Bloesch explains, that so much of God’s ways remain veiled to us, hidden from us, beyond our sight. At the same time, God has revealed a great deal to us, and has made himself known to us. By divine revelation God has made himself known to us, Bloesch explains: not only his existence, but also his grace, as Paul states in Ephesians 3:3 and Galatians 1:12 (p. 62).
Much of our relationships with God, therefore, consist of us learning from him as he reveals his work and will to us (Bloesch, 1995, pp. 73-74). Christ, of course, is the centerpiece of this: the instrument of God’s plan of salvation, the sacrifice for the remission of our sins. The Holy Spirit continues this great work, revealing the will of God to us in ways that are comprehensible to us (p. 74). Consequently, there is a kind of revelation that is ongoing, in terms of the work that God does in our lives by means of the witness of the Holy Spirit. This is what Bloesch calls a “mediated immediacy”, because it is mediated by the Holy Spirit (p. 74).
What, then, does this mean for the interpretation of scripture? Quite a bit. Bloesch (1995) again cautions against adopting either of two extremes: “we must avoid both the objectifying of scriptural truth and its existentializing” (p. 74). The “objectifying” of scripture refers to the idea of a certain very particular, authoritative reading of the scriptures, a view which, if brought to bear, will unlock the meaning of the passages in question (p. 74). The core presumption here is that only one certain view can unlock such meaning. The danger, of course, lies in rejecting the many shades of nuance that different minds may discern, the avenues of inquiry they may open (p. 74). There is much to be gained from meetings of the minds on this score, and objectifying the scriptures in such a regard can, Bloesch avers, lead one into error (p. 74).
But of course, this is not all; one must consider what such a view implies for the role of the Holy Spirit. “The Word of God is thus reduced to the historical-grammatical meaning of the text, a meaning that is accessible to any diligent observer,” Bloesch (1995) points out (p. 74). This is easily the greatest danger inherent in such a position: the denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in helping believers to understand the true meaning of the scriptures (p. 74).
The existentializing of the scriptures is the other major error Bloesch (1995) cautions against. In essence, “existentializing” refers to the so-called ‘rationalist’ project of attempting to denature biblical happenings from elements that are deemed to be “mythological”, that is to say, supernatural (p. 75). The problems with this pretentious and patently unscriptural approach are manifold. For one thing, it rejects an understanding of the Word of God grounded in faith that the events it depicts really did occur, and really do have the significance that the Christian faith has always taught that they hold. Mingled with this quasi-‘rationalism’ is the rhetoric of social justice and liberation theology. Thus, “Eternal life is not life with God in heaven but a life free from exploitation and deprivation” (p. 75). The resurrection of the dead becomes suffused with similarly pseudo-Marxist rhetoric, becoming “the uprising of the crucified against their oppressors” (p. 75).
Avoiding these errors, Bloesch explains, requires—again—an approach that enjoins a kind of golden mean or happy median. This is the position of the dialectic, the idea that God’s Word is illuminating in itself, bringing understanding and enabling the recipient to hear and to learn (Bloesch, 1995, p. 75). The Word is not reducible to history and grammar: it is living, and it works powerfully in the hearts of those who will receive it (pp. 75-76). This is where the work of the Spirit comes in, facilitating this process and helping us to apply it to our lives (p. 76). Thus, we avoid either existentializing or objectifying the scriptures, and gain a much greater and truer understanding.
Bloesch (1995) brings a similar analysis to bear on the problem of evil. While God is perfect and all-good, he does allow evil to occur. He can even bring good out of evil, with the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible serving as an outstanding example, and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the supreme example. Evil is subject to God’s power and can feature in his plans, in the sense that he will allow it for some greater purpose, but he does not endorse it (pp. 128-130). Evil, fundamentally, has long been defeated: Barth offered an interpretation, one he insisted was consistent with the scriptures, that evil originated in that which was passed over at the creation (pp. 130-131). This negation allowed evil a semblance of existence, but even in the act of creation God effectively defeated it, “for the light of God’s truth encompassed the whole of the creation” (p. 131). This allows us to see evil in its proper place, vanquished before the sovereignty of God.
Critical Evaluation: God the Almighty is a deeply nuanced book that is deeply concerned with the redress of a great many errors. Bloesch (1995) spends much of the book presenting two extremes of a continuum of opinion on a particular issue, highlighting the problems with them, and then advocating, with all due caution, for a generally well balanced and very nuanced perspective on the issue. Bloesch’s aim is clearly to show the problems inherent in these unscriptural views—specifically, why they are unscriptural, and the ramifications that they pose. Reflection and a search for embedded meaning are prominent.
But why is this book necessary? The answer is simple: it is necessary if for no other reason than the sea change of opinion in the discourses pertaining to the theology of God. Informed by the nature of the times, by contemporary sensibilities, these new theologies present a picture of God that is very different from traditional understandings. To his great credit, Bloesch does not simply enjoin tradition and censure the new theology. Far from it: he portrays much of this contemporary theology as a quite understandable reaction to the longstanding dominance of certain views in classical Christian theology which are patently unscriptural. Influenced by Classical Greco-Roman philosophy, these traditional theologies have tended to portray God as not only immutable, but remote, self-contained, self-sufficient, and entirely detached. This view is patently unbiblical, but this has not stopped it from making a tremendous impact on much of Christian theology since antiquity.
However, as is so often the case, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. The new theologies reject the idea of God as remote, distant, and detached, but they also lose a properly biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, majesty, and power. The new theologies stress God’s vulnerable, empathetic nature; they go so far as to portray him as emotionally needy. This too is unbiblical, albeit from a completely different angle than that of classical Christian theology.
This type of analysis predominates in the book. Again and again, Bloesch presents two extremes, and then demonstrates why both are unbiblical. The level of thoughtfulness and analysis in this book is very commendable. For example, take the issue of God’s gender. Bloesch observes that feminist and other ‘liberationist’ critics have attempted to portray God in terms that are deemed to be more ‘gender inclusive.’ The problem with this is that it does break with so much of how the Bible depicts God. Bloesch’s own position, that God presents himself to us in gendered terms, and is the originator (after all) of sex and gender, is nuanced and is of considerable importance for how we understand God. To cut to the quick of the matter, this analysis also tells us that we should avoid being presumptuous and attempting to see what we want to see, irrespective of the evidence. That is essentially the problem with the feminist and liberationist approaches: the attempt to make of God what they want him to be, in effect, to make God a ‘god’ in their own image. In effect, Bloesch has exposed them as idolaters, though he is too much a gentleman and a scholar to put the name to it.
And this realization can be applied to other aspects of how we relate to God and to his word. Another particularly excellent analysis of Bloesch’s is mysticism versus rationalism. Where the approach of the mystic emphasizes transcendence, the approach of the rationalist emphasizes reason. The problem, and the reason that the whole thing matters, is the question of how we are to relate to God: who is subject and who is object? Bloesch’s position, from Barth, portrays a dynamic encounter with the divine, one that is far too wonderful and complex to be so simply reduced to either rationalism or mysticism. Mysticism errs in attempting to merge the creator and the creation, when the scriptures are clear that they are distinct; rationalism errs in keeping them too far apart. There is an interconnectedness, in that God created us, sustains us, and has redeemed our sins, but we are not attempting to merge with him, as the mystic would enjoin, nor ought we to see ourselves as separate from him, as the rationalist would aver.
So it is, too, with spirit and nature. Here Bloesch is in particularly fine form, arguing with remarkable clarity that the supernatural is the basis, the origin, of the natural. God, after all, is the creator, and he is supernatural. Here Bloesch tackles “embedded theology” head on, revealing the presumptions that many have held about God being, in essence, a disembodied spirit, entirely separate and alien from the natural world. Not so, Bloesch contends: while God is not flesh and blood as we are, neither is he ‘simply’ beyond and apart from his creation, which came from him and which he will glorify on the last day. This is specifically a rejection of the Neoplatonist assumptions that have reigned supreme in so much of Christian theology since antiquity, theological assumptions which are profoundly in error: God is much nearer to us than that, without being himself dependent upon us.
As the author and sustainer of us all, God is our everything. This is fundamentally why a theology of God matters. Bloesch’s views on the matter are remarkably nuanced and balanced, navigating between many ideas that are patently unbiblical, but which often have considerable followings. This book is an excellent exercise in dismantling preconceptions and presumptions about who God is and how one ought to relate to him. God is both hidden from us in many respects, in that we often do not know what he has in store for us next, and revealed to us in so many respects, in that we do know so very much about what he desires of us. This is our challenge: to be open of mind and heart to what the Holy Spirit would reveal to us. In the process, we must be humble, search the Scriptures, and keep our hearts pure if we are to avoid error and serve God rightly.
Bloesch, D. G. (1995). God the Almighty. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.
Stone, H. W., and Duke, J. O. (2013). How to Think Theologically (3rd ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.