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A Christian perspective on GOD

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Someone once said that the problem with words is that you never know whose mouth they've been in. This is especially true of the word God. Few other words in the dictionary come with more troublesome and heavy baggage. In a time of low church attendance ‘official' talk about God - normally defined as orthodoxy - has become more and more a secret language for those strange enough to leave their beds early on Sunday morning to go to church. But across the bewildering variety of churches out there, those known to be part of ‘mainstream' Christianity are united in and by some basic core teachings or doctrines about God (or, if you prefer, the Supreme Deity or The Man Upstairs or that Indescribable Something Which Must Be There).

 

God in the Creed

Members of mainstream denominations such as Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic recite a set form of words called the creed during worship. The most authoritative and widely used creed, the Nicene, says this about the God:

 

I believe in one God the Father Almighty

Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds;

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;

begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,

by Whom all things were made.

 

The words and ideas of the Nicene creed rely heavily upon three main sources for inspiration: Judaism, the New Testament and Greek philosophy. Christianity, like all systems of knowledge, didn't suddenly appear out of nowhere. A Christian's understanding of God is profoundly and intimately related to that of Judaism. Like its faith-parent, Christianity confesses belief in one God (monotheism as opposed to polytheism) who made everything that is. Without God nothing could exist and everything is sustained and held in being by God.

 

Now, before we've even got our heads around the idea of God as Creator (or the Father Almighty) the creed moves us swiftly on to talk about God's Son. This Son, the ‘Lord Jesus Christ', also happens to be God, the same God as the Creator, the Almighty, and most definitely not a different or lesser God (‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God'). Oh yes, God also travels under the name of Holy Spirit. A more detailed reference to the Spirit comes later on in the creed. Confused?

 

Welcome to the Trinity!

The Trinity is the doctrine that sets Christianity apart from all other monotheisms. Of course, not every Christian or every Christian church understands God to be a Trinity - but that's another story. Let's take it as read that for orthodox Christianity at least God is triune.

 

An important document for Protestant churches - The Thirty Nine Articles (1553) - offers this potted summary of the Trinity: ‘There is but one living and true God ... And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.'

 

God of love

So much for the head-scratching theory. The question that really concerns Christians about their God is how He (and He's normally a He, by the way, unless you're into feminist theology) relates to the world and every individual in it. We've already said that God creates and holds everything in place. But that's not very exciting, is it? Where's the relationship, we cry! The crux of the matter is ... love. The Christian idea of God (like the God of Judaism) is overwhelmingly a God of love. And, moreover, all the things that flow from love - such as mercy, peace, forgiveness, compassion and grace.

For the Christian believer God is known as supreme self-giving love. This is a direct result of Jesus' crucifixion. At the crucifixion God took upon himself all the limitations of his creation so that he might fully renew and redeem humankind (the theory of atonement, or at-one-ment). God loves us, the Christian believes, so much as to literally die for us. This is the key moment of revelation for Christianity in which God takes the initiative to overcome the divide that separates humanity from God.

 

Maybe we can't know

At a rough guess, there are currently around 1500 Christian denominations in the Western world. The sheer scale of Christianity's diversity means that it's safer to talk about contemporary Christianities rather than contemporary Christianity. So don't expect any universally agreed doctrine of God to appear any time soon! Certain theologians have, in the midst of such disagreement and debate, decided to write the word ‘God' as ‘G*d'. What this asterisk signifies is the essential mystery and unknowability of the God. The traditional theological term for human acceptance of God's mystery and majesty is ineffability. When theologians declare that, ultimately, God is ineffable, what they mean is that all our words and formulas invented to capture or express the reality of God end up, more or less, in failure. St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was one of the greatest theologians who ever lived. His huge work of systematic theology, the Summa Theologica, was never completed. When asked why he had stopped writing, Aquinas replied: ‘All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.' For as long as Christians declare their belief and faith in a living God, then talk about God will never cease - even if the entire enterprise of faith seeking understanding is rooted in a sense of incompleteness.

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