- What do you believe is the most important thing about God?
- What kind of father did you have?
Do you realize that every time your father loved you – such as by putting thought and energy into making sure you were protected, or embracing you and forgiving you after you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or giving you that toy or dress you’ve wanted, and delighting in watching you receive it with joy – he was reflecting God? And even those, like me, whose fathers were absent, or worse, abusive, have seen this phenomenon of the created being reflecting a perfect Creator because we have seen fathers act like this – that is, as they were meant to act. (I have been especially blessed by the care, counsel, and example of many fatherly figures who at different times were to me the father I didn’t have.)
But compelling as they are, these images are mere shadows of God, who “before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.” From Michael Reeves’s Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2012):
“… The most foundational thing in God is not some abstract quality, but the fact that he is Father. Again and again, the Scriptures equate the terms God and Father: in Exodus, the Lord calls Israel ‘my firstborn son’…he carries his people ‘as a father carries his son, disciplines them as a man disciplines his son’…
“… Since God is, before all things, a Father, and not primarily Creator or Ruler, all his ways are beautifully fatherly. It is not that this God ‘does’ being Father as a day job, only to kick back in the evenings as plain old ‘God.’ It is not that he has a nice blob of fatherly icing on top. He is Father. All the way down. Thus all that he does he does as Father.” (21-23)
In The Story of Christianity, Vol. I (Harper One, 2010), Justo González explains how Pope Gregory “the Great” (r. 590-604 CE), as a devoted student of Augustine and an influential church leader, played an important role in the development of the doctrine of purgatory, which, as González writes, was based more on speculation than doctrinal certainty. Catholics deny this, of course, pointing to the the book of II Maccabees (in the Apocrypha, which Protestants don’t recognize as inerrant Scripture), and arguing that some New Testament texts support the existence of such a place. Such arguments are worth examining more closely, and I hope to eventually do so myself, but for now, I leave you with González, a knowledgeable church historian to whom the labels “anti-Catholic” and “Fundamentalist” hardly apply.
“Gregory lived in a time of obscurantism, superstition, and credulity, and to a degree he reflected his age. By making Augustine an infallible teacher, he contradicted the spirit of that teacher, whose genius was, at least in part, in his inquiring spirit and venturesome mind. What for Augustine was conjecture, in Gregory became certainty. Thus, for instance, the theologian of Hippo had suggested the possibility that there was a place of purification for those who died in sin, where they would spend some time before going to heaven. On the basis of these speculations of Augustine, Gregory affirmed the existence of such a place, and thus gave impetus to the development of the doctrine of purgatory” (288).
Thomas Aquinas was a remarkably lucid and logical thinker, one of the best minds to have graced this earth who set his mind to work on the most important of topics: God and the things of God.
Boston College philosophy professor has done us a huge service in compiling an anthology, with his own footnotes, of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, one of the most important texts in the history of Western thought, let alone theology and philosophy. In this book, titled Summa of the Summa, we find the explanation to why our medieval ancestors considered theology the “queen of the sciences”:
“Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint it is nobler than other sciences” (42).
Kreeft then writes in the footnote: “The medieval formula ‘philosophy the handmaid of theology’ and the associated idea of theology as ‘the queen of the sciences’ are seldom taken seriously today…Yet neither philosophy nor science have ever refuted the claim during the past seven hundred years. It has been dismissed by fashion, not by reason. If God is, and is our ultimate end, then the science of God must indeed be the queen of the sciences” (43).
In his excellent treatment of the Bible’s passages on God’s love, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson retells the Les Misérables’ story of Jean Valjean to make the point that we must “never, never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals”:
“Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for stealing bread, Jean Valjean becomes a hard and bitter man. No one could break him; everyone feared him. Released from prison, Valjean finds it difficult to survive, as innkeepers will not welcome him and work is scarce. Then a kind bishop welcomes him into his home. But Valjean betrays the trust. During the night he creeps off into the darkness, stealing some of the family silver.
“But Valjean is brought back next morning to the bishop’s door by three policemen. They had arrested him and found the stolen silver on him. A word from the bishop, and the wretch would be incarcerated for life. But the bishop instantly exclaims, ‘So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?’
“Jean Valjean is released, and he is transformed. When the gendarmes withdraw, the bishop insists on giving the candlesticks to his speechless, mortified, thankful guest. ‘Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ admonishes the bishop. And meanwhile the detective constantly pursuing Valjean, Javert, who is consumed by justice but who knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion, crumbles when his black-and-white categories of mere justice fail to cope with grace that goes against every instinct for revenge. Valjean is transformed; Javert jumps off a bridge and drowns in the Seine.
“Of course, this is Christian love – i.e., the love of God mediated in this case through a bishop. But this is how it should be, for God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven.” (81-82)
Those things may be important, and even defining, aspects about who you are. But as Dave Harvey writes in the book When Sinners Say I Do (Shepherd Press, 2007), the most important thing about you is what you believe about God. He explains this in the context of the marriage relationship, arguing that our theology is the most important part of the marriage equation (a clear example of this relationship is having a greater capacity to forgive because one believes that God has forgiven one’s sins, even the ugliest ones), but this applies to all of our lives, not only marriage. Here’s how he puts it:
“The most profound thing that shapes anybody’s worldview is their understanding of God. What a person believes about God determines what he or she thinks about how we got here, what our ultimate meaning is, and what happens after we die. So essentially our worldview, our perspective on life, is determined by our perspective on God.
“… Whether we realize it or not, our ideas about life, needs, marriage, romance, conflict, and everything else reveal themselves all the time in our words and deeds, inevitably reflecting our view of God. If you listen closely, theology spills from our lips every day” (20-21).
This is why in this book about marriage, Dave Harvey can make the fundamental claim, “What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.” But as we’ve seen above, this same claim can be applied to every major area of our lives. So, what do you believe about God? And how does it show in your everyday life, at work and at home?
When’s the last time you went out of your way at work to help someone?
When someone at work asks you for a significant favor, do you first think about how doing this favor will help you advance your own interests?
Are you frustrated because your boss or co-workers don’t give you the recognition you think you deserve?
In the theologically-grounded and practical book The Gospel at Work (Zondervan, 2013), Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert show why being accepted by Christ means we really are free to serve and do good to others at work without expecting recognition or personal gain. They write:
“It’s incredibly difficult to find someone who simply wants to do good to others. As somebody who is working in order to love God and love others, you can be that person. You should be that person! Why? Because all that you really need is already secured for you by Jesus. It’s nice to be appreciate by your boss and respected by your peers. But everything you think you need that appreciation and respect for – affirmation, love, acceptance, a sense of well-being, future reward – is already yours in Jesus. You are freed from having your identity tied to what people think about you. You are free to serve them without an agenda” (53).
One of my favorite professors at Georgetown, Father James Schall, S.J., often said that simply knowing something was pleasurable in itself. In an article, he writes: “Truth, Plato often said, is to say of what is that it is. This knowing of truth results in its own delight.”
This same kind of pleasure in knowing is recognized by the great 18th-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards* in his 1739 sermon, “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth.”
From The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (Yale, 1999):
“Knowledge is pleasant and delightful to intelligent creatures, and above all the knowledge of divine things; for in them are the most excellent truths, and the most beautiful and amiable objects held forth to view. However tedious the labor necessarily attending this business may be, yet the knowledge once obtained will richly requite the pains taken to obtain it” (45).
* Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is widely considered America’s most important and original theologian. Though best known for his fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” used in many public schools as a caricature of 18th-century American Puritanism, Edwards was a brilliant philosopher, pastor, and theologian who deeply influenced American Protestantism. He was also President of the College of New Jersey, which today is Princeton University, and later in life became a passionate missionary to Native Americans.