Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

The Doctrine of God

Introduction

A reading of The Doctrine of God without its preface and introduction could invariably result with the reader feeling somewhat confused, as though the book was meant to be a systematic theology in itself. However, Bray says of the series, “the series offers a systematic presentation of most of the major doctrines in a way which complements the traditional textbooks but does not copy them,”[1]. Hence, his heavy emphasis on seemingly peculiar topics can only be made sense of in light of this book acting as a supplement to other systematic theologies, and presupposes a basic understanding of most theological doctrines. In light of this, The Doctrine of God, with a particular focus on Trinitarian theology, the rise of classical and contemporary theology and emphasis on Reformation theology is an excellent theological text book. This essay examines and reviews the book’s content and Bray’s theological position, with a critical eye to the theology presented, finishing with an analysis in light of other contemporary theologians.

The Doctrine of God

The book begins its doctrinal analysis by examining what it means to have knowledge of God, and know God personally. Bray argues that within his very nature, God is beyond human comprehension, and thus cannot be known without his self-revelation. Our knowledge of God is absolutely rooted in the fact that he has taken the initiative of revealing himself to us.

He further argues that Greek philosophical assumptions have had a large amount of influence of Christian theology, and vice versa. He focuses on Plato’s philosophy, which rejected the Christian tradition of examining God in mythological (or narratological) forms, and pushed for an objective analysis of the ‘Supreme Good’.[2] Christian theology arose out of Roman law and Greek philosophy, due to the need for a systematic theology of the complex doctrines within the New Testament.

In the second chapter, Bray argues that our knowledge of the nature of God can only be known as expressed through the Trinity, and explained through his acts. God is one in being, who surpasses everything in this world. He is completely indescribable and inconceivable, yet through his self-revelation we can have some understanding of his nature, which is primarily relational,[3] as expressed through the Trinity. There have been attempts to prove his existence, but inevitably, his nature cannot be proven in any way, as he is beyond human capacity. If, however, knowledge of God comes solely through his self-revelation, the question of who receives the revelation becomes apparent. Thus, the doctrine of predestination appears. The bible is evident that God is not responsible for our rejection of sin; “God’s plan is worked out by the persons of the Trinity, who have created the human race to share in personal freedom…freedom entails responsibility, which puts the blame for sin squarely on us, not on God.”[4]

Next, Bray expounds the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that the Trinity is what differentiates Christianity from the other great monotheistic religions. Further, Christians argue a relationship with God is possible, an impossibility in Judaism and Islam. The early church held onto a strict monotheism, but monotheism “could not fully capture the experience of God which they had in Christ,”[5] thus the need to adopt monotheism to include the Son became evident. Origen, Arius, Hegel, Sabellius and Macedonius each attempted to explain the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and while Unitarianism and Binitarianism held some supporters, they had little influence, as neither seemed to promote a theology that incorporated all the necessary attributes of God, as presented through the New Testament, such as Matthew 28.19, 2 Cor. 13.14, Rom. 15.16, 2 Cor. 1.21-22, and especially within the Johannine texts such as John 1, 14-16, and Revelation, which all support the Trinity.[6]

Chapters four and five asses the historical progression of the Trinitarian doctrine, beginning with the Cappadocians, who argued that both Son and Spirit proceed directly out of the Father, affirming that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, with the Father naturally taking primacy. This stands in contrast to Augustine’s view, which placed the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, as the result of the love between the Father and the Son, the personification of holy love. Spirit and love became synonymous to him, after a study of John 4.24 and 1 John 4.16. He postulated the idea of a double procession of the Spirit, sparking the Filoque controversy.

Whereas classical formulations have often included one of the persons of the Trinity to have some form of superiority to the others – such as Origen’s stipulations that the Spirit came from the Son, who came from the Father, or the Cappadocian assertion that the Spirit and the Son emanated from the Father – the Reformers claimed that each person within the Godhead are equally God in their own individual natures. From this came the term, autotheos, meaning that “each of the persons is…God in his own right, and not merely divine by appointment.”[7] The Trinity as a whole was the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. According to Calvin, furthermore, the Father held priority, as being attributed to the beginning of action; the Son could only be understood in reference to the Father, attributed to the arrangement in this action; and the Spirit is attributed to the efficacy of this action.[8]

Bray concludes the book with an outline to constructing an evangelical theology for today. This theology must be a) rooted and grounded in living faith, with our understanding of evangelism influenced by our understanding of scripture, not vice versa; b) an interpretation of scripture as one whole theological unity, with no additions or removals depending on our preferences; c) challenging to society in light of the bible, rather than adopting the bible to suit society; d) God must be at the centre of any theological concern, with the basis being the Trinity. An understanding of time is also important, as God, who is above and beyond time as we know it, broke the barriers of time to reveal himself to us[9], in our understanding of time, in order that one day we can break this barrier ourselves as we break into God’s understanding of time.

After a thorough and comprehensive discussion on the doctrine of God, the book unfortunately seems to end somewhat abruptly. Chapters five and six are either lacking, or there is a chapter missing entirely. After a detailed account of the rise of classical trinitarianism, Bray’s account jumps to a discussion of reformation theology, with an exaggerated emphasis on Calvin. Bray greatly details Calvin’s understanding of the functions of the different persons, his refutations of procession theology, and even his understanding of the soul, yet there is no discussion of Luther’s understanding of any of this, nor of the Catholic understanding during that time. There is little to no discussion of the progression of scholasticism or of theology prevalent in the Middle Ages. Nor is there adequate discussion of the progression of theology since Calvin, albeit minor references to Karl Barth. Kaiser’s The Doctrine of God[10] includes such discussion, and is rather surprising that Bray seems to arbitrarily skip this, seeing that – according to Kaiser – Augustine was a particular influence during the Middle Ages. Kärkäinen also includes such discussion, as well as an exposition of Luther’s theology and of contemporary theology throughout the world.[11] Furthermore, Bray’s final chapter feels somewhat disjointed. It doesn’t sufficiently summarize the content of the book’s theology that could cause a need to outline the process of establishing a contemporary evangelical theology. Also his discussion of time seems unnecessary, nearly forced.[12]

Despite this, the content of this book is excellent and vastly resourced, and is helpful in understanding the vastly difficult topics of the Trinity and of predestination. As detailed through Grenz’s analysis of the Trinity, an understanding of the Trinity is essential when discussing any form of theological doctrine of God, who states that “the doctrine of the Trinity forms the foundation for the Christian conception of the essence of God.”[13] In light of this, Bray’s heavy emphasis on the Trinity is appreciated.

It is from an understanding of the triune nature of God that Bray draws out the relational implications, and the book – whilst remaining highly academic – is written in such a way that it centres on the love of God, and his desire to have a relationship with us. Amongst his discussion of God’s self-revelation, the incredible implications of such a theology have not been forgotten by Bray, who is constantly referring to God’s incredible grace, and highlights this in Christianity’s distinctiveness from other religions, found particularly in the Trinitarian and relational aspects of a doctrine of God. Furthermore, the book’s earlier chapters held to an obvious structure, but lost this sense of structure as it went on. However, this was not a bad thing, as it revealed Bray’s passion for the topic.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Bray has done a remarkable job of writing an academic theological text on the doctrine of God that is not a duplicate of other systematic theologies and has not lost the significance of what it means to actually have an understanding of who (and not what) God is. His appraisal of the rise of theology, in particular his heavy focus on the Trinity, is thorough and entirely appropriate for his purposes in writing the book. Perhaps a less of a focus on Reformation theology, and a greater explanation of theology between Augustine and the Reformation, and of theology since the Reformation, could have made the text wholly comprehensive. Despite this, Doctrine of God is an excellent, and perhaps necessary, resource for attaining a deeper understanding of who God really is.

Bibliography

Bray, Gerald. The Doctrine of God and the Work of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Callen, Barry L. Discerning the Divine: God in Christian Theology. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Kaiser, Christopher B. The Doctrine of God. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982.

Kärkäinen. The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.

Wright, D. F. “Platonism.” In New Dictionary of Theology, edited by David F. Wright Sinclair B. Ferguson, 517-519. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Yarnell, Malcolm B. The Formation of Christian Doctrine. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007.


[1] Ibid. 7.

[2] Wright further analyses Platonism in depth, detailing Plato’s belief that sense experience is fallible, and that ‘forms’ exist beyond the material world that are essentially copies of the Supreme Good. This Supreme Good imprinted perfection on chaotic matter, thus creating the material world. Concepts such as the soul are expressions of these forms, which cannot be experienced in a materialistic sense. Hence, God is only active in creation through intermediaries. Plotinus expanded this belief, detailing that from the Supreme Good emanate a hierarchy of forms, such as the soul, mind and intelligence. Anything below the One is lesser in perfection, and the material world we exist in is not necessarily evil, but a long way from the perfection that the Supreme Good holds. (D. F. Wright, “Platonism,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. David F. Wright Sinclair B. Ferguson(Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988). 518).

[3] Callen states, “knowing God is necessarily a participation in God’s revelation, the essence of which is Jesus Christ,” (Barry L. Callen, Discerning the Divine: God in Christian Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). 95).

[4] Bray. 91-92. Yarnell notes that “freedom and slavery denote a state of locatable relationships: freedom in Christ is slavery to God; freedom from Christ is slavery to sin…true Christian freedom is Christian obedience,” (Malcolm B. Yarnell, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007). 22).

[5] Bray. 125.

[6] Cf. Callen, pp. 172-191.

[7] Bray. 201.

[8] How this action works and what this action really is, is up to much debate, and again sparks the question of predestination. Bray argues that Calvin restored to solving this question of predestination by labelling his process of election as a paradox; all have the possibility of responding to grace, but God has already determined who respond positively. Furthermore, “Election is God’s choice of some people to share in his Trinitarian life by being adopted as sons (in the image of Christ) through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit,” (pp. 206-207). Thus, “the true heritage of the Reformation, and especially of Calvin, may therefore be defined as a theology of the divine persons, whose attributes express both their distinctiveness and their unity,” (p. 224).

[9] As Bray points out, the present essentially does not exist, at least in light of human comprehension, as the instant we understand the present, it’s already in the past. However, for God, time is eternally present. Also, “to conceive of [the present] is therefore to be aware of an eternal dimension which goes beyond the world of time; to want to dwell in it is a sign that human beings are made for eternity and will not be fulfilled until they attain to a knowledge and experience of it,” (pp. 232-33).

[10] Christopher B. Kaiser, The Doctrine of God (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982).

[11] Kärkäinen, The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004).

[12] Furthermore, his discussion on the non-existence of the present seems slightly naive. Despite being a common contemporary philosophy, the idea that the present doesn’t exist in this material world doesn’t hold up. The reason for this is that if there is no present, there can be no future or past. The present must exist, if not simply to mark the distinction between the future and the past. Arguably, human beings are living in the eternal present, simply for the fact that it is impossible to live in the future, and impossible to live in the past. Thus, Bray’s discussion on God’s existence as the eternal present is enlightening in some aspects, but rather naive overall. Perhaps a better term for God’s existence is not eternally present, but presently eternal, or the fulfilment of the present – that time where past, present and future are not separate dimensions.

[13] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). 71.

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