When studying God, theologians risk losing the deep forest of God’s personality and will amongst the trees of individual characteristics. Analogically, my father was characterized by being a British white male, a great provider, a patient man, thoroughly reliable, kind, etc. But make no mistake, these individual ideas and features about my father were not the Him-ness of him. They are only indivudual manifestations of my father, and ought never to be confused with the essence of him as that particular man. It shocks me that this fact about the limits of describing a being (even only a simple human being) are quickly lost on most seminarians eager to systematically describe Our Lord. Looked at a certain way, it is not only tone deaf, but crass and arrogant. God forgive us of taking about Our Father in Heaven, while we believe Him to be present in Spirit, as if He were some object to be reduced to a simple distillate of human words and phrases like some fresh-caught animal who we are describing. The psychological, sociological, and overtly terminological approach to God has pushed aside the prime encounter with a Person who is characterized by desire, will and intent. In its place we have erected a technical pistache of words that we risk believing are enough to tame and describe this Person. It is an arrogant enterprise when unlinked from the right attitude and humility. The nerve of we humans to stroll into a theological class and sit back with mild amusement as we ponder ideas like trinity, substance, unity, essense and the like is damning. Returning to our analogy, would I ever begin my description of my father in such dispasionate and clinical terms as “he is the unity of person, made up of body, mind and spirit, characterized by love, etc”. God forbid I ever begin describing my Father this way. But wait, we theologians by nature systematize. Indeed! With this I do not argue. But, what I an trying t remind us is that before we do this, we must hold a prior holistic understanding that God demands to be seen as a Person who, relative to us as His creation and the object of His love, choses to be approached in a very particular way – prior to us begin the dissection of individual characteristics for the purposes of a systematic understanding. Theologians must get this straight first. Further to this, God – as Person – also presents Himself in relation to us. Losing both the Personal and relational realities of God, and losing our ability to encounter these as a full unity never to be dissected into component parts, assures us that we can never truly know the One who shadows us, and trails us, and haunts us, until we see Him in his fulness.
With this caution waving over our endeavour, we may now ask who, then, is the Christian God? First off, there is no “Christian God”. God is God. Indeed He is the God which Christianity describes, but let’s be careful with our terminology. Secondly, in the Prodigal story, as in so much of the Old Testament, God wants to be seen as the One who created, loved, and now waits and calls in merciful love. At times this patient waiting almost appears like that of a hapless lover urging his unfaithful bride to accept that he alone is the one she should love? Is this inaccurate? Then why does God paint this picture so clearly in Hosea? This revelation communicates the idea that God wants to be understood in a particular way. And when Christians drift from the deep set of ideas that flow from this central unifying theme, we risk tearing at the image of God.
We must never shrink back from staring this God in the face. You see, when you encounter someone, you encounter them holistically. You do not encounter the patiences of a person. You cannot encounter the trustworthiness of a person. You can experience these as how this person moves through the world, but you make a vast mistake if you think you have the sum of a person from these projections. So, in doing theology properly, we must not mistake brittle but technically correct theological statements of how goods moves through time and space with that of the very Person of Our Lord. In our desire to rightly articulate the revealed characteristics of God and protect sound doctrine, we have greatly fallen prey to dissecting the characteristics of the Person behind and beyond our world. A truer and more faithful thought about God forces us to conclude that when we encounter Him, we encounter Life and Person – never an assembly of characteristics and traits.
God reveals himself as a Person with intent, desire, compassion, love, anger and the like. May we never attempt to flatten this multidimensional picture of Scripture to cold theological categories.