|Faith in Search of
by Anthony Freeman
The first half of the first of the 39 Articles
of Religion, which define the official historic stance of the Church of
England on matters of faith and practice, runs like this:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body,
parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the
Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.
It was composed as long ago as the year 1533, but it still usefully
summarises what most people understand by the term "God", be they
fervent believers, militant atheists or nominal Christians.
To turn this general statement into an expression of the classic
doctrine of God, we need only add the second part of the same Article:
And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one
substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy
This is the starting point here, but it was not the starting point
for the human exploration of the divine realm and concept of God in the
Western part of the world. The character described in this Article has a
history. Various earlier ideas combined to produce it, and various
subsequent ideas have further developed it.
My intention is to illustrate how the term God (or its equivalent in
other languages) has been used over the centuries for many different
things. I will argue that it needs to go on changing if God-language and
the practice of religion are to continue playing a guiding role in human
As with my previous discussion of the Bible, my standpoint is that of
a minister in the Church of England. But I hope that what I write will
be helpful to those of other religious traditions, or those who come
from outside any religious commitment.
The Greek background
One major influence on the Christian concept of God was ancient
Greece. As in the case of Roman and Nordic religion, the Greeks worked
with the concept of a pantheon. Divinity was envisaged as a "race" with
different individual gods who behaved much like humans.
They had personalities like humans and could interact with humans.
Although themselves immortal, they could liaise with humans to
produce offspring (known as heroes), such as Perseus, slayer of the
Gorgon Medusa. He was the son of the god Zeus and the human princess
Such images of divine beings cavorting with human lovers would, of
course, never have been sanctioned by any official Christian teaching on
the nature of God. Yet many modern attempts to defend the doctrine of
the "virgin birth" of Jesus come perilously close to casting God the
father in the role of Zeus, Mary as the hapless Diana, and Jesus a
latter-day Perseus who defeated not just the monstrous Gorgon but death
The really scary thing, from my point of view, is that most of those
in authority in the churches appear to be less worried by such
travesties as this than by serious attempts to come up with an authentic
contemporary doctrine of God.
Returning to the ancient Greeks: In their imagination and legends the
gods on Mount Olympus came to personify different aspects of human life
and experience - Aphrodite for love, Athena for wisdom, Demeter for the
harvest, and so on.
Here again there seems to be more than a passing similarity between
this aspect of ancient religion and the still active cult of patron
saints in the Church. Nobody suggests that these saints are gods. But
when a devotee of St Anthony prays to him for assistance in finding some
item she has lost, I doubt whether the psychology is much different from
an ancient Greek farmer praying to Demeter for a good harvest.
Greece, however, contributed even more significantly to our story
than I have indicated so far. The same society that worshipped the
pantheon and celebrated its members in its poetry, also developed the
critical faculties for questioning the received religion.
As early as the fifth century BCE the
pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes (d.480 BCE)
insisted that the Olympian gods were socially constructed rather than
divinely revealed. Indeed, as he told his fellow-Greeks, all humans
create their own gods in their own image. So that Ethiopian gods are
"snub-nosed and black" while those of the Thracians "have blue eyes and
Under the guidance of even greater minds, Greek philosophy came to
understand divinity as the unifying principle behind the universe. For
Plato, God was the creator of the world out of formless pre-existing
material. For Aristotle he was the unmoved originator of all motion in
Here were ideas that were to play a profound effect on the Christian
understanding of God. Many is the time, when staying at convents and
monasteries, that I have sung the following hymn at the afternoon
O God, creation's secret force,
Thyself unmoved, all motion's source,
Who from the morn till evening ray
Through all its changes guid'st the day.
This is pure Aristotle. And Plato's vision of the divine mind behind
the universe, bringing order out of chaos, is still alive and well in
North America (and not only there) with theories such as the Anthropic
Principle and "intelligent design" (of which more later).
But above all, perhaps, we have the Greeks to thank (if that is the
word) for the idea that God is perfect and therefore unchangeable, since
any change in perfection must by definition be for the worse.
Again the hymns say it best, as in:
We blossom and flourish, as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish - but naught changeth thee.
Any minister will tell you that trying to persuade a congregation to
change its hymn book is the simplest way to bring out in them this
The Hebrew background
Even more apparent than the Greek influence on Christian ideas about God
is the role of the Hebrew tradition, to which all the original
Christians belonged. An insistence on there being only one God is the
most obvious legacy here. But a close reading of the Old Testament shows
that other elements, not dissimilar from the Greek ones, are also
Later editors of the Hebrew scriptures read back the monotheism of
later times, and interpreted or rewrote earlier texts in the light of
Note the following examples of where the stitching still shows:
There are traces of a suppressed pantheon in Psalm 82.1 ("God
standeth in the congregation of the princes: he is a judge among
gods") and at verse 6 ("I have said, Ye are gods: and ye are all the
children of the most high").
The commonest word for God in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim,
the plural form of Eloah, which is also used, but much less
often. The grammatical plural does not mean that the God of Israel was
himself thought of as being multiple, but it is evidence of an earlier
tradition with a council of gods.
Different names for God are sometimes associated with different
shrines or people, especially in Genesis. There we find God referred
to as the Shield of Abraham (15.1), the God of Bethel (31.13), the
Fear of Isaac (31.42), God Almighty (El Shaddai, 35.11). These
might once have been separate gods.
The fact that the worship of other gods is forbidden could be
interpreted as an acknowledgement that they exist. The shift from
monolatry ("You must only worship one god") to monotheism ("There is
only one God") is made explicit only in part of the Book of Isaiah -
that part normally dated to the time of the Babylonian exile (sixth
century BCE) It makes the one God responsible
for both good and evil fortune (Isaiah 45.7).
In later parts of the Old Testament we find that attributes of
God (Word, Wisdom, Spirit and so on) are personified, implying some
sense of their once having had a separate existence.
Finally, both the King and the nation of Israel as a whole are
at times addressed as God�s "Son". This might hark back to an earlier
time when a relationship more like that of the Greek heroes was
envisaged between the God of Israel and its King.
The establishment of monotheism is not the only development
discernible in the Old Testament. Another is the gradual distancing of
God from earthly contacts, which paved the way for an assimilation of
Israel�s original "hands on" God to the later abstract God of the
Here are some examples of this tendency:
There is a shift in the meaning of the term "Angel of the
Lord". Originally it indicated the presence of God on earth -
"the angel which is the Lord". But later it referred to a heavenly
being bringing a message from an absentee God - "The angel who
is the Lord's messenger".
There is a shift from direct revelation through prophecy (God
speaks directly to his people through a prophet) to the rabbinic study
of scripture (to discern God's will now from what he had said
There is evidence of Greek philosophical influence in those
later parts of the Jewish scripture known as the Wisdom Literature.
Some of these later books were written in Greek rather than Hebrew.
A third development that we can trace in the Old Testament is the
introduction of moral dualism from Persian Zoroastrianism. This
introduced the idea that everything in the universe is caught up is a
cosmic battle between good and evil, between the children of light and
the children of darkness.
This trend is especially interesting when seen alongside the
increasing stress on monotheism, to which it acts as a kind of
counterweight. All the time you believe in lots of gods, you can blame
someone else's god when things go wrong. But if there is only one God,
then responsibility for everything - good and bad alike - falls on his
Some Old Testament writers accepted the full implication of this. I
have already alluded to Isaiah 45.7, where the prophet at the time of
the Jewish exile to Babylon wrote in the name of his monotheistic God:
"I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe. I the
Lord do all these things." But not everyone had the stomach for such
A symptom of both encroaching dualism and of the distancing of God
from direct contact with humans came in the development of character of
Satan. The name means an "adversary" in the context of a law court.
Those caught up in a legal dispute will see the defence and prosecution
lawyers as being on opposite sides, although within the overall Western
judicial system they are both on the side of justice. Both are needed to
make the system work. Thus Satan was not originally God's enemy, but his
servant, the prosecuting counsel in the heavenly court in which God was
judge. He plays this role in the opening chapters of the Book of Job.
Perhaps the best example of Satan being God's loyal instrument is in
a comparison of the two accounts of King David's census of the people.
The earlier account in 2 Samuel 24.1 reads:
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he
incited David against them, saying: Go, count the people of Israel and
The later account in 1 Chronicles 21.1 says,
Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to count the people
The hands-on God of 2 Samuel now uses his legal prosecutor to do his
dirty work. But it is still God's work.
By the time we get to the New Testament, however, Satan is identified
with the Devil (Revelation 12.9; 20.2) and has been transformed into
God's mortal enemy - almost (but not quite) a second god, available to
take the blame when things go wrong.
The Holy Trinity
The distinctively Christian doctrine of God as Trinity will be dealt
with in the fourth of this series, which deals with the Creed. I want
now to skip straight to the period from the seventeenth-century
enlightenment to the present day, and look at more recent developments
in the understanding of God.
1. Natural and Revealed Theology
We have said that the traditional idea of God is of a supernatural
person, beyond space and time, who is all-knowing, all-powerful,
all-good, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and the proper
object of human worship and obedience.
For any believer in this sort of God there is a dilemma which cannot
be avoided. By definition, God is beyond time and space, while we are
constrained within time and space. How then can we know anything about
There are two approaches to this problem of gaining knowledge about
God. Both have been used in compiling classical Christianity.
The first, known as Natural Theology, says that we cannot reach God
direct, so we must look for clues to God's nature in the world around
The second, known as Revealed Theology, says that we cannot reach
outside time and space to God, but the divine does reach inside them to
speak to us, if only we will listen.
The relative merits of these two approaches have been argued about for
hundreds of years. But it seems to me that in the end they are both
confronted by the same problem - human limitations.
As we noted in the first of this series, which dealt with the Bible,
even if it is more than just a humanly produced book it can never be
less than a humanly produced book.
Whether or not the Ten Commandments, for instance, originated from
heaven or from earth, we cannot actually trace them back beyond the point
at which they entered human consciousness. And at that point they were
necessarily constrained by the limits of human understanding and
And the same is true - in various ways - of all claims to have
received or experienced a divine revelation.
The importance of the human dimension in all religious doctrine became
an issue of increasing importance in the seventeenth century and the Age
2. Post-Enlightenment Developments
The changes in philosophy and the natural sciences associated with
the Enlightenment in Europe led to an increasing gap in the minds of
educated people between God and his creation. For the entire Christian
era to that point there had been an acceptance of theism - the belief in
a God who is prior to and outside his creation, but who still intervenes
to a greater or lesser extent in its day to day running and sustains it
by his love and power.
But with the discovery of the natural laws of physics by Isaac Newton
and others, which replaced the older science of Aristotle, the daily
course of the universe could be explained without recourse to an
As Alexander Pope playfully and memorably put it:
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in
God said, Let Newton be! And all
So it was that among forward-looking religious thinkers of the time,
traditional theism gave way to deism - the belief that having once made
the world and set it in motion, God was content to leave it alone to run
by itself. God might have reserved to the divine an occasional miracle -
the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, for example - but daily
intervention was not needed.
With so much of God's traditional role already conceded by the
religious leaders of the day, it was but a short step for the less
religious to move from deism to atheism - the belief that there is no
God at all, and never has been.
The classic spokesman here was the French philosopher and scientist
Pierre Laplace. Asked by Napoleon where God fitted into his scheme,
Laplace replied simply, "I have no need of that hypothesis."
These moves towards atheism have been countered by a number of
The most traditional and persistent is the argument from
design, put most memorably by the late eighteenth-century archdeacon,
William Paley, in his Parable of the Watchmaker.
Suppose I am walking across the heath, he wrote, and find a stone. I
might reasonably suppose that it came there by accident. But if I find
a watch, with all its intricate cogs and wheels and mechanisms, I can
only suppose that it was designed and made by an intelligent mind.
The universe - as we observe it - is more like the watch than the
stone. It "works" and therefore must have been planned and executed
with a purpose. The watchmaker is God.
The doyen of militant atheists today, biologist Richard
Dawkins, has countered this argument in his book The Blind
Watchmaker. He argues that Darwinian evolution by natural
selection can explain away the apparent design in the universe.
He in turn has been challenged - unsuccessfully in my view - by the
proponents, chiefly in America, of the "intelligent design" of the
universe, whose claims are often related to the so-called "Anthropic
This is the scientific claim that if the initial physical conditions
at the Big Bang had been even fractionally different, then the
universe would not have evolved in a way that could support human life
- and that therefore there must have been a God to achieve those
A rather different approach is represented by Process Theology.
It is associated especially with the names of Teilhard de Chardin and
Charles Hartshorne, and was based on the philosophy of A N Whitehead
He saw God not as "an imperial ruler" but as working "slowly and
quietly by love" in and through the natural order. God's perfection is
seen not so much as an unchanging essence as an evolving process
guided by love and leading toward what Teilhard called "the Omega
Point", the goal of the creation.
On this view there is no contradiction between the scientific
doctrine of evolution and the Christian doctrine of God.
Yet another twentieth-century attempt to reconcile modern
science and philosophy with religion was the "existential" theology of
the American Paul Tillich, the German Rudolph Bultmann and the British
John Macquarrie (I was taught by the latter).
Traditional theology had seen God as a being standing outside the
natural order. Process Theology saw God as working in and through the
natural order. Existential Theology, developing out of the existential
philosophy of Martin Heidegger, saw God not as an individual being at
all, but - in Tillich's famous phrase - as the "ground of being", what
Macquarrie calls "Being with a capital B", that which "lets-be" all
A fourth approach, and the one which in recent years I have
myself found most useful, is known as Constructive Theology.
This is the belief that religion is part of our humanly constructed
culture and that all theological ideas - including the concept of God
himself - are part of a wholly human undertaking to structure and make
sense of our lives.
The idea that God was made in man's image, rather than the other way
round, is commonly associated with the nineteenth-century thinker
Ludwig Feuerbach, who made it a reason to stop believing. More
recently the Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering in New
Zealand, and others, have embraced this viewpoint without giving up
their Christian faith.
In the so-called "post-modern" world, many have come to believe that
moral and religious values once thought to be absolute and "handed
down" from on high have in fact evolved within human society, and are
none the worse for that. God is now understood in a similar way.
My understanding of God
About fifteen years ago - under the combined influence of these
various ideas, especially existential and constructive theology - my own
ideas about God reached the stage where to speak about God's independent
existence seemed just as much picture language as to speak about God's
We can go on using the words - especially in worship - but we must be
clear that they are picture language and not literal description.
It is obvious that things such as love, loyalty and duty are human
values. Although we have personified them - and spoken as if they
existed independently of us - we now see that in fact they exist only
where men and women exhibit them.
That does not deny their importance, but it locates them firmly in
the human sphere. In the same way, so it now seemed to me, God is
also a personification of human values. In the words of Don Cupitt, God
"... is the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal
unity, their claims upon us and their creative power".
As such God does not exist independently of the humans who relate to
those values and live by them.
This is not quite the way that Paul or Aquinas understood God. But I
venture to suggest that it is no more different from either of them than
they are from each other, or than they both are from the God of the
Jephthah and Gideon in the Old Testament. It is a way of thinking about
God which has been around now for well over a hundred years.
But what is new is that it is now appealing to practising Christians
and not just to opponents of religion. Its appeal, speaking just for
myself, is that it provides a way of thinking about God which enables me
to say with integrity, "I believe in God".
It allows me to practise my religion without switching off my brain.