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How do we know God?

 

 
People gather in churches around the world, week after week, and I wonder how often we stop to consider who God actually is. We can say various things about God, like God loves us or God is three-persons-in-one. We see the shadow of God’s self-revelation in the Bible, but even scripture isn’t God. The gospels aren’t Jesus. Paul’s letters aren’t the church. These tell us about the church, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God’s interaction with humanity.

In John 2, we see God-incarnate enacting justice as people take advantage of poor people in the Temple. When Jesus clears the Temple, there’s an element of self-revelation. When he says, “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place,” he’s identifying with God. The whole episode is wrapped in the Johannine cloak of layered meaning and includes the fingerprints of later redaction. For example, the disciples remember a prophecy about zeal consuming the Child of Humanity. That’s clearly a later addition to the story, though it doesn’t make the story any less important.

John gives us a glimpse into knowing God. The image is fuzzy and hard to make out. Other places, like Psalm 19, provide a clearer picture. The poem moves from the celestial to the political and personal experience. These three interrelated areas follow the different sections of the poem. The beginning is about nature and the sun. Then, it moves to the political and personal. All three aspects of Psalm 19 connect through the common thread of God’s divine discourse. It’s visible in nature, manifest in the Torah, and existentially present in our lives.[1]

When I pause to think about who God is, I wonder how we can know about God. Scripture is one source. It’s an excellent source, but it’s still just one source. If we only know about our Maker through scripture, as rich as it is, our source is limited. If we look at history, we can find examples of God manifest in the world, but we can also find examples of God’s apparent absence. Psalms of Lament come to my mind as the archetype for expressing the feeling that we are alone.

For some theologians, like Friedrich Schleiermacher, feeling is the most important way we can talk about God. Schleiermacher argues that we know God through a feeling of absolute dependence.[2] When we know that we are dependent on something greater than ourselves, we take the first step to finding God. This view transcends the limitations of scripture and history because it makes the experience personal. It also connects with where we are. How do I know God? I have a feeling of absolute dependence.

Schleiermacher wasn’t concerned with proving God’s existence. That question sits outside his project in a helpful way. Like the psalmist, he assumes God exists. When we read the beginning of Psalm 19, we find a world telling of God’s presence and glory. God’s already there and doesn’t need us to prove it. I like this prima facie assumption and find it to be a helpful place to start. The psalm points to the sun as something that is created. Its presence testifies to the sovereignty of its creator.[3]

For apologists who are concerned with proving God’s existence, Psalm 19.1-6 sounds like a basis for natural theology. It isn’t about nature worship,[4] but points to natural theology. Natural theology is a cosmological argument for God’s existence. It argues that the universe provides evidence for something higher, something greater, some divine presence. Thomas Aquinas makes this argument in Summa Theologica.[5]

I don’t have a problem with Aquinas or the cosmological argument. It’s just that I have never been drawn to apologetics. This probably goes back to when I was in high school and our youth group promoted evangelism, especially with our friends. My best friend didn’t come from a Christian home and was an Atheist. I wanted so bad to convince him of God’s existence.

I asked the senior minister of our church Dr. Gordan Grimes what I could say to convince my friends. Dr. Grimes said, “You can’t. If you convince him, he will be your follower. You are trying to do the work of the Holy Spirit. Only God can move in our hearts.”

In Psalm 19, we have a strong sense of natural theology. “The heavens are telling the glory of the Lord.”

God is not nature.

God is in nature.

This falls into the distinction between pantheism (everything is God) and panentheism (everything is in God).

Psalm 19 doesn’t stop with natural theology. It moves into a praise chorus about the Law (Heb: Torah). Clinton McCann writes, “God’s instruction is built into the very structure of the universe and life.”[6] The Torah gives life, wisdom, and joy. In 19.11, we find both a warning and a promise. The psalmist says, “In the Law you have a warning; in keeping the Law, there is great reward.” Living by the Torah constitutes righteousness, or life as God intended it.

C.S. Lewis refers to this movement in Psalm 19 as “emptying Nature of her divinity” but “also making her an index, a symbol, a manifestation of the Divine.”[7] We can learn about God by looking at the world around us. There are symbols and manifestations of the divine all around us. Then, we can check those symbols against the shadow of God’s revelation in scripture. We can place this knowledge alongside our previous experience and the experiences of the cloud of witnesses in the church. All of this combined helps us get a sense of who God is.

When the psalmist writes about the incomparable value of the Law (19.7-10), we don’t enter this relationship with the Law as the psalmist did. We come to the Law through Jesus Christ. Our relationship with the Law is as a people who have received liberty through the new covenant in Christ.

For example, in our gospel lesson, Jesus cleansed the Temple. His righteous indignation wasn’t limited to the commercialization of one of God’s holy places. Jesus came to liberate the captives. The people selling doves at stadium prices were taking advantage of the poorest people. The poorest of the poor needed the doves because, at that point in the story, they were still living under the Law. They didn’t have a relationship with God through the new covenant of the resurrected Christ. Selling doves with jacked-up prices was part of the systemic oppression of the poor, even in worship. They needed the doves for their purification ritual.[8]

When we read stories about Jesus, we learn about God. Passages like Psalm 19 give us a broader, clearer picture of who God is. The inclusion of nature and political and personal experience comes together to tell us that God is present right here, right now, and in our lives.

What do we do when we meet this personal God? We respond. We live it out. We make it part of who we are. We let our lives tells the story of what it means to know God.

Dr. Matthew Tennant has degrees from Carson-Newman College, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, and University of Oxford. Matt worked in the world of finance before being called into ministry. Most recently he served as the Senior Pastor of Kilmarnock Baptist Church in Kilmarnock, VA, for 8 years. He has written several books, including ‘Crossing the Lines We Draw’ (Judson Press 2020). Matt, his wife Melanie, and their sons Dean and Eddy enjoy sailing, hiking, and many other activities. Follow him on Twitter @theologymatt or check out his blog https://god-is-here.org/.
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[1] William P. Brown, “The Joy of Lex and the Language of Glory in Psalm 19,” Journal for Preachers 43, no. 4 (2020): 13.
[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. Hugh Ross Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart, trans. D. M. Baillie, et al. (New York: T & T Clark, 1999), E.g., 132ff.
[3] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “Psalms,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Walter Brueggemann, et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 752.
[4] James L. Mays, Psalms, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., and Paul J. Actemeier, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1994).
[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Public Domain, 1947).
[6] McCann, 753.
[7] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Collins, 1961), 81.
[8] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000).

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