The Doctrine of God: An Introduction

Jesus Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3), but he is such within the context and background of the Old Testament. Jesus himself noted this to his disciples: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

This is important at a lot of levels. Early in church history we see (in Marcion, especially) the urge to distance Jesus from “the God of the Old Testament”. Even today, we see Arminian writers such as Jerry Walls attempting to make God into an image that’s different from “the God of the Old Testament”. He says:

The most overt difference between Calvinists and Arminians is the issue of God’s election, whether it is unconditional or conditional. For if it’s conditional, then the question of which individual persons are ultimately saved and which are not is a matter of God’s sovereign choice alone, whereas if God’s election is conditional on human choice, then everyone, by God’s grace, has a genuine option either to avail themselves of God’s offer of salvation in Christ or not.

The most fundamental divide between these two traditions, however, as we shall see, concerns the moral nature of God, particularly how his love and goodness are understood. While differences over divine sovereignty, election, and correspondingly different accounts of human freedom are often taken to be the most basic points of dispute, in reality, the deepest conflict concerns the very character of God (Jerry Walls, writing in Baggett and Walls, “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality”, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, ©2011, pg 66).

I think we (Reformed believers and Arminians) can agree on this statement.

The challenge is, “what’s our source for understanding ‘the very character of God’?”

Walls puts forth the idea that unbelievers who don’t recognize “goodness” in God are less likely to be persuaded by “moral arguments in favor of God’s existence”. In the process, he notes that “the ultimate question of all” when it comes to God and morality is “the connection between God and the Good itself” (pg 83).

I have a hard time believing that God is sitting back, waiting upon humankind to come up with better arguments. God is not that kind of God. The God of the Old Testament, who creates by speaking (“…and God said, let there be…”), is not a God who is incapable of having higher purposes than we can imagine, or that Jesus Christ, who “upholds the universe by the word of his power”, is bound by Jerry Walls’s conception of “the Good itself”.

This is a place, I think, where Theology comes into conflict with Philosophy. The God of the Old Testament exhibits traits that the Philosophers don’t seem to want to call “Good”.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve got a copy of Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, and I’d like to share some of what he’s got to say on this important topic:

The Doctrine of God in Reformed Orthodoxy: Toward a Thesis
The general problem: identifying trajectories, continuities, and discontinuities. It can be argued with significant reference to this body of secondary literature that the historical problem of the doctrine of God in its development from the Middle Ages to the Reformation and post-Reformation eras has not only been studied partially but has also, because of the partial character of the study, not been sufficiently or clearly analyzed in terms of the great doctrinal continuities or, indeed, in terms of the genuine changes and discontinuities that both characterize its development.

Most studies of the medieval doctrine of God have emphasized the philosophical and speculative character of the doctrine, with comparatively little interest in the traditionary elements that carried over from the patristic into the medieval period and with virtually no interest in the relationship between doctrinal or systematic theological formulation and the history of exegesis.

By contrast, the few studies that have appeared dealing with the doctrine of God during the Reformation have tended to ignore the traditionary elements, to emphasize the relationship of Protestant teaching to Scripture (without, however, clear reference to the continuities of the exegetical tradition), and to stress in addition the early Reformation antipathy to scholastic argumentation and to philosophy.

The majority of discussions of the Protestant orthodox doctrine of God have taken as their point of departure the rise of scholastic method, the return of a more positive approach to and use of philosophy, and therefore the contrast between the doctrine of the Reformers and that of the Protestant scholastics—without any examination of the exegetical tradition employed by the Reformers and by their scholastic successors and, in addition, without any detailed comparison of the Protestant with the medieval scholastics with a view to continuities and discontinuities in method and in doctrinal formulation.

When these neglected factors of tradition and exegesis are taken into consideration and, moreover, when the Protestant scholastic doctrine of God is compared not only to the teaching of the Reformers but also, in some detail, to that of the medieval doctors, several previously unnoticed but highly significant points can be made concerning both the development of the doctrine of God and the nature and character of Protestant scholastic theology.

First, an underlying agreement in the interpretation of numerous key biblical loci appears and, with it, a strong element of continuity between medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theology.

Second, it becomes apparent that, despite the clear methodological differences between the work of the Reformers and that of their successors brought on by the reintroduction of scholastic method, the theology of the Protestant orthodox held for the most part quite firmly to the exegetical tradition of which the Reformers were a part.

Third, the comparison of Protestant with medieval scholasticism indicates that the Protestant theologians of the late sixteenth and of the seventeenth century did not simply return to a form of medieval scholasticism. Scholastic method had itself altered and developed during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries—and, what is more, the Protestant scholastics retained in their theology both an element of the Reformation distrust for philosophical speculation and a high degree of concern for the biblical basis of theology.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 3: The Divine Essence And Attributes (pp. 30–31). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.