Wednesday, 13 July 2005

What does the word “God” mean?

I suggested in an earlier post that theology has a hermeneutical function: theology interprets the gospel. And we could focus this more sharply by saying: theology interprets the word “God”.

The gospel is, quite simply, an explication of the word “God”. The gospel narrates the story of Jesus as the story of God’s act. It narrates the history of Jesus as the history of God’s own being. To put it rather bluntly, we might say that the gospel defines God—it defines God as the event that happened in the history of Jesus. A certain Jewish man named Jesus lived for others, was executed, and was raised to life: this is the Christian definition of God.

It has always been the responsibility of Christian faith to explain the word “God” in this way. And this is a particularly urgent task in our present situation of religious pluralism, where the word “God” has come to mean so many different things to so many people that it has become virtually meaningless.

But the fact that the word “God” has become meaningless is not a curse but a blessing. For the meaninglessness of this word demands that we take great care in explaining exactly what we mean when we talk about “God”. In other words, it demands that we use the word “God” only as a kind of shorthand for “the event that took place in the history of Jesus of Nazareth”.

When we speak of God’s “love”, for instance, we are speaking not of some abstract power of benevolence, but of the love with which Jesus freely lived and died for others. When we speak of God’s “eternity”, we are speaking not of some dark realm beyond human history, but of the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth as the past, present and future existence of us all. When we speak of God’s “glory”, we are speaking not of some general divine grandeur, but of the glorification-in-humility of the crucified Jesus. When we speak of God as the “living God”, we are speaking not of some divine imperishability, but of the act in which the crucified Jesus moves through death to new life.

In short, to say “God” we must tell the gospel; and when we tell the gospel, we are explaining the word “God”.

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