01 September 2007
The Basics: One true God
In this first instalment in a new 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Dr Justin Thacker discusses...
- We believe in the one true God who lives eternally in three persons - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In respect of the nature of God, what is the challenge that faces us in contemporary Britain? Some would say that our society is best considered in multi-faith terms. There has certainly been a significant influx of people of other faiths into the UK, and as a result we now have sizeable Muslim, Sikh and Hindu populations. If this is right, then the task for us, as Christians, is to communicate what faith in the triune God means in comparison to the gods of these other faiths.
In contrast, others would say that we are best characterised as a nation obsessed with spirituality that is usually ill-defined and a bit liberal, but nevertheless open to some vague notion of "god". If this is the true state of affairs, then like Paul in Athens we need to say that this "god" who is known in only the loosest terms has made Himself fully known in Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, a third view holds that the characteristic sensibility of our population is that of atheism or secularism, at least practical atheism. Certainly, the popularity of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion suggests this might be the case. In this scenario, it is not a reformulation of the idea of God that is required so much as persuasion that God actually exists.
Now, if we think of God in the religious categories of a transcendent creator being, then the three frameworks presented above are arguably accurate. However, there is another way to think of God, and that is in terms of where ultimate meaning, purpose and value reside. If we think of "god" in this way, then it seems to me that our society should not be categorised as either multi-faith, spiritual or atheistic, but rather as polytheistic.
Polytheism - the belief in many gods - has, after all, been the predominant form of religious worship across the millennia. The Judaeo-Christian belief in one God is in fact a bit of an exception. And in relation to modern Britain, I would suggest that belief in multiple and competing gods, who promise fulfilment and purpose, is the form of worship that characterises most of our contemporaries.
So we have the "god" of hedonism, which says that the pursuit of pleasure is the only point of life and as a result enslaves people in a lifestyle fuelled by drugs, alcohol or sex. We have the "god" of consumerism, which promises, but never quite delivers, fulfilment in the accumulation of that which has no value, but costs the earth. Or there is the "god" of money or power, driving the workaholic to pursue a dream that is claimed to be for the family, but in reality is merely another form of idolatry.
Of course, in thinking about society like this, we realise that we are not so different to those tolerant Israelites, who allowed the worship of Baal and Asherah to creep into their worship of Yahweh. But we also realise that the challenge facing us is precisely the same that Paul faced as he wandered around Athens and saw their idols to many gods. The interesting thing about Paul is that in his sermon on that occasion (Acts 17.22-31), he preached a message that was directly targeted at the false philosophies, and false gods, he was confronted with in Athens.
Only one God
In the light of all this, and as we reflect on the first clause of our Basis of Faith, it seems to me we have at least three tasks. First, amid the polytheism that tempts us to worship money, goods, sex and power, we need to affirm that there is only one God to be worshipped, that all else are mere idols.
Second, we need to affirm that this God did not remain "high up in the heavens", but rather by His Son and His Spirit came, made Himself known and works within us to transform our lives to those of real fulfilment. Meanwhile, the gods that our culture worships promise satisfaction, but never deliver. Any hope they offer is always deferred, but our God is one who came and lived among us and puts real hope within our hearts (Romans 5.5).
And finally, we need to affirm the way the triune nature of God speaks to us of both His necessary self-sufficiency and His overwhelming grace. God does not need us to love, for in His triune relations He demonstrates perfect love. Yet despite His allsufficiency, He created, came and saved. This demonstrates an abundant grace that, in contrast to the god of consumerism who does nothing but demand, reveals a God who does nothing but give, or as the reformers said - sola gratia: by grace alone.
Our confession of one God in three persons is precisely what a society plagued by polytheistic idolatry needs to hear. That was just as true in Ancient Greece as it is in contemporary Britain.
This new series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to mission. Part of our core identity as evangelicals is our desire to spread the Good News, and I hope this series will both equip us and unite us as we seek to do that, "striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel" (Philippians 1.27).