|A Study of the Doctrines of the Church of God|
|Part Two: ``... in God the Father Almighty...''|
|by Jared L. Olar|
As explained last time, this survey of the Creed will involve an exploration of the doctrinal articles of the Apostles' Creed, relating each doctrine to the Scriptures as well as to the current and former teachings of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). In the previous installment of our survey, we briefly investigated the origin and development of the Apostles' Creed and of its close cousin the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
One thing that should be readily apparent is that the first three articles of the Apostles' Creed were adapted from the baptismal formula of Matt. 28:19, where Jesus commanded the eleven apostles to ``make disciples out of persons of every nation, baptising them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit.'' Consequently, the first three doctrinal articles of the Apostles' Creed are Father, Son, and holy Spirit. This feature almost certainly was the result of the fact that this Creed had originated from earlier local baptismal creeds. In this installment we shall start at the beginning, with an investigation into ``the name of the Father....'' But before we begin, I will reiterate the warning that I gave in the previous installment: we will have to discuss some controversial issues in this article, so I must ask you to take a thoughtful, patient, and tolerant approach to what you read herein.
``In the beginning God....''
For several reasons, it is very significant that the Apostles' Creed, like the other orthodox and catholic creeds and catechisms that are related to or derived from it, has God in first place. This is in contrast to the majority of evangelical and fundamentalist creeds and confessions of faith, which start with the doctrine of the authority, necessity, and trustworthiness of the Bible-a doctrine often referred to by the Latin term sola scriptura (``the Scriptures alone'')-and only then move on to the doctrine of God. Which should come first-God or the Scriptures? Although the WCG has really never comprehensively and definitively addressed this thorny subject, that does not mean that we have never before had, or do not now have, an effective position on what method is best. As this study proceeds, we will see what we can find out about the position that my church has taken.
At one time I would have sympathised more with the evangelical and fundamentalist approach, but I have since come to see that the older tradition to be found in the orthodox and catholic creeds-wherein the doctrine of God is addressed before all else-is the better method. After all, until one is convinced of the existence of God, telling that person that the Bible is the inspired word of God cannot do any good. Above all, it is important for us to understand that, in the words of the founder of my church Herbert W. Armstrong, the doctrine of God ``is the very starting place for the acquisition of all knowledge. It is the foundation for understanding !'' (Does God Exist?, 1957, 1972, p.1) Even the Ten Commandments start with God's presentation of Himself as the First Priority.
This philosophy parallels that of St. Thomas Aquinas, who commenced his magisterial Summa Theologica by demonstrating the superiority of what he termed ``sacred science'' to all other sciences. Then, after a discussion of the role and proper use of the Scriptures in theology, he immediately set out to demonstrate the existence of God without recourse to the Bible as his authority. As St. Thomas might put it, before we explore the things that make up the articles of faith, we must first read the preambles to the articles. According to Aquinas-and I must join him on this point-the existence of God is not an article of faith at all, but is to be found among the preambles. But let us leave that topic for the time being.
Now, it so happens that to establish the doctrine of God first, and then build all other doctrines upon that one, has traditionally been the method of choice of the WCG under each of her successive Pastors General. At first glance, then, our doctrinal tradition might seem to be close to the ancient tradition of the Creed. This is reflected in Herbert Armstrong's above-cited classic treatise Does God Exist?, which formerly was one of the most promoted pieces of WCG literature, and often one of the first that our prospective baptismal candidates would study. In addition to that treatise, I still recall trying (and, of course, failing) to wrap my teenage mind around the concept of God's eternality and infinity as I would read and re-read Mr. Armstrong's old article ``Has God Eternally Existed?''(1954, 1973). Finally, in Mystery of the Ages (1985), a book that he prepared just before his death as the epitome of his understanding of the Gospel, it is important to note that Mr. Armstrong put the doctrine (or ``mystery,'' as he termed it, drawing on Col. 1:25-26) of God first in order of his seven mysteries.
After the WCG took on the monumental task of re-examining the whole field of theology about 1991 and 1992, an entirely new booklet on this subject was prepared, entitled God IS... (1992, 1993). As might be expected, the re-examination of what we referred to as ``the Nature of God'' was extremely controversial, because it led us to depart from Mr. Armstrong's theological understanding and to adopt the orthodox trinitarian theology of historical Christianity. The topic of the Trinity and the WCG's current and former position regarding it will be addressed in detail in a future installment of this series. In this article, however, we will only touch on certain aspects of that subject. For now, we should note that while this booklet definitively broke with our former theology, nevertheless it is a further example of our reliance on the method of ``God first.'' This method is also reflected in each and every published version of my church's ``Statement of Beliefs'' from 1991 on, where we find the doctrine of God right where it belongs, in first place.
Here, then, is the Worldwide Church of God's current statement on the doctrine of God, as published in The Worldwide News, Sept. 1998, page 14:
``God, by the testimony of Scripture, is one divine Being in three eternal, co-essential, yet distinct Persons-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is the one true God, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient,omnipresent. He is Creator of heaven and earth, Sustainer of the universe, and Source of human salvation. Though transcendent,God has a direct and personal relationship with human beings.God is love and infinite goodness. (Matthew 28:19; Mark 12:29;Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 1:17; I John 4:8; 5:20; Titus 2:11; John16:27; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Corinthians 8:6)''
This doctrinal statement is somewhat different from the one that appeared in the 1991 version, but retains most of the original wording. The most significant difference is, of course, the adoption of explicitly trinitarian theology. As I said above, this is not the place for an extensive discussion of the Trinity. However, it is worth noting that implicit trinitarian theology (already a departure from Mr. Armstrong's God Family theology) was included in our ``Statement of Beliefs'' from the very start, as we see from this passage in the 1991 version:
The reason that our founder had abandoned trinitarianism in the first place is that it is not explicitly and plainly taught in the Scriptures. (It is worth noting that, as was mentioned last time, explicit trinitarianism is also absent from the Apostles' Creed.) The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura has always been a part of WCG belief, and in the past we tried our best to apply that principle as consistently as possible. Our former rejection of trinitarian theology was a consequence of the rigorous application of that principle. Furthermore, this rejection was greatly reinforced by our conviction that the rest of Christianity-mostly trinitarian in its theology-had by and large lost or rejected the proper understanding of the Scriptures.
We should note that the WCG's high esteem for the Bible is reflected by the very words with which we commence our ``Statement of Beliefs''-`` God, by the testimony of Scripture, is....'' This is part of a sentence that declares two things: 1) the WCG subscribes to orthodox trinitarian theology, and 2) the WCG teaches that such theology is the only kind that may properly be extrapolated from holy writ. Paradoxically, our reliance upon the Bible once led us to reject trinitarianism, but now we rely upon the Bible to establish our trinitarian theology. We will explore this seeming paradox in a future installment. For now, please note that we commence our ``Statement of Beliefs'' with the doctrine of God, just as I think is best. Then we cover the doctrines of Jesus Christ and the holy Spirit, and only then come to the doctrine of the holy Scriptures. Yet we allude to our doctrinal position on the Bible at the very start of our ``Statement of Beliefs.'' We see, then, that the WCG admirably seeks to integrate proper reverence for God with its traditional high reverence for the Bible. (Incidentally, it is somewhat puzzling that in this place our``Statement of Beliefs'' calls upon ``the testimony of Scripture,'' but neglects the Old Testament, citing only the New Testament. Perhaps we will rectify this oversight in the future.)
As we have seen, the WCG has in general favored the ``God first'' method, while at the same time placing an extremely heavy emphasis upon the authority of the Scriptures. In the ancient creeds, of course, the Scriptures are not treated in a separate doctrinal article, but are at most mentioned only in passing. Significantly, in the Apostles' Creed the Bible is not so much as mentioned. (Yet the Apostles' Creed is derived from biblical teachings.) Thus, upon closer examination the WCG's doctrinal tradition-like the traditions of other Christian fellowships that have fundamentalist orientations or backgrounds-turns out to be not nearly as close to the ancient tradition of the Creed as it might have seemed. As I have said, I believe the best approach is the one found in the Creed and in our ``Statement of Beliefs''-to focus attention upon the doctrine of God, and only then to treat the subject of the role and authority of the Bible in the life of the Church. But let us leave this subject for now, and turn to a further exploration of the doctrine of God.
Proving God Exists:
To begin at the beginning means to begin with the Beginner. Therefore it follows that one must devote attention to the question of the existence of God. The first edition of God IS... (1992), pages 4-7, contained a discussion of logical proofs of God's existence. Sadly, for some reason this discussion was pared down in the second edition (1993), with the result that it contained no discussion of logical proofs at all. The first edition's discussion entitled ``Some Traditional Arguments for the Existence of God'' (pages 5-6) conveniently presented three logical proofs that God exists.
For our purposes, we do not need to explore these logical proofs, because we who are Christians can no longer be in any doubt as to God's existence. Of course, as our (now out-of-print) booklet God IS... explained, logic and human reason can only take us so far. It is a necessary start, but only divine revelation can enable the human mind to know God in any sort of personal way; that is, to know Him as a Someone rather than a Something. As we read in the Letter to the Hebrews (emphasis added):
The Argument from Design was extrapolated in part from such scriptures as Psa. 19:1-6 and Rom. 1:20, and is perhaps the most popular argument in fundamentalist and evangelical circles these days. It is certainly a favorite weapon in the arsenal of Christian apologists and Creation Scientists in the Evolution vs. Creation Wars. Given the WCG's well-known past opposition to the theory of evolution, it should come as no surprise that we also have favored the Argument from Design-it features prominently in Does God Exist? , and has been used in innumerable anti-evolution articles in our magazines The Plain Truth and Tomorrow's World. We in the WCG have certainly known and appreciated God as the Designer, Creator, and Sustainer of the universe.
These attributes of God are not explicitly mentioned in the older form of the Apostles' Creed. However, they frequently appeared in the confessions of faith of the early Church Fathers, and consequently were inserted into the later form(s) of the Apostles' Creed and included in the Nicene Creed. This addition to the Creed was made necessary by doctrinal controversies of the second century. In those days, the Gnostics and Marcionites promulgated the false and anti-Semitic doctrine that God the Father was not the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Rather, these groups asserted that the material universe was created by an ignorant and evil spirit being. In effect, what their teaching amounted to was a claim that the God of Israel was in reality not the Supreme God at all, but instead was the one whom Jews and Christians have named Satan the Devil. The Church of God has from the very start taught and believed that God the Father is the Creator, but this controversy with the Gnostics and Marcionites made it necessary for the Church to require baptismal candidates to affirm explicitly that the Father is the Creator of all that exists. Hence the addition of the words ``maker of heaven and earth'' to the Apostles' Creed.
It is evident, then, that the first article of the Creed-that God the Father is the ``maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible''-is based upon teachings found in the introductory chapters of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John. The WCG's longtime emphasis upon God as Creator, and traditional opposition to evolution, reflects our effective acceptance of the doctrines taught in the first articles of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. This acceptance was made explicit by the inclusion of the doctrine of God as Creator in our ``Statement of Beliefs.'' However, thinking of God as Creator points us to the second element of this doctrinal article of the Apostles' Creed: the Fatherhood of God.
The Fatherhood of God Almighty in Israelite and Christian Tradition:
The Holy One of Israel revealed Himself to His People, and in response was addressed by them, under numerous names and titles. One of those names was El Shaddai, which is traditionally rendered as ``God Almighty'' (Gen. 28:3; Ex. 6:3; cf. Job 21:14-15). However, in the first article of the Apostles' Creed we find Him with the title of ``God the Father Almighty.'' Not just ``Almighty,'' but ``the Father Almighty.'' God's omnipotence is overawing, even terrifying-and when we witness or experience sin and suffering, His omnipotence is frustrating or perplexing, for then we wonder why He does not intervene to deliver us.
Speaking from personal experience, in the history of the WCG many of our members seem not to have understood God's infinite attributes. We have always known that He is almighty, that nothing is impossible for Him. We knew He is eternal. Yet we also had trouble understanding His omnipresence-for we taught that He has shape and form similar to our own, and that God's throne has a fixed location. In addition, we talked and thought about God's Plan, His Mind, and the decisions that He makes in a literal fashion-as though God, like us, exists entirely within Time. There is no shame in failing to understand God's infinity-if it were humanly possible to understand it perfectly, we would be equal to if not greater than God. We always knew God was the Greatest, but many of us have begun to comprehend that God is far greater than we can possibly comprehend. Meditate upon the truths that are taught in Job 26:5-14, Isa. 55:8-9, and Ex. 33:18-23; 34:5-7, and I think you will begin to understand what I mean. Truly, God is the Almighty.
Yet this doctrinal article of the Creed that we have been studying insists that God is not merely a transcendent all-powerful divinity holding the power of life and death-He surely is all of that and more. No, the Holy One of Israel is also ``the Father.'' This means that God is a divine parent-someone with absolute authority over us, but also someone who loves and takes care of and provides for us. As a matter of fact, these personal attributes of God the Father may well be detected in His title ``Almighty.'' The Hebrew word Shaddai , traditionally rendered as``Almighty'' or ``omnipotent,'' is related to the Hebrew word meaning ``breasts.'' Therefore, the divine name Shaddai would present God as the supreme Source of everything that we need, nurturing us and caring for us the waya mother nuzzles her baby to her breast (cf. Psa. 131).
I especially want to mention these things, because we Christians need to realise that the Father is not an exclusively masculine God. Yes, He is all-powerful, but His power is not for macho display, but to nurture and provide for His loved ones. Christians know that Jesus instructed His disciples to direct their prayers to ``Our Father who is in heaven''(Matt. 6:9), and to baptise into the Name of the Father-but that is certainlynot a theological justification for male oppression of women, or an indication that men are somehow closer to the image of God than women are. Whenever we men are tempted to use the doctrine of God the Father as a boost to the male ego, it would do us good to remember that when our Father seeks to teach us of His omnipotence, He often uses quintessentially female and maternal imagery.
The Judaeo-Christian doctrine of the Fatherhood of God has had far-reaching influence on our civilisation. In modern times it has not been uncommon to hear preachers and politicians draw on the concept of the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man. As common descendants of the first human being Adam, who was shaped out of the soil by God, the entire human race can and should claim God, who is our Maker and the Giver of Life, as our Father (Psa. 82:6-7; Luke 3:38; Acts 17:28-29; cf. Gen. 1:26-27 and Gen. 5:3). That is to say, because (as we read in the first two chapters of Genesis) God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Provider of all that exists, and the very Source of Life, that means He is in the truest sense ``Our Father who is in heaven'' (Eph. 3:14-15). Thus, we might say that the Apostles' Creed implicitly includes the doctrine of God as Creator under the very title of ``the Father Almighty.''
However, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures go far beyond this bald assertion that we are all the children of God, made in His image. The prophets taught that the Chosen People of Israel were in a special and unique way God's Sons. For instance, in a prophecy written in the 700s B.C., Hosea used parental language to describe the way God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt-``Out of Egypt I called My Son....I taught Ephraim how to walk....''(Hos. 11:1-4), ``... it shall be said to them, `You are the Sons of the Living God.'''(Hos. 1:10). At about the same time or not long after, Isaiah wrote the words of this prophecy, which portrays God's People declaring:
We see, then, that this Hebrew tradition emphasises that God's Chosen People are His Children in a way that goes much farther than the common belief that we humans are all God's Children. In the Christian Scriptures, this identification of God as the Father of His People carries over from the Old Covenant to the New. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Gentile converts at Corinth:
In WCG doctrinal tradition, this aspect of God's Fatherhood was reflected in several ways. Our interest in the history and prophecies pertaining to Israel, especially the Lost Ten Tribes, testified to our knowledge of Israel's uniqueness and ``chosen-ness.'' We also have long understood, even if imperfectly, that there is both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the Church. This is why we distinguished between those of us who were (or were at least thought to be) physical Israelites and those who were physical Gentiles but by Christian conversion had become spiritual Israelites. We knew that to be an Israelite physically was of itself insufficient (Rom. 2:28-29), even though it carried with it special blessings(Rom. 3:1-2).
Again, our old God Family theology greatly emphasised-unfortunately, to the point of unintentional distortion-the biblical teaching that Christians are begotten Sons and Daughters of God, in the very Family of God. The Bible uses high and stupendously lofty language to describe both our current state and our ultimate destiny, so I think it is very understandable that we slightly exaggerated ``the incredible human potential.''Our destiny may not be quite so great as we in the WCG once believed (i.e., literal divinity), but God assures us that our destiny is greater than we can possibly imagine (i.e., virtual divinity).
Finally, as a measure of our reverence for God the Father (and for the Scriptures He has inspired), it should be recalled that we interpreted Jesus' instructions to ``call no man your father'' in a somewhat literal sense, renouncing the use of ``Father'' as a title of our ordained clergy. In all of these ways we have long affirmed and understood the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God.
There is still, however, one more aspect of this doctrine to be discussed-the most important aspect of all.
``Lord, show us the Father....''
We have learned that although all humans may justly call God ``Father,'' in truth those whom God chooses to become members of His holy Family have a greater right to address Him as ``Our Father who is in heaven.'' However, there is One who has an even greater right to say that God is His Father: the Messiah, the Son of God (II Sam. 7:14; Psa. 2:7; Matt. 3:17). In Christian doctrine, the Fatherhood of God is not associated merely with the fact that He is the One who gave life to the human race. Nor is God's Fatherhood associated merely with the fact that He gives eternal life to the Children He has redeemed. First and foremost Christian doctrine ties God's Fatherhood to the fact that He is the Father of the Logos, the ``Word'' of God who was incarnated as the man Jesus.
Please forgive my jumping ahead to a subject that perhaps more properly belongs to (and will, of course, receive a much more extensive treatment in) the next installment in this series. You may have noticed that in the course of this discussion I have had to mention or allude to several other doctrines. The subject at hand is an excellent illustration of the principle that each doctrine touches in some way, or overlaps with, every other doctrine.
In this context, I would like to draw our attention to the biblical doctrine of God the Father's inaccessibility. This doctrine is taught in such passages as Ex. 30:20, I Kings 8:12, and I Tim. 6:15-16. However, in John 1:18 and Matt. 11:27 we read that the inaccessible Father has been, or can only be, made known to us by and through the Son of God.
At one time the inaccessibility of God the Father was, very appropriately, a prominent theme of WCG theology. When we studied scriptures such as those cited above, we came to the conclusion that prior to the coming of Christ God the Father had never directly involved Himself in the affairs of the created order. Rather, before the birth of Jesus, it was God's Logos who dealt with the human race. As we understood the biblical testimony, the Pre-Incarnate Jesus Christ-not God the Father-was the God of the Old Testament, so that no one really had an inkling that there was any distinction between `God the Father' and the One they knew as `God.' (Of course, our old explanation mentioned here could be seen as at least an implicit contradiction of the Creed's identification of El Shaddai as the Father.)
We have since learned that we took too literal an approach to the relevant scriptural passages dealing with God the Father's inaccessibility. Our former explanation did not go far enough. Jesus did not come merely to bring a message explaining that the Father had never before directly involved Himself in our affairs, that the One we thought was the Father was actually the Logos. No, God's People knew about God the Father long before He sent us His Son. Rather, the Son of God came so that we may not only ``know about'' the Father, but may actually ``get to know'' Him-that is, enter into a deep and vital relationship with Him.
Because we humans are finite beings, and subject to sin, such a relationship is impossible. However, the infinite Logos came down from heaven and built a finite, fleshly tabernacle-and through that flesh He overcame our fleshly and sinful limitations, as truly only God Incarnate could ever do. Because of the Messiah Jesus, our sins can be taken away, no longer a barrier separating us from God. And because the Father and the Son are One (John 10:30; 14:6-14), when we enter into a relationship with the Incarnate Word, that means we finite human beings can against all logic and every law of physics actually have fellowship with the infinite Father.
This has important consequences for the doctrine that God's People are the Children of God-for the only way to become a Son or Daughter of God is to become a younger Brother or Sister of the Messiah (Matt. 12:50; John 14:6). And we will never even desire such a thing unless the Father first gives us that desire, and opens the mind and the heart that God has allowed Satan to close (John 6:44). Once that has happened, we are able to begin to find out what our Father is like by getting to know His Son-because the Son is, more than any other human could possibly be, the very image of the Father (Heb. 1:1-3; John 14:7-9). If we want to see the Father, all we need to do is look at the Son.
This in turn has important consequences for the doctrine that all humans are Children of God, made in His image. Our ancestor Adam was made in God's own image, but lost the divine image because of his sin. However, the Second Adam is not only a human made in God's image, but is Himself the very image of God in which Adam had originally been made. Therefore, if we humans are ever to recover from the catastrophe in Eden and regain the divine image, we will have to be refashioned in the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Here, then, is the final and most important aspect of the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God: the Son of God is One with God the Father. In a very important sense, the Messiah is the Father (Isa. 9:6; 53:10; cf. John 14:13-14 and Matt. 6:9). Writing about the middle of the second century A.D., Melito of Sardis said of Jesus that ``inasmuch as He begets, He is Father; inasmuch as He is begotten, He is Son.'' I do not pretend to understand all of these things, or claim to know how they can all be possible. But, by the Father's grace, I have the eyes to see that it is all true. Therefore, I most gladly declare my agreement with the tradition found in the Scriptures, in the Creed, and in the doctrines of my church: I believe in God the Father Almighty.
To be continued....
|WHO ARE WE?|
Grace and Knowledge is edited and published by a group of longtime active members of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). We heartily endorse our church's Christ-centered focus; its rejection of exclusivism and legalism, both actual and implicit; ts acceptance of the essentials of historic Christianity; and its participation in the work ofthe broader Christian community.
Here in the pages of Grace and Knowledge, we consider many biblical, historical, and Christian living issues in light of the things we have been learning, individually and collectively, in recent years.We strive to use our gifts for teaching and writing to encourage and edify our brethren.
Unlike those who would have us quickly abandon much of what we havebelieved and practiced in the past,we would like to promote the development of a distinctive WCG theology,combining the best of old and new. In particular, we believe that with legalism and error removed, the great value and meaning of the Sabbath and annual Hebrew festivals shine through more clearly than ever. Without apology, we will joyfully celebrate here the special culture and wholesome traditions of the WCG.
In all of our articles, we aim for a balanced approach. A motto that has often been repeated in our church over the past few years is: ``In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; andin all things, charity.'' We endeavor to put this motto into practice in Grace and Knowledge.
We would love to hear from you, our readers, about what you think of our magazine so far and what topics you would enjoy reading about in future issues.We also invite you to submit articles and inspiring personal testimonies. You can reach us via regular mail or email at any of the addresses listed on the inside front cover of this issue.