Images of ‘God’ in Scripture

Regarding the images of God Scripture needs to be read carefully

Traditional Christians sometimes voice objections like this one:

“On all its pages the Old Testament presents God as a living God. God’s name is stated to be: “I AM WHO I AM”: it expresses God’s dynamic presence as someone who saves his people. God is a personal God. “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. God is a God who cares. He listens. He speaks. He guides the course of history (see: Exodus 3,6 and 3,13-15).

In the New Testament Jesus, too, presents God under personal images. He compares God to a landowner, a king, a judge. And mostly he calls him “Dad”, “Father” – with all the connotations of authority, tenderness, parental care and intimate love the title implies. The Aramaic Abba means “Dad”; see Mk 14,36; Rom 8,15; Gal 4,6.

Does all this not show that God is “a person”, in spite of all you have said?

No it does not. It shows that God is personal, not that he/she is a person.

Nowhere in Scripture is God called a person. It is true that many scriptural images reflect the two-tier world view that was prevalent at the time. God is imagined to sit on his throne in his heavenly palace. From there he rules the world, sending his angels to carry messages, unleashing locusts and famine as punishments, and changing the course of a battle when required. Though God is not explicitly referred to as a person, he is undoubtedly presented as if he were a person in the supernatural world.

What we have to remember is that employing such images does not imply that the two-tier world view has to be taken as real. We too cannot help having to imagine God in terms that correspond to our immediate human experience. We may address God as “Almighty God” or “Father” – and imagine him/her in such a human form, without forgetting God’s total otherness.

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Yes, Jesus called God “Father” to articulate his experience of God’s love. And never did he portray this better than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son, you will recall, had demanded his share in the family inheritance. Then he departed for a far country and squandered it all on drink and prostitutes. When he finally returned home, penniless and repentant, he found his father was waiting for him.

While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and felt sorry for him. He hurried to meet him, embraced him and kissed him (see: Luke 15,11-24).

Now John expresses exactly the same when he says: “God is love”. He does not say: “God is a loving person”, but “God is Love itself. God is the source of love. God manifests himself in every act of genuine love” (see: 1 John 4,7-12). Where Jesus uses the image of a person, John points to the underlying suprapersonal Reality.

In spite of using human images about God, Scripture teaches that God remains a mystery. God is a hidden God (see: Judges 13,18; Job 36,26; Isaiah 45,15; Proverbs 30,1-4). And the Fathers of the Church teach the same. “If you think you understand God, it is not God”, St.Augustine said (see: AUGUSTINE, Sermons 52.6.16 and 117.3.5.).

St. Thomas Aquinas, the uncrowned, medieval king of traditional theologians, came to the same conclusion.

“The ultimate reach of our human knowledge of God consists in our acknowledging that we do not know him. For then we realise that what God is, surpasses everything we understand of him.

Our mind arrives at a better understanding of God the more we realise that the nature of God is above all that our mind can grasp in this life.
THOMAS AQUINAS, De Potentia vii, 5, ad 14; In Boethii de Trinitate, 1, 2, ad 1; more in CH.JOURNET, The Dark Knowledge of God, London 1948.).

Whenever we think about God, we have to think in images. Now it is natural for us to use personal images, images which represent God as a Father, a Mother, a King, a Friend, a Judge, a Lover. Scripture employs this language and we may rightly follow this example in our Christian worship. But we always have to remember that they are just images. God is not a human lookalike.

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CREDITS

The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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