“The Doctrine Of God” - Reviewing John C. Peckham’s Latest Book

There are at least two recurrent motives under which we postpone, and even overlook, the possibility of reshaping our understanding of God. First, because it’s certainly not the easiest of human endeavours. When we try to know God better, we’re immediately confronted with the complexity of cross-correlated issues involving, on one side, God and the mystery that surrounds His Being and Actions, and on the other side the insurmountable limits of human understanding. Second, because we often conclude that complication in our spiritual journey can’t be attributed to God or the image we have of Him, it must instead be linked to our human limitations. The logical conclusion then, of all this reasoning, is that we are certainly the problem, not God.

Consequently the “Anthropology of God”, not “Theology of God”, needs to be assessed, corrected and refined. Concerning God, it’s supposedly true that all is settled forever – particularly if we think our ideas on Him are based in the Bible. And precisely because He is a Bible-based God, then once we got Him “right”, that understanding will always be right. But in this rapid and superficial conclusion are hidden two flawed presuppositions. First, the pretension to have correctly understood the whole Bible. Second, the firm conviction that the Bible tells everything about God. On one hand we put ourselves above the Bible and on the other hand we place the Bible above God himself. These are two typical protestant impairments and risks. For this reason, today’s Protestant “Pragmatic-Reductive Bibliocentrism” and its implicit correlate “Religious-Efficient Anthropocentrism”, are two primary mechanisms which often prevent we Adventists to update the understanding and image we have of God.

The paradox is that this way of doing theology keeps shaping our faith experience and determining the trend, nature and rhythm of our religious life and behaviour. This pragmatism of faith easily ends up compromising and deforming the development of faith itself, a development that should always presuppose a provisional understanding of God. Every theology in general, and any Theology of God in particular, is and always should be a “Theologia Viatorum” (Theology on the way). The fact that God blesses and answers us at the moment of our baptism or our “first-love religious experience” doesn’t mean that all our ideas of God are necessarily correct. God accepts and blesses us often in spite of the various wrong ideas we have of Him. Our ideas on God, individually and as a community, are extremely precious and necessary because only through them do we reach God. But they are not God, thus are not infallible and even less, sacred. Particularly because our ideas of God are supposedly based on the Bible, they need to be continually assessed and updated.

These thoughts are an extension of the persuasive message of John C. Peckham’s latest book “The Doctrine of God. Introducing the Big Questions” (T&T Clark, 2020). Peckham’s book is helpful because it reminds us that the primary role of any theology is two-dimensional, and its implicit and beneficial tension is difficult to preserve and keep alive. On one dimension there is theology only when we dare to “Think God”. This represents the pro-active and courageous attitude of a healthy theology. One that does not avoid, postpone or simply repeat, but rather that which dares to “Think God” anew. But on the other dimension there is theology only when we renounce the idea that we can actually think about God exhaustively. This represents the pro-contemplative, humble and dialogical attitude of a healthy theology. In other words, we can deform theology “by deficit” when we don’t think about God often enough, or “by excess” when we believe what we think about God is always right.

Three Helpful Contributions of the Book

1) This is a “pedagogical and formative” book on the Doctrine of God. It’s pedagogical for the method it uses. The information is gradual, sequential and organized. Without being exhaustive this text is nevertheless complete enough to perceive the important nodes and major challenges of the past and present concerning the Doctrine of God. But the pedagogical dimension is also perceived in the language used. The descriptions are always clear, condensed and essential without becoming trivial and schematic. And they are also always traced back to the same words of the authors quoted. Finally the book is pedagogical for its organization, which includes additional sections for complementary “study questions”, “suggestions for further reading” and a selected bibliography of the past and present, with a particular focus on contemporary sources.

2) This book offers a “synoptic description” of the Doctrine of God developed through history up until now. There is an analytical synopsis and theological definition of the main categories implied in the study of God, such as “divine perfection”, “necessity”, “pure aseity”, “self-sufficiency”, “strict simplicity”, “eternity”, “immutability”, “impassibility”, “omnipotence” and “omniscience”. It also offers a helpful synthetic synopsis of the main positions taken by various authors with reference to the previous categories, dividing them into three big groups. First, “Classical Christian Theism” which maintains an unqualified Creator-creature distinction, and whose main characteristic is certainly the affirmation of God’s timeless Eternity and the consequent absolutization and hardening of God’s attributes. Second, “Modified Classical Christian Theism” a theological correction which consists of affirming God’s involvement in Time, and the correspondent mitigation of God’s attributes without compromising God’s complete omniscience and omnipotence over all creatures, times and places. Here God appears more dialogical with humankind but always acts according to his sovereign Knowledge and Will. Third, “Revised Classical Christian Theism” which goes a bit further in mitigating and even limiting God’s attributes in making them really relational to the world and to humanity. God’s knowledge here is limited by time and God’s power is limited by the choices and actions of his creatures. Within these three groups there still exists a vast range of differentiated positions and assumptions which must not be overlooked.

3) This book also articulates a “balanced endeavor of theological ‘aggiornamento’ (update)”. It starts with the selection of six classical topics on the Doctrine of God but, while using the classical categories, nevertheless makes their actuality and religious relevance through contemporary wording and expressions: God’s Emotions, Temporal Openness, Dialogical Knowledge, Inter-activity, Emphatic Goodness and Differentiated Personality. Subsequently the book elaborates a reflection on the biblical data in accordance with the topic, avoiding, on one side the dispersion of heterogeneous multiple-quotations, and on the other side avoiding the typical Adventist temptation of attributing to the Bible a monolithic view. Peckham’s mature hermeneutic approach to the Bible doesn’t take the material as “proof texts” but as the dynamism of their theological orientation. But the most important theological contribution of the book is the implicit acknowledgment of the legitimate plurality of views of God within the Bible itself, as well as outside the Bible in the broad religious and theological Christian scenario, which would include the Adventist world. And the correlate conclusion of this acknowledgment is the necessary complementary dialogical attitude of any theology (including Adventist theology). Any isolated theology is wrong, not because it’s necessarily false, but because even if true it is necessarily partial.

Three Critical Considerations of the Book

How seriously does Peckham consider the dialogical attitude he implicitly presupposes as necessary to the theological endeavor? Formally he does; substantially it is less evident. For the Doctrine of God he quotes and dialogues with the various schools and authors. But Peckham is more descriptive than prescriptive to the point that it becomes difficult to perceive his own position. This gives the impression that the book is inclusive and dialogical. But actually it is not that much. And this depends on Peckham’s main theological structure and horizon. In fact his “Canonical Theology” perspective tends structurally on one side to overestimate the biblical contribution and on the other side to underestimate the relevance of extra-biblical socio-cultural reality. He extends a close and self-referential “Sola Scriptura” paradigm that he terms “Canonical”, from the “Bible” to “Theology”, eventually building up a self-referential theology. Actually, for the question of God he completely overlooks the fact that the psychological, ecclesiological and socio-cultural components may be more determinant in shaping our image of God. And also that our supposedly direct and objectively biblical and theological reflections are, since the very beginning, mediated by three extra-biblical elements. I’ll briefly describe each of them.

1) The “psychological component” in our understanding of God, as for instance described by the psychoanalyst Anna-Maria Rizzuto, is antecedent to any rational, ethical or theological orientation. Utilizing both clinical material and theoretical insights from the works of Freud, Erikson, Fairbairn and Winnicott, Rizzo examines the origin, development and use of our God images. These are highly personalized and idiosyncratic representations of God derived from our object relations, our evolving self-representations and our environmental beliefs. Once formed, such complex representations of God cannot be made to disappear; they can only be repressed, sublimated or re-oriented. These God images accompany us our whole life and influence and somewhat pre-determine our theological and doctrinal options about God.

2) The “ecclesiological component” in our understanding of God is much more determinant than what we usually believe it is. It too-often tends to firmly decide our reading of the Bible, our theology and even our personal religious imagination of God. At a certain point our image of God gets fused with the confessional image of the God of our Church. This overlapping is inevitable, and perhaps even necessary and helpful. But when it becomes a total and irreversible fusion which doesn’t allow us to differentiate between what is confessional and what is the reality of God Himself, then we incur a process of ideologization and idolatry. And the confessional God of Adventism is shaped in the image of a pragmatic, rational and coherent God that precedes our reading of the Bible. And then our reading just confirms and frames it.

3) The impact of the “socio-cultural component” in our understanding of God is even more drastic because it goes beyond our control and precedes our awareness. Both our mother-tongue (English, Spanish, etc.) and our native socio-cultural context, precedes the personal use we can make of them. And socio-culturally speaking, the pre-modern understanding of God as “Supreme Being” presupposed a stable world. But we have substituted a modern and post-modern understanding of God as “Absolute Subject” which presupposes a moving and changing world. And the various and even opposite theological options of God-understanding tend to be just expressions of this main cultural orientation.

Peckham’s theological endeavor is too dependent on an objective, rational and biblical paradigm. And this book is proof. It compels him to move almost exclusively in the dimension of “Truth”. But even theologically speaking what is “True” can paradoxically and easily become destructive and alienating. We have abundant historical evidences for that. A noble and wise theology must also learn to be “Healthy”. And in order to become “Healthy” we need to include subjective, anthropological, sociological and cultural elements in our theology, and particularly develop empathy and attention for what is outside the Bible.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Book cover image courtesy of T&T Clark.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10014
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It sounds like the *via negativa is the preferred method for speaking about God, or am I reading too much into your critique?

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A theology of God, “even if true it is necessarily partial.” That, I believe, is an understatement. We, together with the Bible writers, struggle to describe God. Everyone has resorted to metaphors. God is spirit (breath or wind), a father, a son, a male, a chief, a warrior, a councilor, a king, tongues of fire, a bright light called shekinah, a still small voice or whisper, one who sits and flies and runs and walks and talks and has a shoulder blade, eyes and “back parts” (Ex 33:23) although Moses didn’t describe whether or not they were clothed or unclothed. Try Ezekiel chapter 1 for a most confusing description of God by a prophet who is struggling to describe the indescribable.
Was it Thomas Aquinas who said, “The height of knowledge is to know that we do not know Him.” Similarly, Augustine said something like, “If you think you understand God it is because you mistook something else for God.” Yes, James, I believe the writer is on the track of “via negativa.”

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Descriptions of things, undetectable by our senses, are totally subjective. Perhaps, as Christians (followers of Christ), we might get a clue from Christ?

Another theological digression to complicate matters as most theologians do.
The problem is that humans are LAW trashing GOD haters. (Rom 8:7) and are given over to all kinds of idolatry. In SDA circles, the idols are the church institution, EG White,money, blood of Jesus, self,or a God who is soft on sin.

Every time I read one of Hanz’ diatribes I can’t help but feel completely amazed and dismayed at the fact that he is the Chair of systematic theology of an SDA faculty (or any other Christian school for that matter). It is little wonder “common” believers are so confused. To rephrase his paradox, if “theological truth” can become destructive, why do we need theology?

We can’t “know” God any more that we can become God, we are simply that far apart, but the Bible tells us that an Infinite loving God knowing this before the foundation of world changed Himself by bringing forth His Son to communicate with us, show us who God is and die for us so we may live – EGW tells us that even the angels did not understand this purpose (clearly Lucifer and one third of all the heavenly host did not).

If theology can’t define truth how can it define “healthy”? Hans’ invitation seems an invitation to define our “own truth” and own god. On this one I say Thank you Hans, but no thank you. I rather stick to the simplicity of Jesus’ words when He said: Joh 8:32: And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Which God are we talking about? I assume we’re defining the Christian God. If so, then Jesus defines God for us. The Hebrew God is not the same God Jesus asked us to pray to, as “our Father…”. This
takes God out of the “sanctuary” - the burning bush - and Ezekiel’s encounter. The Hebrews didn’t even say the name, while Jesus gives us an intimate relationship with “our heavenly Father”. We are the ones trying to fit God into a “theology” and creating a "doctrine"n of God.

“Which God are we talking about?” I was talking about the Hebrew God and the Christian God. My point was simply that both Hebrew and Christian writers have to, of necessity, use metaphors. As you mention, Jesus used metaphor with the term “Father.” He also used the metaphor “Comforter.” He did not dispute John the Baptist’s metaphor, “Behold the Lamb of God.” When all the metaphors are collected together, both Hebrew and Christian, we still have to admit we know very little about God. Some profess to know a great deal about God. For instance, it is said God is omnipresent but we haven’t been everywhere to discover if that is true. It is said God is omniscient but we ourselves would have to be omniscient to prove that. Both Hebrew and Christian religions are exercises of faith, not proof, faith that is supported by some evidence but not conclusive evidence.

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Thanks Dr. Gutierrez for another rich piece that should certainly stimulate our thinking and help us to keep in mind that God is always far bigger than our human brains can conceive.

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…and I would say all the rest of them as well. Even though Jesus was culturally and theologically Hebrew, His mission seems to have been to change the “doctrine” of God. Nowhere in the OT does God get to be defined as “Father”, and even less as “Abba”.

The Christian definition of God is totally different from the Hebrew, as to His relationship with man. Jesus came to correct God’s image (yes, a matter of faith). The references for Christ in the OT are read back, into the OT texts. No one, at least not the Hebrews, were able to find the FATHER in their scriptures. The book of Hebrews introduces the NT God to the Hebrew people.

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Hebrews would also assist Jewish believers [and non-believers] to
the loss of the Temple and find comfort and blessing in the NOW
Synagogue style of worshiping and with “Rabbi” leadership that
developed after 70 a.d.

I’m always incredibly perplexed by evangelical-type theologians who attempt to stick with a “sola scriptura” model for addressing big questions like who/what God is. Isn’t it evident that we all have a concept of God that exists as a precondition for our acceptance of the Bible as testimony to God?

The following analogy is useful: When I receive a letter from a friend, I judge that letter to be an authentic letter if it corresponds to what I know about that friend previously. Of course, I learn some new things about the friend from the letter. But I would never reduce my friend to her/his letter.

Isn’t that what we do when we say “the Bible only!” in our theology of God?

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What is your approach to a theology of God? Hopefully, you’ll read this before the topic will close :smiley:

I thought there was only one God? Of course that’s not exactly biblical…

There are QUOTATION MARKS in the Bible of what God is declared
to have said from His mouth to our ears.
But these are FEW compared to all the other words in the 66 Books.
[Remember they are 66 Books in a Library, NOT a continuum.]
Most of the rest of the 66 Books are thoughts about God by humans.
Notice the GREAT DIFFICULTY they have of describing their thoughts
about WHO God is, WHERE God lives. Heaven BEGAN at the top of
one’s feet and went all the way to the “Dome” above the earth.
Writers said God was above the “Dome”, Was in the bottom [floor] of
the sea if they were there, Was in the grave with them, Was in the
Sanctuary – the portable one, and later in Solomon’s Temple.
Trying to Comprehend HOW God could be everywhere.
It has been 3500 years, and WE STILL ask the SAME QUESTIONS
they did over 3500 years ago. Coming up with the SAME answers!!
All we have are NEW words about God.
We can relate to God as “Our Father”.
We have a “brother” – Human Jesus, God Christ
We have the “spirit” of the Old Testament who is NOW an actual Person
we can also talk to and relate to like we do “Our Father” and “our Brother”.
There ARE angels we can talk to. [By the way MY ANGEL is a Great
Master Plumber!!!]

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