More often than not, it seems, those that profess Christianity and adhere to the Christian God go one to claim that ‘knowing’ God comes through personal experience. My stance is that if you claim to know the Christian God, and further claim the name of Christian, then you must know Him fully through the Scriptures which tell of the Christian God. I have not yet had the time to write anything, so when I across this article, I found it well worth the read.
I believe that to know the God of the Bible, one must have more then an impression through personal experience. They must have a personal encounter through the miracle of God’s call. (But it does not end there)
This post is for discussion.
This essay demonstrates an if-then proposition: If God is the God of orthodox Christian theology, then God can only be known in a miraculous encounter. The essay begins with an assumption. It does not prove its premise, the existence of God as defined by the trinitarian and incarnational propositions of the Creeds. The first step is to define “miraculous encounter.”
Let the notion “encounter” be defined as an experience of God in which God actually speaks or becomes visible in some rather tangible form. A miraculous encounter would then be an encounter in which God has effects on those who encounter him, the effects of his words or appearances. Further, for these effects to be miraculous, they must be inexplicable by the temporal and causal categories used to understand other events in this world. The definition does not say that the effects created by the God in the event of encounter may perhaps be understood when our knowledge becomes greater. Rather, the definition states that knowing God entails effects on the world, understood as caused by an encounter with God, and these effects can never be understood by ordinary categories relating them to other worldly events, regardless of the depth of our knowledge.(2)
Let us assume the contrary to what is claimed, that the Christian God can be known apart from miraculous encounter. This could happen in two ways. First, God could be known without miracles. Secondly, God could be known with miracles and without personal encounter. These two alternatives will be shown to contradict Christian orthodoxy, leaving God only known by personal encounter with miracle. Then, to establish that final alternative biblically, Isaiah 6 will be discussed.
Knowing God without Miracle
Orthodox Christian theology holds that God is transcendent where transcendent means a God who is utterly different from the world. This is affirmed in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” A God who creates out of nothing is utterly transcendent since no finite power is able to create out of nothing. Further, according to orthodoxy, the transcendent God reveals himself so that he can be known. Let us then begin with the notion of God’s transcendence, and further assume that this transcendent God can be known.
Let us assume the contrary of what is to be demonstrated, i.e., there is a transcendent God who has revealed himself and yet does no miracles. Without miracle, this would imply that the knowledge of a transcendent God would be limited to two ways. The first would be knowledge of God without personal encounter and without miracle. The second would be knowledge of God with personal encounter and without miracle. In regard to the first alternative, the classical way that God has been known apart from personal encounter and miracle is through inference from the world to God. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God are an example. In regard to the second alternative, knowing God by encounter apart from miracle, this essay will show that this implies an experience of God in which the distinction between self and non-self vanishes as in the mystical One.
There might, however, be a third way of knowing the Christian God as transcendent without miracle. This would be a mixture of the two ways just mentioned, a mixture of direct mystical vision or inferential insight. But this possibility implies the validity of mystical vision and logical inference. If these are not valid, then any method composed of their mixture would seemingly be invalid as well. Therefore, let us restrict ourselves to only two non-miraculous alternatives, the mystical encounter with God or inferential insight. We begin with the latter.
God’s Transcendence Known by Inference
If one begins with the world, or an aspect of it, and infers God, then this God must have certain qualities or properties, for if not, God is completely unknown. Whatever properties this God has were derived by inference, and inference can only infer properties that were inherent in its starting point. For example, if one begins with ideas in the mind and deduces the eternal forms of the good, the true, and the beautiful, these eternal forms have qualities similar to our ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, except raised to an ultimate as eternal forms. Or, if one begins with matter as affected by causes, and argues backwards to prior causes, and then back to God as uncaused Cause, then God is a cause like other causes, except raised to the status of a primordial uncaused cause. In both cases, and in general, the properties derived from inference must be inherent in the reality from which one infers since true inference will not add properties without evidence. In other words, if one begins with the world, or an aspect thereof, the properties of the God one infers from the world must be similar to the properties found in the world. In that case, the God known by inference is similar to the world, and this violates the assumption of transcendence since transcendence implies a God utterly different from the world.
Hume has argued these matters quite well, and there is no need to repeat his arguments in detail. He summed up the matter with these words:
You persist in imagining, that, if we grant that divine existence, for which you so earnestly contend, you may safely infer consequences from it, and add something to the experienced order of nature, by arguing from the attributes which you ascribe to your gods. You seem not to remember, that all your reasonings on this subject can only be drawn from effects to causes; and that every argument, deducted from causes to effects, must of necessity be a gross sophism; since it is impossible for you to know anything of the cause, but what you have antecedently, not inferred, but discover to the full, in the effect.(3)
Let us take one example of an argument that Hume would reject, the existence of the Christian God inferred from the design of the universe. The classic example is a person who discovers a watch, wonderfully made, and then infers the existence of a watchmaker. This argument is often advanced to show the existence of a God who created the wondrously ordered universe. The argument is based on an analogy, watch is to human creator as universe is to God. Humans, however, only create from existing matter, and if the analogy holds, one can only infer that God created from prior existing matter, not that God created out of nothing as in Christian orthodoxy. For example, one could, perhaps, infer the Platonic account, that a Demiurge worked upon a pre-existent chaotic matter in accord with the eternal forms, granting the world its amazing intelligibility. This, however, is not the Christian God. In short, the God of intelligent design is not the Christian God because inference from the world cannot logically lead to creation ex nihilo.
Furthermore, the argument from intelligent design does not really include certain significant facts. A man finds a watch, wonderfully made, and picks it up. After an initial moment of wonder and awe, he hears a little click. To his horror and shock, a small, barbed blade is ejected from the watch, entering his body. He tries in vain to extricate the barbs, but little by little, a strange infection sets in and he slowly dies. This is a more accurate picture of life in this world, and if we infer a divine watchmaker from these facts, then God is a sadist, or at best, a mixture of good and evil. The Christian doctrine of creation denies that the evil in the world has its origin in God, although inference would surely suggest that is the case. In short, arguments from intelligent design will probably only convince those who already have the Christian picture in their heads and only need a few suggestions. We now consider the possibility that the Christian God can be known without miracle and by direct encounter.
God’s Transcendence Known by Immediate Insight
Suppose the mind or soul had a personal encounter with a transcendent God where “personal encounter” has been defined as an event “in which God actually speaks or becomes visible in some rather tangible form.” Further, assume this encounter is not miraculous. If a person who heard or saw God reached the conclusion that God was transcendent, then God must have had effects on the person seeing or hearing him, for if there were no effects, then the person would know nothing of God, not even that God was transcendent. Whether these effects can ever be understood in temporal categories will be discussed shortly. But assuming they cannot, then God was known by the definition of miraculous encounter given earlier and our conclusion was demonstrated.
This line of reasoning, however, assumed that the encounter with God had effects. There might be experiences of the divine, a form of personal encounter, without effects. An effect occurs when something impacts something else. To encounter God without effects is to experience a reality that isn’t objective, something that isn’t over against the self. In this case, the encounter takes place beyond what theologian Paul Tillich calls the subject/object split. In other words, within the encounter, there is no difference between the God who is known and the self which knows. All is one, incomprehensible reality. Under these conditions, the One fuses with the many, the All with the Nothing. This is the monist vision of God. This monist mystical vision is devoid of effects since the self is one with the “thing” experienced, so that there is no “thing” to have effects on the “self.”
Since language refers to distinct objects in relation, the mystical monist vision will have to be described in a series of paradoxical statements. A good example can be taken from the Gita. At one point, Arjuna asked to know Krishna’s “unnumbered forms,” and Krishna responded with a manifestation. This manifestation revealed Krishna as all things, the shining sun, the dappled moon, the skies, the mind, prayers, tigers, alphabetic letters, fame and fortune, silence and speech, all things in one vast mystic unity. It is not enough to say that Krishna is all things; that would define the incomprehensible as the universe itself. It must also be said that Krishna is also “I, who am all, and made it all, abode its separate Lord.”(4) In other words, Krishna is all, yet creates all, yet is separate from all, so that in the end, the mystic vision will see Krishna in all possible relations to all things — the mystic one, the many as one, the one in, from, through, and beyond the many. The one even becomes the end of the many, the destroyer of all things. From this point of view it could be said that the vision of Krishna had effects on Arjuna, yet Krishna did not have effects since Krishna was Arjuna and all things besides. Whatever happened, it cannot equivocally be said that Krishna had effects on Arjuna, since, in the end, Krishna and Arjuna were not distinguished.
The monist view, however, is not the orthodox Christian view. For orthodoxy, God is distinct from the self, nor is God the world. The biblical God never says, “I, who am all, …” Nor is a miracle required to understand the monist mystical experience. For whatever reason, the soul simply dissolves and becomes one with all things. When all is one, time, effects, and causes, and personal encounter between distinct selves disappear into the silent moment of eternity. This is the theological approach of Schleiermacher the father of liberal theology. He puts it quite nicely. In fact, he makes it the cornerstone of his monist theology.(5) Even as the beloved and ever sought for form fashions itself, my soul flees toward it; I embrace it, not as a shadow, but as the holy essence itself. I lie on the bosom of the infinite world. At this moment I am its soul, for I feel all its powers and its infinite life as my own; at that moment it is my body, for I penetrate its muscles and its limbs as my own, and its innermost nerves move according to my sense and my presentiment as my own.(6)
In short, an experience of the sublime is possible. But if it is a “personal encounter” devoid of effects between two distinct realities, then it is monist and decidedly not Christian.
To this point we have argued that Christian orthodoxy implies miracle in the encounter with God. The next step is to examine the possibility that one can know God by miracle apart from personal encounter. This would happen when one saw miracles and inferred the existence and nature of God from the miracle without ever encountering God.
God Known by Miracle and Without Personal Encounter
Let us imagine a world in which miracles occur. For example, suppose the world were replete with faith healers or miracle workers who really did miraculous things. Such faith healers could heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and perform great signs and prodigies, and all this in the name of God. Such miracles need not be ex nihilo, since matter already exists, and therefore, not necessarily the acts of a transcendent God. All we would need to believe is that the universe produced people whose powers were triggered by their using certain names such as “God,” “Jesus,” or whatever deity they invoked for their cures. Such a deity need not be transcendent, but only powerful enough to effect the cures, that is, a finite and limited god. This, for example, was the conclusion of William James, who, after surveying religious experience, concluded that there was a god, a supernatural god who had effects on the world.(7) James, however, being logical, concluded that such a god need not be “almighty” as proclaimed in the Nicene Creed, but only powerful enough to create finite, miraculous effects. A finite, limited god, however, is not the transcendent, holy, almighty God of Christian orthodoxy.
Or again, by the same logic, imagine a book, written over a period of hundreds of years, whose final sections are historical descriptions of actual facts literally and miraculously prophesied in sections written hundred of years earlier. This would not imply that the book was written by the transcendent, Christian God. All one needs is a finite spiritual power, one powerful enough to engineer several hundred prophecies to a successful completion over the course of some centuries. And if this power were finite, it would not be the almighty God of Christian faith.
Or suppose there was a man such as Jesus who effected great cures, claimed to be God, of remarkable ethical stature, who even rose bodily from the dead. These great miracles, however, need not entail a belief in a transcendent, almighty God incarnate in the man.(8) All one needs is a local spiritual power, quite benevolent and wise, who miraculously acted in Jesus. For many, this would not be an unreasonable conclusion since much of the world, for centuries, has believed in finite, local spiritual powers who performed miracles and intervened in life. A limited power active in Jesus need not be a transcendent God since the effects, miracles, resurrection, inspired teaching and preaching, could be accounted for by a finite deity.(9)
In sum, it cannot be said that inference from miracle apart from person encounter is sufficient to reveal the transcendent God of Christian orthodoxy since all known miracles (apart from creation ex nihilo) can be explained by finite spiritual powers or unknown mechanisms acting upon or within pre-existent matter.
The foregoing left only one major unexamined issue, whether or not the effects upon those who encounter the Christian God are miraculous in the strong sense of the description given above. That is, can the effects one experiences in the encounter with the Christian God be explained in “categories used to understand events in this world,” or, do the effects transcend all known categories? To that end, let us consider Isaiah 6, a classical text describing an encounter with God.
An Example of God Known by Miraculous, Personal Encounter
Here is Isaiah 6:1-5, 8 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me.” I cried. “I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty. …” And I heard the voice of the Lord say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me.” In this vision Isaiah saw the transcendent God. The text reveals this quite clearly. The divine being was the “Lord,” “high and exalted,” “seated on a throne.” He was the “Lord Almighty.” His holiness and transcendence were so intense that the seraphs could not look at him, and Isaiah knew that he was ruined, a man of unclean lips, for “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
The term “almighty” does not simply mean that Isaiah took the secular concept of “might” or “power,” and then by intellectual extension, raised it to an unbounded extent. No, Isaiah had a personal encounter with God. He saw God as “almighty,” the one utterly different from all earthly powers, thrones, and dominions. Had Isaiah seen a finite power, one similar to the powers of this world, he would not have been ruined. The seraphs would not have covered their eyes and burst in song at the intensity of the divine holiness. No, Isaiah saw a transcendent God.
Further, upon seeing God, Isaiah was affected. He heard the transcendent God speaking. “Who shall I send?” Isaiah cried out in response, “Here am I. Send me.” The Lord replied, giving Isaiah prophetic words. The sight of God affected Isaiah. The words of God affected him. Isaiah did not dissolve into unity with the divine. He remained himself, a man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips. The question remains, however, were these effects miraculous? Is it possible to account for the effects on Isaiah using conventional categories such as an hallucination, the presence of a finite powerful spirit, an eruption from the collective subconscious, something he ate, or the excitement of an agitated mind? Can this encounter be understood in any other way except as miraculous effects from a transcendent God?
One way to address the matter is to adopt a two language approach to explain what happened to Isaiah.(10) According to this approach, a detached observer would describe Isaiah’s reactions to “revelation” in categories taken from life. Isaiah, however, would describe the same events as God’s speech or acts. According to this two language approach, these two ways do not contradict. They are like the wave/particle polarity in physics. Given the polarity, whether a miracle did or did not occur would then depend upon one’s point of view, an observer or a religious person.
This distinction can be understood theologically. Theologically, the “acts or speech of God” approach belongs to incarnation. When God spoke to Isaiah, God “took flesh” so to speak. He became visible and spoke to Isaiah by means of specific, concrete, empirical realities, the year that King Uzziah died, in the temple, near the doorposts, surrounded by the incense from the altar, aware of the seraphs in the holy of holies. This is God the Word speaking and acting, the very Word that became incarnate in Jesus Christ.(11) By contrast, the detached observer considers the effects on Isaiah to be effects from forces inherent within the created world. In support of this approach is the fact that Isaiah was doubtless affected by mundane forces, the existence of the temple, the doorposts, the incense, his own mental state, his social and historical context, but were these forces adequate to fully explain the words, “Whom shall I send?”
There is a fundamental theological proposition that immanent Trinity corresponds to economic Trinity. That is, God in his words, deeds, and appearings (economic Trinity), is God in himself (immanent Trinity) and conversely. Within God, God the Father is distinguished from God the Son. In regards to economic Trinity, God the Father who creates the world is distinguished from God the Son who is the Word, Deed, and Appearing of God sent from the Father into the world. God’s act of making is different from his act of speaking because God the Father who creates is distinct from God the Son who speaks. If “Whom shall I send?” were intelligible in terms of creation alone, if there were not an additional act beyond the powers of creation, then God the Son would simply be another name for what God does in creation.(12) In that case, God would only do one thing, create and guide creation, never speaking from beyond creation into the created.(13) This would imply no real distinctions within the economic Trinity, and therefore, no distinctions within immanent Trinity. Theologically, this would be a form of modalism, the heresy that claimed that the distinctions within God were more apparent than real.
In his battle against the Arians, Athanasius affirmed two great acts of God, the making of all persons in creation, and then, in a second distinct act, redeeming from death and corruption those who had received Jesus Christ. The former persons are made by God and may call God their maker, but the latter are not only made, but begotten by God, and call God their Father. Being begotten by God in Jesus Christ is beyond the power of creation.(14) It requires a new act of God, the Incarnation, an act that cannot be reduced to God’s act of creation. If God’s act of incarnation were simply a special case of creation, then God does only one thing, make the world and oversee its operations, and that, in the end, was the Arian position. Here is Athanasius,
Our nature is quite of a different character from that of God, and therefore, He makes Himself our Father simply by the indwelling of the Spirit of His Son, in whom, and because of whom, we cry, “Abba Father.” Where the Father finds anyone that has received this Holy Spirit, He acknowledges that person to be His son, … We were created first when it was said, “Let us make man” (Gen. 1.26); but we were begotten and born the sons of God afterwards, when He was pleased to impart to us the grace of His Holy Spirit.(15)
In the same way, God creating Isaiah is different from his speaking his Word to Isaiah so that “Whom shall I send?” requires a new category beyond the categories of creation. From this it follows, that the effects of God speaking to Isaiah must be understood as miracle in the strong sense, for if not, the divine impact on Isaiah could be understood in categories proper to creation and not proper to the spoken Word. A Profound Mystery, the Infinite Can Have Finite Effects
The real mystery, and it is a mystery, is that the utterly transcendent God can have finite effects. Among these finite effects was the fact that Isaiah conversed with God. God spoke, Isaiah understood God’s words, and he responded. In other words, the transcendent became intelligible, finite, comprehensible, while still remaining transcendent. That is a profound mystery. It is a mystery because how God was able to speak to Isaiah is beyond knowing. If it could be known, then God and his effects on Isaiah would be embraced by the same set of categories, and God would be similar to his effects on Isaiah. This would deny God’s transcendence. Here is Richard Hooker, describing how the infinite God could have finite effects,
If therefore it be demanded, why God having power and ability infinite, the effects notwithstanding of that power are all so limited as we see they are: the reason hereof is the end which he hath proposed, and the law whereby his wisdom hath stinted the effects of his power in such sort, that it doth not work infinitely, but correspondently unto that end for which it worketh, even “all things chrastos, in most decent and comely sort,” all things in Measure, Number, and Weight.(16)
The Action of the Holy Spirit
Isaiah not only saw God, he knew that he saw God. In his words, “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Another person, standing with Isaiah in the temple, could have had a similar vision and concluded that it was the effect of the heat, his breakfast, or his medications. But Isaiah was convinced that he had seen God. Isaiah did not reach that conclusion apart from God. Rather, the reality of God himself revealed to Isaiah that he had seen God. But this step, that his response to God was a result of God acting rather than a temporal process, entails a further miracle on God’s part in which God acted within Isaiah to show him that he had truly seen God. First, it was a miracle to see and hear a transcendent God, and second, a further miracle was required in order for Isaiah to know that his experience was caused by a transcendent God rather than a finite reality. In other words, there were two miracles: God’s appearing, followed by the recognition that it was God and not an hallucination. For orthodoxy, the second miracle is the work of the Holy Spirit. The second miracle is distinguished from the first since the Holy Spirit is distinguished from Father and Son within the Godhead.
Hume saw the matter rather clearly. In his view, miracles were events outside the ordinary, and by definition, uncommon events had the weight of evidence against them. Therefore, if one believed in a miracle, a further internal miracle was required to believe the limited evidence for the external miracle. Here is Hume.
So that upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.(17)
A Few Conclusions
In the final analysis, the Christian God can only be truly known by personal encounter with finite effects which bring a person before a living God. This encounter may be sudden, stunning, and dramatic as in Isaiah, or it may be a life-long process of imperceptible miracles that brings one into the Kingdom. Once known, however, other arguments and claims for the Christian God can find their rightful place and significance.
For example, conservative defenders of Scripture may describe its miraculous character, its power to inspire, its divine origin, its unity, its power to survive attack, its ability to change lives and grow churches, and more.(18) There is a great deal of truth in all this, but so many times the great fact of Scripture is overlooked: by means of its words, one can encounter the transcendent, holy God who wraps a towel around himself and serves the ones he loves.
Or again, arguments for God based on the amazing order of the universe will not bring one before a living God, but once the God of the Bible is known, then the infinite wisdom of this God can be glimpsed in the beauty and order of the universe. This implies that apologetics must start with Jesus Christ as the revelation of the Father, and from there to creation rather than conversely.
If God does miracles, where miracle is defined in the strong sense given above, then a great deal of liberal theology will have to be abandoned.
If God is known in worship, then the essence of worship is God miraculously acting to reveal himself. For example, the Sanctus would bring the congregation before the throne where, with the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, they would be transported by grief and joy at the sight of the God who died for them and rose again. Awed by his presence, swept away by their savior’s victory, they would join the heavenly chorus, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.”
If knowing God today entails a miraculous encounter with God, and given that Scripture proclaims a God of miracles, then the hermeneutical key to Scripture is that God acts, speaks, and appears today as Scripture proclaims he did in its day. The meaning of Isaiah 6, for example, is not just that Isaiah saw and heard God, but that the transcendent God appears and speaks today. From that perspective, Scripture is promise, and preaching and teaching proclaim the promises in faith that God will speak and act.
If knowing God entails miraculous effects, then it is logical to expect God to miraculously heal today, body and soul, and finally, by his transcendent power, raise believers from the dead to eternal life. The church needs to be about the healing ministry.
Transcendence, Miracle, and Salvation
Without a transcendent God, there is no hope that God can save. Only by virtue of his utter transcendence, his power over all things, is God equipped to overcome all human adversity, all loss, all sorrow. Only by his infinite love can he fill the soul will all joy. Only by miracle are these great things possible. By miracle, God has finite effects, the Word incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, a living acting God. By miracle, Christ rose from the dead, making atonement so that sinners are set right before a holy God. Only by miracle is there the Spirit and his gifts, tongues, prophecy, worship, study, praise, healing, Christian love, and eternal life with God. By miracle, and only by miracle, God conquers all things in love.
Let those who believe this act according. Let them preach the gospel of everlasting victory with great power and authority. Let them lay their hands on the sick that they might be well. Let them defeat the devil, casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Let them stand against injustice in all its forms — personal, ecclesial, economic, and political. Let them reveal the humility of their great God by humbling themselves in service to all in need. Let them, by every word and deed, proclaim the victory of the Lord Jesus that at his name every knee must bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, now and forever. Amen. – By Robert J. Sanders Ph.D.