“Big God Theology”?

This week over 8,000 (10,000?) brothers and sisters in Christ join with one another at the Together For the Gospel 2016 (T4G) conference. (And if you’re there and you see my buddy and fellow RM founder, David Cheng, please give him a nice big hug for me!)

T4G is evidence that over the past decade and a half, Calvinism has taken the evangelical church by storm. A young, restless, and Reformed generation, led by the likes of John Piper, has emerged and established itself in conservative evangelical seminaries and churches all over. As good evangelicals, their foundational conviction is simple. They confess, worship, and preach a “Big God”. “Big God Theology”, they call it.

“Big God Theology” can best be described as theology with a particular emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God in and over history. Confronted with every instance of the world’s brokenness, the sovereignty of God means that “even there” history is in his hands.

“Big God Theology”, as we know it today, takes its primary cue from the Puritans and their beloved Westminster Standards. It is unwavering in its insistence that the chief and highest end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. It’s God-centered theology as opposed to the man-centered theology that so many of us had grown accustomed to in our consumerist suburban churches.

“Big God Theology” offered something far more significant, far more satisfying, than what the market-driven churches had been offering to evangelical millennials raised in church. It gave many of us a good slap in the face. It woke us up from our slumber. God was far more than who our Christian t-shirts told us he was. More than our buddy and pal, he was, is, and will always be Lord. He’s the Holy One of Israel, the Judge and Ruler over the kings of the earth. He would not tolerate Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized worship, nor Ananias and Sapphira’s lies.

Gone are the days when we viewed God as our personal magic genie. We know the truth. Our God is a se. He is YHWH, the I AM, He simply just is. He does not exist for us. We exist for him. “All things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). In fact, God’s main priority in history was not to save us, but to glorify himself. And lest we think that that is rather egocentric of him, “Big God Theology” teaches that it’s perfectly acceptable that the Glorious One, for whom all things were created, glorify himself.

But is it possible that we can sometimes take even “Big God Theology” too far?

“Big God Theology” Gone Wrong

Let me be clear upfront. There is nothing wrong with “Big God Theology” (BGT). However, as with all good things, it is susceptible to corruption. There are at least three ways that I believe BGT can fall off the tracks if we’re not careful.

  1. “Big God Theology” can become “anti-diversity” theology. BGT preaches a transcendent God who is Lord of the universe. He’s a universal God, and everyone is subject to him. In many ways, this levels the playing field. We are all made in the image of God, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are all saved by grace through faith in Christ. There is unity in human dignity, fallenness, and salvation. However, if we are not careful, BGT can be used to ignore the principle of diversity, which is also integral to understanding human dignity, sin, and salvation. To corrupt BGT is to claim that God is so big, so transcendent, and so universal that the particularities of humanity and culture are of no biblical or theological significance. Yes, all are made in the image of God, yet each image is a unique reflection of God, invested with a particular individuality. He is both our God AND my God in two distinct yet inseparable ways. Yes, all are fallen, but each individual struggles with sin in a unique way that ought not to be taken for granted. Pastors, how long will we continue to counsel our flocks with the same uncontextualized platitudes in their struggle with sin? “Just fix your eyes on Jesus.” “Just remember the gospel.” “Just believe that your identity is in Christ!” And yes, all are saved by grace through faith, but even what faith looks like can vary. For the rich young ruler, faith would’ve looked like selling his possessions and giving them away, but to the Canaanite woman, faith looked like a dog lunging at crumbs under her master’s table. Though the object of saving faith is the same, the measure and expression of such faith is diverse. A true “Big God Theology” recognizes that God’s bigness speaks to his united Lordship over creation, but also to his diverse and particular relationship with every individually created being.
  2. “Big God Theology” can become “anti-mystery” theology. BGT gives (often overly zealous) Calvinists an absolute answer to every theological “why” question we could ever conceive of. Why did God create the world? “To glorify himself.” Why did the good, sovereign, and loving God allow sin to enter the world? “To glorify himself.” Why does God predestine some for salvation, and others unto reprobation? “To glorify himself.” Why does God do anything? “To glorify himself!” Yet is it possible that we all too often affirm that all things occur unto the glory of God, while incorrectly ignoring the mysteriousness of his sovereign ways? How easy is it for us “Big God theologians” to flatten the painful reality of people’s suffering into something that is explainable and easily shrugged off? Or worse, to resign ourselves to sin, which we “theologically know” will still be unto God’s glory somehow? You know you’ve done this. “I’m elect, God will be glorified, and everything will work out in the end, so sin isn’t such a big deal!”
  3. “Big God Theology” can become “anti-human” theology. BGT asserts the supremacy of God, and uses the language of “God-centered” (good) vs. “man-centered” (bad). However, I wonder if there is a better way of speaking about this, that is not so anti-human. It’s not because I think mankind has a worth that approaches the glory of God, but because I think that a radical distinction between the glory of God and the glory of man (in a good way) is lacking nuance. I’ll never forget my former professor, Doug Green. He taught us that “The Bible offers us a narrative about what it means to be truly human” and that “there is a very real sense in which fallen humanity is not a perpetrator of the fall, but also a victim.” From this I learned that redemptive history, though centered on the self-revealing God who glorifies himself, is also about and tied up with another story, the future glory of humanity. To pit the glory of God against the glory of humanity is a false dichotomy. God’s glory, rather than opposing humanity’s glory, constitutes, defines, and guarantees humanity’s glory. Let me explain how.

Guarding “Big God Theology”: Covenant Theology

I’d like to introduce a concept that is often missing in the New Calvinist circles who espouse “Big God theology.” I believe it to be a helpful concept that qualifies BGT and roots it more firmly in the Reformed tradition. I’m talking about “covenant.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 says:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

What a beautiful articulation of “Big God Theology.” And not only that, but what a beautiful articulation of “covenant.” “Big God Theology” must never operate apart from “covenant.”

It’s so easy to adopt a false dichotomy between the glory of God and the glory of mankind, but “covenant” means that though the glory of God is the supreme telos of history, God’s glory and man’s are not at odds. Man’s sinful conception of his own glory may be at odds with God’s glory, but ever since the foundation of the world, God desired to glorify humanity, to make much of his children, to crown us with glory.

“Covenant” properly affirms the bigness of God without eschewing diversity, mystery, and humanity. “Covenant” speaks to God’s diverse and manifold acts in redemptive history. He is equally the covenant Lord of the one and the many. “Covenant” firmly upholds the Creator-creature distinction, and maintains that the distance between God and the creature is so great that even though we know all things are unto God’s glory, still, “mystery is the lifeblood” (to use Bavinck’s terms) of theology. The “To glorify himself” answer is not a magic bullet cure to all worrying and suffering. Just as much as “covenant” means that God has revealed himself and his will to us, so also does it mean that our understanding will be shrouded in mystery. Finally, “covenant,” rather than condemning humanity as humanity, affirms it. “Covenant” means that the glory of God is bound up in an unbreakable legal contract, made by God himself, with the glory of humanity. The two are not at odds, but integrally bound. Yes, “Big God Theology” means that God was never necessarily obligated to us, but “covenant” means he was pleased to obligate himself to us in a communion bond.

By “covenant,” the eternal, pre-existent, self-contained I AM, says to his chosen people, “I choose to be more than I AM. I AM who I AM, but also I AM yours. I AM your God, you are my people. I AM the God who purchases you, promises myself to you, binds my good and glory with yours, even if it means death on the cross, such that I, the I AM, become I AM beaten, mocked, thirsty, forsaken, and crucified! And yet as the Risen One, surely, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This is what “Big God Theology” is all about. Let us ever aspire to be “Big God” worshipers in the context of his marvelous covenant!


For a more theological discussion of the doctrine of God and the way I’ve spoken of “covenant,” see my former professor, K. Scott Oliphint’s God With Us.

Posted by Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese), who married a beautiful third-gen Bay Area ABC. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he is now pursuing a PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He hopes to pursue pastoral ministry as his PhD studies come to a close. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

8 Comments

  1. Andrew, I think you are really on to something here. Piper et al. are seriously in need of critique here, along the lines you have suggested. When the Westminster Confession says that man’s chief end is God’s glory, they did not mean that man is a means to an end, who God uses for his own glory without a thought for man’s good. Rather, they meant “chief end” in the technical philosophical sense of “happiness”: that state in which man is most blessed. For man to be fulfilling his chief end is for him to possess God himself as his good, and so to be fully human is to worship God. For this to happen, God must give himself as a gift to man, thus the importance of voluntary condescension/covenant.

    I would like to encourage you to find another source to undergird your analysis other than Dr. Oliphint’s book. I gather that even he himself does not stand by everything he said in that book anymore. That is a good thing, because it does not express an orthodox understanding of God. Primarily what I mean by that is that it is not Chalcedonian: the formula of Chalcedon says that in the union of the two natures, the Son remains unchangeable (ἀτρεπτως), but this is precisely what Dr. Oliphint denies in “God With Us,” since he insists that there must be a real change from God’s side in order for the incarnation to happen. But I don’t think anything you are saying here really depends upon his account, so I would encourage you to interact with the orthodox tradition on the doctrine of God instead.

    Some ideas along these lines:

    For the ideas of mystery and diversity, you might enjoy Gregory of Nazianzus’ “Second Theological Oration” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.iii.xiv.html).

    The idea that in obeying God, we become fully human is fleshed out well in the Christian virtue tradition which stands behind the Westminster Standards’ use of terms like “end.” This tradition helps us appreciate that in creating man, God did not assign him a good arbitrarily, but grounded man’s good in the goodness of his own being. Aquinas’ “Summa” is always good here. Alasdair MacIntyre has a good intro to the problems surrounding this field in “After Virtue,” but if you are nervous about his Roman Catholicism, you could check out Vermigli’s “Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics” instead. I also like William Ames’ “Marrow” for a briefer outlining of these issues.

    I want to reiterate that I don’t disagree with anything you have said here. It is good stuff, and I hope you continue to develop and elaborate these ideas. I just have to take every opportunity I can to move people away from the new evangelical theopaschitism and towards the church fathers.

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Jamie. I had a feeling you might wince at the God with Us reference. To be honest, the back and forth over Oliphint’s formulation, such as N. Shannon and J. Dolezal’s exchange, are a little bit lost on me. It’s kind of over my head, so hopefully someone can sit down with me one day to help me out with it. I think it’s because I haven’t read enough of the classic theologians in the patristic, medieval, and even Reformed periods, so thank you for recommending Nazianzus, Thomas, MacIntyre, and Ames for me. I didn’t know the Marrow touched upon this stuff, and I hope to be at a level where I can understand Thomas and Vermigli some day. I look forward to cleaning up my doctrine of God. Also, I’m SUPER relieved by your comments that what I’ve written doesn’t have to depend on Oliphint’s formulation, especially if I do end up agreeing that he’s got some problematic aspects in his theology.

      Am I correct in understanding that you think Oliphint goes too far and doesn’t take God’s impassibility seriously enough? Or is that not the main thing he’s off on?

      I wonder how closely tied this is with his VanTillian insistence on “fearless anthropomorphism.”

      Reply

      1. Yeah, there is always too much to read and not enough time, so take my reading suggestions with that grain of salt…

        I would definitely say that impassibility is the problem here. Let me put up a set of questions that help clarify what is at issue:

        1. If God created the world, doesn’t he have to change to do that? I mean, at one point in time, he is not a Creator, and at the next he is.

        2. If God became incarnate, doesn’t that mean that there has to be a change from his side as well? After all, at one point in time he is not incarnate, at the next he is.

        3. If there is a real transition in us from God’s wrath to God’s grace when we are saved, doesn’t this mean that there has to be a real change in God himself for this to happen? At one time God was angry, at the next he was gracious.

        4. If the Bible says that God repented, don’t we have to take that literally?

        5. If God says to Abraham in Genesis 22, “Now I know…”, shouldn’t we take this literally to imply that God was ignorant prior to this “now?”

        Orthodox theology has traditionally answered all these questions with “No.” We could go on for a while about all the details there, but the basic outline is that they turn out to be false assumptions which derive from applying the standards of created beings to the Creator. Notice especially that these questions apply temporal categories to God: “Isn’t he this at one time, but this at another time…” That is bound to cause problems. This is the “univocal reasoning” Van Til was warning against.

        Oliphint answers “yes” to all these questions (primarily because of a univocal reasoning and commitment to biblical literalism in these cases that I find puzzling). That leaves him with a conundrum of how he can say “yes” to all these questions, while still affirming the traditional idea that God’s nature is impassible. The answer for him is that he affirms that God can take on attributes that are outside of his nature, the category he labels “condescended” or “covenantal.” These attributes are not attributes of God’s nature, but they are nevertheless really God. He sees himself as drawing an analogy to the taking up of a human nature in the incarnation.

        The problem is that he has to ignore the Creator/creature distinction to do this. According to the Creator/creature distinction, anything which changes must be a creature and not God. So in the incarnation, the human nature does not become divine, but is united hypostatically to the Person of the Son. If we followed that line, then these contingent attributes would actually be created beings, who were hypostatically united to God. But Oliphint doesn’t want to say this. That’s because it would affirm an incarnation before the incarnation, and also it would mean that God wasn’t really the one changing (which is the whole point of his view). But if we deny that the change is in the creature, then the only other option allowed by the Creator/creature distinction is that the change is in the Creator. But then we have two sets of contradictory attributes in God: eternal and contingent, and although Oliphint would undoubtedly want to deny this consequence, I think that his critics are right when they say that to be consistent, this would involve God having two opposite natures. Ultimately, Oliphint simply ignores the Creator/creature distinction. The big problem here is that Scripture doesn’t teach that God simply has an aspect of himself which is impassible, but another aspect which is not: Scripture teaches that God himself is impassible, and that this is what makes him different from a creature.

        “Condescension” and “covenant” are good Reformed words, but they are meant to be understood epistemologically rather than ontologically: God makes himself known to us in ways we can understand, but does not change who he is in the process. God doesn’t accrue new attributes when he condescends, rather he reveals the attributes he eternally has. That is good news, because fellowship with the eternal God is what we were made for. If God, in giving himself to us, has to fabricate a new self which is the opposite of his real self, then it is in fact ontologically impossible for God to really give himself to us.

        I think the solution here is precisely the one Oliphint rejects: metaphor. We creatures can’t completely grasp who God is, but we can have an analogical understanding by way of a sign. I think Oliphint’s mistake is like the person who insists that the Lord’s Supper doesn’t reveal Christ to us unless the bread and wine literally become his body and blood. There is something inherently figurative to all our knowledge of God. But these figures aren’t just images of God that we fabricate ourselves (which would be idolatry), but are signs which he has given to us. I think what Van Til means by “fearless anthropomorphism” is that we shouldn’t disdain the signs and seek to replace them with univocal knowledge. I don’t think he means that we should fearlessly take anthropomorphic language literally, so that we say that God is in some way ignorant, or in process with the world! That is how Oliphint is interpreting him, but I think that he is reading his own views back into Van Til there.

        Reply

        1. Oh, and ditto to hanging out sometime and chatting. I am actually going to be in Britain this summer, so maybe that will actually work out? I will message you when I have all the details.

          Reply

          1. Yes, let me know. And thanks for the explanation!

  2. This is a really accessible expression of some Big Theology, Andrew! I know you are standing on the shoulders of some good teachers, but you are yourself a very good explainer.

    I liked especially how you wrapped up the Big God Theology with Covenant: ““Big God Theology” means that God was never necessarily obligated to us, but “covenant” means he was pleased to obligate himself to us in a communion bond.” Good stuff!

    Reply

    1. Thanks Paige! Bible = Greatest Story Ever Told

      Reply

  3. […] of intentions. I touched upon some aspects of possible New Calvinist imbalances last month when I blogged about “Big God […]

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.