“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.
- “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.
- “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!”
- “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.