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The Weight of Belief

Summing up the divine works of creation and rule.


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Our Feature on Living Faith
Living Faith is a declaration of faith of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. For as many months as it takes, Theology 101 will examine this subordinate standard, chapter by chapter.
You can download it for free at presbyterian.ca. We suggest you seek out and read the passage being discussed each month.

Additional reading: Theology 101′s 2010 series, Where in the World is God?

Credo—I believe. Our official statement of belief begins boldly with a chapter on its basic premise, the doctrine of God (theos-logos or theology). Because they are rooted in historical events, the three Abrahamic religions developed such creeds—Judaism’s Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4; Jesus’ own creed, Mark 12:29-30), Christianity’s Apostles’ Creed, Islam’s Shahada, its first pillar of faith.

Living Faith, our official subordinate standard (after scripture), jumps into a series of difficult points of doctrine, summing up the divine works of creation and rule. The opening sections (2.1.1 and 2.1.2) constitute natural theology—not a convincing argument for scholars but the most popular way that most people enter into knowledge of God. “All events of this world” show divine handiwork, making the universe a “theatre of God’s glory.” (Quoting John Calvin.) Yet such sovereign oversight does not rob us of freedom; there is co-operation or co-creation.

The next section (2.1.3) moves us into a darker place: how can evil exist in a good creation? The question will reappear (for example in 3.4.3 and 3.5.3) in relation to Christ’s work; here it remains a “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thessalonians 2:7), a paradox or surd that seems to deny our faith in a sovereign deity. Only in Christ’s suffering will an answer take shape.

And so we have a fitting conclusion to this vast topic (2.1.4); we can’t comprehend the subject, saying only that we believe the divine will is bound to overcome at last. The ancient theologian Origen thought there would be many eons in which more and more evil will be conquered, until at last even the Satan will convert!

Meanwhile, we are called to a modest theology, refusing “to justify God’s rule of the world.” There is personal assurance in the gospel—Christ’s resurrection and gift of new life—but also an inability to spell out the larger picture of things in a marred creation, a “reverent agnosticism.”

All this appears tentative and far from satisfying as a credal introduction should. Unfortunately, beginning with God alone, high-and-mighty, is a kind of unitarian theology; even the Westminster Confession doesn’t introduce Christ until Chapter 7. First, God alone (de Deo uno) and only then a Trinity (de Deo trino). Such traditional theology described a Supreme Being as an absolute Ruler, controlling all events in human history. This borders on fatalism, always a temptation for Calvinist theologians. In part this is because it leans too heavily on the Old Testament narrative of ‘the God who acts.’ Such divine acts are usually miracles by which God intervenes when people are in dire necessity. (In classical Greek tragedy the plot became so thick that a god was lowered by a machine (deus ex machina) to put everything back together.)

But suppose we exchange this top-down theology for a different starting-point, Jesus the Christ? If he is to be our model for describing God, we must reject this ‘triumphalism’ in which God is more like a tyrant, and the ‘church triumphant’ conquers all. Rather, we should view the divine activity as a kind of process in which God participates in the human drama, not as Lord but as Partner, the role which Christ assumed (see the ancient hymn, Philippians 2:6-11).

The contrast is between a ‘theology of glory’ and a ‘theology of the cross.’ We are conditioned to the former, in our creeds and choice of scripture readings and too many of our hymns. So much about the divine glory and power and All That. It’s hard to see that absolute is not a good metaphor for God; it’s borrowed from Greek philosophy and implies a Being who has all the power in the world. So our theology struggles to make room for human free will.

A theology of glory exalts the Christ as Lord of all, but since obviously he isn’t really in control of daily events (calamity and evil) we project his reign to private piety or an otherworldly plane, or Christ glorified in ‘heaven,’ the Lord who is to come. By failing to make the Crucified the centre of our belief we deny the New Testament message, the Christ present with us through the Holy Spirit. Here is the dynamic of the gospel, its call to discipleship, bidding us follow the example of Jesus of Nazareth in the everyday world, “mending the world,” as the Jewish saying goes, through deeds of justice and love, of peacemaking.

As this series on Living Faith progresses we will need to cast a sharp and critical eye on this tendency to substitute glory for suffering. And to ask how the choice of creed affects not only our thinking about God but also our active following in his steps, the kind of discipleship to which we are called. For instance, is our belief the kind that gives us a superior stance, judging outsiders as inferior? And if so, how can we treat them as equals before God, worthy of God’s love and forgiveness, and therefore those to whom we owe justice and service, and even love? Calvin was strong on the fact that every human is made “in God’s image” and therefore is a kind of representative or substitute for God, to whom we should render service through them. In these days of pluralism and secularism we need to honour this insight. Such basic questions are the measure of our beliefs.

To witness to the One God means not to believe more strongly (mere credulity) but to think more deeply about our beliefs. The early church provided a more believable option than its rival religions, especially the Mysteries and Mithraism. Today’s rivals are many, and it’s now a case of sharing the same religious space, and having to compare doctrines of God. All the more reason to ponder the weight of the beliefs handed down to us by faithful generations.

About the author

Rev. Dr. Joseph McLelland is professor emeritus at McGill University and Presbyterian College, Montreal. See also the moderator's column in this issue.

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Ronald Nichol says:

    Lately I have been in a troublesome quandary over the issue of the sovereignty God. I am not having a crisis of faith, but rather questions about what I have faith in. In that spirit I have a question about your comment in your article in Theology 101 that we should view the divine activity as a kind of process in which God participates in the human drama, not as Lord but as Partner. Are you suggesting a form of evolutionary/process theology as per Whitehead? I have read Philippians 2:6-11 several times in several translations I cannot see where it in any way infers that Jesus was a “partner” with God. Maybe I am just not getting the point; it is possible that I need the cataract surgery on my other eye before I see your point. However, many times in the Bible the metaphor of marriage has been used to describe the intimate relationship between God and His people, and Jesus and His followers. Only in contemporary society is marriage referred to in secular legalistic terms as a “partnership.” And if God is my “partner” what happens to the sovereignty of God?
    I am in agreement with your comments on the problems for Christians between the theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross.

    Blessings
    Ron Nichol

    [Reply]

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    Joseph McLelland Reply:

    You make an excellent point about the idea of “partnership” in relation to divine activity. The ancient doctrine of Trinity spoke of the “round dance” (perichoresis) among three partners. But I’m more interested in the role of Jesus as our human partner. Usually we stress his divinity so far that we neglect his true humanity—an interesting heresy! I like the way Process Thinking brings theology into relation with modern science, modifying ideas of divine all-mightiness as unworthy of the God who reveals an Other who befriends and loves and saves. The various agents in our world include force (particularly the force of arms) but also the moral-spiritual power of persuasion. Surely God is “absolute” in the latter sense. This fact is obscured by those scriptures and hymns that teach a mighty God of battle and victory. Such metaphor has its place, but it tends to become literal, as if God controls every event like a supreme Warlord. Such a “theology of glory” denies the “theology of the cross” that Jesus incarnates and exemplifies.

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