‘Putting God in a Box’? Ruminations on a Common Saying

After a conversation earlier today in which this came up, I am reminded again of both the legitimate concern about ‘putting God in a box’ when we do theology and of the serious liabilities of this kind of suspicion toward theology.  There is, of course, the ever-present peril of assuming that we have comprehended God and pinned him down or packaged him neatly in a box.  Yet, though typically not meant to raze all possibility of doctrinal articulation and commitment, the attitude that is often beneath caution about ‘putting God in a box’ generally disparages serious and careful thinking about God and God’s works.  I’d like to suggest that this attitude and its common expression in hesitation about confining God to our descriptions are misguided for at least three reasons and then hear some of your thoughts on this.

First, it fails to carry the incomprehensibility of God into the practice of theology.  Indeed, it assumes that mystery, wonder, and reverence somehow simply cannot come with us into the realm of rational discourse and inform the way in which we operate there.  In a sense, one could say even that this attitude stems from unbelief: God’s greatness will begin to disintegrate with our theological distinctions and discriminations and so needs to be protected from such intellectual activity.  Perhaps, though, God’s awe-inspiring majesty and riches are never, and cannot be, in any real danger of being corroded even as we seek to speak carefully, even precisely, of him.

Second, this attitude misunderstands what theology is meant to do.  It is not meant to dissolve the mystery of God but rather, in view of God’s gracious revelation, to elaborate on certain points and make helpful distinctions for the well-being of the church’s worship and witness and then to leave things there, to reflect and to formulate modestly without ever presuming to domesticate God.

Third, this kind of thinking can leave the believer with his or her own experience as the primary or even only platform from which to talk about the faith and commend it to others.  If one resists confessional and rational articulation, one can get stuck in let-me-just-tell-you-how-Jesus-changed-my-life mode.  Because of the objective work of God in history and because of the fact that God’s word addresses us from without, it will not do to have only our experience as a resource or vehicle for commending the gospel.  God has worked and does work in the world and not just subjectively in our own hearts and it’s important that believers be able to give an account of that.  Otherwise, we may even risk absolutizing our own (always limited) experience and unduly foisting it upon others as the normative pathway to knowing God.

Ultimately, as Bavinck puts it, ‘Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics’ (RD, 2:28).  Yet, lest we appear to spurn God’s redemption of the human intellect, something is amiss if we resist thinking clearly about him as in the work of theology.

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