This week I am returning to a subject which we looked at some years ago. I do so because we have had some interesting recent discussions on the behaviour of God on aspects of grace, faith, judgment and redemption. It is all too easy to assume that because we can describe these matters, often in terms of Scripture’s account, we are able to express the truth.
We can, to take the obvious example, describe God as infinite, omniscient and omnipotent. You agree, of course. But we have no knowledge and can have no knowledge of what these qualities mean. Fundamental theology will tell us firstly that these are not qualities which God has but qualities which God is. They will go further and tell us that even relating God to such human concepts is to derogate from his nature. “Be still and know that I am God” would be the watch word.
Similarly we speak about eternity as if it were human time. We wonder how many days we may spend in Purgatory, or visualise our dead relations, reduced to mere souls, waiting patiently for the end of the world (only a billion years and 33 days, and counting.). But Purgatory is not even instantaneous – that word has no meaning in the hereafter.
When we think of more day to day concepts such as faith, grace or repentance we find similar difficulties. How do we understand grace, for instance: we believe it to be wholly from God yet if we respond, in itself through grace, has the capacity to make us holy as individuals. Or would anyone be prepared to tell us what faith really means when we apply it to our recognition of God?
And, by definition, Scripture is no better. Since it is written for human understanding there is no way for it to display the real truths which lie behind its words. When for instance we read Paul’s words “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.” what the heck does that really mean? Have we actually changed our personal identity? Perhaps the best we can say is that Scripture is an impressionistic description of God’s ways with man. We are told stories, some of which are historical and some not, which inspire us to meditate and pray, and from which we can explore the truth and so can take us towards the ultimate truth which is too big for the human mind to grasp. The mysteries of faith as expressed are not the last word but the first word – from which we start our puny exploration.
I have no easy answers, but I must remind myself that in my discussions, for example in this Blog, I must be humble. I must hesitate at expressing my opinions as if they necessarily record the truth. I must respect those who disagree with me for they may have another shard of the truth, and their understanding – even if I disagree – may well enlighten me. Perhaps, when I comment, I should always include a little prayer to the Holy Spirit. It is hard to dodge humility when he’s around and he does not let us down.
And there you have a final example. I have called the Holy Spirit ‘he’. Why?