One of the most profoundly meaningful, and yet insidiously dangerous ideas to percolate through human thought is the idea of an omnipotent sovereign Deity that common humanity is privileged to engage in mutual dialogue. Historically this connection to deity has given courage to persecuted saints and anguished parents, and it has been the impetus for sea changes in civil rights and social policy. Brave souls who championed causes such as the termination of slavery, and the overthrow of despotic regimes through non-violent means, as in Ghandi’s India, have cited the will of the Almighty as support for their cause. On the other hand, the dark side of this privileged communication has been worked out in atrocities such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, and from the deadly persecutions of the Reformation, to the ongoing pograms based on religious convictions. The tragedy of the World Trade Centers, to the extent that it was perpetrated in the name of Allah, is neither the most costly, nor the most fiendish, it is only the most recent example of the extremes of horror that can arise from an insufficiently self-critical enactment of the will of God.
Eugene Peterson says it well in his introduction to Amos: “Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing and oppression is staggering.” (The Message)
Why do I see a pernicious danger in the idea of the Christian God? Allow me to establish at the outset that I am not advocating any form of atheism or agnosticism, but rather a chastened theism. I am emphatically not suggesting that the idea of God is so dangerous as to necessitate our relinquishing any such notion. What drives my concern is neither new, nor is it radical. It is merely the first glimmerings of the recognition that we must maintain a distinction between our concept of what, or better Who God is, and the God Who Is. We must let God be God, work with all that is in us to understand this God, without ever confusing or identifying the Sovereign Lord with our understanding of Him. We must allow God to be bigger; to be more just, more loving, more merciful; to be simply more than we know Him to be.
This caution may fall on some ears as unduly radical. To others, who have firsthand experience with the negative impact of the way in which certain ideas of God are worked out, this caution will come as a relief, even a salvific call to return to the God for whom the best name we have is simply I AM. The One whom Moses encountered in the burning bush was not inclined to share with Moses a name which would serve as a neat handle fostering an excessively familiar grasp on the Almighty. The I AM would not bestow on Moses a secret knowledge which would allow him to claim privileged access to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This access would only be facilitated in a continuing relationship of understanding through obedience.
This caution is an imperative hedge against the danger inherent in an idea of a sovereign and omnipotent God with whom we have a privileged communication. Failure to maintain this distinction between God as we know God, and God as God is, has culminated in the deaths of untold millions through the ages. More to the point for North American Christianity, the blurring of this boundary has caused the unnecessary ostracization of sincere seekers who could not, or would not, respect the categories established by others within which the hand of God was to be recognized.
One of the most seductive dangers in this understanding of God is the notion of a privileged authority which allows one to speak with authority in the Name of the Lord. This desire is often nothing other than a manifestation of laziness, such that one prefers to invoke an unassailable authority for confirmation, rather than engaging in the discipline of working out the details of right and wrong in the arena of mundane life, which is often both confusing and messy. In this case the desire to declare with authority that “Thus saith the Lord” or “The Lord told me . . .” is a symptom of a disease which we must extirpate.
Even the prophets who spoke these words always did so with an element of risk. God clearly instructed the Israelites to test the words of every prophet to see that they were indeed the words of the Lord. God’s word would never advocate turning aside to other gods, it would always prove true and, most importantly, it would always be consistent with God’s character. If signs and wonders were purported to vouch for a message, and if these signs and wonders were actualized, they did not guarantee that the message so endorsed was indeed from God. The final test of any message was always the conformity of the message itself to the character of God. To speak presumptuously and falsely in the name of the Lord was punishable by death. (Deuteronomy 13)
The historical test of actualization meant that one would not always know immediately whether what was said in the name of the Lord indeed came as a word from the Lord. It might take some time for such affirmation. We forget this element of waiting because we read the recorded words which were proven in the course of time, but we read it all as past history. We have no way of knowing how many other claims of divine authority were expunged from our historical records because they proved false, and therefore related claims of divine authority were shown to be obviously specious. Hence, there is a false sheen of immediacy in our understanding of the authority contained in the words “Thus says the Lord” which these words never really enjoyed in their historical context. However, even the actualization of supporting signs was not sufficient to establish a message as coming from God. The final test of a message inescapably demanded sober evaluation, reflection, and judgement as to the conformity of the message to what was already known about God, and the purposes of God.
Israel’s history is rife with examples of conflicting claims made in the name of the Lord. There is the well known story of Ahab asking Jehoshaphat to join him in battle against Aram. Jehoshaphat was willing to go with Ahab, but he insisted they first inquire of the Lord. Ahab called in his prophets, about four hundred, and they unanimously endorsed Ahab’s desire to go to war, saying “The Lord will give it (Aram) into the king’s hand” (1 Kings 22:6). Jehoshaphat was not satisfied with the word of these prophets and asked if there was not another prophet of whom they could inquire. Micaiah was brought in, though Ahab despised him because he never had anything good to say, and true to form, Micaiah predicted disaster, including the death of Ahab. In mockery, Zedekiah, one of the 400 prophets who endorsed the conquest, slapped Micaiah in the face and noted the irreconcilable discrepancy between the spirit’s initial message through Zedekiah, and his subsequent word to Micaiah. Nevertheless, Jehoshaphat agreed not only to go into battle, but he even agreed to go dressed in royal robes while Ahab, obviously spooked by Micaiah’s prediction, went in disguise. The king of Aram instructed his soldiers to engage only Ahab in combat, so the soldiers looked for signs of royalty and chased Jehoshaphat down. Apprized of their error, they left Jehoshaphat unharmed, and an arrow shot at random found it way between the pieces of armor worn by Ahab, and he died.
The words of the prophets and the actions of Zedekiah indicate that they all wish their words to be heard as the word of the Lord, however it is only Micaiah’s words which prove true, and it is Micaiah’s words which are recorded as the word from God. With the benefit of this historical perspective we find it easy to judge which words are from God, but it is highly unlikely that Jehoshaphat would have agreed to go into battle, much less so deliberately placed himself in a position of mortal danger, had he been equally certain which of the prophets in fact spoke the word from the Lord. Nevertheless, it is indubitable that the word of the Lord became clearer in the course of his experience. (For additional stories showcasing premature proclamations of the ‘word of the Lord’ see, for example: King Saul’s confident assumption that God had at last delivered the elusive David into his hands [1 Samuel 23:7]; The account of the man of God who listened to another prophet whose version of the Lord’s instructions conflicted with his own understanding, for which error the man of God forfeited his life[1 Kings 13]).
However, the false sheen of immediate authority implied in the declaration that “Thus says the Lord” is precisely the site of the danger inherent in the idea of a God whom we know intimately, and in whose name we dare to speak. An appeal to authority which allows us to circumvent the hard work of deciphering the right thing to do in a particular situation makes it all but certain that we will not exercise discernment, and if we do not practice discernment, we will never develop discernment. This is a recipe for trouble in any case, it is a recipe for disaster when we operate in the arena of divine proclamations. It seems positively counter-intuitive to rely on authority as a means of circumventing careful discernment in matters of utmost importance when the authority invoked clearly disavowed this approach long ago.
In Jeremiah 23 God spoke through Jeremiah, decrying the glib way in which words were declared to be the oracle of the Lord. It seems to have been a rather standard practice that anyone who had anything to say would routinely claim to be speaking in the name of the Lord, though more often than not there was no connection to the Lord’s desires or intentions. God declared Himself to be so sick of this practice that He ordered the people to put an end to all such claims. Instead, they were to enter into conversations with one another in order to discern the will of God by mutual sharing of what they heard the Lord saying to them.
This method was implemented in Jeremiah 26, when Jeremiah was on trial under penalty of death for speaking against the temple. Jeremiah insisted that his proclamation of judgement was the word of the Lord, and this judgement was carefully investigated in order to ascertain its provenance, and its conformity to messages previously recognized as coming from God. Some wanted Jeremiah executed for his blasphemous talk, but the consensus was that his message was consistent with the principles of God’s judgements, therefore Jeremiah’s life was spared. It is noteworthy that even a prophet like Jeremiah had his claims of speaking the word of the Lord vetted by peers, and it was only on the basis of such validation that he escaped the death penalty for some of his harsh proclamations.
All of this is not to suggest that the word of God is not sufficient to establish a matter. Quite the contrary, it is precisely because it is the word of the Lord alone which can establish a matter that any human declaration of a message from God must be carefully weighed in order to ascertain its authenticity as being the word of God. Therefore, what I would advocate is that, rather than purging this dangerous idea of God from our theology and conversation, we eradicate all pretensions of a God’s-eye view, and vow never to be satisfied with buttressing our most controversial proclamations with the self-righteous indignation of the declaration that “This is God’s word!” as though that should be enough to stifle any further discussion. We need not, we must not, we dare not, relinquish our concern to hear the voice of God in our lives, but that voice must always be tested in the fires of life, in community with believers of all persuasions.
In this context we need not forswear all attempts to speak in God’s name, but when we do so we must always recognize that we speak what we hear, and we may (and often do) hear incorrectly. It is vital that we learn to hear God’s words in an expanding community of believers. The last Word always belongs to God and we will at times need to wait patiently for that Word to be heard more clearly. In the mean time we continue to work at an understanding of God’s Word in our daily lives, an understanding which must ultimately be lived, not merely intellectually comprehended or evangelically propagated.