Calvin, commenting on Exodus 34:6-7, writes: “Thereupon his powers are mentioned, by which he is shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is towards us; so that this recognition of him consists more in living experience than in vain and high-flown speculation” (Quoted in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives, edited by Bruce McCormack [Baker Academic, 2008], p. 9.)
As I have reflected on this quote over the last week, it has helped me see in a new way the danger of an overly philosophical and intellectual approach to theology. In Scripture, the true knowledge of God comes from his historical deeds, his covenantal promises, his personal loving-kindness – not through a kind of abstract reasoning about divine nature. As Pascal puts it, the true God is the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the God of the philosophers. Similarly, in the Bible God is not spoken of with complex and technical jargon, but with simple language, language of relationship. God forbid we ever make him more complicated than he makes himself in his word! I also love how Calvin locates the source of true theology to be “living experience”, as opposed to “vain and high-flown speculation.” The kind of theology that honors God lacks all of the pretentious distance from everyday life that often characterizes a philosophy classroom. It is down to earth, utterly real and concrete. We must never think of doing good theology as primarily an intellectual exercise, as though brains were the key, rather than worship, love, and prayer – though, of course, brains can help, too!
The humility of God in making himself available to us is truly amazing. Though there is an ocean of fullness in him we will never and can never know, he allows himself to be spoken of plainly, directly. He comes down to our level, though infinitely beyond us.
Then, as quoted later in the same book: “God … designates himself by another special mark to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (114).
In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity distinguishes the true God from false idols. When we think of God, we should think of Father, Son, and Spirit, not just a generic, cold, black-and-white substance called “God.” Of course, when we conceive of God, the threeness should not displace the oneness. But neither should the oneness come first, as somehow more basic, with the threeness coming after it as a kind of further qualification and elaboration. From the outset, God is three. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it: “the Trinity is not a further specification of a more determinative reality called god, because there is no more determinative reality than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology [Brazos Press, 2001], 15). In short, when we think of God, we should think of Father, Son, and Spirit – for there is simply no other God that exists than this (three-in-one) one.
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