The Historical God

Theology is helpful insofar as the applications of theology adapt to meet the challenges of the day. Surely, knowing how Hippolytus wrestled with articulating the distinction between Jesus and creation when God generated both is important because all truth is God’s truth (67). However, if the church does not recontextualize his application for today’s challenges, it is not helpful because it is not immediately relevant. Christopher B. Kaiser begins his work, The Doctrine of God: A Historical Survey, with this point. His work’s goal is not the reapplication of theology proper but surveying the development of it through history so students can begin developing their own orthodox view of God with relevant applications from the rich history of saints (vii).

Theology proper, more specifically God’s imminence and transcendence, is the crucial starting point for all of theology according to Kaiser (2). Without transcendence, God is able to be evaluated as if he were another creature on earth. Without imminence, God cannot be known personally. Therefore, this distinction needs to be maintained: God is completely distinct from his creation, and yet his creation can personally know him.

Kaiser wrote, and later revised, this work in an informative manner around the turn of the century. This means he wrote during a time where modernity waned, and postmodernity rose (vii). As a result, he wrote in a way that would sate critics of theology proper as well as teach students in a culturally relevant way (vii). Kaiser did not desire to critique what theologians said (although, from time to time, he provided an assessment). He desired to help current students grow in their understanding of God from a historical perspective.

Based on his preface, Kaiser addressed this book for beginning students in theological education because of the weight he places on a proper understanding of theology proper (vii). This audience is also evident in that he wrote it to be scalable. It is brief enough that it could be covered in a couple class periods, yet it would also be possible to spend a whole semester on it and not scratch the surface of its significance and nuances. Either way, Kaiser’s research is tucked away in the back with which a budding theology student can use as a launchpad into further study (vii).

Kaiser presented his thesis—that God’s imminence and transcendence must be maintained in postmodernity—by beginning in the Old Testament and exploring how God revealed himself to Israel (9ff), then navigating his way to Karl Barth (129), Wolfhart Pannenberg (136), and John Macquarrie (142). Along the way, he stopped in the New Testament and explored the early church’s conception of the Trinity (53ff), spent time in medieval scholasticism (99ff), interacted with the fathers of the Reformation (112ff), and summarized the major philosophical developments of God in modernity (120ff).

In fact, this historical development is where the work’s distinctiveness lies: in the historical development of God’s transcendence and immanence. While exploring theological conversations that fit the current context is immensely helpful, examining history to understand what theologians have said is equally important. Staying purely contemporary in theological study blinds the learner to the wealth of knowledge that their fathers and mothers in the past have communicated—even all the way to the Old and New Testament.

For example, postmodern theological conversation tends to prefer an objective, systematic layout. As someone studies theology, they tend to understand God by enumerating his attributes and key topics (for example, a list of communicable and incommunicable attributes) and providing a thorough definition of each that would carry across time and location. While this definition may be helpful, it misses the underlying foundation: the relationship between God and his people which Kaiser emphasized in his discussion of imminence and transcendence. If the theologian or student looked to history, they would see how the Israelites emphasized these attributes are primarily about relationship, not mere descriptions of God (3). Even in the New Testament, God’s people viewed God’s triune nature primarily as relationship (50). Additionally, as the apostles faded out of the theological scene, the early church fathers had no problem seeing these attributes as primarily relational as they discerned how God related to his creation (57). While their articulation may be dated for current theological discussion, these theologians have done much of the heavy lifting for the church today. If current theology students do not engage with the past, their articulation will be heavily skewed to their current context and ignore the riches and assistance that came before them.

Kaiser’s main strength lies in the concise nature of his work. He provided the foundation of theology proper as well as a brief church history. This approach is valuable because, as mentioned above, all of his research is listed in the back of his book. A student, after identifying an interest point historically, can navigate to the back and begin buying or borrowing resources and dive into the time period further, thus exposing them to further theological development as well as a more nuanced understanding of theology proper’s development during the time.

However, where strength is found, therein lies his weakness. At times, it seemed like Kaiser mentioned some individuals briefly and others in deep detail, exploring miniscule details that could have been relegated to further study. While certain individuals do need a longer treatment than others because of their contribution (as well as for a literary change of pace) it seems that a better approach would be to not center around individuals (as he does in the final chapter), but specifically around time periods—allowing the curious student to investigate the details further.

Students, either in a church’s educational program or in theological higher education, should begin their study interacting with this work because it starts with the most foundational theological discipline and explores its foundation. Additionally, Kaiser describes an approach to theological inquiry. He utilizes a detailed, outline approach that represents how theological studies are performed today and how to properly interact with ancient sources.

Finally, he humbles theological students by showing them that through thousands of years of theological development, there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV). Often, when errors emerge on the theological horizon, it seems as if the development is brand new and no one in church history has wrestled with it before. While this may be true to a degree, especially in its cultural context, more than likely, someone at some point has already wrestled through the issue and penned valuable insight for the church today. Kaiser encourages his readers to look to the past and­­ embrace the work already done, recontextualizing it to today’s needs.

Kaiser, Christopher B. The Doctrine of God: A Historical Survey. Revised ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.

This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Drs. Michael Williams and Daniel Zink and Professor Aaron Goldstein in God & Humanity: Foundations for Counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version, is more technical in nature, and longer than previous posts.

Categories: Tags: , , , , ,