Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 3

As a reminder, I’m responding to a September 2009 article in Christianity Today, “Reveling in the Mystery” by D. H. Williams. Relying on a little-known book by Gregory of Nyssa, Professor Williams paints a speculative view of growth in the Christian life while embracing the distance between creature and Creator as something that does not need to be “overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle.”

Using Moses’s journey to the top of Mount Sinai as a model, Professor Williams identifies three stages of growth, the last being entrance into darkness. What follows next is … disturbing on many levels. Perhaps the best way to expose the error is to begin by quoting a paragraph from the article that explains the heart of the matter:

Here is where Gregory of Nyssa makes his most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology: that the Christian life must first be defined by seeking God without end, and “that true satisfaction of the soul’s desire consists in constantly going on with this quest and never ceasing in the ascent to God.” This is a joyful conclusion, since it ensures that one can always progress in holiness because spiritual progress is one of infinite growth. For the Platonist, all change is regarded as a defect or loss; in Gregory’s system, the process of changing may be redeemed by perpetual growth in the good. It is this sort of movement that describes our transformation “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV). However much the Christian is transformed into the likeness of God, God remains ever beyond, so that the soul must always push forward in anticipation in this life and in the one to come.

I’ll take the problems one point at a time.

1. Seeking God without end is contradictory to Scripture, starting with Matthew 7:7 – “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (emphasis mine). Here’s the crucial point, I believe: We can know God because He has revealed Himself.

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:8b-11, emphasis mine).

2. The idea that “ascent to God” is something I accomplish belittles Christ’s work. It is Christ’s righteousness that reconciles me to God. My sanctification is a growth process, but not all up to me. Here’s the key point: We can be like Him only because He conforms us to His son.

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:28)

3. Professor Williams assumes something about “traditional” understanding of Scripture that is not true. He implies that a view other than what he is presenting is based on Platonist thinking in which “all change is regarded as a defect or loss.” Certainly this view does not square with Scripture, nor does it square with the Protestant evangelical doctrine with which I’m familiar.

However, “growth in the good” implies something within the individual as opposed to the conformity to the image of the Son which God brings about as He works all things in a person’s life to that end.

4. The never-ending push up after an unattainable God seems to me to be a quest for that which God has put off limits. He is transcendent. He is beyond. Yet He has chosen through Jesus to show us Himself. Should I then be dissatisfied with looking at Jesus to pursue further understanding, deeper knowledge? This seems to me akin to Satan’s thirst to be like God.

5. All this striving after God supposedly happens in darkness. From Professor Williams’s article: “In fact, the closer that God comes to the soul, the more intense the darkness becomes.” His idea is that the darkness blocks out things that distract us from God. But how contrary this is to Scripture in which Jesus says He is the Light of the world.

God reveals Himself as a Consuming Fire in the Old Testament, and in Revelations He says there will be no need for the sun and moon because He will be the light.

John says in his first epistle, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:6-7).

God is not in the darkness. Earlier in his gospel, John says men love darkness because their deeds are evil. Darkness is the place where God is not. Whoever someone finds in the darkness, I suggest he is not God but a pretender, one who wishes to be like God.

God is found in the Light—that of His Son and that of His Word (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” – Psalm 119:105.) Reaching some kind of spiritual ascension in darkness is speculation at best and diabolical at worst.

Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 2

Yesterday I started a response to a Christianity Today article by D. H. Williams entitled “Reveling in the Mystery.” My first concern was that Professor Williams declares God a mystery though He makes it clear in Scripture He wants to be known.

I didn’t elaborate on this point as much as I should have perhaps. From the beginning, God talked and walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. In their sinless state, they seemed to have no trouble communicating with their Creator. Even after their sin, they are the ones who hid while God is the One who sought them out.

That latter is a metaphor for the rest of history. Yet Professor Williams and others of like thinking conclude God is the mystery, rather than that our sin obscures Him from our understanding.

The second point I discussed was Professor William’s idea that the distance between us and God should not be seen as a problem to our spiritual growth. Again, in pointing out what Scripture says about God’s people drawing near to Him, I neglected an important part of the equation.

Right after James gives the command for believers to draw near to God, he wrote that we are to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. In essence, he is providing us with the means by which we draw near to God. By dealing with sin in action and intent we are approaching God because the barrier to our fellowship with Him has been removed.

This brings me to the point where I left off yesterday. Professor Williams spends most of the rest of the article walking through a book by Gregory of Nyssa entitled The Life of Moses. The idea espoused here is that we grow by emulating “great holy men in the Old Testament and in the Christian past.”

Certainly the history of Old Testament figures is to be part of the doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction Scripture gives. But what Gregory, and Williams in his summation, is saying is built on speculation and imagination, not fact.

The two writers take Moses’s life and claim he grew spiritually (“from an Egyptian secular ruler to God’s exemplar of virtue”) in three phases—in the light, in clouds, and in darkness. Gregory claims that Moses was “mystically transformed into the likeness of God” atop Mount Sinai. (Never mind that he later sinned and receive censure from the Promised Land as a result).

Supposedly Moses’s “ascent to God” came first in light. This is a purification stage which Professor Williams links with the beatitude in Matthew “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

I have no problem with this idea, especially because it aligns with what James says. I do question the idea that Moses achieved some kind of purification on his way up the mountain. After all, he’d already had his burning bush experience, and God had used him to bring about the miraculous salvation of His people from slavery, all the while communicating with him closely.

But on to Professor Williams/Gregory’s next stage. Here Moses supposedly moved into the cloud, blocking out all else so that he could “look withing” where he found “the image of God and thereby a knowledge of God. But we must not confuse this knowledge of God with knowledge of God as he is. There is only an awareness of God’s presence.”

Did I mention speculation and imagination earlier? What Scripture would lead someone to think this was Moses’s experience? I see none.

Stage three seems worse, however. Now, according to Professor Williams/Gregory Moses entered darkness and saw God in it. “When Moses climbed higher and became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness.” And later, “This darkness expresses that the divine nature remains inaccessible because God is infinite.”

Setting aside the unfounded assumption that Moses “was becoming more perfected,” I can agree that, yes, God is infinite. However, Moses’s encounter with God was not with some inaccessible being. At this time God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel. I’m not sure Moses was even at the top of the mountain at this point since the people were begging him to intercede for them and speak for God because what they were experiencing was too terrible. Check out Exodus 19 and 20 for yourself.

In light of this context, how can we conclude that God is beyond knowing? Yet this is precisely what Professor Williams says: “It should be obvious, then, that no finite mind can plumb the depths of God.”

Well, true enough, but cannot a finite mind grasp what the infinite has deigned to tell of Himself?

There’s more. I’ll aim to wrap this up tomorrow.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm  Comments Off on Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 2  
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Draw Near to God … for What End?

I thought I was done with my posts about emerging thinkers and false teachers, at least for a while, but then a friend of mine passed along an old edition of Christianity Today. In that September 2009 issue was an article entitled “Reveling in the Mystery,” by D. H. Williams.

“Mystery” happens to be one of the things the people who engage in the “emerging conversation” believe (though they also refute the idea that they hold to any set of prescribed tenets.) Interestingly, last October I wrote an article entitled “Transcendence vs. Mystery” to examine some of the emerging ideas about the mystery of God. As I look at it now, I realize I missed some of the main points.

It’s clear to me after reading the CT article that emergent thinkers would have no trouble embracing the transcendence of God. However, in examining Scripture Professor Williams takes the word “mystery” in a verse like I Timothy 3:16 along with the ideas of “ancient writers” like Ambrose of Milan and Gregory of Nyssa, and reaches the conclusion that “God himself is mystery.”

It’s ironic that he uses the scripture he does (especially considering what follows about deceitful spirits):

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron …

– I Tim. 3:16-4:2 (emphasis mine)

Rather than expounding on the mystery of God, verse 16 seems to be declaring the revelation of God. (This is not uncommon throughout the New Testament. See for example Eph. 3:8-9: “To me [Paul], the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” [emphasis mine]).

Nevertheless, having reached the conclusion that God is mystery, Professor Williams gives the heart of his premise:

The distance between creature and Creator is not something to be overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle to growth in the Christian life.

I had to do a double-take and read that line over. As I understand Scripture, the “distance between creature and Creator” is most definitely something to overcome or remove. Except we can’t, try as we will.

The point and purpose of the Incarnation was to remove the distance sin had created. (A passage like Psalm 66:18 shows the effect sin has on our relationship with God: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear”).

Of equal importance, Scripture is filled from beginning to end with references about God’s people drawing near to Him: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8a).

Like so much false teaching, this concept of the mystery of God is not undiluted error. There is a measure of truth.

While God isn’t unknown because Jesus showed us the Father, we have the mind of Christ, and the Holy Spirit lives within each believer, we still look through a darkened glass.

In addition, God is greater than we can grasp. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts, not our thoughts. He is higher than we, without need of our counsel or, for that matter, anything we can give to Him. In other words, He is transcendent.

Rather than making God more inaccessible, however, His transcendence coupled with His incarnation and work of redemption, demonstrate His great love and grace: “Although [Christ Jesus] existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, {and} being made in the likeness of men … He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Phil. 2:6-8.

The God of the universe, Highest of the high, stooped to save me! While He has no need of it, He most definitely wants relationship with those He created in His likeness.

Which leads to the next troubling aspect of Professor Williams’s article. But I’ll have to save that for next time.

– – –

Other passages of Scripture about drawing near to God include the following: Deut. 4:7; II Chron. 15:2; Psalm 34:18, 119:151, 145:18; Lam. 3:57; Zech. 1:3; Mal. 3:7; Heb. 4:16, 7:19, 7:25, 10:1, 10:25.

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