Systematic Theology: Topics in God to Humanity


Theology as a discipline is often seen as a complex labyrinth of irreconcilable and competing views with no hope of coming to any firm conclusions regarding the veracity of particular doctrines.  While this certainly can be the case, it should be noted that it is possible to adequately summarize various views on a variety of topics after proper study and reflection.  As such, the purpose of this paper is to briefly synthesize the views of Michael Horton, Thomas C. Oden, and Richard P. McBrien, as well as provide my own take on six different theological topics: The Trinity, the omniscience of God, God the Son, God the Spirit, universal revelation, and the image of God in humanity.  Each section will conclude with application, noting what the church needs to communicate about each doctrine to the outside world.

The Triune God

That God exists as three co-eternal persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, has been a tenant of Christian orthodoxy since the very beginning of the church.  While never explicitly mentioned in any single text in Scripture, the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly manifest throughout the Bible.  In Genesis 1:1-3, “God created the heavens and the earth,” “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters,” and “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”  The first verses of the Bible provide readers with a glance of the nature of God’s existence: God created the heavens and the earth by the word of his power, and the Spirit was there hovering over the waters.  The opening verses of the Gospel of John reveal that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3).  What was already implicit in Genesis becomes explicit in John: creation came to be by the power of the Word who was with God and who was God.  At the end of his earthly life, Jesus tells his followers to go “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19).  The strong implication from this text is that the Christian God is triune in nature.

For Michael Horton, “the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation [of Reformed faith and practice].”[1]  Horton notes, “It was the teaching of Jesus himself, through his self-identification with the Father and the Spirit (Matthew 22:44; John 5:19-47; 6:26-58; 7:28. 37-38; 8:12-38, 48-59; 10:1-18, 25-38; 11:25-26; 14:1-14, 20; et al.) that motivated the practice of Trinitarian faith even before the dogma was fully formulated, and this clear testimony of Jesus to his equality with the Father was not lost on the religious leaders (John 5:18).”[2]  The importance of the Trinity is clearly manifest.

Thomas C. Oden argues that “the idea that the one God meets us in three persons is thought to be among the most mystifying of all Christian teachings.  Yet we must speak of Trinity, as Augustine knew, not because we are able to fathom it, but because we cannot keep silent on a matter so central to biblical faith.”[3]  Putting it in immanently memorable terms, Oden continues, “The nucleus of triune teaching is to learn how to affirm simultaneously three aspects: the equality and unity and distinguishability of Father, Son, and Spirit in our encounter with the one God.”[4]

Commenting on the Trinity, Catholic theologian Richard P. McBrien claims, “The Trinity is an absolute mystery in the sense that we do not understand it even after it has been revealed.  It is a mystery in that it is ‘hidden in God [and] cannot be known unless revealed by God.’  It is an absolute mystery in that it remains forever such.”[5]  Drawing heavily from Catholic tradition, McBrien argues, “That…God is triune is the clear and consistent teaching of the official magisterium of the church.  The Council of Nicea (325) testifies to the Church’s official faith in “one God, the Father almighty…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…and in the Holy Spirit.”[6]

Existing in three co-eternal persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, the Creator God of the universe is the preeminently complex being.  Each person is to be viewed as distinct yet undivided; that is, there is a real distinction between the Father and the Son, and between the Son and the Spirit, and between the Spirit and the Father, but there is no division.  Each person possesses the fullness of the divine attributes (e.g., omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) while also having distinct personal properties (e.g., “only the Father begets, only the Son is begotten, and only the Spirit is spirated”[7]).  This essential unity and distinction is crucial for our understanding of the Trinity.

Rather than being an obscure doctrine that unbelievers should never hear about from the church, the doctrine of the Trinity is a critical one for life and faith.  Making distinctions between the work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit while simultaneously affirming the unified purpose therein has been one of the most beneficial advancements in my own theological studies.  For example, it is abundantly clear throughout the Scriptures that “salvation belongs to our God” (Revelation 7:10; cf. Jonah 2:9; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 37:39; 68:20).  Thus, the entire Godhead is active in the work of redemption.  Yet each person inside the Trinity carries out different roles to that end: the Father elects a people to give to the Son; the Son was sent to redeem that people through his life, death, and resurrection; the Spirit applies the benefits of that perfect redemption to the people whom the Father has elected.  It should be noted here that Trinitarian theology is of utmost importance in soteriological discussions, primarily because “salvation belongs to our God,” and therefore all three persons of the Trinity work to accomplish this redemption.  The church must proclaim that God is triune in nature because the salvation of souls is at stake.  To deny the Trinity, either fully or in part, is to deny the God who has made himself known as Father, Son, and Spirit.

The Omniscience of God

An important aspect of the nature and character of God is his omniscience.  The fact that God has extensive knowledge of all things is an oft-repeated refrain in Scripture (cf. Proverbs 3:19-20; 15:3; Psalm 139:4, 16; 147:5).  The Bible is unashamed in its declarations of God’s all-encompassing knowledge and wisdom.  God knows everything in every point of creation, from the largest galaxies to the smallest molecules.  He even knows how many hairs are on my head (Luke 12:7)!  This kind of knowledge is incredible, but nothing short of what is to be expected from the Creator of the universe.

The omniscience of God is crucial for Horton.  He writes, “God depends on the world no more for his knowledge than for his being.  Nor can his knowledge be any more circumscribed than his presence or duration…God’s simplicity entails that none of his attributes are added to his existence.  It is impossible for God not to know everything comprehensively.  Given his eternality, he knows the end from the beginning in one simultaneous act.  God knows all things because he has decreed the end from the beginning and ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).”[8]

Regarding the omniscience of God, Oden argues, “Only God knows all creation omnisciently—altogether beginning to end—without limitation or condition…The divine omniscience is best viewed as the infinite consciousness of God in relation to all possible objects of knowledge.”[9]  Following Arminianism to its logical conclusion in the “Middle Knowledge” view[10], Oden writes, “God not only grasps and understands what actually will happen, but also what could happen under varied possible contingencies.  If God’s knowing is infinite, God knows even the potential effects of hypothetical but unactualized possibilities, just as well as God knows what has or will come to be.”[11]

McBrien does not treat the omniscience of God directly.  In his section on “Divine Providence” he argues, “Providence, first of all, refers literally to God’s ‘foresight.’  It has to do with the way God shapes and directs human history and creation itself, and cares for all creatures and especially all of humanity.”[12]  From this, readers can recognize several different assumptions that undergird McBrien’s theology: first, God has exhaustive knowledge of (at least) the present and the past; second, God’s omnipotence means that he is able to “shape and direct human history” toward the proper endgoal; third, his benevolence means that he is caring towards all of his creation generally.

The fact that God knows all things is immanently practical in my own life.  This reality can lead to genuine intimacy and honesty before God.  That God knows all things with certainty implies that everything that occurs in my life is ultimately a good gift that is meant to conform me further into the image of Christ.  Practically, there is not a great distinction between God’s omniscience and his foreordination, or the doctrine that God knows all things because he has ordained all that will come to pass.[13]

One of the most important things regarding the omniscience of God that must be communicated to the world outside the church is that God, as the Creator, knows precisely how he designed everything to work.  Oftentimes unbelievers object to the notion of God because they view him primarily as a kind of morality police, existing only to deny humans their sinful pleasures.  While this view sounds crazy on paper, it is the functional view of a great many people.  Yet Christians must be unashamed in our witness to the outside world, especially in regards to God’s omniscience.  He is all-knowing and all-wise, which implies that his commands are for our good.  He knows exactly how he designed humanity to flourish, so his commands are not meant to steal our joy; rather, they are meant to lead us into the fullness of joy.

God the Son

The second person of the Trinity is God the Son, Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures frequently refer to Jesus as the Word of God (John 1:1-3), implying his divinity.  Yet readers can also see that Jesus was fully human because, among other things, he was born (Luke 2:40), experienced hunger (Matthew 4:2), and died (John 19:34).  The orthodox understanding from the Bible is that in the hypostatic union the human and divine natures were joined so that he was one whole, unified person whose human and divine qualities were neither overshadowed nor lost.

For Horton, “The Son of Man is God as well as human and the Son of God is a human figure who is also Lord…Similarly, Jesus is not only the eternally begotten Son of the Father, but the true and faithful human son.  Sonship in this sense is both ontological and official.”[14]  Thus, we see that Horton affirms an orthodox view of the hypostatic union.  Horton notes that the Son “was not just an angel or prophetic messenger.  He allowed himself to be worshiped during his earthly mission and was invoked by the earliest Christians as Lord along with the Father.”[15]

Oden argues, “The confession that Jesus Christ is Son of God stands as a key confession of the primitive oral tradition, amplifying other concise confessions…Both the Pauline term ‘his own Son’ (Romans 8:3), and the Johannine term ‘his only Son’ (John 1:18) point to the unique pretemporal relation of Son to Father.  The Son is unique, one and only…eternal Son, uncreated Son of God.”[16]  This demonstrates that for Oden, “Sonship points to an eternal relationship, not to a temporal beginning point.”[17]  In much of Oden’s thought, then, it is clear that he sees the Son as being eternally preexistent, becoming Jesus only at the incarnation.

For McBrien, “The Son is begotten by the Father and not made out of nothing, like a creature…The Son is of the same substance with the Father.  Thus, the Son is coequal in divinity and coeternal with the Father.  It is through the Son as the Word, or Logos, of the Father that the Father is express in salvation history and within the inner life of the Trinity as well.”[18]  Thus, for McBrien at least, the Son is the person through whom the Father reveals himself to humanity (see below, “God the Spirit,” for further development of McBrien’s view).  This is seen primarily in the incarnation, especially as the Son puts on flesh.

One piece of the doctrine of the Trinity is the doctrine of the Son, the second person of the Trinity.  The Son has a unique role among the Godhead primarily because of the incarnation.  Fully divine and fully human in nature, Jesus Christ gave up the status and privilege due to him as God in order to reconcile his people to God (cf. Philippians 2:6-8).  It should be noted that the two natures combined in such a way that he did not cease to be God at the incarnation, and he was fully and completely human.

The most important part of this doctrine that can be communicated to the outside world is the fact that Jesus is divine.  He is not simply a great philosopher or good moral teacher; on the contrary, he is the great “I am” (John 8:58).  He is “Immanuel…God with us” (Matthew 1:23).  Thus, the world outside the church must know that the God of the universe has made a condescension, at great cost, in order to rescue and redeem broken and rebellious sinners.  He took on “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:1) in order to “[become] a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

God the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is one of the least understood doctrines in the Christian faith, and subsequently is one of the most neglected.  We first see the Spirit in Genesis 1:3 when he is hovering over the waters.  Next we see him empowering the saints for service in building the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 31:3).  In the New Testament, the Spirit works as God’s personal agent of recreation, freely regenerating unto faith the people of God (cf. John 3:3-8).  In Ephesians 1:13-14, the Spirit seals the elect of God and acts as the guarantee of their future inheritance.

In Horton’s thought, “There are clear passages in the Old Testament that indicate also the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit and yet identify this distinct person as God.  This is demonstrated with great narrative force in the creative brooding of the Spirit over the waters in the beginning, his ‘new creation’ leading of the Israelites through the waters of baptism in the Red Sea, and his filling of the temple in the land of Canaan…Identified by his divine name (Exodus 31:3; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21), the Spirit also has divine attributes ascribed to him (omnipresence, Psalm 139:7-10; omniscience, Isaiah 40:13-14; 1 Corinthians 2:10-11), as well as divine works.”[19]

In speaking of the Holy Spirit, Oden professes, “Certain characteristics are ascribed to the Holy Spirit that could only belong to God: omniscience…omnipresence…omnipotence… eternality.”[20]  Oden continues, “The names of the Spirit in Scripture point to the character of the Spirit…The works of the Spirit are those only the true God could do.  By the Spirit the demonic powers are overcome…sinners enter the kingdom of God…the Son is raised from the dead…”[21]  Thus, the Spirit, acting as the third person of the Trinity, exists as God yet with distinct roles and functions separate and apart from the Father and the Son.

Commenting on the doctrine of the Spirit, McBrien notes, “The Holy Spirit is the Father’s gift through the Son.  It is through the Spirit that the Father is communicated to us with immediacy, and it is through the Spirit that we are able to accept the self-communication of the Father.  As the self-communication of God, the Holy Spirit is God given in love and with the reconciling and renewing power of that love.  The Spirit has the same essence of the Father, and yet is distinct from the Father and the Son.”[22]  So, for McBrien, the Son is the content of God’s self-revelation to us, and this comes to us through the Spirit.

The work of the Spirit is crucial to understand, especially in this “already-not yet” time period we occupy.  For believers, the Spirit acts as the sanctifying agent, empowering them for obedience (cf. Romans 8:11-13) as well as interceding for them according to the will of God (Romans 8:26).  The Spirit also functions to convict the world of sin, thereby leading many unbelievers unto faith and repentance (cf. John 16:8).

Our communication to the world outside the church regarding the Holy Spirit should include the immanence of God, especially in his governance and providence of creation.  The Christian faith does not see God as being so transcendent that he cannot be known; rather, the Spirit is actively working in creation to bring about redemption, convict sinners concerning judgment, and empowering believers for obedience.  God has made himself known through the Scriptures that the Spirit inspired, and humans can come to an adequate and sufficient understanding of God precisely because of the Spirit’s work of illumination.

Universal Revelation

The doctrine of universal revelation is another tenant of the Christian faith.  That is, God has revealed himself adequately enough to all people through creation so that they might be without excuse before him.  Paul declares in Romans 1:19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes…have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world…So they are without excuse.”  This clearly demonstrates that God has revealed his attributes, nature, and character in and through his creation so that all people can come to know him.

General revelation, for Horton, is “The view that God has revealed himself through what he has made he has made.”[23]  Moreover, it is “here (Psalm 19:1-4) we are directed by the psalmist to discover God’s majesty, glory, and character in nature and history.”[24]  And finally, “Everyone is aware of God’s existence, even of his moral will (Romans 2:14-15).  Neither Jews, who have the written law, nor Gentiles, who have the law written on their conscience, can plead ignorance; yet it is this very fact that condemns us all (Romans 1:18-3:19).”[25]

Commenting on general revelation, Oden argues, “Revelation is not primarily the imparting of information but rather the self-giving and self-evidencing of God.”[26]  He continues by making a distinction between revelation and scientific inquiry: “In science the subject self works toward discovering the truth; in revelation the truth works toward discovering the subject self.”[27]  This has important implications for his doctrine of general revelation because it implies that God is seeking after humans in his action of revelation, rather than leaving humans to discover him on their own through the use of reason.

McBrien, concerning universal revelation, notes, “Early creedal statements…hymns… psalms…and narrative accounts affirm God’s self-disclosure in history.  God is also revealed in the glory of nature…and in religious experience, especially in a liturgical setting.”[28]  So, continuing the common narrative, universal revelation is that doctrine that holds that God has revealed himself generally to all in nature and in subjective experience.  Where McBrien radically departs from evangelical theology is his assertion that “every human person is already radically open to divine revelation in the very core of her or his being, in that God is present to every person as the offer of grace.”[29]  More conservative theologians would categorize any salvific movement of God as “special” or “particular” revelation, but McBrien leaves it firmly in the universal revelation category.

I take a high view of revelation coupled with a low view of human ability; that is, if humans are to know anything about God, he must reveal it to them.  It is impossible, as finite creatures, to reason our way to a sufficient and adequate knowledge of God, an infinite being, without him revealing himself to us.  Thus, it is an act of grace that he has chosen to reveal himself in a general way through creation.  This general revelation, however, is not sufficient for salvation and only serves to make all people culpable and responsible for their sin.

An important aspect of the church’s communication to the outside world is the reality that God has made himself known to all people.  Many people simply assume that God does not exist or that he is not knowable even if he did exist (agnosticism).  Yet the Bible seems to indicate the exact opposite: not only does God exist, but he has revealed himself to everyone universally through creation so that none will be without excuse before him.  God is knowable primarily because he has made himself known, and therefore, all people are obligated to worship and serve him.  

The Image of God in Humanity

The first mention of the image of God is Genesis 1:26-27: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  The New Testament contains several exhortations regarding the image of God in humanity: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).  Speaking about the tongue, James argues, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

For Horton, “The image of God (imago dei) is not something in us that is semidivine but something between us and God that constitutes a covenantal relationship.  To put it differently, it is not because of our soul (or intellect) that we are ranked higher than our fellow creatures, but because we have been created…with a special commission, for a special relationship with God.”[30]  This special relationship is that we might have fellowship and life with him.

For Oden, the image of God in humanity is primarily a functional reality.  That is, “God became human, not a rock or a hummingbird or spider, because humanity is already made in God’s image.”[31]  Thus, the primary purpose behind humans being created in God’s image is that they might be able to show him forth: “Yet under the conditions of the fallenness of history, the capacity of humanity to image or reflect God has become grossly distorted.  This is why Christ, the perfect image of God according to which humanity was originally made, is said to have restored that lost image by assuming human nature and filling it with the divine life.”[32]

McBrien does not formally treat the image of God in humanity.  He mentions it in passing with a view to Iranaeus’ work on the subject.[33]  However, he does make a few comments about humanity that are pertinent: “The Bible views the human person as a creature of God, as animated body.  Our bodiliness is the basis of our relationship with one another.”[34]  From this we can conclude that McBrien views humanity as primarily relational in nature, able to form communities primarily because God has created humanity to operate in this way.  The imago dei is less about what makes up humanness, and more about how humans are to function in the created order.

The image of God is a very popular doctrine for contemporary Christians to explore, despite the relatively scarce frequency of the idea in the Scriptures.  Being made in the image of God implies that all people have a certain worth and value before God (even after the Fall) and that they are the crown jewel of creation.  This doctrine does not mean, however, that humans have the same autonomous, sovereign will that God does.  The image of God does not mean that humans have the ability to be like God; it means simply that humans have the ability to magnify and show forth the glory of God to the rest of the created order in a way that is distinct from any other creature.

One thing that we must communicate to the world outside the church is that every human is created in the image of God.  The Fall has seriously distorted our minds, wills, and affections, but the imago dei still remains intact.  This has major implications for our ethics, specifically in areas like abortion, genocide, assisted suicide, as well as our speech and attitudes towards those closest to us.  How we treat those around us in a certain sense demonstrates what we believe the God who created humans in his image.

[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 273.

[2] Ibid., 276.

[3] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 105.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (New York: HarperOne, 1994), 316.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Horton, The Christian Faith, 290.

[8] Horton, The Christian Faith, 259-260.

[9] Oden, Classic Christianity, 48.

[10] It should be noted here that advocates of libertarian free will must inevitably affirm either middle knowledge or open theism in order to be consistent throughout their theology.

[11] Oden, Classic Christianity, 49.

[12] McBrien, Catholicism, 333.

[13] This point closely resembles Horton’s when he says, “God knows all things because he has decreed the end from the beginning.” The Christian Faith, 259-260.

[14] Horton, The Christian Faith, 458.

[15] Ibid., 467.

[16] Oden, Classic Christianity, 247.

[17] Ibid.

[18] McBrien, Catholicism, 318.

[19] Horton, The Christian Faith, 277.

[20] Oden, Classic Christianity, 513.

[21] Ibid., 514.

[22] McBrien, Catholicism, 318-319.

[23] Horton, The Christian Faith, 139.

[24] Ibid., 140.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Oden, Classic Christianity, 17.

[27] Ibid.

[28] McBrien, Catholicism, 228.

[29] Ibid., 266.

[30] Horton, The Christian Faith, 381.

[31] Oden, Classic Christianity, 316.

[32] Ibid.

[33] McBrien, Catholicism, 163, 167.

[34] Ibid., 166.

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