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We’re talking about what we talk about when we talk about God. Yikes what a sentence! Is it any wonder that we often feel uncomfortable, hesitate or inadequate to talk, as in put into words, about our faith? Today we’re talking about God as a person. We often picture God as that old man with long white or grey hair (so he must be wise) in the clouds. That image is actually the classic portrait of the Greek god Zeus or the Roman god Jupiter. The Jews were forbidden from creating graven images, or pictures to represent God. (the 2nd commandment in Exodus 20:4). God wanted to spare us from falling into the limiting trap that images can be for us. But talking to a personal God – one we can imagine is so much easier.
We often think in pictures. We see the face of the person of whom we think. So it’s natural that we would want, or need some sort of visual conception to focus our thoughts. Throughout the First Testament, God is talked about in terms of a human being. We call that kind of description an anthropomorphism: describing something that is not human in human terms. God delivered the Israelites from Egypt with his strong arm. God is angry when his nostrils flare. But the Bible never talks about God as a person That notion first comes from the writing of the early Christian Theologian Tertullian (160-220) as he attempted to describe the Trinity and how God acts and speaks in salvation history. He wrote that God has 3 “persons” in Adversus Praxean. What he actually wrote was that God has 3 personas. In Latin, the word persona, refers to the masks that the performers in ancient Greek and Roman theatre wore to represent different characters. In that sense, a persona, was literally a role or a part you might play in a theatrical piece. It didn’t refer to being a human being, or being human like.
Now I’m not saying that God play a role, but rather that God is intelligent, free and distinct from the universe. God is not creation, nor vice versa. Yet we experience and know God through what God says and does. God is personal, not impersonal, seeking a relationship with us, speaking to us, eliciting a response, expecting a response. What makes a person when we use the word? It usually has to do with the notion of relationship – a person is a being who speaks and acts, responds and reciprocates, who lives and moves within a web of relationships. In that way God is a person (in the modern sense), but not a human being.
Are you confused yet? When we say that God is a person ,what we’re saying is that we know God from what God has done and said; that God acts in relationship to us – to creation. God is personal, relational, but not private or removed (what personal often also means). God is distinct from the universe and yet within the universe, letting himself be known through actions and words, through relationships and interchanges.
Look at today’s text from John 1:1-18. It’s John’s rewriting of the beginning of Genesis – retelling the story of creation, of how God spoke the cosmos into existence and how God has acted – and continues to act – in the unfolding history of the universe – what we might call Salvation History. This is one of my favorite passage from the Bible. From the lofty language, to the easy to imagine descriptions – it comes alive for me in my mind and body. I easily define God as a person, speaking, acting, relating to us – and to me – in this text. It’s in such thoughts that I can begin to fathom God – not in the desire to know or understand everything, but to have some thing to talk about, respond to, imagine.
Questions for going deeper: