This interview is with Gerald Bray, research professor at Beeson Divinity School and author of God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology (October 2014).
Why did you write God Has Spoken?
I wrote this book partly as an accompaniment to my earlier volume, God Is Love, which was intended to be a systematic theology based on the Reformation principle of “Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura). There was a great deal of historical debate that had to be omitted for reasons of space, and to that extent, God Is Love cried out for a sequel. This is what God Has Spoken is intended to be.
What makes your book different from other historical theologies?
God Has Spoken is different from other historical theologies mainly in the way that it combines the distinct disciplines of history and theology. Most other books of this kind focus on one or the other. Either they are histories of the church with reference to theological developments, or they are doctrinal essays that trace the origins of particular beliefs without paying much attention to the wider context in which those beliefs were articulated.
I have tried to be fair to both aspects, giving equal prominence to the history and to the theology. In order to do that properly, I have taken a fixed point—the doctrine of God (which is what theology is about, after all) and expounded how that has developed over time, with the focus progressively shifting from one of the Persons of the Trinity to the others.
You open the book with a major section on “the Israelite legacy.” Why start there?
It is important to start with Israel because the Son of God came into the world to proclaim salvation to his chosen people. Jesus worked with and from what we call the Old Testament, and neither his teaching nor his work can be understood apart from that.
Jesus worked with and from what we call the Old Testament, and neither his teaching nor his work can be understood apart from that.
It has always been essential for the church to understand how it is rooted in God's revelation to ancient Israel, and also how (and why) ethnic Israel moved away from that inheritance.
How did you structure the book and what is the significance of that structure?
The book has eight major sections. The first, as I have already indicated, is concerned with Israel and the general theological outlook that we have inherited from the Old Testament—belief in the One God, the creation of the world as something distinct from his own being, etc.
The next six sections are divided into the Person and Work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, taking each of these in turn. I have tried to show that it was the task of Jesus to teach his disciples to pray to God as their Father, because without that identification, it would have been meaningless for him to have revealed himself to them as the Son. Next comes the work of the Father—the belief that the Creator God and the Redeemer are one and the same. This is generally assumed nowadays, but the early church had to fight for this, because people wondered how it was possible for a perfect God to have created an imperfect world. Why did it need redemption? Did this not mean that there was a higher deity than the Creator, who had something better to offer? Obviously not—but the first Christians had to defend their belief that the God who saved them was the same as the God who made them in the first place.
After that, I move on to the Person of the Son, who assumed humanity and came into the world as Jesus Christ. The precise nature of this incarnation was debated for centuries and forms the basis of the creeds of the early church that are still widely used today. From there, I move on to the Work of the Son. Why did he come into the world? The answer to that question takes us through the Middle Ages and to the brink of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when the doctrine of Christ's penal substitutionary atonement was finally worked out.
I then move on to the Person of the Holy Spirit, which was highly controversial in the Middle Ages and led to the permanent division between the Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern (Greek and Russian Orthodox) traditions. Does the Holy Spirit proceed from both the Father and the Son, as the West has always claimed, or from the Father alone, as the East insists? To many people, this is an obscure controversy, but it remains of great importance and its nature must be fully understood.
After that, I deal with the Work of the Holy Spirit, which underlies the debates of the Reformation. Does the Holy Spirit work primarily through external things like the church, the sacraments and so on, or internally, in the heart and life of the believer? Am I a Christian because I have been baptized (external) or because I believe (internal)? In an age of ecumenical rapprochement, the reasons for the Reformation divide need to be understood, which is what this section tries to do.
Finally, the last section deals with the modern age, where the doctrine of God has been explored in its two basic aspects. First of all, the very existence of God has been questioned by a militant atheism that first emerged around 1700 and is now dominant in the formerly Christian world. Second, there has been a renewal of Trinitarian thinking inside the churches, which is tied to the ecumenical developments of our own time.
In the final chapter entitled “The Challenge of God Today,” you note that the idea that God suffers is “the most prominent and controversial issue being debated in modern theology.” Can you elaborate on this?
In many ways the key issue facing theologians today is whether or not God can suffer. There are several reasons for this. One is that people today want to know whether there is a God to whom we can relate, a God who understands us and our problems. If God can’t do this, they’re not interested in him.
Secondly, it calls into question the traditional Christian affirmation that God is beyond suffering (impassible). Do we have to change our theological tradition (and even deny its validity) in order to accommodate this modern desire?
Finally, it raises once again the old distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Both have their place, but how do we understand their relationship to one another? For all these reasons, the question of divine suffering is extremely importance for us today.
What do you hope readers will ultimately take away from this book?
I hope that readers will go away from this book with a deeper understanding of how God has spoken to his people in the past, of how he is at work among us in the present, and of what we can expect from him in the future.
The only real purpose of any theological book is to bring people closer to God, and if this book achieves that end it will do what I intend it to do!