Preaching’s Biggest Assumption

I think the biggest assumption found in Christian preaching today might be this: that God is God.

Now I don’t mean that God has the right to be God, that is a different matter and a truth worth affirming.  I mean that when the preacher says “God,” the listeners know who is meant.  That is a big assumption.

It’s true that we live in an age of great religious confusion.  After all, there may be Muslims, or Sikhs, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or New Age, or cult members present.  There does seem to be an ever widening array of divinity options in our world today.  But actually this isn’t my thinking in this post.  Even when all present would call themselves Christians, I still think this is a big assumption to make.

Among Christians there are different “versions” of God at large, although they essentially do boil down to two main options.  One is the monadic deity of philosophy – a God that tends to be assumed and agreed on in terms of his inherent attributes.  This is the God that can be defined and described for chapter after chapter of some systematic theology texts before any reference to the Son or the Spirit or the Trinity are made.  So many preachers refer to God, and assume all know what they mean . . . the God who made everything, is everywhere, judges everything, is all powerful, etc.

Somehow this power-God of philosophy is overlaid onto the Bible and assumed to be the same as the God of the Bible who is Father because of the eternal relationality of the Trinity, because of the Son and the Spirit.  This God somehow seems to be slightly, and at times, radically different from the God that “everyone knows is God” of philosophy.  My mind goes back to Mike Reeves’ talk at the Delighted By God conference in the summer where he contrasted the God of Arius and the God of Athanasius, offering both as the two options present in contemporary Christianity (here’s the link).

It isn’t only the increasing biblical illiteracy of our times that makes identifying the God we preach important.  It is also the centuries’ old confusion of monadic and trinitarian understandings of God that makes this important.  As we make sure our preaching is theocentric and pointing to God rather than humanity as its goal and focus, let’s be sure we are clear which God we are preaching.

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9 thoughts on “Preaching’s Biggest Assumption

  1. This post raised a thought in my mind. Often, when preaching, we have people in front of us who know next to nothing about Christianity or the Bible (and do not know who or what ‘God’ is) and those who have been Christians for over 40 years and know more than the preacher.

    Explaining first principles for newbies without losing the more experienced, and teaching those with good knowledge without going over the heads of the beginners is tricky, to say the least.

    Bridging this gap is not easy. Those new to church have to realise that it takes time to pick things up (people don’t learn maths in three weeks, but over several years) which is contrary to the modern desire for instant gratification. Older Christians also have to be patient with the younger ones and allow the preacher to address some of their issues, even if it seems old hat to them.

    Any thoughts on this?

    • Thanks Stephen – good question. My thinking is that you are right that new folks need to learn over time. But I would also not assume that old hands at listening to sermons have it all together when it comes to this issue. By graciously teaching newcomers who the God of the Bible actually is, you might find the light dawning for some older believers who have never really caught sight of the glory of the love relationship of the trinity, the fact that God genuinely desires intimate relationship with us (rather than a buffered distant contractual arrangement), etc. Being sure to preach the right God is worth it for every listener, both new and old.

    • Follow up comment . . . I never tire of hearing people say nice things about my wife. I don’t say, or think, “yeah I know that about her, let’s move on” . . . just a thought (and God means even more to me than the wonderful wife he blessed me with!)

  2. Thanks for this Peter, such an important reminder. I remember a three hour “conversation” with a muslim man in the centre of Cairo I had a few years ago that taught me this precise point. After two hours it dawned on me that though we both affirmed “God”, be it as supreme or “one” or whatever, the “One God” he was talking about was not the “One Trinitarian God” I was talking about (even his trinity was wrong since it included Mary!!)! This is much more obvious in an Islamic context admittedly, but the thought that we also need to be careful of definitions in our churches is more likely to be overlooked. My question would be, in a weekly church context, to avoid this assumption, do we need to define every term we use every time?

    • Thanks Richard, great comment! I don’t think we need to overdo the definition diet for our listeners, but we do need to be sensitive to the potential misunderstandings and give enough to intrigue and inform over time. I think this is worth another post.

  3. Eternal life is to know the true God (John 17:3). So your point is very well taken, Peter, that really knowing God rightly is foundational (and often lacking).

    Of course, we can’t “make” our listeners know Him. It’s the work of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2). But the Spirit uses Word, and that’s what we are supposed to be preaching, after all.

    Your “God of philosophy” vs. “the true relational God” contrast is also helpful, I think. It seems to me John in the first chapter of his Gospel engaged in a similar discussion (in greater depth), contrasting the logos of philosophy with the real Logos, who is an actual Person, with relational ramifications. I know you weren’t talking about that, but your post reminded me of it.

  4. I definitely agree that as preachers we must not assume that everyone knows that we are speaking of the One True God in all situations. However, if we preach from the Holy Bible, isn’t it understood that even a majority of unbelievers associate the Bible with Jehovah? If the unbeliever does not associate the Bible with God, how do we preach anything but the identity of God?

    • Thanks Michael. It may be true that unbelievers associate the Bible with Jehovah (although I suspect we shouldn’t assume anything about what unbelievers think of the Bible), but my post is pointing to the false assumption that when people refer to “the God of the Bible” or even “Jehovah”, then they are referring to the God as revealed in the Bible. Sadly too many use the label for a far more philosophically defined ultimate deity. This comes with the assumption that everyone who uses the word “God” in reference to the one true God, means the same God.

  5. Hi Peter,

    Good post.

    Stephen asked if there were any suggestions. Here is one which will hopefully be helpful to both the newbies and the believers of 40+. (I guess I’m thinking a majority Western congregation).

    Peter is suggesting that a major problem is an underlying assumption that God is the Omni-god of philosophy. I would add that, particularly when preaching OT passages, a Western congregation will assume the god you are speaking about is basically a monad. There is a functional unitarianism going on. Coupled with that, I would suggest a lot of folk think that the God behind Jesus is the one we worship. We worship him in Jesus name.

    So my suggestion is…

    Be deliberately Trinitarian in your language. Instead of talking about God, talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or the Triune God, or The Father and His Eternal Son, The Ancient of Days and His Anointed etc. Try to use God, LORD, Yahweh or Jehovah much less often. BUT when it comes to Jesus make sure you call Him God, Yahweh and call the congregation to worship Him, the bloody lamb, the weeping mourner, the foot washing King.

    Rich

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