God's Self-Revelation in the Bible and Our Slowness in Grasping It
Address at the Second Meeting of the Sixth National
Christian Conference November 11-18, 1998, Jinan (1)
My title is rather long, but not at all complicated. Because God reveals things to us in the Bible gradually, revelations are not single events over and done with. In the same way, human understanding of God's revelation does not come all at once either, but unfolds increases gradually.
From its earliest sections to the most recent, the biblical records over one thousand years of history. Over this long per God has many times and in many ways corrected people's misperceptions of him, and led them step by step to understand better. As it says in Hebrews 1:1: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets..."
Jesus' own words in John 16:12, 13 express the same idea: "'I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.'"
Why should this be so? Why doesn't God tell us everything has to tell us all at once? Why spend over one thousand years of Bible telling us? Because we would not understand all at once, and if we could, we could not bear it. Apart from our sinfulness and weakness, each of us absorbs so much in terms of culture and tradition that has been shaped by those who came before us. Our ideas viewpoints, the way we think, all this comes from our families, parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, classmates, and colleagues. And much more comes to us from novels, movies and television. Once they have taken shape, these ideas, viewpoints, and ways of think become ingrained, and are very hard to change.
We know that God's love extends beyond the Israelites to many other peoples. God made this explicit to people early on in many and various ways in the Old Testament. He announced it in Amos 9:7: "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" And again in Isaiah 19: 25: "...whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, 'Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage." However, by New Testament times, many people still had not taken in what they had heard, maintaining that God was God only of Israel, that God loved only the Israelites. This being the case, it would naturally take a very long time for God to correct the Israelites' misperception of him.
You remember that when God used Peter to enable the gospel of Christ to break through the bonds of Jewish ethnicity and spread to all the peoples of the world, the first thing he required was that Peter receive the gentile Cornelius. Peter's resistance to this was great (Acts 10). It had been ingrained in Peter that he should not come into contact with "unclean things" and this was an obstacle to God's wonderful will. God had to use other means to gradually turn Peter's thinking around. Later Peter's thinking did change somewhat, but he was still rather stubborn. In the church, too, there were some who still clung to tradition, changing not a bit.
There was a very long period when, in the eyes of the Israelites, God was only God of Israel, the one who led them into Canaan. The Israelites believed that God wanted them to slaughter the original inhabitants of Canaan. Today we see this as a barbaric and inhumane act, something that could not be the will of God. But at the time, Joshua and others felt that this was "Gods righteousness". Many such views of God can be found preserved in the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Joshua. Let us consider two such passages. "But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them-the Hittites and Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites am Jebusites just as the Lord your God has commanded" (Dent 16,17). "So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country an Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings: he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the
God of Israel commanded" (Joshua 10:40). Such views persists a long time, right up until the exile. Psalm 137: 9 still calls for Babylonian infants' heads to be dashed against the stones. Jonah is another example. Coming from a narrow ethnic background, he was only too anxious that the people of Nineveh not repent so that could call down the wrath of God to destroy the city. But Go, merciful God. God told Jonah, "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from left...?" We can see from this that the Israelites' misperception of God died hard.
However, through a long period of revelation and teaching from God, the view that God's love extends to all peoples and became widely accepted. Finally, in I John 4: 16, we read, "God is love". We might consider this as the height of biblical revelation about the nature of God. It can also be considered the pinnacle of human understanding of God. It is many years from Deuteronomy and Joshua to I John. God felt that humanity had progressed to such an extent that some people, at least, could embrace this revelation that God is and so he spoke this simple and clear truth through I John. In words, only after a long passage of time would there be some people able to understand, accept and take up this simple truth that God is love.
And so some say that there is internal development in the Bible. I would say that we have no reason to oppose such a view.
"God is love." Love is not a sometime attribute of God. Love is not merely one attribute of God among others. Love is the foremost attribute of all God's attributes. This is the gospel. John 3: 16 begins "For God so loved the world," and only then says that God sent his only son into the world to complete his plan for redemption through the Incarnation, giving eternal life to those that believe in him. Without love on God's part, God could be seen simply as a deity absorbed in his own perfection, unconcerned for the human beings. If we speak only of God's righteousness, and do not speak of God's love, then the image we give of God is that of a punisher. Christian faith then becomes a religion of fear and dread, brought down to the level of common primitive folk religion. In fact, righteousness is derived from love. Only with love as the prerequisite can there be talk of righteousness.
There are four children in my family, including me. Once my parents had to be away from home for some time and my father knew that we would quarrel over food, so he made a rule: one of us must cut whatever we ate, be it cake or fruit, into four pieces (one each) and let the other three choose first, taking the last piece for him or herself. This made it much fairer and we didn't quarrel. I have always remembered this and have always thought my father the wisest and fairest of fathers. He loved us four children and his love never changed. His fair-mindedness and righteousness were expressions of his love.
When love reaches many people, the just nature of love will be made manifest.
During World War II, Hitler put all the Jews in Germany into concentration camps and sent them to places specially constructed to kill them. They were stripped of their gold teeth, their hair. Their clothing and locked into windowless rooms where they were gassed. Over five million died. This cruel and barbaric act is called holocaust. Some supporters of it claimed that the Jews were guilty of murdering Jesus and should be punished for their crime. They quoted the Old Testament, using as evidence the Israelites' attack on Canaan and their "holy war" against weaker peoples, saying the massacres were God's command. They negated the love of God in the name of God's righteousness, thereby extinguishing God's love and portraying God as a hater of humankind and a brutal punisher. We must shout at those who hold such a view of God that God is not Satan. Nor is God a fascist! The holocaust is condemned by all who speak of righteousness in this world. When we speak of God's righteousness, we must not for a moment forget that it must be founded primarily on God's merciful love.
When China was invaded by the Japanese Military Empire, 40 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives. There were people in our church then who said that this was God's punishment of China. But many people in the church also asked why God would punish the Chinese victims and not the Japanese invaders. God is love. God righteous, but this righteousness must be under the rule of God's love.
God is the cosmic Lover. With a heart of merciful love, he is constantly creating and redeeming. This teaching has been the decisive revelation for my own spiritual journey. It has deepened my faith, my hope and my love.
This view of revelation has helped me to attain a more complete and consistent approach to the Bible. I would like you to ponder the following: Is there development taking place in the view of God and other concepts in the Bible? Can this understanding help us to better discover the treasures hidden in the Bible?
The God of the Book of Joshua and that of I John do not seem be the same God, but there cannot be two Gods in the one Bible. I can only say that due to human obtuseness, God's revelation must progress gradually, it must develop, moving from low to high. The view of God of people in the Bible also evolves gradually, until it reaches perfection. If we deny that the view of God in the Bible changes and develops, what other means have we to reconcile the supposed contradictions in the Bible? Let us humbly await wisdom from God, and may the Chinese church gain a view of God and the Bible that will be pleasing in God's sight.
NanjingTheological Review , No. I (1999), p. 3
Also translated in Amity News Service as "Statement by Bishop K.H. Ting", vol. 18.1/2 (Feb., 1999).
1 Referred to hereafter as the Jinan Conference. "The main topic of the Conference was the strengthening of theological reconstruction in the Chinese church the Conference asked the Chinese church to enliven its theology on the foundation of maintaining the essentials of the faith, loving country and loving church, and to undertake helpful theological explorations, in order to guide Christians' spiritual and everyday lives. The publication of Love Never Ends [the Chinese version -- ed.] is undoubtedly a great event for theological reconstruction in the Chinese church. Last year, in issue No. 4, we published a call for manuscripts, in hopes that colleagues and other Christians and friends, in the church and outside, would send us their own reflections on reading the volume. The response has been overwhelming and two of the manuscripts received are included in this issue. We would welcome further submissions." [Note from the editor of Nanjing Theological Review.]