Last week I talked a bit about what we Seventh-day Adventists believe about the Trinity, or the Godhead – that whole Father, Son, Holy Spirit thing. The next fundamental belief I’ll be looking at is our belief about “God the Father.”
The text of our official statement of beliefs says: “God the eternal Father is the Creator, Source, Sustainer, and Sovereign of all creation. He is just and holy, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The qualities and powers exhibited in the Son and the Holy Spirit are also revelations of the Father.”
Right away, of course, as a feminist, the language is problematic for me. God as “Father” equates, in most people’s minds, to God as male, despite this being a God who is said to have created both male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27). It interests me to note that nowhere in the SDA statements of belief about God is the question of God’s gender addressed. I’ve always believed God to be beyond human gender, to be neither male nor female, and believed that the patriarchal language used of God in the Bible reflected the culture in which the Bible was written. I’m sure I’ve heard other Adventists, even minister, express this idea that God is neither masculine nor feminine but beyond gender, but there’s no reference at all to this concept in this book about Adventist belief, or even any acknowledgement of the fact that an all-male Father-God concept might be problematic for some people.
I’m comfortable (as comfortable as one can ever be in speaking of the Incomprehensible) with thinking of God as beyond gender and imagining both male and female images of God with the proviso that both are only images. While the language the Bible uses to talk about God is overwhelmingly masculine, there are feminine images of God in Scripture as well, though these are often ignored and downplayed. It makes sense to me that to people in a patriarchal culture God would have presented Godself as a Father, but I always expect God to be bigger than our human understanding, and a God who could be defined as “male” or “masculine” would seem dangerously anthropomophized to me.
The question of God’s gender (or lack thereof) isn’t addressed in Seventh-day Adventists Believe … but another thorny issue is addressed at length: that of God’s character. What kind of God is this “God the Father” that we follow? In this official statement of Adventist beliefs, God is described here as a God of mercy, a covenant God, a Redeemer, a God of refuge, a God of forgiveness and goodness. But there is also an attempt made to wrestle with some of the negative baggage God has acquired – the picture of God as a God of vengeance, wrath and wholesale destruction.
One thing I love about Adventist doctrine is that two of the biggest Christian slanders against God’s character are NOT present in Adventist belief. The Calvinist God who consigns the majority of His creation to damnation, who created them only to destroy them, is rejected by Adventism, which is basically Arminian in its emphasis on free will. And the God of much of mainstream Christianity who tortures sinners in an eternally burning hell also does not appear in Adventism. Adventists would argue that both these distortions of God’s character – both of which really, really trouble me to the point I find it hard to believe people worship this “God” – are based in unsound readings of the Bible (which we’ll get around to discussing more in later weeks as I look at the other Adventist beliefs).
However, because of the extremely high position in which Adventist place the Bible, we’re less able to deal with a third problem related to God’s character – that many of the negative, vengeful, destructive images that people have of God do come directly from the Bible and from things that God does and authorizes there. I’ve blogged extensively in the past about the difficulty I have with the violence that appears to be either initiated or at least approved by God in the Old Testament — the wholesale destruction of human life in the Flood; the death of every firstborn Egyptian; the conquest of Canaan; etc., etc., etc.
I know that for each and every example that troubles me, devout Christians can come up with “good” explanations as to why this particular slaughter was necessary, just, or not as bad as it looks. But taken together, it’s very easy to see why many non-believers respond by simply rejecting outright the God who allegedly committed all these acts. And to brush off these questions as unimportant seems to be to not be taking Scripture as seriously as we say we take it.
If you have a lower view of the Bible it’s easier to say, “Well, this was written by people in a violent and bloodthirsty culture and this was how they saw God,” but if you believe the Bible is God’s inspired and infallible word, you’ve got more to grapple with there. If God is good, why does He commit what seem by our standards to be evil acts? Or, if He didn’t actually commit them, why does He allow Himself to be portrayed in such a way in His Word?
Despite all the wrestling I’ve done with this, I always see this as fundamentally a problem I have with the Bible, not a problem I have with God. I’ve never seriously considered the idea that God might be vengeful, cruel or simply uncaring. I think this is entirely because I had and have an excellent father myself, and a loving mother as well, so when I think of God as a parent I’m pre-programmed to believe that I am loved and thus that universe is a good and loving place – which is an advantage I realize lots of people don’t have. Thanks, Dad and Mom.
In the end, Seventh-day Adventists Believe… comes down in the same place I do on the character of God – if we’re using the Bible to help us understand God’s character, we need to look at Jesus, who came to reveal what God is like. So next week I’ll be moving on to the next fundamental belief, “God the Son,” and talking about Jesus.