God in the Bible
Ali (1988:76a-79a) presents an Islamic concept of God. He expresses this in eight positive metaphysical attributes and eight negative ones. The positive attributes are Qadir, the Almighty; Aalim, the All-Knowing; Mudrik, the EverPerceiving; Hai, the Ever-Living; Mureed, the All Independent in will and action; Mutakallim, the Creator of Speech; and Sadiq, the Ever-Truthful. The negative attributes are Murakkab, compound; Makan, accommodation; Holool, incarnation; Maryee, visibility; Ehtiyaj, need; Shirkat, association; Mahaile hawadis or Tagha'iyyar, change; and Sifate-zaid, addition of qualities. The negative attributes cannot be attributed to God. The final negative attribute, addition of qualities, forbids conceiving of the positive attributes as separable from the essence of God. Finally, according to All, God is a being consistent and not arbitrary, whose essential attribute is justice. What is necessary to understand from a Christian point of view is that God in Islam is not conceived in terms of personhood or number, but as indefinably one. The doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Jesus are clearly rejected by Muslims.
The very first words of the Bible are `In the beginning God'. The first and central issue of the Bible is God. The beliefs and practices involved with this issue are therefore fundamental. It is no use going on to establish other beliefs and practices before this issue is settled. Fortunately the Bible is clear and consistent on this matter. The most important thing happens to be the thing expressed most clearly.
It is also true that there are in existence beliefs and practices relating to God which did not exist at the time when the Bible writers were writing. It must not surprise us then that these matters are not dealt with in the Bible at all. Throughout much of the Bible the issue is whether one must worship the God of the Bible uniquely, or whether it is permissible to worship other gods as well from time to time.
The Bible clearly states that the God of the Bible must be worshipped uniquely. No others may be worshipped. One of the main ways this is brought out is by the affirmation that God is one, or that there is only one God, the God of the Bible.
The text with the highest claim to authority in the Bible is the ten commandments. These are portrayed as being spoken by God Himself to a vast number of people, mostly descendants of Jacob, but including a vast internationally mixed multitude as well. The very first commandment is in Exodus 20:1-3: `And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.'
The import of these words is radical. The sentence does not imply a hierarchy with the God of the Bible as the head of a pantheon of lesser deities below Him. We are confronted with only one speaker, the God who says `f and `me'. His message is that He will not accept any relations whatsoever between human beings and other gods.
The second commandment in verses 4-6 shows what precisely is unacceptable and what is necessary. It is unacceptable to make an image of anything to bow down to or serve, because God is jealous, that is, He does not accept other gods before Him. What is necessary is to love God and to obey His commandments.
It has now been established on the basis of the most authoritative texts in the Bible that according to the Bible, people must acknowledge the one God of the Bible alone as God, avoid making any kind of image, mental or otherwise, of any deity to be bowed down to or served, but love God and do what He tells them to do. There are plenty of supporting texts for these first basic principles. Some of them are listed below. Those which claim to be the words of God are marked with a star.
Deuteronomy 4:35. `Unto thee it was showed, that thou mightest know that the Lord he is God; there is none else beside him. This text, purported to be the words of Moses, clearly states four things: 1) Something has been shown, that is, revealed. 2) This revelation is not a matter of opinion or even of faith, but it is a matter of knowledge. To deny it is to be ignorant. 3) The first point of this revelation is that the one referred to as YHWH (Lord) is God. 4) The second point of this revelation is that this one is the only God.
Deuteronomy 6:4-5. `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.' Perhaps a better translation would be: The Lord is our judge, the Lord is one. Some commentators grasping at straws try to suggest that the word `one' in fact means a group of more than one. The word ahad in the original Hebrew of the text does in fact mean one entity. Just as the English word `one', it only rarely refers to a unity of several entities, and when it does so it is immediately apparent from the context. The following text shows clearly that there is no room for division in our love for God. It must be wholly directed to the one true God.
Deuteronomy 32:39*. `See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me.' This text is an important one in the Torah or books of Moses, because it claims to be the very words of God Himself. He states clearly here that by the nature of reality and definition, not merely because of divine jealousy, there is not nor can there be any associate with God. He alone is uniquely God Almighty.
Nehemiah 9:6. 'Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.' The word 'thou' in the archaic English is a singular. In contrast to the word `you', it can refer to one person only. It never refers to three persons. It is an accurate reflection of the original Hebrew text. The word `alone' shows clearly that only the one being of God is included. The final phrase shows clearly that the Bible concept is one of a universal God, not merely a tribal god of the Hebrews competing with many other tribal gods.
Psalm 18:31. `For who is God save the Lord? or who is a rock save our God?' Here intensive affirmation is expressed in the Hebrew interrogative. The meaning is that no other being is God except the one person called YHWH or Lord in the text. The first part of the text defines who in fact is God. The second part says that only God is a rock. The Hebrew language abounds in double meanings based on metaphor. The rock expresses safe refuge. Only God is a secure refuge in trouble, the one to whom we can turn in perfect confidence.
Psalm 86:10. `For thou art great, and doest wondrous things: thou art God alone.' The greatness of God and the wonderful character of His actions are taken here as evidence that He alone is God. This is an attempt to show that the unity of God is evident in the reality that we perceive and is the only logical conclusion to which we can come. This verse takes a different position from that seen earlier. No longer are we constrained to understand that the unity of God is revealed knowledge. Rather, here it is shown to be a product of reason, a logical deduction from the systematic examination of observable phenomena.
Isaiah 43:10*. Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.' This text claims higher authority than the preceding ones, since it claims to be a quotation of the very words of God. It rejects the idea of form being applied to God. The unity of God implies the rejection of otherness (`other' implies a minimum of two). Rejection of otherness implies no standard of comparison. Form requires space in comparison, a perceptible edge. This is not applicable to God. God is not contained in a form.
The unity of God in this text is stated to have three cognitive bases: knowledge, belief, and understanding. This may refer first of all to revealed knowledge as already noted above. Understanding can be applied to the logical process described in Psalm 86:10. Finally a third basis is mentioned, that is, the basis of belief. These three bases may refer to the consecutive progression of cognition from revelation to belief in a given individual. On the other hand, it may refer to different coinciding aspects of cognition in a particular individual in such a way that they are all presently active at the same time. Finally, it is possible to understand them as referring to different types of cognition in different individuals.
Isaiah 44:6-8*. `Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of Hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God... Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.'
This is another text claiming divine authority. The introductory expressions are in apposition, that is, they refer to one and the same personage who is stated to be 1) the Lord (YHWH), 2) the King of Israel, 3) the redeemer of Israel, and 4) the Lord of Hosts. This is not a reference to more than one individual. This is not only evident from the expressions themselves, but from what follows, where the first person singular 'I' is used. This accumulation of statements that God is one is supported with divine humour. It may be that human beings are so wise that they know any number of Gods. But the true God of heaven and earth knows only one.
Isaiah 45:5,21-22*. `I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me:... Tell ye, and bring them near; yea, let them take counsel together: who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the Lord? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.' This final text of Isaiah also claims divine authority. Here the affirmation of the unity of God is evidence of 1) His eternity, 2) His omniscience, 3) His justice, and 4) His saving action.
It may not be immediately apparent how each of these attributes can be deduced from the unity of God. But first of all, the unity of God implies eternity If there is time which God does not control, such time in itself implies an Other which is not God. But this is logically and textually inadmissible. Therefore, the unity of God implies His eternity.
In the same way, an area of knowledge outside the control of God implies a Knower and known outside the frame of reference of God, an Other. Therefore, the unity of God implies omniscience.
Perfect, impartial justice must have as a bare minimum access to all knowledge pertaining to a case of dispute. Such knowledge is available with certainty only to an omniscient God. The unity of God therefore implies perfect justice.
The action of salvation is logically deduced from the attribute of justice. But to call God a Saviour implies action within time and space. It does not thereby imply limitation in time and space, and as such does not therefore imply that God is incarnate or takes on form.
To this point we have examined texts from the so-called Old Testament. Although Christians often refer to the Old Testament in evidence for their own belief, when they are confronted with Old Testament texts which conflict with their doctrines, they often point out that the Old Testament is done away with, nailed to the cross, and superseded by the Gospel. What does the Gospel say about the unity of God?
Matthew 19:17. `And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.' Jesus here rejects the implication that he is God. His argument is that absolute goodness belongs only to God. In rejecting this attribute in the absolute sense, he rejects deity.
Mark 10:18. `And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.'
Mark 12:29. `The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord.' Jesus affirms the unity of God in one being, and calls this the most important fundamental of faith, the first commandment. We are therefore justified in assuming that this point is the first and most essential message in the Gospel of Christ. The questioner did not lead Jesus on to refer to this text. He gave him complete liberty to choose what he considered to be the first and most important issue. That Christ chose this text is a devastating argument. The importance of this truth was not lost on his questioner: Mark 12:32, `Well, Master, thou hast said the truth; for there is one God; and there is none other but he.'
Strangely enough, many Christians actually consider the Pauline epistles of more normative authority than the Gospels themselves. The unity of God is hardly a doctrine which can change from one revelation to another. If the early writings uphold it, the latter ones must uphold it too, or else discredit themselves. However, the Apostle Paul is a champion of the unity of God as well.
1 Corinthians 8:6. `But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things.'
Galatians 3:20. `God is one.'
Ephesians 4:4-6. `There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.'
1 Timothy 2:5, `There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.'
From these texts we see that Paul, as must be expected with his Biblical faith, recognises the absolute unity of God. His expressions leave no room for a trinity. Although the New Testament speaks of Jesus in terms which Christians take as proof of his divinity, yet in every case these are attributes that are given to him by God. Whatever these attributes may be, no matter how great, it remains that Jesus is in every case a recipient. But God is not a recipient. The Apostle Paul tells us clearly what Jesus is: a man. According to the Christian Scriptures he is certainly a great and glorious man, a man sent from God, a sinless man, a man ascended to the right hand of God, a man even given all authority in heaven and in earth, and a man to whom all owe absolute loyalty and devotion. But he remains forever a man and not God.
Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is but one God, and that the mediator at that time between God and humankind was Jesus Christ, who was a man. This Jesus Christ is therefore a different entity in this sentence than the one God to whom Paul also refers. In addition, we know from Numbers 23:19 that God is not a man. The syllogism is clear: 1) God is not a man. 2) Jesus is a man. 3) Therefore, Jesus is not God.
Some commentators suggest that James and Paul are at odds on basic issues. Be that as it may, they are agreed on the unity of God. James 2:19 says, 'Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well.'
In sum, a large segment of the Bible serves to confirm the truth that God is one, unique, incomparable and without associate.