In a prayer that preludes the very first chapter of his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, we hear Aiden Wilson Tozer addressing God in accordance with the claims of biblical religion: “not the God of the philosophers and the wise but the God of the prophets and apostles.”
In so doing, Tozer offers in principle what an unconverted ivory tower theologian or philosopher cannot: the ability to tell the difference between knowing God and knowing only about Him.
Tozer then proceeds to his subject-matter right after this prayer, saying,
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us … Without doubt, the mightiest thought the mind can entertain is the thought of God, and the weightiest word in any language is its word for God.
For this reason,
The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.
God of the philosophers and the wise
The thought of God has been a major subject of philosophical inquiries for centuries, whether ancient, modern or postmodern.
Against the wishes of their antitheistic colleagues, many philosophers, who found it their duty to locate the traces of God, if any, in the created order, could not help but concur that, indeed, there must be a Being of infinite perfection: self-sufficient, eternal, pure, all-powerful. all-knowing, immaterial, immutable, with no unrealized potential, whatsoever. Otherwise, there could be no viable explanation for the origin, nature and purpose of the universe and everything therein.
This God, the Unmoved Mover as they call him, sets all things into motion, the Uncaused Cause, the necessary Self-Existent Being.
But what of it? For it brings too little a benefit to man. At best, it has made him feel that by knowing all this about God and many more, he must have found the road that leads through the heights of his intellectual prowess, something to brag about. At worst, it has given him the right to dismiss it altogether as irrelevant to his own existence and struggles in life, a stumbling block to his aspirations and ambitions. In both cases, there has only emerged a distance between God and man. No relationship has been established.
For the God that these philosophers have come to know, whom many of them have also agreed to call as the Wholly Other (rightly so), can only afford to entertain man’s curiosity but is terribly incapable to satisfy the inner longing, or the existential angst, of his heart.
As Augustine of Hippo puts it,
Thou hast created us for Thyself; and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.
No. The restless human heart can in no way find its rest in the God of the philosophers and the wise. Only the God of the prophets and the apostles offers this.
God of the prophets and apostles
The philosophers and the wise have for their “book” in their search for God the complex and ambiguous natural universe, and along with it, the equally complex and ambiguous human nature. And this search they do by way of observation and speculation through the lens of autonomous reason.
Not so with the prophets and the apostles of ancient times. For them, it’s not even a matter of man’s quest for God. It’s the other way around.
For in the prophetic and apostolic testimonies, which make up the whole of the Judeo-Christian Scripture, we find the God who took the initiative to make Himself known to man. Here, the knowledge of God is more than mere information, but goes all the way through the depths of intimate covenantal relationship established between God and man, His image bearer. And this He did by way of revelation, which came to man by way of divine speech and deeds.
That is to say, the High and Lofty One, as He is sometimes called in the prophetic-apostolic write ups, perfectly holy, transcendent and unapproachable, graciously condescended to the lowly level of finite, sinful man, in space and time, in order to speak to him, to act on his behalf, for his redemption.
Echoing the Protestant reformer John Calvin, Francis Turretin has this to say,
When God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself … but as revealed … Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word) …
As Michael Horton brings to mind how the Protestant reformers unpacked this truth,
The knowledge of God in His blinding majesty is deadly, while the knowledge of God in His condescending self-revelation is saving.
Or to recall the way Donald Carson reflects on this in light of the biblical record,
True, his existence and power are disclosed in the created order, even though that order has been deeply scarred by human rebellion and its consequences (Gn. 3:18; Rom.8:19-22; see Ps. 19:1-2; Rom. 1:19-20). It is also true that rather a dim image of God’s moral attributes is reflected in the human conscience (Rom. 2: 14-16). But this knowledge is not sufficient to lead to salvation. Moreover, human sinfulness is so ingenious that not a little energy is devoted to explaining away even such revelation as this. But in his unmeasured grace God has actively intervened in the world he made in order to reveal himself to men and women in still more powerful ways.
In this age of sophisticated skepticism, which, by and large, appears in various modern or postmodern forms, the common complaint against the apparent hiddenness of God is hereby addressed accordingly. Not through the mind-boggling philosophical deductions accessible only to the wisest of men. But through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that even the simplest of minds can grasp.
- D. A. Carson, “Approaching the Bible” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. by G. J. Wenham et al (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 10–12.
- Michael S. Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45 (2002): 317-341.
- A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper and Row, 1961).
- Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George M. Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992).