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Lesson 3: The Study of God

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To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement. ― Church Father, Augustine

Introduction

The Triqueta shown above is an ancient Celtic symbol that Christians used to try to communicate the concept of the Trinity: three persons but one God symbolized by three separate ovals that are linked into one shape. Where does the doctrine of the Trinity come from? The word Trinity itself never occurs in the Bible but the teaching has been a part of the Christian church since the early centuries of its existence.

The word theology means the study of God and that is in essence what this lesson is about in an introductory way. Sometimes this area of study is called theology proper. Theology may seem intimidating, but anytime we form an opinion about God or make an assertion about him or look to him for anything we are in essence doing theology. If we say God is good, that is a theological proposition. If someone curses God, they are saying God is bad. If we say a prayer to God, we are implying that he not only exists, but that he acts in our lives in a personal way. Therefore, most of us are theologians whether we think we are or not. This lesson will be divided into four separate sections: 1) sources of knowledge about God, 2) the basic names of God, 3) the attributes/perfections of God, and 4) the evidence and explanation of the Trinity.

Sources of Knowledge of God: Natural Revelation

The source of all knowledge about God comes from God himself and this can be divided into two areas: natural revelation (i.e., the creation itself) and special revelation (primarily, God’s words recorded in the Bible and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ).

There are at least five passages the Bible that speak of the natural revelation that God gives through his creation. The first is in Psalm 19. It reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon” (Ps 19:1-4). This passage says that every day people can see the glory and magnificence of God. Everyone day and night 24-7 can understand the greatness of God.

The second passage occurs in Romans 1. It reads, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20). Here Paul states that another thing we can learn from creation is how powerful God is. A vaguer expression relates to the divine nature of God, which is seen as well.

Thirdly, in Matthew, Jesus makes a statement that relates to this topic. He states, “But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:44-45). In arguing that disciples of Jesus need to love their enemies, Jesus mentions that the blessings of the sun and rain go to all people whether they are righteous or unrighteous. This would imply that God’s love toward all is seen in these blessings, which is sometimes referred to as common grace. In a similar passage, Paul addresses the topic of God’s goodness as witnessed in the blessings he gives to all people. Luke records the speech: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, yet he did not leave himself without a witness by doing good, by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:16-17).

The last passage is from Genesis 1. “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Since God is a spirit and man is created in God’s image, there must be something about the immaterial nature of man that is reflected in God. The question though is: what part of God’s image is there? Both God and man are personal, relational, moral, and rational. These seem to be some of the inferred characteristics that both God and man share.

So what can we understand about God through natural revelation? The following characteristics are evident: 1) God is glorious; 2) God is powerful; 3) God loves all; 4) God is good to all and; 5) God is a personal, relational, moral and rational being. One must also notice what is not understood though natural revelation, which is God’s plan of salvation.

Sources of Knowledge of God: Special Revelation

As good as natural revelation is, special revelation was needed to communicate more specific truths about God and his plan of salvation for man. Paul states regarding the gospel that it needs to be preached and heard: “And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them (Rom 10:14).” This suggests that no one is going to understand God’s plan of salvation by looking at a star. Even understanding what natural revelation communicates comes from special revelation found in the Bible. Special revelation is God speaking to man through signs, dreams, visions, manifestations of God, inspired verbal messages, inspired written messages and also the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The focus of special revelation centers on two areas: the written word of God (the Bible) and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The Bible speaks about God and is inspired by God. Every scripture is inspired by God as Paul states (2 Tim 3:16). Over and over in the Old Testament the prophets speak: “This is what the Lord says.” The Bible speaks about who God is and what God does and what he wants people to do. For example, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Apart from such statements, mankind would be very much in a fog of knowledge about God and his actions.

The second major area of special revelation is God the Father revealed by the Logos (translated as “Word”) who is his son Jesus Christ. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. . . . Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory . . . . No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known (John 1:1, 2, 14, 18). Later Jesus stated, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). The author of Hebrews states that God has spoken by his Son, who is the exact representation of God (Heb 1:1-3).

The Names of God

One good way to start to understand God is through the names of God as recorded in the Bible. Names have meaning attached to them and the names of God are no exception. The meanings of God’s names give us instruction as to who God is and what he is like. The first reference to God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word Elohim (Gen 1:1). Sometimes this fuller name is abbreviated to El. The root meaning of this Hebrew word is to “Be strong.”1 The Greek translation of the Old Testament normally translates these Hebrews words as theos, which is the basic Greek word for God Elohim is used 2,310 times for the true God in the Old Testament.2 One interesting point about this name is that it is a plural word in Hebrew. A common explanation for this is that it is a plural of majesty indicating the manifold greatness of God. It has also been suggested that it allows for the later revelation of the Trinity.

There are also compound names for God with Elohim: 1) El-Shaddai means God Almighty, which indicates God’s omnipotence (Gen 17:1); 2) El-Elyon means God Most High (Gen 14:19), which stresses God’s supremacy and sovereignty; El-Olam means The Everlasting God
(Gen 21:33), which communicates his timelessness or eternality; El-Roi means The God who Sees (Gen 16:13), which is an indication of his omniscience.3

The personal name for God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew YHWH (יהוה) or Yahweh. The four consonants are sometimes referred to as the tetragrammaton. The first occurrence of YHWH is in Gen 2:4 and it occurs about 5321 times in the Old Testament.4 This name is probably related to a Hebrew word which means “to be or exist.” The name Yahweh was considered so sacred in Israel one was not allowed to speak it. As a substitute when the Old Testament was read, Adonai was spoken. Adonai is the Hebrew word for Lord. The Jewish people had other ways of referring to God that avoided verbalizing God’s name. For example, instead of saying Yahweh will bless you, one could say the Lord or heaven will bless you. One could also put a statement in the passive voice “you will be blessed” with Yahweh as the understood agent of the blessing. Following this respect for God’s personal name, the Greek in the Old and New Testaments translated the divine personal name as kurios, which means lord in Greek as Adonai did in Hebrew.

A key passage regarding God’s personal name is found in Exodus 3. There Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ – what should I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ And he said, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [Yahweh] ( – the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation’” (Exod 3:13-15). One thing to notice in this passages is that Moses was instructed by God to verbalize God’s name = Yahweh to Israel. Saying the name itself was even commanded by God so that people would know what his name was.

As with the name El, there are also compound names for God with Yahweh. Yahweh Jireh means, The Lord Will Provide (Gen 22:14); Abraham named God this after God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac who was one altar and about to be offered as a sacrifice. Yahweh Nissi means, The Lord is my Banner (Exod 17:15); Moses named God this after a defeat of one of Israel’s enemies. Yahweh Shalom means, The Lord is Peace (Judges 6:24). Yahweh Sabbaoth means The Lord of Hosts or Armies (1 Sam 1:3). Yahweh Maccaddeshsem means The Lord your Sanctifier (Ex 31:13). Yahweh Roi means The Lord my Shepherd (Ps 23:1). Yahweh Tsidkenu means The Lord our Righteousness (Jer 23:6). Yahweh Shammah means The Lord is There
(Ezek 48:35).5 These names indicate the greatness of God and how he concerns himself in meeting our needs in various situations we face. Someone once well said, “God is the answer now what is the question.”

The Attributes/Perfections of God

What is God like? The names of God start to address this question but there is much more. God is the subject but what is the predicate? God is . . . . . what? What are the characteristics or attributes of God. Some like to refer to these attributes as perfections since God has the full or perfect expression of them. For example someone might be a loving person but is that person perfectly loving with no flaw? God is perfectly loving with no flaw. God is the fullest or perfect expression of all his characteristics. Also, one must be careful when studying the attributes of God as these attributes relate to each other. As Enns points out, “In the study of God’s attributes it is important not to exalt one attribute over another; when that is done it presents a caricature of God. It is all the attributes of God taken together that provide and understanding of the nature and person of God.”6 The following is only a survey of some of God’s attributes or perfections and the implications of these for us.

God is all powerful, that is omnipotent. Jeremiah states, “After I had given the copies of the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, ‘Oh, Lord God, you did indeed make heaven and earth by your mighty power and great strength. Nothing is too hard for you!’” (Jer 32:17 cf. Job 42:2). The New Testament echoes that with God all things are possible. This should give us Christians comfort that nothing is out of God’s reach and ability; it’s only a matter of his will. A philosophical question is sometimes asked: “can God create a rock so big he cannot move it?” God’s omnipotence extends to the things that are logically possible and not logically impossible. It also only extends things that are consistent with God’s nature, not to things inconsistent with his nature. Can God be unjust? The answer is no because it’s not consistent with his nature.

God is everywhere, that is omnipresent. A very good passage on the omnipresence of God as it relates to us is found in Psalm 139. It reads, “Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be. If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn, and settle down on the other side of the sea, even there your hand would guide me, your right hand would grab hold of me” (Ps 139:7-10). No matter where we are, God is there for us, in any place in any circumstance.

God is all knowing and in control, that is omniscient and sovereign. Isaiah writes, “Truly I am God, I have no peer; I am God, and there is none like me, who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred, who says, ‘My plan will be realized, I will accomplish what I desire’”(Is 46:9-10). Nothing catches God by surprise as he knows everything before it will happen. While we might be surprised at certain events, we also have to realize that God has a plan and he will accomplish what he desires.

God is unchanging, that is immutable. James explains, “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change” (Jas 1:17). God will always act consistent with his nature. We do not have to be concerned that God will be good one day and then bad the next or that he will only sometimes be just or merciful.

God is eternal, that is without beginning or end. The Psalmist states, “even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God” (Ps 90:2). This means that God always was, always is, and always will be. God is not here today and gone tomorrow. God does not die, he only lives. For us as Christians, he will always be there for us. Revelation 1:8 confirms this with the statement, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God – the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come – the All-Powerful!”

God is just/righteous. “Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps 89:14). Society is consistently crying out for justice in the world. Human abuses of justice are everywhere. But what many of them do not realize is that God is a just God in his nature and his actions are always just. They are just by his perfect standards. It is true that justice does not always come right away but it will come in God’s timing of things. He will right every wrong, bring evil acts to judgments, and righteous acts in his name will be rewarded.

God is holy. John states, “Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful” (Rev 4:8; cf. Is 6:3). The holiness of God is mentioned three times in this passage to emphasize that absolute holiness and purity of God, that he is the Most Holy.

God is good. “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”
(Mark 10:18). When hard times and trials come sometimes we are tempted to think that God is bad. After all, why is God doing this or at least allowing it to happen? We know from the Bible that God is using the hard times for his purposes including bringing maturity to our faith
(Jas 1:2-4).

God is true. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Conversely, the author of Hebrews states that it is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18). This would mean that we can count on all that God says including his promises. It would mean God is trustworthy. If God says it, we can “take it to the bank” so to speak.

God is merciful. Paul describes nature of God’s mercy. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4). As Christians we deserved death but God gave us life. We deserved curse but God gave us blessing. We deserved judgment but God gave us mercy. Not only is God merciful but as Ephesians says here he is “rich” in mercy; it overflows; it is plentiful and abundant.

God is love. “The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love”
(1 John 4:8). When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered by giving two: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). Paul stated that the greatest Christian virtue is love and that even if he gave everything he owned or his body to the flames but did not have love he was nothing (1 Cor 13).

There are many more attributes that could be given. What is interesting about all of God’s attributes is that man in a very dim way is to reflect God’s nature by becoming more godly in character. Peter reminds us of the command: “Be holy for I am holy (1 Pet 1:16).” Paul states that we as Christians are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). As we study what God is like, we learn more what we should be like. As people experience God in a greater way they grow to be more like him.

The Trinity

The Trinity is probably the most important doctrine in the Christian faith that defines who God is. The word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible but it is a theological formulation of truths that are taught in the Bible. A concise definition of the Trinity is this: One God in three persons the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This theological concept could also be referred to as “Triunity”7 a term which emphasizes the “three in oneness” of God. But how is this teaching communicated in the Scripture?

First, the Bible teaches there is one God. “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”
(Deut 6:4). And in the New Testament, “For there is one God . . .” (1 Tim 2:5). Second, the Bible teaches the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God and they all have the characteristics that are unique to God. To make this point, one supporting verse for each member of the Trinity will be given. For the Father: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Rom 1:7). For the Son: “But of the Son he says, Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”
(Heb 1:8). For the Holy Spirit: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? . . You have not lied to people but to God!’” (Acts 5:3-4). The Great Commission illustrates the “three in oneness” by using the singular word “name” with all three members of the Trinity. There Matthew states, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).8

There is no perfect illustration for the Trinity. But some analogies have been used to try and communicate the concept.9 It is reported that Saint Patrick used the three leaf clover as an object lesson in teaching about the Trinity. Three leaves in one clover equals the concept of one God in three persons, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. One might wonder what he would have done though if he picked up a four leaf clover!

Conclusion and Summary

God is a great and awesome God. He is the answer to life’s questions and needs. He has communicated himself to mankind through his creation and special revelation he has given. John Piper states, “People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow.”10

Discussion Questions

  1. How much can a person learn about God just from looking at creation?
  2. Which name of God has meant something to you? Explain.
  3. Is one attribute of God more important than another, for example God’s love or God’s justice?
  4. How does the doctrine of the Trinity affect how we define other religions or cults?
  5. Can someone be a Christian and not believe in the Trinity?
  6. How does or should our theology affect how we live?

1 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (2nd ed; Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 201.

2 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 45.

3 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 46.

4 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47.

5 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47, Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 201-202.

6 Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 192.

7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.

8 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.

9 For example, there is the egg that has three parts shell, white and yolk but is one egg. Or the sun that has light, heat and mass but is one sun. 

10 John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 13-14.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Character of God, Christology, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Revelation, Theology Proper (God)