Who is God? Look to the Story, Not Speculation

God in his Book does not reveal himself in the way of the philosophers. The vast majority of people in human history have agreed that there is a Supreme Being, a God or gods. And most have tried to philosophize about who he is like. It's been common from ancient times until today. We can describe this type of thinking about God as 'speculation'. It's the method of the philosophers where we form a theory about who God is based on our own thoughts and experiences about what it must be to be the Supreme Being, primarily using our own logic and ideas.

The true God, that is, Yahweh of the Bible, does not reveal himself like this. He isn't a God of speculation. He is a God of story. God could have decided to reveal himself in a way common to philosophers. He could have decided to have a Book where inspired men wrote philosophical treatises about who he is as the Supreme Being. But he didn't. Rather, he interacted with us in history, and he inspired men to tell that story in the Bible. In such interactions, he reveals himself and we learn about who he is.

His Revealing in Story

In the story, he tells how he created humanity, how he covenants (that is, establishes a special relationship) with particular people, with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the nation of Israel. Then, in these relationships he does not primarily explain himself, but instead he interacts with his people, he guides, rebukes, and loves his own. And climatically, in the culmination of it all, he himself comes in flesh and blood, into history, as Jesus of Nazareth, and reveals who he is most clearly as he interacts physically with his people and walks around his own earth he made (John 1:11).

In sum, God reveals himself as he interacts with humanity. He does so in history. And it culminates in the person of Christ.

This, by God's own design, is how we know God. We don't speculate what it must mean to be "God," the All-Powerful Being. (Far too often, Christians in their theology approach him more like Aristotle than Moses, Plato than Paul.) We rather study him in history, in how he reveals himself to humanity in his intentional story, with the emphasis on Christ. We learn about who he is there.

That's how he's designed it. That's how he has decided to make himself known.*

A Common Example: "God Is Love"

But before thinking, "I don't do that. I'm no philosopher," we might realize we each do it more than we think. Take, for example, the phrase, "God is love" from 1 John 4:8.

What does "God is love" mean?

We too commonly (myself included) have a knee-jerk reaction to begin with speculation. We do this here when we start with the concept of "love" and then speculate about what it must mean "God is love." (Do we see how subtle this maneuver is?) We have in our heads an idea of what "love" is—we have a theory of what "love" consists of—and so, when we hear "God is love," we attach that idea onto God. 

This reasoning is the way of philosophy, and it seems correct. But once again, God didn't reveal himself this way.

He rather revealed himself in history, in a story, in relationships with people in the Bible, culminating in the person of Christ. When we hear "God is love" our goal is to begin with the story instead of starting with speculation. To do this, we read the Bible, we see how God acts, speaks, works—we notice his ways, instructions, wisdom, power, grace, as it is revealed in how he acts in history and especially in the person and work of Christ—and then by seeing this we start to define what "love" really is. We see God revealing himself in history, and after seeing him act in certain ways we can define "love." We can declare worshipfully, with historical infrastructure, "God is love"!

How Speculation Hurts Our Worship

Speculation about God isn't just wrong, it's hurtful to us and our worship. It is because we theorize based on philosophy that we often feel we have to defend God. For example, many object based on 1 John 4:8, "How could God be 'love' if he lets people go to hell?" But that question is raised only after we come up with our idea of "love" first, and then attach that to God. In such a question it is assumed that true "love" is such a thing that it would not send anyone to hell. Hence, the objection.

But what if, in the story, we see "love" defined according to God's standard and revelation, instead of ours? In the story (that is, remember, in true history), it is us who deserve hell because we have rebelled defiantly. We are the enemies, and deserve just punishment. And it's with this backdrop that "God is love" is defined: It shines brightly in that he—the Wonderful Creator who we have rebelled against—decides to interact, covenant, speak, forgive, and incarnate and die for us! There, and there only in the story which comes to a head in the work of Christ, is "love" is defined. And now after seeing this we can't object with the "if God is love..." type of argument. We don't object, we bow. We stand in amazement of his revealed love, trusting that he knows best and that his true love is better than any “love” we can conjure up.

In this way, by looking to the story (and not our own speculative thoughts), "God is love" is defined and displayed in vibrant, worshipful colors.

So, It's A Joy to Read the Bible

Two points in summary:

First, to know God we look at him in history, in how he has revealed himself as he has interacted with humanity. We do not use philosophical speculation. He could've revealed himself in the way of the philosophers, but he didn't. Instead, he decided to reveal himself in particular interactions with humanity, culminating with his climatic disclosure in Christ.

Second, even if we say we don't fall into the philosophers' grip, we probably do more than we think in our thoughts about God, and this leads to misplaced objections and stifled worship.

The upside to this all is that it gives even greater purpose to daily Bible reading. Reading all the stories in the Old Testament can get redundant sometimes, can't it? We’ve heard them before and we long for specific explanation. But what if God intentionally reveals himself in story for so long on purpose? What if he wants us to analyze him as the main Character, especially in the person of Christ? It's true and important to note that in the New Testament epistles, we do get explanation: we get a detailed systematic gathering of the story-filled details of who God is and always has been. But in most of the Bible—in the Old Testament and in the New Testament Gospels with the person of Christ—we see the Supreme Being interacting with people, revealing who he is, not in philosophical abstraction but in dust and earth.

It's, therefore, a joy to read every part of the Bible. In the Old Testament, we see him interact particularly with people, people who are sinners just like us. In the New Testament, we witness him walking on his earth in Christ, and we're given concrete explanation of who he is, summing up who he always has been in history. Therefore, whether in the Old Testament or New, reading the Bible isn't just reading a bunch of stories or instructions or poems or letters, it's God's revelation, written in history, about history, about us—about him.

This is how God has decided to reveal himself. We get to dive into the drama, listen, and learn.

*This emphasis on history and story must not take away from systematic theology. 'Systematic theology' means taking different truths about God from all over the Bible and synthesizing them into a cohesive whole. I believe this is incredibly helpful and beneficial, and I also believe many of the New Testament writers, especially Paul, display it for us. I add this note because unfortunately often people who emphasize 'story' do so to the detriment of systematic theology (and eventually to the detriment of God's truth). But putting together pieces from different parts of the story—aka. 'systematic theology'—is good, right, and true. The point here is that we don't gather those pieces through speculation (by the way of the philosophers), but through seeing how he revealed himself in history. But once we start and stay here, we should feel free to systematize so we can more clearly and brightly see the glory of God.