CHAPTER 2    (pp. 24-34)

THEISM : Creative Love

In the last chapter we began to apply a method for classifying the religious models people use to order their lives, starting with nontheistic (naturalistic and monistic) options. Though much is admirable and true in them, the survey leaves one wondering whether there is not more to religion. Isn't there another quite different option? Particularly disturbing is the absence of a personal relationship with God, which tends to undercut prayer and loving interaction. This lack denies the hunger of the human heart for such interaction. One major strength of theistic options is that they offer the possibility of I-Thou Relationships [The term was used by Martin Buber, I and Thou, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.]

Varieties of Theism

Theism posits a personal God existing beyond and within the world. God is a personal agent, the world is his creation, and history is a sphere for the outworking of divine purposes. Theism also sees God as an infinite-personal being, the maker of heaven and earth, who values human beings made in his image. In the Christian version, God cares about humankind so much that he enters into history to restore the love relationship threatened by sin.

Theists see God as the Artist-Creator of the world. In the biblical account of creation, God declares the work of his hands very good (Genesis 1). Who would not join in the refrain and marvel at the grace that called the world into existence in an act of sovereign freedom? God was in no way compelled to make the world, but by grace he gave existence to other beings and entered into a relationship with them which, in spite of their finiteness, he views as worthwhile and delightful. Because God creates with purpose, the world is a dynamic and purposeful place. God did not create it and then withdraw and stop working. His creation was the beginning of a history open to the future and ever moving toward the goal God has in mind for it. [On the meaning of creation, see Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1959).]

Contrary to the claims of some, belief in creation does not entail denying evolution except in a secularist form. Developments have taken place over long periods of time in the history of the world. What the sequence of events was and exactly how long the process took are questions for scientists to explore, not for theology to decide. God could have created everything suddenly if he chose to, but he is not bound to work that way. A day of God's is as a thousand years on our calendar. Evolution as such does not require a naturalistic world view - God has lots of time to play with. [Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), chap. 12.]

We ought to think of creation not as a scientific theory about origins but as an affirmation of our faith in the Creator. Theology and science tend to speak different languages that can be related in complementary ways. It is not wise to provoke a warfare between them. Faith in God the Creator and an assumption that God worked through some form of gradual development of the natural processes can be held together. [Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and ModernScience (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984).]

Deism also posits a transcendent Creator, but unlike theism it denies that God acts purposefully in history subsequent to creation. It maintains that the world operates according to naturally self-sustaining laws and views God as a kind of watchmaker who, having wound up the clock, leaves it to operate on its own without intervening further. The God of deism has no particular purpose for humans in the world. They have to figure out what is right and wrong by studying nature and live their lives without a personal relationship with their Maker. On the last day all will stand before him and be judged according to their performance.

In theism, the Creator-Artist has a purpose for everything that he has made. It is a powerful vision that gives solid meaning and significance to our lives. This may explain why nontheistic religions develop theistic cults. The idea that there is a personal God, the creator of the world who has a goal for history and purposes for humanity, has tremendous appeal. It offers an explanation of how the world came into existence, why it is so delicately ordered and for what reason it was made. This appeal moves people in the direction of theism as soon as the idea of God's desire for fellowship with humans is recognized.

The Forensic Model of Theism

All theistic models make a personal relationship with God possible, but not all agree on the basis and nature of that relationship. Islam, for example, is a major theistic world religion that has become Christianity's main competitor. It lifts up the majestic transcendence of God and emphasizes his character as awesome Judge. Muslims confess Allah as the one true God and Muhammad as his apostle, seal of the prophets. Islam claims that God gave a revelation of his will for humanity through the Prophet which was recorded in the sacred Qur'an. [See Anne Cooper, Ishmael, My Brother: A Christian Introduction of Islam (Tunbridge Wells, Kent: MARC, 1985), and Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in the Light of the Cross (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1993).]

Islam's doctrine of sin is understood in relation to these features: it is a failure to submit to God's will as expressed in Qur'anic law. Islam has developed five pillars: the simple creed confessing Allah and Muhammad as his Prophet, regular daily prayers, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimages to holy places. Humanity's prospect is a final judgment in which their lives will be evaluated on the basis of their having followed and observed God's will. Deeds will be weighed, and people will receive what they deserve. There is no savior or atonement; each person is solely responsible for his or her fate. One's fate is fixed as one adheres or fails to adhere to the commandments. Islam is an uncompromisingly forensic (law-based) model. [For further reflections on Islam, see Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985).]

Islamic theism, then, is contractual. There is a forensic arrangement in which God demands obedience and gives salvation on the basis of one's efforts. Whether such a religion is a burden or not depends on what God has commanded. Fortunately for Muslims (and this gives Islam considerable appeal), what is commanded is not too stringent but fairly easy to fulfil. Sin is not taken to involve inner corruption, and it is assumed that people are able to obey God's will in their own strength. Having done what is required, the faithful are entitled to feel good about their achievements.

Law is also a central category in the Bible. But the religion of Israel was not originally a religion of works-righteousness, even though at the time of Jesus and today among the Jews it may be so interpreted. In our view neither Judaism nor Christianity was intended to be a religion in which acceptance with God was earned through works-righteousness, though both were taken in that direction by some adherents. [See Stephen Westerholm, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1988).]

In some forms of Christian theism, legal categories tend to predominate. A broad Western tradition from Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm and Calvin has had a markedly forensic character, viewing God as Judge and salvation as in some way a contract. Brow's original protest concerned this mistaken interpretation. He objected to the tendency to change God from the lover of humankind to an implacable judge.

The Westminster Confession, for example, speaks of a covenant of works that God established with Adam in the beginning, a contract that promised life on the condition of perfect obedience. Such language is of course contractual, and the law court is central to the thinking of such a "federal" theology (the Latin foedus means covenant). In this model, sin is viewed as an infraction of God's rules, atonement is needed to appease his wrath, and salvation is conditioned upon Christ's being received. The legal category of justification becomes key and is divorced from the context of personal relationships. The system implies that God loves people only when the penalty has been paid in full and all the conditions met. [Holmes Ralston does not pin the blame on Calvin himself so much as on later developments: John Calvin Versus the Westminster Confession (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1972).]

Forensic theism may be predestinarian as well, as it is in the Westminster Confession. It turns out that those who receive the imputed righteousness of Christ are enabled (compelled) to do so by the irresistible power of the Spirit. This point was added by Augustine to preserve (as he thought) the gratuity of grace and the sovereignty of God in salvation. In this way God alone can be said to decide who will be saved, and there can be no appeal since there is no basis on which sinners could object. God's saving operations are directed only toward those individuals chosen to be saved; the others are passed over.

Tensions arise because legal categories conflict with deterministic ones. Law speaks of conditions that have to be met, while predestination declares that they cannot be met. In order to be saved, one must meet the conditions of the covenant, but one is unable to do so without divine coercion.

But there are forms of theism that maintain God's gracious and interactive character and see him as a loving person. In creative love theism, humans are not puppets manipulated by God but agents created to hear and respond to God's Word. The purpose of their existence is to enjoy fellowship with God. Sin is understood as a turning away from God's love, and salvation is a new relationship in the family of God.

Catholic and Evangelical Models

Creative love theism is now a common idea if not an organized model among many Catholics as well as evangelicals, but it was not always so. The Tridentine version of Catholicism (before the Second Vatican Council) viewed the institutional church as the earthly context of the believer's relationship with God. Emphasis was placed on the benefit derived from rituals performed by the priesthood.

In this system, salvation comes from God and not from human effort, but grace is channeled nearly exclusively through priestly ministrations. What God accomplished in Christ for salvation is available to men and women through the mediation of the church, understood as a supernatural institution representing Christ and perpetuating his redemption. Through the church Christ continues to function as prophet, priest and king. God provides salvation but has placed access to it under the control of a system of earthly mediation. The church thus became the mediating agency, the proximate source of grace through its ordinances. [See B.B. Warfield's discussion of old Catholicism in The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1955), chap. 3.]

The danger in such an orientation is that people are tempted to trust in the church rather than depending on God alone. Grace is given the appearance of being on tap in the institution and at the disposal of the clergy. These operations, being at the disposal of humans, may be easily diverted to serve the controllers' own ends.

With the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, however, it has become more common in the Catholic Church to focus on God's working through the earthly signs of church and sacraments, touching and transforming our lives. Many Catholics and Protestants now see the church as the sign of God's redemption and their spiritual mother, not so much as an institution dispensing salvation.

Creative love theism can assume an ecclesial and sacramental mode. It sees God working through ordinary people, through physical and material realities to communicate healing in people's lives. God uses the created order as a vehicle of his saving and healing presence. And because human nature is social and communal, in the church we can encounter the mystery of God.

Creative love theism also assumes a more evangelical form when it puts relatively less emphasis on the church and relatively more on the faith of believers. At the same time, loving relationships remain central. The evangelical version maintains a high doctrine of the church, but it treasures the biblical metaphors of parents and children, brothers and sisters, friendship and reconciliation, adoption and homecoming, the family table and Eucharist.

Judge and Father

Creative love theism celebrates a different set of theological categories from those of the forensic model. Even when the images overlap (both models see God as Judge, for example), the meaning is somewhat different. When it thinks of God as Judge, creative love theism does not think of him as a law-court judge, but as a judge of the biblical type (recall how judges in the Old Testament cared about liberating oppressed people and putting things right). Both models may speak of God as a king, but with different views of the meaning of sovereignty. When creative love theists think of monarchy, we do not picture an all-determining power but a Davidic king who protects and shepherds his flock and delegates power to others. Jesus' metaphor of the Father who loves us unconditionally is the central image in creative love theism rather than Judge or Sovereign, and it controls the meaning of these other metaphors.

In forensic theism the biblical metaphors are used rather differently. Seen as a courtroom type of judge, God can display parental love only after the penalty has been fully paid. His wrath would have to be satisfied before any love can flow. In this model, original sin is understood as the imputed guilt of another. In creative love theism it is seen more in terms of estrangement from God and as an oppression that impacts us from birth and from which we need liberation.

In forensic theism, "vacarious substitution" refers to Jesus Christ's legal acceptance of the penalty due to us and the transfer of his righteousness to our account. But in creative love theism substitution has a much broader meaning. In the entire life, death and resurrection of Christ there is a vicarious element whereby the Incarnate One takes humanity through death into resurrection. Substitution is inherent in all the forms of loving, whether in risking one's life for a friend or in all the chores parents do for their children.

For creative love theism, sacrifice is not so much a legal metaphor of payment for sin as a handing over of one's life to God in loving surrender. The crucifixion is viewed by forensic theism as payment, the settling of a penalty, while in creative love theism it becomes the historical expression of the suffering heart of God. At the cross the three persons of the Trinity experience the hurt of loving sinners and, by this act of sacrifice, open up a path to reconciliation.

The Trinity, Creation and Sin

The forensic model creates difficulties for trinitarian theism because it pits one person against another. The Father as judge is compelled to condemn sinners to hell, whereas the Son as savior pleads for humanity and pays off their penalty. Only when the offer is accepted, God is free to love us and the Spirit is free to begin his work in us - but not until then. In creative love theism, on the other hand, all three persons of God share in reconciling and drawing us into loving conversation. All three love us unconditionally, all three are present with everyone, all three share the work of bringing us to glory before we ever respond.

Trinitarian theism is a unique kind of theism. The one God is at the same time a family of loving relationships, a fellowship of giving and receiving, a dynamic sphere of personal interaction. And the triune God created a world where loving interactions could occur on the human level, thus echoing love back to himself. The creation can then be seen as the freely given gift of God's grace and love.

This leads us to define sin as the decision of the creature not to welcome love (divine or human), not to want to give and receive, not to welcome the loving reciprocity that is basic to God's nature and to our own. God's response to this refusal, however, is not to give up on humanity but to keep on giving graciously in even deeper ways. In the face of betrayal, God's decision is to give his own Son as a sacrifice of praise on behalf of us all and to send the Spirit to lure us back to the fellowship of giving and receiving for which we were created. The goal of salvation is to experience the kind of sharing love that is basic to God's very nature.

What Heaven is Like

Each type of theism gives life in the new creation a different flavor. Forensic versions view heaven as a reward for obedience. In Islam it is the reward for obedience to the laws of Allah. In ritualism it is a reward for obedience to a set of rituals. Heaven is a place where the obedient are justly rewarded, a place where they can enjoy pleasures denied on earth.

In creative love theism, heaven makes possible a flowering of the love relationship begun on earth. The glory of God's children from all races and all times is pictured as a city, the new Jerusalem, where all are loved and free to love. The letter to the Hebrews says that Abraham looked forward to this city, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:8-10). Abraham and Moses are called God's friends, and Jesus called the disciples his friends. From this we deduce that the friendship with God begun on earth flourishes with God and with others in the eternal city.

The goal of life is therefore to enjoy open friendship with God and with one another. When we speak of God's creativity, we refer not merely to the beauty and variety of plant and animal life but to the fact that God made us to love and to enjoy loving to the full. Not a reward for obedience, not an outcome of a sacramental process, salvation is reconciliation and the restoration of these relationships.

Creative love theism affirms that all of us were created by the divine Artist for the joy of perfect love. God is love, and we who are made in God's image are made for love, for God's perfect love. The Artist-Creator is our loving Father, who wants his children from all the nations to come home to his family.

The Loving Parent

God's fatherhood is the root metaphor of creative love theism. The metaphor was already in use in the Old Testament. The intent was not to identify God as a male, since God is beyond gender. This is confirmed by the fact that God is also pictured in female images: as mother who protects her children like a hen, nurtures them from her breast and never forgets how much she loves them. Isaiah pictures God as a pregnant woman crying out in labor (42:14). God, who is not a sexual being, needs both human genders to represent himself. The point of such gender-specific metaphors is that God is like a loving parent, continually working to provide an environment designed to free people for the joy of loving.

We should not draw the wrong conclusion from the fact that Jesus called God his father, as if he meant that no other language could be used for God. Jesus felt free to speak of God as a woman searching for a lost coin, as a shepherd looking for lost sheep and as a woman kneading her dough. There is a fluidity of language here. Besides, Jesus' idea of father was not of a patriarchal figure who is fond of domination but of One who upends power and calls for mutual relationships.

The model of creative love theism celebrates three divine persons in the oneness of God. The Father is the loving source of our being. The Son beams forth the light of God and comes alongside us to befriend us. The Spirit works from within to inspire, guide and free us to love. Because God is love, we can be sure that no one will be excluded from knowing God by ignorance or lack of opportunity. Only those who deliberately reject God's love will be excluded, and they will really have excluded themselves. God has decided to exclude no one-exclusion can happen only as a result of the human decision to love darkness rather than light (Jn 3:19-21).

Faith is what pleases God (Heb 11:6). Once one begins to relate to God as a friend, one's heart is oriented in the direction of salvation. While truth is involved, no one knows how much knowledge is needed for a person to have faith. Believers such as Job and Abraham in the Old Testament had limited understanding but were justified by faith just as we are. God accepts or rejects persons by faith - not on the basis of how much knowledge they possess but according to the direction in which they are heading, whether toward or away from God. One can receive a gift without knowing exactly who it comes from. In the same way sinners can receive God's love with limited understanding. Faith may even occur in the context of another religion, since the issue is not how far one is from God but in what direction one is now traveling. [On the faith principle, see John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), pp, 224-32]


Theists have a strong view of revelation, because if there is a personal Creator who loves us and wants us to know him, he would have to communicate with us so that we might know his thoughts and plans. God would have to make himself known. Though we sense God's presence in many places, Christians see God's revelation especially in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus, where God has taken the initiative and freely communicated with humanity. Not content just to give information, God has shared his very self with us in the narrative of the gospel set forth in the Scriptures.

Revelation, then, does not refer to the Bible in the first instance but to God's revelation in history. Yet we would not know much about that revelation were it not for the biblical witnesses. Through this testimony, human though it is, the Spirit brings about a true knowledge of God. This does not mean we should take the words of the Bible naively, at literal face value without any effort at interpretation. God's revelation comes to us mediated in human forms. What we know about God surfaces by way of the stories and metaphors the Bible gives us. Our models are constructed as we organize and interrelate the metaphors. This is a human and an imperfect activity. And problems arise when people assume that their construal of the metaphors is the only possible one.

As evangelicals we are committed to a high view of the Bible as attesting God's revelation, and we believe that the model of creative love theism fits that revelation very comfortably. But ours is only one model among others, and we respect the right of other people to construct other models for organizing the metaphors that make sense of what God has revealed. We reject the pretensions of those who insist that their model for interpreting the Bible is the only one that is valid.

Testing Religious Claims

Atheists believe that all religions are false, but Christians do not have to say this. We take a more open view of such things. We are free to think, for example, that most religions contain some truth or hint of truth. We believe that the Spirit of God still moves over the face of the deep. We are not required to believe that most of the race has been wrong when it comes to the matters that concern them most. Religions are human efforts to find the truth, and we must consider what they claim to have discovered. God is reaching out to all humanity, and we see religions reaching out to God, each in its own way. There are many profound perceptions of God and truth codified in world faiths, and we respect and take them seriously - as seriously as we take varying insights in philosophy and mathematics. God is revealed everywhere in his creation, and there is revelation also in the history of religions. But since the religions do not all say the same things, decisions have to be made. Truth claims have to be weighed and evaluated. [Hans Küng, Christianity and the World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (New York: Doubleday, 1986).]

But how does one evaluate and assess the truth of religion? Is it just a matter of taste and opinion, or are there more objective criteria? So far we have stressed the pragmatic basis of faith. As we have sorted through religious options, we have mused on which are most attractive to us. This is natural for Christians, because the gospel has immense attraction as a "pearl of great price" that offers meaning and hope, forgiveness and fellowship with God.

According to Jesus, the God who made the universe loves us and wants to relate to us. What could possibly give us a greater sense of importance and value than that? At the depths of the Christian revelation is the truth that human history is being redeemed by the grace of God at work. We long for every person to gain knowledge of the ocean of God's love.

The Christian message is really good news, and what strikes us about the other options is the relative lack of good news. Not that other faiths have nothing of value to offer. It is good, for example, that practitioners of other religions pursue righteousness and peace. It is good that practitioners of religions seeking union with God should do so diligently. But beyond these things, what humanity needs is a loving God as the source of our life.

The good news came into being because of Jesus, who announced the love of a God who wills the wholeness of everyone, especially the poor and heavy-laden. Jesus came into the world to gather outcasts under the wings of God. In his parables and through his mighty works, he proved the reality of God's goodness and unleashed hope and healing. His love for us was so great that he tasted death on our behalf, but the Spirit restored him to life and formed a people to make the good news available to everyone on earth. We call upon those of every faith to come higher up and go deeper into God.

The pragmatic test is a good place to begin. But in the validation of religious truth it cannot be the only consideration. There are truth questions to be considered; our pursuit cannot be reduced to a competition to see who might offer the most existential benefits. There are questions of credibility and coherence, issues of adequacy and experience, issues of rationality and history. Everyone must look at the pattern of the evidence and decide for themselves.

We are all on a pilgrimage through life, and we live in advance of the time when truth questions are fully resolved at the end of history. In the meantime there is no choice for us but to walk by faith, not by sight. We may feel lost in the woods, but if our heart is open to God, the truth will dawn on us. [For help with finding our way to God, see Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992).]

Chapter 3 .....