Knowing God the Father through the Old Testament

Christopher J. H. Wright IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL October 25, 2007
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Using a biblical theological method that focuses on God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament, Wright discusses various ways that the people of God come to know their God. These include knowing God as a father in action, through experience of His grace, through exposure to His judgment, as a father of His people, through engaging Him in prayer, through reflecting on His justice, through returning to His love, in expectation of His victory, and through trusting in His sovereignty.

Before developing these concepts, the author (director of international ministries for Langham Partnership International/John Stott Ministries) addresses the question, “Can we equate Yahweh of the Old Testament faith and affirmation with God the Father in our Trinitarian understanding of God?” (p. 13). The question is of course a complex one. Wright acknowledges, “the God Yahweh of the Old Testament ‘embodies’ (if that is not too human a word) the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Yet he seems to backpedal from this, for he concludes, “On the whole it is probably more appropriate in most cases that when we read about Yahweh, we should have God the Father in mind” (p. 15), because “that is who Yahweh primarily was in the consciousness of Jesus himself” (p. 18). This seems like a practical resolution to the question posed, but its lack of precision will probably not satisfy more philosophically oriented readers.

Wright’s strength seems to lie more in the area of developing biblical theology from an exegetical-literary perspective. In the chapters that follow the brief introduction he presents several insightful observations about what it means to know Yahweh as God, based on what one finds in the Old Testament. The chapters read like essays, being unencumbered by footnotes or overly technical discussions. The reviewer commends it as a volume that will reward careful readers willing to reflect on its author’s numerous perceptive insights.

The reviewer found most helpful the chapters entitled “Knowing God through Experience of His Grace” and “Knowing God through Engaging Him in Prayer.” In the former Wright affirms, based on a study of the Exodus event and Sinai revelation, that knowing God “is not some private, esoteric devotional state of mind or heart” that lends itself to “self-obsession” and can easily “become just another handy item in my inventory of self-fulfillment techniques.” On the contrary “the Bible insists that knowing God starts out from who God is and what God has done—meaning what he did a very long time before we ever came along” (p. 59). He adds, “To know him we must join ourselves to that great heritage of historical faith and memory, enter into these stories, and experience the grace of God in them, along with the company of all God’s people” (ibid.). He offers this penetrating observation, which runs counter to the narcissism that plagues modern culture and often Christianity: “Knowing God is not an exercise in getting God to fit into my life. Knowing God is an exercise in humbly fitting myself into God’s great historical story of redemptive grace” (ibid.).

In the chapter on engaging God in prayer, Wright examines how Abraham (Gen. 18) and Moses (Exod. 32) prayed to God, emphasizing the relational give-and-take seen in the accounts. He concludes, “In both cases, there was an intimacy with God that enabled an astonishing degree of forthright conversation, and meaningful dialogue. These were intensely personal relationships in which strong things could be said in the context of total trust” (p. 131). He adds, “There is no sense that either conversation was all pre-scripted, or a big bluff. Knowing God means engaging in a relationship that has integrity and respect on both sides” (ibid.). Wright points out that Abraham challenged God’s justice, while Moses challenged Him regarding His reputation and covenantal faithfulness. Wright concludes, “In the adventure of knowing God, there are depths of prayer that we have scarcely begun to paddle in” (ibid.).

The reviewer found the chapter entitled, “Knowing God through Trusting in His Sovereignty,” a bit disappointing. Wright’s theological exposition of Psalm 46 and the Book of Habakkuk has much to commend it, but he unnecessarily litters an otherwise insightful chapter with questions and comments that seem to betray a naïve idealistic and/or pacifistic viewpoint. For example writing of the Gulf War of 1991, he states, “I felt confusion and despair at why this war was deemed necessary; what the real motivation was; why we had to be involved in it—and sick of the moral hypocrisy that surrounded it” (p. 199). Many astute observers at the time offered very good reasons for the necessity of this war. Was Wright paying attention? Later he asks, “If a country is attacked, is it justified in fighting back to defend itself? If one country attacks another, is a third country justified in intervening to defend the weaker country against the attacker?” (p. 205). These questions seem overly academic and even naïve, given the realities of the rough-and-tumble, fallen, real world. He speaks of the “rhetoric of self-righteousness that tends to get wrapped around the geo-political posturing of western leaders,” but he gives no specific examples of what he means by this (p. 208). Later he alludes to “a crooked cop posturing as the world’s policeman” (p. 213). Does he have a particular nation or group of nations in mind? He makes this remark: “Islamic rhetoric refers to Christians as ‘infidels’—i.e., unbelievers. Perhaps this is more true than we might like to admit.” He fails to develop this statement, which on the surface seems bizarre and plagued by theological imprecision. One senses a certain cynicism on Wright’s part regarding the motives of all nations, but his evasive, hit-and-run style and disparaging remarks detract from his argument and from his focus on deriving theological principles from the text of Scripture, a task that he does very well.

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

October 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2010 vol. 167 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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