Gary Deddo, Who Is God?

Gary Deddo

Gary Deddo has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He is president of Grace Communion Seminary.

In this interview, Dr. Deddo discusses the question, "Who is God?" - and "Why does he tell people what to do?"

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Edited transcript

JMF: I’ve heard you talk about “the essential theological question.” What is it?

Gary Deddo: When people hear the word theology, it usually has a negative connotation. People start out, “I don’t want to have anything to do with theology. It’s nothing but controversy, abstraction, and only for only ‘egghead’ types of people.”

JMF: And those are the people who like it.

GD: Could be. Theology has a bad name, and it probably deserves it. No one should be interested in bad theology. An awful lot of what people have heard over the years and how it’s conducted, it does give them that impression. So I don’t blame people for having a negative attitude or stand-offish attitude about theology. A simple way to say it: often, the primary questions where people who want to talk about theology, have to do with what God is, or how things operate in God’s universe, or in salvation. Sometimes theological questions have to do with why things are the way they are? or why they go the way they do. They surround the “what,” “why,” “how,” “where,” “when” questions.

JMF: The stand-offish – it’s there, I’m over here – kind of questions.

GD: Right, it’s an object for a study, for analysis, for debate… an endless debate. This exhausts people, and they don’t understand the terms of the debate – they don’t see any relevance to it. This is not only informal theology, but formal theology. Often, those are the questions people are trying to answer. But in my view, and I’d say it with James Torrance, he used to emphasize this with us over and over again, is that the primary theological question is not any of those. The primary theological question is who – “Who is God?”

JMF: That’s a relational question.

GD: It’s very relational. It means who is God in himself, and also who is God in relationship to me, and who am I in relationship to God? It has to do with the whole of reality, and therefore it is personal. Who? – it has to do with identity. Who is this One that we’re talking about? And what does it have to do with who I am? It’s much more concrete, it’s much more personal, it has to do with interaction.

But it’s not just a question that some theologian dreamed up and said, “Let’s start with the ‘who’ question.” Jesus himself pressed this into the minds of his disciples. It’s the very center of the gospel of Mark. Jesus says to them: “Who do men say that I am?” After perhaps half of his ministry with them, the question he wants to press on their minds and hearts is: “Who?” The “who” question – Jesus himself puts it at the center.

The first question is, “Who do they, those who have been listening to me, say that I am?”

They consider that. “Well, some say, ‘Elijah,’ and some say, ‘the Prophet,’ some say, ‘John the Baptist’ – this and that.”

Jesus allows them to give that answer, to warm up their thinking and their reflection. But then he presses them even more deeply, when he says this: “Now that we’ve covered that, now who do you say that I am?” Now it’s very personal, very direct, even intimate. “You’ve been with me a year and a half, two years – night and day. Who do you say that I am?”

We could say that Jesus is being a theologian. He is directing our thoughts, he is directing our reflection, he is sorting out what the most important and crucial and even central issue is, where our starting point proceeds from. Who do you say? That gets Peter rolling, as you know.

JMF: He gives a great answer.

GD: “You are the Christ – the Messiah.” But oddly enough, Jesus is not all that impressed with that answer. There is something wrong about it, because Jesus then has to indicate – this is going to involve rejection by certain people and suffering and death, and then resurrection.

This really disturbs Peter. Peter had the right label for Jesus. Jesus does not deny that he is God’s Messiah – the Christ. But he can’t really affirm it. Peter has the right label, “Messiah,” but he’s filled it with content that doesn’t fit. It isn’t accurate. It isn’t true, and in the end it doesn’t glorify who Christ is, because Peter thinks this has to exclude suffering and rejection and death and crucifixion. Where Jesus recognizes, this is going to be essential to who I am and what I’m here to do.

Jesus is leading Peter here, and the rest of the disciples as they are listening, in theological reflection. In a sense, he’s saying, “you got the right label, but you don’t have the right meaning.” He sees that Peter is being tempted by the devil to misunderstand this label, so that, if Peter hangs on to that definition of “Messiah,” which excludes suffering and rejection and death, he’s going to exclude Jesus himself.

JMF: It’s like the Bible trivia question, “To whom did Jesus say, ‘get thee behind me, Satan’?” And everyone goes, “Well, Satan, obviously.” No.

GD: It’s Peter, under serious temptation. Jesus is leading Peter in theological reflection, because what he has to do is fill that proper label, “Messiah,” with the proper meaning that corresponds to “who Jesus is.”

This is all in response to “who am I?” A label is not enough – and if theology can be of help to any of us, what its job is, what its purpose is, is to take appropriate names and labels – Jesus is the Son of God, God is infinite, or omnipresent – Jesus is the Savior or Lord – all these things are names, labels. But we’re not done just because we have a name and a label. Theological reflection is to try to help us have a proper content, to give a most faithful meaning to those name and labels.

JMF: That has something to do with experience, then. If you’re going to have content to a “who” question, there has to be some kind of experience of that “who.”

GD: You’re right, and in this case, what God in Christ is doing is meeting us face to face. Just like we’re meeting face to face. I have to come here from Chicago and show up. We hadn’t met face to face. We had various e-mail interactions and phone conversations and things like this, so we could say, yes, in some ways we’re getting to know each other. Not in falsehood, I mean we weren’t lying or deceiving each other, but I think after our time together, we’re going to know each other in a very different way face to face. This is what God has done in Christ – showed up in person, face to face, so that the “who” is actually with them.

The Scripture says Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. They’ve had names and labels and various discussions – they have the Old Testament – leading up to this time. But when God arrives in person with a name and a face, now they have an opportunity to re-fill all those names and labels and all those, as it were, phone calls and e-mails and discussions they’ve had up till now. They have an opportunity to re-fill all those with the deeper truth, because they’ve had a face-to-face revelation. As the Gospel of John tells us, Jesus is God’s self-exegesis, his self-interpretation.

As Jesus deals with Peter, he’s going to try to help him fill that proper theological label, “Christ,” “Messiah,” with the meaning of who he really is. If Peter will let him do that, then his words and concepts and ideas and responses of who Jesus will be more faithful. It puts Peter and the disciples and even us, at a certain crossroads. Will we let Jesus take our names and labels, and fill them with the true meaning? Or will we hold on to even proper names and labels, but hang on to an erroneous content?

The Pharisees had the same problem. They understood God in terms of their ascertained view of the law. When Jesus comes, the question is, will they hang on to their view of the law and interpret Jesus in terms of the law? Or will they let Jesus be the one who interprets the law? When it comes to the Sabbath, we have the same problem – they believe Jesus is violating the Sabbath when he heals or allows the disciples to pluck their wheat or heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus’ response is, I am the Sabbath. I’m the one who created it. I’m here to interpret to you what that’s all about. So don’t interpret me in terms of the law. Interpret the law in terms of me. I’m the source, I’m the creator of it. I’m here to tell you what it’s really all about. And not only to tell you, but to be that Sabbath.

Theology is very personal – it involves repentance. We have our piety over here, right? In repentance, we think, stop doing actions, start doing “why” – as an action. The word for repentance in the New Testament, metanoia, it essentially means a transformation of mind, meta – change, and mind – noia. Metanoia, a change of mind, that’s what we translate repentance. There is such a thing as theological repentance, where we throw away inadequate ideas and concepts, and even stories and illustrations.

Theology is a spiritual discipline – when properly done, it brings you to repentance. It has everything to do with piety – with a living faith, in a living God. Sometimes we might not like theology because we don’t want to repent. We’ve already done enough of that over here with this action or with this attitude. We don’t have to repent again.

But back to Peter: Jesus is calling Peter for theological metanoia. Peter, you have to throw out your understanding of the meaning of “Messiah” – you have to repent of those lesser ideas that don’t allow the glory of who I am to come through, because “who I am” will include rejection of this particular people – suffering, death, but also resurrection.

Peter is brought to the point of metanoia, theological repentance – it’s very personal, very upfront. But that happens only if we make the central and controlling question – the who question – the one that Jesus put before us. If you look back to the Old Testament, it’s the main question that God is pressing on this whole people of Israel, who is the Lord? It’s not a new question that Jesus places in front of them. It’s been the one all along. We see this in Moses – he wants to know who God is, and if possible, to see him face-to-face. That’s what God finally did in Christ.

So, theology is the “who” question, and the first response is to ask, “Who is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ?” That’s the God we want to know. Any theological reflection has the central question, and Jesus himself is the first, central, most concrete, personal and direct answer. It’s God’s own reply. If you want to know who I am, then this is where to look. It is dealing with who God is in Jesus Christ. That’s the central question.

JMF: Most people don’t think in those terms – even Christians. If we were to go out in the street and ask people who God is, they think of God as a Judge or up in the sky who looks in everything that they do and judges, weighs their good deeds against their bad deeds. He’s primarily interested in behaviors, and gets offended if you go against his prescribed behaviors, and is going to judge you over that, and that’s how God is viewed – he’s the ultimate judge and police force to clean up mostly other people’s behavior, but we also worry about our own. It’s not a relationship issue with a person. It’s a relationship with a set of rules that God is the arbiter of. So if you changed your mind, repented about this question of “who is Christ?’ how does it change your view of this relationship?

GD: It completely rearranges it. We do tend to think about God in terms of our own practical problems or concerns. Today we may think, our society is morally falling apart. Or that what’s wrong with my life. It is essentially doing the right things and not doing the wrong things. That is a practical problem, but we can’t start with our practical problems and then ask how God fits in to that. But we often start with ourselves and what we think – we even start with our own ideas about who God is. We’re all faced with the question: But is that who the God of our Lord Jesus Christ really is?

Part of it is, as Athanasius in the third century indicated to us, that we have to stop thinking about God out of a center in ourselves and let God tell us who he really is. Where that’s going on is in Jesus. God is saying: “Let me tell you who I am. Let me interpret myself to you.”

It calls for a very careful listening and a willingness to set aside our ideas. Now is this what we see? Is this God – present and active and communicating himself or revealing himself, in person, face-to-face, is this God most concerned about a kind of morality – the rules of right conduct? People are wondering, it’s probably not going to be that God will be concerned for less than that. We can grant that for the moment – that’s probably going to come in there somewhere. But is that the central, controlling, guiding and deepest thing about God?

Reading Scripture and concentrating on the person and the teaching and the work of Christ, and all Scripture leading up to that – I don’t think that’s what you find that God is most interested in. If we listen to apostle Paul – it came to me many years ago about this – the apostle Paul tells us the law did not come in till 430 years later. Later than what? Later than the covenant.

If God is most interested in the rules of right conduct, isn’t 430 years a little late to get around to it? Wouldn’t it be strange if God was mostly concerned about that, wouldn’t he start right there? Our impression somehow has gotten, it’s as if God created things – Genesis – just got things up and running. Then the very next thing he did as they kind of came out of the garden, maybe, is that he gave the ten commandments. Well, that’s not how the Bible story goes.

JMF: Sometimes we think he created the law first, and then said to himself, This is a good law – I need somebody to keep it. It’s been the primary thing on his mind and if anybody steps on it and breaks it, he get angry and wipes them out.

GD: That’s right. We get that impression, even though that’s not how the story goes. What God essentially does is make a covenant with people, and that covenant can be simply put and is a repeated refrain, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God doesn’t ask permission. What that means is, I’m going to be everything for you. I’m going to be your life. I’m going to be your future, your hope. I will be your guide, as well. But I’m going to use my God-ness for you, and you are going to belong to me as my people. This going to be a covenant relationship, which is most like marriage, as understood in Scripture. God is interested in this covenant relationship with Israel.

JMF: Even though it says, “I know you’re not going to keep this covenant,” he said, “This is what it’s going to be, I’m going to be your God, you’re going to be my people. Even though you’re going to break your end of this, I’m going to pull my end of it, and I’m going to make you be this good thing that I intend for you to be, in the end, anyway, in spite of you.”

GD: Yes, the covenant is a promise. It’s a promise that’s made from God’s side unilaterally – from God’s side. The covenant itself, the establishment of the covenant, the main maintenance of the covenant, and even the fulfillment of the covenant, does not depend on the response of Israel. If Israel resists the covenant and the promise, that’s going to be a rocky relationship, isn’t it? That’s what you see in the Old Testament. It is a rocky relationship.

JMF: Kind of like my relationship with God.

GD: That’s right. Israel is a picture of all of humanity, in its rocky relationship with God. The relationship has its ups and downs, but God has not reneged on his covenant. It is, as Paul tells us, irrevocable. “I will be your God.” I will be your God and you shall be my people, and you’re going to be my people on behalf of all the families of the earth. We have to remember that part of the covenant. First announced to Abraham and made clear.

Covenant is, first of all, a promise that God makes that is not conditional on the response. That will affect how the relationship goes, but it has no power to break off God’s promise. Paul would tell us, that though everyone is faithless, God will still be faithful. Faithful to what? Faithful to his promise. That is the goodness of God, and the holiness of God – God is the one who is true to his word, and true to his covenant.

In a relationship, once you have the covenant established, then a parallel is, is that couples get married. If that relationship is going to run well and be harmonious, it will have to follow certain patterns, and we could describe some of the patterns of relationship in terms of laws. If you want to live and reap the benefits of this covenant relationship, so as a fruitful, joyful, loving, creative, life-giving relationship where you receive what I have to offer and give back to me, reflect back to me what you’ve been given – it will follow certain patterns. For Israel, it could be described in part, not in total, as certain rules: You will not worship other gods, you will not commit adultery, you will not steal, you will enjoy the Sabbath – and these types of things.

But these are not conditions to receive the promises – they’re conditions for receiving the blessings, enjoying the blessings, because if you resist the covenant relationship, or if you go against the grain of the relationship, you will get splinters. But we don’t have any power in us, and just because you go against the grain of that covenant relationship, you don’t have any power to change the direction of the grain. You will get splinters. If you go with the grain, you’ll enjoy the benefits of who God is and who God has promised to be.

The laws describe how to go along with the grain of the covenant relationship so that you don’t get splinters. God wants it to be a joyful, peaceful and fruitful relationship, where we’re receiving from him all his God-ness and goodness for us, and giving back to him thanksgiving and lives that reflect that thanksgiving.

JMF: Jesus not only comes to reveal who God is to us. He also comes as one of us. [GD: yes.] And that puts a new light on our relationship with God, when God comes as one of us. We’re just about out of time, but we need to talk about that. We need to talk about union with Christ, vicarious humanity of Christ. What difference does the whole concept of Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit in connection with humanity make? So, if you don’t mind doing another program, we can talk about those things.

GCS offers online master's degrees.Gary Deddo

Last modified: Sunday, January 27, 2019, 12:38 PM