The One-Way Ladder (On the Doctrine of God)

Our images of God are informed more by culture than by scripture.

It is common, when speaking of God, to describe Him by certain characteristics. We say things like, “God is Love;” or, “God is All-Powerful;” or, “God is the Father.”

These abstractions from the Divine Personality invite certain issues. The person who hears that “God is Love” may rightly ask, if that is the case, why there is such a place as Hell. The person who hears that “God is All-Powerful” may rightly be puzzled by the question, “If He is All-Powerful, could he create a stone too heavy for He Himself to lift?” And the person who hears that “God is Father” may rightly feel, drawing from his or her own experience of fatherhood, that if this is the case he wishes for nothing to do with such a God.

There is a grave problem with these statements about God, and it is not that they are, in themselves, untrue, but that they are abstractions. They are properties of God removed from God; and, having been separated from God Himself, they are employed in turn to judge God. Consequently, we end up in the sorry position where God’s Love is militated against His Justice, His Power against His Character, His Wrath against his Mercy. We judge God, then, not by God, but by our ideas of God, and in the process we become idolaters of our ideas. Our ideas of God, then, become hellish and Satanic—for it is always Satan’s trick to make us choose, in the place of God, a lesser good. The problem, then, is not with these characteristics of God’s personality, but with the way we are approaching our knowledge of Him.

How are we approaching God wrongly? When we abstract the characteristics of God in the way I have described, we are drawing from our human understanding of love, and power, and fatherhood, and applying those human definitions to God. The result is a vision of God that is composed of all the ‘best thoughts I can imagine’ about God. But whatever best thoughts you might have, they still fall short of God in His actuality. How can you, O Finite Human, capture or conceive even the smallest characteristic of an infinite God? If you had 100 pieces of information about God, how much more information would you need to reach infinity? If you had 1,000,000 pieces of information about God, how much more would you need to reach infinity? The gap between our human understanding and God, no matter how high we climb the ladder of knowledge, remains impassable.

To explain this more clearly I’ve created the following diagram.

Yes, I made this. Yes, I recognize that God doesn't live in a cloud.

When it comes to our knowledge of God, we have no way of achieving such knowledge on our own. This is because our human knowledge, working from the ground up, builds from our understandings of things like Love, Power, Fatherhood, Holiness, Mercy, Grace, Forgiveness, Justice, and whatever other characteristics are applied to God. But it always has a ceiling; we can only go so far. “What is called God’s goodness and God’s holiness,” observes Karl Barth, “cannot be determined by any view that we men have of goodness and holiness, but it is determined from what God is.” And when we take our human knowledge and apply it to God as a way to determine His character—that is, when we develop an abstraction and define God by that abstraction—then we are worshipping idols. We aren’t worshipping God, but the characteristics of our own making. Incidentally, the very nature of this ladder of knowledge is precisely the reason why we cannot prove God from Nature. He is not such a being as could be determined or defined by any earthly characteristic. He is a being who must be revealed.

The ladder of the knowledge of God, in other words, only goes one way. We can only know God as God has revealed Himself to us, and we can never determine who God is by our own means and definitions. We cannot take from any earthly definition and move ‘upward’ toward God; all our understandings of God must be received, downward, from Him in revelation. But this is precisely where the good news begins, because this is exactly what God has done. He, recognizing the gap between our knowledge and Him, has made a way for us to know Him. Humanity could not reach God, but God condescended to reach humanity.

The only way, then, that we can speak fairly and accurately about who God is, is to speak with the language that God Himself has chosen for His self-revelation—that is, to speak of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. As Christians, when we are asked what we know about the Doctrine of God, our first and best answer should be, “Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen.”

We gain knowledge of God through gazing at Christ.

Let’s return, then, to God’s Love, Power, and Fatherhood, and address some of the issues raised by their abstraction. As we do this we must keep in mind that because of the one-way ladder we can never work from human definitions upwards, but must always work from God’s self-revelation to us. We do not know what ‘Love’ truly is, except by gazing at God in Christ. And that means human love is an utterly insufficient platform from which to make determinations about God. From God’s perspective, however, the purest expression of His Love, revealed to us, is the Cross—a very different picture of love than what we would choose! But it is one that in its severity and costliness makes some sense of a doctrine of Hell. We do not know what ‘Power’ is except by looking at God in Christ, and what we see in him is a person who rejected earthly power in favor of Heavenly submission. Christ’s power meant submitting to the will of God, that is, to crucifixion. Once again, this is profoundly opposed to our human definition of power! Thus, the Power of God is revealed in the submission of Christ to the plan of God—that is, power revealed in self-limitation to the constraints of God’s character. In this way, the question of the stone-too-heavy-to-lift is brought into focus as an absurdity. It is based on an abstraction of power that is separated from God’s character—as if God could violate Himself! Lastly, we don’t know what Fatherhood is except by looking at the Son and the Father in relationship. And here we come to see that the Fatherhood of God sets the parameters for His mission to the world—to bring His beloved children home to Him. And thus God is the One “from whom all Fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph 3:15). Our idea of ‘Father’ must be informed by God, and not the other way round.

In the end, these properties of God, given to us in revelation from God, form a coordinate and holistic picture that reveals, in perspective, the perfect and unchanging character of God; a character that we learn, recognize, and come to know in Jesus Christ, who is God, speaking for Himself, in the flesh.

6 comments on “The One-Way Ladder (On the Doctrine of God)

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  2. […] Related Post: The One-Way Ladder (From Mustard Seed Faith) […]

  3. Laurie says:

    This post doesn’t leave much room for personal experience, but I think some direct experience on the part of the Christian is going to have to come in to play. Why else would we pray in secret and ask for wisdom?

    Also, while the Bible may perfectly reveal God, it does not perfectly reveal solutions to modern 21st century problems, or Christian problems. How do we respond to homosexuality (aside from quoting Scripture, which even the Devil can do), what is the role of environmental stewardship, animal rights, political involvement in a democracy, racism, sexism and all the like. Both corporately and individually, Christians are going to have to come up with a response to these. The doctrine of God may work one way, but the response of Christians is as multifaceted as all of nature. I believe some people are much more on the right path, but I don’t think you can just take Scripture as a closed text. It is much more beneficial if it is used to pave the way, and not illuminate every problem known to society.

  4. Laurie says:

    Sorry, not sure that last comment made sense. I don’t have a job, although I almost do (I think) so that’s why I have so much free time to comment:) I really want to take theology classes, and I read a lot on my own. I think in the last comment I was trying to say that although the Bible is a one way ladder from God to us, it still doesn’t relieve the problem of figuring out how to bring about “the Kingdom” or even to respond to culture. I think thats ultimately a good thing, since part of maturing is growing in knowledge and grace.

    I feel like I’m more often a critic than a positive encourager when it comes to responding to other peoples religious opinions. I think my Father taught me to do this, and probably all good critical thinkers adopt this method. It can be a bad habit though so in that spirit…. I would like to say it’s great to see someone taking the claims of the Bible seriously, and some of these posts remind me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I regard as a serious Christian and martyr for the faith. The Church, and all of society, would benefit from serious intellectual inquiry and disciplined habits of mind. Also, the tendency to equate American society with Christianity has produced a too close mingling of the two, which likely undermines the requirements of the Gospels claims. Taking the Bible and God seriously would likely produce more benefit than all of the pandering to culture anyway. So keep up the good work!

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Laurie,

      Thanks for contributing – I’m glad that I’ve been able to offer you some theological fodder :)

      You are, of course, perfectly correct that the Bible is not a simple answer guide to the problems of the day. One of the disservices done us by Christian culture at large is that those in positions of authority have too-often treated the Bible as if it were precisely that. There are no simple equations, and that is why we have to seek Godly wisdom. It is also, perhaps, part of the reason why we are commended to remember (1 Corinthians) that “we have the mind of Christ.” Now, Paul does not mean we have this mind as an accomplished fact–as if we have attained omniscience–but he is pointing to the power of the Spirit within us, giving access to the mind of God, and providing us, in community, humility, and submission, with wisdom to make these decisions. (Note especially that Paul speaks these words to people who are decidedly *not* living the mind of Christ–so Paul uses it almost ironically as a word of condemnation.)

      Again, with all such issues, the principle remains the same: we move from what is clear to begin making informed judgments about what is unclear. If we move from the other direction (that is, by starting with what is unclear and trying to assemble a combination of un-clarities to make a point), then I think we will always end up in confusion. One of those un-clarities is our human emotion, which, like the human conscience, is regularly colored by the atmosphere of the age. What we find pleasurable or reprehensible is as often determined by our media choices as it is anything else. You even mention how your father has informed your feeling about critical thought (and don’t be deceived–critical thinking is an emotion as much as anything else–it *feels* good to do it!). The point is that all our emotions must be subjected to other, more timeless authorities so that we can determine if I like something because it is right to like it, or if I like something because I have been polluted by my age.

      That being said, the Bible has an enormous amount of clear things to say which helps us to make these kinds of informed decisions about all of the modern issues we face. I can’t address all of them, of course, but as an example the Bible has very clear teachings about the nature and purpose of humanity–image of God, made for relationship, that the purpose of the law is to preserve people, and so forth. We can take the Bible’s teachings about human life and dignity and work from there to evaluate our present age’s obsession with human freedom. Because really, that is the rub of the issue today. People think they are free, but the Bible clearly teaches that we are made to be servants of a higher power. Our ‘freedom’ comes through our right-relatedness with God. Therefore it is not my freedom to do as I please, but my freedom to be fully human as God has intended me to be. If I were to put the problem of our modern world into a phrase it would be this: the modern world and the Christian scriptures have two opposing definitions of what it means to be a human person. If the one-way ladder is correct (as I believe it to be), then our definition of what it means to be human must come from God and not culture. Many idols will be smashed. The smashing will not be comfortable.

      Congrats on the new job – every blessing to you as you start soon!


  5. Chuck Halstead says:

    Hello Jeremy,

    I just started reading your critique of Spufford’s “Unapologetic…” My initial reaction to your critique was one of frustration. Your critique seemed to me to be front loaded with a lot of empty criticism and nothing to back it up. Anyone can do this I thought. “Where’s the beef?” I asked. Then finally you took Spufford to task for not wanting to deal with that “unpopular interpretation of scripture.” Bravo I said. Maybe this kid has something.

    I then bounced over to this article to see that you and are of the same mind on these “abstractions” [of God] you talk about. I have gone round and around with those who diminish God thinking they are doing something quite enlightened by calling God “a God of love”. Doing this ultimately does nothing but diminish Him. It makes Him mono-dimensional like some cosmic paper tiger. In essence this reductionism creates an idol of God by making Him out to be something He is not (i.e. it limits all His other Godly attributes). Any reduction of God to one characteristic diminishes Him, His deity, His glory, His God-ness and should be viewed as a ploy designed by Satan to deceive.

    I am surprised you have no gray hair. I was unaware the people your age really thought as critically as you. I’m impressed and looking forward to more of your material. Good on ya!



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