Before God

20 Jul

I have continued with George Stroup’s excellent book Before God. (Eerdmans, 2004)
I don’t know the author personally, though I have for a long time appreciated his earlier work on narrative theology.
In this book, which is exceptionally clearly written and structured, you have what feels like a distillation of the author’s thought, the considered and concentrated wisdom of his life. I like it very much, even though I am also wanting to argue with it, and in some places disagree.

The central thesis of the book is simply stated: that the essence of biblical faith is the invitation to live ‘before God’ coram Deo. That is to say, this is the fundamental nature of reality. We do in fact exist within the presence of the divine reality. We are God’s creatures, invited to live with God. We have the choice of recognizing this, and thus living ‘before God’, or denying it, and thus failing to live ‘before God’.
In recent times, however, —which I think means most of the ‘modern’ period, theology has lost this focus. There has been an ‘eclipse’ of this sense of ‘beforeness’. This has given rise to a tragic separation of theology and ethics. ‘The eclipse of life lived before God has had a corrosive effect on Christian piety.’ (p.3)
Stroup’s opening chapter puts the case that this is the overall message of the Bible. He states his thesis in six key ideas.

1. The Bible presupposes a distinction between God and human beings. God is both other than, and prior to, all else. God is God, and we are not.
2. That reality before which we live is not sheer transcendence: though God is ‘other’, God is not completely  unknown to us. Rather, God is a reality with a name, a face … and thus God is known.
3. God’s Word establishes beforeness: human beings are spoken into being by God and live before God by means of God’s Word, which itself is a dynamic and living reality, a Word with a particular face, the person Jesus Christ.
4. To live before God in covenantal communion is gift, calling and demand.
5. Beforeness describes not only the life of human beings before God, but also the way we are to live with each other, in community with our neighbours.
6. Beforeness also describes the ‘telos’ of human life before God: along with all creation, we are called to live gratefully, in everlasting praise to God. Thus beforeness is both ethic and doxology.
Thus Stroup writes: ‘Human life begins before God, and its final destiny is unending doxology before God. The biblical story, from beginning to end, presupposes that human life is lived before God.’ (p.9)

I mean to write more about his basic ideas, in the later chapters.
I really like his idea that gratitude is at the heart of Christian spirituality. This says so much to an ethos and culture that is concerned with ‘what I get out of it’.
Also, there seems to me so much that is fundamentally right about this presentation. It is biblically grounded. It seems to have its theological bearings right. And it holds together theological imperatives with ethics, worship, spirituality.

Students of systematic theology will recognize a very strong similarity in this approach and the classic theology of the Swiss writer of the first half of the 20th century Karl Barth.
This is no accident. Stroup seems to me closely aligned with the ‘post-liberal’ emphasis, sometimes called ‘the Yale School’, which seeks to maintain the Barthian theology for today.
In any event, though, I have to add just a little concern.
There is always something of concern about this way of presenting God: it has what Bonhoeffer once said about Barth, a kind of ‘take it or leave it’ feel to it. This theology risks all the worst of what is called ‘dogmatics’.
I say this with deep reservation, because in terms of its content I think there is so much that is right about it.
And yet. I am just not sure that this is the God of our Lord Jesus. Is there enough of the compassionate, patient, giving God of the Gospels here?
There is much to be considered.
Interestingly, Stroup goes directly to this question, in his next chapter, which is a presentation about Jesus. Then he goes on to sin. That’s what I plan to write about next.

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