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Spectator Worship

I posted a brief essay last week focusing on the obvious neglect of the Bible in many contemporary worship services. In that post I made one particular comment that was probably unclear to readers not trained in historical theology. Regarding worship services that fail to engage the Bible in a substantial way, I said:

“It is a problem of a participatory vs. a non-participatory understanding of human nature in relation to God. Classical Trinitarianism (participatory) vs. nominalism (non-participatory). Much contemporary worship seems to be nominalist at its core.”

I’d like to spend some time explaining this statement because it really is at the heart of the problem. My hope with these next few posts is to demonstrate why the current situation is a problem and also what presuppositions lie at the root of this problem. I’ll address the following questions in turn.

1. What does it mean to know God?

2. How does the Bible mediate or facilitate our knowledge of God?

3. How does worship relate to the knowledge of God?

4. What are philosophical univocity and nominalism?

5. How do these philosophical positions influence contemporary Christians, distort our understanding of God and thus our relationship with God?

Although the issues I cover here are complex, I’ll try to be brief since this is a blog and I’d really like to hold your attention all the way through. Please hang with me!

What does it mean to Know God? (Click here for a much more thorough treatment)

Proverbs 1:7 is a good place to begin: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” The word fear in this passage doesn’t suggest that we should cower before a God who is unpredictable and full of malice. Rather, to fear God is to be reverent and to exercise necessary caution. As C.S. Lewis suggests, we are not talking about a tame Lion, though He is certainly good. A proper fear of God never presumes to have God all figured out, as though God is like us. Likewise, a proper fear of God never takes God for granted, as though His nature and character are a given. I suspect that contemporary Christians are prone to this error on a massive scale – far too many people hardly give God a second thought. God is merely a given, and there is no need to think too much about Him.

Yet, we do not know God implicitly; rather the biblical witness suggests that we must pay very careful attention to God’s revelation of Himself. Only if we remain cautious before God, remembering that He is not like us, can we hope to know God. Paul displays a proper fear of God when he writes:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

Romans 11:33–36 (ESV)

The God of the Bible is a mystery far beyond human comprehension, and we don’t make progress in knowing God without understanding this fact. See the passages listed in the first note below for a sampling of the biblical witness to this truth.

That God is incomprehensible is also the clear position of Christian theologians through the ages. In the interest of space, I offer a dense quotation from a recent book by Brad Gregory, who suggests that the biblical notion of a transcendent God has been reiterated by countless Christian thinkers. Despite havingascribed to God dozens of superlatives near the outset of his Confessions, for example, Augustine (354-430) asked immediately afterward, “What does anyone say when he speaks about you?” Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was similarly struck: “You are in me and around me and I do not feel [sentio] you.”” Notwithstanding her unusual visions, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) repeated the merest commonplaces in saying that God was “incomprehensible in all things and above all things” and that “no one can understand or extend to holy divinity with the keenest of his senses, because it is above all things.” In his analogical metaphysics of creaturely participation in God, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) presupposed and sought to preserve a view of God so “otherly other” that God shares no genus in common with creatures-not even being-so utterly different is God’s literally indefinable, “improperly knowable” reality from that of everything else.” In the late sixteenth century, the Spanish Discalced Carmelite John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote that “God’s being cannot be grasped by the intellect, appetite, imagination, or any other sense, nor can it be known in this life.” In the mid-nineteenth century, too, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) repeated the same idea in asserting that God “is absolutely greater than our reason, and utterly strange to our imagination.” Already in his influential commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, a young Karl Barth (1886-1968) objected vehemently to natural theology and insisted that God is “entirely other” (ganz anders). And the American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) noted in a letter from 1962 “how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories.” Paradoxically, then, one might say that according to this Christian view, God “exists” but does not exist, insofar as God is by definition not like anything else that is real. Brad S. Gregory. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Kindle Locations 436-445). Kindle Edition.

Despite statements in Holy Scripture and the clear testimony of the church’s most celebrated teachers and saints, the Christian faith also affirms that God can be truly known – that the ineffable and incomprehensible Trinity makes Himself known. But how can this be?

Again, the clear testimony of the Bible and our fathers and mothers in the faith is that God makes Himself known by drawing persons into his own life. We know God as we allow our lives to be conformed to His life. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: “Knowledge [of God] is always produced by an assimilation of the knower to what is known.” Or consider the teaching of 1st John:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

1 John 4:7-12

The text in bold highlights the “participatory” nature of our knowledge of God. As I mentioned in a previous post, God is not one being among others – like us but of greater power and proportion (this is nominalism, which I’ll explore in a later post). We don’t relate to God as we relate to other people (over an empty space) because God is eternal, omnipresent, etc. We live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). Christians believe that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6).

So how do we know such a God? Only from the inside. Jesus, draws us into fellowship/communion with the Father by the power of the Spirit. Coming to know God is like a process of waking up and seeing all reality anew – beginning with a sobering assessment of ourselves – in light of the One who created, sustained and ultimately redeems all things. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”

In my introductory theology classes I focus on this issue from the start. Theology (Theos+Logos) means, basically, the study of God, so it is very important that we clarify, from the beginning, what it could possibly mean to study a subject Who is ineffable and incomprehensible. And this brings us to the Bible.

How does the Bible mediate or facilitate our knowledge of God?

There is no way to address this subject without being overly simplistic (grossly so), so please excuse the brevity of this treatment. In summary, the ineffable and incomprehensible Triune God makes Himself known as he draws us into his Word through the power of the Holy Spirit that we might glorify the Father. The Bible does not merely provide information about God so that we might become objective “observers,” so to speak. Henri de Lubac lampoons theologians who approach theology this way when he writes of scholars who

“stroll about theology somewhat as if in a museum of which we are the curators, a museum where we have inventoried, arranged and labeled everything; we know how to define all the terms, we have an answer for all objections, we supply the desired distinctions at just the right moment. Everything in it is obscure for the secular, but for us, everything is clear, everything is explained. If there is still mystery, at least we know exactly where it is to be placed, and we point to this precisely defined site” (de Lubac, “Internal Causes,” 233).

Apostle’s Creed

While theological study and the long history of Christian doctrine are essential, the nature of doctrine is primarily hermeneutic (interpretive). Christian doctrine is important, not because it enables intellectual mastery over God, but because it faithfully guides our reading of scripture – enabling us to enter into communion with the God who is Scripture’s primary author. Properly guided, the Bible becomes the center of the church’s life – the deep wellspring from which wisdom unto salvation flows.

When we read the bible as members of Christ’s body and guided by the church’s great doctrinal heritage, we find ourselves drawn into the great drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. We are trained to know God as we learn to see with the mind of Christ, and this includes seeing ourselves and others anew. Seeing ourselves with illumined eyes is necessarily convicting, and seeing our neighbors in Christ’s light means that we see them truly – not as enemies, but as fellow sinners for whom Jesus Christ died. For more reasons than I can address here, the Christian theological heritage guides us to enter into the biblical story and be transformed by it – becoming persons who can love as God loves – the very definition of knowing God. In my theology classes, I tell students that theology really can do what it claims – theology brings knowledge of God. However, we must remember that,

  • Knowing God is illuminating – it is to see as God sees.
  • Knowing God convicts – it is to see ourselves in God’s light
  • Knowing God transforms the will – we come to identify with Christ and his mission, and we learn to pray – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
  • Knowing God is to love – Seeing ourselves and others as creatures, made with great dignity but fallen and redeemed by the blood of Christ is the beginning of brother love. We love because God first loved us.
  • Knowledge of God is personal – we have been made in God’s image, so the kind of knowledge described here leads toward the great peace and personal rest that each of us strives for, sometimes without realizing what it is that we are searching for.

Knowledge of God never exhausts the mystery of God, but it is still true knowledge – insider knowledge.

In the next post, I want to address the relationship between knowledge of God and the worship of God. As I mentioned in the last post, we find ourselves in the midst of a very strange and even post-biblical era of evangelical worship. Post-Biblical Protestant Evangelical worship is very far from the church’s tradition, which strove, for very good reason, to immerse itself in scripture so that its members might, indeed, be conformed to God by entering, deeply, into the biblical drama – letting this drama become its source of wisdom and means of grace.



  1. [1] Deuteronomy 29:29 – “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
  2. Job 5:9 – who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number:
  3. Job 11:7 – “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
  4. Job 15:8 – Have you listened in the council of God? And do you limit wisdom to yourself?
  5. Job 21:22 – Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that he judges those who are on high?
  6. Job 28:14 – The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
  7. Job 35:7 – If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Or what does he receive from your hand?
  8. Job 36:22 – Behold, God is exalted in his power; who is a teacher like him?
  9. Job 36:23 – Who has prescribed for him his way, or who can say, ‘You have done wrong’?
  10. Job 40:2 – “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
  11. Job 41:11 – Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
  12. Psalm 16:2 – I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
  13. Psalm 36:6 – Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord.
  14. Psalm 92:5 – How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!
  15. Psalm 139:6 – Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
  16. Proverbs 16:4 – The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
  17. Proverbs 25:2 – It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.
  18. Ecclesiastes 7:24 – That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?
  19. Isaiah 40:13 – Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel?
  20. Isaiah 40:14 – Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
  21. Jeremiah 23:18 – For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened?
  22. Romans 2:4 – Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
  23. Romans 16:27 – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
  24. 1 Corinthians 2:16 – “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
  25. 1 Corinthians 8:6 – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
  26. 1 Corinthians 11:12 – for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.
  27. Galatians 1:5 – to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
  28. Ephesians 3:8 – To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
  29. Ephesians 3:10 – so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
  30. Ephesians 3:21 – to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
  31. Philippians 4:20 – To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
  32. Colossians 1:16 – For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
  33. Colossians 2:3 – in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
  34. 1 Timothy 1:17 – To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
  35. 2 Timothy 4:18 – The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
  36. Hebrews 2:10 – For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
  37. Hebrews 13:21 – equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
  38. 1 Peter 4:11 – whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
  39. 1 Peter 5:11 – To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
  40. 2 Peter 3:18 – But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
  41. Jude 25 – to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
  42. Revelation 1:6 – and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
  43. Revelation 5:13 – And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
  44. Revelation 7:12 – saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
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