Columbia Evangelical Seminary
Dissertation Proposal for the Degree
Doctorate of Theology
By John R. Lawless
Proposed Dissertation Title
A Treatise on an Enhanced Understanding of God Using
A Comparative Study of God’s Perceived Essence
- Problem Statement
1.1 Background Statement
Since the dawn of creation, mankind has sought to understand the many aspects of God. The oldest documents dating back to BC 2500 indicate the attempt to codify what it means to have an understanding of God. The earliest documents portray God as being polytheistic and capricious. Many of these societies illustrated their understanding by creating multiple gods for many aspects of life. These cultures also would create idols to assist in their worship. Man developed much of his theology from viewing nature around him. As much as this lead man to have a partial understanding of God it was not enough.
Beginning around BC 2000, with the calling of God placed on Abram of Ur, God began to reveal himself to man through special revelation. God called out to Abram, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’” (Genesis 12:1). So began a new dispensation as God determined to reveal himself to man.
God revealing himself to Moses and the nation of Israel was contributive to an enhanced understanding of who God is and his will for mankind; but there needed to be some document or documents created to convey God to other generations. Around BC 1400 Moses, at the leading of God, began to record the things God was revealing to him. God was not only revealing himself to man but also guiding the writing of these documents. Paul writing to Timothy declared, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Today that document is called the Holy Bible. The Holy Bible is the most read, published, and studied document in the history of mankind.
Over the past two thousand years many individuals, using these Holy Scriptures, have sought to develop a set of documents assisting mankind in attaining an enhanced understanding of God. The work of many outside the realm of Judeo-Christian scholarship has contributed to this endeavor. Plato and Aristotle have contributed at numerous levels and concerning various topics. Aristotle used a term, en tôi ti esti, meaning that what is. This phrase so boggled his Roman translators that they coined the word essentia to render the entire phrase, and it is from this Latin word that the contemporary derives. Today the translation of this concept refers to the essence of a substance. Theological essencology is a contemporary area of study. Understanding the essence of God can contribute to an enhanced understanding of God.
History reflects many changes at various times in Christianity. In the seventeenth century AD, a significant emphasis was placed on holiness and living a holy life. The last four hundred years have seen a gradual but steady move away from an emphasis on God’s holiness and his call to be holy. Today in the twenty-first century there is a significant emphasis on God’s love. Robert Gagnon contributes to this concept, “In contemporary society the command to love is often misconstrued as tolerance and acceptance.” Understanding God has an unfathomable love for his creation; there are those who seek to use God’s love to further their agendas. There is an ongoing debate on which of God’s attributes are the most important.
1.2 Problem Statement
Wolfhart Pannenberg supports the idea of God’s essence is love, “The Son also reveals the existence of the Father, and by the sending of the Son the Father reveals his essence, his eternal love” (John 3:16). This comment is a prime example of an individual confusing one of God’s attributes with his essence.
Many LGBT activists use the idea of love to support the idea of same-sex marriage. Matthew Vines in his book, God and the Gay Christian, maintains, “Perhaps the dominant message about marriage in modern society is that it’s primarily about being happy, being in love, and being fulfilled.” Vines goes on to state his belief a loving God would never expect two people who sincerely love each other to refrain from such a relationship. The concept, love produces acceptance, caused Jeffrey Satinover to comment concerning LGBT’s agenda, “No single moral standard governs the lives of men, and except by the power of force, no god, and no corresponding set of human values, is superior to any other.” This similar argument is used by various other organizations to include churches, Christian denominations, and other secular organizations; another example of using one of God’s attributes to further an agenda.
The debate concerning which is God’s most important attributes, is a contemporary area of focus. Millard J. Erickson asserts, “Some have suggested that it is (holiness) the most important single attribute of God. Whether this is a legitimate or desirable deduction, holiness is, at least, a very important attribute.” While Robert Duncan Culver insists, “To resume treatment of the holiness of God’s character, we can state; in a unique sense, holiness is basic to everything about God, not merely one among many moral attributes of goodness. Not without reason did A. H. Strong frame and persuasively defend the proposition; Holiness is the fundamental attribute of God.” Once again it seems an attribute used to define God’s essence.
It is not the intention of this author to participate in this debate. It is not to say these scholars are deficient in their arguments, but only to state the need to determine God’s essence and how it can assist in developing an enhanced understanding of God. Therefore, the problem statement this dissertation seeks to resolve is: The twenty-first century church is not proclaiming God’s entire oracle in a balanced methodology: therefore, a comparative study of God’s perceived essence is needed.
- Aims and Objectives
Michael Lawrence presents his definition for systematic theology, “Systematic theology is the attempt to summarize in an orderly and comprehensive manner what the whole Bible has to say about any given topic.” No matter the source, one thing the definition includes is the idea that systematic theology is a deliberate and planned methodology for seeking to determine the truths of the Bible. The first aim of this dissertation, using a planned and deliberate methodology, defines essence and reviews how an attribute differs from essence. Different definitions of God’s essence include love, holiness, self-existence, creation, and perfection. One needs to be careful not to confuse God’s attributes with God’s essence.
Another aspect of systematic theology is philosophy. William Van Doodewaard believes Christian philosophy as thus, “The task of Christian philosophy is nothing less than to interpret the whole of created reality in the light of God’s revelation to man in the Bible.” One aspect of philosophy is the use of reason to assist in understanding God’s message to man. There are many who find the very thought of combining secular reasoning principles with a study of the Bible to be unacceptable. Warren Young states, “Philosophy is man-made, speculative; Christianity is God-given, dogmatic. Hence, Christianity must not be contaminated with the foul epithet, philosophy.”
Faith and reason have always had a relationship of complementarianism. Culver declares, “True faith and sound reason are still steadfast friends. The Bible does not even hint that one must be unreasonable to believe God’s Word.” The second aim of this dissertation uses philosophical reasoning principles to assist in defining God’s essence. The process will also include a review of the philosophy of those groups who hold certain definitive viewpoints of God’s essence.
Another aspect is an epistemology, the study of knowledge and the principles for determining the truth. David L. Turner proposes, “According to one source, epistemology is the theory of knowledge . . . that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge, its presuppositions, basis, and the general reliability of claims to knowledge.” A subset of epistemology is to review and determine the theory of truth. The third aim of this dissertation reviews and determines what theory of truth groups that support a particular definition of God’s essence use. Some of these possible theories include pragmatism, coherence, and correspondence.
The fourth aim of this dissertation uses the Bible to define God’s essence. The Holy Scriptures are the basis for all Christian thought, practice, and theology. Therefore, it is imperative the use of the Holy Scriptures are an intricate part of this dissertation. It is here where the definition of inerrancy will play a major role.
The aims of this dissertation are to use systematic theology and the many tools available to determine what definitions of God’s essence are worthy of consideration. Therefore, it is the goal of this dissertation to define God’s essence and contribute to the knowledge base of an enhanced understanding of God.
- Central Theoretical Argument
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God is perfect. God’s perfection speaks to the number of attributes and the maturity of those attributes. Further detailed, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus knew no sin; Jesus stated the Father is perfect; therefore, the Father is perfect.
God is a simple entity, not a complex one; the doctrine is called the simplicity of God. Millard J. Erickson quotes Carl F. H. Henry to show what evangelicals mean by the doctrine of God’s simplicity, “Evangelical theology insists on the simplicity of God. By this it means that God is not compounded of parts; he is not a collection of perfections, but rather a living center of activity pervasively characterized by all his distinctive perfections.”
The Father is perfect. The Father is a simple entity not separated into parts. Therefore, those who proclaim God’s love is perfect must also proclaim all his attributes are perfect. The church making a choice to proclaim only part of the oracle of God is proclaiming only part of God is perfect. God is perfect, and therefore, the church needs to adopt a more balanced proclamation of God’s love and his other attributes. God has an endless and inexhaustible love for man. God is gracious and merciful to all who call on him. God’s perfection and simplicity demand the proclamation of the entire oracle of God as he has revealed to man through his Holy Scriptures.
The methodology for this dissertation will include the concept of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, hermeneutics standards to include avoidance of exegetical fallacies as defined by D. A. Carson, and the correspondence theory of truth.
Paul D. Feinberg maintains, “All of this is to say that, without the precise definition of the word inerrancy and the related doctrine of inerrancy, it is difficult to answer the question as to whether or not the Bible is inerrant.” Feinberg goes further to list his definition for inerrancy, “Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with the doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” This definition is the foundation for the first point of methodology for this dissertation. Also, the twenty-one statements of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy will contribute to the concept used in this dissertation. This author believes when all the information coalesces the concept of God’s essence will become succinct and accurate. It is, for this reason, an entire section is set apart in this dissertation for discussing God’s essence from a biblical perspective.
The second area of methodology includes the standards of hermeneutics applied in this dissertation. Grant R. Osborne states, “Biblical theology studies the themes behind the individual books and traditions within the Bible, seeking covering laws that integrate them into a holistic pattern.” In light of Osborne’s definition of biblical theology, proper research into the underlying meaning of the various books of the Scriptures brings together historical, sociological, linguistic, archeological, hermeneutical, and exegetical methodologies. For this reason, it is imperative a correct hermeneutical standard is stated and adopted. The goal must be not only to understand the meaning of the books of Scriptures but also to seek to develop and justify the unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The author of this dissertation believes there is a unity that exists between the Old Testament and the New Testament; therefore, supporting passages will emerge from both.
Any hermeneutics model must also seek to avoid the various exegetical fallacies. The two major resources for defining and avoiding these fallacies are Grant R. Osbourne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral and D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. Both of these resources are accepted across numerous fields of research for the definitions and encouragement in producing documents that are both truthful and accurate.
The final aspect of the methodology used in this dissertation is the theory of truth. In asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), Pontius Pilate expressed a view many still hold. The establishment of reality being the essential first step, epistemology follows closely behind. Dan Story supports this presupposition, “Truth, then, must correspond to reality.”
Norman Geisler provided a strong defense for the use of the correspondence theory of truth. Geisler provides several reasons for supporting the correspondence theory of truth. Non-correspondence of truth is self-defeating. As stated in the examination of both coherence and existential theories of truth, both rely on correspondence to state their case. Falsehoods would not be detectable without correspondence. If something were not known the way it is, how would it be known the way it is not? Finally, without correspondence, all factual communication would break down.
Geisler provides several biblical reasons for the correspondence theory of truth. The foundation of the ninth commandment stands on the correspondence theory of truth. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). How would a person know what is a false witness against his neighbor unless he first knew what was a true statement concerning reality? C. S. Lewis states, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” It is for these reasons this author will use the correspondence theory of truth in this dissertation.
J. I. Packer and M. C. Tenney, Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers (1980), pp. 106-117.
 Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practices Text and Hermeneutics, Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press (2001), p. 5.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991–1998), p. 358.
 Matthew Vine, God and the Gay Christian, New York NY: Convergence Books, a division of Random House Publishers, (2014), p. 135.
 Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books (1996), p. 232.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), p. 309 cites Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Westwood, NJ: Revell, 1907), p. 297.
 Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology (Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), p. 95.
 Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), p. 89.
 William Van Doodewaard, “Van Til and Singer: A Theological Interpretation of History,” ed. Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Journal 3 (2011): p. 353.
 Warren C. Young, “Is There a Christian Philosophy?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 1 (1958): p. 6.
 Culver, p. 25.
 David L. Turner, “A Study in Presuppositional Apologetics,” Grace Theological Journal 2 (1981): p. 47, citing D. W. Hamlyn, “Epistemology, History of,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, 8 vols. (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 3.9-10.
 Erickson, God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p.231 cities Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), vol. 5, p. 131.
 Paul D. Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1980), p. 267.
 Ibid., p. 294.
 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, (Chicago, IL: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978) p. 3.
 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, rev. and exp., 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), pp. 353–354.
 Dan Story, Christianity on the Offense: Responding to the Beliefs and Assumptions of Spiritual Seekers (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), p. 232.
 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), p. 115.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Books, Revised and Enlarged Edition, 2009), p. 38.