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Against Speaking about “our God Concept”: Isaiah, Luther, and Ebeling

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March, 2005 Dr. Peter Krey, Berkeley, California SOLI DEO GLORIA!

Reading the wonderful Isaiah chapters again, I was impressed by something that began in the 40’s. I noticed a reversal of our secular assumptions. In prose of chapter 44, Isaiah describes the absurdity of idolatry – the same wood that is burnt to warm the people is used as fuel to bake bread, then used and shaped into an idol for worship.

That is a complete “fabrication” – to use the word in two senses. A self-deception made with one’s own hands and made with a confused mind.

Isaiah continues in poetry with verse 21:

Remember these things, O Jacob and Israel,

for you are my servant, I formed you.

You are my servant… I have redeemed you.

That means that we are the work of God’s hands, we are wonders, we are miracles, we are marvelously made, because we are formed by God, because we are God’s servants.

Idolatry places the focus on the work of our hands, an artifact, a fabrication, upon which we focus, rather than the envelope or radiance created by the divine, because we ourselves are the work of God’s hands.

The latter reversal can also be considered on other levels. This God is not a concept of human conceiving, but we are creations of God’s formation. Being the passive living sculptures made in heaven, makes us the purveyors of divine grace here on earth, because the divine active and passive do not make human beings passive and active – let me say it again: just because God is active and the human being passive coram deo, the human being is not passive coram hominibus, but in that forum and in the other fora (coram meipso et coram mundi) can be active on a whole new qualitative level. The person in that state of grace is mindful of the motion of happening in which being, doing, having, all play a role and the creativity involved is not given a reductionism to mere doing.

Thus if we consider taking the idolatry from the woodcarver or sculptor of Isaiah into the intellectual realm of religious conceptuality, i.e., our “God concept,” – then we do not conceive God as a fabrication for our self-deceptive comfort. God conceived us, and called us into existence. We are God’s concepts and God concepts, and not vice versa. The evidence lies in the wonder of this universe, its galaxies, black holes, nova, shining stars, our sun, this planet earth, and its silver moon and the wonder of life and love and redemption, that is not of our making, but presents itself as a given, a gift from the divine hand that made it.

Thus interpreting God as human projections of a father into the sky like Ludwig Feuerbach; or religion as an opiate of the people, because of its being a human fabrication or self-deception a la Marx – misses the whole wonder of what we are, the marvels of what God’s hand has formed and fashioned for us.

Isaiah is saying we cannot form God; God forms us, the God besides whom there is no other (43:11, 44:8b, 45:5, 14b, 21b, and 22b).

It would be interesting to study Luther’s faith creating God – the way Gerhard Ebeling presents it – and in what sense it does not violate these Isaiah’s passages as well as Karl Barth’s sensibilities.

Perhaps the line of reasoning would have to go this way. Faith is the power of God in us – faith is Christ in us giving us the conception of God, from having come to us from God in heaven. I would have to check this out.

Ebeling argues in his Lutherstudium Band III. (p 190 ff) that the scholastics divided faith into a pluralism of faiths: formata, actus, habitus, acquisita, infusa, above all, fides informis vs. fides formata. If faith justifies, Luther argued, St. Paul could never have spoken or understood faith in such a pluralism of forms.[1]

It had to be faith in a holistic form justified and not faith dissipated away in many different compartments.

Now here is why the Isaiah passage calls this Luther via Ebeling passage to mind. Luther writes that fides est creatrix divinitas, of divinity, not God, Ebeling argues. Faith creates divinity, because faith gives God the glory and it is impossible to do anything for God, except to make God our God. God shares Godself with us through faith. So in the power of God, divinity is created in us.

Not in person,

Not in substance, (194).

But in us. The justified has new life not in his/her person, not in se, but in Christ. The substance is in Christ. So by faith, God is making Christ become a reality in us. Jesus Christ is God becoming incarnate and human reality (197).

Thus reason, which cannot allow God to be God and cannot give God the glory, is overcome by faith – is killed (spiritually) by faith, dies by faith, and Christ is formed within us – and the incarnation is continued.

I can see from reading Ebeling again why I had such a high understanding of human activity subsumed into God, or really human beings, participating in divine action because of the reversal of faith and grace – that at the Wartburg Seminary Lecture they thought I was close to the Finnish Theosis.[2]

For example, in my Ebeling notes, I wrote: “There seems to be an overlap here, almost a reserve against Pelagianism. Human action and agency do not encroach on what is the divine prerogative; but faith reaches down and lifts the person, without subject, agent, free will, etc. into the divine action of God – that is, however, the furtherance of incarnation, or continuous creation” (p 26).

Thus in my “Grounding Missiology in Lutheran Confessions” lecture at the Wartburg – I can see that this study became a part of me and I was not even conscious that I was drawing on it.

Now this is not idolatry at all, to say that our faith makes Christ be within us, and I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.


[1] Gerhard Ebeling, Lutherstudium Band III: Begriffsuntersuchung, Textinterpretationen, und Wirkungsgeschichtliches, (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebich), 1985).

[2] Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, ed. Union with Christ: the New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).

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Written by peterkrey

July 14, 2008 at 5:04 pm

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