How is God Known?

In my previous post I offered some of my thoughts on Jordan Peterson’s ideas about God.  I said that I found that I could say yes to his basic ideas, but with some serious qualifications, mainly around whether God can be known apart from his own self revelation in Jesus Christ. I love what Peterson is doing, but as a Christian, I have to maintain that he is, at present, missing one very crucial piece of the puzzle. That is, the crucified and risen Jesus is the answer to the world’s suffering and shows us who God is.

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_FatherPeterson’s talk about God, however, raises an old question: how can God be known? Put another way, is the God that is affirmed or reached through human reason the same God  revealed to us in Jesus Christ? I think the answer is both yes and no.

Theologians have called the attempt to discover things about God through human reason and observation of the world, “natural theology.” This discipline takes the view that when we look at creation and exercise the best of human reason, we can learn at least something about the God who created all of it. For example, natural theology says we are not  dependent on a special, supernatural act of revelation to know that God exists. One can look at the world and its complexity and come to the conclusion that it is the product of a creative, intelligent force.

Christians have debated for centuries how much about God can be known through natural theology. Most orthodox theologians have maintained that any knowledge of God that can be gained through human reason is only very limited knowledge. Even if we can know God exists, we are still reliant on God’s self revelation in Jesus to know him fully. Sin distorts the ability to truly know God.

One of the biggest theological debates of the 20th century was between Swiss theologians Emil Brunner and Karl Barth over this. Barth took a hard stance against natural theology and emphasized that the only real knowledge of God comes through God’s own self-revelation by grace in Jesus Christ, while Brunner took a more moderate view in favor of it. Barth thought that any attempt to look for God using human reason would only result in people talking about idealized versions of themselves while they claimed to be talking about God. That, in Barth’s view is idolatry. So Barth would probably say that when Jordan Peterson talks about God, he’s talking  about idealized human projection.

There is definitely a danger in relying too much on human reason to know about God. The inclination of we have to project some version of ourselves onto what we think God is like is very real.

Still, I don’t think we should dispense entirely with the role of human reason, because any truth is God’s truth. Yes, human reason is fallen and limited, and totally reliant on God’s self revelation to really know God. But we should recognize that God has revealed himself in human history to the historical people of Israel and in the 1st century Jewish man named Jesus. If God has done that, then we can use all of the tools available to us to examine that history and know the God who is at work in it.

We shouldn’t be too surprised if humans get some things right about God through human reason. As Christians, we we should celebrate that and encourage it while at the same time maintaining that it is only a very limited understanding. Again, I would point to the example of Paul in Acts 17 engaging with the Greek philosophers to show that the “unknown god” they worshiped was the one, true God who made Jesus Lord over all things. Paul saw their “grasping” for God by human reason as an on ramp to coming to know who God really is.

So, I think that there is a lot of value in engaging with Peterson’s ideas about God. However, I think we just should be clear about where the limits are. We cannot think ourselves to God, otherwise salvation would be a work that only the best people could achieve. But we can encourage people to be thinking about the Bible, God, and their own hierarchies of values. It opens doors for grace to show up.






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