You are in a hurry and the traffic lights turn red. Does it frustrate you or do you reflect Christian patience knowing that this, too, comes from God’s fatherly hand?
Things are not going so well in your marriage. Do you ignore the promises you made, change your view of what God requires, and seek a divorce?
Are we, in these and other matters, unwittingly changing our perception of who God is in our desire to seek our happiness?
These are the sorts of questions Rev. C. Bouwman raised in a recent speech.1 Our responses in various situations have everything to do with our perception of who God is, he said, and that perception can easily be influenced by unreformed views held and promoted by Western thinking in relation to God.
Of course, a lot of people nowadays deny God altogether. Many Westerners and certainly communists have swallowed Satan’s lie that the universe is a product of evolution over billions of years. We easily detect how wrong that is. Such atheists were not the focus of Rev Bouwman’s speech.
However, there are many Christians whose view of God is at odds with what we confess. Here in Australia we, like our brothers and sisters in Canada, must be on guard against a culture that started in North America and that presents views of God that are radically different from what we confess.
Rev. Bouwman’s speech, aptly titled “Who is God? Why it matters”, has some clear warnings for us. What follows is a summary based on notes of the speech.
First, Rev Bouwman referred to Prof. Jelle Faber who told his students at seminary: when we speak about the doctrine of God, we are on holy ground. Like Moses, who had to remove his sandals at the burning bush, so we are to remember the holiness of God when speaking about Him.
But if that’s the case, why do a topic on the doctrine of God, asked Rev. Bouwman? Because God has revealed himself in the gospel of salvation and in His creation and we need to seek to know Him from His Word in a spirit of humility. Moreover, today’s world, to the extent that it still believes in God, has moved Him from their daily life and the people of God are so easily infected by this thinking. So we need to have a good understanding of who God is.
You see, there has been a cultural shift in Australia. We used to be culturally influenced by Great Britain but now, like Canada, are more influenced by North America. And the Western world, with North America as its cultural leader, has a view of God radically different from what it used to be. Consider the following -isms.
As reformed Christians we adhere to Theism. That is God as we confess Him in BCF, Art.1:
“We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one God, who is a simple and spiritual being; he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.”
Here we confess our God as we learn to know Him from Scripture, as the church has confessed Him on the basis of God’s Word for hundreds of years (as is shown by the numerous proof texts referenced under BCF Article 1 in our Book of Praise).
The direct opposite of Theism is Atheism, the idea that there is no God. It is a view promoted, for example, by Karl Marx and his followers. They claim that religion was invented by those in authority in order to control the masses. This view, said Rev Bouwman, is rampant in today’s radical left movement and is promoted by the universities. It’s a view that is antithetical to what a Christian believes.
But there are Christians who adhere to a view known as Deism. That is a view, said Rev Bouwman, which acknowledges that God created the world but that He left it in such a way that it could operate by itself. God remains distant. He is like a clockmaker who, having made the clock, merely checks it out occasionally to see if everything is working fine and ensure that you are happy. And so, the Lord God is here for me if I need him; He’s on call.
A derivative of this is Moral Therapeutic Deism and that can hit closer to home. Indeed, a study of American youth showed that they embraced this view. Like Deism it places God well away from everyday life. Whilst it holds that God created and maintains the universe, it sees God as useful for daily life only if you need Him. Such people believe that since God wants people to live moral lives and to be happy, He is willing to help out if you want help. It is a view Rev Bouwman comes back to later in the speech because in reality it appears to impact us.
Then there is Pantheism, the view that God is in everything. Pantheism believes God is all and all is God. He’s in the hills and trees and rivers and everything, just as the soul is in the body. It is basically Hindu thinking, said Rev Bouwman, and it was a view reflected in the pop songs of the 1960s and 1970s, including those of the Beatles. It is again gaining popularity today with its focus on ‘green theology’.
Closely linked to this is Panentheism. It’s similar in that it sees God in everything but focuses on the idea that, as all nature evolves, so God in everything also grows and changes. Whereas we confess that God is unchangeable (immutable), in Panentheism God is seen as being open to input from people. Since God is in everything, and things change, so it is evident (in this view) that God also changes. He learns from the changes that are occurring in the universe.
There’s also a belief called Finite Godism. It is in effect the idea that God is small. He created the world, but it has gotten out of control. He is limited in His ability to influence things that happen and is frustrated by things just as people are. In other words, He is not omnipotent. This view has been popularised in a book titled When bad things happen to good people.
Also popular is the idea that there are many gods, a view known as Polythism. Nothing new in that heresy, of course. It has a long history and is something the Israelites were confronted with way back when they entered the land of Canaan. The Canaanites had many gods, many of whom competed with one another. The ancient Greeks and Romans also believed in many gods.
Then there is Pluralism—the idea that there is one God but there are different ways (different religions) by means of which to serve Him and get to heaven.
Of course, there are more, but these characterise much Western thinking today.
Where do we fit in?
We are Theists and, unlike the polytheists, we believe there is one God (BCF, Art. 1 & LD 10). At least, that is what we say we believe and confess. But what is the reality? What happens in our thinking processes? In our daily life do we actually think like Theists—in terms of God being everywhere present and governing all things? Also in what is happening to me every moment of the day? Rev. Bouwman says that all too often we do not see Him actively involved in our daily life. We are like Deists and see Him ‘over there’, outside of our lives. For example, when we’re driving and the traffic lights turn red we become impatient, forgetting that the Lord governs the lights. He has every right to expect us to be patient and to remember that He controls also the traffic lights. So there’s probably more Deism in our lives than we care to admit.
There is, said Rev. Bouwman, also some Panentheism in our lives. God changes, adapts to where we are at. In our minds we think: God wants me to be happy. But then we find that Scriptural demands appear to undercut that happiness. And so in practice we downplay some portions of Scripture and up-play other portions. We change God’s goalposts. In effect, God changes: we change what we confess about God.
Rev. Bouwman said that in the last decade or two, as he deals with people, he finds more “moral therapeutic Theism” in our midst. We believe in God but also believe that God wants us to be happy and so we modify our beliefs. Take, for example, divorce and remarriage. There was a time when divorce was frowned upon among us. You do not divorce because God hates divorce and the LORD is always faithful to His bride, the church. That’s also clear from the Scriptural quotes in our “Form for the Solemnisation of Marriage”. There we promise faithfulness to one another “till death us do part”. The reality is, however, that in practice there is unfaithfulness, stress, cheating, tension. God is seen as being distant and, instead of me obeying His Word and being faithful “till death us do part”, and trusting in God to strengthen me therein, I follow my feelings. Instead of seeing God as testing me, I reason that God is ‘over there’ while over here I’m not happy. We end up following our feelings. My marriage has become rocky, and since God wants me to be happy, why should I not remarry and do what it takes to be happy? And so the goal posts are moved; what used to be prohibited now becomes acceptable.
Or take the example of our commitment to church. God has in His sovereign grace joined me to His church. But I find it is a body of sinners. I find that some church members or the office bearers are not always to my liking. What happens then is that instead of seeing it as God’s work, I don’t feel so good going to church here; I’m not edified. Again, God is seen as being ‘over there’, distant. And with a nod to panentheism (God changes with society as society changes) I reason that surely God wants me to be happy; surely God is OK with me not going to church. In reality: moral therapeutic Deism.
We find a similar development, adds Rev. Bouwman, in relation to gender issues. We have this notion that we are supposed to feel happy. God is ‘over there’ and comes back ‘to check the clock’ and tweak my gender. This moral therapeutic Deism appeals particularly to the younger generation: they have a greater sensitivity, tolerance, understanding for you feeling uncomfortable in your own skin than the previous generations did. They want space to express their feelings and they see the need to be nice to each other also in such things as changed feelings about our gender.
Where does this kind of thinking lead?
Scripture says: God is my Rock, my fortress, my salvation. He is almighty, perfectly wise, merciful and good. I am inside His fortress, and therefore I’m safe with Him.
However, this is not resonating with many today as it used to, said Rev. Bouwman. People don’t feel safe, secure. They see God as removed from their lives, as changing. Hence life becomes harder and there’s need for more counselling. But if such counselling replaces our confession that God is my fortress, we have a problem.
There’s also a restlessness with the status quo. Why do you go to church, asks Rev Bouwman? How we ‘do church’ reflects our confidence in the majesty and greatness of God. If in your mind you shrink the power of God and distance Him from you, and make Him a changeable entity, then your view of the church, too, gets adjusted. And it gets adjusted in the therapeutic I-need-to-feel-good sense. If we think that the church is there to make me feel happy, we take the focus away from God and focus instead on our feelings.
What’s the antidote to all this? Luther once reportedly told the humanist Erasmus: “Your thoughts on God are too small”. That is exactly what’s wrong with Western thinking. And we, day after day, inhale the thinking of our times. Rev. Bouwman says that he was brought up to trust the reality of what was confessed in BCF, Art. 1 and LD 10. But the influence of the abovementioned isms have since had an impact on church members. We need to get back to understanding who God is and away from being influenced by the ‘too small’ view of God being promoted (and which has been promoted, amongst others, by the popular evangelist Billy Graham). Some authors who have countered this ‘too small’ view of God are James Packer, R C Sproul, John MacArthur and John Piper.
In his next speech in this series Rev Bouwman deals with the topic, “The love of God”.
1 Speech titled “Who is God? Why it Matters”, held in the FRC Byford building 23rd February 2023.