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What does it look like for God to show up?

Dev points us to Peter Leithart reflecting on nature and super-nature.  It's reminded me of some diagrams I've been meaning to draw for a while...

Maybe it's been since the Enlightenment and/or maybe it's come through Aquinas with his Aristotelian nature/grace divide, but either way... Today we tend to imagine the interaction of nature and "super-nature" like this:

Nature is the solid and certain thing.  And it has its own self-determined course.  But every now and again this ethereal, super-natural world shows up and freaky stuff happens.  Then it's back to business as usual.

Of course once you grant the certainty and self-sufficiency of "nature" you're already committed to explaining away all "freaky stuff."  And, hey presto, naturalism.

Many of us will know how infuriating it is to engage with an atheist who has already defined God out of the equation through assumptions like these.  There is, perhaps, only one thing more infuriating.  That is the Christian who shares the atheist's assumptions but protests loudly: "No, seriously guys, God is really at work because I could tell you some seriously freaky stories..."

No, no.  We need to frame the whole thing more biblically.  I suggest, like this:

It's the old creation that is, in some sense, less real than the new.  It is subject to futility and plunging down into death.  There is an arrow here - there is a direction - but under Adam, that direction is downwards.

Overall however there is progress because the second Adam has come.  And He brings new creation.  The reality of this in-breaking kingdom holds true in Christ Himself and spiritually we belong to that new reality, even as we wait in this passing age.

See the Leithart article for more on this eschatological view of "supernature".

But let's ask:  What does it look like for God to show up?

Well God is at work in the Old Creation and intimately so, it's just that Old Creation goes from life to death.   This is God's alien work, but His work nonetheless.  Overall though His proper work is the renewal of all things under the feet of Christ (from death to life).  Therefore the signs of His coming kingdom are restoration and recreation.  Freaky is not really the point.  New life is.

I have some friends who appreciate my emphasis on "the word" but wish I would equally emphasize the work of the Spirit.  I long more and more to be a man of the Spirit but they mean something different by that phrase.  When pushed on how Spirit-filled ministry looks, they point to miracles, tongues and words of knowledge.  They are adamant that the word - proclamation, preaching, teaching - is absolutely vital.  A necessary foundation.  But, they say, we also need God to show up.  And, again, when pressed on what they mean they point to experiences in worship, of being slain in the Spirit and miracles.  These are the unmistakeable signs that God is alive and well and active in His world.

I just wonder whether a Christianized version of the Enlightenment worldview is going on.  "Nature" equals the ordinary operations of church - church structures, preaching, band practice.  But when God shows up it's freaky stuff.  There is normal life that grinds along according to rules and regulations.  Then there is the Spirit who, almost by definition, works outside of structures.  Regularity and order is fine.  But Spirit equals spontaneous and sporadic.

What would it look like to see the work of the Spirit in the context of the second diagram?  Here word and Spirit are not two spheres of activity (one being "natural" and the other "supernatural").  Word-and-Spirit is the way the gospel of Christ is proclaimed.  And in that context we see new life.  Through the gospel, the Spirit spotlights Christ.  He opens hearts to Jesus.  He draws believers to their Lord and to each other.  He empowers the church to live in love.  And yes He heals today, of course He does.  But the healing is not the point where God shows up.  Both the word of the Kingdom and the signs of the kingdom (which include all kinds of new life) are the work of the Spirit.


10 thoughts on “What does it look like for God to show up?

  1. John B

    Thought-provoking post! Your diagrams are illuminative. But I'm not sure that an Enlightenment worldview is any more of a distinctive of charismatics than it is of non-charismatics. Either group can view the cosmos according to the two-story model represented in your first diagram. This is a philosophical perspective that sees the stories as disconnected, except for the "Freaky Stuff". Charismatics and non-charismatics might both hold this worldview, while differing as to exactly just what constitutes the freaky. How much "word"? How much experience? How much spontaneity? How much regulation?

    As opposed to this philosophical two-story model, your second diagram represents the biblical view, which is eschatological. Some charismatics may veer into the philosophical view, but many non-charismatics have done so, including no less than Aquinas himself! (Although Thomas seems to have become charismatic during the last few months of his life when, after an experience of Christ's presence, he compared all of his previous work to "straw").

  2. Paul Blackham

    Good stuff. I do tend to agree that it is not the sole problem of charismatic brothers and sisters - although there are some obvious initial applications in that direction. When we consider the prophets and psalmists of Scripture, they see the trees clapping their hands in worship; the mountains rising up in awe at the name of Jesus; the waves of the sea roaring in praise; the rainfall as a specific gracious provision from the Father - His active work in the hydrologic cycle [see Jer 10:13; Eccles 1:6-7; Job 36:27-28]; the animals devoutly looking to the Father for their daily bread etc. In other words they see the world as not only a constant work of intentional divine activity, but that the world responds with faith and worship to this personal hands-on government. Every time we see the rain/sunshine/wind/plants as 'just happening' we reveal how different we all are to the Biblical/natural way of seeing and understanding.

  3. Glen Scrivener

    Hi John and Paul - I'm not remotely wanting to tar all who name the name charismatic. Just mentioning one brand of it which I encountered recently and which I think was wedded to enlightenment thinking. We should all eagerly desire spiritual gifts, but let's do that within a biblical mindset.

  4. Si Hollett

    Paul - that's an excellent comment, and as someone who went through Glen's post going "yes, yes, yes", given it's chiming with how I often get wound up by people in my church community, you've reminded me that it's not just their problem and I often fall into similar errors.

    At uni, a couple of good friends of mine were Charismatic, and it often annoyed me. However, they were pretty much coming out of this Biblical view, of God always being active and the New Creation breaking in (the term 'inaugurated eschatology' came up lots). They somehow made the whole lot freaky, which I think a lot of the time was the lingo-cultural barrier of their being Charismatic and my not being. However, my annoyance came out of similar error to the one described in the post - God was only acting through certain things, just that my list was (is) different to Charismatic freaky stuff.

  5. Daniel


    This is really useful stuff. I wholeheartedly agree. Now, am I seeing connections that aren't really there, or does this sort of distinction get projected back into the doctrine of the Trinity, such that Jesus ends up representing the more normal stuff, while the Spirit does the freaky bits? Is that the point at which we lose the essential Biblical point that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ? And there is the corresponding threat that we forget that Jesus is exactly what it looks like when God turns up...

    Or maybe I'm just barking up the wrong tree...

  6. Glen

    Hi Daniel, yes the answer to the question "What's it look like when God shows up?" is always Jesus. Jesus is also the answer to the question "What's it look like to be full of the Spirit?" When we take our eyes off Him all sort of troubles ensue.

  7. Chris Oldfield

    really liked this. been thinking this for a while. You may be interested in Kevin Vanhoozer's quite laborious but pretty helpful Tyndale Bulletin from the 90s on open critiques of classical theism, basically saying God's relation to the world is neither a crude (fundamentalist?) intervenience (intervening in what is not really his own), nor a crude (liberal?) supervenience (merely supervening over what is all as he wishes), but a deeply evangelical advenience (advent), coming into his own, who would not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him... He's the coming God. (shades of Moltmann?)

    Kevin Vanhoozer, Effectual Call or Efficient Cause?

    I think that's a neat (and profound) way of putting the relation which doesnt fall foul of various doctrinal or traditional cliff-edges.

  8. Chris Oldfield

    NB we obviously mustn't throw out the baby with the bathwater here - there are one off "workings of his power" which are notable in part precisely by their irregularity - eg the resurrection, eg the creation, eg the workings of his power in the events (otherwise known as but since the enlightenment misleadingly named) Jesus' "miracles". (eg Mark 6 esv)

    ps I also think your choice of language risks confusing "normal" (a moral category) with "natural" (another category - whether considered biblically [physis] or* philosophically [physis & metaphysis])

    *by "or" I mean neither that these are equivalent nor necessarily exclusive categories...then again that's probably why I've got so much bathwater with my theological babies here. It's sure fun swishing round with them in it though..., and would point you to Merold Westphal on Heidegger's critique of ontotheology if you're interested in where I'm coming from & the iconoclastic excesses I'm wary of.

  9. Derek

    As a card-carrying charismatic, I will raise my hand at this point and babble away, and my stream of language may require interpretation...

    Glen - I love the diagrams, and I may steal them for future use.

    I think your definition of signs of God's activity as 'recreation and restoration' is spot on. The Vineyard, of which I am part, and despite its 'freaky' excesses - at least derives its charismatic theology from the now-and-not-yet perspective.

    I think of Paul's summary of his ministry in Romans 15:18-19:

    "For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ..."

    So there is warrant for word and deed, gospel and miracle together as what it looks like when God shows up.

    One other thing. I was once meditating on John 14:12-14:

    "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it."

    Now as you probably know, we charismatics look at 'the works' in this passage and think 'great, we get to do and see miracles!'. I kept reading and noticed straight away that there was a purpose - that the Father may be glorified in the Son. We see this happen in John's accounts of Jesus' miracles, where Jesus ties his working with the Father's working. Could it also be that not only do we need to see 'freaky stuff' in terms of recreation and restoration, but exactly this - the Father-Son relationship? I have not seen this teased out in charismatic circles, but it seems quite clear to me.

    Does any of this make sense?

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