Going with the grain of how Scripture talks about God

I want to say a little bit more about the recent controversy concerning Gently and Lowly.  If we have discomfort about the language in the book, then it seems to be because we struggle with the language we find in Scripture. Let me pick up on one example.

In Hosea 11:8-9 God says to Israel:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
    How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my burning anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath

This is something that causes the Grace To You reviewer major problems.  He writes

Yet Ortlund seems to pit God’s compassion against His wrath in a way that implies a conflict in the mind or the will of God. Regarding God’s judgment on Israel, he writes, “Something recoils within him in sending that affliction. . . . He is—if I can put it this way without questioning his divine perfections—conflicted within himself when he sends affliction into our lives. . . . But his deepest heart is their merciful restoration” (p. 138).

Unfortunately, there is no way to do justice to God’s perfection if you imagine that He is “conflicted within himself.” Such a view of God is a clear denial of the classic doctrine of divine impassability (more on this below). It also contradicts the apostle’s statement in 2 Timothy 2:13: “He cannot deny Himself.” Conflicted within Himself? In all candor, that sounds blasphemous. Surely Ortlund has a higher view of God than that.[1]

Now, note that Johnson is right in terms of the doctrine of divine impassibility. Furthermore, to be clear, he is right, not because some medieval blokes imported some Greek philosophy in. God is impassible because he is the God who cannot be manipulated, controlled and bullied from the outside. He does not change. This is captured in his revelation to Moses of his name “I am who I am”, his declaration through the prophets that he is without rival and Jesus’ description of him having life within himself.[2] You see, when we do Systematic Theology properly, the priority (despite the impression sometimes given) is not that we align our beliefs with this or that Confession or creed or this or that famous theologian from the past. What matters is that I don’t take a specific scripture and read it, preach it and teach in a way that would be repugnant to what the rest of Scripture says.

This means, that when I get to something like Hosea 11, I am constrained in how I read it by context.  Just as I cannot interpret other verses and passages in scripture which talk about God repenting, grieving and relenting to suggest that he somehow either changes his mind or has it changed for him, so too I cannot read these verses as suggesting in anyway that God could be conflicted, overcome etc.

And yet, I have to acknowledge that I am confronted by the sheer force of what these words say. Here in this passage, we have a God who talks about how “my heart recoils” and describes his compassion as something that grows, just as elsewhere we will see him described as provoked to anger by evil.

So, what do we do with such passages. Well, the first thing to realise is that there is precdedent for this in Scripture.  The Bible is inspired and revealed through people who are at heart preachers and so what they will tend to do is to bring strong, passionate unnuanced words to bear on specific contexts. That’s why you can read Paul talking about women being silent in church only  few chapters after he has described the provisions for women to pray and prophesy in church. It’s why you can read one proverb that talks about not answering a fool according to their folly and elsewhere find one that says you should answer a fool according to their folly..

This also means that we cannot brush over passages like Hosea 11. If we are in a rush to tidy up the doctrine and to harmonise over, or to subordinate the text to a broader doctrine then we might miss the rhetorical force of what God is saying in it.  So, before we rush to talk about the God who does not change and is not overcome by his emotions, let’s pause o dwell and meditate on the God who says:

“My heart recoils within me  my compassion grows warm and tender”

Miss those words, rush over them because they don’t quite fit our theology or move quickly to explain why they cannot mean what an Open Theist claims they mean and we will miss not just the logical force of them but the emotive force of them.  Miss that and we will lose out on the sense of preaching that speaks to our affections.

I think the big thing here in Hosea is that we are meant to capture a sense of how awful, wicked and destructive sin is, how offensive it is to God because of how destructive it is to us and to his creation.  We are also meant, once again to capture a sense of God’s amazing love that overflows to us with mercy and compassion.

The point is this, God chooses to stoop down, to condescend to speak to us analogically and anthropologically in order to hel us hear him, understand him, love what he says and obey him.  It is God’s choice to reveal himself through this kind of language.  So we should be wary of a rush to undo and reverse that language. At times our theological books that do this remind me of the saying that

 “Jesus turned water into wine and we’ve been doing our best to turn it back into water ever since!”

Which brings me back to the title and the theme of this blog post.  Of course as preachers, teachers and writers, it is important that we nuance what we are saying and ensure that we put things into context. However, in so doing, let’s not lose the rhetorical force of Scripture and let’s endeavor to go with the grain of Scripture using the language and tone that God chooses to use when he reveals himself to us.


[1] Blog Post – Does Scripture Really Say That? A Critical Appraisal of “Gentle and Lowly” (gty.org)

[2] For more of a discussion of God’s attirubtes, see who-is-god.pdf (wordpress.com) and especially part 3, pages 55 -140.

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