“If you read the text (Genesis 22, especially vs. 12) on its own terms — I mean without all the layers of interpretations and explanations — it is really quite astounding. I used to think, and I’ve preached the text this way, that this test was for Abraham’s sake. You know like a teacher might say to you or a prof might say to you, ‘This test isn’t for me, it is for you. It is for you to learn.’ So here, Abraham learns to trust God.
Or perhaps little Isaac learns the importance of faith from his Dad’s own obedience. But the text doesn’t say anything about Abraham learning something. What it does say is that God learned something. At the end of the story the Angel of the Lord calls out to Abraham, just as he is about to slice into the thin neck of his son and says, ‘Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld thy son, thy only son from me.’
It’s those words from God, ‘Now I know,’ that are so astounding and intriguing. God isn’t teaching Abraham anything here, God is learning something about Abraham.
Wait a minute. God learning something?
What kind of God learns something? Evidently the God of this story. The God of the Bible. Of course it goes against everything we think we know about God. God is infinite. God is eternal. God is unchangeable. God knows everything before it happens. We tend to think about God in terms of abstract terms like, omniscience, and immutability and omnipotence. But the Bible is not a set of concepts about God. It’s mostly stories about God and about how God interacts with us and how we interact with God and these stories bring God from the rarefied atmosphere of omniscience and immutability into our world — into the way we live and the way we experience God in our lives.
It’s not that these theological concepts (i.e. — Omniscience, Omnipotence, Immutability) aren’t worth thinking about or that they are not true. It is that they cannot contain the deeply textured, multi-layered mystery, that is God. And that is what these stories try to do and that is why they are so mysterious to us.”
Rev. Len Vander Zee
River Terrace Christian Reformed Church
Sermon — January 31, 2016
Starting at 13:21 and moving through to the 15:57 mark.
Normally, I wouldn’t take the time to correct a sermon by another minister in another Church. Were I to make that my routine I would be spending my life in futility as a modern day Sisyphus. I only take time to dissect this mishandling of the Genesis 22:12 text due to the fact that a couple of the lambs in the flock I serve were in attendance when this sermon was preached and came to me confused about some of what was said. After I listened to this sermon, I understood why they were confused. Confusing sermons tend to cause confusion.
As such, I intend to unravel the confusion and point out the alarming errors in the quote above. Then I intend to bring it to the direct attention to my young charges while I tell them to stay away from any Church where this kind of confusion is articulated from the pulpit.
1.) Note the implied complaint about reading the Genesis 22:12 text “with layers of interpretation and explanation.” The Minister seems to be suggesting that unlike all others who heap layers of interpretation and explanation upon the text he is just going to let the text speak by itself.
The problem with this, is that by not reading the text in its context of the whole of Scripture the result is that God is made to be not God. More about that in a minute. For now, let us consider what happens when we do not read texts with layers of proper interpretation and explanation.
Well, when we do not read texts with layers of proper interpretation and explanation what we get is the Roman Catholic Mass. After all, the “layer-less” text finds Jesus saying, “this is my body.” What more proof do we need that the Roman Catholic Mass is true? When we read the text without “layers” then we must conclude that Infant Baptism shouldn’t be done because the “layer-less” text says nothing about Baptizing babies. When we read the text without layers of interpretation and explanation we must conclude that the idea of the Trinity is not true since no text uses the word “Trinity.” Layer-less texts finds us required to greet the Brethren with a Holy Kiss. Layer-less text would require Christians to embrace some form of Communism since the “layer-less” text teaches that the believers in Acts “had all things in common.”
Clearly we see that the last thing we want in our preaching is “layer-less” texts. One reason we send men to be trained in Seminaries is so that they will learn how to handle texts aright and will understand that all texts must be read in light of all other texts and that the lest clear texts must be layered by the explanation and interpretations of the more clear texts.
To read a text naked, as if no broader context exists is to enter into the realm of subjectivity and eisegesis.
2.) The text does not say “God learned something.” The text has the Angel of the Lord saying to Abraham, “Now I know …” The fact that the good Reverend here says that the text says that “God learned something,” is instead a layer of explanation and interpretation that is neither faithful to the text nor to the context.
3.) Note the humongous, begging to be noticed, contradiction in the Reverend’s words. First the Preacher insists that God learned something and then within a few sentence the Preacher says that “it’s not that these theological concepts (i.e. -Omniscience) aren’t true.” One finds one’s self screaming at the audio, “Well either God learned something and so never was omniscient or God was omniscient and so can’t learn anything.” Rev. Vander Zee can’t have it both ways.
4.) Rev. Vander Zee emphasizes here the fact that God isn’t omniscient. God learned something he tells us. The idea that God is not omniscient is of course the error of what is called “Free Will Theism.” Free Will Theism is the denial that God is a God who knows all, ordains all, predestines all, and conditions all. Free Will Theism is the anti-Calvinism theology. In Open Theism God is dependent upon man’s choices and God learns along with man. In Open Theism God shares His sovereignty with man so that man and God work things out together.
5.) Notice that the Preacher presents the idea that God learning something “goes against everything we think we know about God.” The clear implication here is that we think we know that God is eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, but it may well be the case that those things are not really true of God. We only think we know that. Again, this undermines our confidence in Scripture which repeatedly teaches the non-communicable attributes of God.
6.) Rev. Vander Zee suggests that concepts about God are bad while stories about God are good. Of course it is those very stories that undergird the concepts and teach us that God is eternal (Genesis 1), immutable (I Samuel 15), omnipotent (Job 38-40), omniscient (Genesis 45, 50).
7.) Rev. Vander Zee misses the point that it is the stories that give us the concepts. Every story has within it a conceptual point to make. One simply can divorce story from concept, or concept from story. We see Rev. Vander Zee extrapolating here concept from story by his errant explanation and interpretation of this story in Genesis 22. We have a story, and Rev. Vander Zee is trying to give a concept (God’s non omniscience) that communicates the meaning of the story. Now, Rev. Vander Zee is not doing the story justice because he has not read it as comparing the less clear scripture with the more clear didactic scripture that teaches that,
“Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
“Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:13-14).
“Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD” (Psalm 139:4).
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-3).
“My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you” (Psalm 139:15-16).
“Can anyone teach knowledge to God, since he judges even the highest?” (Job 21:22).
“He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psalm 147:4-5).
“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever” (1 Chronicles 28:9).
“Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of him who has perfect knowledge?” (Job 37:16).
“From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth—he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do” (Psalm 33:13-15).
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
“Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7).
“… for whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
Rev. Vander Zee ignores all this context … ignores the explicit statements of Scripture in order to insist that God learned and he does this all the while still affirming that what he denies in this sermon as true, is true.
8.) Rev. Vander Zee claims that terms like “omniscience, omnipotence, immutability, eternality,” are abstract terms that are naughty. The listener is left to infer that terms like “non-omniscience, non-omnipotence, mutability, and non eternality” are good abstract terms that can be proven by bad interpretations and explanations as drawn from Genesis 22.
9.) Rev. Vander Zee says that the Bible is about how God interacts with us and how we interact with God. Unfortunately this is just not true. The Bible is about how God alone does all the saving of a sin besotted people via the God-man keeping covenant as on a bloody Cross. Only then is it about how a sin besotted people respond in gratitude to God’s grace.
10.) Rev. Vander Zee insists that our theological language of omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, and eternality, cannot contain God. However, that the God of the Bible is more than all those does mean He is other than all those. God cannot both be and not be omniscient. God cannot both be and not be omnipotent. God cannot both be and not be immutable. God cannot both be and not be eternal. To insist that He is, is to turn God into a surd. If Rev. Vander Zee desires to define God as contradiction then he would have to insist, in order to be consistent with His own hermeneutic here, that God cannot be defined as contradiction. If God is contradiction then God is not contradiction.
11.) Rev. Vander Zee appeals to a deeply textured and multi-layered mystery that is God. This is poetic smoke to hide Rev. Vander Zee’s appeal to contradiction to explain God. Again, if we appeal to the hoist in Rev. Vander Zee’s petard we would have to say that if God is a deeply textured and multi-layered mystery then God isn’t a deeply textured and multi-layered mystery.
12.) Though Rev. Vander Zee may not realize this, when Rev. Vander Zee calls into question God’s omniscience in Genesis 22:12, he, at the same time, calls into question God’s omnipotence. God’s omniscience is based on the foundation of His omnipotence. Because God determines, ordains, and predestines all things therefore He knows all things. It is not possible to be non-omniscient and sovereign and omnipotent at the same time. How does a God, that orders and predestines every detail of all reality and all of what will happen, learn? He can’t. To insist that God learns, the way that Rev. Vander Zee is insisting that God learns, is to put him in direct denial of God’s omnipotence.
13.) Though Rev. Vander Zee may not realize this, when Rev. Vander Zee calls into question God’s omniscience in Genesis 22:12, he, at the same time, calls into question God’s immutability. If God does not change then God cannot learn for to learn something is to change by going from a state of non-knowing to a state of knowing.
14.) There is not a lick of rationality or intelligence in any of this. This kind of preaching is insulting to the integrity of Scripture, the character of God, and the intelligence of the congregation listening. That likely isn’t the intent of Rev. Vander Zee, but it is surely the result.
Now having exposed the in-congruence in the sermon with the goals of restoring God’s honor and protecting God’s lambs we turn to briefly explain what is going on in Genesis 22:12. In John Calvin’s commentary (a commentary that used to be consulted by CRC ministers) on this passage Calvin offers up that,
“by condescending to the manner of men, God here says that what he has proved by experiment, is now made known to himself. And he speaks thus with us, not according to his own infinite wisdom, but according to our infirmity.”
Calvin thus appeals to the idea that God speaks to Abraham here anthropopathically, which is to say that God is speaking to Abraham in such a way as to attribute a human passion (“now I know”) to God. More on this anthropopathism in just a bit.
To break Genesis 22:12 down more specifically we see that on the surface, as taken as naked without the context of all of Scripture, the text suggests that God went from a state of not knowing something to having learned something new. However, as the Scripture above cites we know that God’s “understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5), and that God knows “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), and that God has foreknown and predestinated us from the foundation of the world (Rom. 8:29–30). As such, unless we embrace a hermeneutic of contradiction (which would, at the same time mean that we would not embrace a hermeneutic of contradiction) we cannot allow a conclusion on Genesis 22:12 to mean that God was a good student who had a large capacity to learn.
The solution then is to concede, per Scripture, that because God is omniscient that God knew exactly what Abraham would do with Isaac precisely because God predestined exactly what Abraham would do with Isaac. What happens in Genesis 22 is that which God knew by omnipotence and omniscience He now knows by the demonstration of Abraham’s faith.
Remember, we must think in terms of the literary technique that Scripture repeatedly employs called anthropopathism. The Bible, written for a human audience, often ascribes to deity those passions, feelings, and emotions of humans so that we might better be able to comprehend.
We speak like this sometimes in our own professions. As a minister, I might say, “Let’s see if we can learn from Scripture what omniscience means,” and then after demonstrating it, as I have in this essay, I might declare to the congregation I serve, “Now, I along with you, have learned what omniscience means by looking at Scripture,” and this even though I knew what omniscient meant before the lesson began.