In an earlier blog post, I referred to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of divine pathos—God’s passionate care about humanity. In a 2007 article in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Matthew Schlimm compares Heschel’s views with those of two other biblical scholar/theologians: Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim. (“Different Perspectives on Divine Pathos” An Examination of Hermeneutics in Biblical theology” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69 2007: 673-694.) Schlimm finds the biggest differences between Heschel and Brueggemann, with Fretheim’s views often falling inbetween that of the others.
According to Heschel, the human imagery used in the Bible to describe God is metaphorical, using human language to affirm the way that God relates to humans. When the Bible claims that God is jealous or angry, it isn’t talking about who God “really” is but using language that humans understand. Heschel insists that God exhibits pathos (deep care), rather than passion (which leads to irrational behavior).
Brueggemann, on the other hand, connects the dots between the Bible and the reality of God in bold, straight lines. If the biblical writers profess that God changes, acts, repents, rages, and is self-interested, jealous, and capricious, then that’s who God really is. Brueggemann finds in the OT a passionate, at times irrational, God; according to Schlimm, “Brueggemann’s God is unsettling and anxiety provoking.”
Fretheim, the third theologian, agrees with Brueggemann that God has feelings and cares about humanity, but he agrees with Heschel that God’s essence never changes. He does attribute passion to God, but like Heschel affirms that God does not act irrationally.
These writers differ in the way they understand biblical testimony to God. Does the Bible reveal God exactly as God is (or was at the time of writing), or are the descriptions of God affected by the experiences and understandings of the people who wrote these documents? If humans were involved, just how much?
I believe that there is no way of talking—or even thinking—about God that is not shaped by human perception. All language about God is metaphorical, in the past and in the present. While I agree with Brueggemann that the ancient witnesses to God can’t be dismissed out of hand, I also think it’s essential to point out how ancient and modern God-claims are shaped by the politics and the worldviews of the people making the claims. For me, seeing the Bible as an inescapably-human document makes it more rather than less valuable. It helps me appreciate and challenge the ways in which ancient people tried to explain their experiences of God, and it helps me see the same dynamics at work in my own world and in me.