There is a strong tendency in man to think of personhood as emerging from non-personality. For pagans and atheists, for example, matter is primary. For many monotheists, God is thought of as too transcendent to really be personal. Even Aristotle, who provided us with an example of what highly trained reason can discern about God apart from revelation, fell very short when he postulated an unmoved mover whose existence precedes all actions but who can be acted upon by none. Such a god may think, but He is not relational. He is personal in only the most anemic sense imaginable. Western Christianity has unfortunately been so influenced by Aristotle that our view of God is at times not much better. We have tended to think of God as apathetic and passionless. As Roger Olson has suggested, this cuts right through to our christology, so that we have often been de facto Nestorians.1
Contrast this with the biblical view of God, however, and you will find a Being who exists beyond everything else (“everything else” being equivalent to the category of things which He created) and yet who condescends to interact with His creation and is personally invested in it.
We see this dichotomy throughout scripture, but perhaps most strongly in the first chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1 gives an account of a nameless God who uses His great power to create the heavens, the earth, and everything that is in them. The primary quality emphasized here is of His transcendence. This God is the one who alone made the heavens and the earth (Nehemiah 9:6) and because of this lives forever, unlike the pagan gods who did not create them and will therefore perish from them (Jeremiah 10:11).
And yet, when we turn to Genesis chapter 2, we find a God who doesn’t just create and dictate, but one who “forms” man by “breath[ing] into his nostrils,” suggesting closeness. This God is given a name to emphasize His personal, intimate interaction with the ones He made in His image. Genesis 2 answers the question of how anything can be known of the God we read about in chapter 1, who is far too transcendent to be understood from human experience and reason alone. To bridge this gap, self-disclosure and condescension is required. God is not simply reasoned to from creation, but must reveal Himself.
The Old Testament, therefore, is about a God who is above creation but who makes Himself known. This God is intensely personal and this quality is demonstrated throughout the Old Testament, not least of all in those places where He talks about His passionate feelings toward His covenant people. For instance, the Hebrew scriptures tell us that God has compassion on Jacob (Isaiah 14:1) and is deeply troubled over humanity’s sin to the point of feeling regret for creating them (Genesis 6:6). Ezekiel chapter 16 provides an account of God’s love for His covenant people in the most emotionally moving language imaginable: God looked upon the lowly and abandoned Israel with compassion and love and felt great affection for her. He married her (representing the covenant He made with her), but she committed adultery. And if that weren’t enough, she sacrificed the children He gave her to foreign gods. One cannot read this chapter without feeling the tenderest empathy for the sadness that God must feel in this scenario.
The transcendent God of the Bible, therefore, is not the transcendent God of Aristotle. He is intimately involved in His creation and draws His people to Him in covenant love. Per Moltmann:
“If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love… But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings him; and yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is `apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is `pathetic’.”2
If the God of the Hebrews is so different from the god of Aristotle, how much more is He different from the gods of the pagans!3 The primary concept undergirding paganism is that of continuity; everything that exists is of the same kind and is related to everything else. Polytheistic gods are not comparable to the God of the Bible for the same reason human beings aren’t—they are not transcendent over creation but are merely a part of it. For the same reason, personhood is not a quality that defines the gods in the way that westerners, benefiting from 2,000 years of Christian tradition, think about personhood. For the pagan, a person (in Latin “persona”) is merely a mask that a bit of existence wears which appears to distinguish him/her from everything else but is only superficial.4
This leads us to a question, framed by John Oswalt, which must be given a plausible answer:
“The unique combination of transcendent personhood that now provides the sole foundation of biblical thought never emerged anywhere else in the mind of a scribe or a philosopher. Why did it emerge in a thoroughly pagan Israel?”5
Why indeed, to quote Brueggemann, in the Old Testament narrative is YHWH described as “underived and capable of direct intrusion into the narrative life of Israel without preparation or antecedent”?6 The answer which the Old Testament itself gives is the most plausible:
Because God revealed Himself to Israel.
1 Notes Olson, “For Luther it is no scandal to say ‘God was born’ and ‘God suffered and died’ and ‘God was crucified’ and really mean it as more than mere figures of speech. Luther carried the communicatio idiomatum to its logical conclusion—something apparently neither Leo nor Cyril nor their orthodox and catholic interpreters did. They were still prisoners of the old Greek notion of the divine impassibility. This kept them from fully fleshing out the great mystery of the incarnation and caused the Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ to be interpreted more and more in a Nestorian sense after the council adjourned” (Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle edition).
2 Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle edition.
3 Note how Kaufmann distinguishes the biblical theology from nearly every other: “The mark of monotheism is not the concept of a god who is creator, eternal, benign, or even all-powerful; these notions are found everywhere in the pagan world. It is, rather, the idea of a god who is the source of all being, not subject to a cosmic order, and not emergent from a pre-existent realm; a god free of the limitations of magic and mythology. The high gods of primitive tribes do not embody this idea” (Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, New York: Schocken Books, 1960).
4 See John D. Zizioulas’ discussion of the development of personhood as an ontological category in his book Being As Communion.
5 John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, Kindle edition.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle edition.