Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory |
of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus (Titus 2:13)
WHO IS THE GOD OF THE CULTS? |
The historic Christian church has maintained essential unity for two millennia concerning the nature of God, as proclaimed in creeds, sermons, and books. As revealed in Holy Scripture, God is unlimited in His attributes, yet personal in His relationship with His creation. Moreover, this infinite-personal Deity is indivisible in both His nature and His essence, yet eternally and simultaneously existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Various false religions in church history, including contemporary cults in America, have repudiated this true knowledge of God presented in the Bible, substituting human reason for divine revelation. These errors generally consist of moving to extremes. God is viewed as either personal and finite, or impersonal and infinite. Others maintain that God must be plural in His essence (many gods) if He is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or one in His personhood (modalism), revealing Himself successively as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if He is truly one God. These unbalanced and heretical understandings of God will be avoided if one allows the Bible to speak for itself, not forcing it to conform to human reason but accepting it as divine revelation. This has been the testimony of the orthodox church through the centuries and should be our stance.
The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, said, "For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live" (1 Cor. 8:56, NKJV). What Paul has made clear in these words is that merely to use the term God or Lord, or to have objects of worship, is not necessarily to be speaking of the same divine being.
The importance of knowing and worshiping the true God, the One Who has revealed Himself in Holy Scripture, has become very important in our day of religious pluralism. The events of September 11 cause the evangelical Christian to pause and think about the nature of the God we worship. On September 23, in New York City there was a religious worship service attended by thousands of Americans.1 Leaders of every religious faith in America were represented on the stage and participated.2 Much has been made from the time of the terrorist attack about how Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share belief in the same God and have the same spiritual father, Abraham.3 Religious pluralism may be proper for public freedoms politically and legally, but the obfuscation between biblical faith and non-Christian religions can be dangerous to the promotion of truth and cause confusion concerning the gospel.4
The historic view of God maintains a balance of complementary ideas that reveal a majesty of the God of the Bible that is contrary to how God is viewed in non-Christian religions of the world and in the kingdom of the cults.5 Some cults and world religions see God either as infinite, but not personal, or personal, but not infinite. Other cults and religions deny the doctrine of the Trinity, either understanding the divine as consisting of several gods, or speaking of the persons of God as mere manifestations of only one person, or denying Jesus or the Holy Spirit their rightful place in the Godhead. In recent years, even some evangelicals have embraced some of these incorrect perspectives about God.6 The reason for the errors that have arisen is the attempt to understand God without the aid of divine revelation, or in pitting human reason against the clear revelation of God found in Scripture.
This article will demonstrate that the view of God portrayed in Scripture is between theological extremes found in false religions and especially cults. The God of Scripture is personal and infinite, and He is one being in three persons. We will examine the perspectives of several cults,7 contrasting their views with the teachings of the Bible and suggesting reasons for their heretical teachings.
ERRONEOUS VIEWS OF GOD
In studying the variety of views on the being of God, one finds virtually every conceivable departure from the knowledge of the true God taught in Christianity.8 We shall look at but a few of the possible groups that could be presented, but they are representative of ways in which the nature and personhood of God have been distorted.
Belief in a Personal-Finite Deity
Recognition that God is personal is very important, since we desire to commune with the Creator and believe that because of His personal nature, He cares for us in our times of need. Even the designation of God as Father reveals that He loves and watches over His children in a way that the title Creator does not convey. Moreover, God incarnate, Jesus the Son of God, says that we are to pray to the Father, knowing that He puts great worth on us (Matt. 10:29) and will only give us good gifts (Matt. 7:11). This aspect of Gods being is accepted by most "Christian" cults.9 Groups influenced by either Gnosticism or Eastern religion seem to reject the personal nature of God. In accepting the personal character of the divine being, however, some see the Deity as having various limitations.
Concepts of a finite god are held by Mormons10 and Jehovahs Witnesses.11 The Mormon theology necessitates a finite god since god has evolved; indeed, he was once a man.12 Mormon theology teaches the proliferation of gods13; It is only possible that one could be infinite among these gods since there logically cannot be two infinite beings. Moreover, being physical,14 the Mormon gods are also not omnipresent,15 including the Holy Spirit.16 The Mormon god is also limited in other ways, not being eternal,17 omniscient,18 or immutable.19
The failure of Jehovahs Witnesses to hold to the omni-attributes of God is not as blatant as is that of Mormonism; nonetheless, they reject some of the infinite attributes of Deity. Though they accept the omnipotence of God,20 the Witnesses have difficulty with His omniscience21 and omnipresence.22 According to lay apologist and Jehovahs Witnesses researcher David Sherrill, the rejection of Gods omnipresence seems to be due to the Watchtower organizations belief that all beings must have bodies of some sort, whether physical or spiritual, causing them to view God as localized in some sense.23 Since God is surely on a throne in heaven, He cannot be everywhere else; consequently, it is His power that is everywhere, not His person.24
Belief in an Impersonal-Infinite Deity
The type of religious groups discussed above usually comes out of Christianity; such deviations may be called cults of Christianity.25 On the other hand, religions that proclaim an impersonal but infinite deity generally reflect an Eastern or Gnostic view of God, even if they adopt Christian terminology in order to mesh with Western culture.
In the West, many advocates of an impersonal-infinite God are found in the "metaphysical" or "mind science"26 camps; these share much in common with the more recent New Age groups27 that have proliferated in America for the past several decades under a variety of names. They share in common the perspective that God is not a personal being28 but rather the essence of all reality, which is Mind or Consciousness.29 This view is generally identified as pantheistic (all is God),30 in which God is infinite because everything is God and God is everything. This should be distinguished from panentheism31 (such as is found in the Moonies),32 in which God dwells in the universe as a spirit dwells within a body.33 Christian Science, the most well known of the older mind science religions, does not believe that God is a personal being and speaks of the Trinity in terms of life, truth, and love.34
New Age spirituality comes largely from Eastern religion and consequently shares the monism and pantheism of the East.35 This Westernized Eastern religious perspective believes that God is all that there is and that everything and everyone is God.36 This is interestingly demonstrated in a famous statement from the Upanishads (ancient Hindu scriptures), repeated by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: I am That, Thou art That, All This is That, That alone is, and there is nothing else but That [emphasis in original].37
Belief in Modalism
The dominant religious group within the broader canopy of Christianity to argue for modalism (one God, three manifestations) is the United Pentecostal Church (UPC).38 It is not universally accepted by evangelicals that this church organization should be considered a cult, but there is little question that much of its teaching, particularly in reference to its doctrine of God and Christ, is heretical. Regarding God, the UPC believes that God is unipersonal (one person) rather than tripersonal (three persons). In concert with the modalism of the second through fourth centuries,39 it avers that the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really titles40 and are used alternatively for the different roles God plays in creation, salvation, and in the church.41
The Local Church (or, as they would prefer, the local churches or (the Lords Recovery)42 is another group that seems to share a modalistic view of God. I say seems because there is some ambiguity on how they perceive the Trinity. The late Witness Lee tended to speak of God in modalistic terms.43 Some within the Local Church have made an impassioned apologetic for the churchs orthodoxy in this area.44 Belief in Many Gods. Probably no modern cult is more famous for its polytheistic stance than is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons actually believe in millions of gods,45 though only three -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- are the subjects of Mormon worship.46
Another group advocating multiple gods is the Urantia Foundation. Reading the Urantia Book is similar to reading a science fiction novel, in which there are other universes with millions of gods. Some have intervened in human affairs.47 The Urantia Foundation sometimes sounds as if it were monotheistic; then it seems tritheistic; and on other occasions it expresses belief in a plethora of divine beings.48
Belief in Arianism
The last doctrinal deviation from the balanced perspective of historic Christianity is the heresy of Arianism. This view was condemned at the famous Council of Nicea (A.D. 325).49 The bishop Arius argued that the Son of God was a created being, whereas Athanasius contended and the council eventually accepted that the Son was of the same essence as, and thus equally God with, the Father. A half century later (A.D. 381), the Council of Constantinople equally affirmed the deity of the Holy Spirit within the unity of the Godhead. God, then, is one indivisible essence in three persons.
It is a common mark of a cult that it denies the triunity of God, or it denies the equal nature of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The most well-known Arian cult is the Watchtower Society, better known as Jehovahs Witnesses. One way in which the Watchtower has sought to overthrow the doctrine of the Trinity has been to distort the doctrine as though orthodox Christians are arguing that one God is three Gods.50 They also contend that Jesus was the first created being by God,51 that He served as a mighty spirit person before becoming a man,52 and though He is "a god"53 or mighty one, He is not the Almighty God.
Similar reasoning is also found in groups such as the Christadelphians and The Way International.54
EVALUATION OF ERRONEOUS VIEWS OF GOD
One may observe from this presentation on various cults and false religions that these groups fail to maintain the balance of the biblical presentation of God. Let us look at the problem logically: There is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:6).
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all called God and have the attributes of deity (Eph. 5:20; Rom 9:5; Acts 5:4). When a cult is presented with both of these biblically based statements, they conclude that one of them must be wrong. Either there is more than one God (polytheism as found in Mormonism); the three persons must be the same person (modalism, as found in the United Pentecostal Church); or the Father is God and the Son and the Spirit must be something other than God (Arianism, as in the Jehovahs Witnesses). The biblical and historic Christian view is well stated in the Athanasian Creed (in which I inject biblical proofs):
So the Father is God [Eph 5:20]: the Son is God [Rom. 9:5]: and the Holy Spirit is God [Acts 5:4]. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God [Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:6]. So likewise the Father is Lord [Rev. 21:22]: the Son Lord [Jude 4; 1 Cor. 8:6]: and the Holy Spirit Lord [2 Cor. 3:17]. And yet not three Lords: but one Lord [Eph. 4:5]. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity: to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord: So are we forbidden by the Catholic [universal] Religion: to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.55 The same may be said of the tension of God being infinite and yet personal:
God is transcendent over the universe [Ps. 57:51; Zech. 14:9].
God is intimately involved with the universe [Gen. 1:1; Ps. 113:6].
He is beyond the universe, the Creator of time and space. How can such a God really be concerned about us or involve Himself in our lives, even to the point of the Son entering into our race and into our suffering? We may not comprehend why this would be so, but commitment to the infallible Scriptures leads to the conclusion that both dimensions of God are true. One does not gain much, as in the contemporary infatuation by some evangelicals with Open Theism, by rejecting Gods true infinitude so that we might understand Him better, or so that He might (as some think) understand us better.56 The inspired scriptural doctrine of God has the unique capacity to blend the divergent elements of divine infinity with personal relationality both of which are necessary for a God truly worthy of worship.
One must not allow human desires to fully understand God outweigh the biblical revelation that He has given us of His person. God is a being who is logically consistent, but our knowledge of Him may be anthropologically oriented rather than doxologically oriented. We must center in God, not man. Orthodox Christians are willing to accept the biblical teaching about God even when they cannot explain all the aspects of revelation. We can know the what but not know the how, or, often, the why. God simply wants us to trust His Word. The difference between true religion and false religion is adherence to Gods self-disclosure in the Bible. It is the failure to worship the God of Holy Scripture and the making of a god to satisfy human wishes that has given rise to the errors that have developed since the inception of the church and continue to plague us today.
H. Wayne House, Distinguished Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Faith Seminary, Tacoma, WA, and a professor of law at Trinity Law School, Santa Ana, California, is the author of more than two dozen books and scores of articles on the subjects of law, ethics, theology, and apologetics. He lives with his wife Leta in Silverton, Oregon.
1 A Prayer for America, http://abcnews.go.com/sections/ us/DailyNews/ WTC_ memorial010923.htm.
Written by H. Wayne House