On June 25/26, Regent College will be celebrating her 50th birthday. This was meant to happen last year and on site, but the continuing impact of Covid-19 meant the celebration was postponed to this year and to be held online. My years in Regent (1981–1985) were highly significant. It was a time that equipped me spiritually for ministry and for life. I have decided to honour Regent by writing a number of essays that document some of the key lessons I learnt in my time there and who I learnt them from. I start by honouring the late Dr Klaus Bockmuehl (1931–1989).
I took three courses with Dr Bockmuehl: Systematic 2 and 3, and Christian Ethics. I learnt much from him. I will mention one lesson. He reminded the class that our God is a God of verbs. Reflecting on Exodus 3:7–10, he pointed out that in one of the few places that God reveals His activity in detail, He does it by listing out the things He did — through a series of verbs:
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (NIV)
If I were teaching a Sunday School class, I would probably have asked the students to list down all the verbs in this passage.
He warned against defining God purely through abstract definitions — the usual listing of His attributes, e.g. omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, etc. He was concerned that if this was the primary way we understood God, we risk making God an exhibit in a museum, and the attributes His labels. But God is no static abstraction. He is alive and acts in history. I thank my Pentecostal and charismatic friends for reminding me of God’s presence and power, but the lesson was first drilled into my heart by a German theologian in a Canadian seminary.
A number of implications arise from this understanding of God as a God who acts. One is that we get to know what kind of God He is by His actions. Talking about Jesus, Dr Bockmuehl said Jesus is from above but we know Him from below. In other words, Christ is part of the Trinity, He is from above, but it is His activity in history, His teachings and His actions, that let us know who He is and, therefore, who God is. The supreme act of revelation is of course His death on the Cross and His resurrection. And Israel was always exhorted to remember the Passover and God’s deliverance through the Red Sea. To take God seriously is to take His actions in history seriously.
I am very worried about some of the modern worship music. They either don’t take history seriously, focusing only on the singer’s subjective feelings about God, or they focus only on the personal histories of the composers; what God did in their lives. They are essentially ahistorical and deprive us of the bigger and more accurate picture of God revealed in salvation history and church history. They end up reductionistic and with a much smaller God.
And if our picture of God is smaller and essentially ahistorical, we end up with a weakened faith, not fully confident in what He will do in the present. If Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, we know what kind of God He is and what He will do by meditating on what He has done in the past. So if we are praying for healing, for example, we know we are praying to a God who hears, who is concerned, who cares and who comes down to deliver. We know the verbs. Knowing He is that kind of God means we pray with confidence both in His deliverance and in how and when He delivers.
So, thank you Dr Bockmuehl, for teaching me that our God is a God of verbs.
Dr Bockmuehl also pointed me to the ministry of the Oxford Group and the practice of quietly listening to God to hear Him speak to us personally. This was an exercise that was necessary for those who want to live their lives in obedience to God. I must confess I am still struggling to listen to God in this way. But the fact that Dr Bockmuehl was such a strong practitioner and advocate of listening to God told me that for him, God was not just a subject he taught. God was a living reality and he oriented his life according to the leading of the God of verbs, a God who speaks. You will see this to be true of the Regent faculty. They live what they teach.
I don’t understand why God took Dr Bockmuehl home so early. But I will always be grateful for what I learnt from him; so much that is now part of my life and ministry. In a sense, he continues to teach and influence through all of us who were privileged to be his students.