Christianity 201

August 26, 2011

Adopting Wrong Views of God

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?


This morning while looking for something else, a copy of Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips fell into my hands.  This 124-page pocket book is usually remembered for its first 59 pages which focus on a number of “wrong pictures” we have of God, and while I know that C201 readers would never fall into one of these errant views, I believe that we often partially fall into looking at God in one of these stereotyped forms.  Here’s a quick paraphrase of the types Phillips lists:

  • Policeman — an image usually formed out of a ‘guilt-based’ response to God
  • Parental hangover — the Father image of God evokes images of an earthly father which is more negative than positive
  • Grand Old Man — the head of the seniors group perhaps, or president of the service club; but the danger is the ‘old’ part if it implies irrelevance
  • Meek and Mild — an example, Phillips would argue, of a Sunday School chorus influencing theology which we might want to keep in mind when choosing modern worship pieces for weekend services
  • Absolute Perfection — which leads to us trying to be absolutely perfect even though we don’t often grasp what it means; or thinking God isn’t interested in us when we’re not perfect
  • Heavenly Bosom — a variation perhaps on burying our head in the sand; we bury ourselves in God as a kind of escapism
  • God in a Box — what I think Phillips is using describe people whose image of God has been shaped by subjective experience in local churches or denominations; or conversely, is defined by the beliefs of his or her denomination
  • Managing Director — with an emphasis on God as “controller,” this image evokes another metaphor: puppet string God
  • Second-Hand God — a longer section; it might be summarized as variations on the God-picture we would get from having seen a single movie or read a single book about God and built everything else up from there
  • Perennial Grievance — whatever the God-view the person holds, this one is ever mindful of the time that God let them down them; disappointed them; etc.
  • Pale Galilean — an image Phillips uses to describe people whose faith is lacking vitality and courage; or whose loyalty is fragile
  • Projected Image — which we would describe today as “creating God in our image.” 

Do you ever find yourself falling into any of these mistaken views of God?

While the terminology might not be readily used today; the book is fairly thorough about describing the full range of false views about God that can exist.  I felt led to share this here, but then needed to come up with some resolve to this.  Phillips views the first half of his book as deconstructive and follows it with a constructive second half.  What I want to do here instead, is end with a quotation I’ve used before, but which I believe everyone should commit to memory:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God.   Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones

Further reading:  If you can get your hands on this out-of-print book, look for Jarrett Stevens’ The Deity Formerly Known as God (Zondervan) which is an updated version of Phillips’ classic. 

If you can’t find it, get the original by Phillips, which after all these years is still in print!


  1. I completely agree—as humans, our tendency is to project human attributes on nature. Just look at all the human-like gods we’ve created over the centuries in other religious traditions.

    It seems natural for people to try to define the universe human-centrically. All through recorded history, we’ve seen evidence of people’s need to see something intrinsically human about the universe, something with which they could communicate on a basis of human values—a creative force whose expectations of us we could understand and meet.

    But this is also an instinct we have at birth: the need to please our parents to guarantee our physical survival. It’s helped us be such an incredibly successful species.

    I can’t help thinking there’s a connection between the two. Indeed, God is often referred to as “Father”, and portrayed as an elderly man with a long beard and flowing robes.

    And if nothing else, the image of Jesus serves to further personify our ideas about the forces behind the universe. How much more human can we make God than to assert that God once took human form (which, nonetheless, we could continue to worship)?

    It’s possible that all this is true, that the stories of Creation and Redemption are things that came DOWN to man. It’s equally possible (unless you’ve decided otherwise, simply because you wanted to—another distinctly human trait) that all this has occurred from the OTHER direction—that it’s actually an elaborate projection of man’s survival instincts UPON the universe.

    1000 years ago, we knew little about the universe and the earth’s history. Today we know a great deal more—and everything we know indicates that man developed as every other species did. There were many species before us that could think and use language. (There still are—primates and cetacean are two obvious examples, though many other animals probably think and communicate in sophisticated ways we just don’t understand.)

    We are apparently the most intellectually complex animals we know of. But if the principles of evolution hold true, we’re simply the latest step in DNA’s ongoing process of mutation, recombination, and growing complexity. So that would make sense.

    It’d also make sense, considering human character, to be vain enough to continue to define the universe in human terms despite the overwhelming scientific evidence we have to the contrary, as long as there continues to be an emotional payoff for doing so.

    Of course this is just my opinion. Many people disagree. The best we can do is believe what makes sense to us. That said, it’s no secret that when we feel our survival is threatened, part of the brain kicks in that’s incapable of intellectual objectivity. Perhaps the degree to which that happens in our daily lives is determined by how much “danger” each of us imagines we’re in just by being here.

    Comment by Ander — September 8, 2012 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

    • With people of different religious views often ‘visiting’ sites like this one to express, for lack of a better word, an ‘op ed’ opinion, under different circumstances, I might have deleted a comment like this, but this time around it’s within the parameters of the topic.

      We obviously would disagree on several fundamentals, but I allowed the comment because it takes the seed of an idea — that we project our ideas on the concept of God — and runs with it to the nth degree.

      So we share a common premise (in a way) but not the same conclusion.

      I can accept that in some instances individuals or groups have simply ‘invented’ a system of belief (and accompanying rites and customs) to answer the question as to why we are here; but the history of the Christian faith simply doesn’t allow that. We have instead the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and prior to that, the Hebrew scriptures tell us of God’s dealings with, interactions with, and instructions given to His people.

      The purpose of this article was to say that within the body of Christ-followers, we tend to project some after-market attributes on God, but we do so having begun at a proper starting point. The scriptures tell us what we need to know about the basic character of God, but like a rocket that is just 1% off course, left to continue long enough, we can eventually miss the target. That’s why we need to reference back to the written source book; why its pages remind us to search it and to study it.

      The First Testament is a story of a people who simply tended to forget. And that continues throughout human nature today. That’s why the scriptures were given to us (or yes, came DOWN to us, as you put it) so that we could have a reference point that would last (and has lasted) throughout several thousand years.

      One area where we agree more is on the personification of God, because I think God desires to make Himself known to us in that way. So we say “He,” even though God is neither male nor female; and we say “Father,” to try to enhance that picture and to give place to “The Son,” even though we simply cannot ever understand the mystery of God’s triune nature. But the Psalms speak of God covering us with his wings (or feathers) but this doesn’t mean that God is an eagle or a chicken.

      Any given metaphor or simile will have its limitations, but (a) this is where faith comes in, and (b) scriptures tell us we can neither comprehend God nor could our earthly bodies physically withstand an encounter with his physical appearance.

      Finally, I don’t think fear of danger is the motivating factor. Statistically, we know that people who become converts due to guilt factors or fear factors simply don’t continue in the faith for any length of time. The primary motivation for us to seek God is usually a sense that we are a very small part of a vast universe; it’s awe and wonder, not fear and trembling.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — September 8, 2012 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  2. […] Related: C201, August 2011: Adopting Wrong Views of God […]

    Pingback by Understanding God’s Love When Your Earthly Father is Less Than Perfect | Christianity 201 — January 18, 2016 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

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