A God Who Raises Questions
What were the first words God spoke to a human being after the creation? „Where are you?“ It was a question, the first of several. „Who told you that you were naked?“, „What is this you have done?“ (Genesis 3:9.11.13), God was continuing His interrogation. Of course, as Creator and Lord, God did not have to act this way. After the first sin, He had the right to immediately slam His fist on the table and speak harsh words to sinners. But the path He chose at the beginning of the first book of the Bible was different.
God wanted the human beings He had made according to His image to start thinking about their actions. He intended them to think in new ways about themselves and their relationship to God, because that is the meaning of repentance (in Greek metanoia). The next chapter on Cain and Abel confirms this principle. Again, God turned to the man, Cain, and asked: „Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?“ And after the killing of his brother: „Where is your brother Abel?… What have you done?“ (Genesis 4:6–7.9–10)
In the New Testament, we read that the young Jesus himself questioned the teachers of the Scriptures (Luke 2:46). Later in his life He asked many questions, for example to the Pharisees (Matthew 22:42) and the disciples (Luke 9:20). Of course, He also preached and expounded the Gospel and the ethics of the Kingdom of God (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). However, Jesus also asked surprisingly frequently questions (e.g. at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:36) – over three hundred in all the gospels! It is obvious that God Himself wants all Bible readers to think deeply about Him and His presence and work on earth.
In a sense, questions are more important than answers. At the beginning of the story of the Good Samaritan, an „expert in the law“ asks Jesus, „Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?“ (Luke 10:25). Christians know that this question alone tends to lead in the wrong direction. There is nothing we can do to live forever. The teacher of the law seeks to test Jesus with his clever questions (Luke 10:25 and 29). But Jesus does not rebuke him with a condeming sermon. He tells a story which, in fact, also raises questions and makes us think and examine our lives.
When Jesus exhorts at the end „Go and do likewise“ (Luke 10:37), He is really asking, „Are you really going to do this? Do you think that you, a sinful person, are capable of such self-sacrificing help? Don’t you realize that you are the robbed man and I am the Samaritan, the only merciful Savior and Healer?“ It is important to replace bad, misleading and testing questions with good, deep and probing ones.
So questions can be a great opener for a conversation about the claims of Christianity. This is not an invention of James Kennedy and „Evangelism Explosion“ („Do you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?“) or Bill Bright and „Cru“ („Have you heard about the Four Spiritual Laws?“). As we saw, raising questions goes back to the Bible. And it was practiced in the history of the Church long before the 20th century.
„What is the chief end of man?“
I would like to quickly introduce two questions from the age of the Reformation. Both questions are the very first in two Protestant catechisms. A catechism is a tool to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Very often they are composed of questions and answers. Catechisms – from the Greek katechein: to teach – were not invented in the 16th century, but the Reformation was the Golden Age of publishing these kind of books and booklets.
Right in the beginning the two catechisms raise questions which today are even more relevant than hundreds of years ago. They revolve around this subject: What is a human being? Who are we? Contemporary people are confused about these questions. Is Yuval Noah Harari right who claims in his bestseller Homo deus that we, or at least some of us, may hope to evolve to superhuman, almost God-like beings thanks to the help of modern technology?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism was published in 1647. The British Presbyterians were assembling in the Westminster Cathedral in London to write a confession and two catechisms. The famous first question of the Shorter is this: „What is the chief end of man?“ Or in other words: What is the primary purpose of our human life? What is our calling as human beings? What is our identity? Are we essentially different from animals? Are we going somewhere or is there only a big void waiting for us?
The British Catechism‘s answer is short, concise and yet full of ingenuity: „Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.“ Human beings are made for a relationship with God, they are to love, serve, obey and glorify Him. God is the Creator and Lord of the universe, He is at the centre. Man is neither God nor the centre of the world. We are under Him, responsible to Him.
We were made to live for God. Church father Augustine put it in this words on the first page of his Confessions: „You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.“ Without God you will not find rest and purpose. The Catechism says it in more positive terms: believers are to enjoy God. This is the Good News of Christianity: though even in eternity God will be glorified and His glory will shine forever, the believers in Christ will also be brought to glory (Hebrews 2:10). Paul says in Romans that we now share in Christ‘s „sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory“ (8:17). The glory of God spills over onto human beings. In eternity we will stay human beings but we will part of the joyous community of the Triune God.
The Heidelberg Catechism came out in 1563 in the German city Heidelberg, then capital of the Principality of the Palatinate. Its author was a young professor of theology, Zacharias Ursinus. The first question is this: „What is your only comfort in life and death?“ This first question not only sets the theme for the whole Catechism, it also poses the most important question we will ever face. What enables you to endure life and face death unafraid? Is it that you read your Bible every day and evangelize diligently? That you attend church every Sunday? That you give to the poor? That you haven‘t committed any of the big sins in life?
We live in a world where we expect to find comfort in possessions, pride, power and position. But the Catechism teaches us that our only true comfort comes from the fact that we don‘t even belong to ourselves. The answer begins like this: My only comfort is, „That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.“
This is very countercultural. Our secular culture proclaims loudly that you are the captain of your soul. You direct the ship of your life wherever you want. No, says Heidelberg, this won’t give you comfort. Redemption means dependency – being dependent on a Person. We can endure suffering and disappointment in life and face death not because of what we have done or what we own, but because of what we do not possess – our own selves. We lose our autonomy, but that is Good News!
After the first sentence of the answer Ursinus explains what the basis for this hope and comfort is – what the three Persons of the Trinity have done and are doing: Jesus „has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.“
In this long answer God is the active one. Salvation is God’s work alone – there is no exchange, no cooperation between God and man. Although the word „grace“ is not mentioned, the answer explains the Protestant principle of sola gratia – through grace alone. The believer is called to live for Christ, and the desire to do so is awakened by God himself.
Like Westminster, the Heidelberg Catechism is not flattering people. It challenges and provokes us. Salvation has its price: you are going to lose something. But loosing means winning: the only comfort in life and death.
Particularly striking in the German Catechism‘s first question and answer is the frequent use of the first-person pronoun „I“, „my“, „me“ (and, accordingly, before that the second-person pronoun „your“). This language makes it clear that we are not talking in the abstract and not about others, but directly about me, you, us. The answer is about the personal benefits of Christ’s grace. This does not mean, however, that man is placed at the centre of everything. Again, the centre is clearly God and His work – what He has done for me, for you, and what He continues to do today.
The late Neil Postman (1931-2003), media theorist and cultural critic from the US, wrote in his last book (A Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, 1999) that the art of asking good questions is „the most significant intellectual tool given to human beings“. But „isn’t it strange that the most important tool for thinking is not taught in schools?“ So let‘s teach this art in our churches. Let us combine probing and thought-provoking questions with Biblical, God-centered answers. And let us learn from the old catechisms of the Reformation age. They are great Gospel-teaching tools! Let us make use of their creativity, and let us think deeply about new questions for the people of our age. After all, the Creator made us to be creative.