Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is God An Individualist?

That's a rather odd question, isn't it? Is God an individualist? Well, there seems to be no question that we are. After all, good old, all-American individualism is a staple of Western thought. But is it in line with the Way God thinks?

Some would heartily answer in the affirmative. After all, individualism arose, at least in part, because of the emphasis of the Protestant Reformation on Scriptural sufficiency. The Reformers correctly taught that God has a personal relationship with individuals and that that relationship is not dependent on family or church affiliation. Later, the Baptists championed something called individual soul liberty or soul competency which basically taught that each person was individually accountable before God.

I've never had a problem with any of this (I still don't actually) until I began noticing many passages of Scripture that seem to be coming from corporate mindset, rather than an individual one. The Old Testament, in particular, is loaded with these sorts of passages. There are many times in which God judges nations and families as a unit rather than as individuals. Our Western minds try to explain away references to entire families being stoned and civilizations being judged. For example, after Solomon turned from God, how did God punish him? By punishing Solomon's son. He didn't punish Solomon because God loved David. Instead, He punished Solomon's son. So, in God's eyes, it is just to reward a father by rewarding his son and to punish a father by punishing his son. This doesn't seem very individualistic.

And this is not strictly an Old Testament phenomenon. The Church is repeatedly referred to as a Body. It's not just a collection of individuals. It's a single, corporate organism. Throughout the Bible, families, communities and churches are called upon to act as a unit, having the same heart and mind.

Likewise, I've noticed that having an overly individualistic mindset has been very detrimental to both churches and families. Our postmodern mindset tells us that no one can interfere in the affairs of others, even if it's for their own good. And yet, through the New Testament, there is a plea for unity and involvement in each other's lives.

Some people try to brush this aside as a cultural thing. Near Eastern philosophy is vastly different from Western philosophy. Whereas we see individuals, they see families, communities and nations. However, this interpretation basically says that the prophets and apostles had bad philosophy (which leads to bad theology) and that somehow the Holy Spirit (maybe He was taking a nap or something) let that bad philosophy make it into His holy Word. That just doesn't fly with me.

So, how do we balance these truths about the responsibility of the individual soul and corporate unity? A while back, Jay Lauser wrote a marvelous guest post which cleared up some these confusions. However, it still left me with some questions, until I asked myself, "How does God view this issue?" In other words, is God an individualist?

Think about this for a moment. Who is God? Or maybe I should say, what is God. God is something we have a hard time rapping our heads around. God is a Trinity. In other words, He is multiple persons and yet one person. So, is He an individual or a collective group? The answer is yes.

So, the question becomes, how would Someone who is multiple-yet-singular view things (and by the way, God's view is the right view)? Individually or corporately?

Well, look at the way He views Himself. When God decided to create humanity He said, "Let Us make man in Our image." (Genesis 1:26) God referred to Himself in the plural. But, God also says of Himself, "The LORD is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4) So He also refers to Himself in the singular.

So, does God view Himself individually or corporately? Yes. He views Himself as multiple-yet-singular because that's the way He is. So, I'll ask the question again, how does multiple-yet-singular Person view humanity? As multiple-yet-singular. I believe, that God views us both individually and corporately. Throughout the Bible we see God interacting with people as both individuals and families, nations and churches.

Throughout Church history, theologians have always tried to undermine one of these truths. The results of this lopsided view have always been detrimental. The effects include Catholic atrocities, like indulgences, and Protestant snobbishness and hyper-seperationalism.

While we are individuals, we are also families, communities, churches and nations. It's important that we see ourselves as a part of unit and not just little islands. I believe that this is how God would have us to be. While we must make sure that our own affairs are in order, we must also look out for one another.

Paul summed it up nicely in Philippians 2:4, "Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." (NASB)


  1. Classic illustration from Dr. Ryrie's Basic Theology. I only know that because I am taking a theology class now. Nicely worded. Good job.