If you set out to preach to your church or teach your small group a series of lessons on the attributes of God, how would you do it? Would you collect a series of thematic Bible verses? Would you follow a creed, a confession, or a statement of faith? More to the point, what resources would you use: A couple systematic theologies? A Bible dictionary? Or a concordance to find key words?
Without replacing any of these methods or resources, Philip Graham Ryken, president-elect at Wheaton College who is finishing his 15-year tenure at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, has provided a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to know more about God and his manifold perfections in his book Discovering God in Stories from the Bible. His express purpose in writing this theological primer is to “know God more intimately” and to help others do the same by studying God’s Word for the purpose of adoring God by the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the truth of God’s revelation (13–14).
In Discovering God in the Stories of the Bible, Ryken follows the 11-fold description of God posited in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to outline his book. The Catechism defines God as “Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (27–28). Chapters 2–12 follow these glorious attributes in order, while chapters 1 and 13 bookend these doctrinal expositions with two moving meditations on God’s glory and God’s redemptive love, respectively. The effect of the book is powerful. As Ryken points out, “The way to know God better is to study him. The way to study him is to learn what the Bible teaches about him, for all God’s attributes are revealed in God’s Word” (13). Following the biblical conviction that our unapproachable God (1 Tim. 6:16), has made himself known in time and space to us (Heb. 1:1–2), Ryken sets out to contemplate God’s glorious attributes, and he does so in a very accessible way.
His stated approach in each chapter is to introduce the attribute, string together a plethora of verses that articulate this doctrine, and then turn to a particular “story” in the Bible that highlights this attribute (13–14). So take God’s immutability: In chapter 5, Ryken begins by meditating on the importance and Scriptural testimony of God’s unchanging nature. He selects a number of Scripture passages from both Testaments complemented by a few choice quotations from A.W. Pink, Stephen Charnock, and Thomas Watson. He follows up this introduction with a helpful discussion on what it means for God to repent. He holds in tension God’s immutable nature with his covenantal relations in the world. The result is an orthodox statement of God’s impassibility and imminent action in redemptive history.
This sets up the story of Saul’s disobedience with Agag and the Amelekites (1 Sam. 15). Ryken sets the context and interacts with the two passages that speak of God “relenting”/“repenting” and the explanatory statement in verse 29 that God is not like man, “that he should change his mind.” From there, Ryken moves to the practical comfort that our God does not change. He applies this to prayer and shows us that a changing God is a dreadful, unreliable deity, but the God of the Bible is gloriously unchanging and ever ready to help.Thus, each chapter follows this same pattern of Scripture, story, and application. He shows us that doctrine is anything but boring, and if anything doctrine is absolutely stunning and compelling. And that the stories of the Bible are filled with glimpses of God’s deity.
Discovering God in the Stories from the Bible is commendable on a number of levels. First, it is awe-inspiring. It makes great devotional material. Reading one chapter a day in your devotions would captivate your heart with God’s grandeur, while informing your mind with biblical truth about our Maker and Redeemer.
Second, Ryken’s book is instructive for preachers because it shows how doctrinal preaching can and should be done. He takes a confessional outline (The Westminster Shorter Catechism), clothes it in Scriptures, and produces a very helpful model for preachers who only preach book-by-book exposition. Some may object that he pre-selects his subject and goes looking for a text; however, I would argue that his method of grounding his messages in stories of the Bible, he actually guards himself from this error. Third, Discovering God in the Bible makes for a great database for those verses that speak of God’s divine attributes. If you are wondering where the Bible talks about God’s eternality, holiness, or justice, turn to the chapter which covers that attribute and in the first two-three pages you will find listed most of the applicable passages.
Finally, Ryken’s 2010 edition of this book—it was previously released in 1999—comes along with a study guide, written by Nancy Ryken Taylor. Her supplementary guide follows provides study questions for each chapter, contextual information, and passages for further study. With such a study guide in place, Discovering God in the Stories of the Bible, makes for a great small group material that defies the trend of vacuous, feeling-oriented studies. In their place, it provides a “theological workbook” that cannot but produce feelings of awe, reverence, and love. It is theology that by the Spirit evokes doxology.