Elizabeth Malbon, in her book Hearing Mark, gives this insightful gem:
Perhaps Greek philosophers worried about the essence of God, but Jewish and Jewish-Christian storytellers focused on the activity of God and God in Christ. In the biblical tradition not only have the people of God imagined their relationship with God as a story, but also individual members continue to experience their own lives as stories. Perhaps this is why it is so easy for us to get caught up in the story Mark’s Gospel tells.
She hits upon this difference so well. Greek philosophy is endlessly speculating about the exact nature and essence of God/gods. The early church had to wrestle with the essence of God insofar as it pertained to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union, but overall the church has, I think, been much more about God’s acts as a revelation of his being.
There’s good reason for this. To talk about God’s secret life, his being in and of himself, we must admit that we can only repeat what we are told. We cannot pry into God’s nature by ourselves; God must graciously disclose himself to us if we are to know or understand anything about him, even his own existence. God does this, discloses himself to us, primarily by his actions in redemptive history, rather than by making statements about his being. Even statements like “God is love” (1 John 4:8) are statements about his character by way of his actions. How do we know that God is love? “In this the love of God is made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world…” (1 John 4:9). Theologically, this is to say that God is simple– he is as he acts, and he acts as he is. There is no discrepancy between his actions and his being.
Moses encounters this acting God in Exodus 3. In his great disclosure of his own divine name, God says “I am who I am,” possibly better translated as “I will be who I will be” (Exodus 3:14). Do you want to know me, Moses? Look at what I am about to do. Look at my coming acts of wrath and deliverance.
There are many good and helpful studies about the attributes of God in circulation. This is good, and I would love to see a greater emphasis still on the character and nature of God. But we cannot forget that while God is who he is apart from anything we see, he has disclosed himself to us primarily though his acts– creation, providence, and redemption. And, of course, the greatest manifestation of his character, his greatest moment of self-disclosure, comes as Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God himself, hangs on a cross for the sins of man. “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31).