A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

do ya punkFor some reason, theologians don’t often get associated with the Christian virtue of humility. It’s ironic that studying the infinite Creator of all things, when undertaken without prayer or community, can lead to a puffed up and inflated sense of self. The greater the subject, the greater the pride when you feel you’ve mastered it, I suppose. In any case, this is one of the reasons I so enjoy running across encouragements to humility in theological exploration.

Yesterday I ran across a particularly fantastic example in Augustine. In one section, he takes up the question of whether God’s sovereignty implies an eternal creation. In other words, if we say God is eternally sovereign, does that require him to have been eternally creating something alongside himself to be sovereign over? Wouldn’t that be another co-eternal? Or how does the fact that God created time itself affect the question? In other words, if God created time along with the world, there’s a way in which you could say there’s never been a time where he hasn’t been sovereign Creator, but that’s because there was no time “before” he made time.

Confused yet?

At the end of a couple pages of this, Augustine wraps up his discussion like this:

And so I return to what our Creator wished us to know. What he has allowed wiser heads to know in this life, or has reserved for the knowledge of those who have reached their fulfillment in the other life, that I confess to be beyond my powers. But I thought I should discuss this question, without reaching any positive conclusion, so that my readers may see what questions they should refrain from tackling, as dangerous, and to discourage them from thinking themselves capable of understanding everything. Instead they should realize that they ought to submit to the wholesome instruction of the Apostle, when he says, ‘In virtue of the authority given to me by God’s grace I say this to all your company: do not be wiser than you ought to be; but be wise in moderation, in proportion to the faith which God has allotted to each of you.’ For if a child’s upbringing is adjusted to his strength, he will grow, and become capable of further progress, but if he is strained beyond his capacity he will fade away before he has the chance to grow up. (City of God, BK. XII.16)

There’s so much I love about this passage.

First, the fact that he did all of that in order to sum up and say, “Don’t try this at home, kids.” Now, this can sound a bit arrogant. But what have to see here is a humble vulnerability in the theological process in which Augustine is exposing his own finite understanding in the process of stretching himself to the limits of his own powers. It’s not easy for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” All too often, the temptation is the fake a certainty you don’t possess, or hastily land on a conclusion just to have an answer for those who look to you for insight. Augustine refuses to play the expert at the cost of the truth.

With a pastoral heart, he decides to engage the difficulty that he knows might trip up some of his more inquiring readers should they wander down certain paths. The flipside is that he still discusses the issue. It’s this odd movement of saying, “Alright, I’ll go here with you if only to show you that going here might lead to trouble.” It’s not the simple wave of the hand that dismisses such questions as foolish or entirely off-limits, but one that humbly acts as a guide to the theologically perplexed.

Finally, Augustine’s example at the end is one of both caution and invitation. If you press too deep beyond what it is given to you to know at this point, beyond your spiritual and intellectual powers, you might hurt yourself. But the point isn’t to warn against theological study, but about taking care so that you may continue to proceed at the pace of growth the Lord himself intends. There are times when, for the sake of growing in a healthy knowledge of God, it is okay to say, “I’ll put this question aside for now and return it at some future point. I trust that God will continue to reveal himself to me in ways that are appropriate to me in areas that I can handle right now.”

As Dirty Harry put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Soli Deo Gloria

“What Season Was Adam Created in?” And Other Questions That Make Us Giggle

lego-adam-and-eveIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged in Turretin, so I figured I’d get back at it before Scott Swain loses heart. To be honest, I was working my way through his section on the decrees and predestination of God. Apart from the usual density of Turretin’s prose, mucking about with God’s eternal decrees which are actually one decrees and will, only multiply distinguished according to our own conceptions…Well, you get the picture. My hubris in theological writing only extends so far.

In any case, I’ve begun Turretin’s section on Creation and things have predictably smoothed out a bit. Given that much of the heavy lifting has been done earlier, Turretin is mercifully clear, and there is quite a bit of interesting biblical exegesis. Actually, I really found a few sections of his examination of the days of creation to be beautiful. What’s more, I’m continually shocked at the broadness of Turretin’s learning as well as the sources he’s willing to draw on. In one paragraph alone, he appeals to the Targum Onkelos, another rabbi, Rashi’s commentary, and caps it off with a quotation from Augustine.

What’s really struck me in this section, though, is the oddness of some of his discussion questions. For instance, there are a number of the discussions on subjects you’d expect. He has a longish question on whether creation is eternal or not, or whether it could theoretically have been eternal as Aquinas argued. Not only is that a famous debate in the middle ages, for those paying attention to current discussions around creation, that debate is still live. For people exploring panentheist theologies, or versions where God is something like the emergent property of the universe, Turretin’s discussion of whether anything besides God could be eternal can easily become relevant.

On the other hand, there are times when four hundred years distance in terms of culture and scientific cosmology show their colors.

How many of you would think to ask the question and argue at length over the question of “What season was the world created?” I mean, really, was it spring, fall, winter, or summer when Adam popped up in the Garden of Eden? Were the leaves just turning red, gold, and brown, or were they newly in flower? Was it harvest time, or were the flowers just blooming? Would Adam have to knit a sweater soon, or were things nice and balmy? Or maybe Eden was just perpetually living in summer–kind of like Orange County?

I’m going to assume that if you’re like me, this question simply never occurred to you. But apparently this was a lively enough debate for Turretin to devote four pages of dense prose to the matter.

Another section that made me giggle a bit, was his segment on the nature of the waters above in the heavens. This is the 1600s so they’re not working with our modern cosmology, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have learned discussions based on the best observation and scientific theories of the day–theories that we might still find plausible and with sufficient explanatory power to convince us if we didn’t have computers connected to telescopes floating about in space.

What’s interesting is how these paradigms played a role in their theological disputation. For instance, the “waters of the heaven” debated became relevant in Turretin’s debate with the Lutherans because apparently some Lutherans were asserting that a layer of water would interfere with the type ascension of Christ and believers the Reformed asserted. They then used that premise to strengthen their arguments for their views of the Lord’s Supper which depends on the omnipresence of Christ’s physical body. See how quickly that goes from bizarre preoccupation to important sacramental debate? (For the record, Turretin believed that they referred the clouds on the basis of scientific theories and exegesis.)

Or again, among other reasons, Turretin reasoned that Adam was created in a part of the world that was in Autumn at the time because it was the most hospitable season for man. This is important because it gives testimony to the benevolent care of God for his human Image-bearers. It also points us to the fact that humanity is the crown of creation–the world was made for man, not the other way around. In other words, in the middle of this rather odd discussion–to our minds–there’s a profound humanism at work that still speaks a biblical word to us today.

Of course, all of these raises the question: which debates and discussions will give our spiritual and theological descendants a bit of a giggle? Which of the hot topic issues that currently exercise us, or fascinate us will pass entirely out of the theological discussion in the coming decades and centuries? We need to remember that our own age is not the summit of theological development. Being farther down the timeline doesn’t necessarily mean we’re farther along in the discussion. At times contemporary concerns can end up being little more than distractions in the long run. Distinctions can be discarded and lost for a time as unnecessary or out-moded, only to be discovered as crucial after the damage of their loss has been made painfully apparent by the failure of theological discussion without them.

Only time will tell, of course. May God give us the grace to struggle faithfully for the truth in all of our discussions and the humility to know the provisional, time-bound nature of all our creaturely labors.

Soli Deo Gloria

Careful About Being Too Careful of What You Read

questOne of the things I’ve learned over the last few years of reading theology is that caution and discernment ought to be exercised in our caution and discernment in our sources for theology.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me give you an example I ran across while reading Stephen Holmes’ excellent work The Quest for the Trinity. (I highly recommend this so far!) Tertullian was a church leader in Carthage in the North of Africa in the early part of 3rd Century and one of the greatest theologians in the West up until that point.  His writings are voluminous and he was a staunch apologist and defender of the faith against such heresies as those of Marcion, the Gnostics, and the anti-Trinitarians.

Ironically enough, later in life, embraced the teachings of Montanism–a “New Prophecy” that ended up being condemned by the Church as a heresy. It was during that time that Holmes says Tertullian penned an important text entitled Against Praxeas, which ended up becoming one of the most important texts for solidifying and shaping Latin Trinitarianism. While Holmes contends that Tertullian didn’t essentially add anything new to the doctrine of the Trinity, or work it out fully, he still refuted a number of dangerous heresies and he basically cleaned up the discussion and gave the Western church the language it needed to codify it and protect it (trinitas, person, substantia, etc).

This is all the while being technically a heretic in another area of doctrine.

What are we to make of this? Well, I think it serves as a caution that we ought to be careful about being too careful about who we read, or even who we think can teach us truth. There is a a healthy care that students of theology should take in who they select as their main sources of theological inspiration. For instance, if your major inspiration for theological development, or your only precedent for a particular position, are the rationalist Socinians in the 16th Century, that’s a good sign you’re probably on the wrong track.

Still, the Church Father Origen said some really weird things that were eventually rightly condemned by the Church. But his concept of eternal generation, in the right hands, was gold for theology, and his commentaries, defenses of the faith may still be read with intellectual and spiritual profit. God can and has used even those theologians and philosophers whose views have suffered serious deficiencies and flaws to strengthen the faith of the Church.

I’m a pastor, so I take care about the books I tend to recommend, especially with my students. If I suspect that it will lead unsuspecting students astray, I won’t recommend it. Or if it has a redeeming value beyond some issues, I will strongly caution about the aspects of a work that are could distract from its overall value. Yet pastors and other students of theology need to beware of cloistering ourselves in the comfortable halls of our own favored theological neighborhoods. I can admit in my own life, when I’ve found out that a certain author espouses a view on the atonement or God’s covenants I find defective, I’ve been tempted to simply steer clear altogether and not “waste my time.” But that would be a mistake.

We ought to be careful about dismissing the theological offerings of theologians who differ from our favored tradition in theology. As a Reformed Christian I can (and have!) read Wesleyans, or even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians with great profit, both in areas of overlap as well as areas of theology I strongly differ. Just because I disagree with them on justification or the nature of sanctification, that does not mean I can’t glean insights or have my own theological convictions sharpened and strengthened.

My brief point, then, is: be careful of what you’re careful of. Be a discerning reader. Know yourself well and have friends and mentors who can challenge you and keep you on the rails. But for the student of theology, hyper-active fear of reading the “wrong” material might be something to be something to guard against as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retrieval–It’s What All The Hip Reformed Catholic Kids Do

reformed catholicityThe theological hills are alive with the sound of “retrieval”–the idea that theology can only go forward if it begins by looking backward to the tradition that maintained and fed the faith that came before it. Whether it’s looking back to the Fathers, or Thomas, or the early Reformed tradition, across the denomination divides, theologians are increasingly explicit about their necessary dependence on the theology of their forebears, whether in the Creed, Counsels, or Confessions. In his section arguing for the importance of recovering traditioned thought in The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer listed a number of reasons (Biblical, traditional, philosophical, inevitable, and spiritual), but among them was the fact that it was “fashionable” (pg. 158), by which he meant supported by contemporary movements in literary theory.

In other words, all the cool kids are doing it.

I was reminded of this point as I opened Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s little volume Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Part of their project is making the case for a Reformed iteration of this movement that appreciates the traditional shape of even Protestant practices like Sola Scriptura, which commonly is interpreted as precluding this sort of activity. In order to set the stage for their own project, though, they begin by compiling and briefly describing a fascinating list of recent movements in theology that have set the stage, or contributed to the revival of retrieval in theology (pp. 4-12). I thought it might be useful to briefly summarize their summary and comment on their summary list.

  1. Nouvelle Theologie. Earlier in the 20th Century a bunch of Roman Catholic theologians like De Lubac and Congar led the way in trying to reappropriate patristic and biblical theology for systematics, sacramental theology, and liturgical practice. Much of this theology set the stage for the developments of Vatican II.
  2. Karl Barth. Barth’s Church Dogmatics did many things, but one of the big long-term effects it had was reviving the discipline of dogmatics in theology, drawing heavily as it did on patristic and Reformational sources.
  3. Reception History. Plenty of Biblical scholars like working with the historical context of the text, but there’s a big movement to do work on compiling commentaries or studies on the historical reception of texts. In other words, not just asking “how ought we read it?”, but asking “how has it been read in the past?” in order answer the former.
  4. Donald Bloesch and “Consensual Christianity.” Bloesch was a UCC theologian who tried to develop a “consensual” Christianity based on the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s tradition as a cross-denominational resource for the Church
  5. Thomas Oden’s “Paleo-Orthodoxy.” Thomas Oden’s conversion from liberal, Protestantism to a sort of “paleo-orthodoxy”, a “pastiche” of patristic and Protestant theology is an approach towards a “consensual Christianity.” He has also headed up the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series in order to facilitate this sort of scholarship and spirituality as well.
  6. Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity. Webber has written various works and developed a number of ministries devoted to helping Evangelicals tap in the Christian past for the sake of engaging postmodern culture in worship and evangelism.
  7. The Modern Hymn Movement. Reformed and Presbyterian churches and ministries like RUF, Indelible Grace, and Keith and Kristyn Getty have been retooling classic hymns and developing new ones for revived congregational worship.
  8. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism. From within the Lutheran tradition, Braaten and Jenson have been trying to focus the church on classical resources as a way forward for the ecumenical conversation and the strength of the church. To that end, they launched the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, begin the journal Pro Ecclesia, and published a number of influential volumes in that vein. Allen and Swain note, though, that while Bloesch and Oden’s retrieval ends up looking like pretty standard classical theism, Jenson and others have still engaged in quite a bit of theological reconstruction, showing the retrieval doesn’t only lead to repetition.
  9. Theological Interpretation of Scripture. One big movement afoot is the drive towards theological exegesis”, or reading Scripture to do theology and not just historical or textual criticism. To that end, a lot of theoretical ink has been spilled, but a number of good theological commentary series have begun as well.
  10. Radical Orthodoxy. The movement by theologians like Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, and John Milbank, to reappropriate a sort of Christian Platonism in order to combat the decline of the Church, leans heavily on the idea of retrieval, even if it has been often criticized for its idiosyncratic and problematic readings of the history it’s attempting to retrieve.
  11. Evangelical Ressourcement. Evangelicals are getting in on the fun too. D.H. Williams has been arguing for recovering the early church as a theological resource and Hans Boersma has been even more specific in advocating a particular sacramental ontology, mostly drawing on the Nouvelle Theologie of Roman Catholic theologians.
  12. The Emerging or Emergent Church(es). Whatever their problems have been, the emerging or emergent movement did have an emphasis on retrieving the various insights, texts, and practices of the Christian past to meet the postmodern future. Of course, this played out differently for various kinds of emerging or emergent churches.
  13. Ressourcement Thomism. Thomism is the gift that keeps on giving. At least, that’s what a number of recent Roman Catholic theologians like Matthew Levering, Gilles Emery, and Reinhard Hutter have been arguing. Engaging with movements in biblical studies, systematics, and philosophical movements, these theologians have been making the case that Thomas still has something to say to the modern church.

As I read Allen and Swain’s list, I was fascinated to note how many of the movement and theologians had their effects on my own journey. When I was young in theology, the emergent conversation was in full swing and so the talk of appealing to tradition was definitely in the air. Thankfully reading some Pelikan and Vanhoozer showed me early that it could be done while keeping your Orthodox and Evangelical wits about you. In philosophy, MacIntyre’s work in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? had its effect as well. Oden and Bloesch are sitting on my shelf, duly marked up, as well as some Barth, Boersma, and Jenson. I suppose my early classes in the history of philosophy had their effect as well. It’s hard to take a whole class on Augustine’s thought and believe him irrelevant to any theological conversation. This is also largely the impulse behind my big reading projects.

Beyond this personal reflection, though, a few things are worth noting about this list.

First, retrieval is an ecumenical endeavor. Theologians across the major traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are well-represented. Although, one important absence ought to be noted and that is the names of any Eastern Orthodox theologians. The burgeoning awareness of Eastern Orthodox theology has definitely spurred on the movement towards engagement with the Fathers on the part of Western theologians.

Second, retrieval is not a monolith. As already noted with the case of Jenson and someone like Oden, two theologians may be committed to the project and yet their engagement may yield wildly diverging judgments on something like the doctrine of God. What’s more, since it is an ecumenical endeavor with a catholic spirit, it will inevitably bear diverse fruits as theologians approach the catholic tradition from within their own ecclesiastic locations.

Third, and connected to the second, retrieval theology need not yield theological sterility. Some of the most creative theological minds of the 20th Century are included in that brief summary. Indeed, when think of some of the work being done in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, some of the brightest of our own very young century are those looking back to the wisdom of yesteryear through figural and typological readings. Many have ended up breaking the modern, interpretive mold in the process.

Finally, retrieval can be quite practical. Indeed, most of the movements and theologians mentioned are quite heavily involved with the cause of church renewal within their respective communions. Looking to the past is not simply done for the sake of dry antiquarianism, but for the life of the Church in the world today. In other words, it’s not only done to preserve the memory of the victories of church triumphant, but for the battles the church militant is currently embroiled in.

Now the question is, what exactly will Allen and Swain contribute to the discussion? I suppose I’ll just have to keep reading to find out. I’d suggest that many of you consider doing the same. You can purchase the book here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Argue For a Position You Don’t Hold? Clarifying Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism

deviantI’ve already written about it once before, but one of the more interesting books I read last year was Oliver Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism. As I said there, Crisp aims to show that, contrary to popular perception, the Reformed tradition has been much broader and contained greater theological diversity than is commonly thought. This broadness was not a bad thing either. It’s not that we just hadn’t figured things out yet in the past, but rather that this diversity is a healthy, important feature of the Reformed tradition that needs to be recovered for its well-being and vitality.  In a sense, he wants us to remember that “always reforming” is a necessary part of the Calvinist theological ethos. In order to do so, Crisp engages in a number of studies of retrieval theology, examining marginal or “deviant” positions within the tradition.

I’ve been happy to see the way the book has sparked quite a bit of interest online through posts and reviews, some critical (apparently Roger Olson is miffed that Crisp sounds too much like a Calvinist…) and others quite positive. One issue though, that merits a bit of explanation or clarification is that of Crisp’s intention and method, as I think there has been some confusion on this point.

Crisp engages in a mode of theology that has been gaining in popularity recently, which has been termed “analytic theology.” Essentially, some theologians and philosophers of religion have been appropriating the insights of Anglophone analytic philosophy and applying them to mainstream theological discussion. So, whether it’s a matter of using more precise, contemporary modal logic, or using some of the epistemological insights of Alvin Plantinga for the purposes of theodicy, analytic theology chooses different philosophical conversation partners. It also adopts a mode of argumentation that prizes clear, conceptual definition, extended analysis of just what issue is up for grabs in any given argument, and logical rigor. Contrary to some rumors, from what I know of analytical theological types this isn’t out of some “rationalistic” impulse to systematize the faith into some easily graspable construct either. Many simply want to get back to the days when theology actually tried to ask and answer questions with care and clarity.

Given my undergraduate background in philosophy at a school that’s got a bit of an analytic bent, reading Crisp’s work took me back to the old days. I suppose that’s why I was unfazed by the one feature of Crisp’s work that has been causing readers some trouble: his tendency to argue for a number of positions that he apparently doesn’t hold, or at least gives no indication that he holds.

For instance, in one chapter he argues that the Westminster Confession is somewhat metaphysically underdetermined and so it is possible to believe in a form of Libertarian freedom consistent with Calvinist soteriology. Or again, he argues that views like eternal justification or justification in eternity don’t necessarily have the antinomian tendencies or corollaries that many have accused it of, and on that score it more consistent with mainstream Calvinist orthodoxy than is supposed. To my knowledge, Crisp doesn’t actually hold any of these positions. He’s simply clearing some elbow room in the tradition to say that these aren’t necessarily heterodox opinions to hold.

Now, to many, this might seem like an odd, counter-intuitive, and quite distracting theological endeavor to engage in. Why argue in favor of positions you don’t hold? Why defend what you may end up ultimately discarding?

I see two motives, one stemming from his analytic bent, and a second from basic Christian theological conviction.

1. Clarity. In the first place, I see this as a feature of his analytic pursuit of clarity bleeding through. I recall one important article on the problem of evil by Stephen Wykstra taking a significant amount of time to defend a position against two critical articles, only to then turn around and offer a third argument against that very same position. Taking the time to rule out bad arguments against positions you don’t like, or even ruling out bad arguments for positions you do like, clarifies the discussion at hand. Clearing out bad arguments narrows the field of discussion and un-muddies the waters so real dispute can take place. Alvin Plantinga does this sort of thing all the time.

For instance, some have rejected Calvinism or Augustinianism, because they have been turned off by the very common argument made by many Calvinists that the sole, or chief end of God in election or reprobation is the glory of God in the public display of attributes. Crisp argues, as Bavinck did before him, that if that argument proves anything, it proves too much and works much better for Universalism. Now, that may seem like a blow for many Calvinists looking to uphold Reformed theology. Instead, it can be seen as an opportunity to drive us back to clearer scriptural and exegetical arguments. In other words, getting rid of an argument that doesn’t work actually helps your case by not allowing your interlocutor to be distracted by the bad argument and forces them to face your better ones. Or, again, dispensing with bad arguments against positions you don’t hold allows you to focus on the arguments that actually do work.

2. Charity. The second reason is a bit more straightforward. Christian charity ought to motivate us to fairly represent the positions of those we disagree with in the best light possible, before disagreeing with them. It is a form of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves in the intellectual life. If we love someone, we don’t lie about them. We try our best to tell the truth about them in all areas. Showing that a position wrongly advocated by a brother does not necessarily entail or lead to antinomianism or something of that sort, is a form of truth-telling.

As always, there’s more to say here, but I think a couple of these concerns are at play in Crisp’s work. So yes, while it may seem a bit counter-intuitive and confusing to devote lengthy pieces of work to defending positions you don’t actually hold, I think there is an important place for them in public theology because there ought to be a place for clarity and charity in our work of elucidating the truth of God for the sake of the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christ, the Eternal Wisdom of God

christ pantokratorRarely have I seen Turretin break forth in lyrical rapture in these first 300 pages of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, but when he has, it’s been brilliant. Towards the back end of his section on “The One and the Triune God”, he devotes a lengthy question and marshals a bevy of nimble exegetical, philological, and theological arguments towards defending the eternal generation of the Son against the anti-Trinitarian Socinians of the day.

One of them is to appeal to the one of the classic disputed texts in Athanasius’ arguments against the “Arians”*, Proverbs declaration that:

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:22-31 ESV)

While Turretin himself gets into some of the lexical concerns and literary issues of whether this should be seen as a mere personification, or whether eternity, or creation should be ascribed to Wisdom, we won’t concern ourselves with that for the moment. God’s personal Wisdom, for Turretin, was brought forth by an eternal generation, before the beginning of all things. His argument that none but Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s eternal Wisdom as seen in the Proverbs stunning both for its logical force, as well as its simple beauty.

Now that this is none other than the Son of God, Christ our Lord, is collected not only from the name itself, Wisdom (by which he is also often distinguished in the New Testament, Lk. 7:35; 1 Cor. 1:24), but also from the attributes ascribed to this Wisdom (which most aptly square with him and can belong to no other).

For who else can deserve the name of Wisdom and indeed of Wisdoms?

Who else calls men to him, teaches them the way of true salvation, wished the law and his precepts to obtain in the church, convicts sinners of foolishness, promises life to those who regard him and denounces final destruction upon the unbelieving?

Who else was with God before the world was and was perpetually with him while creating the world?

If Jehovah is said to have possessed Wisdom form the beginning, is not the “Word” said “to have been in the beginning” and “to have been with God (Jn. 1:1)?

If it is said to have been a delight to the Father, is not Christ “the beloved Son” (Mt. 3:17)?

If ordained and anointed by the Father, was not Christ foreordained before the foundation of the world and anointed for the mediatorial office (1 Pet. 1:20)?

If Wisdom is said to have been brought forth before the hills, was not Christ before all things (Col. 1:17)?

If by her kings reign, is not Christ the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:16)?

If Wisdom teaches and cries out, calls and exhorts men to repentance in high and low places, both immediately by herself and immediately by her maidens, do we not read the same of Christ both immediately by himself preaching the gospel and mediately by his servants the apostles whom he sent through the whole world to call men to a participation of his grace?

-Third Topic, Q. XXIX, Sec. XI

Then, as now, the question is whether we will recognize Wisdom’s voice when we hear it? As Paul says, the Wisdom of God is a “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” such that “none of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8). For that reason we must pray that the eyes of our heart may be enlightened, that the fog of our foolishness may be dispersed, that we may be among “those who are called, both Jews and Greeks,” who recognize “Christ…the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

 Soli Deo Gloria

*Yes, I know that term has been complicated by Lewis Ayres’ account and others. As shorthand, it’s still rather useful.

The Liberation of the Triune God

exodusOne of the helpful emphases of the Reformed tradition is its acknowledgment of the continuity as well as discontinuity of Old and New Testaments. This comes through very strongly in Turretin’s Institutes and even makes an appearance in his doctrine of the Trinity. After a couple of clarifying questions, as well as a lengthy question devoted to proving the doctrine of the Trinity from New Testament Scripture, he moves on to try and demonstrate the revelation of the Trinity in the Old Testament. For while it is admittedly true that God reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with greater clarity in New Testament, that does not at all mean that we cannot see him revealed as such in the Old as well.

He then proceeds to do some careful lexical and exegetical work in some of the usual places such as Genesis 1:26, and other references to the Divine plural in the manner of the Fathers, as well as some other surprises. The passage that caught my eye was his treatment of the salvation of Israel from Egypt. Here argues from the works of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Exodus to their unified of the Triune action in the Old Testament.

…the same may be proved from the deliverance of the people out of Egyptian bondage, the guidance of them through the wilderness, and introduction into Canaan. He is that true God whom the Israelite. He is that true God whom the Israelites acknowledged and worshipped, who brought them out of Egypt, lead them through wilderness and introduced them into the land of promise. For no other besides God could have performed so great a work, as he himself testifies in the preface to the Law. “I am the Lord thy God who brough thee out of the land of Egypt.” Also, he often claims this as his prerogative (Ex. 3:2; 23:20; 32:34), in which this work is ascribed to the three persons of the Trinity–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Concerning the Father, the adversaries do not doubt; concerning the Son, the following passages prove (Ex. 3:2; 23:20; 32:34), in which this work is ascribed to the “angel of Jehovah.” That this angel is not a created angel, but the uncreated Son of God himself, sent by God for this work and often manifesting himself under this form to the patriarchs, is evident from the description of him and the various attributes given to him (which are such as cannot apply to a creature, but belong to God alone). (1) He says he is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob (Ex. 3:6); calls the Israelites his people (Ex. 3:7); sends Moses to Pharaoh (Ex. 3:10); promises himself divine worship after their deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 3:12). (2) He is said to have gone before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud and fire (Ex. 4:19), which is expressly attributed to Jehovah (Ex. 13:21; Num. 11:25; 14:14). (3) It is said that “the name of God” will be in himso that they will not escape unpunished who rebel against him (Exd. 23:20, 21). (4) He is called “the very presence of God” (“My presence shall go with thee,” Ex. 33:14) because he is the image of the invisible God, the express image of the person of the Father.

That the Holy Spirit also here concurred as a person with the others is evident from the noted passage: “I will mention the lovingkindesses of the Lord” (Is. 63:7-14). He said “surely they are my people, so he was their Savior.” “The angel of his presence saved them in his love, but they rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit,” Here three distinct person are enumerated: “Jehovah,” “the angel of his presence,” and “the Holy Spirit.” Distinct operations are ascribed to each: to Jehovah, lovingkindness towards the people; to the angel of his presence, redemption; and to the Holy Spirit, vexation and contention with the people, which he was turned to be their enemy. Since, then, a truly divine work is ascribed to these three, it is necessary that they should be one true God essentially (although mutually distinguished in mode of subsisting and personall). –Third Topic, Q. XXV, sec. IX

There are a number of features worth noting in this treatment. The first is Turretin’s view of the Angel of the LORD, or the Angel of YHWH. As he makes clear in a number of places, Turretin views this as an appearance of the pre-incarnate Son. It is an appearance in angelic/human form that is, nonetheless, distinct from his incarnation in that there is no hypostatic union, but only concrete manifestation. Still, this is a thesis that Christian theologians have long appealed to in order to explain the way the Angel is both identified as a distinct agent who nonetheless is identified as the LORD somehow.

Connected with that is the issue of narrative identification of God by his works. The idea is that God is to be identified by his activities in history. God’s being is not constituted by his activity in history. Nonetheless, he is known and identified by his activity in history. YHWH is the God who rescued Israel from Egypt. That is YHWH’s activity and YHWH’s identity. Therefore, if an actor is identified as an actor in that same salvation, then they are identified with YHWH himself. In other words, if someone is doing what Scripture says only God does, then we must be dealing with God.

At the same time, there is clearly a distinction of the persons in their working of the one work of redeeming Israel from Egypt. The Fathers had a phrase that summed up this principle that while “the external works of the Trinity are undivided”–in other words, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in the same work–nonetheless, the order and distinction among the persons should be observed. Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in the Incarnation of the Son, but only the Son becomes incarnate. The same is true here. While it is true that Father, Son, and Spirit are identified as agents of Israel liberation and are therefore identified as God, their particular activities are not lost to view. The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit acts Triunely to bring about Israel’s salvation.

Finally, the issue of “canonical” interpretation pops up in the passage. Turretin practices what might be called a form of canonical interpretation, taking the whole of the Old Testament to be the proper context for the interpretation of the Exodus event. Though the Exodus texts might not explicitly mention the activity of the Spirit, the LORD’s words in Isaiah about the same event illuminates it theologically. While we see Turretin employing this canonical reading within the Old Testament, the same principle holds true for the New Testament and the Old Testament. The New Testament’s clearer light is normative for how Christians are to read the Old Testament. Of course, that also takes some careful examination of the way that the New Testament is actually using an Old Testament text. Still, the principle holds. Jesus tells us what divorce law was about (Mark 10). Paul’s reading of the events of Exodus 34 in 1 Corinthians 10 actually helps us read Exodus 34. Hebrews tells us what the sacrificial system was really all about.

This is why I keep reading dead types. There’s gold in them thar hills. Turretin reminds us that our liberating God is our Triune God and our Triune God is a liberating God.

Soli Deo Gloria