Are All Sins Really “Equal in the Eyes of God”?

Scales-of-justice-2One of the most common truisms you’ll hear as a kid growing up in Evangelical churches is that “in the eyes of God, all sins are equal.” If all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20), and breaking one part of the Law means you’ve broken all of it (James 2:10), then there’s a sort of equalizing effect at work here, right? Whether you’re a murderer or a serial jay-walker, you’ve violated the law and so stand accused in the dock on the same charge as anyone else: sin.

Now, there are two main uses to which this doctrine is usually put. First, it’s often used as a way of curbing pride or discouraging judgmentalism. Since everyone is a sinner, including you, there’s no place for feeling better than your neighbor just because they seem to have sinned in a worse way. Second, since all sin is equal in God’s sight, there’s also no use in you thinking you can earn your way into God’s graces, or justify yourself because you haven’t committed any of the “really big” sins.

You may be able to tell, I have a big caveat to add here.

I have to admit, as a kid this idea never sat well with me. I mean, I wouldn’t deny that we’re all sinners in need of salvation, or that no one should feel better than others, or that all sin leads to judgment, but I remember very clearly arguing in Bible study that there’s definitely a distinction between greater and lesser sins. There’s got to be a difference between beating your child and sneaking a peek on a tough answer on your quiz; it seemed to me like utter nihilism to deny any sort of distinction like that.  If a human judge gave the thief 25-life along with the murderer, we’d say there’s something off with her ability to discern right from wrong, and subtle gradations of human justice.

But where does that leave our theology of judgment, sin, and salvation? If there are worse and lesser sins, it seems cruel to punish both with the same ultimate judgment. If treating the thief and the murderer equally seems unjust in this life, then how much more in the life/state to come?

As it turns out, there’s good biblical reasons to affirm both the fundamental equality of sinners before the dock of God, as well as the distinctions between sins that seem intuitive to our basic instincts. Bavinck has an excellent little section that will set the stage for us:

Aside from the difference between diabolical and human sins, there is also a great deal of difference among the latter…Granted, in principle sin and virtue are indivisible: those who have one have them all, and those who lack one lack them all. Between good and evil there is no gradual transition. A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.  The law of God is an organism that, when violated in one of its commandments, is violated in its totality, for God, who have the commandment that was violated, is the author of all the other commandments as well (James 2:10). But not all sins are for that reason equal. The different names for sin already bear this out. In Genesis 4, in connection with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, we learn that the inner disposition is of greater value than the gift. Though the law given to Israel contains a wide range of ceremonial commandments, the entire Old Testament makes clear that the value of the ethical conduct far surpasses that of cultic and ceremonial acts. Faith is reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Amos 2:6ff; 5:14, 21f; Hosea 4″1f; 12:6; Mic. 6:6, 8; Isa. 1:11f; 5:8f; Jer. 7:3; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; 18:5f; 2 Cor. 12:20f; Gal. 5:19; etc.). The law itself moreover, makes a distinction between sins that are committed inadvertently, out of ignorance or weakness, do not break the covenant, and can be expiated within the covenant, and sins that are committed consciously and intentional (…”with a high hand”), place the perpetrator outside the covenant, and make him worthy of death (Lev. 4:5; 22:14; Num. 15:22f; 35:11f; Josh. 20:3, 9). Scripture never abandons the objective position that locates the standard of sin solely in the law of God. Yet the guilt of violation is greater or less to the degree the commandment was violated more or less intentionally.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 149-150

The whole section is worth perusing as Bavinck goes on to parse the biblical material even further. Still, we see both truths, that the law of God is one, and that all who violate it stand condemned, but that even so, God makes distinctions between types of sin. Murder really is a bigger deal than theft. Stealing because you’re poor and hungry is not the same thing as cheating your impoverished employees out of fair wages to pay for a lavish vacation. What’s more, those sins that we knowingly commit, thinking to ourselves “I know this is contrary to God’s demands, but I’m going to do it anyways” have a greater weight than the transgressions that we give ourselves over to in a foolish, unthinking moment. Our everyday, human instincts are not entirely wrong here, but are, in fact, confirmed by biblical material.

What then of the equality of sinners before the bar of God’s justice? Biblically, it’s not so much that all sins are flatly equal, but that any sin is a sign of violation of the greatest sin. “A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.” What Bavinck is saying is that even the “small” sins, flow from the deep, great, fundamental stance of lawlessness towards God. From another angle, Martin Luther said of the first commandment “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (Larger Catechism). In other words, we only ever murder, or lie, or cheat, or steal, or commit any number of piddling little sins, because we are already caught up in the greatest, most flagrant violation of all: idolatry, worshiping something other than the true God as God.

This is the reason that Paul writes we all have fallen short of the glory of God. His indictment of human sin, debauchery and lawlessness begins with idolatry in Romans 1:18-23, and from there we see humanity given over as a consequence to the various sorts of sin listed in 1:24-32. Considered simply as “thief” and “murderer”, the murderer is clearly guilty of a far greater crime. That said, both thief and murderer stand before the bar under the far weightier charge of “idolater” and “cosmic traitor.”

Incidentally, this is part of the answer to the charge that no one has done anything merit the eternal judgment we are warned of in Scripture. I’ve discussed the inherent symmetry of handing the person who has spent a life-time pursuing everything but God, a future without God. Still, that aside, that many of us don’t observe our idolatry with the horror with which it is presented in Scripture is not an indication of the Bible’s over-scrupulosity, but our own comfortable we’ve become with our own sin. As Anselm famously put it, “you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.”

To sum up then, are all sins equally vile, condemnable, and is distinguishing between them a merely human way of looking at them? No. To say so is to go beyond Scripture and even to do violence to our righteous moral instincts about everyday human justice. But are all sinners “equally guilty” before God, in no place to merit their salvation, or boast and brag over others? Yes.And one more question: does God’s extend his abundant, overwhelming, and astonishing grace in Christ to all? Thankfully, we can say a bold “Yes, and Amen!”

Soli Deo Gloria

Giving Jesus Credit Where Credit is Due (Or, Soteriological Maximalism & Atonement Accounts)

There’s a principle in theology that some have named have the “principle of perfection”, or what we might term “theological maximalism”, that says our thinking about God should aim to do justice to God’s maximally great being.  In other words, when trying to do construct your doctrine of God, if you have an option between two ways of looking at God, unless you have some very good reason for thinking otherwise, whichever option is greater ought to be preferred. So, for instance, if choosing between the view that God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness, includes a knowledge of the future as well as the present and the past, or only the present and the past, we should probably prefer the former option. Unless we have some very good scriptural evidence to the contrary, theological maximalism will lead us to expect that God’s perfect knowledge will contain perfect knowledge of the future.

Now, to my mind that makes intuitive and even biblical sense. The Scriptures declare God’s greatness and glory is beyond human comprehension, which likely means that if we could come up with attribute that would make him better, stronger, and more glorious, then he probably has it. The big qualification that comes in, though, is that we need to make sure our reasoning and logic about what would make God “great” is itself formed and normed by what God has said about himself in Scripture. Your “great” and the Bible’s “great” might not always match up in all the details.

From Big God to Big Salvation

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I've ever seen.

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I’ve ever seen.

I go into all of this to set up what I think should be a similar principle in our theology of salvation–a “soteriological maximalism”, if you will. What do I mean? And where am I going with this? Well, essentially, whichever position presents us with a greater, more complex, and comprehensive view of salvation wrought through Christ ought to be preferred. In other words, whichever view of salvation gives Father, Son, and Spirit more credit for getting more done through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all other considerations being equal, we should opt for that one.

For instance, for a long time now I’ve been annoyed at what I see as reductionistic views of the atonement, (ie, how Christ’s death reconciles us to God). Ever since Gustav Aulen’s treatment of the atonement back in the 30s in Christus Victor, theologians have been talking about three different models, types, or “theories” of atonement: moral influence, penal satisfaction, and Christus Victor. J.I. Packer explains the three quite nicely in his classic essay, The Logic of Penal Substitution so I’ll let him expand at length:

1. There is first, the type of account which sees the cross as having its effect entirely on men, whether by revealing God’s love to us, or by bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or by setting us a supreme example of godliness, or by blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or by so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. It is assumed that our basic need is lack of motivation Godward and of openness to the inflow of divine life; all that is needed to set, us in a right relationship with God is a change in us at these two points, and this Christ’s death brings about. The forgiveness of our sins is not a separate problem; as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once. This view has little or no room for any thought of substitution, since it goes so far in equating what Christ did for us with what he does to us.

2. A second type of account sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces external to us which are held to be imprisoning us in a captivity of which our inveterate moral twistedness is one sign and symptom. The cross is seen as the work of God going forth to battle as our champion, just as David went forth as Israel’s champion to fight Goliath. Through the cross these hostile forces, however conceived — whether as sin and death, Satan and his hosts, the demonic in society and its structures, the powers of God’s wrath and curse, or anything else — are overcome and nullified, so that Christians are not in bondage to them, but share Christ’s triumph over them. The assumption here is that man’s plight is created entirely by hostile cosmic forces distinct from God; yet, seeing Jesus as our champion, exponents of this view could still properly call him our substitute, just as all the Israelites who declined Goliath’s challenge in 1 Samuel 17:8-11 could properly call David their substitute. Just as a substitute who involves others in the consequences of his action as if they had done it themselves is their representative, so a representative discharging the obligations of those whom he represents is their substitute. What this type of account of the cross affirms (though it is not usually put in these terms) is that the conquering Christ, whose victory secured our release, was our representative substitute.

3. The third type of account denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further. It grounds man’s plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God’s daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever. On this view, Christ’s death had its effect first on God, who was hereby propitiated (or, better, who hereby propitiated himself), and only because it had this effect did it become an overthrowing of the powers of darkness and a revealing of God’s seeking and saving love. The thought here is that by dying Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’, Whether this Godward satisfaction is understood as the homage of death itself, or death as the perfecting of holy obedience, or an undergoing of the God-forsakenness of hell, which is God’s final judgment on sin, or a perfect confession of man’s sins combined with entry into their bitterness by sympathetic identification, or all these things together (and nothing stops us combining them together), the shape of this view remains the same — that by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’, and so saved us. All forms of this view see Jesus as our representative substitute in fact, whether or not they call him that, but only certain versions of it represent his substitution as penal.

So here you see the three types. You can probably also see where this is going with respect to “soteriological maximalism.” It has been an lamentable reality that in the West, and especially in contemporary theology, the three forms have been pitted against each other as rival models that we must choose between, because they’re apparently totally incompatible. I think this is an unfortunate, and quite unnecessary move. Indeed, Packer goes on to say as much:

…it should be noted that though the two former views regularly set themselves in antithesis to the third, the third takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make; which raises the question whether any more is at issue here than the impropriety of treating half-truth as the whole truth, and of rejecting a more comprehensive account on the basis of speculative negations about what God’s holiness requires as a basis for forgiving sins. Were it allowed that the first two views might be misunderstanding and distorting themselves in this way, the much-disputed claim that a broadly substitutionary view of the cross has always been the mainstream Christian opinion might be seen to have substance in it after all. It is a pity that books on the atonement so often take it for granted that accounts of the cross which have appeared as rivals in historical debate must be treated as intrinsically exclusive. This is always arbitrary, and sometimes quite perverse.

In a sense, accepting some form of penal representation allows you to affirm the truth of the other two models, while accounting for more biblical material that can’t be easily folded into those accounts. Indeed, as some theologians like Hans Boersma, Graham Cole, Henri Blocher, and Robert Sherman have pointed out in their different accounts, accepting it actually gives us a coherent grounding for the other two realities. Following a principle of soteriological maximalism, then, we will strive to affirm it because allows us to give Jesus more credit for his work on the cross, not less.

This comes in handy when, for instance, coming to a text like Colossians 2:13-15:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Here we see very clearly both legal/penal concerns (v. 14), as well as the theme of victory over powers and principalities. Instead of trying to subsume or screen out either theme, instead we can clearly preach both at once, seeing the way they are seamlessly combined in Scripture, and even begin to trace the way they are organically combined together.

A Note on Girard

Incidentally, this should probably be our approach towards newer atonement accounts of a Girardian “scapegoat” type. Basically, innocent Jesus’ obviously unjust death on the cross at the hands of the powers (government, religion, the mob) exposes the violent, scapegoating mechanism at the heart of sinful society, bringing about repentance, or something like that. You can dig through these resources for more details.  I’ll be honest, on its own, it’s an abysmal account of the atonement that can’t really deal with the biblical material, and usually operates with Girard’s own neo-Marcionite reading of the Old Testament. As Scot McKnight has pointed out, it’s basically a new-style Abelarian/moral influence type, only in this set-up, we’re tempted to forget that we’re the ones who put him up on the Cross. (Also, the above works by Boersma, Sherman, and this one by Horton, all ably critique Girardian atonement types.) Still, it is possible to take some of Girard’s insights about the scapegoating process in general and fold them into Christ’s work of exposing the powers of evil on the Cross.

Also, Girardian types remind us of the boundary measure we mentioned with theological maximalism. As I said, Girardian types usually have to screen out, or hold up as false, most of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as well as reject any image of God dealing out judgment upon sin as punishment. And yet the acknowledgement that the Creator God is the just judge who punishes sin stands clearly at the center of the story of Israel’s dealings with him. In putting forward a view of the atonement that’s allegedly consistent with a glorious ‘non-violent’ God, not only do these accounts deny the accomplishments that penal accounts affirm, they have to do so contrary to the witness of Scripture as well.

Objections and Conclusions

I can, at this point, anticipate a couple of objections at this point along the lines of “Well, what about universalism? That seems to make Jesus a more able Savior, wouldn’t it? Saving all is better than saving only some?” Or again, “What about theosis, or Eastern Orthodox forms of deification? Shouldn’t we then try and figure out a way to affirm those? ‘Deifying’ people seems like an extra step up, doesn’t it?” Well, honestly, I don’t have time to address both adequately, but I’d simply say this is where we need to make sure our ideas about what is ‘maximal’ is being normed and formed by Scripture. In the case of universalism, the numeric ‘more’ that seems more maximal must be submitted to the scriptural judgments we have on the subject that apparently imply otherwise.

On deification, actually I’d say that this ought to motivate us to re-examine our hesitancy to reject any notion of deification as entirely out of bounds for a Reformed, or simply biblical, account of Christ’s work for us. J. Todd Billings has done some excellent work to make a case for a Calvinistic doctrine of ‘deification’ through union with Christ that doesn’t violate biblical teaching on the Creator/creature distinction. A number of other Reformed theologians (Michael Horton, Robert Letham) have been affirming something similar as well.

At the end of this (already too long) post, all I’ll say is that our instinct in reading Scripture and preaching Christ should be to give him as much credit as possible for “so great a salvation.”

Soli Deo Gloria

 

That Time Bavinck Said Edwards Helped the Pelagians

edwards 3Reading Bavinck for the last 6 months has been illuminating on several levels. Not only was he a top-notch constructive theologian and biblical thinker in his own right, but he was also an eminently historical thinker, steeped in the broad tradition from the patristic, medieval, Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern periods. For that reason, novice that I am in these sorts of things, Bavinck has been instructive to me both in the conclusions that he comes to, but also in his historical judgments and discussions, and overall humbly critical approach to the tradition (including the Reformed) as a whole.

I was reminded of this just this last week as I was reading through his chapter on the spread of  sin, original sin, and total depravity. Right in the middle of it all, he has a little paragraph on Jonathan Edwards’ that is fascinating for it’s actual theological content, but also because of the broader point it illustrates about the Reformed tradition in general:

When we are taught that as a result of sin that humans are incapable of any good and this inability is called “natural,” this does not refer to a physical necessity or fatalistic coercion. Humans have not, as a result of sin, lost their will and their increated freedom: the will, in virtue of its nature, rules out all coercion and can only will freely. What humans have lost is the free inclination of the will toward the good. They now no longer want to do good; thy now voluntarily, by a natural inclination, do evil. The inclination, the direction, of the will has changed. “This will in us is always free but it is not always good.” In this sense the incapacity for good is not physical but ethical in nature; it is a kind of impotence of the will. Some theologians therefore preferred to speak of a moral rather than a natural impotence–Amyraut, Testard, Venema, and especially Jonathan Edwards among them.

Edwards in his day, one must remember, had to defend the moral impotence of humans against Whitby and Taylor, who denied original sin and deemed humans able to keep God’s law. They argued, against Edwards, that if humans could not keep God’s law, they did not have to, and if they did not keep it, they were not guilty. To defend himself, Edwards made a distinction between natural and moral impotence, saying that fallen humans did have the natural but not the moral power to do good. And he added that only natural impotence was real impotence, but moral impotence could only be figuratively so called. For sin is not a physical defect in nature or in the powers of the will; but it is an ethical defect, a lack of inclination towards or love for the good. Now Edwards did say that human beings could not give themselves this inclination toward the good nor change their will. In this respect he was completely on the side of Augustine and Calvin. But by his refusal to call this disinclination toward the good “natural impotence.” he fostered a lot of misunderstanding and actually aided the cause of Pelagianism.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 121-122

Again, this is a fascinating discussion on a number of levels. First, it begins to clear up a number of misconceptions about the Reformed approach to total depravity and natural inclination towards sin.

Beyond that, growing up as an American Evangelical, after Calvin you’re kind of trained to think of Jonathan Edwards as the other name when it comes to Reformed, or more likely, Calvinistic theology. In fact, it’s very easy to find a number of young, Reformed theological types who’ve never read Calvin, but have jumped head-first into Edwards’ sermons, treatises, and so forth. And I’m not really knocking that. I’ve benefited from a number of his sermons, not just Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (although, fun fact, I briefly dated a girl in college who said her father read that to her and her sisters one Halloween), as well as his fabulous treatise on The End For Which God Created the World. Still, it’s fascinating to realize that in many wings of the Reformed family, Edwards is considered, not a bastion of classic Reformed orthodoxy, but a theological innovator who made some serious mistakes.

This also illustrates that very important point that often gets lost in popular discussions of Reformed theology, which is that the Reformed tradition is a tradition, not simply a set of standardized, universal answers. Now, by the word ‘tradition’ I’m invoking, or at least trying to invoke, the sense given by Alasdair MacIntyre, who says that “a tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.” In that sense, while the broad Reformed tradition has some baseline agreements and shared assumptions that distinguish it from Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions, that doesn’t mean that on every single issue you’re going to get all Reformed theologians speaking with one voice, or simply parroting what Calvin said. There is debate, discussion, disagreement, refinement, and redefinition. Which is why it is often-times very important recognize that simply because Calvin, or Edwards, or Bavinck, or name your favorite contemporary figure (Piper, Keller, Horton, etc.) says “this is what Reformed theology teaches”, it may be important to qualify it still further with “Puritan Reformed theology”, “Continental Reformed theology”, and so forth. And even that can be too simplistic. This is part of why I’m looking forward to Oliver Crisp’s forthcoming Deviant Calvinism, which should be illuminating on that score.

Following this point, I would hasten to add that we probably should be more careful to be so quick to rule out someone out of the Reformed tradition. I have to say, I love the way Bavinck handles Edwards’ here. While being critical, and even to the point of saying his theology ended up confusing rather than helping, Bavinck still acknowledges Edwards’ efforts here positively, and reads as charitably and contextually as possible. (The engagement between N.T. Wright and his Reformed critics come to mind here as well.) For those of us, then, still “on the way” in our theological journey, we have in Bavinck a model for how to carry on that conversation, that “argument extended through time”, with our Reformed, and yes, even non-Reformed brothers and sisters in the broader tradition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria

8 Ways For God to Be Simple

untamed godOne of the most complicated to understand of the attributes traditionally used by the classical and medieval tradition of God is his “simplicity”, or non-compositeness. I remember when I first read someone say that God is “simple” I immediately balked thinking to myself “What nonsense. How could the Christian God be simple? He’s so utterly beyond us, that there’s nothing ‘simple’ about him. I mean, God is the Trinity, for crying out loud!” Of course, like most I was confused as to what the traditional theologians of the Church had actually been claiming when it came to the doctrine of simplicity, and so, like many contemporary theologians, especially the revisionist ones I was reading at the time, I rejected it as philosophical nonsense. However, since then I’ve come around to thinking that some form of it probably ought to be retained.

Some of you may even right now be thinking, “Well, that’s nice for you, but I’m still in the dark about it, so what is it?” Well, that’s where things get tricky. You see, even among theologians who currently affirm it, there’s some debate as to what the doctrine of simplicity actually holds. At it’s most simple–see what I did there, eh?–the doctrine teaches that God is not made up of any parts or components. He is simple in that he is not “composite”–you can’t pull him apart and then put him back together.

Still, based on the way a theologian comes to hold simplicity, whether through biblical arguments, philosophical reasoning of various sorts, etc. they tend to end up offering different formulations of the teaching, some of which tend to generate more questions or objections than others, which can tend to make things difficult to evaluate. So, for instance, some will say it only means God isn’t composite–God isn’t part love and part holy, with the possibility that you could separate out the bits. Or, it isn’t that case that his love part wins sometimes and his holiness at others, but that he is always fully holy and loving in all that he does. Others, though, will go further and say that means that God’s holiness and his love simply are the same thing and that the only distinctions there are between the two are conceptual ones related to our minds. Still others will take it even further than that. The result is that one argument seems to be quite persuasive against one formulation, yet tends to have very little effect on another more modest one.

It’s for that reason that I found the section on it in  Jay Wesley Richards’ The Untamed God to be particularly helpful for getting a lay of the land. Before moving to give his own formulation, in good analytic fashion Richards lays out the various possible senses for the term ‘simplicity’. While I’m not sure I follow his conclusions, this section is worth quoting in full:

As with immutability, so with simplicity we may consider whether God is simple in all respects, in some respects or in no respects. Any purported defense of simplicity will conclude that God is simple in at least some respects, so we will ignore the last option. Now obviously God is not simple in just any sense. One meaning of “simple,” after all is “unintelligent.” It should then become clear that there are several crucial senses in which we should say that God is simple and a few sense in which we should deny it.

  1. All divine properties are possessed by the same self-identical God.
  2. God is not composite, in the sense that he is made up of elements or properties more fundamental than he is. He has no external cause(s) such as Platonic form.
  3. God’s essence is “identical with” his act of existing. (Or perhaps: God’s existence is not extrinsic to his essence.)
  4. All of God’s essential properties are coextensive.
  5. All God’s perfections are identical.
  6. All God’s properties are coextensive.
  7. God’s essential properties and essence are (strictly) identical with God himself.
  8. All God’s properties are (strictly) identical with God himself.

Of these, 1 is the easiest to accommodate;it 8 is the most difficult. In fact, of these eight possibilities, we can defend plausible renderings of 1, 2, 3, 4, and perhaps 5. But it should become clear that the Christian must deny senses 6, 7, and 8, at least on certain contemporary interpretations…Interestingly, there seems to be an asymmetrical entailment relations between these theses going from 8 to 1. So, for instance, 8 entails 7, but 7 does not entail 8, and so on.  If this is correct, then 8 is clearly the strongest form of simplicity and 1 is the weakest. We should not mistake the strongest version of the doctrine, however, with the most traditional. It may be that the strongest versions of the doctrine have resulted from misinterpreting certain traditional claims. In fact, I suspect that sense 2 is the primary burden of the traditional doctrine, rightly interpreted.

The Untamed God: A Philosophical Exploration of Divine Perfection, Simplicity, and Immutability, pp. 216-218

So, there you have it–clear as mud, right? But honestly, this little breakdown before he moves on to his defense of a modest version of the doctrine is very helpful in distinguishing the various different types of simplicity that are often forwarded in theological discussion. While not all readers will want to follow his distinctions between essential and contingent properties (Richards distinguishes between properties God has essentially, apart from all relations, and those which he has in light of having freely created and related himself to a world), you can see that it’s not just a simple matter of accepting or rejecting the doctrine. Some will hesitate about the more strict forms but have less issues with the more modest forms. What’s more, as Richards points out, it’s not necessarily the case that accepting the more modest forms while rejecting the stronger forms is a “revisionist” take as it seems that the initial few senses may even be the most traditional senses. As for myself, I’d say I currently do affirm it probably at least the first 5 senses. The rest are still up for grabs until I do a little more digging.

  1. For those looking to dig deeper into the issue, Gavin Ortlund has this excellent little introductory post on it.
  2. For those looking for interesting modern discussion with an emphasis on the practical importance of the doctrine, there’s a great one in Tom McCall’s great little book Forsaken.
  3. For a traditional discussion, I’d also highly recommend Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2 on the Doctrine of God.
  4. Finally, though I haven’t read it yet, James Dolezal’s God Without Parts is supposed to be one of the best, robust, modern articulations to date.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Doesn’t Play Soccer With You (TGC)

soccerLike most suburban kids my age, I played soccer as a child. It’s great, right? Good exercise for young bodies, lessons in sociability, the value of teamwork, sacrifice, frustration, and the joy of a game well-played. It’s also one of the earliest experiences in understanding human choice and action I can remember. Soccer is all about learning to coordinate your own body and mind through instinct and training, as well as that of your teammates and opponents. You pass the ball, they receive it, pass it back, and you shoot. Or they have the ball, you run up, slide-tackle, take the ball, hope the ref doesn’t see it, and you shoot. Such is human agency in little league.

I’ve recently noticed a popular tendency to think of our interactions with God in a similar fashion. Did God do that, or was that me? Did my doctor heal me, or did God? Did I decide to pray, or did God decide that I would pray? We imagine ourselves on a field of sorts, playing soccer with him—either God has the ball to pass, shoot, and dribble, or I do. God might be a much bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter player, and he may take the ball from me at times, or pass it to me depending on the situation. Essentially we’re on the same playing field.

With a version of the soccer-field-God in place, we see disputes flare up as to how God plays the game. Does he monopolize the ball all the time in order to ensure victory, or does he hang back sort of coaching us so we can make real passes and take real shots? Is God totally sovereign and in control of his creation, or does he give us real free will to make choices that matter? We’re then tempted to collapse the tension in one of the two directions depending on our other theological commitments, with disastrous results. Deny freedom and you cut the nerve of moral responsibility leading to apathetic disengagement, while downplaying sovereignty can lead either to panicked efforts or a Hamlet-like paralysis of the will.

I want to suggest, however, that this popular tendency is misguided. While it’s absurd to think we can solve the riddle of human responsibility and divine sovereignty in a short article, there are three classic theological concepts that we must keep in mind if we’re going to avoid the worst mistakes in our thinking on these matters.

You can read the rest of the article over at The Gospel Coalition.

Sol Deo Gloria

A Brief Definition of ‘Theology’ a la Plantinga

See, even Snoopy does theology.

See, even Snoopy does theology.

What is theology?

At first blush, that sounds like a grand, magnificent, heavy, and well, “meta” question. And it can be. For those who love it, the practice, discipline, and joy that is the study of theology requires and calls forth numerous complementary (and contradictory) explanations of just what we think we’re doing when we study and write “theology”, much of which is valid, and none of which could possibly be the last word on the subject. I myself have spent a decent bit of my time thinking and reading about over the last few years and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. It’s kind of like philosophy that way.

That said, in another sense, the practice of theology is actually very straightforward, and it’s a shame that so many people feel intimidated away from engaging it just at the sound of the word. It’s my conviction that because all of life has to do with God, to some degree every Christian should be trying to think theologically about life at some level.

What I want to put forward very simple, and I hope helpful, definition of theology for those who seemed to be scared off by the very thought of engaging in such an “exalted” task. To do so, I’m basically going to rip off Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga opens his very short, but landmark work God, Freedom, and Evil like this:

This book discusses and exemplifies the philosophy of religion, or philosophical reflection on central themes of religion. Philosophical reflection (which is not much different from just thinking hard) on these themes has a long history: it dates back at least as far as the fifth century B.C. when some of the Greeks thought long and hard about the religion they had received from their ancestors. In the Christian era such philosophical reflection begins in the first or second century with the early church fathers, or “Patristics” as they are often called; it has continued ever since.

God, Freedom, and Evil, pg. 1

Did you catch that? Plantinga defines philosophical reflection as “not much different from just thinking hard” about some theme. And honestly, that seems about right.

What I want to propose is that the practice of theology, and especially Christian theology, could be very simply defined as:

“Just thinking hard about what God has said about himself.”

This isn’t overly technical, nor, I think, very scary, but it gets to the heart of what theology is. Now, while I think it serves pretty well on its own, let me spell out a few basic implications of the definition:

  1. First, Christian theology is clearly a human practice. Even though we’re thinking about God, thinking hard is still something people do. There’s no escaping the human character of theology.
  2. Second, and this should be obvious, it’s a matter of thinking hard. While theology should involve prayer and practice, you inevitably have to use the mind God gave you to engage in theology. What’s more, you have to really use it. So, while I do think everybody should try to think theologically, don’t take that to mean that it’s obvious, or easy all the time. It’s not. But then again, what is there that’s truly worth doing that doesn’t involve some effort?
  3. Finally, and most importantly, Christian theology is rooted in divine revelation. The main thing that separates Christian theology from pure philosophy is that the Christian theologian doesn’t just think hard about God in general, or based on their own experiences, perceptions, and so forth. Christian theologians think hard about what God has already told us about himself. The good news is that God has spoken, so we don’t have to figure everything out on our own. Now, different Christian traditions will then argue about the priority of the Bible in that revelation, the teaching of the Church, or how much principles of human thought drawn from outside. As a Protestant, I’m going to do my best to give primacy and finality to the Bible. Still, at the end of the day, if a theology is going to properly claim the name ‘Christian’, it’s going to start with revelation and then work from there. The main test of theology is not how it makes us feel, nor how hip, interesting, or relevant it is to modern concerns, but how well it matches up with what God has revealed.

So there you go. At core, for everybody who’s too scared to start studying theology because it sounds so esoteric, scary, and abstract, remember theology is just “thinking really hard about what God has said about himself.”

So what are you waiting for? Grab your Bible, getting to reading, and get to thinking.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Discussing the One God Before the Triune God Distort our View of God?

There's Thomas--he's probably  thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

There’s Thomas–he’s probably thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

In theology, everything is connected. One doctrine implies another and seemingly innocuous modifications in the order of arguments, or the way we proceed methodologically, can lead to surprising conclusions and unfortunate results. In the wake of Barth’s trinitarian revolution in mainstream theology, many 20th century theologians have argued that just such a process happened in classical theology when it comes to the doctrine of God.

Among others, Jurgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton gloomily point to Aquinas’ decision to order his discussion of the doctrine of God in such a way that he discussion the divine attributes (holiness, aseity, omnipotence, etc.) before he comes to the trinitarian persons. Because of this fateful decision, they say his discussion and those in the classical tradition which he represents comes up with a concept of God rooted less in the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more from generic categories of being drawn from Greek philosophy and human reason. From there, theologians are faced with the difficult task of trying to reconcile revelation and reason in a way the results in all sort of theological puzzles that have plagued the tradition ever since.

But is that necessarily the case? Does a decision to treat the divine nature or being prior to treating the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily result in a sub-trinitarian doctrine of God? Herman Bavinck actually faced that argument about 30 years before the Barthian revolution, answering the objection in the negative and defending the classical ordering in theology:

In the work of some theologians the locus of the Trinity precedes that of the attributes of God; and Frank even has serious objections to the reverse order. If treating the attributes of God before the doctrine of the Trinity implied a desire to gradually proceed from “natural” to “revealed” theology, from a natural to the Christian concept of God, then this procedure would undoubtedly be objectionable. But this is by no means the case. In the doctrine of the attributes of God the tradition includes the treatment of the divine nature as it is revealed us in Scripture, is confessed by the Christian faith, and exists–as will be evident in the locus of the Trinity–in a threefold manner. In order for us to understan in the locus of the Trinity that Father, Son, and Spirit share in the same divine nature, it is necessary for us to know what the divine nature comprises and in what ways it differs from every created nature.

And this is not merely a matter of logical ordering that classical theologians have come up because of their own prior methodological preferences. In this, they only follow Scripture:

In the matter of order, too, Scripture is our model. In Scripture, the nature of God is shown earlier and more clearly that his trinitarian existence. The Trinity is not clearly revealed until we get to the New Testament. The names of YHWH and Elohim precede those of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first thing Scripture teaches us concerning God is that he has a free, independent existence and life of his own that is distinct from all creatures. He has a being (“nature”, “substance”, “essence”) of his own, not in distinction from his atributes, but coming to the fore and disclosing itself in all his perfections and attributes.

–Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, pp. 149-150

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

From there goes on to substantiate and develop with extensive biblical argumentation the doctrine of the independence of God at the head of his discussion of the attributes.

Now, I won’t say that critics like Moltmann and Gunton haven’t had some real beefs worth looking at. I almost never want to play the Greek card, but I’ll admit there are times when I read a classical bit of theology and think there’s a bit of the gap between their doctrine of God and their doctrine of the Trinity. Nor will I necessarily fault any modern theologians who’ve chosen to reverse the order and treat the Trinity first. I’m a bit partial to the method myself.

My point here is that Bavinck has given us two solid reasons for thinking that ordering our discussions in the doctrine of God in the classical way is not simply an exercise in “natural” theology, or will necessarily result in a non-trinitarian conception of God’s being. In order to speak about the way that Father, Son, and Spirit all possess the one divine nature, it’s quite logical to want to know what the divine nature is. Beyond that, and more importantly, this order of study mirrors the order of God’s own revelation. Yes, it is true that there are hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament revelation, but the doctrine only comes into its own in the New Testament. It’s hard to fault a theologian for modeling himself explicitly on Scripture this way.

Bavinck himself stands as a counter-example to this whole charge. Read through his explorations of the divine attributes and you’ll see their clear and extensive grounding in Scripture and revelation, including God’s triunity, long before he engages in any sort of theological development or philosophical reasoning that could be accused of being “natural” theology. What’s more, his locus on the Trinity is stunning; I’d be hard-pressed to find any distortions there.

In other words, what I’m is that, it does no good to write off the classical tradition as sub-trinitarian and refuse to read anything before Barth or Rahner. Individual theologians might be, but then again that’s true of modern theologians. What’s more, if you’re looking to do some theology yourself, you may have an option open to you considered closed off before.

It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s probably more than one way to testify rightly to the glory of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Why Bell Is No Barth Or Lewis: A Question of Consistency and Theological Trajectory

Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, and Rob Bell.

All three of those men held/hold views on things like Scripture, the afterlife, and so forth, that as a decently conservative Evangelical I would deem wrong and, at times, quite unhelpful. (Although, to be clear, I think Lewis is very misunderstood and badly appropriated w/ respect to his views on the afterlife in The Great Divorce and atonement in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.) Still, for some reason, my reaction, in many ways mirroring that of most contemporary Evangelicals, to the three is quite different.

Rob BellOf non-canonical authors, few rival Lewis’ impact on my own thought. His apologetic and fictional works were deeply formative for me, though I’ve since moved on from my early, nearly-slavish following of his theology. Barth, for me, is a towering figure whose every sentence (at least the fraction that I’ve read), ought to be considered quite carefully. Even when I find him wrong, even terribly wrong, it doesn’t put me off from reading him one bit, or drive me to see him as, well, a false teacher, or what-have-you. And yet, when I get to Rob Bell, a man whose early books I used to love, whose sermons I used to podcast, and whose style I wanted to emulate when I was younger–I think of him now and all of these flashing red lights start going off. I know I’m not the only one.

Since people have been questioning Evangelicalism’s apparently inconsistent approach to theological diversity of late, I was prompted to ask myself “What’s going on? Is there some double-standard at work here? I mean, clearly, I’m aware of Lewis’ and Barth’s theological views on Scripture and so forth. Am I just being inconsistent, then? Is this a reflection of an Evangelicalism that’s tightened up its ship too much? A narrowing of my own horizons? Or is it something else?”

While I don’t think I can speak to the rest of Evangelicalism, I did have a few quick thoughts about my own differing attitudes towards Bell as opposed to Barth and Lewis, which may be helpful in thinking through an approach towards differing theological sources. To be clear, this is not an in-depth theological analysis of their varying theologies. (Although, I do think that a study of that sort would probably reveal larger differences between them than has been claimed of late.) Think of it more as an exploration in intellectual disposition.

So then, first Barth, then Lewis.

barthBarth is Barth

 Were someone to ask me about different approach towards Barth and Bell, my initial instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Dude, Barth is Barth. He can kinda say what he wants.” Now, that’s not exactly true, but it reflects what I think is the first difference between the two, and that is, I know he’s done the work.

Looking at the Church Dogmatics sitting there on my shelf, I know that I can pick a page at random and Barth will give me some lengthy digression on the minute implications of any adopted doctrine, plus the history of its development from the Fathers onward, as well as extensive interaction with contemporary witnesses. When he differs from the tradition, even widely, you can sense the requisite respect for his theological and spiritual elders present. What’s more, though Barth can, at times, be a bit rough with this theological opponents (natural theology anybody?), I mostly get the impression he’s done the work required to understand them, explain them properly, and then come to the conclusion he has.

While I won’t go into detail here, this is not what I get from Bell. That could be an unfair impression, or simple elitism, but, I doubt it.

The second big factor at play, and I think this might be the bigger issue for me, is that Barth’s trajectory was from liberal to conservative, not the other way around. I look at where Barth started–a young pastor heavily influenced by Kant, Schleiermacher, Hermann, and so forth, who then, after engaging in actual pastoral ministry, and a sort of rediscovery of the Reformers, moves in a more Evangelical and Orthodox direction, against the theological tide, and I see a different situation going on. While some would say he never fully moved past those mistakes, Barth’s Neo-Orthodox theology of Scripture is an improvement in his case, not a regression.

Related to this is the issue of expectations. I already know Barth as a Neo-Orthodox, not classically-Evangelical theologian, so I expect some divergences and am not the least bit shocked when I find them. Incidentally, I think this might explain part of why can expect Evangelicals to keep reading Marilynne Robinson after her rather flip comments about abortion and gay marriage.

With Bell on the other hand, we have a movement that is, on the whole, in a liberalizing direction. Even when Barth and Bell materially end up in the same neighborhood, it’s sort of like two travelers heading in opposite directions meeting at a way station–Bell got there by leaving behind what I consider to be a more biblical orthodoxy Barth was striving towards. Again, with Bell, there’s the issue of expectations. As a putatively Evangelical pastor, I naturally expect something else and so become alarmed when I don’t hear it. There is with Bell, and I don’t know that this is rational, a sense of theological betrayal. There’s an element of “Well, you should know better. You’ve been on this from the inside and now you’re moving on to something defective.” What’s more, it’s indicative of a troubling, faltering theological sensibility. There’s a sense of, “I don’t know what off direction you’re going to go next, but I can’t imagine its very good.” Barth seemed to get better as he went on.

LewisLewis the Apologist

 Well, what about Lewis? Again, apart from the material differences in their theology, Lewis is, in many ways, quite similar to Barth. For one thing, the personal trajectory issue was from atheist professor to broadly Orthodox apologist. That counts for a lot. What’s more, Lewis was not a pastor, nor a professional theologian in the church. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for his words. He was. And at the same time, he made it clear a number of times that he wasn’t an appointed teacher of the church and therefore, open to correction. (As a side-note: one of the things that I wonder about in our contemporary context is how many writers with no theological training, or churchly office are operating as teachers in the church, with no apparent accountability structure for them other than a drop in readership. And even that’s not guaranteed when a teacher goes off the rails, because usually that sells better. But I digress.)

The second factor, and this might be more the issue with Lewis, is his mode and tone. In relation to his context, Lewis was staunchly conservative theologically-speaking. His aim was never to reinvent Christianity, nor present things in such a way that he was unveiling some great truth hidden under some ugly fundamentalism.  It was to present people with mere Christianity, as it had been taught in the Church for millenia. In fact, most of Lewis’ critical jabs at the Church, at least his own, were aimed at the soggy liberalisms the Anglican communion was finding itself mired in, by engaging in the kind of chronological snobbery that rejects orthodoxy for “progress.”

Incidentally, this is another similarity I see him sharing with Barth. Both were spiritually and theologically counter-cultural in a way that pushed against the cultural capitulation they saw their national churches engaged in. In keeping with that that spirit, Lewis aimed his polemical guns outwards at the big issues of scientism, relativism, and so forth, in defense of the gospel the old teachers had always proclaimed.

In reading Bell’s oeuvre, especially his last work (reviewed as charitably as possible here), the direction and thrust all pushes a different way. While Bell and Lewis are both trying to reach the lost, Bell does so more by softening, modifying, or chucking traditional doctrine and less by pushing back on cultural pretensions that make them difficult for postmoderns. I mean, that’s kind of the approach on display in his conversation with Andrew Wilson on same-sex marriage, which is sort of a natural outflow of the approach to God, revelation, and culture in the last couple of his works. It’s not so much a defense of the “truth once for all delivered to the saints”. but an invitation to the “truth sadly covered over and mucked up by the religious”–until now, that is.

The Upshot

Now, please don’t take this as an exercise in “farewelling” Rob Bell all over again, or an expression of animosity on my part. It’s not. In fact, if I ran into him on the street, he’d probably get a smile, a “hello”, and an invitation to coffee or dinner. As I noted the other day, one of the main things we ought to do for those we consider to be drifting theologically is pray for them,

All the same, it seems fruitful to attempt to give an accounting for one’s own theological proclivities and affinities. Andrew Wilson did something of the sort the other day when he spoke of affinities due to key issues in theological battle-lines, and while I largely agreed, I also think the issues of trajectory and tone have a big role to play in my approach to these three thinkers.

Well, that’s enough of my rambling. What say you?

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Theses on The Knowledge of God (Or, Bavinck Puts Himself in a Nutshell)

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Herman Bavinck developed one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated theologies of revelation of the early 20th Century. I was remarking to a friend the other day that one simply has to trade out a few of the names, update a few references here and there, and Bavinck could have cranked it out last year. What’s more, it’s stunning in its comprehensiveness and continued relevance.  The first volume of the Reformed Dogmatics alone clocks in at just over 600 pages and he continues to work out some of the implications and corollaries in the first pages of volume two on God and creation.

Of course, summarizing it all would be impossible. And yet in one helpful little passage, Bavinck does us the favor of summarizing himself in five broad points on the nature of our knowledge of God in revelation:

  1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.
  2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.
  3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, this is, with the existence of finite being.
  4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God in himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his natural, in his habitual disposition to his creatures. Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.
  5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

–Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation, pg. 110

To paraprhase:

If you know anything about God, it’s because God himself has revealed it. We can’t reason our way up to God, or imagine what God is like on our own power, or natural, human abilities. For us to know what God is like, he has to take the initiative to tell us.

For him to do this inevitably involves adjusting himself to our limitations, so to speak, by using human language, concepts, and created reality to point beyond itself to the uncreated. Calvin described this as a nurse talking in baby-talk to the child she’s caring for, stooping to the child’s level to be understood.

Now, this initially seems problematic. Isn’t it possibly idolatrous to compare God to creation? Bavinck says not inherently so, because God himself created everything for the purpose of revealing his glory. In other words, creation is already suited to the task by God’s own humble and glorious design, as evidenced by the fact that we, as the crown of creation, are made to be Image-bearers.

That said, all of our knowledge of God is analogical–for every human or created thing we say God is like, we also have to he is also unlike and beyond. These created pictures don’t reveal all there is to know about God, or exhaustively capture the reality of what the analogy is pointing to. As I’ve put it elsewherewhen you’re saying something about God or reading it in the Bible, whether about his being or his emotions, or something else, you have to insert a little qualifier because you’re comparing the transcendent, uncreated one to something created. Kinda like, “God is good (but not exactly the way you think of good)”, or “God is strong (and that is an understatement so serious you don’t have a category for it)”, or “God is angry (but you can’t think of it like sinful human anger)”, or “God repented (but not in the way that implies he didn’t know what he was doing)”. It’s like, but unlike.

Of course, that doesn’t mean our knowledge of God is no good. Simply because we don’t know God as fully as he knows himself, that doesn’t mean we don’t know him at all, or even falsely. No, our analogous knowledge is perfectly adequate knowledge, true and trustworthy, though suited to our cognitive capabilities.

So there you have it–Bavinck in a nutshell. Hopefully that whets your appetite for the full dosage. I mean, if he can get all that done in short little paragraph, imagine what he can do with four volumes?

Soli Deo Gloria