Unchanging and Promise-keeping: A Reformed Metaphysics of the Exodus

burning bushFew texts in the Bible have been as metaphysically-significant as Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush. With the giving the Divine Name “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14, the stage was set, not only for covenantal history, but philosophical reflection in the West for millennia to come. When the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX), rendered that phrase something along the lines, “I am that which is”, a door was opened for philosophically-inclined Jewish and especially later Christian theologians to attempt an identification with the God of Israel, with the philosophical category of being. Beginning with Justin Martyr down on through Augustine and Aquinas, this text became important for developing a Christian theology of the being and attributes of God. If God is the one who supremely is, then certain corollary attributes follow: independence, eternity, unchangeability, infinity, and so forth. Etienne Gilson famously dubbed this tradition of philosophical reflection “the Metaphysics of Exodus.”

Of course, not everybody has been sanguine about this history. From various angles, the tradition has been attacked. Lexically, the Septuagint’s rendering has been called into question, and various alternative renderings of the complicated Hebrew have been offered. Theologically, metaphysical interpretation of this sort has been rubbished as one more, if not the chief, example of the Greek captivity of Christian theology, imposing foreign categories upon the text in order to arrive at foregone philosophical conclusions. Others have argued that the text is nowhere near philosophical categories. Connected with this, certain modern theologians assert that God is testifying to his faithfulness, or his consistency of action, not his mode of being. Biblical thought is concerned with God’s character, not his ontology.

While some of these arguments have some weight to them, especially the exegetical ones, I thought it might be worth presenting a chunk of Turretin’s exposition of the divine name as a prime example of the tradition. It’s instructive in itself, not because everything in it holds up, but because many haven’t taken the time to look at what this type of argumentation looks like. Also, because it makes a key point that, whatever you do with the rest of it, still needs to be heard: ontology and character are bound up with each other. There can be no simple bifurcation between being and doing.

The etymology and signification of the word is such as agrees with God alone. From Scripture, it is evident that it implies most especially three things which are seen to be connected (Is. 44:24-26):

(a) The eternity and independence of God, inasmuch as he is a necessary being, and existing of himself, independent of any other, self-existent (autoon)–“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14). Hence he is called simply the being (ho on, as the ancient philosophers and Plato especially acknowledged). John describes him by the three distinctions of time: “which is, and which was, and which is to come” (ho on kai ho en kai ho erchomenos, Rev. 1:4). In reference to this we have that expression of the ancient heathen: “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be, O great Zeus” (Zeus hen, Zeus esti, Zeus essetai o megale Zeu, Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.12.10).

(b) It implies causality and efficiency because what is the first and most perfect in each genus is the cause of the rest (for God is by himself so that he is the cause of being to all others, Is. 44:24).

(c) It implies immutability and constancy in promises because he really performs and does what he has promised by giving to his promises being (to einai), not only self-existent (autoon), but also essentially existent (ousion) and essence-making (ousiopoios). In this sense, he says that he had not been known to the patriarch by his name Jehovah (Ex. 6:3), not as to the signifying word (for the contrary is evident from the book of Genesis), but as to the thing signified (because he had not as yet given being to his promises concerning the multiplication of seed, the bringing of people out of Egypt, their introduction to Canaan, etc.). He had made himself known to the patriarch by his power in the creation of the world, in its government and in the bestowal of many blessings and their wonderful defense; but he had not as yet really declared himself to be Jehovah, by fulfilling the promises given to the patriarchs. But since eternal existence, omnipotent power and immutable truth belong to God alone, the name Jehovah (which embraces these three) ought to be peculiar to him alone. –Institutes of Elenctic Theology Volume 1, Third Topic, Q. IV, Sec. V

As I said, there are a few things that are instructive about this passage. For one thing, the diversity of sources appealed to is always enlightening to note, simply because at certain times Christians, or especially Evangelicals, have been accused (and been guilty) of intellectual ghettoization. Turretin can comfortably appeal to pagan philosophical and literary tradition in order to supplement his point.

Even more important is the point we see in subsection “c”. Turretin engages in some theological exegesis by appealing to the acts of God, the character of God, in order to ensure the point about the being of God. As Vanhoozer has argued, metaphysics is unavoidable because we must give an account what God is like in order to account for who he has shown himself to be. What must the God who acts in this story be like in order to do and say the kinds of things we see in the biblical narrative?

Well, Turretin answers that a promise-keeping God must be an unchanging God, who is in no way dependent on creation for his being or power. Otherwise, his promise-keeping God’s promise-keeping is tentative, questionable, and contested. It would not be grounded solely in God’s own, unwavering power, but in the vagaries of history and chance. So even if we reject the identification of God with being in the text, and link the name with issues of God’s covenant-keeping character, it’s clear that some level of metaphysical, or ontological reflection on the Name of God is warranted, even demanded by the text.

As the Psalmist says, “You are good and do good” (Psalm 119:68). Turretin would simply remind us to link and properly emphasize the verbs: He does good because He is good.

Soli Deo Gloria

Just Because You Can’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not There – O’Donovan on Ethics

moral orderA great joy of mine is finding out that I’m not dumb. By that I mean, I love running across sections in works by legitimately brilliant people articulating something that I’ve been thinking for a while, but haven’t taken the time to write out anywhere, or I haven’t seen laid out clearly before. Reading Oliver O’Donovan’s brilliant piece of Christian moral theory Resurrection and the Moral Order has afforded me a number of those experiences. (Note: that wasn’t an intentional humble-brag, just an accidental one.) For instance, in one exceptionally helpful passage, he highlights the importance in separating out the epistemological questions involved in knowledge of the moral order and the ontological question of its existence.

What am I talking about? Well, in a nutshell, some moral thinkers, particularly in the Natural Law tradition, have made the point that if a rational God has created the world, he must have done so with a certain order to it, particularly a moral one consistent with his own nature, that ought to be intelligible (readable) to human agents within it. Indeed, there seem to be some self-evident truths about morality and life that transcend culture which give testimony to this indelibly-written law on the heart of humanity.

Others have pointed out that moving from culture to culture, and even within the same culture, there are large areas of dispute as to the moral character of the universe. Much of the content of our moral judgments that are “self-evident” to us in the West are largely rejected throughout the world and therefore seem merely cultural values, or perhaps, adaptively-advantageous norms, such that a real skepticism about framing any sort of moral judgments based on the natural order is a chimera. Indeed, on this basis many of them doubt that there even exists some order of this sort.

Into the confusion steps O’Donovan. While he argues quite forcibly for the necessity of grounding any ethical system in the created order, he acknowledges and explains the theological root of the non-obviousness of that moral order:

There is, however, another side to the matter which has to be asserted equally strongly. In speaking of man’s fallenness we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it. This does not permit us to follow the Stoic recipe for ‘life in accord with nature’ without a measure of epistemological guardedness. The very societies which impress us by their reverence for some important moral principle will appal us by their neglect of some other. Together with man’s essential involvement in created order and his rebellious discontent with it, we must reckon also upon the opacity and obscurity of that order to the human mind which has rejected the knowledge of its Creator. We say that man’s rebellion has not succeeded in destroying the natural order to which he belongs; but that is something which we could not say with theological authority except on the basis of God’s revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We say that this, that or the other cultural demand or prohibition (the prohibition of incest, for example, or of racial discrimination) reflects the created order of God faithfully, but that too is something which we can know only by taking our place within the revelation of that order afforded us in Christ. It is not, as the sceptics and relativists correctly reminds us, self-evident what is nature and what is convection. How can we be sure that the prohibition of incest is not yet another primitive superstition? How can we assert confidently that Bantu and Caucasian races belong equally to one human kind that renders cultural and biological differentiation between them morally irrelevant? The epistemological programme for an ethic that is ‘natural’, in the sense that its contents are simply known to all, has to face dauntingly high barriers. But we are not to conclude from this that there is no ontological ground for an ‘ethic of nature’, no objective order to which the moral life can respond. We may only conclude that any certainty we may have about the order which God has made depends on God’s own disclosure of himself and of his works.

-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg 19

O’Donovan insists that keeping our epistemological judgments and our ontological judgments straight is imperative if we’re going to understand the nature of our moral situation. Admitting that the moral order isn’t obvious should not betray us into concluding it isn’t there. To do so would constitute a gross denial of the doctrine of creation and the moral character of God.

Instead, an acknowledgement of the Fall’s distorting effect upon our moral knowledge leads us to be humble in our judgments, and seek the truth of the universe as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Not because Jesus points us to a moral order that was never there prior to his advent, although his coming does bring about a new moral situation, but because he points us to and renews the one that has been there since the beginning. Also because repentance (metanoia) must form part of our quest for moral truth. In repentance we reconsider our relationship to God’s created order which, in sin, we have rejected and misunderstood. Jesus Christ is the one who grants repentance by the power of the Holy Spirit to confused sinners whose moral judgments stand condemned alongside of them. Once again, even our knowledge of the moral reality we have violated comes down to the grace of the one who instituted it and redeemed it.

Soli Deo Gloria