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

Mere Fidelity: N.T. Wright and his Reformed Critics

So, this is the week you’ve all been waiting for: N.T. Wright and his Reformed critics. On this episode the boys and I chat about the sort of criticisms lodged by American Reformed and confessional Reformed against Wright’s theology, discussing their merits and shortcomings. As always, we think this is a pretty lively discussion.

Also, we throw out a lot of article references in this show. You can go get those at the show links over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Non-Scholastic, Personalistic Doctrine of Divine Simplicity?

dogFollowing up the discussion of the doctrine of divine simplicity from Monday, one of the most frequent criticisms of the doctrine, certainly of its harder forms, is that it is not something derived from biblical considerations, but almost wholly from non-biblical, or even un-biblical philosophical presuppositions drawn from Platonist, Aristotelian, and other philosophical traditions. This charge is particularly leveled against the forms found in accounts like Thomas’ and those following in the Aristotelian tradition of reflection. For a good example of one of these accounts, I’d point you to this short post by my friend Steven Nemes.  For a good, much longer example of this sort of criticism, see Paul Maxwell’s recent, serious ETS article on the subject.

While I’m not going to try and defend or answer objections to this kind of account, I did recently run across John Frames’ account of divine simplicity in his The Doctrine of God (pp. 225-230) in which he argues that some form (probably falling somewhere in the first 5 senses of the term we listed out recently) should be attributed to God. What makes his account worth highlighting is that he’s trying to make the argument from within a theological methodology that he himself describes as “something like biblicism”, with a somewhat unsympathetic take on medieval and Reformational scholastic metaphysics. In other words, he’s kind of a prime suspect for rejecting the doctrine, and yet here he tries to find a way of salvaging and affirming it according to a “more scriptural” logic.

How does the argument work? Well, it begins simple enough. Frame notes that Scripture uses the language of attributes to describe God as “spirit” (John 4:24), “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and “light” (1 John 1:15). Scripture says not that God has these things, but that he is these things. These are three different ways of describing God that are perspectives on the whole divine essence. What’s more, he notes that the Lord swears by his own holiness (Psalm 89:5, Amos 4:2), with the insinuation that his holiness is nothing less than himself. The same sort of logic is at work when we consider God’s truth, which distinguishes him from false gods (Jeremiah 10:10), as well as Lordship and so forth. In the case of all of these attributes, Frame says that we can’t imagine God being God without being characterized by this quality.

Frame says that while we don’t find a clear passages showing that “all of God’s attributes are necessary to his being and thus perspectives on that being, but they do provide a pattern and a way of thinking about divine attributes to which it is hard to find plausible exception” (pg. 229). From there he asks “But does this pattern justify talk of simplicity?”

It’s here that things get interesting. Frame says that if we think that the different attributes are still perspectives or angles on the one reality of God, then we’ll have to admit at least a relative simplicity even while confessing some sort of complexity. The attributes are not separate in God and so therefore we begin to see that “attributes have attributes”: God’s love is holy, his righteousness is wise, his “mercy is eternal”, and so forth. Still that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the attributes are simply synonymous. It’s not that his justice just is his power which just is his love and so forth. Though the attributes are all together and mutually determining they are also truly distinguishable. For those who know what to look for, it’s beginning to sound like a Scotist account of the sort Tom McCall writes about in Forsaken; it allows for formal distinctions between the attributes by which they are inseparable, but really distinguishable in themselves, not just phenomenologically (or, just in our heads).

Still, despite pushing for a recognition of real distinctions between the attributes, he invites us to remember that God is a person, and so when we speak of the “divine goodness”, for example, we’re really just “referring to everything that God is”, not some abstract property. “For everything God does is good, and everything he is is good. All his attributes are good. All his decrees are good. All his actions are good. There is nothing in good that is not good” (pg. 229). When we praise his goodness, or his justice, or his beauty, we’re not praising some external standard to which he conforms to, possesses, or participates in, but rather just what he is.

At the heart, then, of Frame’s account of simplicity is the recognition that the biblical God is a “personal God.” He is not a bundle of attributes, but rather a whole person that relates to his creation as such. “The attributes merely describe different things about him. They are a kind of shorthand for talking about that person. Everything he says and does is good, right, true, eternal, and so on” (pg. 230).

Leaving a treatment of the Trinity and simplicity until later, Frame concludes:

It seems to me therefore, that there is a legitimate biblical motive in the doctrine of simplicity. We may be surprised to find that it is not an abstract, obscure, philosophical motive, but a very practical one. Those emerging from the murky waters of scholastic speculation maybe surprised to find that the doctrine of simplicity is really fairly simple. It is a biblical way of reminding us that God’s relationship with us is fully personal.

So the simplicity of God, like all his attributes, sets forth his covenant lordship. It reminds us of the unity of our covenant Lord, and the unity that he brings into our live as we seek to honor him and him alone. The Christian is not devoted to some abstract philosophical goodness, but to the living Lord of heaven and earth. (pg. 230)

Now, for some this will sound great. “Woohoo! We don’t need the philosophical speculation, or need to decide whether Aristotelian distinctions between essence/existence, form/matter, etc. are relevant in order to proclaim a simple God!” On the flipside, I can imagine some people sitting back and thinking, “Well, I suppose we can go that far, but then again, how is that any different than a really aggressive doctrine of the unity of God?”

At that point I don’t really have an answer, but I figured the train of thought was worth pursuing, sharing, and inviting comments on.

Thoughts?

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

Four Quick Thoughts on America, the 4th, and The Gospel

This was originally going to be a few quick thoughts on Facebook, but apparently that’s impossible for me. So, here are a four quickish thoughts on America, the 4th, patriotism, and so forth.

1. I love America. It’s my home and I know I’m blessed to live here for a number of reasons whether historical, political, economic, and so forth. The freedoms granted and the high ideals (however poorly executed at times) bound up with the American idea stirs the heart. I’ll admit, I pledge to the flag and still stand when I hear the national anthem. I don’t think loving Jesus, confessing him as Lord of all creation, means I have to hate or disavow my country, or refuse to celebrate it in any way, shape, or form. In fact, to refuse to do so entirely may be a form of gross ingratitude towards God. Nor do I think it rules out being a good citizen, praying for my nation, voting, and so forth. In fact, it probably requires those things as part of my duty to love my neighbor through promoting the common good.

2. America is a gift from God, not God. Think that through. God is eternal, self-existent, holy, loving, righteous, pure, omnipotent, gracious and my sole hope, strength, savior, final end, and source of all good. America is not. It is a finite, created thing and needs to be evaluated as such. It is a “power” that participates both in the common grace blessings of God as well as the fallenness common to both human and non-human reality this side of the 2nd Coming. Those who can’t see the good, glory, and blessing in America’s history and structure have an overly pronounced Nietzschian squint. Those who can’t see the sin, the shame, and darkness in it probably need to take off their Red, White, and Blue colored glasses.

leithart3. America is not “God’s New Israel”, nor is it in any sense analogous to the Church. Without delving too deeply in on the subject, I’ll just say that the only options for orthodox Christians looking to be faithful to God’s word is to see Israel as Israel, or, as I hold, the transnational, universal Church as the Jew + Gentile reality of the new Israel brought together in the body of the Messiah, the True Israel. I’m sorry, but the US figures nowhere in biblical eschatology. Any attempt to paint America’s redemptive-historical place in world history as anything more positive than a modern-day Persian Empire (think Cyrus), used like any other nation in God’s providential ordering of history, is false to the Bible and possibly an ecclesiological heresy Peter Leithart has termed “Americanism.” If this is something you’re tempted towards–especially on American Holy Days where we celebrate our creation myths, laud our national saints, and participate in American liturgical ceremonies–I’d recommend you pick up his book Between Babel and Beast and get to repenting, right quickish. While I don’t follow Leithart everywhere he goes, it’s edifying and eye-opening read.

4. America is not who we worship at Church. I’ll admit, like a lot of other young Evangelicals, I’m a bit allergic to patriotic services. At an old church of mine, I had to walk out of one in an attempt to hold on to my breakfast because “America! America! All the America!” was the gist of the whole thing. I’ve also got a strong sense that having an American flag up on stage next to the Cross of Christ borders on sacrilege. Still, I’m not opposed to a prayer for the nation (which is biblical, cf. 1 Timothy 2:2), and maybe a song of gratitude or something. That said, if you’re a pastor planning on having a patriotic service, please slow down and consider at least 3 questions before you proceed on Sunday:

  1. Do your parishioners know the theological difference between the Kingdom and the Nation, and the proper ordering of their loyalties?
  2. Would Christians of other nations feel utterly bewildered and unwelcome in your service?
  3. Would people be tempted to conclude that God’s election of America as a nation is the greatest saving event in history, or the life, death, and resurrection of the Son is?

What, then, is the end of the matter? Go ahead and have fun tomorrow. Be grateful. Light off fireworks. Eat good food. But in the middle of the BBQs, parades, and fanfare, remember that God is God, Christ is Lord, and America is a finite, temporal gift to be grateful for, but never worshipped or set apart in the heart as a final end in itself.

In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:23)

Soli Deo Gloria

Luther’s Very Scholastic Reformation

Luther hammerI’ve been enjoying working my way through William Jan Van Asselt’s edited volume on Reformed Scholasticism lately. One of the main points the various contributors have been underscoring is that far from being a specific body of content, scholastic theology ought to be seen rather as a method of approach that could be used by various theological perspectives. Indeed, nowhere is this highlighted best than when we consider what is usually painted as the explosive, revolutionary act that kicked off the Reformation:

When, as tradition has it, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg in 1517, the hammer blows appeared to usher in a new era for the church. Luther’s act is often considered the beginning of the Reformation. However, a close look at the theses will make it clear that they do not condemn indulgences as such, but only the misuse of them. When it comes to content, Luther’s first act of reform was therefore more medieval than has commonly been assumed.

But the form of this important act in the history of the church also must be seen against a medieval background. Nailing theses to a door was not an unusual thing to do, since theological disputations were regularly held on theses that previously had been made known. When Luther nailed those famous theses to the door, his intention was to enter into a theological disputation. The disputation genre had developed in the medieval schools and formed an important part of the scholastic method. Luther’s hammer blows may have drawn the curtains on the Middle Ages and heralded a new era in church history, but as such his first act of reformation was entirely medieval.

Added to this paradox is the fact that Luther engaged in disputes against scholastic theology only shortly before nailing the ninety-five to the door. In his attack on scholastic theology, Luther thus used an element from scholastic method, the disputation. This was because Luther understood the concept of scholasticism in terms of content, as representing the teaching of Aristotle and William of Ockham. Luther’s Galatians commentary (1519), whose contents identify it as a Reformed commentary, was similarly the fruit of a medieval pedagogical method, the lectio (reading), in which a (biblical) book was read and commented on by the master during his lectures.

–Pieter L. Rouwiendal, “The Method of the Schools: Medieval Scholasticism.” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Willem J. Van Asselt. Ed. (Kindle Locations 1140-1152). Reformation Heritage Books.

Far from being a great anti-scholastic revolt, Luther’s initial reformatory foray was scholastic, both in content and in method. It was somewhat of an unintentional revolution initiated by professor thoroughly shaped and formed from within a tradition, not the work of an outsider rebel disrupting the system from without.

At the expense of moralizing an interesting historical tidbit, there might be a bit of cautioning, or at least chastening, word for would-be theological revolutionaries. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers were all, for the most part, trained and schooled in the classic texts, sources, methods, and theology, which is what allowed them to be so devastatingly effective, both in retaining the best of the catholic tradition, as well as criticizing its excesses. There is likely more value in learning and submitting to the tradition, doing the hard work of study and so forth, than hot-blooded young types looking to reshape the Church want to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Transgender Question

Well, on this week’s Mere Fidelity cast, Alastair, Matt, and I continue our conversation through O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? by wading into the transgender issue that’s been on everyone’s mind of late.

Mere FidelityHere’s the big quote we read at the beginning:

The sex into which we have been born (assuming that it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as a gift of God. The task of psychological maturity–for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire–involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems.  Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations.  

Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial.  No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.  

Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits.  Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature–to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given. And that implies that we must make the necessary distinction between the good of the bodily form as such and the various problems that it poses to us personally in our individual experience.  This is a comment that applies not only to this very striking and unusually distressing problem, but to a whole range of other sexual problems too. 

Also, as usual, feel free to subscribe at iTunes, or leave a review or rating. Thanks!

Soli Deo Gloria