The God of James

It’s amazing how much theology the NT writers get done in a short space. And not just “theology” in general, but theology proper–teaching on the nature, existence, and character of God. James is an excellent example of this that I only noticed recently. Consider how much we learn of God in the first chapter alone.

First, we are told that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5). We very quickly learn, then, that God is generous and the source of wisdom. Indeed, he is not just the source of wisdom alone, but the benevolent One, the heavenly Father, who bestows every good gift upon the world from his bounteous plenty (1:17). To be the source of wisdom and all good things, one must have them and, indeed, be their all-powerful, all-wise source. Indeed, you must transcend them in order to give them.

What’s more, this is who he constantly is, because he is one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17). In other words, God is unchangingly and immutably this all-generous source of all that is. But this divine stability is not just metaphysical, but moral as well. God is also beyond temptation, nor is he a tempter (1:13). It is not only that he is pure from evil, but impervious to evil. His is a moral perfection.

This perfection is executed, not only in his good gifts of wisdom and “every perfect gift”, but in the ultimate gift: salvation. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (1:19). God is the author of salvation, the one who sovereignly elects to bring forth fruit through the truth of the gospel in the lives of those who had none. God is, therefore, merciful. 

But why does God show this mercy? To bring forth holiness and righteousness, though this righteousness is a particular sort–not the kind that can be produced by man’s anger (1:20). Instead, what God desires, the kind of religion that is pleasing to God the Father, is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). In other words, he aims to produce in creatures an analogical extension of the generosity and purity that marks his own life.

There is more to be said of God, of course–and James does so. But it is remarkable how much he does say in such a short space. It’s always a good reminder as a theology student, just how much you can get from applying yourself directly to the text of Scripture, and not simply mediating theological texts.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Incomparability and Analogy in Isaiah

isaiah

The doctrine of analogy aims to answer the question of how we can speak of an infinite God who transcends creaturely reality, thought, and language. Instead of saying words apply in exactly the same way to God and creatures (univocity), or that words apply in completely different ways to God and creatures (equivocity), we say they apply analogically in order to capture the reality of similarity and distinction.

Now, there are a number of charges to be made against analogy, but one that occurs with some frequency is that it is an unbiblical doctrine that theologians have come up with under the pressure of an all-too-philosophical theism and not the revelation of Scripture.

And yet, it seems that something like analogy is precisely what the revelation of Isaiah, especially the Lord’s speeches in 40-55, presses us towards. Consider the Lord’s extreme declarations of incomparability:

To whom then will you compare me ?” (40:25):
“Is there any god besides me? There is no rock; I know not one.” (44:8)
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.” (45:18)
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me.” (46:9)
“I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” (48:12)

The Lord declares himself to be without peer, utterly unique, compared to whom the agency of kings, nations, and other so-called gods is nothing at all (41:24). Who else creates light or darkness, weal or woe? (45:6-7) No one and nothing.

And yet, and yet, as Frederick Gaiser points out in his article, “To Whom Then Will You Compare Me? Agency in Second Isaiah,” (Word & World Volume XIX, Number 2 Spring 1999), God is not strictly or absolutely incomparable if that means we can’t use human language and experience to refer to him at all. In fact, “The prophet will require a wealth of images to justice to the wonder of the God he proclaims.”

In his prophecy, God deploys a “variety of images to bear witness to his person and work” drawn “from the realm of creation and human life.” And this is fitting “because the prophet’s question about a “likeness” for Yahweh uses the same term used for the human in Genesis, created in the “likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26).”

Among other things, God is portrayed as redeemer (41:14), savior (43:3), maker or potter (45:9-10), rock (44:8), warrior (42:13), woman in labor (42:14), shepherd (40:11), friend (41:8), helper (41:10), lover (43:4; cf. 49:169), rear guard (52:12), mother (45:10), father (45:10),10 nurse (49:15), husband, hawker (55:l).

Gaiser adds, “not only do these images work, they are apparently necessary–and precisely in their abundance.” The paradox seems to be that without these images and comparisons drawn from creation, we would not be able to express the incomparability of the Lord.

He calls attention to a key description of the Lord after the acclamation, “Here is your God!” (40:9):

See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. (40:10-11)

The Lord is described as a warrior (10) and a shepherd (11). With the same arm he strikes down the foe and “gather the lambs” (11). “Despite the differing pictures, they portray one God. It is not that sometimes God is strong and sometimes God is tender: God’s strength is God’s tenderness, God’s tenderness is also God’s strength. In bringing these images together, the warrior image especially is sharply redefined.” (Simplicity alert!) Gaiser continues to note comparison after comparison, juxtapositions, and surprising redefinitions, which keep us from understanding these comparisons as operating in a simply univocal fashion.

We could keep going, but important point I think we ought to see here is that against a radical skepticism, God is able to take up language from the created realm as a vehicle of revelation. They point us to the truth of God. And, at the same time, their bewildering and overpowering variety attests to their insufficiency and inadequacy at capturing his infinitely more glorious essence.

All of which is to say, while the formal fine-tuning of the doctrine of analogy may be influenced and guided by philosophical considerations, its instinct is a thoroughly biblical one.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Does a Neo-Apollinarian Christology Even Work?

chalcedonian

So, brief preface: I have been, and in many respects always will be, a fan and student of William Lane Craig. Any kid who was into apologetics and contemporary philosophy of religion had to be.

That said, like others, I’ve recently had to come to grips with some of the odder aspects of his theology proper and Christology, which appear to be less than orthodox. Nick Batzig calls attention one element which has been raising eyebrows in some circles, of late: his “Neo-Apollinarian” Christology.

Now, I’d heard something about it before, but never looked deeply into the matter until now. He goes into it and clarifies his position in this podcast transcript. In a nutshell:

1. We agree with the Council of Chalcedon that in Christ we have one person with two natures – human and divine.

2. The soul of the human nature of Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. The human nature of Christ is composed of the Logos and a human body.

3. The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity. The waking consciousness was typically human.

The aim is to affirm the two natures of Christ, but avoid the possible Nestorianism (in his view) of the Chalcedonian definition. So he takes the heretic Apollinaris and gives him a tune-up:

Apollinarius’ original view was that Christ didn’t have a complete human nature. He had a human body but he didn’t have a human soul. He didn’t have a human nature. As a result he wasn’t really truly human. That calls into question the reality of the incarnation and also the effectiveness of Christ’s death on our behalf since he did not share our nature.

What I argue in my Neo-Apollinarian proposal is that the Logos brought to the human body just those properties which would make it a complete human nature – things like rationality, self-consciousness, freedom of the will, and so forth. Christ already possessed those in his divine nature, and it is in virtue of those that we are created in the image of God. So when he brought those properties to the animal body – the human body – it completes it and makes it a human nature. Against Apollinarius, I want to say that Christ did have a complete human nature. He was truly God and truly man. Therefore his death on our behalf as our representative before God was efficacious.

So what you end up having, as I understand it, is a sort of overlapping Venn diagram of two sets of properties. The first circle represents the divine nature and its properties, and the second the human nature. Though, here, instead of merging two complete circles so that you get a doubling up on the overlap on those components that make up the human soul (two wills, two minds, etc.), you instead add a circle with a chunk shaved off (the human nature) that happens to fit the outline of the divine nature, sort of like a perfectly-fitted puzzle piece. Put them together and both natures have all the sets of properties they need.

Now, it seems there are several problems with this, but the first one that struck me is the issue of Jesus’s consciousness. He says, “The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity.”

What I want to know is how is that supposed to work? Absent a distinct human soul, a human mind that interacts/supervenes on a human brain, etc. how are we arriving at this split-level consciousness? If all we have is a divine Person with an infinite, divine mind and a divine will, rationality, freedom, etc. plus a human body, are we saying that the Son’s divine consciousness takes on dimensions and levels it did not have before in its interaction with a human body? Does that represent change in the divine nature, then? Or are these levels of consciousness now possible because of the interaction between the Logos and the “meat” of the human brain, so to speak?

I looked up the discussion of the problem in Craig and Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview (1st Ed.) and I have to say, that while expanded, the discussion wasn’t much clearer at this point. Pardon the large block-quote:

We postulate that the divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were largely subliminal during his state of humiliation. We suggest that what William James called the “subliminal self” is the primary locus of the superhuman elements in the consciousness of the incarnate Logos. Thus Jesus possessed a normal human conscious experience. But the human consciousness of Jesus was underlain, as it were, by a divine subconsciousness. This understanding of Christ’s personal experience draws on the insight of depth psychology that there is vastly more to a person than waking consciousness. The whole project of psychoanalysis is based on the conviction that some of our behaviors have deep springs of action of which we are only dimly, if at all, aware. Multiple personality disorders furnish a particularly striking example of the eruption of subliminal facets of a single person’s mind into distinct conscious personalities. In some cases there is even a dominant personality who is aware of all the others and who knows what each of them knows but who remains unknown by them. Hypnotism also furnishes a vivid demonstration of the reality of the subliminal. As Charles Harris explains,

a person under hypnosis may be informed of certain facts and then instructed to forget them when he “awakens,” but the knowledge is truly in his mind, and shows itself in unmistakable ways, especially by causing him to perform . . . certain actions, which, but for the possession of this knowledge, he would not have performed. . . . What is still more extraordinary, a sensitive hypnotic subject may be made both to see and not to see the same object at the same moment. For example, he may be told not to see a lamp-post, whereupon he becomes (in the ordinary sense) quite unable to see it. Nevertheless, he does see it, because he avoids it and cannot be induced to precipitate himself against it.

Similarly, in the Incarnation—at least during his state of humiliation—the
Logos allowed only those facets of his person to be part of Christ’s waking consciousness which were compatible with typical human experience, while the bulk of his knowledge and other cognitive perfections, like an iceberg beneath the water’s surface, lay submerged in his subconscious. On the model we propose, Christ is thus one person, but in that person conscious and subconscious elements are differentiated in a theologically significant way. Unlike Nestorianism our view does not imply that there are two persons, anymore than the conscious aspects of one’s life and the subconscious aspects of one’s life constitute two persons. (610-611)

Leave aside the propriety of appealing to split personalities as a suitable analogy for the mental life of our Lord, depth psychology could really be helpful in considering these issues in Christology more generally. But what I’m failing to see is the way this works out in Craig’s formulation.

Because on Craig’s view, it seems there is only the one, divine mind which is now, somehow, also the site of the distinctions and levels and subliminal layers which form Christ’s human, conscious life. Now, I know they reject, or at least propose to modify divine simplicity (Craig and Moreland, 526), but even in that discussion, they seem sympathetic to William Alston’s view that at least the divine knowledge is simple.

So has there been a change to the divine nature such that what was once simple, now becomes complex in the act of the incarnation? Craig describes the incarnation as a matter of addition, rather than subtraction–which is right:

Rather it is a matter of addition – taking on in addition to the divine nature he already had a human nature with all of its essential properties. So we should think of the incarnation not as a matter of subtraction but of addition.

But the addition of layers of consciousness to the divine mind is not the logic of addition which the Fathers at Chalcedon had in mind. They saw the Logos assuming humanity to himself leaving the divine nature unchanged. But it is hard to see the Logos remaining unchanged in his becoming the soul of the body of Christ, if this is now adding layers of self-consciousness to the single mind he has/is.

If so, then along with the rejection of the assumption of a human soul, this would be to contradict Chalcedon at another point. For it would seem to be a denial of divine immutability. But I don’t see them wanting to do that.

Now, for myself, I don’t think the Chalcedonian definition and classical Christology of the Church is Nestorian. But even if I did, contrary to solving any questions, Craig’s un-Orthodox Christology just seems to leave us with more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why We Should Have Utter Confidence in Prayer

compendiumAt the tail-end of his uncompleted Compendium of Theology Aquinas treats the question of why we must pray to God for what we hope. First, he notes that we belong to him as an effect does to a cause. He has made us with a purpose in mind which it is his aim to see fulfilled. If a pot were rational and could hope, it should hope in the potter who shaped him. “Thus we are told in Jeremiah 18:6: ‘As clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.'”

But Aquinas does not simply want us to know that we should pray to God our Maker, but how we should pray to God: with complete and utter confidence.

The confidence which man has in God ought to be most certain. As we just intimated, a cause does not refrain from rightly controlling its product unless it labors under some defect. But no defect or ignorance can occur in God, because “all things are naked and open to His eyes,” as is said in Hebrews 4:13. Nor does He lack power, for “the hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save,” as we read in Isaiah 59:1. Nor is He wanting in good will, for “the Lord is good to those who hope in Him, to the soul that seeks Him,” as we are reminded in Lamentations 3:25. Therefore the hope with which a person trusts in God does not confound him that hopes, as is said in Romans 5:5. (Compendium 2.4)

Why should we have utter confidence in prayer? As it always seems to be with Aquinas, because God, that’s why.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Simplicity of God and the Diversity of Creation

compendium

I’ve been working my way through Aquinas’s late, brief summary of his system, Compendium Theologiae, and it’s been a dense, instructive dive so far.

Early in his series of questions on creation, he treats the matter of why there is plurality, or a diversity of things in creation. Why are there trees and monkeys and mountains and starfish, instead of only, say perfectly spiritual beings like angels? Why stars of various shapes, colors, and sizes, instead of one, perfect, massive orb? Why diversity instead of simple, orderly, uniformity?

Well, as with most things in Aquinas, he finds the answer in God who is their creating and sustaining cause. Even more than that, he roots this diversity in the simplicity of God.

How so?

Any active cause must produce its like, so far as this is possible. The things produced by God could not be endowed with a likeness of the divine goodness in the simplicity in which that goodness is found in God. Hence what is one and simple in God had to be represented in the produced things in a variety of dissimilar ways. There had to be diversity in the things produced by God, in order that the divine perfection might in some fashion be imitated in the variety found in things.

Furthermore, whatever is caused is finite, since only God’s essence is infinite, as was demonstrated above. The finite is rendered more perfect by the addition of other elements. Hence it was better to have diversity in created things, and thus to have good objects in greater number, than to have but a single kind of beings produced by God. For the best cause appropriately produces the best effects. Therefore it was fitting for God to produce variety in things. (1:72)

One might think that the indivisible, simple being of God would stifle diversity. Thomas reminds us, though, that the simple being of God is infinite. A mere repetition of the same finite effects will not do. In order to begin to communicate the fullness of his refulgent glory by way of finite creaturely reality will require a diversity of finite causes!

Despite it’s philosophical garb, I think this really functions as a metaphysical gloss on Scriptural teaching. Consider what the Psalmist tells us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4)

Or again:

How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. (Ps. 104:24-25)

Thomas tells us that all this marvelous diversity is a reflection, a testimony to the wisdom, glory. and beauty of the simple God. In the creation of diverse effects, it is as if the pure, undivided brightness of the infinite divine light is refracted before our eyes as through a prism as broad and as wide as the universe itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

Johnson on the Proper Shape of Atonement Doctrine

companion to atonement

With his various works on the subject, especially his Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, Adam Johnson has become something of a go-to guru on the subject matter. Editing the recent T&T Clark Companion to Atonement cements the deal. While I plan on reviewing it more fully later on, I wanted to briefly draw attention to his valuable programmatic comments on the nature of atonement doctrine in his introductory essay in the volume:

The goal of this doctrine is to understand and expound: the sanctified intellect’s joyful act of worship, as the church and its members seek to understand the God who revealed himself in his saving act, by means of God’s chosen witness to that act, Holy Scripture. Developing this doctrine is thus first and foremost an act of submission, of learning, recognizing, and understanding the witness we have received, for its origin lies in the decision and act of God, who does not merely seek to save his creatures, but to be known and worshipped by them as he is, as the Savior.

Only in a secondary and derivative way does the doctrine of the atonement dwell upon and respond to the challenges and heresies of its day. Biblical, theological, philosophical, religious, ethical, and other critiques have their vital role to play in the development and formation of doctrine (not least holding it accountable to its true vocation). But as the church’s calling and freedom to develop doctrine stems from the being and act of God, such critiques and questions play at most a significant ministerial role in holding the church accountable to its primary calling: joyful and rigorous reflection upon and development of the scriptural testimony to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. This is all the more true, given that the church’s primary end endures beyond all conflict and error, joining the angels in their never-ending privilege of worship, singing “blessed is the lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12) in ever new stanzas and choruses (Ps. 96:11).

–“Atonement: The Shape and State of the Doctrine”, 1-2

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I have spent a fair amount of time (more than I like really) engaged in theological polemic surrounding the atonement. Indeed, polemic writing seems to be the most common mode of discourse on the matter both online and in academic circles. And there’s really nothing surprising about that. The cross of Christ has always presented itself as a stone of stumbling offense to the heart and mind (1 Cor. 1-2). And we should always be prepared to grapple at that level.

Still, Johnson rightly reminds us that polemical engagement is not the point of reflection on Christ’s work. The point is proclamation leading to doxological expression; preaching that produces praise. Forgetting this can lead to important distortions in both our spirituality and in the doctrine itself.

When it comes to the doctrine, preoccupation with polemics can lead you to get a misshapen sense of the whole. For instance, being entirely fixated on rightly defending penal substitution (which I do frequently), can tend to push you to ignore the many other facets of Christ’s work which the New Testament expounds. Or, flipping it around, a desire to recover neglected aspects can lead you to unnecessarily downplay those you think get too much attention.

This is where Johnson’s emphasis on rigorous reflection and attention to the witness of Scripture is vital. When we’re attending to the text carefully, we allow the Word to exert a pressure on our sense of the whole in proportion to its own testimony. We learn to emphasize what God emphasizes through his prophets and apostles, and how to relate the parts to the whole in the way he has inspired them.

And this must be true in our preaching as well. Preaching must include apologetics and polemics at times. If you’re going to reach the world, you must be dealing with the world’s arguments. All the same, the priority must be to preach the truth of Christ’s work in the text and order our polemics and apologetics to that end.

Soli Deo Gloria

No “Mere” Anthropomorphism

damascusOne of the perennial problems for a theology that is trying to speak of God on the basis of God’s word is wrestling with the sense of the Bible’s anthropomorphic language. The Biblical authors have no problem speaking of God in very human terms, attributing to God emotions, activities, and even body parts, in ways that seem somewhat inappropriate if taken as straightforward descriptions of the transcendent and infinite Creator of material and temporal reality.

John of Damascus broaches the question and quickly forwards a classic solution in On the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, chapter 11, stating:

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognise that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.

The Damascene is very clear, then, that while many Biblical idioms seem to imply that God has a body, these are symbolic representations which God has taken to himself in order to reveal himself in ways that are more suited to our finite understanding. God is simple, without composition and bodily shape. As Jesus testifies in John, “God is spirit” (John 4:24).

But the question remains, if this language is symbolic, what is it symbolic of? The point of noticing that language is symbolic, or not straightforward, or “literal”, is not to deny it has cognitive content, or real revelatory value. It is only to point out that it is revealing and referring in a unique, accommodated way.

Thankfully, John goes on to explain just what he means through several examples that I think are worth quoting at length:

Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty.

By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously.

God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste.

And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance.

And God’s countenance is the demonstration and manifestation of Himself through His works, for our manifestation is through the countenance.

And God’s hands mean the effectual nature of His energy, for it is with our own hands that we accomplish our most useful and valuable work.

And His right hand is His aid in prosperity, for it is the right hand that we also use when making anything of beautiful shape or of great value, or where much strength is required. His handling is His power of accurate discrimination and exaction, even in the minutest and most secret details, for those whom we have handled cannot conceal from us aught within themselves.

His feet and walk are His advent and presence, either for the purpose of bringing succour to the needy, or vengeance against enemies, or to perform any other action, for it is by using our feet that we come to arrive at any place.

His oath is the unchangeableness of His counsel, for it is by oath that we confirm our compacts with one another.

His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat.

His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own.

This passage is illuminating for a variety to reasons.

First, I must stress again that John is not denying that these accommodated terms have any content to them. Many modern critics like to attack more classical approaches to predication, accommodation, and analogical language for God as robbing us of knowledge of God. For if this language is “merely” anthropomorphic or anthropopathic, then it’s not really God’s self-communication.

But John is not saying they are mere anthropomorphisms, as if the choice were anthropomorphic language or truly revelatory language. No, in each case, the Biblical idiom is communicating truth about God’s ways and works with us by way of the accommodated language. In God’s hands, anthropomorphisms *are* revelation. Nor are the meanings provided bizarre, foreign to the idiom itself, or very difficult to grasp once we have had our attention drawn to them. The point, though, is that if we don’t eventually recognize these are accommodations, we will end up thinking about God in ways that he has explicitly forbidden us from doing elsewhere in Scripture.

Second, and this follows from the last point, John’s little interpretive cheat-sheet is meant as an aid for reading and understanding Scripture. Theology is not meant correct the text, but is an aid meant to return us to the text, able to read it more competently, with less confusion and difficulty. Instead of getting caught up on how big God’s hands are, we can marvel at his works of power. Instead of wondering about God’s sense of smell, we can read the text in order to discern how we may please him. Instead of worrying about reconciling God’s immutability and impassibility with portraits of God which depict him “getting angry”, we should read Scripture and understand what sort of evil he has eternally set himself in opposition to and flee it.

Finally, John even has an answer to the contemporary charge that this approach to the Biblical language is insufficiently “Christocentric.” The idea here is that if Jesus is God, the fullest revelation of God, then we shouldn’t worry about “Greek” axioms like impassibility and so forth. Jesus shows us what God is like and so if Jesus experiences these things, then we should be fine attributing these qualities straightforwardly to God. To do otherwise is to subject God to Greek abstraction, or not to sufficiently evangelize our metaphysics.

Reading the Damascene, we see there is more than one way to be Christocentric. For John, to be properly Christocentric, one must be Chalcedonian:

And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.

Note, then, there is one place where descriptions which were anthropomorphic, symbolic language become straightforward description: the life of Jesus, the Godman. Or, as John puts it, in “the bodily sojourn of the God-Word.”

But the Damascene does not want us to miss that while Jesus is the Eternal Word who reveals the divine character and power, he is revealing them under the conditions of human fleshly existence. The glory of the incarnation is that the Son makes what is ours his own—body and soul—even though such things are foreign to the divine life. Jesus does not come to reveal a God who is already embodied, already in anguish and pain, but one who freely adopted these things for us and for our salvation.

And it is just so that John of Damascus’s understanding is Christocentric, but properly Chalcedonian, the union of the divine and human natures occurring unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. (This, by the way, leads later on to the very careful and necessary discussions on the communication of idioms.)

More could be said, but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that John’s Chalcedonian Christocentrism is not without a certain historic depth. One might look at this and begin to suspect one of the reasons for the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament, alongside declarations of his absoluteness, would be to prepare Israel for the reality of God become flesh. The God who for our sake has always adopted a human language which falls far short of his glory, adopts human life for our sake in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Examining Stott’s Strife (Reflections on Correcting Our Theological Fathers)

cross of ChristJohn Stott’s work The Cross of Christ is one of my favorite books on the atonement. A modern classic, its overall balance of exegesis, theology, pastoral insight, and existential application makes it worth returning to regularly. Beyond his many worthy commentaries, this book alone could secure Stott’s reputation as a giant in 20th Century Evangelical theology and ministry.

Recently, though, Adonis Vidu’s work Atonement, Law, and Justice (257-258) called my attention to a rather dismaying line or two where Stott seems to go ahead and affirm a “strife” of the divine attributes at play in God’s work of atonement.

Now, to speak of “strife” within God is language which more classical theology–with its axioms of impassibility and simplicity–typically rules out as deficient, if not abhorrent. If God is simple, without parts or pieces, to speak of God’s attributes is simply to speak of the single, indivisible reality of God from a different angle. In which case, it doesn’t make sense to speak of them at odds with one another. What’s more, recent revisionist critics of penal substitution have latched onto the idea that the doctrine requires us to posit a conflicted, split-minded God who needs to conquer his own wrath, as it were. To find Stott discarding the wisdom of the tradition and playing into the hands of critics of the doctrine would be distressing indeed.

In this post, I wanted to engage Stott a bit and see what’s going on. Both because I think it’s inherently interesting, but also because it’s a helpful gateway into reflecting on the way young theological students should proceed in engaging with our “fathers”  and “grandfathers” in the faith when we find troubling spots.

Two recent, theological blow-ups come to mind. First, there was the Trinity debate a summer or two ago, and then most recently the semi-brouhaha between John Frame, and others over James Dolezal’s book All That is In God. Other recent, internet tribunals could easily be adduced. Since I don’t think these disputes are going away, it’s worth slowing down and taking measure of how to proceed.

Stott’s Strife

Turning to Stott, he has an important section titled “The holy love of God” (129-132) where he is rightly arguing that God’s atoning work must be carried out in a way that is consistent with the entirety of his character. God does not atone simply according to his generous, merciful love, but also his perfectly just holiness.

To that end, he takes up the question of whether it’s appropriate to speak of a conflict, or a “strife” of the attributes within God. Against P.T. Forsyth, who explicitly ruled it out, Stott thinks we shouldn’t be too troubled with it. Yes, the language is anthropomorphic, but isn’t Scripture anthropomorphic that way? Does not Hosea 11 present us with a God at odds with himself (“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?”), torn between love and wrath? Here Stott sees a presentation which highlights the costliness of the conflict between what God “ought to do because of his righteousness and what he cannot do because of his love.”

He goes on to point out various phrases in Scripture which highlight a “‘duality’ within God,” such as Exodus 34, or “the kindness and sternness of God”, or “grace and truth”—couplets where “two complementary truths about God are brought together” as if to hold them in explicit tension. Following Emil Brunner, he sees this as Scripture’s way of remembering God’s “dual nature” as both Love and Holiness and not simply collapsing the one into the other in a manner that simply reduces holiness into love or love into holiness without any conceptual distinction between the two attributes.

Instead, we should recognize that the self-substitution of God for sinners in the cross of Christ reveals a God who fully enacts both aspects of his character in our salvation. It is the cross which enacts “the Holy Love of God”, in the words of P.T. Forsyth.

What’s Else Is Going On?

Now, on the face of it, there seems to be a clear affirmation of the strife of the attributes for the understandable reason that Scripture seems to do something similar. But it turns out things are a bit more complicated than that. Especially when you consider this key paragraph towards the back half of the section:

At the same time, we must never think of this duality within God’s being as irreconcilable. For God is not at odds with himself however much it may appear to us that he is. He is ‘the God of peace’, of inner tranquility not turmoil. True, we find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the images of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and of the Lover who must find a way to forgive them. Yet he is both, and at the same time. In the words of G. C. Berkouwer, ‘in the cross of Christ God’s justice and love are simultaneously revealed’, while Calvin, echoing Augustine, was even bolder. He wrote of God that ‘in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated US’. Indeed, the two are more than simultaneous, they are identical, or at least alternative expressions of the same reality. For ‘the wrath of God is the love of God’, Brunner wrote in a daring sentence ‘in the form in which the man who has turned away from God and turned against God experiences it’.

What’s fascinating about this passage is that—when you consider the fact that Stott admits the language of Hosea is anthropomorphic—it is very close to an expression and affirmation of the point that divine simplicity and impassibility express.

As Vidu has it, in recognizing the non-composition of the divine nature, simplicity is helpful in ruling “out any prioritization of any divine attribute, whether justice or love,” as well as any thought that God is some being who must choose between his love or justice, or any of his attributes. God is his attributes in such a way that God is all that he is in all that he does. In which case, God’s attributes are never actually at odds with each other. God’s holiness is loving, his justice is kind, his mercy is righteous, and so forth.

Now, I think Vidu is absolutely right to argue the traditional language is more helpful (necessary even), than Stott’s formulation. But it appears that without using the language of the tradition, Stott was nonetheless trying to affirm the heart of its teaching in this regard. God must present himself, his acts, his intentions in history in ways that are accommodated to our finite and situated being in such a way that we can best understand them. And this may involve apparent tension, paradox, and difficulty—but we must take care not to collapse it too quickly or write off some of the material. We must affirm both the “kindness and severity of God” without imagining that in God’s eternal being they are different realities, or that God must choose between different aspects of himself.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think Stott picked a fight with Forsyth (and the tradition) that he didn’t need to, since I’m fairly sure Forsyth would agree there’s a duality or strife in the historical presentation of God’s attributes despite the actual inner unity. But also, just for that reason, those more classically-inclined might ease their worries about Stott on this point.

Young Guns, Fathers, and Grandfathers

With that discussion in view, I’d like to turn to the issue of engaging our theological fathers and mothers.

Christopher Cleveland had an insightful article over at Mere Orthodoxy on the Trinity debate that frames the problem historically. Without summarizing the whole thing, he calls attention to the way an earlier generation of conservative, evangelical scholars were often trained by critical scholars who rejected the tradition, so they were less conversant and concerned with it. Instead, these Evangelical scholars focused on Biblical studies, exegesis, defending Scripture and basic orthodoxy against critical scholars, but in ways that tweaked some traditional doctrines in the process (e.g. upholding the Trinity, but using Eternal Subordination to distinguish the persons instead of traditional doctrines like Eternal Generation).

Well, along comes a younger generation of theological students are being trained in a way that is more familiar (and sympathetic) to the classical categories and modes of theology developed in the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformed Orthodox periods (think the post-Muller Renaissance for scholastics). As they take advantage of the retrieval and ressourcement movements afoot, they take a look at some of their Evangelical “fathers” and find themselves frustrated at hasty dismissals of the tradition, or cringing at some of the newer formulations. They then begin engage in their “corrective”, or restorative project.

In which case, you end up having what looks like a bunch of young guns correcting respected, theological “fathers” on behalf of their “grandfathers.”

Since these sorts of debates and arguments seem increasingly inevitable, what ought we do? How should we proceed?

  1. Resist Name-Making Pride

Thinking of myself first, I think it’s important to simply sit with the fact that for many of us youngsters there is a deep temptation to prove and make a name for yourself early on. Whether or not you’re right on an issue, it is easy to give in to the urge to write that takedown demonstrating your knowledge, your exegetical skill, your mastery of the most recent studies which overturn the scholarship the prior generation was dependent on. But this is not honoring to God since it proceeds, not from a faith that wants to see the truth made known, but an insecurity that needs our name to be known.

Remember, in twenty years, the scholarship may again change. Different academic winds will blow, and a new crop of up-and-comers tempted to make a name for themselves on the back of the older crop of scholars and writers. And it may be it is “with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2).

I am not good at this, but polemical correction ought to proceed only with prayer and a humility before God and the Word. Many of the teachers that you are engaging are men and women who have poured out years into the local church, their seminary students, and their schools in order to further the name of the Lord. I think of John Stott’s work and ministry and pray that God would allow me to do 1% of the good for the kingdom that man accomplished through his preaching, writing, and ministry.

In which case, it is good to remember Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father… older women as mothers” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). I think this sort of consideration will help curb the odium theologicum motivated by pride that poisons debates at times.

  1. Undue Deference Is Not Necessarily Better

That said, Paul does encourage Timothy to encourage older men in the congregation—presumably indicating that Timothy is not absolved from a responsibility to instruct, correct, or encourage these older men and women towards holiness on the basis of God’s Word. Honoring our elders, respecting their service, and resisting the temptation to make a name for yourself at their expense does not mean remaining silent if you see error—especially serious error.

At times in Evangelical and Reformed circles, there is a default deference which treats certain figures (writers, pastor, professors) of certain standing as above all criticism. That is not proper either. We are bound to the Word of God.

In which case, I think we should be slow to see all critical engagement as necessarily disrespectful, dishonoring, or contentious. Indeed, as I mentioned above, often the motive in critiquing a “father” is defending a “grandfather.” Especially as we come to appreciate the formulations of a grandfather can end up cutting off some nasty problems that end up developing later on.

Again, Stott opts for affirming a “strife of the attributes” at the level of Biblical presentation in explicit disagreement with Forsyth. Is it disrespect or pride to think Forsyth has the better argument of the two? Or as Mark Jones asked recently, is it really arrogant to prefer and argue for the consensus of Westminster and most theologians prior to the 20th Century on a subject to that of some contemporary Evangelical theologians? It does not seem so.

  1. Confusing Language with Thoughts

In many ways, theology is a linguistic task. Minding your prepositions, keeping your terms straight, and even missing a single letter in a word can throw entire doctrines askew (homoousios v. homoiousios). But it’s also more than that. We need to keep our language about God straight because language keeps our thoughts about God straight. At least most of the time.

I bring this up because it’s worth slowing down in these debates to consider how often it is a matter of disputing over terminological and conceptual differences rather than actual differences of judgment (to invoke David Yeago’s distinction). Looking at Stott’s discussion again, it seems that he was trying to say close to the same thing that the tradition has when invoking the language of simplicity. In which case, what initially appears to be a large divergence is much smaller.

Given some of what Stott says elsewhere, I do think there is probably a material difference as well. Following Moltmann, along with many 20th Century theologians, Stott rejected impassibility. Now, I think that’s a mistake as well. But given his line about God being a God of inner tranquility and peace, I think an argument could be made that he was thankfully inconsistent in his passibilism.

This is important because recognizing that changes the way you approach a conversation. Instead of launching a broadside against grave error, we may find ourselves able to make a more persuasive plea to move closer to the tradition by explaining how close a person already is. This isn’t always the case, but I suspect it applies more often than we might expect.

  1. Preachers v. Scholastics

On a related note, I think considerations of genre and office ought to be considered in these conversations. For instance, the difference between a preacher and a scholastic. This cuts both ways, by the way. The Reformed scholastics were often criticized for having a dry, lifeless piety on the basis of their scholastic manuals. But as Richard Muller has pointed out, these were meant to be textbooks, not sermons or devotional guides. Precision and clarity are the goal, not devotional lyricism. But that doesn’t mean that doctrine can’t be preached with power. Just read Thomas Watson.

I think the reverse consideration holds true now. It is true that, as Barth said, dogma is the criticism of proclamation. But for types who have come to appreciate the beauty of fine distinctions and carefully delineated doctrines, we may be tempted to look at devotional writings, or listen to popular preaching with eyes and ears that are too critical. Preachers who could give you a textbook answer in a doctrinal exam, will nonetheless speak with a sort of looseness in the pulpit that so that their people will get the gist, or that Scriptural truth can land with emotional resonance. Trial by blog post may not be the best way to handle that.

Yes, preachers should strive for precision and for power. But even in a Puritan as careful as Watson, you can find gorgeous turns of phrase that warm your heart but that taken strictly may not make sense if you needed to defend them in a disputation. In which case, we have even greater reason to slow down in jumping all over a certain generation of preachers as well, for what may be a mere linguistic infelicity instead of a full-fledged heresy.

  1. Beware the Pendulum

Finally, I think it’s important we keep aware of the pendulum. A while back I was talking to an older, experienced preacher about some of these issues. He largely agreed with the doctrinal correction that was taking place, but he was also worried that if people weren’t careful, they’d end up over-correcting and provoking a corrective reaction of their own. I think that’s wise.

Some of us younger types who have been striving to recover classical categories, modes, etc. need to be careful we don’t do so simply by explaining the older view more plainly and leaving it at that. At times rejections are based on historical confusion, but at other times, we may find we need to re-situate older doctrines or break new ground to present them in a way that addresses contemporary concerns.

Recovering older patterns of exegesis may be part of the solution, but working constructively with the fruit of recent Biblical studies will also be necessary for showing that classical doctrines function to explain, not veil the text. Real gains have been made in Biblical studies and if there is one thing that absolutely admirable about the last generation of scholars is their commitment to the Biblical text. It’s something they share with the classical tradition.

At the popular level, we need to be careful our desire for doctrinally pure preaching does not kill our ability to apply that doctrine in ways that reach down deep into the lives of our people. It can be that your sermon on the cross has a quite clear, Christological underpinning, but the glory of the Godman’s suffering for me may be muted in the process.

I could go on further, but I’ll leave off here for now and simply end with a basic point: speaking of God is a difficult business to be undertaken with fear and trembling, joy and delight, humility, and finally, much prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria

Immanuel, The Holy One of Israel in Your Midst—in Your Flesh!

prophet_isaiah-cut-760x276“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has long been my favorite Advent hymn. It’s marriage of rich, biblical theology and pathos perfectly capture the pain, longing, and anticipated joy of this season of expectation.

I’ve noticed that each year I return to it, a different line or stanza captures my imagination. It was the third that hooked me this year:

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

Now, on the face of it, this stanza is highlighting the “great Lord of Might”, or God Almighty. While that is appropriate, the text upon which it reflects (Exod. 19), can also fittingly be considered under the rubric of God’s majestic, terrifying holiness; here Israel meets the Lord who has sanctified and elected her to be his own (Exod. 19:4-6).

Yet encountering the Holy One has ever been a harrowing experience. Facing God at Sinai, the Israelites quailed before him as he descended in the smoke of his fiery purity, causing the mountain to tremble with a voice like thunder (Ex. 19:16-20). For all the (valid) criticisms which can be registered against his generalized account of religion, Rudolf Otto’s articulation of the mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy captures something of the awful, overpowering majesty communicated in the Biblical narrative.

Confronted with the prospect of hearing Yahweh’s awful voice once more, with concomitant threat destruction that attends it, the Israelites are overwhelmed, begging Moses to mediate: “You speak to us, and we will listen: but do not let God speak to us, let we die” (Ex. 20:19).

Isaiah’s personal Sinai encounter with the holiness, the incomparable majesty of God in the Temple is similarly overpowering (Isa. 6). To the seraphim’s refrain, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (v. 3), Isaiah must reply, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes of seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v. 5). He is a sinner who has fallen short of the Law given at Sinai. In the overwhelming perfection of the presence of Holy King Yahweh, prepared to execute judgment from his throne, Isaiah is undone.

And yet, our hymn-writer, says that Israel ought rejoice at his coming of the Holy Law-giver from the Mountain. How can this be? Is not the coming of the Holy One wrath, judgment, and terror? Does not Isaiah testify the Lord is exalted as holy in his judgments (Isa. 5:16)?

Yes, yes, he is all that and more. But Isaiah came to know the Lord as Holy One, not only in his judgments, but in his merciful salvation:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:6-7)

Isaiah experienced the mercy, the grace, the cleansing fire of God’s holy presence. For this reason, he could testify to Israel in her future affliction:

You shall rejoice in Yahweh, in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. (41:16)

I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Deliverer. (43:3)

I am Yahweh, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. (43:15)

Precisely as the Holy One—the only, majestic, incomparable, electing Lord—he is the Redeemer of Israel. At Sinai he gave the Law, but he also bound his Name—his self—to them as their Redeemer. Therefore Yahweh testifies to the faithless house of Israel:

I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. (Hos. 11:9)

It is the holiness of God which sets him apart—he can restrain his anger against their betrayal, their violation of his holy Law, and come to redeem them. He can maintain relationship, purify them once more, and be the Holy One in their midst. Indeed, it is his will to be known has holy that moves him to save Israel from her enemies:

And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. (Ezek. 39:7)

When the Lord redeems his people from their sins and their enemies in accordance with his perfect power and righteousness, he will be seen as the Holy One in Israel.

And this is the child for whom we rejoice and await in Advent.

Recall the Angel’s response to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). In the virgin-born, Christ-child, the Holy One comes into the midst of Israel, just as Isaiah foretold:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

The holy marvel of Christmas is that the Lord did not simply give a sign himself, he gave himself as the thing signified. Jesus is Immanuel, the Holy One of Israel, in your midst—in your flesh!

The One who appeared in “cloud and majesty and awe” upon Sinai, incarnate in a mewling, powerless child, come not to destroy, but redeem us from sin, death, and the devil!

It is for the first coming of this Holy One, we rejoice. And it is for the second coming of this Holy One, we wait, again.

Soli Deo Gloria