Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

(Ecclesiastes 1:9-12)

If we had to classify the Teacher of Israel, it’s fairly clear he was not a modern.

Commenting on some of the defining marks of the theory of progress and the heart of the modern, Peter Leithart notes:

“The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a ‘great divide,’ between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in ‘chrono-politics.'”

Solomon Among the Postmoderns, pg. 32

Leithart sees this as part of modernity’s appropriation and secularization of Christian theology, particularly its eschatology: “Moderns treat modernity as if it were a new stage of redemptive history” (31). Instead of carving the world up into “in Adam” and “in Christ”, though, it’s “in Copernicus” or “in Aristotle” (or something less flattering like, “in Cave Dweller”). On this view, moderns understand the birth of Modernity as a radical break such that things are forever altered, they are better, we can’t go back, and we shouldn’t want to.

Chronological Snobbery

Now, when thinking about philosophy or theology, it’s typical to note that Modernity’s ditch-digging eschatology funds what C.S. Lewis has called its “Chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Rudolph Bultmann has a famous quote typically used to illustrate the need for his program for demythologizing the message of the New Testament, so that its existential challenge can be felt by modern men and women. In more conservative circles, fairly or not, it’s also a common example of the phenomenon Lewis is describing:

“We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Now that we have science and medicine, cars and so forth, who’s going to believe in superstitions like miracles, angels, demons, and the like?

Of course, taken baldly, and after reviewing the actual philosophical arguments for and against miracles and so forth, it’s a rather silly and somewhat arrogant claim. A good dose of Lewis, Aquinas, Plantinga, or other common works of apologetics others can disabuse you of that fairly quickly. All the same, it’s fairly intuitive and recognizable impulse.

Chronological Anxiety

As I’ve read more in theology over the years, I’ve realized that this sort of thing isn’t limited to “traditional” apologetics issues. And even more, it doesn’t always express itself as an arrogant snobbery. Rather it’s a sort of modern anxiety theologians have about the answers we have for the deep moral and existential questions our world is asking.

You can spot it whenever you see someone wringing their hands as they say something like, “the old answers just won’t work for us.”

Usually this can be connected to the Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of heroic doubt and world come of age (see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). “In our intellectual infancy and innocence—before Copernicus reoriented the heavens, or the Lisbon earthquake, or the shattering of Europe in WW 1, or the Holocaust, etc. (pick your favorite intellectual or moral cataclysm)—we could accept such answers, but now, we simply can’t. And so we must bravely seek out new answers for a new age.”

perfectly simpleStephen Long points out that one of the easiest places to spot this anxiety is in modern revisions of the doctrine of God. He connects the revisionist project to G.W.F. Hegel in a few ways. (And I’ll be condensing and likely bastardizing here.)

First, there’s the bigger Hegelian (and Feuerbachian) impulse of identifying the theology of an era as a manifestation of the Spirit of that era (or projection of the human culture). In which case, the assumption is that the answers accepted in previous eras are particularly (and peculiarly) suited to those eras, and therefore not suited to ours.

Second, there’s the material appeal of his theology as a response the problem of evil that’s loomed large in the modern period ever since the Earthquake of Lisbon down through the Holocaust. Process metaphysics, a number of the 20th Century German theologies, and so forth, have all been influenced to some greater or lesser degree by Hegel’s revised metaphysics of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this revised economy of salvation, God becomes historical, not as the absolute author freely becoming incarnate in history while maintaining his perfection, but rather is dragged into it in such a way that he himself becomes and achieves his own self-realization (and self-salvation?) in the redemption of the horror and pain of history, and so forth.

Long thinks this is mistaken for a number of reasons, but one of them is connected to that anxiety to be modern:

This revised economy has had too much of a hold on modern theology. The need to be “modern” is part of the problem, when the “modern” is understood as a never-ending apocalyptic moment in which everything we have done up until this moment does not prepare us from the “now” that is about to arrive but never does. Everything must be revised; everything must be new. There has been a modern, apocalyptic anxiety about theology that seeks calls for revision and is fated to continue to do so, each call for revision trying to be more apocalyptic and historical than the previous one. The historical situatedness of this assumption need not hold us captive. To challenge this modern anxiety is not to wax nostalgic for premodernity. —The Perfectly Simple, Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy, pg. 385

There’s much to comment on in this.

For one thing, Long pushes the notion of being modern past Leithart’s single “cut in time” and notes the way the modern ethos (which continues into postmodernity) is to continue anxiously cutting time between this age and that, these people and those.

And so, if we’re to be modern, giving answers to modern people, we need to constantly revise our answers for post-Holocaust, post-industrial, post-colonial, etc. age. Revisions must come by age-bracket now (insert joke about “millennial” eschatology).

Long’s comment also begins to push us towards the problem with such an impulse. For one thing, the thesis of the radically-situated and projected character of all theology is a radically-situated thesis itself. It is not necessary to view the nature of truth, theology, or the world that way.

Another way of putting this is that often enough the refrain, “The old metaphysics won’t work for us,” could be translated as, “The old metaphysics won’t work for some, dissatisfied white kids talking philosophy in a coffee-shop in the late-modern West.” Because something like the traditional metaphysics and economy of redemption seems to be doing fine in a global context, even if there are regional variations.

And even that’s not the whole picture, since there are plenty of late-modern kids in the West who find beauty, power, and strength in the older metaphysics. I know. I’ve talked to them, pastored them, and—surprise!—been one of them.

It seems plausible, then, the modern anxiety and assumption that just because they’re the “old answers” they can’t possibly work in a new context is more prejudice than established fact. Indeed, it borders on fideistic superstition since it exists in the face so many counter-examples sitting in pews across the world.

Nothing Is New Under the Sun

Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. The Teacher’s early refrain is, “there is nothing new under the Sun.” I don’t want to deny the modern point that history is real, time passes, and cultural and material changes happen. But what we see this modern anxiety can take an extreme form such that it constitutes a denial of the continuity of human nature. “We are Moderns (or Postmoderns), it simply impossible for us to believe such things, since we are a different kind of human.” In that sense, it’s not just an eschatological heresy, it’s an anthropological one.

Coming back around to the problem of evil and the doctrine of God, it’s true that for some reason the problem took on a particular potency in philosophical reflection. But what surprises me in these discussions, though, is how often modern, theological revisionists tend forget that pre-moderns were well-acquainted with death and destruction, as if their answers constructed in a theological vacuum.

People act like Augustine didn’t live through the Fall of Rome or pastor in North Africa before the advent of Penicillin. As if Aquinas didn’t grow up in a world of warfare, or where mothers regularly lost their lives (or their children) in childbirth. Or as if Calvin and the other Reformers didn’t witness Religious wars, or have to pray for plague victims at their deathbeds. In other words, the people who came up with the “old answers” on the basis of Scripture were as well-acquainted with evil and pain as any modern or postmodern. Possibly more so.

In that case, if the “old answers won’t do” it’s possible to question the assumptions shared by moderns which keep them from accepting those answers, instead of the answers themselves?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, something of a reviser himself, has commented:

The fact that a later age may find it harder to understand traditional ideas is not a sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation and thus to keep their meaning alive.
Systematic Theology Vol. 2 , 422

The connects well with Long’s comments. To question this modern anxiety is not simply nostalgia for a straight-line return to premodern theology simpliciter, using all the same texts, formulas, with no alterations or considerations of our changed time and place. None of this relieves us from the task of application.

In order to preach the Word of God in our time, we have to know our time. We must know the moderns and the postmoderns. We should understand their objections, their fears, their particular anxieties and worries, which do exhibit cultural differences. It may take more arduous work “to open up these ideas” about God to the women and men of our times.

And because of the human finitude of our forebears, that may even include subjecting our theology to the Word of God afresh. God may move and show us that prior generations were insufficiently attentive to some aspect of revealed truth. One of my theological heroes, Herman Bavinck, is a fantastic model in this regard, in his ability to retrieve and creatively re-articulate the “old answers” of the Reformed tradition in such a way that attends to modern concerns.

But I suppose my point at the end of this long meditation is to say, when it comes to the practice of doing theology—having a Word from God to our neighbors—in the modern (or postmodern era), “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Do not think that in this we must constantly start anew with the release of every Mac operating system.

It is not unlikely God has provided you the answers you need through the work of the Church reading Scripture in history. A good many of them might even be premodern.

Soli Deo Gloria

None Like Him (By Jen Wilkin)

none like him.jpgI have to admit, I have never aspired to become a “God-fearing woman.” I benefited, nonetheless, while reading Jen Wilkin’s new book None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different From Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing). In it, she issues a bracing call for women to become wise, rock-solid, and whole by knowing what it is to “fear the Lord”—to respect, love, and trust their Creator and Maker. But if women are to become truly God-fearers, they must know just who their God is.

But how can they love him who they have not trusted? And how can they trust him who they have not known? How can they know him who they have not studied? Not very well.

So with biblical care, narrative, and a sharp, insightful wit, Wilkin begins the first half of a two part project in studying the “attributes of God.”

The Attributes

Traditionally, theologians have recognized that you can understand God according to two aspects. First, you can study his triune glory, recognizing God as Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, with their distinctive properties, mutual relations, and saving works in history.

Second, you can study the attributes of the one, shared essence of the three persons—the characteristics and properties that we speak of him on the basis of what he has said and done for us—like God’s power, love, beauty, and wisdom.

Well, these attributes are also often split up into two categories: the incommunicable and communicable. The communicable attributes are those that we say that as image-bearers, we can “share” or imitate. Things like his love, grace, mercy, wisdom, and so forth. And second, the incommunicable attributes are those attributes which belong to God alone as the infinite Creator. These are attributes like his limitless power, his infinite knowledge, or his self-existence.

We Are Not Rivals

Wilkin’s driving insight in this work is that the incommunicable attributes give us our measure in light of the measureless God. We were created as finite, contingent creatures, made to enjoy communion with and the blessings of our infinitely good God. Our call as Image-bearers is not to rival God, but to reflect him in the world. But ever since the Fall, we have constantly been striving to somehow overtake, or compete with God’s limitless life. And that’s exactly when the trouble starts for us.

And when we think about it, how many of us cannot recognize the problem in our own lives? How many of us aren’t trying to live as if we were the only self-sustaining being in the universe? Never flagging, never resting, but simply pushing on from commitment to commitment, without regard for our human limits. How much better would our life be if we could rest in the fact that our self-existent God is the one sustaining our lives in existence? If we could “topple the myth” of our self-sufficiency and lean on the one who never slumbers nor sleeps because he is watching us?

In ten chapters, Wilkin goes down the line of God’s incommunicable attributes “toppling the myth” of our omniscience, sovereignty, knowledge, and so forth, in light of the beauty and glory of the infinite God we see in Scripture.

Reasons to Read The Book (For Everyone)

I have to say, I really loved this little book. For one thing, as I already mentioned, Wilkin is a good writer. She can turn a phrase, tell a story, all the while keeping your attention on the matter at hand: God and his greatness.

Oh, and for those who are worried about time—she also knows how to get to the point. The chapters are about 10 or so pages, but if you do want to go deeper, she’s provided extra Scriptural texts and questions to meditate on. Which actually makes it perfect for a Bible study group too.

Second, this is a fantastic example of what good theology and doctrine looks like applied practically. I am a strong believer in the proposition that theology is important, not just for having your heavenly GPA straight when you get there, but for the actual living we have do down on earth. Wilkin takes the truths of Scripture and some of the best insights of systematic theology and shows in practical, tangible ways, how they should impact our day to day life.

In a lot of ways, it’s like the old-school works of someone like Thomas Watson who would preach a very careful sermon on a doctrine, and then list about 10 “uses” for it in everyday life. Wilkin puts these attributes to work in the everyday world of work, parenting, marriage, and everywhere else we do our living.

For myself, I found this to be a personal benefit reading a chapter a day in the morning before having to go in and try to study German. Day by day I have been reminded of my very, very human limits. But day by day I was encouraged as I remembered that God has no limits and it is he who will sustain me in a thousand different ways during my studies.

Third, I love that Wilkin pitched this at women, because I get the sense that much of the devotional and theological literature that is on offer for ladies in our churches is sub-par (that thankfully seems to be changing). But I have to say, I don’t think this is just a book for women. It’s not “women’s theology” focused on (as Hannah Anderson puts it) the “pink passages.” It’s just good theology for everyone because it’s biblical, and it just happens to have women in view in terms of some of its application.

(For that reason, though, I think it may behoove a good many young, male preachers to pick up the book, simply to learn how to think outside your own experience to be able to apply the Word of God to your whole congregation.)

To conclude, Wilkin’s None Like Him is a great book. You should considering buying and reading it. Take the time this year to focus on resting in the beauty of the fact that God is God and we are not. And that’s just okay.

Soli Deo Gloria

Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster

theological theologyJohn Webster has long been known for practicing and advocating “Theological Theology.” The point is not, as some might rightly worry, to practice a form of theology that exists solely for itself–“academic” in the worst sense. Instead, it is to practice theology that is confident enough in the importance of the theological task that it doesn’t need to be constantly borrowing its thought-forms, programs, and methods from other disciplines in order to prove its relevance. It means doing theology in a theological way that proceeds in a manner that fits its transcendently, unique subject matter–the Triune God as he has revealed himself in his works in the economy of creation and redemption.

It’s only fitting, then, that when R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis arranged a festschrift for him, it should take the title Theological Theology: Essays in Honor of John WebsterBut it’s not only the title that matches Webster’s programmatic judgment about the nature of theology–the whole of the work itself exhibits theological sensibility that Webster has cultivated over the years.  The volume really is a treasure-trove of theological theology precisely because its contributors are theologians of the highest caliber who, by and large, have managed to avoid the faddish nature of so much contemporary reflection.

And really, the line-up is quite impressive, including top shelf theologians across a variety of disciplines, theological traditions, and methodologies. Luminaries include: Robert Jenson, Stanley Hauerwas, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Levering, Katherine Sonderegger, Bruce McCormack, and many more.

With over twenty essays and a biographical chapter on Webster himself, the book is impossible to review if we were to do a thorough engagement with each piece included. Instead, I’ll simply note a few of the essays I enjoyed most.

First, I’ve never had the pleasure of reading any of Ivor Davidson’s work previously, but his essay on “divine sufficiency” exhibits an elegance and judiciousness that makes me want to go dig through the archives for more. Davidson reflects on the reality that the theologians context is primarily in the presence of the all-sufficient God. Due to the perfection of the divine life, the Triune God is not only sufficient in and of himself, but is sufficient for us, making us sufficient for the theological task as we find ourself caught up in his sufficiency in the great things of the gospel.

Katherine Sonderegger has a tight little essay on the sinlessness of Christ (which was engaged profitably here), well worth the time. In it she engages the tradition broadly, ranging from Aquinas’ rather nosebleed conception, to modern “fallen” humanity interpretations we find in Karl Barth and Edward Irving, to liberation interpretations.

If you want a good primer/example on the “theological interpretation of Scripture”, in his chapter, Kevin Vanhoozer presents a lively engagement with the Acts 19. Through it, he presents a vision for a non-reductionistic, multi-faceted approach to the interpretation of Scripture which takes its unique ontology, cosmology, and teleological end into account in such a way that begins to responsibly bridge the gap between systematic theology and biblical studies.

A fantastically provocative (yet unfortunately brief) piece by Francis Watson challenges the notion that there even is such a thing as historical criticism. In brief, one of our age’s most renowned biblical interpreters takes the notion of “historical criticism” to task by exposing its history and the ideological and rhetorical function it plays within the academy, beyond its presentation as an interpretive best practice. I’ll likely return to this piece at greater length in a future post.

Francesca Murphy delivers an erudite and insightful entry on the way Aquinas’ appropriation and modification of Aristotle informs the shape and content of his section on the life of Christ in the Summa. In many ways, Murphy demonstrates the surprisingly modern shape of Aquinas’ life of Christ, especially the attention Aquinas pays to its historical structure, contrary to what we might expect in a scholastic treatment.

Again, I can’t begin to do justice to the variety of essays in the volume except to say that this is a valuable addition to any theological library–especially those of seminaries, since it’s quite pricey until the paperback comes out. More importantly, it is a fitting tribute to a theologian of Webster’s caliber.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Peace That God Himself IS

peaceJohn Webster is relentless in his refrain that all of our theology, even our theology about the role of theology, needs to take its orientation in the nature and activity of the Triune God in himself and his works. Unsurprising, then, is his decision to discuss the peace of God as the necessary foundation and precursor to discussing theology’s role in establishing the peace of the church. “Theology must first speak of the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility” (The Domain of the Word, p. 150).

That God is both the “principle” as well as the “pattern” of creaturely peace is important to remember. Webster says that contemporary theology often remembers the “pattern” bit, focused as it is on the God’s outward works to create and secure peace, but forgets the principle. This can lead to an unfortunate “moralitistic” ecclesiology, deprived of the indicative grounding for the imperatives it wants to encourage. Instead, he argues we must first consider God himself as the principle of peace as the foundation and ground of the rest of our reflections.

Of course, as soon as we begin to think about God’s inner, or immanent, peace, we “encounter an inhibition: ‘God is great, and we know him not’ (Job 36.26). We know that God is great, but we scarcely know what we know” (p. 153). This stands as a warning, yes, but also as a “summons” to understand that whatever understanding of God we come to based on his Word, we need to know that God “infinitely exceeds” the operations of our reason.

So what can we say about the peace that God himself is? This:

The peace of God — the peace which God himself is— passes all understanding; ‘neither we nor the angels can understand as God, the peace which God himself enjoys’ (Augustine, City of God, XXII.29). This peace of God’s own self may be considered under the aspects of harmony and repose. First, with respect to harmony; the outer acts of the Holy Trinity are indivisible, the work of the undivided divine essence in its threefold personal modification. By appropriation, specific works may be particularly or eminently assigned to one divine person (as redemption to the Son or sanctification to the Spirit). But each person participates in all, for each shares in the undivided dvine essence, and each work is to be attributed absolutely to that one divine essence. The outer works of the Trinity are, then, harmonious — not mere conjoint or cooperative or composite action, but action which is inseparable and coinherent, and so, in a deep sense, peaceful. This harmony in the missions of the three-in-one is grounded in and gives expression to to the infinite peace which God is. There is no disorder, disruption or contradiction in the works of the Father, Son, and Spirit in the making and perfecting of the world. And so, there is in God’s inner life nothing of divergence or discord, but infinite unity and therefore peace beyond measure.

Second, to this harmony is to be added the element of repose. The outer works of God are effortlessly accomplished, without strain or agitation, without interval between willing and effecting. God rests in his work. This rest corresponds to the inner repose of God in filiation and spiriation, there is no malign diversity, no coming together out of a condition of separation, no overcoming of division or conflict, but always an already-achieved perfection of peaceful life. God’s inner peace is the peace of his triune simplicity.

This inner divine peace is the principle of creaturely peace, that upon which all other peace is founded and by which it is preserved. This is so, however, only because divine peace is in itself complete and fully satisfied. In the repleteness of his life as Father, Son, and Spirit, God is beyond need or desire. His peace is neither enhanced by created peace nor diminished by its absence…it is the harmony and repose which, because it needs nothing, is capable of pure charity, giving life and righteous order in the works of creation and providence.

The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason, pp. 133-135

Webster continues on from here to show how this original peace leads to his work of peace in salvation, the peace of the church, and theology’s role within God’s working of peace. For now, though, I think it enough to stop, sit, meditate, and wonder at the peace which God is.

Father, Son, and Spirit dwell in blessed, holy peace, wanting and needing nothing, fully at rest, enjoying the delight of their harmonious existence as the Three-in-One from all eternity. This peace is light, life, and love.

Now one more thought: this God invites us to share–in our own created, derivative, limited way–that peace through the Son who made peace through the blood of his Cross (Col. 1:20), who himself is our Peace (Eph. 2:14).

Soli Deo Gloria

Canon and Culture: Recovering An Engaging Doctrine of God For the Church’s Moral Witness

What follows is the introduction to a short essay for Canon and Culture. For regular readers, I’ll say that I consider this one of the most important things I’ve written–it’s a message that weighs on my heart, so I hope you’ll take the time to read carefully. Also, I’d like to thank Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer who graciously offered comments on it. The smart parts are his. 

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

doctrineofgodA.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But it’s not only it’s not just that need to choose whether or not we believe that’s the problem, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualites being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Love, Pray. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the warmed-over leavings of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God get’s the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology:Divine Action, Passon, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem for the Church’s public, moral witness.

You can read the rest of my essay over at Canon and Culture

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

8 Ways For God to Be Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria