Keller, Jones, Turretin, and the Love of God on the Cross

Tim Keller posted one of his gospel aphorisms on Facebook a couple of days ago that got some people riled. He said:

Now, on the face of it, this could be a very problematic statement. My friend Mark Jones has gone into why. Essentially, on one straightforward read, this is playing right into a tritheistic split in the godhead that many critics of penal substitution assume is going on. But contrary to that, orthodox theology has always held the Father has never stopped loving the Son, especially in his moment of greatest obedience to him on the cross.

My suspicion is that is not what Keller has in mind, but is speaking loosely about the experience of the Son as the Godman. I’ve written elsewhere that the Reformed speak of the Godman’s suffering on the cross per the logic of Chalcedon:

When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin or judgment or wrath or God’s abandonment, we speak truly but we speak according to his human nature. We have to be able to say the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. We confess according to Scripture that “God purchased the church with his blood” (Acts 20:28). But we also have to say the Son suffered according to, or by virtue of, his human nature. This is why Reformed Orthodox stalwarts like Francis Turretin insisted Christ is our mediator according to both natures with “each nature contributing what is its own—the human indeed the substance of the work (or passion); the divine, its infinite value and price” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, V). Or as Wilhelmus à Brakel put it, “It was an infinite person who suffered according to his human nature, and thus his suffering was of infinite efficacy and value, ‘having obtained eternal redemption for us’ (Heb. 9:12)” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, 482).

In which case, I think it is a reasonable guess to suppose that Keller is speaking of Jesus’ experience of the loss of God’s infinite love in his experience on the cross.

Indeed, returning to Turretin, we see him articulating something like this at length in his careful scholastic way.

The punishment of desertion, suffered by Christ (of which he complained, Mt. 27:46) was not a bodily, but a spiritual and internal suffering. It arose not from any torment (however dreadful) which he could feel in his body…but from a most oppressive sense of God’s wrath resting upon him on account of our sins. Now this desertion is not to be conceived of as absolute, total and eternal (such as is felt by only demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative; not in respect of the union of nature (for what the Son of God once assumed, he never parted with)l or of the union of grace and holiness because he was always blameless (akakos) and pure (amiantos), endowed with untainted holiness; or of communion and protection because God was always at his right hand (Ps. 110:5), nor was he ever left alone (Jn. 16:32). But as to a participation of joy and felicity, God suspending for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness that he might be able to suffer all the punishment due to us (as to the withdrawal of vision, not as a dissolution of union; as to the want of the sense of divine love, intercepted by the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him, not as to a real privation or extinction of it.) And, as the Scholastics say, as to the “affection of advantage” that he might be destitute of the ineffable consolation and joy which arises from a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance (Ps. 16); but not as to the “affection of righteousness” because he felt nothing inordinate in himself which would tend to desperation, impatience or blasphemy against God. (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, VI)

The long and the short of it in that very long, very carefully qualified paragraph is that while the Son doesn’t lose God’s infinite love simpliciter, he loses “a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance” for a while, not absolutely, but relatively, and so forth. In loose language, we could say that the Son loses his experience of the love of God. At least that’s what Reformed Orthodox stalwart Turretin seems to say.

Now, it’s true that elsewhere Keller has expanded statements like this to point out that the background of the Son’s loss of the experience of God’s paternal affection is his eternal relationship with the Father. That expansion may or may not be worth correcting. Though, it does seem initially plausible that Christ’s knowledge of himself as the Son who experienced glory with the Father in eternity past (John 17:5) could have contributed to the shock and pain of his experience of the “punishment of desertion.” While we speak according to the natures, and we don’t confuse them, we don’t separate them either. But I won’t take a hard line here.

Now, I don’t claim that my read of Keller through Turretin is obviously the right read. I do think it is at least as plausible this is the fleshed out thought behind his aphorism, if not more so, as the one that Jones is worried about. I suppose from there, the discussion we might have is how careful we ought to be with the communication of idioms in our preaching. I have little worry that Keller is preaching heresy, though.

Soli Deo Gloria

(One additional note: this is just one post on Facebook out of years of Keller’s sermons on the cross where one might find counterbalancing statements. I will say that I have heard enough of them to know that on those occasions he references Christ’s quotation of Psalm 22, Keller has pointed out that Christ still calls God “my God”, and is likely invoking the rest of the song as an act of trust in the Lord’s faithfulness to him. The implication is that the fundamental unity of the Trinity remains unruptured even through the experience of wrath. That sort of thing ought to be factored in as well.)

Francis Turretin on Early Divine Christology

Francis-TurretinTheology is a historical practice. We’ve been reading the Bible and thinking about it for a long time. While that doesn’t entirely rule out advances, it does mean we shouldn’t be so surprised when we find that some of our modern studies (biblical, systematic, and practical) are at times only catching up or reworking old variations on a theme that’s been played throughout the history of the church. I’ve said something like this before, but I’ve been reminded of it recently with the recent works on Christology (teaching about Christ) in New Testament studies I’ve been digging into lately.

Scholars like Chris Tilling, Richard Bauckham, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Larry Hurtado, and others have bee mounting a case in that earliest Christology we have (in the New Testament documents) is a divine Christology. Unlike so many liberal scholars have thought, it’s not a matter of slow development moving from “low” to “high”, but that Paul, John, and the other apostles were already up in the nosebleed section of Christology, so to speak. They all are moving along a certain trajectory, focusing on the way the New Testament either ascribes worship to Jesus as only God should, has him doing the things only God in the OT did, receives the Name that God alone has, and so forth.

All of this reminded of Francis Turretin’s defense of the deity of the Son against the Socinian heretics in the 17th century in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Third Topic, question 28, paragraph V.:

That the Son is true God, both consubstantial and eternal with the Father, these four things ascribed to him (and belonging to God alone) invincibly prove: (1) the names of God; (2) the attributes of God; (3) the works of God; (4) the worship due to God.

And from there he goes on in precise, compact, scholastic manner to show the various names, works, attributes, and worship that are ascribe to God in the Old Testament being given to the Son in the New.

Now, of course, Turretin is not doing all of the careful work comparing the New Testament texts with parallels in 2nd Temple Judaism, nor are there extensive studies in the Greek (though he does treat a number of text-critical issues). What’s more, certain specific texts, we might want to read differently in light of recent work (like the fact the Son of Man is more of an exalted, divine title, and the Son of God, more of a royal, human, kingly one). The structure and much of the basic argumentation present in modern, New Testament studies is there all the same, though.

So, long before Richard Bauckham suggested we consider the divine identity in terms of the God-world relation, or the narrative history of God’s mighty acts, Turretin argued that the ascription of divine works to Christ (creation, redemption, etc), should be seen as proof of the deity of the Son.  Indeed, some of Turretin’s work on the issue of Christ sharing divine attributes seems to be underplayed in contemporary scene. Do a little digging in contemporary works on the 2nd Temple period and you’re well on your way to opening up a new line of inquiry in Christology.

Among other things, this is one of those reasons I’m grateful for the increasing attention certain biblical scholars and theologians are paying to the reception history and historical theology. We have nothing to lose in drawing on the exegetical and theological insights of our forebears and everything to gain.

Soli Deo Gloria

In What Ways Is God our God in the Covenant of Grace?

Opening his lengthy treatment of the covenant of grace in the Institutes, Francis Turretin notes that getting this right is of central importance to theology because it is “the center and bond of all religion, consisting in the communion of God with man and embracing in its compass all the benefits of God towards man and his duties towards God” (Top. 12, Qu. 1, par. I). That certainly doesn’t leave much out does it? But that’s not surprising, is it? Turretin is right. Looking at the biblical storyline, it’s a matter of covenants made, broken, renewed, enforced, and ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, the central covenant promise in the Scriptures is that “you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer, 30:22′ cf. Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12). God’s gift to us, in the covenant, is quite simply himself. We will be his and he will be ours. But that raises the question, “How is God our God in the covenant of grace?” not in the sense of, “How is this accomplished?”, but “What is the result?” What goes into God becoming our God? What are the “benefits” of God being our God, so to speak?

In the next section (Top. 12, Qu. 2), among other things, Turretin goes ahead and tries to outline four ways in which God becomes our God in the promise of the covenant. God becomes ours: (1) according to his nature & attributes and persons; (2) according to the communication of goods; (3) according to our conformity to God; and (4) according eternity of good things. The section is rather stunning (and lengthy). While I can barely scratch the surface, in what follows, I’ll try sketch what a blessings Turretin outlines in our possession of God according to these four categories. And when I do, we’ll hopefully begin to see how he can say that the covenant encompasses “all the benefits of God towards man.”

1. According to Nature and Persons. For all Turretin’s strengths as a theologian, he rarely waxes poetic, but this next section is beautiful, so I’ll end up quoting him at length a couple of times. Turretin notes that in reconciliation, we are brought into communion with God. We move from a relationship of opposition to love, we relate to God no longer as an angry judge to us but a Father. In the covenant, we are betrothed to him as a husband and brought under his protection as a King protects his people. Because of this, we receive him as our God according to his attributes. But what does that mean?

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

Okay, so that’s the attributes. But what does it mean for God to be given to us “personally”, or according to the persons of the Trinity? Again, Turretin, at length:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person–the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.*

Already, it becomes apparent what Turretin means when he says that all of the benefits and blessings of God towards humanity are seen in the benefits of the covenant in communion with God. But wait, there’s more!

2. In the Communication of Goods. I won’t do the lengthy quote thing here. Still, Turretin moves on to point out that “He cannot be our God without all things belonging to him becoming ours.” As Paul tells us, all things are ours because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and so we have all things in him (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Piling up verse after verse, Turretin shows us how God’s creatures serve us, God’s angels protect us, God’s earth is our inheritance, and God’s promises (for this life and the next) are ours. Every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies is ours because God is our God through the covenant in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

3. In Conformity to God. It would be absurd, though, to believe that God could become ours without our own transformation. Turretin teaches us that God “is not satisfied with pouring upon us the salutary effects of his properties, but wishes further to impress upon us their mark and likeness (as far as a finite creature can bear it) that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and be like to it (which is the most perfect form of communion).” Here is the beginning of what we might loosely call Turretin’s doctrine of “theosis“, only with a very careful attention to the Creator/creature distinction. Turretin says here that just as the sun shining into a diamond irradiates it with its glory, so does God’s shining splendor fill his children and “makes us shine like many suns” (Matt. 13:43). True communion through the covenant requires conformity to his holy character, as well as happiness, immortality, and glory in body as well as as the soul, which means that our conformity will include our resurrection so that “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

4. For An Eternity of Good Things. Finally, Turretin tells us that none of these things could make us perfectly happy “unless perpetuity was added to them.” In other words, could you imagine being perfectly satisfied in having all of these things while knowing they that were only for a little while? Because God is unfailingly good, his promise to be our God extends into eternity. “So that as long as God will be God (and he will be so forever), he will also be our god that we may forever enjoy his communion and happiness”, as the Psalmist declares “This God is our God for ever and ever” (Ps. 48:14). And we can be confident of this, not only because of the nature of the promise, but with all the other blessings of the covenant like justification, deliverance from death, adoption, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, and the resurrection of the body, who can imagine this continuing for only a short time?

I think there’s more than enough to meditate on here for while–actually, for an eternity–so I’ll wrap it up. The underlying point I hope you’ll come away with is this: blessing of the covenant is God. We don’t go to God for anything else because anything else we might want is already given to us with the gift of the Triune God who is the overflowing source of all good things. You will never receive a greater promise than this: “I will be your God.”

Soli Deo Gloria 

*I also found a post where Scott Swain comments on the two lengthy Turretin quotes after I decided to write this post. Not only did he save me the time of typing them out, the comments are worth your time.

“What Season Was Adam Created in?” And Other Questions That Make Us Giggle

lego-adam-and-eveIt’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged in Turretin, so I figured I’d get back at it before Scott Swain loses heart. To be honest, I was working my way through his section on the decrees and predestination of God. Apart from the usual density of Turretin’s prose, mucking about with God’s eternal decrees which are actually one decrees and will, only multiply distinguished according to our own conceptions…Well, you get the picture. My hubris in theological writing only extends so far.

In any case, I’ve begun Turretin’s section on Creation and things have predictably smoothed out a bit. Given that much of the heavy lifting has been done earlier, Turretin is mercifully clear, and there is quite a bit of interesting biblical exegesis. Actually, I really found a few sections of his examination of the days of creation to be beautiful. What’s more, I’m continually shocked at the broadness of Turretin’s learning as well as the sources he’s willing to draw on. In one paragraph alone, he appeals to the Targum Onkelos, another rabbi, Rashi’s commentary, and caps it off with a quotation from Augustine.

What’s really struck me in this section, though, is the oddness of some of his discussion questions. For instance, there are a number of the discussions on subjects you’d expect. He has a longish question on whether creation is eternal or not, or whether it could theoretically have been eternal as Aquinas argued. Not only is that a famous debate in the middle ages, for those paying attention to current discussions around creation, that debate is still live. For people exploring panentheist theologies, or versions where God is something like the emergent property of the universe, Turretin’s discussion of whether anything besides God could be eternal can easily become relevant.

On the other hand, there are times when four hundred years distance in terms of culture and scientific cosmology show their colors.

How many of you would think to ask the question and argue at length over the question of “What season was the world created?” I mean, really, was it spring, fall, winter, or summer when Adam popped up in the Garden of Eden? Were the leaves just turning red, gold, and brown, or were they newly in flower? Was it harvest time, or were the flowers just blooming? Would Adam have to knit a sweater soon, or were things nice and balmy? Or maybe Eden was just perpetually living in summer–kind of like Orange County?

I’m going to assume that if you’re like me, this question simply never occurred to you. But apparently this was a lively enough debate for Turretin to devote four pages of dense prose to the matter.

Another section that made me giggle a bit, was his segment on the nature of the waters above in the heavens. This is the 1600s so they’re not working with our modern cosmology, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have learned discussions based on the best observation and scientific theories of the day–theories that we might still find plausible and with sufficient explanatory power to convince us if we didn’t have computers connected to telescopes floating about in space.

What’s interesting is how these paradigms played a role in their theological disputation. For instance, the “waters of the heaven” debated became relevant in Turretin’s debate with the Lutherans because apparently some Lutherans were asserting that a layer of water would interfere with the type ascension of Christ and believers the Reformed asserted. They then used that premise to strengthen their arguments for their views of the Lord’s Supper which depends on the omnipresence of Christ’s physical body. See how quickly that goes from bizarre preoccupation to important sacramental debate? (For the record, Turretin believed that they referred the clouds on the basis of scientific theories and exegesis.)

Or again, among other reasons, Turretin reasoned that Adam was created in a part of the world that was in Autumn at the time because it was the most hospitable season for man. This is important because it gives testimony to the benevolent care of God for his human Image-bearers. It also points us to the fact that humanity is the crown of creation–the world was made for man, not the other way around. In other words, in the middle of this rather odd discussion–to our minds–there’s a profound humanism at work that still speaks a biblical word to us today.

Of course, all of these raises the question: which debates and discussions will give our spiritual and theological descendants a bit of a giggle? Which of the hot topic issues that currently exercise us, or fascinate us will pass entirely out of the theological discussion in the coming decades and centuries? We need to remember that our own age is not the summit of theological development. Being farther down the timeline doesn’t necessarily mean we’re farther along in the discussion. At times contemporary concerns can end up being little more than distractions in the long run. Distinctions can be discarded and lost for a time as unnecessary or out-moded, only to be discovered as crucial after the damage of their loss has been made painfully apparent by the failure of theological discussion without them.

Only time will tell, of course. May God give us the grace to struggle faithfully for the truth in all of our discussions and the humility to know the provisional, time-bound nature of all our creaturely labors.

Soli Deo Gloria

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

burning bushFew texts in the Bible have been as metaphysically-significant as Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush. With the giving the Divine Name “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14, the stage was set, not only for covenantal history, but philosophical reflection in the West for millennia to come.

When the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX), rendered that phrase something along the lines, “I am that which is”, a door was opened for philosophically-inclined Jewish and especially later Christian theologians to attempt an identification with the God of Israel, with the philosophical category of being.

Beginning with Justin Martyr down on through Augustine and Aquinas, this text became important for developing a Christian theology of the being and attributes of God. If God is the one who supremely is, then certain corollary attributes follow: independence, eternity, unchangeability, infinity, and so forth. Etienne Gilson famously dubbed this tradition of philosophical reflection “the Metaphysics of Exodus.”

Of course, not everybody has been sanguine about this history.

From various angles, the tradition has been attacked. Lexically, the Septuagint’s rendering has been called into question, and various alternative renderings of the complicated Hebrew have been offered.

Theologically, metaphysical interpretation of this sort has been rubbished as one more, if not the chief, example of the Greek captivity of Christian theology, imposing foreign categories upon the text in order to arrive at foregone philosophical conclusions.

Others have argued that the text is nowhere near philosophical categories. Connected with this, certain modern theologians assert that God is testifying to his faithfulness, or his consistency of action, not his mode of being. Biblical thought is concerned with God’s character, not his ontology.

While some of these arguments have some weight to them, especially the exegetical ones, I thought it might be worth presenting a chunk of Francis Turretin’s exposition of the divine name as a prime example of the tradition. It’s instructive in itself, not because everything in it holds up, but because many haven’t taken the time to look at what this type of argumentation looks like. Also, because it makes a key point that, whatever you do with the rest of it, still needs to be heard: ontology and character are bound up with each other.

There can be no simple bifurcation between being and doing.

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

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

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

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

As I said, there are a few things that are instructive about this passage.

For one thing, the diversity of sources appealed to is always enlightening to note, simply because at certain times Christians, or especially Evangelicals, have been accused (and been guilty) of intellectual ghettoization. Turretin can comfortably appeal to pagan philosophical and literary tradition in order to supplement his point.

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

Well, Turretin answers that a promise-keeping God must be an unchanging God, who is in no way dependent on creation for his being or power. Otherwise, God’s promise-keeping is tentative, questionable, and contested. It would not be grounded solely in God’s own, unwavering power, but in the vagaries of history and chance.

So even if we reject the identification of God with being in the text, and link the name with issues of God’s covenant-keeping character, it’s clear that some level of metaphysical, or ontological reflection on the Name of God is warranted, even demanded by the text.

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Progressive God-Talk, Reformed Theological Method, The Doctrine of Analogy, and God’s Grace in our Knowledge

(Warning: this is a mildly dense one. If you haven’t had coffee yet, you might want to grab some, then come back. Also, it might seem dry at first, but there’s a punch-line you don’t want to miss.)

Progressive God-Talk

A few days ago, progressive author and blogger, Tony Jones threw down a challenge to his fellow progressive bloggers to start actually saying something substantive about God, “Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God”, because they seem to  “have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”

I don’t have a lot to say on the subject of liberal God-talk at this point, except that its been interesting to watch as it unfolds (or the way it doesn’t.) My hope is that more liberal/progressives do post substantive pieces of theology so that a real discussion of the nature and character of God can ensue.

One thing I do have something to say about is the topic of Reformed God-talk, and the attitude that those of us who engage in theology out of the Reformed tradition should take towards the conversation that’s happening right now amongst the progressives. To do that, though, I’m gonna call in a little help.

Reformed Theological Method (Or how Reformedish people go about thinking about God)

A while back I read a great article by Michael Horton on the Reformed theological method in conversation with Open Theism that will be helpful to our conversation. In it he deals with the common charge made that the Reformed scholastics were too dependent on “Hellenistic” thought or Greek speculative, systematizing which distorted the true, “dynamic”, biblical portrait of God. Leaving aside the problem that many who lodge this charge are guilty of the genetic fallacy, Horton shows that, in fact, “Contrary to popular caricature, Reformed scholasticism championed an anti-speculative and anti-rationalistic theological method based on the Creator-creature distinction.” He quotes Francis Turretin as representative of the tradition when he says,

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself . . . , but as revealed . . . Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of
him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God  (i.e.,covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word) . . .

Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature; but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation . . . For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.

So, theology treats, not of God in general, but of God as he has given himself to us in Christ and in the history of Israel as attested to in the Scriptures. This straight from the mouth of Turretin, the Reformed Aquinas and the grand-daddy of all post-Reformation dogmaticians.

Horton then outlines then expands on 4 important distinctions that flow from the Creator/creature distinction that give Reformed theology its particular shape (transcendence and immanence, hidden/revealed , eternal decree/temporal execution, and archetypal/ectypal knowledge). We don’t have space to go into all of them here, but the final one, the archetypal/ectypal knowledge distinction is important for us. This distinction teaches that God’s knowledge is archetypal and primary, while our knowledge is ectypal and dependent on God’s. Horton writes that:

“It is the epistemological corollary of the ontological Creator-creature distinction. Although it had been a category in medieval system, Protestant dogmatics gave particular attention to this distinction and made it essential to their method. Just as God is not merely greater in degree (“supreme being”), but in a class by himself (“life in himself,” John 5:26), his knowledge of himself and everything else is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from that of creatures…affirmation of this distinction is essential if we are to maintain with Scripture that no one has ever known the mind of the Lord (Rom 11:34, where the context is predestination), that his thoughts are far above our thoughts (Isa 55:8), and that he is “above” and we are “below” (Eccl 5:2)—if, in other words, we are to truly affirm the Creator-creature distinction.”

So, the idea is that because there is a radical gap in reality between God and ourselves–he is necessary, infinite, transcendent, etc. and we are contingent, finite, bound–there is also a radical gap in our knowledge. In the same way that God’s reality is at a higher level than ours and sustains ours, the same is true of our knowledge. It’s not just that we know less stuff, but that we know the stuff we do in a lesser way than God does.  This is not to say that we don’t have true knowledge, any more than to say that we are not real, simply because we’re not on the same ontological playing field as God, but that our knowledge is at a lower level than God does and is.

The Doctrine of Analogy (“God is…”)

With this distinction in hand, our discussion brings us to the doctrine of analogy, which has a long history both in Catholic and Protestant theology. I’d explain it, but here’s Horton again:

“All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.”

This is a useful doctrine for many reasons, but as Horton points out, it both acknowledges human finitude unlike rationalistic, univocal approaches to God-talk, as well as gives a place for real knowledge of God unlike modern, skeptical, equivocal approaches God.

Calvin’s Lisp, or God’s Grace in our Knowledge

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, aside from the fact that it’s just important for theology as a discipline, it’s important for our own theology as a part of life. It’s very easy for theology types to get really puffed up when it comes to their “knowledge” of God and his ways. Paul had to administer many a 1st Century beat-down over this in the church in Corinth. (cf. 1 Cor 1-4) What all of this points to is that this should not be so for Christians, especially for those who claim to be Reformed. Listen to Horton again:

“Thus, Calvin and the Reformed do not use analogy as a fall-back strategy when they find something that does not fit their system. Rather, it is the warp and woof of their covenantal approach, a necessary implication of the Creator-creature relationship as they understand it. All of God’s self-revelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God’s “lisping” or speaking “baby-talk” in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God’s transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.”

All of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. It’s not just that we find out about a gracious God when we hear the Gospel, but that our hearing the Gospel at all is an act of grace! Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love. For the Reformed, it should be grace all the way down to your epistemology.

This is why it makes no sense at all for us to boast, or pride ourselves as better than others because of our ability to say and believe true things of God or on our theological systems and tradition. These are good things; they’re great. They’re a rich resource. They can be a great blessing. They can be all of these things, but the one thing they cannot be, must not be, is a source of arrogance or pride. Instead  every truth we utter or find in one of our dogmatics should be a reminder of God’s grace, not our own awesomeness.

So, if you’re cruising around the blogosphere, or just in life, reading people or hearing people talk about God in what you find to be silly fumbling, or inadequate ways, your first instinct should not be to look on condescendingly or pridefully, but remember God’s condescension that made your knowledge possible. When you get that point, maybe, just maybe you can engage in a loving, humble conversation about God and his truth with those whom you disagree.