Objections to K. Scott Oliphint's Covenantal Properties Thesis

Article by   July 2014
Paul Helm has recently offered criticism of certain aspects of K. Scott Oliphint's book, God With Us (Crossway, 2012), and Reformation21 has published responses by Oliphint and Nate Shannon. (1) It is striking that neither Oliphint nor Shannon offers much discussion of Oliphint's central thesis and arguably his most innovative proposal, that God relates himself to the world by taking on "covenantal properties" in addition to his essence.(2) Shannon's article in particular contends that Oliphint advances the Reformed commitment to Scripture by rejecting presumably corrupt elements of the classical Reformed doctrine of God. In my estimation Shannon's criticism of the tradition is somewhat overwrought and misguided. The question of the Reformed scholastics' doctrine of God, and especially of divine simplicity, has been settled. They deny that God can add properties to himself. (3) And while the merits or demerits of that position may be debated, the issue at hand is whether or not Oliphint's own doctrine of covenantal properties is a suitably orthodox alternative to the classical Reformed teaching on God. It is my contention that it is not. In what follows I aim to briefly set forth what I perceive to be the leading difficulties with the covenantal properties thesis. This critique is here stated tersely for the benefit of those just tuning in. (4) My objections are theological in nature and do not require that one adhere to any particular school of philosophy.

I. The Covenantal Properties: God or Creature?

In his volume Reasons for Faith (P&R Publishing, 2006), Oliphint rightly insists that all that exists is either God or something created by God: "[W]e cannot simply posit existence without at the same time saying whether it is God's existence that we are positing or something that exists because created by God" (Reasons for Faith, 110). In applying this criterion to the covenantal properties that Oliphint believes God adds to himself in order to relate to the world, we are thus compelled to ask: Are the covenantal properties God or creature? Presuming that Oliphint believes God's covenantal properties (or "modes" as some prefer) exist, (5) this question regarding the status of their existence is inescapable. He gives us some insight into what he understands their status to be when he explains the process by which he believes God acquired these new attributes or modes of being:
God freely determined to take on attributes, characteristics, and properties that he did not have, and would not have, without creation. In taking on these characteristics, we understand as well that whatever characteristics or attributes he takes on, they cannot be of the essence of who he is, nor can they be necessary to his essential identity as God. . . . Thus, his condescension means that he is adding properties and characteristics, not to his essential being . . . but surely to himself. (God With Us, 110)
From this passage it would seem that the covenantal properties do not exist as God. (6) That is, they are not identical with his divinity. They appear to be contingent, caused, and dependent on God's free will for their existence. In sum, the covenantal properties seem to be creaturely rather than divine. If they were divine attributes then we would now have to speak about features of divinity that are temporal, finite, contingent, caused and dependent. This is exactly the opposite of what divinity is. The covenantal properties seem plainly not to be eternal, infinite, necessary, or any of the other things we normally ascribe to God's attributes. It is perhaps, then, not an exaggeration to conclude that for Oliphint God as covenantal is a creature and not divine.

This poses no small challenge to traditional Christian belief. Inasmuch as Oliphint regards the assumed covenantal properties to be the means by which God relates to and acts in the world, it seems that God does not relate himself to us as God, but as the (covenantal) creature he has become in assuming to himself new non-divine properties of being. For God to be "with us" he must become something non-divine. This is the heart of Oliphint's understanding of God's condescension. (7) Among these apparently non-divine features that God takes on, Oliphint includes God as decreeing, creator, and redeemer to name only a few. Basically, anything that God does with respect to the world. (8) If we are correct that Oliphint understands the covenantal properties as creaturely, then in all the ways God relates to us and is near to us he is such not as God, but as creature. This prompts the surely unintended result of banishing God as God from the world. Even as creator God seems to be acting as a creature. 

II. Trouble with Oliphint's Incarnational Model for Theology Proper

Incarnational analogies are notoriously difficult to marshal without incurring collateral theological damage. Oliphint's use of the incarnation as a model for explaining the God/world relation and the assumption of new properties in God is no different. His program of reading theology proper through the lens of Christology is fairly straightforward: "Because the person of Christ is the quintessential example of God's remaining who he is essentially, even in his interaction with creation, we would do well to think carefully about how our understanding of Christ's person helps us to see what is taking place throughout covenant history as God relates to his human creatures" (God With Us, 182). He further adds, "If we begin with Christology, rather than with some abstract concept of antinomy, paradox, or mystery, we can start to see that all explanations of God's relationship to creation can be understood properly only within the context of God's relationship to creation as expressed in the incarnation" (God With Us, 226). On the face of it one can appreciate the appeal of such an explanation for the covenantal properties. Just as the Son assumes the contingent properties of the human nature while remaining essentially the same as divine, so God as creator and sovereign has become contingently what he was not eternally, while remaining unchanged in his divine essence. But is the incarnation really the key to understanding how the eternal and unchanging God relates to the world in his acts of creation and providence throughout history? I submit that if the union of divine and human in Christ is the model for explaining God's acquisition of covenantal properties, then a few untoward theological implications seem to follow. I mention three.
 
First, if the human properties of the incarnate Son are not divine attributes, then neither are the "covenantal properties" that Oliphint proposes for God. After all, what is assumed in the Son's incarnation is wholly creature and is in no way to be regarded as divine. The incarnation cannot serve as the model for the assumption of anything other than creatureliness. When we speak of the Son's assumed human properties we do not speak of them as new divine properties or attributes. God does not now have the attributes of eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, growth in favor with God and man, suffering, dying, and so forth. All these things are attributed to the Son solely as creature. But if we are to deploy the incarnation as a model for explaining God's relationship to the world as the one who eternally decrees, creates, sustains, redeems and so forth, it would seem that none of these actions can be attributed to God as divine, as God, but only as creature. The net effect of this is that creation, redemption, and consummation can no longer be regarded as divine actions any more than the Son's uniquely human actions and experiences are attributed to him as divine. God, then, does not create or save or judge as God, just as Jesus does not obey, die, and rise again from the dead as God!

Second, it is difficult to see how Oliphint's incarnational model does not entail that the Father and Spirit each subsist as one person in two ontologically distinct ways, just as the Son does by his subsistence in two natures. That is, if the Son's union of two natures is the model for explaining how God relates his divine nature to newly procured covenantal properties--which Oliphint believes are required for God to relate to the world as the one who decrees, creates, sustains, and redeems; actions that are surely attributed to the Father and Spirit--then it must be that the Father and Spirit each subsist in the same twofold manner as the Son, as divine and creature. To say otherwise would be to jettison the supposed explanatory function of the incarnation as a model for the union of essential and covenantal properties in God. 

Third, and perhaps even more perplexing, is the implication Oliphint's incarnational model has for the Son. If he, with the Father and Spirit, experiences the union of divine and covenantal, then he already subsists in this divine/creature union prior to his incarnation. And if the human nature assumed in the incarnation is something other than the already-assumed covenantal properties (a point on which Oliphint is not entirely clear), (9)  then it would appear that there are two unions in the Son: one between the divine and covenantal properties and another between the divine and human.

III. Implications for Worship

No doubt Oliphint commends to us the worship of the Triune God as God. Indeed, to worship God in any other way than as divine would be to make the object of our worship that which is not God. Yet the covenantal properties proposal seems to bring with it some dark unintended consequences in this connection. Specifically, if we worship God as creator or as redeemer, and if these perfections are creaturely perfections (as the covenantal properties doctrine almost certainly requires they be), then we direct our worship to that which is not God, but is creature. We worship God not only as he is as God (divine), but also as he has become in relation to the world as covenantal (creature). It is inconceivable to me that Oliphint would ever endorse this and his volume most certainly does not make this connection. Yet if the covenantal properties exist as creatures and not as God, as I have argued they must on Oliphint's incarnational model of explanation, then this ominous outcome threatens if we worship God as creator, redeemer, and consummator.

If one objects that we worship Christ who is a creature, then it must be pointed out that we do not worship Christ as creature (as man), but as God. More precisely, though in worshipping Christ we worship one who subsists as a creature in his humanity, we do not worship him in virtue of his humanity. When Jesus receives worship in the New Testament, it is always as divine that he does so. Truly, this is one of the great biblical confirmations of his deity. If he were to be worshipped as man those worshipping would be guilty of worshipping the creature and not the divine creator. Herman Bavinck correctly asserts that "the ground for the worship of Christ can, according to the Scriptures, be derived only from his deity" (Reformed Dogmatics, III: 318). Likewise, if what God is as creator and redeemer is creaturely, then we cannot worship him as creator and redeemer. Clearly, how we answer the questions regarding the ontological status of the covenantal properties--Do they exist? Are they God or creature?--is of the utmost significance for our worship of God.           

IV. Interpreting Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1

Finally, inasmuch as Oliphint appeals to the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 as a confessional charter for his doctrine of the covenantal properties (God With Us, 13-14, 92), it is fitting that we consider it briefly. I shall cite the text and then offer a few interpretive and critical remarks:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.
WCF 7.1 is about the disproportion between God and the obedience rendered to him by creatures. No amount of creaturely obedience (to which man is obligated as creature) can naturally enable him to obtain an infinite God as his reward and eschatological beatitude. In order to give himself to man as man's eschatological blessing, God lovingly condescends to inaugurate a covenant that gives a reward (i.e., himself) infinitely disproportionate to man's obedience. A finite obedience could only be properly proportionate to a finite reward. This is why the article opens with an emphasis upon the "distance between God and the creature." God, as divine creator, has a natural right to possess the creature, but man has no natural right to possess God, not even if he perfectly fulfills his natural obligation to obey God. 

There is nothing in WCF 7.1 that suggests ontological condescension on God's part, but only the condescension of offering (via covenant) a reward disproportionate to natural human action. This is called "voluntary condescension" because God is in no way naturally obligated--not even by the fact that he has created man--to offer himself as man's reward. The content of the entire chapter suggests this article is about how man might receive God as his eschatological beatitude. The point, then, is not about the Creator-creature relation as such. That relation is presupposed in the article. Moreover, insisting that it is about the creator-creature relation in general, as Oliphint does, (10) tends to obscure the clear emphasis upon the disproportionality between creaturely works and divine reward. The condescension spoken of is meant to address that particular situation and is not intended here as a framework for explaining God's relationship to the world generally or ontologically. Plainly put, the ratification of the covenant (of works) by which man might receive infinitely more than he could ever naturally lay claim to as an obedient creature simply is the condescension of God spoken of in this article. Indeed, the plainest reading of this text would seem to indicate that this wonderful condescension is something God undertakes beyond the establishment of the created order as such. (11) This covenantal action may very well be coincident and concomitant with God's act of creation, but it does not appear to be coextensive with it according to this article. (12)

Furthermore, the ontological distance between God and creatures is in no way diminished or lessened by God's covenantal condescension. If this distance were abridged by God's assumption of covenantal properties, for instance, the implication would be that God does not give himself to man as God in the covenant--as an eternal, infinite, and unchanging reward--but as the creature he has voluntarily condescended to become in addition to his divinity. On this scheme we would never have any hope of enjoying God as God. (13) If our reward and "fruition" of God is God as covenantal, then our great ambition (to enjoy him forever) is directed at a creature and not at that which is divine. This underscores the point I raised above that the covenantal properties thesis seems to have dark unintended consequences for Christian worship and apparently also our hope of eschatological beatitude: We do not worship God as God when we worship him as creator and redeemer and we do not inherit God as God when we obtain him as our final covenant blessing. These outcomes are unacceptable.   

V. Conclusion    

I do not relish issuing these objections to Scott Oliphint's central thesis. God With Us is full of many doctrines with which I agree and which Oliphint expresses well. And surely he does not intend many of the outcomes I have suggested follow from his covenantal properties doctrine. Nonetheless, his doctrine appears to me to produce far more theological problems than those it purports to resolve. It matters not whether one believes the covenantal properties are God or creature, a raft of undesirable theological consequences seems to follow of necessity upon either view. For my part, I am content to deny that assumed covenantal properties exist and to confess instead that God does not require the acquisition of new actuality in order to create or relate himself to the world, mysterious as this may be. The Son's assumption of a human nature was for the purpose of accomplishing our salvation as the last Adam, and was not meant to bring God near to us as creatures per se, but as sinners in need of a worthy substitute. The distance bridged by the incarnation is that between God and creatures as sinners, not creatures as creatures.   

James Dolezal (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is part-time professor of theology and church history in the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is the author of God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness (Pickwick, 2011).

Notes:
1. See the following: Helm, http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2014/06/what-motivates-oliphints-proposals.html, http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2014/06/scott-oliphint-reply-to-his-rejoinder.html; Oliphint, http://www.reformation21.org/articles/tolle-lege-a-brief-response-to-paul-helm.php; Shannon, http://www.reformation21.org/articles/modifying-classical-theism-chalcedonian-theology-proper-and-reformed-tradition.php.    

2. Oliphint contends that God's "condescension . . . means taking on covenantal properties" (God With Us, 134n1).  

3. John Owen is a classic example of this conviction: "All things that are, make no addition unto God, no change in his state. His blessedness, happiness, self-satisfaction, as well as all his other infinite perfections, were absolutely the same before the creation of anything." The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 368. Owen does not believe that God's state of infinite blessedness can be augmented by the acquisition of any new perfection. For a sampling of Reformed theologians on the doctrine of God's simplicity, consider the following: William Perkins, Workes, 3 vols. (John Legatt, 1626), I:11; John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, vol. 12 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 70-72; Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (P&R Publishing, 1992), 3.7.2-6; Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke, 4 vols. (Reformation Heritage Books, 1992): I:96-99; John Gill, A Body of Divinity (Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971), I.4.3; and Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Baker Academic, 2004), II: 176. Readers will have to judge for themselves if these theologians are guilty of the idolatry with which Shannon indicts their theological method. For a recent defense of the classical Reformed doctrine of God touching on the very points where Oliphint and Shannon dissent from the tradition, see the fine article by Steven J. Duby, "Divine Simplicity, Divine Freedom, and the Contingency of Creation: Dogmatic Responses to Some Analytic Questions," Journal of Reformed Theology 6 (2012): 115-142.  

4. For a more fine-grained assessment along these same lines readers should consult Robert LaRocca's paper, "Against Covenantal Properties" (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-tJ4x9MkN1XOW9YV3pkZFBlT2M/edit?usp=sharing).

5. He explains that "any understanding of God's condescension that we have thus far developed certainly affirms the 'literal' character of these properties in God. That is to say, God really does take on these properties. Though they are contingent and not essential to who he is, he nevertheless assumes them to himself as he interacts with his human creatures." God With Us, 219. These covenantal properties are "really and literally his." Ibid., 199. Oliphint understands the covenantal properties to be real existing attributes that accrue to God, and not merely humanly accommodated ways of speaking about God's work ad extra.

6. This is also suggested when he notes that "we will want to distinguish God's essential properties from those that are covenantal" (God With Us, 62). For Oliphint, God possesses properties that are not identical with his essence: "It would seem, then, that God has properties that are essential to him and others that are not essential to him" (Ibid., 17). 

7. Oliphint explains God's condescension and accommodation to humans in terms of ontological newness in God, assuming new "creaturely properties" of being (God With Us, 131), rather than according to the older insistence upon strictly revelational accommodation in God's manifestation of himself. If the Bible's language depicting God's changing involvement with man in history does not correspond to some changing ontological reality in God, then "theological docetism" seems to result according to Oliphint. Thus, in his view it is not so much the revelational language of the Bible that is accommodated as it is God himself who is accommodated ontologically by the addition of new properties of being. See God With Us, 183. 

8. Oliphint writes, "Because the condescension of the Lord takes place from the beginning, we should understand all God's dealings with creation as necessarily entailing that God has assumed properties not essential to him." God With Us, 221. One of the more bewildering properties he believes God acquires is that of a new "covenantal mind" (God With Us, 219n74). According to this mind God can be truly ignorant and grow in knowledge, just as Jesus' human mind can be ignorant and learn. See LaRocca's helpful analysis in "Against Covenantal Properties" (link in note 4 above). 

9. It would seem that Oliphint would have to differentiate between the covenantal properties held in common by the Father, Son, and Spirit from the human nature that is unique to the Son. Otherwise the Father and Spirit, as covenantally related to the world, would be human. Thus, there must be a real distinction between the covenantal properties assumed prior to the incarnation, and those unique only to the incarnation, i.e, the human nature. Another option might be to say that only the Son takes on covenantal properties (which Oliphint implies at points; see God With Us, 198). But, on Oliphint's understanding of what is required for God to relate to the world, this would effectively result in denying that the Father or Spirit have anything to do with decreeing, creating, sustaining, redeeming, and judging creatures.

10. See the lengthy discussion in God With Us, 93-131.

11. For support of this interpretation see A. A. Hodge's remarks on this article in The Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 1958), 121; and Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Christian Focus, 1974), 84-87. See also, Richard C. Barcellos, The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology (RBAP, 2010), 94-95, 164-166.  

12. It is not strictly necessary that one hold Adam existed for a time in a pre-covenant state in order to see this point. Creation as creation pure and simple does not require God to attach the promise of himself (or anything else for that matter) as man's reward for obedience. Thus, the attachment of such a promise, even if Adam never existed apart from it, is still something that is superadded to the Creator-creature relation simpliciter (though man's obligation to obey is not). Moreover, even if we grant that God's act of creation can somehow be construed as covenantal condescension there is nothing in this article to suggest that covenantal condescension as such must include the ontological acquisition of new properties of being. Oliphint seems to force that interpretation on the text without warrant from the confession itself.

13. Oliphint does speak of our ambition to enjoy God as our creator (God With Us, 14). But again, if creator is what God is as covenantal, as Oliphint maintains, and if the covenantal properties are creatures, then to enjoy God as creator means that we enjoy him as creature, and presumably not as God, as divine. Undoubtedly, Oliphint does not intend this result. 

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