Results tagged “Doctrine of God” from Reformation21 Blog

Understanding Theology Proper

|

With the first verse in the Bible, we are confronted with the necessity of the interpretive priority of theology proper (i.e., answering that and what God is) to account for the economy (i.e., answering that and what God does): "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). How are we to understand the meaning of "God" in this verse? Does the plural form of God in the Hebrew text (i.e., Elohim) and the singular verb (i.e., "created") hint at a plurality of persons in the Godhead or not? How are we to understand the meaning of the word "created"? Similar questions arise when we consider the second verse of the Bible: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2; emphasis added). Who or what is this "Spirit of God" and how are we to understand the meaning of "hovering"? The same goes for the third verse in which we read, "Then God said..." (Gen. 1:3). God speaks? Does He speak Hebrew or some sort of divine language? In order to answer these and related questions properly, we have to understand that divine ontology precedes divine economy and conditions our interpretation of it.

When divine ontology does not properly inform the divine economy in our interpretive process, we have a theological train-wreck in the making--a wreck heading to the junk-yard of heresy. How would one explain "Then God said" without more information about the One who spoke and said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3)? Without more information about the speaker, one might conclude that God (whatever 'He' or 'it' may be) must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and that He takes in air and it flows over throat organs which end up producing audible sounds that come forth from a mouth producing detectible and understandable words. Consider verse 26 as well: "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26; emphasis added). One might conclude from these words a plurality of creators without more information, or some sort of pre-cosmological, heavenly sanhedrin inclusive of God and others.1 What's the point? We cannot properly interpret the divine economy, God's external works, the opera Dei ad extra, unless we have theology proper (God, Trinity, and decree) firmly in place. Without this, we run the risk of falling into the error of neo-Socinians. John Webster is correct when he says, "We do not understand the economy unless we take time to consider God who is, though creatures might not have been."2

Maybe asking and answering an important question at this juncture will help illustrate what is being argued. Where do we learn of God as Trinity, for example? In the economy. This means, as Giles Emery asserts, "[t]he doctrine of the Trinity and the history of salvation are intimately connected; they mutually illuminate each other."3 It is through the economy that the Trinity is revealed to us and it is the Trinity throughout the economy which illuminates it for us. The acts of God (i.e., oikonomia) reveal the divine to us, but the theologia (i.e., the mystery of God as Trinity), as revealed in Scripture, illuminates all the acts of God.4 The Trinity constitutes the economy, not the other way around. Though the economy reveals the Trinity, it does not make or re-make the Trinity. Emery's comments may be helpful:

"God reveals himself...as Trinity, because he is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is; however, the reception of the revelation of God...in the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself."5

In order to account properly for God's acts in the economy, we must learn who God is from the economy. Our interpretation of the economy must be conditioned by who God is apart from it, though revealed to us in it. And, as Emery says, God "is in himself Trinity and he acts as he is." Knowledge of who God is, then, must condition and shape our explanation of what God does. While this is so, we must always remember that "the economy does not exhaust the mystery of the Trinity in itself," as Emery asserts. Though God reveals Himself through various revelatory modalities, the various revelatory divine acts do not exhaust who and what God is. As Webster says:

"The divine agent of revelatory acts is not fully understood if the phenomenality of those acts is treated as something primordial, a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent. God's outer works bear a surplus within themselves; they refer back to the divine agent who exceeds them."6

Though it is God who reveals Himself in the economy, the revelation of God--while true--is not comprehensive of who and what He is. As well, the acts of God are not "a wholly sufficient presentation of the agent," as Webster asserts. The acts reveal God but do not exhaust His identity, nor do they constitute Him as God. God is not God by virtue of what He does. Without the interpretive priority of theologia to oikonomia, we run the risk of reading the economy back into the divine ontology. This is the error of all forms of process theism and that of the older Socinians.


1. The idea of a "heavenly sanhedrin" comes from John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 edition), 17:222. He argues that God is clearly the exclusive creator (ref. to Gen. 1:26), not a heavenly court inclusive of angels, "as if God had a sanhedrim in heaven . . ." The spelling of sanhedrim is original in Owen.

2. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 86.

3. Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 173.

4. For a helpful discussion on the history and meaning of the terms theologia and oikonomia see Lewis Ayres, "[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Theologia and Oikonomia," https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/common-places-theologia-and-oikonomia-by-lewis-ayres/. Accessed 6 September 2017. For a good discussion on the more recent and common terminology (i.e., economic Trinity and immanent Trinity) see Fred Sanders, The Triune God, New Studies in Dogmatics, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, gen. eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 144-53. Sanders provides resistance to the newer terminology.

5. Emery, Trinity, 177.

6. Webster, God without Measure, 1:8.

 

Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis

Creation, Incarnation and the Immutability of God

|

The late professor John Murray captured the essence of the incarnation when he said, "The Son of God became in time what He eternally was not. He did not cease to be what He eternally was, but He began to be what He was not."1 On a prima facie reading of this statement, one might be tempted to draw the faulty conclusion that a change occurred in God when the second Person of the Godhead took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet, the Scriptures are clear that God does not and cannot change (Malachi 3:6). If God added to Himself a human nature (something that did not exist prior to the incarnation) how was there not a change in God? Herman Bavinck gave the only suitable answer when he wrote: "Neither creation, nor revelation, nor incarnation (affects, etc.) brought about any change in God. No new plan ever arose in God. In God there was always one single immutable will"2 The immutability of God is in no way whatsoever affected by the incarnation on account of the fact that the incarnation was based on God's eternal will and decree.  

God's word teaches, in no uncertain terms, that "the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever" (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 36). 40 days after the resurrection, the disciples watched as Jesus bodily ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:9-11). The Scriptures teach that a man sits on the throne of God in glory, both now and forever (Ezekiel 1:26; Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 4:3). An indissoluble union of the Divine nature and human nature occurred in the fulness of time when Christ was conceived. The body of Jesus is forever united to the Divine nature. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, is even now seated on the throne of God in heaven. Derek Thomas employs a colloquial metaphor to capture the essence of this truth when he says, "The body of Jesus has a zip code." And yet, the incarnation in no way whatsoever brought about a change in God by adding anything to God's divine nature. 

Of course, as we set out to consider the relationship between the incarnation and the immutability of God, we must necessarily also investigate the relationship between creation as a whole--as well as the response of God to the actions of His creatures--and the immutability of God. 

Perhaps the greatest of all questions to trouble the minds of men is that which regards the creation of the world and the immutability of God. How can God have complete fulness in and of Himself, and yet bring into existence something that did not exist without adding something to Himself? How does the creation of the Universe not demand the conclusion that a change has occurred in God? John Gerstner once suggested that Jonathan Edwards fell dangerously close to pantheistic notions while grappling with this question. However, in the Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, Edwards made the following statement:

"No notion of God's last end in the creation of the world is agreeable to reason, which would truly imply any indigence, insufficiency, and mutability in God; or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness. Because it is evident, by both scripture and reason, that God is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably, and independently glorious and happy: that he cannot be profited by, or receive any thing from the creature; or be the subject of any sufferings, or diminution of his glory and felicity from any other being. The notion of God creating the world, in order to receive any thing properly from the creature, is not only contrary to the nature of God, but inconsistent with the notion of creation; which implies a being receiving its existence, and all that belongs to it out of nothing. And this implies the most perfect, absolute, and universal derivation and dependence. Now, if the creature receives its all, from God, entirely and perfectly, how is it possible that it should have any thing to add to God, to make him in any respect more than he was before, and so the Creator become dependent on the creature?"3

The immutable will and eternal decree of God is what makes this derivation possible without in any way adding to the nature of God or effecting any change in God. It is all the more important that we are clear about this when come to the question about the personal interaction of the immutable God with His ever-changing creatures. After all, the Scriptures seem to intimate that change has occurred in God with regard to His actions toward men. Scripture says that God "rented from the harm that He said He would do to His people" (Ex. 32:14). How does this not imply change? How do we reconcile this seeming change with what we have already concluded? When he tackled this question in particular, Bavinck concluded:

"Scripture itself leads us in describing God in the most manifold relations to all his creatures. While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states. Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself. There is change around, about, and outside of [God], and there is change in people's relations to him, but there is no change in God himself...We should not picture God as putting himself in any relation to any creature of his as though it could even in any way exist without him. Rather, he himself puts all things in those relations to himself, which he eternally and immutably wills--precisely in the way in which and at the time at which these relations occur. There is absolutely no "before" or "after" in God; these words apply only to things that did not exist before, but do exist afterward. It is God's immutable being itself that calls into being and onto the stage before him the mutable beings who possess an order and law that is uniquely their own...Without losing himself, God can give himself, and, while absolutely maintaining his immutability, he can enter into an infinite number of relations to his creatures."4

God entered into an infinite number of relations to his creature in accord with the immutability of His eternal will and decree. When considered in this way, we can safely conclude that there is no change in the God who stands outside of time when He carries out His decree in accord with His divine attributes and the actions of His creatures in time. The immutability of God's eternal will and decree safegaurds against any notion of change in the immutable God in light of the creation, the action of His creatures and the incarnation.  

Believers will spend eternity meditating the inexhaustible depths of the infinite and immutable God who created all things out of nothing without adding anything to Himself. We will forever be "lost in wonder, love and praise," as we contemplate the mystery of the incarnate Christ, who now sits on the throne of God as the head of the new creation--a redeemed people which the immutable God "purchased," as it were, "with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). 


1. John Murray O Death, Where is Thy Sting? The Collected Sermons of John Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2017).

2. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Vol. 2, p. 159). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 

3. Jonathan Edwards Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World (New York: S. Converse, 1829) p.13

4. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 159.
Introduction

Hebrews 12.28 prescribes that Christian worship be grateful, awe-filled, and reverent. Hebrews 12.29 describes why Christian worship should be so: "our God is a consuming fire." In the preceding post, we paused to consider the significance of this imagery and concluded that it presents God to us as a holy wonder, unprecedented and incomparable in his transcendent brilliance. We also concluded that, if this unprecedented and incomparable God is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped rightly, he must interpret the meaning of his identity to us in his Word. 

God answers our need for divine self-interpretation in the revelation of his name YHWH to Moses and in the actions whereby he brings his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to pass through the events of the exodus. We may more fully grasp the meaning of the image of God as a consuming fire by contemplating the meaning of this name and the meaning of these events. We will pursue the first path of contemplation in the present post and the latter path in the post that follows.

The meaning of God's name

Along with the holy wonder of the burning bush, Exodus 3 also presents to us the holy wonder of God's name YHWH, the so-called Tetragrammaton. The name YHWH offers further insight regarding the image of God as a consuming fire.

Following a broad tradition of catholic and Protestant exegesis, the Leiden Synopsis identifies YHWH as "the proper name of God." By this name, the Synopsis explains, "God has set himself apart from everything." Like the sign of the burning bush, the name YHWH is unique and unprecedented. According to Francis Turretin, "this name is so peculiar to God as to be altogether incommunicable to creatures." Though God appropriates an almost endless variety of creaturely names in making himself known to his people--he is a warrior, a rock, and a fountain of living water, the name YHWH is not one that he shares with creatures (Isa 42.8). YHWH is God's "holy name" (Ps 145.21).
Given the incommunicable nature of God's proper name, God alone can provide the exegesis of its meaning. And this he does in Exodus 3.14 in response to Moses' request. "I am who I am" is not, strictly speaking, an etymology of YHWH, but a wordplay that expresses something of its enigmatic meaning (thus Andrea Saner). As God's proper name YHWH is absolutely unique, so its exegesis in Exodus 3.14 reveals that its meaning is wholly self-referential, self-interpreting, self-determined. YHWH and YHWH alone is the measure of YHWH's meaning. The Father in relation to whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Eph 3.14-15) is not himself named in relation to heaven or earth but only in relation to himself. 

Exodus 3.14's wordplay on God's proper name associates the name YHWH with "being," as the entire tradition of Christian biblical interpretation (higher critical biblical interpretation excepted) has acknowledged, following both Septuagintal and New Testament glosses of the name. YHWH is "the one who is" (Exod 3.14 LXX), the one "who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4.8). YHWH, moreover, is not identified as being-this or being-that but as absolute being-itself. To be YHWH is to be the absolute fullness of every good thing that may be found to exist in a finite and divided manner in God's creatures. YHWH is "the bread of life" (John 6.35), "the light of the world" (John 8.12), "the door" (John 10.7), "the good shepherd" (John 10.11), "the resurrection and the life" (John 11.25), "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14.6), and "the true vine" (John 15.1). YHWH, furthermore, is absolute being existing in and of himself. As the meaning of this name is self-referential and self-interpreting, so the being of YHWH is self-existent. YHWH has "life in himself" (John 5.26). Finally, the fact that this name is God's memorial name forever (Exod 3.15) indicates that YHWH is eternal and unchanging, a connotation picked up in New Testament evocations of this name as well (John 8.58; Rev 4.8).

Conclusion

YHWH is the proper name of God as holy wonder. By this name, God identifies himself as self-existent, unchanging, fullness of being, "I am who I am." The fire of YHWH burns but the bush is not consumed because YHWH is a fire that burns without need of fuel. 

The good news of Exodus 3 is that this God is our God, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," who exhibits his identity as YHWH in trouncing Pharaoh and his armies and in rescuing his people that he might dwell in their midst, that he might speak out of the midst of the fire, that his people might serve and worship him. As we will see more fully in the next post, this is the greatest wonder of all and the defining feature of Christian worship: that YHWH, the eternal and unchanging one, the holy one of Israel, would dwell in the midst of a sinful people and that they would not be consumed.
Introduction

According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, worship is the "Godward acknowledgement of God's unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration." As we saw in our last post, this definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29. As we also saw, the foundation for this vision of worship lies in God's identity as "a consuming fire." 

If we are to understand what it means to call our God "a consuming fire," we have to appreciate (1) the meaning of an image, (2) the meaning of a name, and (3) the meaning of a series of actions that unfold in God's redemption of Israel from Egypt and in his coming to dwell in Israel's midst. In the present post, I want to consider the meaning of an image by considering two texts which generate that image and which indicate its significance, namely, Exodus 3.1-6 and Deuteronomy 4.24.

Exodus 3.1-6

Exodus 3.1-6 describes God's appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Several features of this appearance are worth noting. First, the burning bush is a wonder. Moses has seen bushes before. Moses has seen fires before. And he, in all likelihood, has seen bushes on fire before. But Moses has never seen this: "the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed" (Exod 3.2). The wonder of the burning bush--its novel and unexpected nature--draws Moses like a magnet, causing him to "turn aside to see this great sight" (Exod 3.3). Second, the burning bush, as a sign of God's presence, is a sign of God's holiness: "When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then he said, 'Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exod 3.4-5). Third, the burning bush is a sign of God's covenant faithfulness. From the midst of the bush, God declares, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exod 3.6), and he announces that he has come to make good on his covenant promises to the patriarchs through the hand of Moses, whom he commissions to serve as the covenant mediator (Exod 3.7-22). 

The image of the burning bush thus provides a threefold revelation of what it means for God to be a consuming fire. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as a wonder. God is sui generis, unique and unprecedented, and, for that reason, he is an attractive force. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as holy. God is transcendent, set apart in his pure and radiant brilliance and therefore elicitive of reverence and fear. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as faithful. God is one who hears his people in their plight and who keeps his promises in the face of all adversity and opposition. Moses' response to the threefold revelation of God as wonderful, holy, and faithful is appropriate, if not yet fully informed regarding the full significance of God's identity as a consuming fire: "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (Exod 3.6).

Deuteronomy 4.24

The image of God as a consuming fire, though initially revealed in Exodus 3.1-6, receives further elaboration in Deuteronomy 4.24: "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." 

Within its immediate context, the image evokes God's presence at Sinai. There God entered into covenant with Israel through Moses (Exod 19-24; note also the comparison of Sinai and Zion in Heb 12.18-29), in fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by God in Exodus 3.12 and by means of an unprecedented act of deliverance (Deut 4.32-35). There, in another unprecedented act, God spoke to Israel "out of the midst of the fire" (Deut 4.12, 15, 33, 36). This fiery mode of divine self-communication, whereby God causes Israel to hear "the sound of words" rather than to see a "form" (Deut 4.12), provides the basis for the prohibition of images in Deuteronomy 4.15-19. The identity and presence of the God who speaks from the midst of the fire cannot be depicted in or mediated by graven images because this God radically transcends all classes of creatures and thus all classes of creaturely forms, whether in heaven, or on earth, or in the midst of the sea. If the identity of this unique and incomparable God is to be known, and if his presence is to be enjoyed, then Israel must not look but listen: "Hear, O Israel" (Deut 6.4)! 

The description of our God as a consuming fire in Deuteronomy 4.24 indicates something about God's identity and something about the worship which he finds "acceptable" (Heb 12.28) and which he blesses. As the unique and incomparable one, God gloriously transcends all categories of creaturely being. Moreover, he is not to be numbered among the panoply of Ancient Near Eastern gods. He is "the God" (Deut 4.35). Because he is this one, he prohibits the use of images in worship. Furthermore, because he is this one, the unique and comparable one, God's identity can only be known through a unique and incomparable medium: that of his self-revealing Word. If he is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped aright, the Lord must proclaim his name to us, a point which we will unpack in the next post.

Conclusion

The good news of the God who speaks "out of the midst of the fire" is that the God who prohibits images also promises to make himself known through his Word and, in doing so, to come to us and bless us (Exod 20.23-24). Worship, first and foremost, therefore is a matter of hearing this promise and of preparing ourselves for the presence and blessing of our God, who is a consuming fire.
In his book, The God We Worship, Nicholas Wolterstorff defines worship as the "Godward acknowledgement of God's unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration." 

According to Wolterstorff, worship is "Godward" in its orientation. In our everyday lives "we are oriented toward tasks, toward our neighbors, [and] toward the created world." Though we seek to honor the name of the Lord in these various everyday orientations, in public worship, "we turn away from attending to the heavenly bodies and away from attending to the neighbor so as to attend directly to God." "In assembling to worship God," he says, "we turn around and orient ourselves toward God; we face God."  

The Godward orientation of worship, furthermore, brings with it a distinctive "attitudinal stance." An attitudinal stance, in Wolterstorff's understanding, is "a way of regarding" another person. Though it includes emotions, an attitudinal stance is more than a feeling. An attitudinal stance refers to the intellectual, volitional, emotional, and physical posture in which a person or, better, an assembly of persons attends to God in worship.

Wolterstorff argues that "awed, reverential, and grateful adoration" is the attitudinal stance appropriate to the Godward orientation of worship. God's awesome presence awakens awe. God's holy name inspires reverence. God's grace and kindness elicit grateful adoration. 

Whether intentional or not, Wolterstorff's definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29: "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." In verse 28, the author of Hebrews summons us to gratitude, for by God's grace we have become heirs of an unshakable kingdom. Moreover, he calls us to worship God with reverence and awe

In verse 29, the author provides the reason or warrant for worshiping God in this manner: "our God," the God of the covenant, "is a consuming fire." God's identity as "a consuming fire" is the basis for worshiping God with reverence, awe, and gratitude. His nature dictates our response. Theology is the foundation of doxology.

In the several posts that follow, I plan to discuss what it means to describe our God as "a consuming fire" and to consider a few implications of this description for Christian worship.