K. Scott Oliphint, God With Us

Article by   December 2011


K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Crossway, 2011). 304 pp. $16.50.

Professor Scott Oliphint's book, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God, is a welcome addition to the Reformed, evangelical, and scholarly communities. The doctrine of God, the covenant, revelation, and Christology are major themes that come together in a manner that allows Oliphint to express some of the very best contributions made by Westminster Theological Seminary over the years, but in a fresh way that deals with a number of contemporary challenges to Reformed orthodoxy. One cannot help but appreciate the good mix of exegesis (see 156-168) with historical, systematic, and philosophical theology. The dual influence of Vos and Van Til are obvious. Continental theologians such as Calvin and Bavinck also feature prominently. And the work of Richard Muller features - perhaps a little too much - in order to provide us with a sound historical context for a number of Oliphint's claims. The reader will also note that Oliphint crosses swords with a number of theologians and scholars, even those from within the Reformed tradition (e.g., Helm, 31, 75-77 & Turretin, 227, 256-57).

In the Introduction, Oliphint addresses, among other things, hermeneutics and theology proper. Peter Enns comes in for strong, but appropriate, criticism regarding his hermeneutical method and its deleterious impact upon his doctrine of God (20-26). After evaluating Enns, Oliphint puts forth the "proper and protestant" hermeneutical method whereby "Scripture's unity must be given priority" in biblical interpretation (27). He then looks at the thorny question of how exegetical theology relates to systematic theology (28-29) before closing with a useful discussion of the subtle distinction between antinomies and paradoxes (36-38).

Chapter One addresses, in the main, the attributes of God by focusing on the divine name (YHWH). Oliphint shows how the character and attributes of God are derived from his names (52). By combining exegetical and historical insights, Oliphint shows that the name "Yahweh" indicates self-existence (50-62). Following that, Oliphint looks at the hugely important doctrine of divine simplicity (63-71), with a particular eye on addressing some of Alvin Plantinga's concerns about simplicity (67-69). As Oliphint notes, divine simplicity "affirms not that God has a nature, but that God is his nature" (67). Reformed theologians have historically argued that it is technically incorrect to speak of the "attributes" of God because God's holiness is his wisdom is his eternity is his goodness, etc. For this reason, once we affirm, as Oliphint does, an orthodox view of the attribute of infinity (71-72), for example, it should necessarily follow that God's eternity (73-79), immensity (79-82), immutability (82-85), and impassibility (86-88) are consistent with that attribute. A denial of God's eternity as understood by Augustine and Boethius (i.e., God has no past or future, but only an eternal present/timeless existence) will have obvious implications for how we understand God's omniscience. Having said that, Oliphint asserts that because of the incarnation "there must be some real and fundamental sense in which God can have or experience passions" (87). With this claim - one that is not without dispute among Reformed theologians - Oliphint shows that God's essential attributes must first be understood "from the perspective of the character of God as God", but "then also from the context of the person and work of Christ himself" (88). In locating the revelation of God primarily through the Son, not simply the Son as the God-man, Oliphint brings us to the manner in which we are to understand divine condescension.

Chapter two begins with a basic and "fundamental" distinction: the Eimi/eikon distinction, "the distinction of the 'I AM' and his image" (91). This distinction means that our knowledge of God cannot be archetypal knowledge, but must be ectypal knowledge; that is, we have knowledge on a created (eikonic) level (92). The knowledge we have of God depends on his decision to condescend, which was purely voluntary on God's part. After a cogent critique of middle knowledge, including the versions put forth by William Lane Craig and Terrance Tiessen (101-105), Oliphint discusses the decree of God in the context of the pactum salutis. He suggests that the pactum is "not directly concerned with the doctrine of predestination" (107, fn. 50), but historically there were theologians who connected the pactum with predestination. In any event, the pactum brings together God's voluntary decision to will salvation in a manner consistent with himself, namely, all three persons are involved (106). Thus the eternal pactum provides the basis for God's free condescension to humanity by way of a covenant (109-112). This happens principally in the person of the Son, the one who in time became flesh. In the person of Christ, the Eimi and the eikon are brought together into a "real and perfect unity" (154). Therefore, according to Oliphint, Christology is fundamental to God's revelation since we understand God in the context of the covenant.

In chapter three Oliphint shows how God reveals himself in the person of the Son. This chapter is invaluable for several reasons. But first, Oliphint's reading of Nestorius is flawed. Nestorius wanted to insist on the subjective continuity between the Logos and Christ; he was quite happy with the Chalcedonian Creed, and was even prepared to use "theotokos" to describe the incarnation. Besides that, I am not quite sure what Oliphint means that the two natures "cannot be divided in such a way as to exist as a dual personality in the one person of Jesus Christ" (141). He adds, "Jesus was not schizophrenic as a result of the incarnation" (141). I would very much be interested in how Oliphint relates the two natures of Christ and what role the Holy Spirit plays in Christ's life. Nonetheless, Oliphint accurately notes the differences between the Reformed and Lutheran views of the communicatio idiomatum, as well as the meaning and significance of the extra Calvinisticum (142-151), in order to show that the Son of God "did not ... give up any essential aspect of his deity" (151). He does not explicitly use the totus/totum distinction (i.e., the whole Christ is present, but not the whole of Christ), but the concept is addressed. Having grounded divine condescension in the person of the Son, Oliphint makes an extended, and highly valuable, argument for the view that, "while the incarnation is sui generis" (157), Christ has always been the mediator between God and man (156). Revelation is focused on the Son, but not "confined" to him since God is una essentia. The deity of Christ is something that Oliphint is eager to protect and I would say that a major strength of this book are his arguments for Christ's deity; or, what Oliphint calls, the "full and unequivocal deity of Jesus Christ." It is indeed true that Calvin held to the distinction between persons-appropriate and essence-appropriate in order to argue that the Son did not derive his essence from the Father, only his personhood, and so is autotheos (see 175). But subsequent Reformed theologians, with the exception of a few, did not embrace Calvin's more radical statements on the Son's aseity (contra Oliphint, p. 176). Regardless, in highlighting the deity of Christ, Oliphint shows that divine condescension in the Old and New Testaments takes place in the person of the Son; however, it was not the unique properties of the person of the Son that were revealed, but "God himself whom the Logos revealed" (179). Importantly, in tying together the doctrine of God with the person of Christ, Oliphint is able to explicate who God is essentially, "even in his interaction with creation" (183).

Having discussed theology proper and the role of the Son in revealing God, chapter four provides a way to "articulate a biblical understanding of God's relationship to creation" (181). In this chapter Oliphint ties together several strands of his thinking in order to provide an apologetic for how we can make sense of certain difficult passages in the Old Testament that have led some scholars to deny orthodox views about God's essence. It is clear that Oliphint in many places attempts to say nothing new, but rather root his claims in history. But he does not simply do that. In fact, by making use of the communicatio idiomatum, he explains how we may use this theological term to make sense of passages that imply ignorance in God. So, for example, does God change? Essentially, no! But, in his covenantal condescension, yes (185-86). In the example of God testing Abraham ("now I know", Gen. 22:12), according to Oliphint's paradigm, God, essentially speaking, infallibly knew that Abraham would pass the test; but because God covenantally condescends to creation, he ascribes to himself language that is "conducive to his interaction with creation generally, and specifically with his people" (194). While it is true that Christ's incarnation was unique (sui generis), his mediation began prior to the incarnation, and was proleptically analogical to his mediation after his assumption of a human nature. Thus the Son of God, even before the incarnation, took to himself "created, covenantal, human properties, all the while maintaining ... his essential divinity" (198). Whether before or after the incarnation, when ignorance is attributed to God it must be understood covenantally, not essentially. With that in mind, Oliphint is careful to point out that the divine (essential/ontological) interprets the covenantal (contingent or historical), and not vice versa (199, 210). More to the point of the unfolding of revelation, Oliphint eventually makes the argument I was hoping he would make when he notes that the Son's covenantal dealings since the creation, whereby human affections are ascribed to him, are a preparation from "that climactic representation of the Logos in Jesus Christ" (207). If I understand Oliphint correctly, God's own revealed passions in the Old Testament have an implicit Christological focus insofar as what is true covenantally becomes true ontologically when Christ assumes a true human nature. Indeed, Oliphint suggests that the covenantal properties of the Son from the beginning of creation are a "proleptic pointer to the one unique event" (208, see also 220). This is perhaps the point at which Oliphint makes a valuable contribution to Christian theology, and he does so in an ingenious way, especially since he seems to find problematic the view that God's "passions" are merely metaphorical and so needs to replace that view with something better, which I think he does!

In the final chapter, chapter five, Oliphint looks at God's activity in the world and discusses, among other things, God's knowledge and power in relation to his will. In this chapter, more than the others, Oliphint is critical of the Reformed tradition, particularly Bavinck and Turretin. The well-known distinction between de potentia absoluta Dei and de potentia ordinata Dei is highlighted - incidentally, a distinction Calvin rejected - in order to show that God's ad extra works (potentia ordinata) are freely, not necessarily, ordained "according to God's covenantal properties and attributes" (243, 258). In other words, God freely ordained his covenantal condescension, which explains his manner of dealing with Abraham ("now I know"). This chapter, of the five, will surely prove to be tricky for most readers, and Oliphint's critique of Turretin on the will of God may cause some debate from even those sympathetic to the overall thrust of Oliphint's argument, especially since Oliphint is effectively challenging not only Turretin, but the rest of the Protestant scholastics - though in the opinion of this reviewer I'm not sure there needs to be disagreement. Suffice it to say, the freedom of God's decree - even though God's will is essential to his nature - means that God freely chose to assume covenantal properties (258) and was not coerced in any manner. Following from that position, Oliphint provides an able critique of Barthian views (espoused by Bruce McCormack) on Christ and the decree (259-66), namely, that God's "primal decision to assume a human nature is of the essence of who God is" (264), which is indeed a "strange idea" (264).

In conclusion, I'm delighted to commend Professor Oliphint's book. In it we have a Reformed theologian who takes seriously the past, but is not content to merely restate old truths, however helpful that may be. Rather, in giving us a covenantal and Christocentric basis for how we understand God and the manner in which he has revealed himself, Oliphint has made, I would say, a valuable, contribution to Christian theology. 

Mark Jones is the senior minister of Faith Vancouver PCA.

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