Tolle Lege: A Brief Response to Paul Helm

Scott Oliphint

I have decided, with some reluctance, to respond to Paul Helm's recent critique of God With Us. The reasons for my minor reluctance are two.

First, I consider Paul a friend. I have learned much from him and, for example, wanted to make sure our students here at Westminster were exposed to his teaching, so was pleased to invite him to teach a doctoral course here a few years ago. I do suspect, however, that his antipathy to Van Til is some of what motivates his comments below. These disagreements, I trust, remain disagreements among friends -- at least I would hope they do.

Second, more importantly, I'm not sure a response to his blog is really in order at this point, given that the answers to his critiques/questions are already resident, and explicit, in God With Us (hereafter GWU). But, since, for whatever reason, those answers have not been seen or addressed in any way by him, maybe it will help to say a word or two or three in response. If one wants a more complete response, my recommendation would be tolle lege! (take and read!). [A word of warning: This response, as with Helm's critique, requires some familiarity with the issues discussed. Space does not allow for fuller explanations of some of the technical concepts and ideas employed in this article.]

First, Helm asks in the title of his blog what motivates my proposal? As detailed in GWU, part of what motivates the proposal are troubling statements made by men for whom I have the utmost respect, theologically and spiritually, including Helm himself. By critiquing such men, I do not want to be read to infer that I am in any way intellectually or theologically superior to them. However, there do seem to me to be real and dangerous errors in some of what is written, in the area of theology proper, by these men. Those errors can be corrected with a more robust understanding of what it means, biblically, theologically and confessionally, that God condescends to us, from the beginning.

Examples of the errors abound, but we can begin with Helm. First, Helm quotes GWU:

"When Scripture speaks of the anger of the Lord, are we supposed to think that the Lord is angry, but that we are?" (190).
Then, Helm responds:
"To which I am inclined to respond, 'Of course not, whoever would think such a thing?"

Unfortunately, the answer to his question is, "Too many think such a thing." The quote from me comes in the context of my theological discomfort with the language used and deductions made by those who, like me, affirm the tenets of classical theism (which I do affirm in the book, it should be said). Examples of "who would ever think such a thing?" can begin with a quote from Helm:

So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however, a change in us, a change that occurs as by faith Christ's work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace (John Calvin's Ideas, 395, my emphases).

Does Helm mean to say (or does he argue that Calvin says) that when Scripture says that God's people were under wrath prior to their conversion (e.g., Eph. 2:3), that what we're meant to think is only that we believed we were under wrath? And are we then meant to read Scripture so that, at conversion, our belief changed to thinking we are under grace? We are surely not to think, says Helm, that God's disposition toward us has changed from wrath to grace. This "necessary consequence" of God's electing love is no "good consequence" at all. It denies the reality of salvation in history. Does Scripture really enjoin us to think of God's wrath or his grace as having its focus in our beliefs and not in God's covenantal disposition to man? Does Scripture really want us to believe something that is not, in fact, the case? And, Augustine:

[Scripture] has borrowed many things from the spiritual creature, whereby to signify that which indeed is not so, but must needs so be said: as, for instance, "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God;" "It repenteth me that I have made man," (my emphasis).

Do we really want to affirm that Scripture "borrows" human attributes in order to state "that which indeed is not so?" Any minister who preached Exodus 20:5 with such a view would rightly be extracted from his pulpit. And, Vermigli:

...when God is said to 'repent' this signifies no change -- no imperfection or inconsistency -- in God, but instead a change in us (my emphasis).

What does Scripture mean when it says God repents? This is not an easy question to answer, but surely it has to be answered with reference to what God is doing, and not what we are doing. And, Charnock:

God is not changed, when of loving to any creatures he becomes angry with them, or of angry he becomes appeased. The change in these cases is in the creatures; according to the alteration in the creature, it stands in a various relation to God... (my emphasis).

This list could be greatly increased, but these examples will have to suffice.

So, in answer to Helm's initial questions as to (1) what motivates my proposal, and, (2) "whoever would think such a thing?," the language used of God in these and other theologians is, at best, most unhelpful. To borrow the language of Westminster Confession (1.6), there can be no question that some of our theology is a product of those truths which are good and necessary consequences of what Scripture teaches. But those consequences must be both good and necessary. In my estimation, these examples show that there may be necessary consequences (necessary consequences of a doctrine of simplicity (and its entailments), a doctrine which I affirm explicitly in GWU - though I do not affirm such a doctrine as grounded in natural theology), without those consequences, being good (which I take to mean, in conformity to biblical revelation).

As I said above, all of Helm's questions/criticisms are already answered in God With Us, but it might help as well to address what seems to be one of his primary concerns. Helm says:

But I don't think that distinguishing covenantal divine attributes from eternal attributes in this way helps the logic, if the covenantal God and the eternal God are one God, though a logical difficulty may not trouble the author, 
But there is a deeper incoherence than this. Such a God is omniscient, for he is essentially so, as Oliphint holds, yet in respect of his adoption and employment of covenant properties he learns. What does he learn? He learns what he already knows eternally. He learns that Abraham will be faithful to his command, as part of his relationship with him as a 'condescended' God. But as the eternal God he eternally knows what the outcome is, for he has decreed it, and so he knows eternally what as the covenant God he first did not know and then comes to know? Is this coherent? Does it matter if it is not?

Here I think Helm either misses or ignores the main thesis of GWU. The thesis is not simply that the Incarnation helps us to understand how it can be that an eternal and immutable God can and does interact with us in history; the thesis is more exegetically and theologically refined than that. It is, rather, that, primarily, the person of the Son is the One who, throughout covenant history, interacts with us in history. I won't repeat the exegesis and theology contained in GWU, but it might clarify some things to repeat some of what I said in GWU in this regard.

Helm's concern is with my apparent abuse of logic and my apparent incoherence. But once we affirm an orthodox view of the Incarnation, the problem of "incoherence" and of "logic" does trouble me, to answer Helm's question, and it troubles others as well. As I note in GWU, this is Thomas Morris' problem, for example, when he argues that the Incarnation is an absurdity. So, says Morris:

Consider any conjunctive reduplicative proposition of the form 'x as A is N and x as B is not N.' If the subjects of both conjuncts are the same and the substituends of N are univocal across the conjunction, then as long as (1) the reduplication predicates being A of x and predicates being B of x, and (2) being N is entailed by being A, and not being N is entailed by being B, then the reduplicative form of predication accomplishes nothing except for muddying the waters, since in the end the contradiction stands of x being characterized as both N and not N.

As I go on to argue in GWU, once we employ the Reformed notion of the communicatio idiomatum and with it employ (with Aquinas) the reduplicative strategy (with respect to how we speak about such things), the perceived incoherence becomes the foundation for our most basic theological confession. 

If it is the case, in other words, that (the Son of) God can take on a human nature, whole and complete, without in any way changing his essential character (as Helm argues brilliantly in his chapter on the communicatio in John Calvin's Ideas), then it is no biblical, theological or conceptual stretch, given that it is the Son revealing throughout covenant history, to recognize that he has, in fact, been "taking on" all kinds of characteristics in his covenantal and redemptive interactions with us, from the beginning, all of which proleptically look forward to the climax of that "taking on" in the sui generis occurrence of the Incarnation. God's covenantal character includes, at least, the span of covenant history; it does not bifurcate God's essential character from his economic (covenantal) character any more than the Incarnation does.

In sum, if, as Helm says, my proposal is incoherent and illogical, then so is the Incarnation. Since the communicatio affirms that we can predicate seemingly contradictory notions of the same person, that person being the Son, how can it be illogical or incoherent if we predicate in the same way with respect to (the Son of) God coming down and acting throughout redemptive history? It can only be so, if the one to whom the communicatio applies in the New Testament is a different person from the one revealing God to his people in the rest of covenant history.

Geerhardus Vos puts the matter this way:

Sacramental condescensions on God's part include his appearing in human/visible form. Behind this visible form is the impression that God is altogether invisible. ...behind the Angel speaking as God, and who embodied in Himself all the condescension of God to meet the frailty and limitations of man, there existed at the same time another aspect of God, in which he could not be seen and materially received after such a fashion, the very God of whom the Angel spoke in the third person. In the incarnation of our Lord we have the supreme expression of this fundamental arrangement. (Biblical Theology, p. 74)
And later Vos says:
Finally, in regard to the much-mooted question, whether the Angel was created or uncreated, a clear distinction between the Person and the form of appearance suffices for answer. If...the Angel-conception points back to an inner distinction within the Godhead, so as to make the Angel a prefiguration of the incarnate Christ, then plainly the Person appearing in the revelation was uncreated, because God. On the other hand, if by Angel we designate the form of manifestation of which this Person availed Himself, then the Angel was created. It is the same in the case of Christ... (Ibid., pp. 75-76).
Further on in his critique, Helm also argues:
So for Oliphint, God is doubly ignorant, ignorant on account of taking on divine covenantal properties and, in the Incarnation, ignorant on account of taking on a truly human nature. But then there's the 'other' God, the timelessly eternal God who knows everything, including what the 'covenantal' God does not yet know. Yet, the two Gods are one God. Can a ship with such holes beneath the water line make it safely to port?

The Incarnation "ship," which includes the fact that the Son, as God, knows all things and that the Son, as man, does not know the hour or day of his coming, can surely make it to port. Scripture sufficiently plugs whatever holes are perceived to be beneath the water line. There is, of course, no "double" or "triple" or "quadruple" ignorance involved, just as there is no eternal God, then covenant God, then Christ. GWU is quite clear on those points. Is it, we could ask -- theologically and biblically -- illegitimate to employ the communicatio idiomatum and the reduplicative strategy with respect to the Son, as the one who reveals God throughout covenant history, and only legitimate when he assumes, for eternity, a human nature? Only if the God of classical theism is something other than the God revealing himself (and acting) in history.

Helm also asks, "Has Oliphint thought carefully enough?" about these things. My response is, "Surely not." There is much more to be done. A biblical view of God's simplicity, for example, must surely and more explicitly affirm ad intra Trinitarian modal distinctions. This was more prominent in the seventeenth century, but has been eclipsed since. In that affirmation, there will necessarily be modal attributions (which are real but not "things") which themselves will help us see how God's attributes, themselves modes, can be attributed to him without any essential change. Perhaps Eleonore Stump's "Quantum Metaphysics" with respect to God's simplicity is a place to start. Alongside that, more work needs to be done in light of the fact that all the works of the Trinity ad extra are indivisible (opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa). This would help us see that, while the redemptive and revelatory work of God has its focus in the person of the Son, it is the Triune God who is working, in history, to redeem a people and, ultimately, to glorify himself.

In the end, the implications that Helm sees in my proposal just aren't there, and GWU is clear enough on that. They are implications that Helm reads, because he reads through a different lens. A coherent critique of my proposal requires, it seems to me, an exegetical and, based on that, a theological refutation. It should be shown, exegetically and theologically, why it is not the Son revealing himself in history, and why, if it were the Son, it would be incoherent for him to assume characteristics that would reveal God to man. If it is simply (no pun intended) the God of "classical theism" who is revealing himself in history, then what are we to make of the persons? It would appear, however, that there could be an unbiblical bifurcation, perhaps itself unable to be synthesized, between much of what passes for "classical theism," on the one hand, and what we all affirm together about the Triune God revealing himself in and through redemptive history, as that revelation has its climax in the Incarnation, on the other. The God of "classical theism" seems incapable of historical interaction; this can't be the Triune God of whom Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is concerned to show us. God revealed in the Son -- this is the redemptive-historical focus of what God, in and through the Son, has been doing in creation all along. The covenant God - himself eternal, immutable, infinite, etc. - is, after all, from creation into eternity, with us. That's the point, and the primary motivation of GWU. To deal with it otherwise, as though the God of classical theism is not meeting with Moses on the mountain (Ex. 3:8ff.), or Joshua before battle (Joshua 5:14-15), or that it was not "Jesus who saved a people out of Egypt (Jude 5), or... (see also, Gen. 11:5; Ex. 19:20; Num. 11:25, 12:5; Neh. 9:13; Is. 64:3; Dan. 4:13), is to miss the warp and woof of redemptive history, and of the God who, given his decree, acts in and through history, to his own glory.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).