Covenantal Condescension

 

K. Scott Oliphint’s chapter, “I Am … Your God” in his book God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God is an excellent primer on the relation of the Triune God to creation. God is wholly other, yet he decided to create and relate to creation. This truth presents an initial problem for theologians. We must be careful how we consider these things as orthodox Christians, because we may compromise God’s independence, freedom, and sovereignty with only the smallest of errors. And so we must be faithful and precise in our theology—giving full attention to Scripture. Oliphint works with this intent. He moves toward an orthodox conception of the transcendent God while avoiding the problems that are so common to variations of Kantian metaphysics. Oliphint writes,

… what does it mean for God to condescend to and to be with his creation? Certainly the notion of “condescend” or “coming down” is a metaphor… We mean that God freely determined to take on attributes, characteristics, and properties that he did not have, and would not have without creation. In his 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. In other words, given that whatever properties he takes on are a result of his free knowledge and will, he did not have to take them on; he could have chosen not to create or decree anything. [p. 110]

Oliphint emphasizes God’s freedom to create and to relate to creation. Whatever we might say of God’s condescension, we must begin with the dogmatic truth that God was not bound to create. In other words, Christianity is not a form of pantheism. Later, Dr. Oliphint explains how this concept of condescension is developed under the idea of a covenant.

God condescended to his creation in order to begin and maintain a relationship with that creation, more specifically, with those he had made in his image. [...] the Confession summarizes God’s condescension in the word covenant [specifically, Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1]. The condescension itself includes a contract that God makes with his human creatures, a contract that requires, first, God relating himself to us and, second, an understanding of our relationship to him. [p. 111]

This covenantal arrangement rests upon the pactum salutis (Covenant of Redemption/Salvation), which is an eternal (though free) agreement between the Father, Son, and Spirit to create and redeem a people for God’s own glory. In terms of redemptive-history, this general covenantal relationship has been expressed by means of two main covenants: the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. This is one of the most basic features to Reformed theology, but it’s one that might be a bit perplexing to evangelicals. It gets a bit more complicated since the Covenant of Grace itself has been issued under two administrations, often called the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. For a quick explanation of these covenants and how they pertain to the gospel, watch our series of several short videos with Dr. Lane G. Tipton.

The Reformed doctrine of God can be intimidating to people new to Reformed Christianity. I would recommend working [slowly] through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2. For those even more adventurous, Dr. Oliphint’s MDiv course, Doctrine of God is available for free on iTunesU. We would all do well to know our God more fully as he has revealed himself to us in creation, in Scripture, and in Jesus Christ.

 
 
 

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

 
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