3
Aug
2012

Nature and Scripture

In 1946, the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary published a symposium on the doctrine of Scipture titled The Infallible Word. Cornelius Van Til’s contribution, an essay titled “Nature and Scripture,” is an important work describing the relationship of general and special revelation. In this episode, Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster, expounds on this essay and connects it to contemporary issues in philosophy and theological methodology.

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48 Responses

  1. Men,

    I’m listening to this good program and thank you for it. I do have a question that has been a sticking point for me. Dr. Oliphint states the following:

    “Anything that is not covenantal is by definition…autonomous, because covenantal means dependent on God…. If there is something out here that is not covenantal then God is not involved. God is not present. It is neutral in that sense and your not accountable for it. ”

    After this, he states that Van Til runs to WCF 7. I have heard Dr. Oliphint state this different times, and I’ve repeated it (held to this) myself. But as I look at WCF 7, it does not seem to coincides that everything is covenantal. The WCF seems to break up Adam “life” in two ways “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator,” and “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 hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.” So, without covenant, Adam (at least this is what the Confession seems to be stating) had relationship with God, in fact he owed him obedience, and this, without covenant.

    Perhaps you can help me understand this.

    Thanks,
    Jeff

    1. Scott O.

      Jeff,

      Thanks for this; a good question. I think what the Confession is attempting to say here is that man, by nature, owes God obedience. That is essential to who we are. Yet, we could not have fruition with God unless He condescended. So, our obedience, given God’s condescension, is construed in the context of God’s covenant. Or, to say it another way, since God has condescended, and thus established a covenant with man, it is possible to have fruition of him as our blessedness and reward. Our obligation to obey, therefore, is framed out in terms of God’s covenant.

      Since he determined, freely, to condescend, anything presumed to be autonomous is, by definition, a denial of our covenantal relationship with God, which He Himself has established.

  2. Hermonta Godwin

    Jeff, one way of understanding such is that Westminster is saying that Special Revelation is not necessary to understand General Revelation.

    If such is true then Dr. Oliphint’s covenantal vs. autonomous schema does not work if one takes covenantal as being explicitly dependent on knowledge derived from the Bible. It is true that everything is dependent on God because God is the absolute etc. but one does not need to know that to begin the inquiry.

  3. Jeff Waddington

    Hermonta

    Did God’s speaking the universe into existence precede his embedding natural revelation in his creation?

      1. Jeff Waddington

        Hermonta

        Can you provide me with an example of someone who has lived in a context where only natural revelation governed? Also, what examples can you provide of a person who has properly understood and obeyed natural revelation apart from special revelation?

      2. Hermonta Godwin

        Jeff,
        –Can you provide me with an example of someone who has lived in a context where only natural revelation governed?–

        Moving back a moment to my previous comment. I don’t see the need to separate God’s embedding natural revelation into creation from his speaking creation into existence. Natural revelation was a part of creation as it was put into place. There is no reason to believe that there was a creation that revealed nothing about God but then God added on revelation at a later point.

        I think many people people live in the context of only natural revelation. Those without the Bible in their language etc. It is enough for one to be justly condemned to Hell etc.

        –Also, what examples can you provide of a person who has properly understood and obeyed natural revelation apart from special revelation?–

        There are no examples of such. The bigger question is why is that the case? Is it due to natural revelation being insufficient by itself or is it due to our rebellion against that which is clear?

      3. Brad B

        Great questions Hermonta!

        I would really like to see some interaction on this point from Jeff or anyone else. This is something that I have been thinking deeply about. esp. regarding your question ” The bigger question is why is that the case? Is it due to natural revelation being insufficient by itself or is it due to our rebellion against that which is clear? I would love to hear from the panel on this with some interaction from the writings of Van Til as I know that he has spoken on this very issue in much of his writing. I have yet to fully understand Van Til on this subject.

  4. Thanks for the responses. My struggle is not an issue of man being autonomous at any point, but, whether creation and God’s relationship to the creation = covenant. It seems as though this would be the position of Dr. Oliphint, along with others such as OP Robertson (which is what I’ve held to for years). I do not necessarily have a problem with this; it just doesn’t seem to the natural reading of WCF 7.

    As of late, I’ve been leaning more toward Thornwell’s view, if I’m understanding it correctly. Before the CoW, man is under God’s moral government (obligated to obedience, by virtue of him being a creature, and God being the creator). This seems to coincide with WCF 7a. Then, we have the CoW, where covenant comes in, and we have a “full definition” (so to speak) with stipulations, promises, blessings, curses, etc. This seems to coincide with WCF 7:1b.

    I’m certainly willing to be corrected on my understanding of WCF 7:1. Any other thoughts, in regards to the second paragraph above?

  5. Resequitur

    Jeff,

    I’m not sure if I understand you correctly, but I was reading the comments here and became interested in what you were saying, so I apologize if I’ve misread what you are saying,

    but are you saying that we are to understand that Adam, at least at some point, as being created outside of the covenant relationship? Or to put it simply, that there was a point in which Adam was not in covenant with God?

    1. Jeff, I’m not sure I’m following you, but it could be that you understand the confession as referring to something that took place in time, e.g. Adam at one point did not have fruition of God, then God condescended. What the confession says, I believe, is that the first part (never having fruition) is hypothetical/counterfactual and the second part (God condescending) is actual. So I think the confession is making precisely the opposite point you are arguing for. In other words, the ontological distance is so great that there is no way Adam would have any fruition of him except through the voluntary condescension of revelation, both natural and special, inherently covenantal because of who it reveals.

    2. Resequitur

      I would agree with you that the Covenant that God made with Adam did happen at a particular instance in time. However, it seems the way Dr. Oliphint understands the condescension, and the way that he argues the Westminster Divines understand it, that God’s condescension happens when God determines to decree whatsoever comes to pass.

      “There is a point, therefore-call it “before the foundation of the world”-when God determines to condescend and to create. This takes place initially in eternity. The act of God’s creation includes the triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-taking counsel with himself in order to confirm and establish a covenant relationship with his creation, especially his human creatures. At that point when God determines to decree “whatsoever comes to pass”, there is condescension. ” – Oliphint (Pg 105, God With Us)

      The *expression* of this condescension happens when God covenants with Adam. So I think the distinction being made here is God’s condescension happens “before the foundation of the world” while the covenant (the expression) happens in time.

      This is how I understood it.

      1. I appreciate you quoting from this book. I have it, but have not had a chance to read much of it. I will now consider this material carefully before inserting more of my foot. 🙂

        I need to read more of Thornwell to get a better understanding of his position as well. I do know that he sees Adam (prior to the CoW) as a servant, and if he would have obeyed, Adam would have been confirmed as a son. This view seems to coincide with how I’ve been seeing 7:1a, then b and also 7:2.

  6. Jared,

    “In other words, the ontological distance is so great that there is no way Adam would have any fruition of him except through the voluntary condescension of revelation, both natural and special…”

    I’m with you on the above statement 100%, where I see a problem between this position and the WCF, is the last part of your statement ” inherently covenantal because of who it reveals.”

    Again, it seems that what is being stated is that God’s relationship to anything, has to be by way of covenant. So how do you get around the Westminster Divines statement in 7:2 “The first covenant God made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” Would you not agree that the context of 7:2 is Adam and Eve being told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If so, then again, how is man inherently in covenant with God, by virtue of his creation, when the first covenant (according to 7:2) wasn’t until God confront them in the garden with reference to this particular tree.

    Let me state again, I like the way Dr. Oliphint, you and others state this relationship that man (and all creation) has by virtue of God as creator and everything else being part of his creation. I just do not, at this point, see that WCF 7:1 and 7:2 bearing this out and I am being persuaded in this other direction. I am open to be corrected on my understanding of WCF 7:1 & 7:2..

  7. RDL

    Resequitur (and Jeff),

    I’m throwing this out there just as a word of caution:

    We should be very hesitant to say that the eternal decree is a condescension in Dr. Oliphint’s terms. For Dr. Oliphint, divine condescension entails God adding covenantal properties to himself. These properties are created entities. Consider these quotes from his book “God With Us”:

    “The triune God made a free decision that the Son of God would come down and add to himself created properties (i.e., a human nature) of humiliation.” 120.

    “So, there can be little question, it seems, as one reads of the varying appearances of Yahweh throughout covenant history that, in order to appear at all, Yahweh takes on created properties and characteristics.” 209.

    So divine condescension in Dr. Oliphint’s terms is an accrual of created properties. These properties are not God’s being, so their being must be a created being. Now here is what Dr. Oliphint says about the eternal decree:

    “Thus, the locus of the choice of God to decree and to create ought to be seen in his covenantal condescension. The choice of God to decree and create presupposes a free choice to assume covenantal properties. To put it another way, once God determines to relate himself to that which is ad extra – whether in his eternal decree or in creation itself – he thus necessarily freely determines to relate himself, by way of a commitment, to that which is not himself. This can be nothing other than divine condescension; it is the taking on of properties and attributes that he would otherwise not have had, and the properties and attributes themselves are less than, because in no way identical to, who God is essentially.” 258-259.

    Here is my point of caution: If the eternal creation involves an addition of covenantal properties to the being of God, and the covenantal properties are created entities, then how are we to avoid an eternal creation? If the decree is eternal, then the properties are eternal, and if the properties are created, then there is a creation from eternity. Even the quote you provided, Resquitur, on p. 105 of “God with Us,” has God’s condescension taking place “initially in eternity.” This seems to entail an eternity of created entities (covenantal properties).

    There might be a way out of this other than mine, which is to deny the existence of covenantal properties.

    1. Resequitur

      “Here is my point of caution: If the eternal decree involves an addition of covenantal properties to the being of God, and the covenantal properties are created entities, then how are we to avoid an eternal creation?”

      I’m not sure if I understand you. But I think Oliphint is arguing that God isn’t essentially “Creator”, because then He would need to create in order to be who He is.

      I think Dr. Oliphint is saying that God’s decision to create stems from His free will to do so, and in determining to create, there is condescension. So “creator” can be understood as a covenant property. So He can take on that property while remaining Who He is. His essence is not affected by His decree.

      But again, I don’t know if I understand your caution. I understand that Oliphint’s formulation is “new” in the sense that it hasn’t been spoken like this before, but at the same time, it has historical precedent.

      Again I apologize if I misread you.

  8. Jonathan

    Covenantal Properties aside, I think Dr. Oiphint’s points on the subject object relationship throughout the history of philosophy (including Thomas) is right on. As soon as that point is made only then we can move on to concerns about “properties” language. But to start the discussion in this way demands that we realize that Thomistic Metaphysics (as formalized by Thomas) doesn’t get us any where near what scripture reveals, unless one is willing to concede that Thomas completely throws out his metaphysical framework once the incarnation occurs (impassible becomes passible).

  9. RDL

    Requisitur,

    Let me explain my concern. One must account for the existence of covenantal properties. There are three good reasons to believe that for Dr. Oliphint the properties are of a creaturely existence:

    1) I think he would hold to the principle that all that is not of the being of God is a created being.
    2) The human nature of Christ is a creaturely existant, and the incarnation serves as a template for his covenantal condescension doctrine.
    3) He says they are creatures all over his book (see the quotes I supplied above).

    So here is my point: if the decree is eternal, and the decree is a covenantal property (or entails covenantal properties), but the properties are created beings, then there have been created beings for all eternity (assuming the decree is eternal).

    To avoid created beings eternally existing besides God, I think we would have to deny either: 1) the eternal character of the decree, 2) that the properties are created, 3) or that the decree requires covenantal properties.

    I take the third option.

    Does that clarify why I think caution is needed?

  10. RDL

    Jonathan,

    I’m not sure what your beef with Aquinas is, or what relevance your beef might have to my word of caution about Dr. Oliphint’s doctrine of the eternal decree (and the resultant creation out of time). Anyway, if you are referring to the discussion around the 56 minute mark, I agree that there is plenty of serious problems with Aquinas’s natural theology and that CVT was right on to reject the method (although neither Van Til in this text or Dr. Oliphint in this discussion gets Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy right). Can you be more specific about what aspect of Thomistic metaphysics you are talking about?

    In a sense Aquinas does throw out his metaphysics when discussing the incarnation in that the union of the human nature to the divine person cannot be accounted by any of this metaphysical theories of union. He affirms the union, even if he can’t make metaphysical sense of it. The point you might disagree with Aquinas (and Owen and Turretin), is that the human nature should not be an accident that qualifies the being of God. Neither Aquinas nor the reformed orthodox would say “impassible becomes passible.” They would say that the human nature of Christ is passible (and so Christ is), but that human nature does not qualify God as an attribute, so God does not become passible in any accidental sense.

    Anyway, I’m interested in what you are hinting at regarding Thomistic metaphysics – especially as you seem to know something about it and are a bit negative in your appraisal.

  11. I was looking through Francis Beattie’s The Presbyterian Standards today and found this:

    “The condition of securing the divine favor, and of obtaining eternal life in
    this pre-covenant state must also be understood. This is a point of some
    importance, especially in enabling one to understand the nature and benefits of
    the covenant constitution. In the pre-covenant state man was, as has been
    shown, under pure moral government. God was moral ruler and man was moral
    subject. Personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience was required on the part of
    man. Had many men appeared on the earth under this relationship, each one for
    himself would have had to stand, and on purely moral grounds win life and
    divine favor by personal obedience or good works. A single disobedience
    would bring the man into condemnation, and from this he would have no
    possible way of escape. Each man, too, would stand or fall for himself, and the
    standing or the falling of any particular man would not affect the legal status of
    his posterity in the least, or bring them any imputed benefit or disability. It is
    easy to see that under this relationship mutable man would surely find his
    standing before God far from secure. Some might stand and others might fall,
    and there would be no adequate ground upon which any one could be
    confirmed in holiness and the favor of God. Above all, there would be no
    possible remedy for the sin of those who were disobedient. At this point the
    gracious nature of the covenant of works is evident.” (65)
    http://gallery.myff.org/gallery/1252606/Presbyterian+Standards+Francis+Beattie.pdf

    Perhaps Beattie was influenced by Thornwell, either way, he is expressing the same ideas of Thornwell, and what the WCF seems to be saying regarding 7:1 (i.e a non-covenatal period).

    1. Jeff, reading through Genesis 1 and 2 again, it doesn’t seem that there is any really disconnect between God creating man and putting him within covenant.

      Especially the way the creation account was summarized in Gen 2:7-8. It seems the textual data is leading toward the notion that Adam was situated within the context of the covenant of works, and it is revealed to him in v.17-18.

      1. Resequitur,

        My beef is not with the particular doctrine of Covenant that I hear from Dr. Oliphint, although it may seem that way in some of the things of said. I want to make sure that what I’m saying is, that WCF 7:2 and 2 do not seem to follow Dr. Oliphint’s view of man being in covenant with God, by virtue of his creation, because God only addresses man, through covenant.

  12. James

    Hi Jeff,
    To those remarks we might also add the comments of A.A. Hodge from his book “The Confession of Faith” (Banner of Truth, 1958), p. 121. Like Beattie, he seems to regard creation qua creation as pre-covenantal (if not temporally, at least logically). His basic argument is that although creation obliges man to obey God (which I think agrees with Oliphint’s point about man not being autonomous) it does not oblige God to bless creatures with rewards, and is thus not properly conceived as a covenant. The point, as Hodge sees it, of WCF 7.1 is to show God’s condescending grace in entering into covenant with man and thereby setting up the conditions by which man may attain a reward and eschatological blessing for his obedience. Anyhow, here are his words:

    “The very act of creation brings the creature under obligation to the Creator, but it cannot bring the Creator into obligation to the creature. Creation itself, being a signal act of grace, cannot endow the beneficiary with a claim for more grace. If God, for instance, had created man with an eye, it may be eminently consistent with the divine attributes, and a ground of fair anticipation, that at some time he who has given eyes will also give light; but, surely, the creation of the first can lay the foundation of no right on the part of man for the gift of the second. And, of course, far less can the fact that in creation God endowed men with a religious nature lay the foundation of any right upon their part for the infinitely more precious gift of the personal communications of his own ineffable love and grace. God cannot be bound to take all creatures naturally capable of it into the intimacies of his own society. If he does, it is a matter of infinite condescension and sovereign will.”

    According to Hodge, God’s relation to man is constituted as “covenantal” only when God himself is obligated to man. And this happens not by virtue of creation as such, but by virtue of his condescending grace in covenant. Covenant, whether it is the Covenant of Works or of Grace, obligates God to fulfill certain promises to man – promises upon which man could lay no claim in virtue of fulfilling the requirements of creation alone.

    If creation qua creation were the very act of God’s “covenantal” condescension, it might have been more appropriately mentioned in WCF 4 (“Of Creation”). Also, it seems more natural to read WCF 7.1 as locating God’s condescension in his gracious addition of covenant (with its prospect of reward) to the already-established requirements of creation. All this is not to say that Oliphint is right or wrong in regarding creation as covenantal in some sense, or God’s will to create as a condescension in some sense, but only to suggest that these conclusions may not necessarily supported by the most natural reading of WCF 7 (or at least as it has been read by some of its well-known interpreters).

  13. Dale Olzer

    I find it difficult to understand man in a pre-covenant state. The term “pre-covenant state” as it relates to creation in general and man in particular seems to go against the biblical data in Genesis 1:24-30. Here God creates man in God’s own image, and blessing man, and commanding man to be fruitful and fill and subdue the earth. In doing that, God is not leaving it up man and his autonomous self to fulfill that command. God as he speaks, he also promises, obliges himself to make it “possible” for the command to be filled. And we see exactly that in verse 29, God says, “I have given you all the plants yielding seed, and you shall have them for food”. Also, in Genesis 2, we see God continuing to oblige himself to creation by providing Adam a wife.

    Therefore it is very clear that God obliges himself to creation by the very act of creating and sustaining the world. This is covenant, God creates, he promises to sustain and provide for man. And additionally God reveals this to man by way for revelation both special and natural.

    The statements above from Hodge and Beattie have an architectonic tone of deism. They are essentially saying once God created he was no in relation or relating himself to his creation. This would further imply that God is not personal or personally involved in his creation, at least not until the command to Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

    I’m in agreement with Hodge that God’s relation to man is constituted as “covenantal” only when God himself is obligated to man. And this happens at the very beginning of creation.

    One final note, WCF 4.2 implies the God’s condescension and covenant in the following statement;

    “Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.”

    Here the Confession is saying in addition to being made in God’s image and having God’s law written on their heart, they received a command. This command was not foreign to Adam (metaphysically, epistemologically, or ethically) but was rather further revelation of whom God is, and his covenant.

    1. Dale,

      I don’t have time to interact with your post point-by-point this evening, I’ll try to return to it next week.

      First, I do not understand why you draw the conclusion that Hodge and Beattie would have “architectonic tone of deism.” There is no indication in their writing that God does not have a relationship with Adam and Eve, nor that Adam was somehow autonomous.

      I know, at least from Thornwells perspective, he would argue that Adam’s relationship to God prior to the CoW would be one of servant, not one of Son, which it seems as though he was following WCF 7:1 (part a and b I’ll call it) and 7:2..

      Second, It seems as though you (although at this point, I’m not in agreement with that you have said about this) have created a contradiction in the WCF: between 4:2 & 7:2, because 7:2 states that the first covenant God makes with man is the CoW.

      BTW: all I’m arguing at this point is, is that 7:1 & 2 does not seem to support the view that Adam was in covenant with God from the beginning of his creation.

  14. Jeff D., maybe this is a silly question, but isn’t the event of creation already an act of God’s condescension? It seems like maybe your trying to exegete the confession a wee bite too finely here. Though I would say, your point is well-taken. I think that before Vos – and certainly Van Til and Kline – the older Reformed theologians (especially Turretin), allowed some “daylight” to exist between creation and covenant. I think, however, that more recent Reformed thinkers have rightly closed the gap (see my posts on Kline’s notion of creation as divine fiat). I think that we have an instance were the Confession may not teach that explicitly, but it seems to not teach against it (sorry for the double negative). But remember, Systematic Theology is a broader discipline than Symbolics, or Creedal Theology. The latter forms the boundaries of the former, but the latter does not say all that can or needs to be said by the former.

    1. Jim, you asked “isn’t the event of creation already an act of God’s condescension?” Yes, I would agree with this, I’ve never said otherwise. But how does condescension = covenant.

      “It seems like maybe your trying to exegete the confession a wee bite too finely here.” I’ve thought about that, and I’m willing to be corrected. With that said, the older theologians seem to understand the confession (as you already mentioned), as I’ve been explaining it.

      “But remember, Systematic Theology is a broader discipline than Symbolics, or Creedal Theology. The latter forms the boundaries of the former, but the latter does not say all that can or needs to be said by the former.”

      I do very much appreciate the admonishment. I’m not trying to create some kind of controversy. As I said above, I’ve been holding to Van Til’s view (mainly via Dr. Oliphint) for as long as I can remember. But after looking at the confession closely, I’m not seeing how it squares with 7:1 & 2. This does not seem to say Adam is automatically in covenant via his creation. In fact, it states that the first covenant God makes with man is the CoW. Now, perhaps the Divines understood this to mean that Adam was under this covenant from very beginning…ok, that is fine, I can go with that, I’d simply like to see the evidence. Beattie does not understand 7:1 this way, as far as I can tell, Thornwell does not understand man this way, and from what I hear (from talking to others) many older reformed theologians do not see it this way. Perhaps they are “wrong” and we have grown in our understanding of these matters. Again, I can by that…but that’s not what I’m trying to get at here.

  15. Jeff, thanks for your response.

    What the Confession says and how what it says may apply to various theological formulations and circumstance are two different – but related – things. Whatever the confession meant by the relation between creation and covenant (and its not clear exactly the mechanics of how the relation obtained for the divines), the definition of covenant is what is in view. Covenant IS condescension. And if creation is an act of condescension, then it is covenantal. Make sense?

  16. Jim,

    Can you point me to some systematics that would define covenant as condescension? I can see how one can not get away from the idea that condescension is an essential aspect to covenant, but, frankly, in my reading of various systematics, I’ve never read that covenant = condescension.

    Does God promise blessings, cursing, are their stipulations, rewards, etc. by virtue of creation? If not, then I’m not sure how we can say creation is covenantal.

    1. Jeff, I think you start with WCF 7.1 which defines covenant as condescension.

      From there, you go to Van Til, Vos, and above all Kline (again, see my blog post on Divine Fiat for relevant citations).

  17. Jim,

    If you take 7:1 as saying covenant = condescension, then wouldn’t you have to say that God did not condescend to man until the CoW: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience”? It seems to me the conclusion you would have make, would be that covenant is not essential to creation.

    Here is how one of my professor put this: “Creation is not what makes the covenant, it wasn’t established by creation (it may have been at his creation, but not by creation).”

  18. Jeff, again there is some paralysis of analysis here on your part. 7:1 explains what covenant is – an act of condescension. 7.2 talks about the first covenant God makes with man, which is the covenant of works. No one is denying that. All I am saying here is that creation is “covenantal” precisely because it is a act of condescension by God. The creation is not itself a covenant. But is – as an act of God’s condescension – covenantal, essentially. Which is only to say that God makes himself known through creation.

  19. Jim,

    I guess we disagree with what 7:1 is doing. I don’t see (at least at this point) 7:1 as defining what a covenant is (i.e. condescension), I think 7:1 is saying what God is doing (i.e. he condescends, by way of covenant).

    1. Jeff,

      While I think your interpretation of WCF 7 is a bit wooden and unnecessarily restrictive, here are a couple points that may give some precedent from people who are as confessional as anyone. Vos: “Rollock proceeds from the idea that all of God’s word belongs to a covenant. ‘God says nothing to man apart from the covenant.'” Clearly God spoke with Adam before the actual words of the pre-redemptive law covenant. Likewise, Kline points out that Paul connects the pre-redemptive Adam and the redemptive last Adam as covenant figures: “it is difficult in the extreme to forbear from construing the position of Adam, ‘the figure’ of Christ, in terms of covenantal arrangement”. (By Oath Consigned)

  20. RDL

    Here is another interesting question regarding the interpretation of the Westminster Confession:

    When the divines stipulated that God is “without body, parts, or passions…”, did they mean that God is only essentially without body, parts and passions, but that He could will himself to have a body, have parts, and have passions, albeit in a contingent manner?

    The Confession denies that God is composed of body, parts and passions; but Dr. Oliphint has wrote that God could be embodied, have parts, and undergo passions. Here are some examples:

    God CAN have a body

    “We will discuss this below, but it may be useful to mention here that there is no fundamental disagreement in this ascription of the emotional life of Christ and the truth of God’s impassibility. When, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that God is “without body, parts or passions,” it is obviously referring to God as he is in himself, rather than God as condescended, since, as condescended, God does have a body (and parts, and passions), in that he second person of the Trinity assumes one, into eternity.” God with Us, 149n33.

    God CAN have parts

    “I would agree with Thomas that no accident can reside in God, but would also argue that, given creation as another kind of being, God can “have” properties that obtain in creation without any way changing who he essentially is. As we will see, our supreme example of such is the person of Christ.” God with Us, 129n99.

    God CAN have passions

    “This will be central and paramount in our discussion as we proceed. Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, suffered; he died, and he did that as the God-man, the quintessential covenant person. Since that is true, there must be some real and fundamental sense in which God can have or experience passions.” God with Us, 88

    “That is, God can contain passive potentialities, but only on the suppositions (1) that such potentialities are not essential to him and (2) that such potentialities are covenantally qualified, that is, qualified in terms of God’s taking on covenantal properties by virtue of his divine condescension.” Reasons for Faith, 249n26.

    “Thus, it is not the case that God cannot himself “contain” passive potentialities. He can, and does “contain” those potentialities as a covenant God, as a God who makes the object of his will something other than himself.” Reasons for Faith, 251.

    I’m no expert in the WCF. My question is whether the affirmation that God is without body parts or passions is positive or neutral. Did the divines mean that God is without these essentially, but is neutral in regards to body parts and passions, and could assume them if He so willed? Or are they making an absolutely positive affirmation that God is not neutral in regards to body parts and passions, meaning God could not have them?

    1. RDL,
      you said,

      “The Confession denies that God is composed of body, parts and passions; but Dr. Oliphint has wrote that God could be embodied, have parts, and undergo passions. Here are some examples:

      The confession does say that, but you are ignoring the key distinctions Oliphint is making

      He is saying, along with the confessions, that God, as He is in and of Himself (i.e. essentially) is without body, parts, or passions

      But as condescended, He commits Himself to the affliction of His people:

      ” In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” (Isaiah 63:9 c.f Exo 3:7)

      1. RDL

        Requisitur,

        I think you are right on what Oliphint is saying. My question is whether what Oliphint is saying is what the Confession is saying.

        The question is: is the Confession’s denial of body, parts and passions neutral or positive? Does God have the potency to be embodied? or is he positively not embodied? …according to the confession.

        I ask because the 17th century English puritans I’m familiar with would deny that a body could qualify God as an accident so that Christ’s body is not God’s body. Perhaps the Confession says otherwise.

  21. RDL,

    I think Dr. Cassidy said it correctly earlier,

    ” Systematic Theology is a broader discipline than Symbolics, or Creedal Theology. The latter forms the boundaries of the former, but the latter does not say all that can or needs to be said by the former.”

    So we can’t expect the confession to be as exhaustive as systematic theology, though it works as a boundary to systematic theology.

    “The question is: is the Confession’s denial of body, parts and passions neutral or positive?”

    I’m not sure if that makes any sense. A denial is negative, but I’m not sure what the relevancy of that question is. Given that when you are denying something about Who God is, you are saying something about Him.

    “Does God have the potency to be embodied? or is he positively not embodied? …according to the confession.”

    Well, the Church has always affirmed that The Son of God took on flesh, so if you’re a Christian, you would have to affirm that God took on the nature of man.

    WCF 8.2 summarizes it pretty well. But I’m not sure where your line of questioning is headed, so you may have to explain your questioning.

  22. Zahler

    To say that St. Thomas believes that the fallen human person can attain to knowledge of God apart from God and faith is simplistic. When asking whether or not theology is a necessary science, he says “the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors” (ST I q1 a1). Faith is necessary to safeguard reason. This is why St. Thomas constantly refers to Sacred Scripture in his philosophical discussions. Without faith, reason is bound to make errors. However, you are right when you say St. Thomas believes reason, working on principles which are evident to us by nature, can work to true conclusions about God. However, his thinking is different from the reformed position, which, if I understand it correctly, believes that reason must begin with the principles of faith in order to come to true knowledge of God. For St. Thomas, faith supports the reason like scaffolding or a blue print helps a builder to build. For the reformed theologian, faith must be the foundation of our knowledge. Through philosophy, St. Thomas believes that human beings can reason from naturally known principles to a limited knowledge of God; however, he does not believe that a fallen person can successfully reason to it without the help of faith. Faith, therefore, is necessary for doing good philosophy. St. Thomas would never advocate doing philosophy without reference to theology.

    Also, in articulating the analogy of being, St. Thomas considers nature to be the ordinary way in which God reveals Himself. He would agree that it is because of God’s goodness and His desire that we participate in His goodness that the universe is intelligible. Our intellects are a similitude of the divine intellect, making us into the image of God, and the universe in as much as it has being resembles God as a vestige. God is both the one who reveals Himself in nature and the one who enables us to interpret and understand that revelation. At no stage is St. Thomas claiming that we can know God autonomously.

    I’ve written this defense of St. Thomas partly in order to make sure I was understanding what was being presented in the video.

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