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Addressing the Essential-Covenantal Model of Theology Proper

Preface

Given several public announcements and reports, many people have become aware of recent events regarding the theology of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint. For those who are not, Dr. Oliphint was charged with four counts of doctrinal error. On May 3, 2019, the matter came before the Presbytery of the Southwest of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he is a ministerial member. As it has been communicated to me, the presbytery decided not to proceed to trial because the books, articles, and lectures in question were considered inadmissible (BD III.7.b.4). The OPC Book of Discipline III.2 states, “No charge shall be admitted by the judicatory if it is filed more than two years after the commission of the alleged offense, unless it appears that unavoidable impediments have prevented an earlier filing of the charge. A charge shall be considered filed when it has been delivered to the clerk or the moderator of the judicatory.” The items in question were published more than two years ago, and this appears to be one reason the matter did not proceed to trial. I was not present at the meeting, and while minutes were recorded, the presbytery will not approve them until their next scheduled meeting. I have based my remarks upon the testimony of several members of the presbytery. Nevertheless, I would be happy to be corrected.

I have not written any extensive public criticisms regarding these matters, because I did not want to speak while an ecclesiastical process was underway. Now that these charges have been dismissed, I feel at liberty to engage publicly with the views expressed in Dr. Oliphint’s books, articles, and lectures. Reformed Forum is supposed to be a forum after all. We desire to interact with all doctrinal matters relevant to confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches and especially with Dr. Oliphint’s, since he has been a featured guest on Christ the Center and has spoken at two of our annual theology conferences in Grayslake, Illinois. I welcome Dr. Oliphint’s interaction privately and publicly. I sent this essay to him before it was published, and he has an open invitation to respond here. Through these means, I desire to extend our ministerial communion and fellowship in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Dr. Oliphint has implied that he no longer holds all the views expressed in his publications. Nonetheless, he has neither made it clear exactly which, if any, views he finds to be erroneous nor which positions he now believes to be correct. As I mentioned in a previous post, Dr. Oliphint plans to issue a revision of his key book, God with Us. I understand he notified his presbytery that he expects to submit the revision to his publisher by August. In the meantime, I would like to address what has already been published. I pray such interaction will be helpful to the Church and may be used in the service of theological precision and clarity. By God’s grace, may we pursue doctrinal fidelity together and speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

The Basic Essential-Covenantal Model

At the heart of Dr. Oliphint’s proposal is a distinction between God as he is essentially and God as he is in relation to creation. Oliphint frequently uses the term “covenantal” to describe this relationship. That in itself can be confusing to confessional Presbyterian ears. The Westminster Standards speak of God’s works of creation and providence (WCF 4, 5; Shorter Catechism 8). Moreover, they speak of God’s covenant with man as a special act of his providence (Shorter Catechism 12), not an act of creation. While God does truly relate to creation and, specifically, to his image bearers, the relation itself is not necessarily covenantal—at least in the way the confession speaks:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, 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. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1)

There is a difference between knowing God and knowing God as your blessedness and reward. All humans know God by virtue of being made in his image (Rom. 1:18–20). All people have the works of his law written upon their hearts, and they all are without excuse (Rom. 2:15). Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2 says that the first covenant made with man was a covenant of works. At least in terms of the way the confession speaks, it is not precise to say that the covenant is the relation itself. God created man and then he entered into a covenant with him. I believe this conflation is at the root of Dr. Oliphint’s thesis and leads him to make several problematic theological statements down the line. In effect, he ontologizes the relationship between God and creation, making it more than a relationship and something that subsists itself.

The Addition of Christology

The second major issue with the thesis of God with Us is the application of Christology to this basic covenantal structure. According to Oliphint, God assumes new properties and changes in relating to creation: “Once he determines to relate to us, that relation entails that he take on properties that he otherwise would not have had. He limits himself while remaining the infinite God.”[1] In relating to creation, God “takes on” new properties. In effect, we can speak of a set of properties God has in himself (essential properties) and a set of properties God has by virtue of his relationship to creation (covenantal properties). These “sets” function very similarly to the natures of which we speak in classic Christology. Just as Jesus is divine and human, so also God is essential and covenantal—even as those two things seem to be at odds.[2] Oliphint holds them together by employing the communicatio idiomatum as a model for conceptualizing the relationship between God’s essential and covenantal properties/characteristics. He writes:

On the contrary, as we have seen, we can truthfully predicate both aspects and properties of Christ; the communicatio means that both aspects of Christ’s character can (and must) be affirmed. So also with God. He both is immutable and in his condescension takes on covenantal properties in order really and truly to relate himself to us.[3]

Here is but one example of how this model may be used:

Once God condescends, we should recognize that, in taking to himself covenantal properties, he takes to himself as well the kind of knowledge (and will, to be discussed later) that accrues to those properties. Or, to put it another way, one of the covenantal properties that he takes to himself is the development of knowledge that is conducive to his interaction with his creation generally, and specifically with his people.[4]

In other words, God’s knowledge can change. As he relates to creation, his knowledge undergoes development. There can be a real and contingent relationship between God and man just as we would expect among creatures yet without making God a creature per se. Certainly, Oliphint wants to protect the true relationship between God and man without transgressing the Creator-creature distinction. This is where the communicatio idiomatum fits in. By employing it, Oliphint attempts to retain the classical language about God while also speaking of a God who changes:

So, to repeat, we may properly speak of God as not knowing and knowing at the same time, of his being limited in space and infinitely omnipresent, of his lacking the power to do something and being omnipotent at the same time.[5]

While Dr. Oliphint uses the incarnation as a model, he is not speaking of the two natures of Christ united in the person of Christ. He is speaking of theology proper. Nonetheless, in Oliphint’s model, God has assumed something like a second nature. Just as the Son of God assumed a human nature, so also God assumes covenantal properties/characteristics and everything that may entail. Indeed, God may even possess a second mind:

For God to ‘change his mind’ in this context would entail that, included in his covenantal properties, is a covenantal ‘mind’ such that he condescends to us, even with respect to his knowledge and the actions that proceed from it.[6]

And according to this mind, God may legitimately learn:

He really does identify with us, and he moves with us in history, ‘learning’ and listening, in order to maintain and manage the covenant relationship that he has sovereignly and unilaterally established, the details of which he has eternally and immutably decreed.[7]

Oliphint then applies this theology to a concrete biblical example: “In condescending to relate to Adam and Eve, he is, like them, (not essentially, but covenantally) restricted in his knowledge of where they might be hiding in that garden.”[8] To put it another way, God legitimately does not know where Adam and Eve are when he searches for them in the garden (Gen. 3:9). Again, you can see how the communicatio idiomatum enables Oliphint to say that while essentially God is omniscient, there is another aspect—the covenantal aspect—of God that is not omniscient.

Preliminary Assessment

In my judgment, the communicatio idiomatum should not be applied to the doctrine of God. Any change that occurred in the son of God upon the incarnation may only be properly ascribed to his human nature. Change may neither be ascribed to his divine nature nor to his person, which is the hypostasis of the Son who subsists in the divine essence. This model cannot rightly be applied to God apart from a human, created nature. The whole Godhead exists as three persons subsisting in one essence. This is irreducible, for God is both simple and immutable. So where can the change be located? It cannot properly be predicated of God himself. To speak of God assuming covenantal properties, attributes, or characteristics is either to present a God who changes or worse: to present two gods who are quite different from one another.

I believe Oliphint’s basic intention is a good one. He desires to maintain a true and legitimate relationship between God and man. God does not merely appear to love us; he truly loves us. We do not appear to move from wrath to grace; there is a legitimate and historic transition as our relationship to God changes through the person and work of Christ by the power of his Spirit. Yes and amen. But there are orthodox ways to speak of this relationship that do not have the dangerous liabilities of this new model.

In future posts, I plan to work through many of the quotations in God with Us and other published material. Yet even now, I desire that this basic introduction would open dialogue within the Church on these important matters as we seek biblical truth together.


[1] K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 188.

[2] For example: “He both is immutable and in his condescension takes on covenantal properties in order really and truly to relate himself to us.” Oliphint, 191.

[3] Oliphint, 191.

[4] Oliphint, 194.

[5] Oliphint, 198.

[6] Oliphint, 219n74.

[7] Oliphint, 228.

[8] K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006), 234.

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