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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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Tony Arsenal

5 months ago

Camden,

Thank you for your measured and scholarly approach on this. The Reformed Forum has been a force for cool-headed, pious, and academic theological reflection for as long as I can remember.

Dr. Oliphint’s thesis is badly mistaken, and hopefully, the corrections he has made are sufficient to bring his theology back into alignment with classical orthodox theology proper. If not, however, I hope that your measured articles will be part of the foundation by which we continue this important discussion.

Eddie Mercado

5 months ago

Camden,

Thank you for your efforts here. A question that has been top of mind for me as these issues came to light concerns Meredith Kline’s notion of Covenantal fiats (as found in Kingdom Prologue). Would you say that his language of covenant fiat is going farther than the confession wants to go when discussing God’s covenant with man?

Matt Hendren

5 months ago

Many have said that, from what I’ve seen. Brandon Adam’s has a few posts on this —“Silent Shift on 7.1” or something like this— and the “The Glory Cloud” podcast mentions this as well.

Armen Nazarian

5 months ago

Hi Camden.
Thanks for this article – it was very good and I am looking forward to the coming articles.

I have a question. Do you see any connection between his view on theology proper and his view on special revelation?

I am especially thinking about his view of the logical consistency of Scripture. I am not an Oliphint expert, but what I could gather from his lectures and especially the comments he made in this comment thread* it seems like his view is that we cannot make deductions in Scripture and cannot rely on logic to answer apparent contradictions in Scripture.

So therefore, when we read that “God cannot change” and “God’s relents”, we don’t have to “apologetically” explain await the latter as anthropomorphic language, but instead see that as God really relenting (changing) – a change that is not a contradiction (in God’s mind) of the former.

Another example is his own example on Romans 9:19 from the above mentioned comment thread* (see the thread with MikeD)

*https://reformedforum.org/ctc205/ see especially Oliphint’s interaction with MikeD in the comment thread

Armen Nazarian

5 months ago

Corrections:
God’s relents = God relents
await = away

Ross Turner

5 months ago

Great article, RF. Seems like Oliphint has been drinking from a Barthian well on this revision of the Doctrine of God in the light of overlaying the Hypostatic Union on God’s essence.

Agree that it’s well-intentioned, and I share his desire to see how God biblically condescends from and even before His first word to man, but this seems too far and potentially dangerous. Look forward to the coming articles, thanks for your good work.

CM

5 months ago

I’m still not convinced; maybe Im too far away from the action.

Whenever I have heard Dr. O speak on the immutability of God in relation to creation (his iTunes theology proper class, on line lectures, or in person) , or read his works (I read all his stuff) he is always careful to make a distinction between his attempts to understand and explain this difficult doctrine, and his presentation of the classic reformed view. He also doesn’t seem like he’s squaring up or digging in; he’s willing to re-write the book, teach classic reform dogmatics in the classroom, and at least from here, seems open to correction. What else does the guy have to do?

So far it sounds like Dr. O is accused of ontologizing the relationship between the creature and creator? (This essay) Drinking from the Barthian well? (Comments) Overlaying God’s essence with the hypostatic union? (Comments). I never picked that up—or that God changes— from Dr. O. Looking forward to more information and explanation about what’s going on—including Dr. O’s candid response.

I know many of us here are dyed in the wool Van Tilians; I’m not sure why we are willing to offer such charitable judgments with respect to some of Van Til’s clumsy terminology (God is one person and three persons) but not willing offer the same to Dr. O.

Nate Shannon

5 months ago

Thanks, Camden. I am not sure the issues are accurately represented here. For example: there is no non-moral situation which precedes the covenant of works. Vos says for example that he (Vos) cannot deny that it was possible for Adam to sin before the prohibition is given. It is just good Protestantism to deny that Adam himself or Adam’s situation are ever non-moral. On this point you distinguish ‘knowing God’ and ‘knowing God as blessedness and reward’. Eschatology is more conspicuous in the latter, but there is no non-moral, non-eschatological knowledge of God. And to say that Adam (and every human) is, and always knows himself to be always accountable to God for the moral character of every thought and deed is just to say that he is a covenant creature made with covenant consciousness. The point is, if we are not sure about the use of the word ‘covenant’ with reference to the Edenic situation (prior to the covenant of works), we still cannot attenuate the moral and relational substance of that situation. Perhaps I am missing the point here, but it sounds as though you are trying to say that prior to the covenant of works we cannot really speak of ‘covenant’ or of morally informed C/c relation. I would definitely disagree with that. There is no moral neutrality for the creature at any point. Vos also offers a sophisticated discussion of the relationship between the natural C/c relationship and the covenant of works which offered to Adam more or greater life than that to which he had any natural claim. Vos is sensitive to the fact that the covenant of works is more than is ‘there’ by nature, but it is also not an unnatural imposition. Bavinck, for example, argues for a profound moral unity of the human race. Original sin is not an arbitrary imposition, but reflects an ‘organic’ anthropology and thus a covenant pre-conception of the image of God (see Gray Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck on the Image of God and Original Sin,” IJST [2016]). The covenant of works is not a moral arrangement annexed to a situation which would otherwise be non-moral.

On Chalcedon and the doctrine of God: here again I think wholesale discontinuity is too much. Of course everything to do with the mediation of the Son, with his humiliation (beginning with conception) and subsequent exaltation, is unique to the incarnation. There is no question about that. But does that mean that the incarnation is theologically (methodologically) irrelevant prior to the conception of Jesus? Bavinck in particular, in many places, affirms that the whole history of special revelation is preparation for the incarnation, and that creation itself is preparation (at least in the sense of demonstrable possibility) of incarnation. Creation is an act of incarnation, he says, though we have to think of creation in infralapsarian terms. (See Bruce Pass, “The Question of Central Dogma in Herman Bavinck,” CTJ [2018]). Eternal generation, as ad intra self-communication, signals and grounds the possibility of ad extra self-communication. Vos of course says that the entire organism of special revelation is Christ himself. How do we separate the covenant of grace prior to the incarnation—OT enjoyment of Christ—from theological predication? You seem to be saying that OT saints are: elect in Christ; called in Christ; justified in Christ; sanctified in Christ; cling to hope in Christ; but do not know God according to Christ because God is not yet in Christ. (Just to throw one more detail in there: the Spirit assumes a created form at Jesus’ baptism. Luke in particular uses unambiguous language in that regard.)

Let me also point out that Reformed theology consistently attributes incarnation to the Son. The tradition affirms that the Son of God is the actor—not only in the incarnation but state of humiliation and consequent exaltation are attributed to the Son, not to the human nature only, nor even to the divine nature of the Son, but to the person of the Son. You say: “Any change that occurred in the son of God upon the incarnation may only be properly ascribed to his human nature.” I am not exactly sure what you mean, but here is Bavinck: “Reformed theology stressed that it was the person of the Son who became flesh—not the substance . . . but the subsistence . . . of the Son assumed our nature” (RD 3.259). He says elsewhere: “all God’s outward works (opera ad extra) are the essential works of God [opera Dei essentiala, the works performed by the Godhead in its oneness]” (RD 1.342)—by which he signals, I take it, inseparability of operations. The incarnation is a non-necessary work of God terminating in the person of the Son. Even though it is non-necessary, it cannot be confined to the human nature therein assumed (how could the human nature initiate the incarnation?).

As far as I understand, when Oliphint defers to Chalcedon or to the communicatio, he means to suggest that the personality of God accounts for the fact that he can do things which his nature does not require of him, namely create and redeem. This is also what Bavinck means to highlight in his discussion of ‘An Absolute Personal God’ (RD 2.47ff). “Rightly considered, all it means is that God’s self-consciousness is equally deep and rich, equally infinite, as his being” (RD 2.49).

Glen Clary

5 months ago

You wrote, “Perhaps, I am missing the point.” Indeed, you have. You have totally misread the article. Camden never states nor implies moral neutrality at any point. You confuse the covenant of works with the moral law and the perpetual obedience owed by man as a claimless creature of the dust.

Brandon M.

5 months ago

I find it interesting that Camden’s measured article asked for conversation and rebuttle. “It is a forum after all.” And yet an equally measured response that was delivered as requested is met with venom like this. Did he really “totally misread the article?” Is that a fair response to his comment? I don’t think that it is and I’m really trying to understand why this topic seems to strike such a raw nerve.

Camden Bucey

5 months ago

Dear Nate,

Thanks for the response, though I must admit that I believe you are not directly addressing the matters I expressed above. To begin, I did not say there is ever moral neutrality for human beings. In fact, I affirmed the opposite in my references to Romans 1–2. In his prior comment, Glen helpfully distinguished the covenant of works from the moral law and the perpetual obedience owed by man. I agree with him. In no way do I intend to say that man exists apart from a moral relationship to God. Humans are made in God’s image, and therefore, such a state of affairs is impossible.

For Oliphint, the God-world relationship should be understood as covenantal. He roots his thesis in his reading of Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1, which is why he requires all the students in his Doctrine of God course to memorize that paragraph. He articulates this clearly in God with Us:

All that I have said thus far concerning God’s activity in and toward creation applies climactically to the appearance of the Son of God in human nature some two thousand years ago. That event was the result, as we have seen, of a free decision of the triune God—a decision to condescend. The condescension of which we (and Westminster Confession 7.1) speak is not, we should note again, something centrally spatial. God is present everywhere, so we should not think of the condescension that is the incarnation as the Son of God entering into a spatial context in which he was otherwise absent. Rather, as we saw from our look at Philippians 2, the condescension of the incarnation is an assumption of new properties (namely, a human nature) by the Son of God, who all the while maintained (as is necessarily the case) his full, independent deity as God.

What follows in this chapter may at first glance look to be an aside, a tangent, parenthetical to the subject at hand. However, it should be stated here at the beginning of this chapter that the material that follows is central, crucial, and fundamentally interpretive of everything I have thus far said and everything I will go on to say in later chapters. The subject of this chapter, therefore, is meant to set forth and clarify the entire atmosphere in which discussions of God and his relationship to creation can thrive and grow. What I hope to proffer in what follows is a revelational grid through which we can know and understand God. We must take seriously the quintessential revelation of God in Christ, without which no one can know or understand God truly, and through which one can begin to see the depth and majesty of his relationship to creation. (Oliphint, God with Us, 133–134)

The condescension of which Dr. Oliphint speaks is not described in WCF 7.1, and it certainly is not understood through the assumption of new properties and the categories of Christology. God certainly reveals himself throughout covenant history, yet he does so by temporarily appropriating created media. That is quite different from assuming properties.

The language of Chalcedon was formulated to describe Christology, not the God-world relationship in general. The Son assumes a human nature in the incarnation. Because of that, we may attribute human attributes to the Son. Notwithstanding, any change may only be properly ascribed to a human nature. To put it another way, we can ascribe what is true of the human nature (limitation and growth in knowledge, finitude, possession of a body, etc.) to the person of Christ, but that does not mean the hypostasis of the Son changed. The hypostasis is immutable just as the divine essence is. They are distinguished but never separated.

It is unorthodox to speak of mutable divine hypostases. The person of the Son can and does assume a human nature without changing. Along those lines, you write that Dr. Oliphint suggests: “the personality of God accounts for the fact that he can do things which his nature does not require of him, namely create and redeem.” It seems this not only distinguishes the person from the divine nature (and also the essence) but separates the two. I think this is misguided at best. In Christology, when we ascribe aspects of the human nature to the divine person, we are speaking from the vantage point of creation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature (Luke 2:52). Nevertheless, change is properly predicated of creation (Christ’s human nature) and not of God (essence or persons). Likewise, when God freely creates, he does so without changing in any sense.

Yet Dr. Oliphint affirms that God changes covenantally. If divine change is “real” in the classical sense (not merely true and legitimate, but real), it exists. If it exists, it subsists in an essence. Where, then, may we predicate this change? Since God is essentially immutable, God would require a new nature in order to change really. But God does not possess a second nature to which we may ascribe and predicate change. That is precisely why Dr. Oliphint speaks in terms of the assumption of covenantal properties and then employs the communicatio idiomatum. To speak rather plainly, according to his method, he needs another ontic “bucket” where he can dump real divine change. That is why Dr. Oliphint ontologizes the covenantal relationship. His model functions as a two-nature theology proper.

Nate Shannon

5 months ago

Thanks, Camden. Those are helpful clarifications. Let me say first that I am grateful to be your friend and though it can be a delicate balance to maintain I do not want to give the impression that my affection or respect for you have dimmed.

I imagine a more lethal and more numerous enemy gazing across the battlefield to see Machen’s warriors cutting each other up in an angry stupor within their own camp. While I do believe that orthodoxy has to be always growling, and that wolves arise from within, etc., I think that this is a sad prospect, and I will try my best, for my part, to prevent it.

Fortunately there is every sign here that all are agreed to play by the rules of presbyterian governance and process. As some of the comments have noted, Oliphint has shown humility throughout. For my part I am open to richer theological precision and progress in my own understanding according to Scripture and confession. I am interested in what you have to say.

I am, however, a little concerned that you raise the BCO statement about inadmissibility of publications after two years (even though you say that this rule is not mentioned in the minutes of the meeting) and point out that “The presbytery made no statement as to the orthodoxy of the views expressed.” I’m sorry, but that appears to suggest that ‘Oliphint got off on a technicality’ and that Reformed Forum is stepping in to pursue (theological) justice more thoroughly. When I first raised some questions, Glen Clary, a member of the presbytery of the SW, accused me in sharp terms of misunderstanding and misrepresenting your statements. One could get the impression that RF, with Glen Clary’s encouragement, has decided to take matters into its own exceptionally self-confident hands, picking up where the process didn’t satisfy. I’m sure what to say, but one could get that impression.

That aside, I did read the charges, and as a theological document it was surprisingly under-achieved. I was a little disappointed to see that. The fact is, these issues were discussed so much (on and around campus) in the years following the publication of GWU, I expect that nothing new–at least for those of us who were around for all that–will be said for several years. I am, nonetheless, open to learning more and to hearing what you have to say.

So that brings me to one or two quick responses.

First: thank you for clarifying regarding Adam’s context prior to the covenant of works. Several issues overlap here, but it seems your objection is to the use of the word ‘covenant’ with regard to anything historically prior to the covenant of works. In response to that concern I would say–summarizing what I’ve said above–that it is not so easily dismissed, because even anthropology–man as conceived in the mind of God, prior to the act of creation–may be thought of as covenantal, without doing much harm to the use of the word. The examples I raised were Bavinck’s ‘organic’ anthropology and Van Til’s notion of ‘covenant consciousness’ as the noetic aspect of original anthropology. My point was to say that the moral fabric of the ‘natural’ situation (prior to the covenant of works) is to my mind enough to warrant the use of the term to describe the realm of creaturely experience as such.

You say Oliphint ‘ontologizes’ the covenant relation. I remember that claim being circulated among us years ago. I won’t say that every use of the term ‘property’ has been optimally constructive, but we have to acknowledge that no philosophical school owns the rights to its every use. Thus occasional ambiguity. This was perhaps the initial cause of confusion surrounding the use of the term. But I think what you mean is that Oliphint claims that covenant, in history, changes God, violates immutability, the whole package of incommunicable attributes. Is that right? That ‘God becomes’ in the fullest sense. In response to that, or any degree of that, I just have to say that Oliphint does not renounce the incommunicable attributes. He affirms them repeatedly. What I believe Oliphint is looking for, overall, is this: a better truthmaker for theological predication than the anthropomorphic non-realism, the religious projectionism, that some Thomists argue for. He is trying, from within the tradition, to ‘stare more intently into the face of God’ (CVT) in search of a richer theology of revelation, covenant, and history.

Regarding Christology and the doctrine of God–you say we cannot predicate ‘properly’ of the person of the Son etc. The distinction between proper and improper predication reflects the C/c distinction; it is deployed to honor the incommunicable attributes, the fullness of the divine being, actus purus. So divine naming must be mapped according to the asymmetry of the C/c relation. Is that how you understand it? So ‘we cannot predicate properly of the person’ means, as you say, that those things which we predicate of the person do not signify change in the person because the person is divine and as such cannot change. I hope I am getting your meaning here. In response, I would say: again, no one here is trying to attenuate much less abandon the incommunicable attributes. So, proper/improper is helpful in that sense, but perhaps beside the point. Let me record one thought in response. WCF 8.2 says “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin . . .” Here is my point: if all this is said of the Son ‘improperly’, then all that ‘improperly’ means is that nonetheless he remained the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father. If so, then there is no disagreement here. Likewise, the difference between ‘God’ and ‘Creator God’ is not the assumption, in mediatorial permanence, of a second nature, but it is a free, non-necessary act of a personal God. ‘Covenantal’, as far as I know, in the relevant use, just means to indicate the fact that creation signals a non-necessary relation attributable to the will of God, one not reducible to revelatory metaphor or phenomenal manifestation or the divine nature as such.

Nate Shannon

5 months ago

Let me add, or re-emphasize, and join some of the thoughts expressed here in other comments, that I am not sure that GWU needs to be revisited in this manner, or I do not fully appreciate RF’s decision to do so. Oliphint has distanced himself from the text and agreed to retrace his steps, clarify, restate, rethink, etc. He has never renounced the classical doctrine of God or the incommunicable attributes; he has repeatedly affirmed them. The presbytery has addressed charges against him. Apparently WTS faculty has discussed it, too. So why does RF want to revisit all of this, instead of, for example, waiting for Oliphint’s re-iteration? As a comment above asks, ‘what else does the guy have to do?’ I take that to mean that this undertaking appears uncharitable, even unfair to Oliphint, to be quite frank. Ecclesiologically speaking, I guess now RF is an ‘evangelistic’ ministry. Does that calling vindicate this pursuit of Oliphint, after he’s already acknowledged a need to rework, etc?

Camden Bucey

5 months ago

Dear Nate,

Thank you, brother, for your interaction and reaffirmations of our friendship in the Lord. I too desire to speak from such a mutual bond and hope that my comments do not give any other impression.

I have sought to be charitable and restrained for many years and will continue this pursuit by God’s grace. I believe I explained my rationale for writing in the essay, but perhaps I may offer further context. The reason I did not write years ago is that Dr. Oliphint has been promising a revision, but over the years I became disheartened that it has not been published. Moreover, there had been no public statement to the matter. My desire was that he would state which of his views he now finds to be erroneous and then work to develop a positive construction in a revision. To my knowledge, the only statement he issued mentioned that he regrets that people have misunderstood him. But even that statement has been removed from the Westminster website. I still hope we can have such a statement, because I believe it would be a tremendous service to the Church.

I can understand your comments on how the timing of my essay might appear. I regret some may have this perception. I can only speak to you as a friend and brother in saying that my criticisms and the timing of their release are unrelated to my call from Hope OPC as an evangelist and to the strategic initiatives we are enacting at Reformed Forum. I have been speaking with the elders of my church about this for about a year, and we have been developing our specific strategic plan for well over a year. We have been developing it in earnest for years prior to that.

So why did I take up God with Us here and why now? I wrote because Reformed Forum has featured Dr. Oliphint on many occasions. He has been a big part of organization. Due to that fact, for years, I have been fielding questions about his theology and statements from others that we support unorthodox views of the doctrine of God. As ministers of the gospel, we have a responsibility to our congregations and, I believe, to Reformed Forum’s listeners and readers. Again, I refrained from writing publicly because of the promised revision. Once charges were issued and made public, it became all the more incumbent upon us to speak clearly so as not to perpetuate false doctrines or give the impression that we supported them. I did not write while the ecclesiastical process was underway, but once the charges were dismissed, I felt at liberty to interact publicly with the public books, articles, and lectures.

I appreciate your theological interaction, and I want to continue interacting on these issues. Nonetheless, there is a general hesitance for many to interact directly with what Dr. Oliphint has actually written. Is it correct to affirm in any sense that God’s knowledge develops? Does God have a second mind? Is God limited in space? Does God himself really change? These are some very basic questions, and getting them wrong poses a great danger to the Church.

Jim Cassidy

5 months ago

Hi Nate,

Thanks for your comments. I don’t want to step in front of questions or comments put by you to others. But I did want to give some facts in response to something you said. You said:

“I’m sorry, but that appears to suggest that ‘Oliphint got off on a technicality’ and that Reformed Forum is stepping in to pursue (theological) justice more thoroughly. When I first raised some questions, Glen Clary, a member of the presbytery of the SW, accused me in sharp terms of misunderstanding and misrepresenting your statements. One could get the impression that RF, with Glen Clary’s encouragement, has decided to take matters into its own exceptionally self-confident hands, picking up where the process didn’t satisfy. I’m sure what to say, but one could get that impression.”

1. Dr. Oliphint’s case was never heard. We dismissed the charges on the basis of finding the documents inadmissible. Why we found those documents inadmissible still remains unanswered by the Presbytery. The Presbytery gave no grounds.

2. I do not appreciate your insinuation that the RF is acting like a vigilante that is “self-confident.” Brother, that is an insult and one that carries with it unsubstantiated accusations against both Glen and RF as a whole. I wish that you would retract that statement.

3. You also indicate elsewhere that this post lacks charity toward Dr. Oliphint. I don’t see it that way. This is not personal. The post, as I see it, gets the issues that are very public on the table. You say that he has distanced himself from these doctrinal positions. That’s great, I truly rejoice to hear that! But then, where are the retractions? Revisions have been in the works for 5 years. Meanwhile, if he has in fact rejected his former views, why has he not come out publicly and issued a renunciation?

4. The source of the doctrinal problems (which you seem to grant) extends well beyond GWU. His position is found elsewhere, both online as well as in print. It remains a cloud over his head. He has the ability to blow the cloud away. But he has not. That means his doctrine remains a public scandal and is open to public critique. I would invite you to join us in an attempt to clear the air of the cloud and bring clarity to this issue.

Nate Shannon

5 months ago

Thanks, brothers. Let me combine brief replies to Camden and to Jim. First, Jim, I did not mean that as an insult but as an interpretation of material posted here at RF. To be quite frank there is a real sense of self operative here. Camden describes it as responsibility to listeners (and to their questions) and as personal disappointment that Oliphint’s promised revisions have not yet been published.

I hope no one does to any of us what you guys are doing to Oliphint. I suppose the readers know that we all studied with him, that he prayed regularly with us and for us and encouraged us and, as Camden points out, has encouraged and contributed to Reformed Forum from the beginning. He is not only our teacher and a brother in the Lord but an ordained OPC elder in good standing. But RF is holding him to account publicly. Even though he has distanced himself from this book, if I scroll up from the comment section I see a huge image of the cover of the book.

Camden indicated above that Oliphint’s expression of regret was inadequate. Do you see what I mean? Even if we think it was inadequate, if we think his response to critique of GWU has not been sufficiently humble or specific, how ought we to act on that assessment? By mounting a sustained and public critique of the very book he has set himself to revising?

‘In my opinion, it has taken too long for Oliphint to revise’ – first, it hasn’t even been a decade since the book was first published. GWU wasn’t a blog post. Second, who, exactly, should hold Oliphint accountable for the pace of his work on these questions? The church courts? WTS? No, but Reformed Forum – a website run by Oliphint’s former students. Are we bearing with his burdens in a spirit of gentleness, or thinking we are something we are not (G 6:2-3)? Is this being done in love (1 C 16:14)? For my part, I could not undertake something like this in good conscience.

I do indeed believe that the relevant theological questions deserve serious attention; I am not saying ‘don’t do the theology’. But I am equally sure that this approach is off target on several counts. Why not write a paper on the history or interpretation of Gen 22:12? Or look into the history of Christological interpretation of OT anthropomorphism? And so on. There is plenty of constructive work to be done.

Jim Cassidy

5 months ago

Hi Nate,

I’m sorry brother, but your interpretation was insulting and uncharitable. We all love and admire Dr. Oliphint very much. Is it wrong to offer a critique of the work of someone we love? Is it wrong to have waited 8 years for the seminary, personal interactions and the church to work with him on his alleged error? Is it wrong for concerned friends, brethren and students to raise a concern when no public retraction has been issued? The message coming from Philadelphia has been confusing. On the one hand we are told a revision is underway (and has been underway since at least the time of the pulping of the books by WTS). We are given the hope that he has distanced himself from his previous theology. But then, on the other hand, we hear that he maintains the confessional nature of his theology; both back in 2011 as well as today. So, there is great confusion right now. And that confusion is due entirely to his not issuing a clear statement denying that God can change, or grow in knowledge, or become passible when he assumes to himself covenantal properties. That is the cloud that remains hanging over his head. So, in light of all this, Nate, let me put the question to you in a blunt way: should our allegiance be first and foremost to the truth or to Dr. Oliphint? My view is that the only way we can serve Dr. Oliphint well is by first and foremost pursuing the truth in love. Camden’s post above seeks the truth, and I see nothing in there that is unloving. In fact, the love and concern and respect is ostensible.

Jon

5 months ago

Thanks for being transparent Camden. If you could help some of you readers, I am getting a lot of questions about your first point. It seems that on one hand you are arguing for the Deeper Protestant Conception and now you just went against it by divorcing covenant and image. Are you saying that likeness and image are in fact different? Could you help me rectify this? Plus others are reading you as arguing against Dr. Kline in his view of creation as covenantal (K.P. section A). Are we saying that Kline is also outside of the confession on this?

James John Cassidy

5 months ago

Thanks Jon, Camden can answer for himself. I might just direct your attention to the lecture Lane Tipton gave at a Reformed Forum conference in Austin. I believe that was in the Spring of 2016. He addresses this question head on.

Camden Bucey

5 months ago

David

5 months ago

James Cassidy, ostensible means stated or appearing to be true, but not necessarily so.

Camden Bucey

5 months ago

Jon,

Thank you for the reply. I hope to clarify a few things. I did not divorce covenant and image in my essay; I distinguished them. Neither do I differentiate image and likeness. I believe likeness is epexegetical of image in Gen. 1:26. Moreover, I affirm whole-heartedly the Deeper Protestant Conception that Vos articulates.

Nonetheless, God’s free decision to create ought to be distinguished from the covenant itself—as spoken of in Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1. WCF 7.2 says the first covenant God made with man was the Covenant of Works. That covenant was established when God issued his Word of special revelation to Adam (Gen. 2:16–17).

God creates man in his image with a view toward the blessedness and reward promised in the Covenant of Works, but that is not to make creation of man in God’s image identical to the special act of providence described in WSC 12. There is a natural telos in man as created in God’s image. I’m not speaking in terms of Kline’s language, I’m speaking in terms of the Westminster Standards, because that is where Dr. Oliphint bases his model of theology proper. As an aside, in all my interaction with him, Dr. Oliphint has never been a fan of Kline. 🙂

I do not believe anything Kline writes in Section A of Kingdom Prologue runs afoul of the Westminster Standards, but Kline also does not speak of the covenantal character of creation in the way that Dr. Oliphint does. I’m addressing Dr. Oliphint’s use of WCF 7.1 to describe a new ontological reality by which we may understand change in God according to the construct of the communicatio idiomatum. I do not believe Kline would have anything to do with that.

Jon

5 months ago

Thanks Camden, super helpful. I am still getting push back from this statement from Kline…maybe I am reading him wrong. “The covenantal character of the original kingdom order as a whole and of man’s status in particular was given along with existence itself. For the Creator of Genesis 1 gave name and existence simultaneously in his creative fiat.” Appreciate the feedback.

Camden Bucey

5 months ago

I didn’t see your email address until now, so I apologize for not writing my prior comment to you from the position of our personal relationship. Allow me to ask a question for clarification. Are you receiving this push back from other people asking or from the Kline quotation itself?

Jon

5 months ago

No worries brother. Yeah, primarily others asking. But I too am having a tough time squaring this among other quotes, but don’t feel like you must answer here and now, I know you are not dealing with Kline primarily. But, if you do have a way forward I know it will help give clarification. Thanks again.

Jim Cassidy

5 months ago

Hey brother, Camden will surely answer himself. I offer my own thoughts to you on the Kline quote, ““The covenantal character of the original kingdom order as a whole and of man’s status in particular was given along with existence itself. For the Creator of Genesis 1 gave name and existence simultaneously in his creative fiat.”

I think, but I am unsure without looking at the quote in context, that Kline has in view the covenantal structure of creation itself. Now that does not mean that creation IS a covenant. But as we know from his work in Genesis 1 the structure of the created order is such that it has the marks of a suzerain/vassal relation. I think that is what Kline means by “the covenantal character” of the original created order. The Covenant of Works, as we know, is part of God’s work of providence, not his work of creation. That does not mean, of course, that Adam is somehow for a time living the life of an autonomous creature. He is not. Adam as image bearer already reflects that covenantal character of the original created order. But no sooner than man, the image bearer of God, is conscious of his being in this covenantal kingdom order does that Word of God come to him revealing to him how he is to think about his context. Anyway, this is just a shot from the hip on my part. Feel free to disagree!

Jon

5 months ago

Thanks Jim!

Ron Iveson

5 months ago

Thanks for this, I’m looking forward to following the up and coming posts. I bought the book and dipped into it a bit all the while thinking this is going to take some hard thinking! So i value your work and Dr Oliphints. One seeming parallel and hope hope this doesn’t muddy the reformed waters even more, W Craig Lane holds a view that God is timelessly a-temporal prior to creation but upon creating become temporal and timebound, I don’t think he workis in covenantal terms though.

CM

5 months ago

Can we have a (free ) live chat about this please?

Bob L.

5 months ago

I remember the days of the Enns controversy at WTS when the faculty voted 12-8 that Enns should remain a professor, condoning his theology of Scripture. That could have been the end of the process against Enns, and it may should have been according to the seminary’s normal practices. But Lilback, Trueman, Oliphint, et al. didn’t let that happen. They lectured against Enns in class, distributed papers to the student body, wrote articles in New Horizons, and called upon the board to intervene. Why? Because Enns’s theology was false on a matter of theological principle and needed to be resisted, even if some thought such resistance was out of line.

Dr. Oliphint had distributed a paper he wrote against Enns’s theology arguing that his views on the diversity of Scripture would perhaps result in a preacher saying this or that one week and then denying all he said the next week. It was a powerful argument. If I remember, though, I was reading the paper in the Spring of 2008, after the faculty voted that Enns should remain a professor, vindicating his theology. Despite the process, Enns’s theology needed to be publicly addressed, debated, refuted.

History has turned on itself and now it is Oliphint who is reorganizing a principle theological doctrine along the lines of Christology only to render that doctrine unorthodox, just as Enns had. Those who are responsible to decisively and publicly defeat Oliphint’s theology (WTS and the OPC) hadn’t, haven’t, aren’t, and, as far I can tell, will not act unless there is an outcry against the relativized god-in-process at the center of Oliphint’s theology. The debate needs to continue and I applaud Reformed Forum for (finally) being on the right side of that debate.

Nate Shannon

5 months ago

Bob L.,
Enns and Oliphint – the comparison is meaningless. Even if one thinks both theological views are equally erroneous, the situations are strikingly different, in particular with regard to the points I mentioned above (process and cooperation). To use your own example: You recall the efforts of Lillback, Trueman, Oliphint, et al., and this proves my point: they were voting faculty and (senior) administration. That discussion–the one that mattered–was not public.

Robert Gonzales

5 months ago

Camden, wish you could have waited a little longer till the 2nd edition is published.

Nate Shannon, thanks for your remarks.

Christopher Lee

5 months ago

Camden et al

I am curious as to whether what we are talking about regarding Oliphint’s teaching is what he brought up in class when you (and others) were there at WTS.

If it was, were there discussions in class?

Thanks.

Camden Bucey

4 months ago

Yes, this is what I was taught when I took the course in 2008. There wasn’t too much discussion in class as I recall. Since it was only my first semester, and my first class on Doctrine of God, the tendency is to go along with what you’re reading and being taught. It is my understanding that there has been much more pushback in the classroom in recent years. In fact I believe Dr. Oliphint quit allowing questions in the classroom or via email because it was taking too much time.

Christopher Lee

4 months ago

Thanks. I understand. Especially that being one of your first classes at WTS, it is understandable to go along with what the professor is teaching because your views wouldn’t have crystallized until later (especially when dealing with philosophical theology/theology proper).

It’s surprising that it eventually got to the point that he stopped answering questions about this.

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