31 March 2005

no shadow of turning 8

The Old Testament revelation of God’s transcendent otherness, as distinct from every created thing, is therefore explained and fulfilled by the revelation of God as Trinity since it is as Trinity that God is exalted above every created form of existence and remains definitively unlike any created thing. Indeed, it is precisely the absolute difference, “otherness,” and distance between the Persons of the Trinity that grounds the possibility of God freely choosing to create a world that exists as something truly distinct from and other than himself.

But the revelation of God’s immanent loving presence is also explained and fulfilled by the revelation of God as Trinity since it is as Trinity that God is shown to be defined by the loving gift of self, one to another as the one God. Indeed, it is precisely the absolute identity of each of the Persons as God—while remaining in all their infinite distinction as Persons—that grounds the possibility of God’s intimate closeness to a creation that exists as something completely other than himself.

It is also in light of this revelation of God as Trinity that we must understand the claims of classical theism, particularly that God is both “being itself” (ipsum esse) and “pure act” (actus purus), concepts that are closely interrelated. The affirmation that God is “being itself” (where “being” is not just a noun, but a verb referring the eternal event of existing) is a way of speaking of who God is distinct from all created things. It is not, after all, the essence of any created thing to be or to exist, since its existence is a gift received, wholly dependent upon the power of God to create. God might have made all different things from those he has actually created or, indeed, he might have made nothing at all. But what actually exist are those potentially existing things that God has chosen to actualize, those things that might or might not have existed, yet God has chosen to bring into existence.

God, on the other hand, is a completely different sort of being and not just another thing alongside created things. For God, existing is of his essence, since his existing is not dependent upon anything outside of himself and thus he is self-existent. It is not the case that God might or might not have existed, but rather it is the case that God is the sort of being who necessarily exists. “Being itself” or the event of existing just is the nature of God. In God there is no unrealized potential, no possibility that God might become more God than he already is, because God is eternally fully actualized. As “being itself” God also just is “pure act.”

This philosophical description of the nature of God on the part of classical theism is consonant with, follows from, and finds fulfillment in the account of God as Trinity that we have already discussed. The Christian notion of God as “being itself” and “pure act” has a distinctively Trinitarian content and explanation, since the actualization of who God is takes the form of the eternal relations between the Persons of the Trinity, each of whom is fully who he is in the event or act of relating to the other divine Persons. And as I suggested earlier, this Trinitarian understanding is necessary for God to be the God of Scripture who remains both transcendent and immanent in relation to his creation.

30 March 2005

alcohol and memory

A report in the January 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that elderly women who consistently drank one drink per day lowered their risk of memory loss and senility by 20%. It didn't matter whether it was a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail.

It's uncertain that this will translate into similar results for men, though there are indications that it will. Moderate alcohol consumption also has positive benefits with regard to the likelihood of heart attack and stroke.

Well, I'm not taking any chances. Now where is that bottle of port...

29 March 2005

no shadow of turning 7

Thus far I have primarily focused upon the biblical revelation of God as we find that in the Old Testament faith of Israel. The fullness of God’s self-disclosure, however, has come to us in the Person of his Son, Jesus Christ, God himself come to us in human flesh (Heb 1:1-3). Moreover, in Christ we know God to be a Trinity of divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons, yet one God. Neither the Incarnation nor the Trinity run counter to what we have already heard, but rather deepen and strengthen our understanding of God as transcendent and immanent.

I will simply assume here and develop the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as that has been discerned from Holy Scripture by the church and subsequently defined in the early Councils: that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three co-equal Persons who are each exhaustively God so that they exist as one-in-being. Moreover, each of these three Persons is who he is only in relation to the other Persons, so that the existence of each both defines and is defined by the other Persons. The relationships among these divine Persons are traditionally referred to as “processions” and that is language I will be using.

This way of thinking about the Trinity can be seen from the simple terms “Father” and “Son” by which God names the first two Persons. No person is a father unless he has a child and no child is a son unless he has a father. The concepts of “father” and “son” are mutually defining and constitutive of one another. God’s revelation of himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the particular shape that revelation takes, shows us that each of the divine Persons subsists only in relation to the Others.

Thus, the Father is Father only in relation to the Son and to the Spirit so that he is constituted as “Father” in the single eternal event or act of begetting the Son and breathing out the Spirit, an eternal event of divine self-giving love, so that the Son is eternally begotten from the Father in and through the procession of the Holy Spirit. The Father lovingly gives himself over so exhaustively and without remainder in this act that this act defines the Father as Father and constitutes the Son and the Spirit as divine Persons as much as the Father.

Similarly, the Son is Son only in relation to the Father and to the Spirit so that he is constituted as “Son” in the single eternal event or act of being begotten by the Father and sending out the Spirit, an eternal event of divine self-giving love, so that the Son eternally gives to the Father in and through the Spirit by whom he was begotten. Like the giving of the Father, the self-giving return of the begotten Son to the Father in the Spirit defines the Son as Son and constitutes the Father and the Spirit as divine Persons as much as the Son.

Finally, the Spirit is Spirit only in relation to the Father and to the Son so that he is constituted as “Spirit” in the single eternal event or act of being breathed out in love by the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten and being the one in whom, proceeding from the Son, the Son completely gives himself back to the Father. Like the giving of the Father and the Son, the self-giving procession of the Spirit from the Father in the Son and from the Son returning to the Father defines the Spirit as Spirit and constitutes the Father and Son as divine Persons as much as the Spirit.

The Persons of the Trinity, then, are to be understood as relational events or acts of loving gift who are nothing more and nothing less than these eternally active relationships. As such, for instance, the Father cannot become any more the Father by doing anything further than he already eternally does in begetting the Son and breathing out the Spirit. And the same holds true for the other divine Persons, who are each already eternally who they are in their fully actualized self-giving relations of love. Thus, the personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is exhaustively constituted by their respective relational acts.

28 March 2005

good friday concert

Our Good Friday service at Tenth Presbyterian is at noon, so this year the church decided to have an evening concert as a musical outreach to friends and the wider community, making use of the talents of our church choir (which included my lovely wife), chamber players, and several talented members of the congregation.

The concert was absolutely wonderful. The program consisted of Henryck Górecki's "Three Pieces in Old Style" (for string orchestra), J.S. Bach's "Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins," and W.A. Mozart's Requiem mass.

All the performances were outstanding. The concert was webcast live and an archive of the webcast is still available online (scroll down to "03/25/2005 - Good Friday Choral Concert"). I'd recommend giving it a listen.

If you'll be in Philly for Pentecost Sunday, May 15, we are having a Psalm Service that evening at 6:15pm featuring the Tenth Church choir singing Psalm settings all by living composers associated with Tenth church and who will all be present for the performance.

27 March 2005

pascha

Lord of life and power,
through the mighty resurrection of your Son,
you have overcome death
and opened the gate of everlasting life.
Grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory,
who with you and the Holy Spirit is alive,
one God, now and for ever.

26 March 2005

the death of God

From Hans Urs von Balthasar:

If without the Son no one can see the Father, nor anyone come to the Father, and if, without him, the Father is revealed to nobody, then when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, is inaccessible...

One can, no doubt, say: he came to bear our sins upon the Cross, to take up the account-sheet of our debt, and to triumph thereby over principalities and powers: but this "triumph" is realised in the cry of God-forsakenness in the darkness, in "drinking the cup" and "being baptized with the baptism" which lead down to death and hell. Then the silence closed around, as the sealed tomb will also close...

...we must take with full gravity this affirmation: in the same way that a man who undergoes death and burial is mute, no longer communicating or transmitting anything, so it is with this man Jesus, who was the Speech, the Communication and the Mediation of God.

(from Mysterium Paschale, Eerdmans, 1990: 49-50)

holy saturday

O God, creator of heaven and earth,
as the crucified body of your dear Son
was laid in the tomb
and rested on this holy sabbath,
so may we await with him
the coming of the third day
and rise with him to newness of life;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

25 March 2005

good friday

Almighty God,
look graciously, we pray, on this your family
for whom our Lord Jesus Christ
was willing to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

24 March 2005

maundy thursday

God our Father,
your Son Jesus Christ
has left to us this meal of bread and wine
in which we share in his body and blood.
As we keep the feast of his redeeming love
may we feed on him by faith,
receive his grace,
and find fullness of life;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

daniel rogers on baptism

I had seen the Puritan minister Daniel Rogers (1573-1652) quoted by several Westminster Divines with regard to the sacraments and it seems that his 1633 work A Treatise of the Two Sacraments of the Gospel (London: Thomas Cotes) remained well-regarded, widely read, and regularly cited among many prominent Puritans for the next several decades. Rogers's Treatise is, in fact, referred to several times by Stephen Marshall (whom Rogers followed as rector at Wethersfield) in his defenses of infant baptism before the Parliament and the Westminster Assembly.

Rogers was a fervent Puritan and Calvinist, a graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge, where he had publicly and quite successfully defended the Puritan cause against an opponent sent by Archbishop Bancroft. His Puritan convictions, however, led to his suspension from the ministry under Archbishop Laud in 1629, despite Laud's own great admiration for Rogers's scholarly skills. Nevertheless, Rogers maintained a very active and effective ministry at Wethersfield until his death in 1652.

In his treatise on the sacraments, Rogers begins his discussion of baptism by stating:

Baptism then is the first Sacrament of the Gospel, consisting of water, which is sacramentally Christ, wherein, by water duly applied, not only the presented party is made a member of the visible Church, but also sealed up to an invisible union with Christ and thereby interested in all those benefits of his, which concern the being of regeneration. (71)

He goes to discuss the sacramental union between the "sign" and the "thing signified." Rogers writes,

...although the grace of Christ must neither be equated nor tied to a dumb creature, yet he hath freely yielded to unite himself with his creature, so oft as he pleaseth to use it for the good of his own and for his glory; and, that to this end, we might learn to adore him in all such ordinances by which he draws near to us for our comfort and to set a mark of honor and esteem even upon those mean things which his wisdom hath devised for the release of our dullness, deadness of heart, and infidelity. (72)

The sacramental union, by which Christ through the word and Spirit takes up and uses water in the sacrament of baptism, is seen by Rogers as a useful doctrine, by which God teaches us to honor the ordinary material means by which he shares with us the benefits of Christ's mediation. He writes that part of the use of baptism is for God

...to teach us where he hath cast honour upon uncomely parts, yea, united himself for the gracing of a meet help to further us to himself, there to account reverently of his ordinances and not commonly: that which God hath not thought common, beware we of thinking so. Hath he taken water and joined it with a kind of equal necessity with himself in this kind of conveyance? Hath he said, "He that believes and is baptized, shall be saved"? And, "Except a man be born again of water, etc."? And shall not we fasten both our eyes upon Christ and water? Christ sacramental, in and by water? Better with it for our ease and help, than without it? Shall not he who despiteth water (appointed to such an inseparable holy end) despise the ordainer of water? Shall we take his name in vain, by slighting that by which he makes himself and the power of his Word and Spirit manifest to beget the soul to him, and be holden guiltless? (72-73)

Rogers takes a very dim view of those who would not hold the sacrament of baptism in the esteem that is given it by Scripture. He writes,

When Christ hath put both in one, shall we dare say, the one is strong, the other is base? Shall we slight it, slacken our haste to it, our holy preparing ourselves to it, our abiding at it, our offering up prayer for blessing it, our making it the joint object of our humiliation, faith, reverence, and thanks? Far be it from us so to abhor that Popish hyperbolical esteem of it and the merit of the work wrought of it, that we run into another riot to disesteem it!

Doubtless he that cares not for Christ in the word, Christ in the promise, Christ in the Minister, Christ in the water, Christ in the bread and wine, Christ sacramental, cares as little for Christ God, Christ flesh, Christ Emmanuel.

By these he comes near us. And "he that despiseth you despiseth me and him that sent me." Beware we of such contempt, even in the secretest of our thoughts and affections and let Christ in the water be honoured as Christ, for that sweet union and fruit which he brings to a poor soul thereby. (73)

With regard to the baptism of infants, Rogers maintains the practice of infant baptism against those whose "schismatical" and "peevish" arguments would reject it (78). He argues that infants, after all, are capable of the grace of baptism, though not in the exact same way as adults. He says, "although the child be not capable of the grace of the sacrament by that way, whereby the grown are, by hearing, conceiving, and believing, yet this follows not, that infants are not capable of sacramental grace in and by another way" (79).

He concludes, therefore, that "if the infant be truly susceptive of the substance of Christ, none can deny it the sacrament" (79). Rogers goes on to explain, with particular attention to infants of believers dying in infancy:

Now to understand this, mark that infants born of believing parents are of the number of those that shall be saved (though dying in their infancy) none of our reformed churches will deny. It is enough therefore that such before death do partake the benefit of election in Christ, together with the benefits of Christ in regeneration, adoption, redemption, and glory. Now that the Spirit can apply these unto such infants is not doubted, though the manner thereof to us be a hidden and mystical thing, yet so it is, the Spirit of Christ can as really unite the soul of an infant to God, imprint upon it the true title of a son and daughter by adoption, and the image of God by sanctification without [actual] faith, as with it. (79-80)

Since infants of believers are capable of these benefits and, in the case of those dying in infancy, undoubtedly partake of them, Rogers concludes, "I see no cause to deny, that even in and at and by the act of baptism (as the necessity of the weak infant may admit) the Spirit may imprint these upon the soul of the infant" (80).

How then are children, baptized as infants, to regard their baptisms? Rogers writes, "Let the use of the point be to all such as are grown to years of discretion, to look back to their baptism. Let such bless the Lord for his bounteous prevention of them with the sacrament even before they had any strength to conceive it!" (80).

Those who are baptized as infants, then, are not to doubt the grace of God towards them, but to look to God's promises in faith. After all, in baptism God gives to us "an unconditional free title to mercy and forgiveness," to which we must respond by an actual faith upon hearing the call of the Spirit through the Word (82).

Rogers writes to those who have grown up baptized:

...Wilt thou not say, what a shame were it for me to give over him now in the pursuit of his grace, when he hath formerly laid a pledge in my bosom of his gracious meaning to forgive and save men? ...Oh! be vigilant and studious to redeem the opportunity of grace and to follow all means for the obtaining of grace! Kill all base enmity and treachery which suggest the Lord to be thy foe; say thus, "Surely if he had meant to destroy me, he would never have done any such kindness for me, but this preventing freely, assures me of his blessing upon my attending the means to get vocation and faith." Oh! be not faithless, but faithful. (80-81)

After discussing infant baptism, Rogers returns to the question of the grace of the sacrament itself. He writes:

...the chief thing here considerable, is the true grace of the sacrament of baptism, which point is one of the most material both for knowledge and use, of all the rest. Conceive then, the Lord Jesus being wholly given of God in each sacrament (though for diverse ends) this former sacrament offers him wholly in point of our new birth or the new creature; Christ in all his breadth, height, depth, and length; Christ for being and regeneration. (83)

Rogers goes on to unfold various biblical texts and images in relation to baptism, ending with the sprinkling of blood for cleansing from sin under the Old Covenant, which he sees as a type of baptism. He concludes his discussion with this:

...baptism is a better sprinkling of a better blood, upon a better object, to a far better peace, even peace of conscience, as being passed from death to life. By all these places [in Scripture] not unmeet to be conferred together, we see, that whole Christ crucified, Christ in water, Christ in our regeneration, Christ in our union, and by it all his benefits are the extent of the grace of baptism. And that the Minister standing in God's stead, applying water to the baptized, doth by it apply the power of the Lord Jesus by the Spirit accompanying the same, to create a new birth of grace and life in the soul. (87)

While Rogers's manner of expounding the sacraments is not common to all English Puritans, particularly those who strayed towards Independency, his sacramental theology, nevertheless, represents one mainstream and influential strand of Puritan thinking in the first half of the 17th century.

23 March 2005

wednesday of holy week

Almighty God
your Son Jesus Christ
withdrew to the quietness of Bethany
to prepare himself for his passion.
In the fellowship of his suffering,
strengthen us to be more than conquerors
in our trials and temptations,
that whether betrayed by friends
or hurt by enemies,
we may remain steadfast in our faith unto the end;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

22 March 2005

no shadow of turning 6

I don’t wish to belabor this point, but this absolute distinction (and relation) between Creator and creature is central all that I have to say and, therefore, needs further exposition. Thomas Weinandy provides such an exposition in his discussion of the Old Testament revelation of God as Savior, Creator, and All Holy (see his Does God Suffer? University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).

As Savior, Yahweh reveals himself as “the living God who acts in time and history,” who, unlike the idols of the pagans, surpasses all other human or natural powers and all cosmic forces, so that “no historical situation is outside Yahweh’s providential care nor immune from his saving action” (cf. Isa 44:9-20; Jer 10:3-5). As such, Yahweh stands uniquely in absolute distinction from all world-bound powers. And so Hosea testifies, “I have been Yahweh your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior” (13:4; cf. Ex 15:11). It was Israel’s experience of God as this kind of Savior that all the more made known to them the prior truth that God is also the Creator, for it as the Creator of all things that God is able to save.

As Creator, then, Yahweh reveals himself as the one “who is distinct from all that he creates, and so can neither be depicted in any fashion nor numbered as one of the things created.” This is seen in the way Genesis depicts God as calling all things into existence by his mere Word, so that the biblical notion of creation is absolute—all of creation is radically contingent upon God’s creative power and nothing within the creation is divine. Thus, while creation reveals and discloses God to us, any similarity between God and the world is situated within an even more radical otherness (see Isa 40:18). The complete dependence of the world upon God, however, not only establishes a distinction between God and the world, it also means that God “remains most intimate with his creation…lovingly present to what he has made” (see, e.g., Ps 139). This awe-inspiring and paradoxical relation of transcendence and immanence is summed up, above all, in the Scriptural notion of God’s holiness.

As the All Holy One, Yahweh reveals himself in all of his intimate otherness, characterized by a majestic and powerful perfection and goodness that distinguishes God as beyond and above all created things, who remains entirely and wholly himself: “I am Yahweh; there is none besides me.” Yet, it is out of this holy goodness that God created in the first place, that he is angered and grieved by human sin, and that he seeks to protect, save, and perfect his people. Thus, when God appears to Israel in the “splendor of his holiness,” he is terrifying to approach (Ex 19:3-20; Num 20:1-13; 1 Sa 6:19-21), but it is this very splendor that protects Israel and is the effective sign of God’s close presence among them (Ex 40:34-35; 2 Sam 6:7-11; 1 Ki 8:10-53). As the All Holy, even though Yahweh is utterly unapproachable in terms of the creature’s own initiative, Yahweh is also the God who remains always immediately at hand as he chooses to graciously dwell in the midst of his people.

This complex biblical interplay of transcendence and immanence is at the heart of God’s revelation of himself. It is not as if some aspects of God are transcendent, while others are immanent. Rather, as we have seen, it is the one and same God who, in his whole being, is both transcendent and immanent in relation to his creation and, moreover, that these are mutually defining concepts. Therefore, it is only as the God of Scripture who is utterly and transcendently distinct from all created things that this same God is also intimately and immanently present to his creation, the God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustine said (Confessions, 3.6.11).

This crucial truth should warn us against any attempt to divide God’s attributes up into opposed categories: on one hand, into those attributes that appear to make God distant and remote and, on the other hand, into those attributes that seem to make God responsive and involved. Open theism, it seems to me, arguably falls into this very mistake of pitting transcendence and immanence against one another. Rather, the biblical picture would lead us to expect that God’s intimate involvement with his creation will have to be conceived as a unique mode of involvement that also expresses divine transcendence. Likewise, God’s categorical difference from his creation will have to be conceived as a mode of difference that also entails divine immanence. We will return to this point shortly.

tuesday in holy week

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ
taught the people
the way of righteousness and judgment.
Grant us a ready mind and willing spirit
to learn from him
all that you would teach us,
and keep up watchful for his coming
and diligent in his work;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

21 March 2005

edmund p. clowney

After many years of faithful service to Christ's church, particularly as a pastor and theologian, Dr. Clowney died Sunday at the age of 87, due to complications from pneumonia. An obituary is available on website of Westminster Theological Seminary where Dr. Clowney taught for over 30 years.

One item not mentioned in the obituary is that Dr. Clowney was the author of seven hymns or hymn-adaptations in the Trinity Hymnal, which is widely used within the PCA and OPC. This past week, during evening prayer at home, we had sung his verion of "St Patrick's Breastplate."

What I will probably remember most about Dr. Clowney, in addition to the books of his that I've read, were the several occasions on which I had the privilege to hear him preach God's Word, with his particular gifts for what has come to be called "redemptive-historical preaching," unfolding the riches of all the Scriptures as they are directed toward and come to fulfillment in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

monday in holy week

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus Christ
cleared the temple
of those who desecrated that holy place.
Cleanse our hearts from greed and selishness,
that we may become the temple of the living God,
the dwelling-place of your Holy Spirit;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

forgiveness and time

In his Being Reconciled (Routledge 2003) John Milbank makes the interesting argument that the Christian practice of forgiveness requires a revision of our ontology of time itself, a revision that Augustine already undertakes in his great work, the Confessions.

The meditation on time that comes late in the Confessions is not simply a philosophical add-on, but a reflection that emerges from Augustine's own extended prayer in which he re-narrates his own life story, placing God among the characters of that story, and offering it up to God and his healing grace. In this action, Augustine succeeds in re-negotiates our understanding of time itself, rescuing it from a nihilistic flux and rooting it in the eternal life of a transcendent God, an eternity of which time is the moving image.

In particular, the problematics of forgiveness raise some difficulties with regard to time. While Milbank points out five aporias concerning forgiveness, two are especially relevant here.

First, how can we forgive since time prevents us from ever changing whatever wrong we or others have done in the past? Moreover, those whom have been wronged no longer remain in that place of victimization and those who are wrongdoers have changed in the meantime.

Second, if forgiving is thought of in terms of forgetting, then it seems that wrong can only be forgiven if it is forgotten. But if wrong is forgotten, then why does it still stand in need of forgiveness? This would seem to leave forgiveness as a mere negation that is impossible to accomplish.

In discussing Jankélévitch on forgiveness and time, Milbank suggests, building on Augustine, that the Christian ontology of time does not mean that time's "pastness" is inalterable, but that grace and forgiveness can actually transform the past through re-narration. Milbank writes:

...it is not that forgiveness nihilistically pretends to obliterate past evidence, but rather that this past existence is itself preserved, developed, and altered through re-narration. In this re-narration one come to understand why oneself or others made errors, in terms of the delusions that arose through mistaking lesser goods for the greater...Hence time, which was first the time of gift become, after the intrusion of evil, the time of mercy. The victim comes to remember and revise his past hatred more objectively as a correct refusal of the negative, and of the impairment of his own power; but at the same time, through re-narration he is able to situate and qualify this hatred in relation to a renewed understanding of the deluded motives of his violator.

A bit philosophical perhaps, but good thoughts to mediatate upon during this week leading up the remembrance of our Lord's passion, death, and resurrection.

20 March 2005

palm sunday

Lord Jesus Christ,
on the first Palm Sunday
you entered the rebellious city
where you were to die.
Enter our hearts, we pray,
and subdue them to yourself.
And as your disciples blessed your coming
and spread garments and branches on your way,
make us ready to lay at your feet
all that we have and are,
that we too may bless your coming
in the name of the Lord.

18 March 2005

mvp report, again

As I noted at the time of its public release, an ad hoc study committee of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery (MVP) of the PCA has issued a Final Report on an assorted range of concerns within the contemporary Reformed church, at least within its more conservative expressions.

The Report, moreover, was unanimously endorsed by the MV Presbytery and sent to the General Assembly of the PCA as a "communication" from the MVP.

We can be glad that these issues are being studied, in order that the Gospel of God's free grace in Christ might be proclaimed all the more clearly within our churches and in all its fullness.

The Report of the MVP, however, recognizes that it has only made what it hopes to be "a good and helpful start" and, nevertheless, admits that it "is not intended to be the final word on the matter." It goes on to express the hope that through time and continued conversation "things will be clarified and put out of question."

The Rev. Ligon Duncan himself, the chair of the ad hoc committee and a pastor in the Presbytery, recently said the following:

I want you to note that this report, all it is is a communication to General Assembly... wherein we have said, "We think we've done a pretty good job of describing what's going on out there. We're certain we've gotten some things wrong and so we'd like to hear from you. If we've got it wrong, we'd like to fix it." We've left our committee in place so that we can continue to talk to these brothers, so that we can continue to improve upon our product. But we felt we had a good enough product to share it with the General Assembly, with the Presbyteries, and say, "Take it. Use it how ever you want. Improve it. Correct it. Tell us where we got it wrong. Let's get it right." (5 March 2005, Woodruff Road PCA Bible Conference)

In the spirit of Rev. Duncan's remarks, then, I would like to offer the following several items by way of critique in order that the Report might be improved and corrected:

"Instead of a Reply: A Quick Survey of MVP's Accusations against Me" by the Rev. Mark Horne, PCA

"Response to Mississippi Valley Report" by the Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart, PCA, Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature, New St. Andrews College

"The MVP Précis on the 'Federal Vision': A Response to Its Referencing My Writings" by S. Joel Garver, Assistant Professor, La Salle University

"A Layman's Response to the MVP Report" Dr. Paul L. Owen, Assistant Professor of Bible and Religion, Montreat College

"The MVP Final Report: Some Initial Reflections" by S. Joel Garver

The fact that I am making these documents available does not necessarily mean that I am in complete agreement with their contents in every respect, other than those documents that are my own.

Nonetheless, I hope that by making them publicly available they can contribute to the larger process of biblical discernment, theological development, and confessional application as that is occurring within the PCA and other Reformed denominations.

I do this in hope that through a process of conversation and discernment within the church--both within the PCA and within the wider Reformed community--will we be able to make the kinds of judgments that are necessary and, from there, move forward with new vigor in the work of the Gospel.

no shadow of turning 5

In my first lecture I spent much of my time attempting to listen to the concerns of the open theists, particularly insofar as Scripture bears witness to the legitimacy of their concerns. The God of Holy Scripture who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ is a God who responds, a God who acts in history on behalf of his people, full of compassion and abounding in love. But Scripture also bears witness to a God who is the sovereign Creator of all things, who stands in absolute distinction from every creature who, even in his weakness, is stronger than human beings (1 Co 1:25). It is with God as the transcendent Creator, then, that I wish to begin now.

The Scriptures, of course, are not written in the language and thought-forms of philosophy and are not designed primarily to answer philosophical questions. Nevertheless, we as Christians must draw out the implications and assumptions of Scripture in order to think about and address even those areas to which the Scriptures do not directly speak. After all, how we answer philosophical questions about the being of God will have profound implications for who we believe God is and who we are in relation to him.

Thus, while the Bible does not often use the well-defined language and systematic methods of philosophy to speak of God, nonetheless, as God reveals himself in Scripture through his actions and in the experience of his people, his divine nature and relation to the world is made known. Even though, from the standpoint of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, we can recognize that the Old Testament’s witness to God is partial and incomplete, it is nevertheless from within the context of Yahweh’s prior revelation to Israel that God fully revealed himself in Christ. Thus, that revelation to Israel is where we will begin.

First, from the standpoint of Israel’s own experience, we must begin with God’s calling of Israel and establishing his covenant with them. Israel knew that Yahweh himself had initiated and renewed his covenant with them: the call of Abraham, the exodus, the exile and return, and so on. It was out of Yahweh’s own choice, loving initiative, and faithful promises that he established Israel as his own people, and not because of anything they had done (Ex 19:5; Dt 7:8-11; 9:4-6; 10:14-15; etc.). Thus Israel came to know Yahweh as a God who in his sovereignty initiated, created, promised, acted, and saved in accordance with his covenant.

From within this framework of the covenant, Israel also came to understand more about their God: [1] that Yahweh was not just one god among many, but the only God who had created all things, and [2] that Yahweh was a personal deity who acted in love and faithfulness towards his creation. In more philosophical terminology, Israel came to understand both [1] that their God was the transcendent creator who was, thereby, absolutely different from all created things, who alone could create and initiate a relationship with his creation, and [2] that their God was the immanent covenant God who was, thereby, intimately involved with his creation and present to it, particularly his covenant people. Moreover, Israel seemed to understand that God is able immanently to act within his creation precisely because he is transcendent over it.

17 March 2005

naomh phádraig (387-461)

Lúireach

Éirím inniu
Neart tréan, tréan-ghuí na
Tríonóide,
Is creideamh tréanmhar insan Triúr,
Faoistin umhal ghlan don Aondacht,
Cruthaitheoir ard na n-uile
ndúl...

Críost liom,
Críost romham,
Críost i m'dhiaidh,
Críost os mo chionnsa, agus Críost fúm,
Críost ina chónaí i mo chroíse,
Críost, fós, ó dheas díom,
Críost ó thuaidh

Críost ar fad a's Críost ar leithead,
Críost anseo a's Críost ansiúd,
Críost i gcroí gach uile dhuine,
'Bheas ag smaoineamh orm inniu.

Gach aon duine de na daoinibh,
'Labhraíos liomsa - Críost 'na bhéal.
Críost i súil gach uile dhuine,
'Dhearcas ormsa 'feadh an lae.

Críost i gcluasaibh gan aon duine
De na daoinibh 'chloisfeas mé;
Éirím, creidim, agus glaoim
Ar an Tríonóid, triúr 'na n-aon.

Ón Tiarna tig slánú,
Ón Tiarna tig slánú,
Go raibh do shlánú, a Thiarna,
'Nár measc go saol na saol.

16 March 2005

stepped out for a bit

...will return shortly. Been sick for a few days and have grading and other matters to catch up on.

13 March 2005

stanley j. grenz

Well-known theologian and Christian philosopher Stan Grenz, often associated with the emergent church movement, passed away early in yesterday morning 24 hours after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage.

Regent radio is broadcasting a lecture of his in memory of Grenz, entitled "Celebrating Eternity: Christian Worship as a Foretaste of Participation in the Triune God."

lent 5

Almighty God,
your Son came into the world
to free us all from sin and death.
Breath upon us with the power of your Spirit,
that we may be raised to new life in Christ,
and serve you in holiness and righteousness
all our days;
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.

12 March 2005

no shadow of turning 4

To the extent that certain kinds of modernist theologies have presented the God whom the open theists critique (including strands of my own Calvinistic tradition), their critique is warranted and such modernist theologies have not always been as faithful to the Scriptural data regarding God as one would wish.

In particular, one might think here of the development of the place of election within the Reformed tradition. The earliest Reformed Confessions and theologies, along with their Lutheran counterparts, typically placed election under the topics of Christology and soteriology. Later, election was placed instead under theology proper as part of the doctrine of God, thereby, in effect, tending to bypass the revelation of election in Christ and positing a God who is identified in terms of an inscrutable will beyond and above the God revealed in Christ. While the teaching of something like the Westminster Confession of Faith on election is perfectly biblical, orthodox, and Reformed in its content, we might raise questions about its priority and presentation and the effects that this seems to have had as it was received into subsequent dogmatics.

Moreover, to the degree that many open theists point to the person of Jesus Christ as the place where God is definitively and fully revealed, I concur. At this point in particular, their emphasis is a helpful corrective to some theologies that take "the one God" as a starting point for theology with little or no attention to the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation.

(Parenthetically, while “the one God” has precedence in many manuals of theology, including St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, I would argue that it is nonetheless possible to unfold the doctrine of the one God, divine simplicity, and so on, in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity and eventually Christology, so that it becomes clear that such considerations have implicitly informed the discussion from the start. Some have argued that this is, in fact, what Aquinas does and perhaps it is the case with other theologians as well. Nevertheless, in the later middle ages, as overall theological ontology shifted under the influence of scotism and nominalism, one might argue that the topic of “the one God” evolved into something rather different from what we find in Aquinas, even among thomistic theologians such as Saurez. By the time early modern theologies were emerging, the theology of the one God tended to emerge as something rather more philosophical, in some respect prior to and unconstrained by faith, theology, and a robust doctrine of analogy. Some later Reformed theologians attempted to correct this tendency in various ways, but one might question their effectiveness.)

While I very much appreciate the concerns of the open theists, I want to maintain: [1] they have mischaracterized the bulk of "classical theism," when properly understood in its historical and philosophical context; and [2] classical theism, understood correctly, contains resources that quite adequately account for the valid concerns of open theism, especially when expounded with a greater emphasis on the distinctively Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

In terms of the perceived tensions in the biblical picture of God as I sketched that above, I want to say that the tension is only apparent and that one way of biblically describing God does not need to be qualified at the expense of the another, whether on the side of classical or open theism. Rather, we must say that God is compassionate because he is all-sufficient. God is responsive because he is immutable. God can be said to suffer because he is pure act.

I realize that these affirmations sound paradoxical and perhaps even contradictory. Nonetheless, it is precisely such an understanding of God—the Triune God of Scripture revealed in Jesus Christ—that will be the topic of my second lecture.

09 March 2005

no shadow of turning 3

Let’s turn then to some further claims of open theism. If it is the case that God’s love is a responsive love, a vulnerable love, then it might seem to follow that, in some manner or another, creatures therefore truly influence God and, moreover, one might argue, as the open theists do, that human freedom sets a limit on God's sovereignty. It is not entirely clear to me just how these conclusions are supposed to follow from the nature of God’s love and responsiveness to creatures, but I shall try to outline what I take the argument to be.

Open theists ground their perspective, it seems, in two main considerations: first, biblical accounts of divine-human interaction as embodying genuine responsiveness and, second, an analysis of the nature of God’s love and grace and its necessary reciprocity if it is to constitute a real relationship between God and his creatures. With regard to the first, it is true that the Scriptures present us with a God who truly and authentically responds to his creatures. As we have already seen God can be delighted by their actions or grieved by their rebellion. Moreover, time and again God takes actions, makes threats, pronounces blessings and curses, and so on as a result of his creatures’ choices, achievements, and failures.

One can think here of God’s interaction with Moses on Mt. Sinai in response to the Israelites’ idolatry in worshipping the golden calf. Yahweh says to Moses,

I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my anger may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you. (Ex 32:9-10)

Through Moses’ intercession, however, God does not destroy Israel, rather, Exodus tells us, “Yahweh relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex 32:14). The biblical text presents a certain kind of give-and-take between God and Moses, in which human intercession is the occasion for God modifying his initially expressed intention or changing his mind altogether.

We can find many other biblical examples of such genuine divine response to human intercession, repentance, faith, disobedience, and so on: Abraham’s intercession on behalf of Sodom (Gen 18:16-33), God’s mercy to the people of Nineveh when they repented (Jonah 3), God’s relenting in light of the pleading of the prophet Amos (Amos 7:1-6), God’s sorrow before the flood that he had made humanity (Gen 6:5-7), God’s regret that he had made Saul king of Israel (1 Sa 15:11), and so on. We can add to this all the places in Scripture where God is said generally to respond, whether in anger, grief, delight, mercy, and so on. The open theists, therefore, rightly criticize any view of God’s will and divine sovereignty that leaves no room for such authentic response on the part of God or attempts to explain it away without doing justice to God’s own self-revelation in Scripture.

With regard to the second consideration I mentioned above—the nature of God’s love for and grace towards his creatures as involving actual reciprocity—open theists often argue in the following way:

God, in grace, grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against God’s will for their lives, and he enters in dynamic, give-and-take relationships with us. The Christian life involves a genuine interaction between God and human beings. We respond to God’s gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses…and on it goes. God takes risks in his give-and-take relationship, yet he is endlessly resourceful and competent in working towards his ultimate goals…God does not control everything that happens. Rather, he is open to input from his creatures. In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being.

This is merely a summary statement from a preface to a longer book, but here we do see the general shape of the open theists’ argument. If God enters into a genuinely responsive and loving relationship with his creatures, then it is thought to necessarily entail that God, in some important sense, “takes risks” so that he is not in control of everything that happens. Otherwise, it is implied, input from creatures is not authentic or real. These points appear to follow from general, somewhat philosophical reflections regarding the nature of love, relationship, responsiveness, reciprocity, and so on.

(Parenthetically, even from a philosophical standpoint, such considerations are open to challenge. One might think, for instance, of the phenomenology of staged drama. Though the entire production is scripted and directed by others, when well-rehearsed, accomplished, and sensitive actors fully take on their characters’ roles, their performances are simultaneously constrained by the formal features of the drama and most free and responsive, both with regard to the actors’ art and their reciprocal interactions.)

Even granting that God is a God who loves, who truly responds to his creatures, and so on, it is a further distinct question whether or not this kind of divine responsiveness entails that God is subject to change or is mutable. And it is yet another question whether God’s response to his creatures entails that the freedom of creatures somehow limits his sovereignty. After all, might not God, in his loving and self-sacrificial sovereignty, always already have included his response to his creatures in his plan to create and redeem them? Would such a response be any less authentic or any less loving? And why should we see human freedom and divine sovereignty in a manner that pits them against one another, so that, for either to be genuine, it must somehow limit the other? It is neither clear nor beyond challenge that these questions should be answered along the lines of open theism.

But open theists do not stop there. They argue further that, if the free choices of creatures do limit God’s sovereignty, then these choices also limit God’s knowledge so that God only learns the future at it comes to pass, insofar as it is affected by the free choices of his creature. Moreover, this picture would seem to entail divine passibility in the sense that God is dependent upon the world in various respects so that he is affected by the world in such a way that the effect upon God finds part of its ultimate origin in the world itself, independent of God’s own will or foreknowledge.

The argument for all of these conclusions, however, is far from obvious. And as they proceed they become more and more troubling from the standpoint of classical theism as that emerges from divine self-revelation in Holy Scripture. The God of Scripture is the God who responds, but he is also the God who proclaims, “I, Yahweh, do not change” (Mal 3:6), of whom it is said, “God is not a human that he should lie, nor a son of Adam that he should change his mind” (Num 23:19; cf.1 Sa 15:29). The God of Scripture is the God who has created free creatures and genuinely interacts with them, but he is also the God who declares, “You are my witnesses…that I am God. Yes, from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?” (Isa 43:12-13). He is the God of whom the Psalmist says, “The plans of Yahweh stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations” (Ps 33:11).

If we are faithful to God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures, we cannot interpret one set of texts at the expense of the other. Rather, we must find a way to hold the entire biblical witness together with integrity. This task may not be easy or simple, because is God of whom we speak and God ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thought. Nevertheless, it is my contention that with the resources of classical theism we can, in fact, bring together the entirety of the biblical witness without having to compromise any portion of it. This does not mean, however, that nothing is to be learned or gained from this brief survey of open theism.

08 March 2005

spring break

At least that what they call it, though there are still a few patches of snow on the ground and Spring doesn't start officially for a couple more weeks.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much of a break this will be. Saturday I spent much of the day attempting to condense 2 hours worth of material on Open Theism into about 45 minutes for a Sunday School class I was teaching at an area church. The class seemed to go reasonably well and folks asked good questions and appear to have followed what I said better than I expected, given how disjointedly and quickly I covered some of the more difficult material.

Yesterday was a busy day. Our washing machine gave up the ghost last week, so we went shopping for a new one yesterday morning, always tricky business with a busy toddler in tow. We had sent some laundry home with my parents on Sunday in order for Laurel not to fall too far behind.

After picking out a new machine an arranging for delivery this week, we went over to my parents in order for Laurel to finish up the laundry using their machine and also so she could do our taxes on thier computer, using the Turbo Tax program my Dad had purchased. Fortunately, unlike me who easily gets lost when talking finances, Laurel has a good head for things like money and taxes and we'll be getting a sizeable refund.

While she was busy doing laundry and taxes, I went over to Westminster Seminary to do some research, catch up with a few friends, and attend a lecture by Mark Noll on writing as a Christian historian and the dangers of providentialism, that is, assuming that one can easily discern the purposes of God in history, particularly, as is typically the case, in order to underwrite one's own tradition, theological project, nation, or the like. Perhaps I'll say more about Noll's lecture, Carl Trueman's response, and the later panel discussion on Noll's book America's God if I find the opportunity. (Apologies to Mark T. in the bookstore to whom I failed to introduce myself.)

For now, back to work, putting finishing touches on some lectures for Saturday and then attempting to slog my way through the tremendous pile of grading that threatens to bury me in an avalanche of paper. Hmm. I also need to get my book order in for Summer session and the Fall semester as well as begin to set up the website for the mostly online course I'll be teaching from May through July.

bramhall on disagreement

John Bramhall (1594-1663) was a Anglican Calvinist bishop of decidedly High Church persuasion and ended up in exile in Belgium for much of the middle of the 17th century, given that his sort of theology and practice was out of favor in the age of the Long Parliament and Cromwell.

His ecclesiastical vocation, especially in the 1630s, was marked by controversy and often a certain degree of intransigence on his own part. While I'm sure I would have had some rather sharp disagreements with Bramhall on a number of matters, it seems that his own perspective began to soften some during his exile in the 1640s.

Bramhall wrote one morning, regretting a somewhat heated dispute the previous night:

This morning, lying musing in my bed, it produced some trouble in me, to consider how passionately we are all wedded to our own parties, and how apt we are all to censure the opinion of others, before we understand them; while our want of charity is a greater error in ourselves, and more displeasing to Almighty God, than any of those supposed assertions which we condemn in others; especially when they come to be rightly understood. (from The Works of John Bramhall, volume 1, Parker 1842:171)

Interesting words from a prelate who had once been William Laud's power broker and point man in the Church of Ireland, even to the degree of sometimes undermining Archbishop James Ussher.

06 March 2005

lent 4

Almighty God,
you have delivered us from the death of sin
and raised us to new life in your love,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ;
and in baptism you have made us one with him
so that now we are the children of the light.
Grant that we may walk in this light
and show forth your glory to the world;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

04 March 2005

no shadow of turning 2

In this first lecture, therefore, I will be giving a brief explanation of each of the five central claims made by the open theists and some of the reasoning that lies behind them. If we are going to defend a version of classical theism, as I intend to do, then it is necessary to understand the criticisms of it and the alternative offered to it. Open theists make a number of valid points with regard both to how God is revealed to us in the biblical text, as well as the ways in which the God of classical theism has sometimes been portrayed. Thus we will do well to listen to the proponents of the openness of God carefully and charitably so that we may learn better how to faithfully confess the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Let’s turn to the first claim made by the open theists, that God's love requires his being responsive to his creatures. There are several implicit features of this claim, only some of which will concern us. For instance, open theists often seem to prioritize God’s love among his various attributes in such a way that it overwhelms his other attributes, forcing us to revise our understanding those attributes in light of the overwhelming character of divine love. Richard Rice writes, “Love is the essence of the divine reality, the basic source from which all of God’s attributes arise.”

Though perhaps supporting their perspective, such an overarching focus on God’s love is not necessary for the claims of open theism. If it is the case that, among various attributes, God is also love, and if we explain love as necessarily involving features such as responsiveness, sensitivity, and vulnerability, then the simple claim that God is love is sufficient in itself possibly to ground some of the claims of the open theists, without having to grant divine love any of kind of absolute centrality, particularly the controversial idea that love is the ontological ground of all of God’s other attributes.

We will do well, then, to think a bit about God’s love and what it means for God be loving or that, indeed, as 1 John says, “God is love.” Scripture reveals God as a God of love, even defining his lordship and sovereignty in terms of his love. Thus, when the Lord God shows himself to Moses, he proclaims himself, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands…” (Ex 34:6-7). Likewise, Jesus, in whom God most fully reveals himself to us, shows us what the sovereignty of God looks like:

You know that those who are considered rulers among the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42-45)

As the express image of the Father (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), we learn from Jesus that God’s sovereignty is not one that lords itself over his creatures, but takes the form of service, even unto the death of cross. Divine lordship is cruciform love.

What God does in the history of redemption, culminating in the life and actions of Jesus, shows us who God is in himself. Indeed, we have an intimate glimpse into the eternal life of God in Jesus’ prayers in the garden before his crucifixion. He prays there that we might know that God loves us with the very love with which he has eternally loved Jesus as the divine Son of God (Jn 17:22-26). This again shows that God is love and that this love defines the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity. Thus, while some of the claims of the open theists regarding the priority of God’s love may go too far, the love of God is certainly an important and central biblical theme that must inform our understanding of who God is in himself.

But what is the nature of this love? Is it a feeling? Does it involve a responsiveness, a sensitivity to human affairs? Open theist Clark Pinnock presents a God who is like “a caring parent with qualities of love and responsiveness, generosity and sensitivity, openness and vulnerability.” After all, Scripture speaks of God as compassionate, merciful, tender, taking delight in and pity upon his creatures. Scripture even goes so far as to say that God can “be grieved” by the actions of his creatures (Gen 6:6; Eph 4:30), that he can “regret” having made them, that in the distress of his people God is distressed (Isa 63:9). As the very image of the eternal God, Jesus weeps (Lk 19:41; Jn 11:35), is moved with compassion (Mk 1:31; 6:34), is disturbed in his innermost self, and so on. How can we not allow the tears of Jesus to impinge upon our image of God? Is not the God of the Bible one who is passionate, who is moved, who feels the plight of his creatures?

If we present a theology in which God is incapable of these things in any sense, in which God is inert and dispassionate, unmoved and aloof, then we are not being faithful to the teaching of Scripture. This biblical language of God’s passion and responsiveness cannot be set aside simply as “anthropomorphism” or divine condescension to human limitations in order that we might somehow conceive and relate to a God who, in reality, possesses a character or nature other than what he reveals himself to be. On the contrary, God’s self-revelation in Scripture and, above all, in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, shows us who God truly is in himself. This biblical language of divine compassion, mercy, grief, tenderness, and so on is, in some manner or another, literally true of the God of Holy Scripture. On that much, the open theists are correct.

It is a distinct question, however, whether such an embrace of divine responsiveness, sensitivity, and even vulnerability requires a revision of classical theism toward open theism. Answering that question, however, will have to wait for my second talk, though I am convinced that classical theism contains more than adequate resources to take up the challenge of open theism.

02 March 2005

baxter to owen

In 17th century Britain, there were varieties of Reformed theology, differing not only on matters of theological detail, but also in terms of pastoral practice. One of the significant differences was the varying approaches to ministry on the part of Presbyterians and Independents.

In general Presbyterians maintained a greater emphasis on the visible community of the baptized, baptizing as widely as possible, even the children of scandalous parents if grandparents or other sponsors could be found to assure some Christian nurture for the child. All within the geographical parish were expected to be baptized and to have their children baptized as well. Admission to the Table required a profession of belief and a life that was not scandalously ungodly.

This Presbyterian outlook was fostered by a general sense that the covenant of grace was outwardly administered by means of church-privileges and ordinances as the ordinary, gracious means by which God brought his elect to salvation. Thus they ought to be maintained generously with good hope that God would bring his promises to fruition.

Independents, however, approached matters rather differently, seeing the church more in terms of a voluntary gathering of the faithful and often rejecting the notion that baptism marked solemn admission into the visible church. Moreover, only the immediate parents of an infant could qualify the child for baptism. Admission to the Table often required more than a mere profession and outward godliness, instead seeking for further marks of actual sincerity, whether in the form of conversion narrative or other testimonial evidences of the Spirit's work.

In February 1668 Richard Baxter, whose pastoral practice was more in keeping with Presbyterian sensibilities, sent a letter to the Independent clergyman John Owen. In the letter he explains the objections and concerns that Presbyterians, with their parish-based ministry to all the baptized, have with regard to Independency.

Baxter writes:

We think, while you seem to be for a stricter discipline than others, that your way (or usual practice) tendeth to extirpate Godliness out of the land; by taking a very few that can talk more than the rest, and making them the Church, and shutting out more that are as worthy, and by neglecting the souls of all the parish else, except as to some publick preaching; against which also you prejudice them by unjust rejections; and then think that you may warrantably account them unworthy: because you know no worthiness by them, when you estrange yourselves from them, and drive them away from you. We think that Parish-Reformation tendeth to make godliness universal, and that your Separation tendeth to dwindle it to nothing. I know that some of you have spoken for endeavouring the good of all; but (pardon my plainness) I knew scarce any of you that did not by an unjust espousing of your few, do the people a double injury, one by denying them their Church-Rights, without any regular Church Justice, and the other by lazily omitting most that should have been done for their salvation. In our country almost all the rest of the ministers agreed to deal seriously and orderly with all the families of their Parishes, (which some did to their wonderful benefit) except your party and the highly Episcopal, and they stood off. The doubt was when I came to Kidderminster, whether it be better to take 20 professors for the Church, and leave a reader to head and gratify the rest? Or, to attempt the just Reformation of the Parish? The professors would have been best pleased with the first; and I was for the latter, which after a full tryal, hath done that which hath satisfied all the Professors: so that professed Piety, and Family-Worship (in a way of Humility and Unity) was so common, that the few that differ among some Thousands are mostly ashamed of their Difference on account of Singularity, and would seem to be Godly with the rest. (Reliquiae Baxterianae pt. III, p. 67)

These differing theologies of ministry played themselves out in America, particularly in the divergences between the Independent pastoral practice of the New England Congregationalists and that of the Middle States Presbyterians.

For a fuller discussion of the issues as they impacted America, see Peter Wallace's helpful essay, "Visible Saints and Notorious Sinners."

01 March 2005

no shadow of turning 1

Several folks have asked about what I've written on the topic of open theism. I also have to review what I've written in order to prepare for a talk I'm giving on Sunday.

Thus I decided to blog the content of the lectures I gave this past summer, though in a largely uncorrected version and without all the footnotes. Eventually this will all be up on the web, but for now this more piecemeal version will have to do.

Open Theism and Its Critique of Classical Theism

Echoing the epistle of St. James, Thomas Chisholm wrote a well-known hymn that begins:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.

And here we see a statement of classical Christian doctrine: that God does not change and is faithful to his own self and, precisely as such, remains the unchanging God of all compassion.

But here is where a difficulty is sometimes also thought to arise. If God is a God of compassion, then he suffers with his creatures in their pain, for that is the literal meaning of “compassion” in its Latin root: to suffer with (compassio). But if God suffers with his creatures, it might seem that God is “passible,” that is, subject to suffering that comes from outside of his own self. And if God is passible, in the sense of suffering because of his creatures, then it seems that the created world in some way can change the inner life of God. But if God changes, then he is not immutable and is not the unchanging God of all compassion of whom Chisholm’s hymn speaks.

And yet, I think, as people of Christian faith, we sense that God does not remain neutral to and untouched by our sufferings. Moreover, we believe that God’s eternal and unchanging love is the very reason that God cannot remain aloof. Therefore, we joyfully embrace the words of Chisholm’s hymn: “Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not; / As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.”

While a heart full of faith may easily embrace the God of all compassion as also the God who does not change, this God has sometimes proven rather more difficult for the minds of philosophers and theologians as they wrestle with the biblical text. The difficulty can be explained in the following way.

On one hand, Scripture presents God as the “wholly other” Creator, standing in need of nothing, all-sufficient in himself, who knows the end from the beginning, and is entirely consistent and faithful to himself and to his own Word. We speak of God’s creative power in terms of his “omnipotence.” We speak of his independence from anything outside himself in terms of his “aseity” and “impassibility.” We speak of God’s absolute self-sufficiency in terms of “pure actuality,” that God is already as great and complete as he can be. We speak of his knowledge in terms of “omniscience.” And we speak of his self-consistency and faithfulness in terms of “immutability.” This is the God that Christians have always confessed and this is, I believe, the God who has revealed himself in Holy Scripture.

On the other hand, the God we encounter in Scripture is also a God who is responsive to his creatures, who acts in history on their behalf to save and to judge, who answers prayer, who grieves, regrets, remembers, and, as the God of all love and compassion, enters into the suffering of his creatures in the person of Jesus Christ, in order to rescue them and redeem a people for himself. This God is active and living and he is dynamic and passionate. And this too is the God who Christians confess and who has revealed himself in Scripture.

But how do we hold all of this together?

What I shall call “classical theism” has maintained that God is immutable, impassible, independent of his creation, and so on. This immutability, moreover, is not merely an ethical consistency, as if we could separate God’s ethical character from his essential attributes. Rather, it goes to the very nature of who God is in his own being—an ontological immutability. Often—particularly, I think, within early modern western philosophical conceptions (and by “early modern” I mean from the 16th century onward)—the God of classical theism has come across as an immobile, inert, unmoved, and static deity who remains aloof and detached from his creation and from the joys and pains of his creatures. Insofar as this sort of God is involved with his world, it is as the sovereign and all-powerful will that stands behinds all that occurs, in his sovereignty, infallibly and unchangeably determining whatsoever comes to pass.

There are historical reasons for why the God of classical theism has come to be seen in this way within the context of modern thought, but those reasons lie beyond the scope of what I have to say. Moreover, I believe that such a portrayal of classical theism—as we find in much of modern thought—is, in fact, a serious distortion of what classical theism has traditionally held and what the church has believed and taught, based on Scripture. Correcting that distortion will be one part of my task in the following discussion.

In the span of the past two centuries there have been a number of critical responses to these kinds of (mis)understandings of classical theism, often dismissing classical theism as an extra-biblical philosophical intrusion into the idea of God made known in the history of Israel and in Jesus Christ. As such, classical theism is seen as having more to do with the pagan Greeks, such as Aristotle, than with Christian revelation.

The earlier Christian responses against classical theism came in various forms of process theology, from Hegel to Whitehead. Other kinds of critical responses, often more sympathetic to classical theism, arose in the theology of neo-orthodox Reformed figures such as Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann. Finally, in our own day, sharper criticism has arisen from among those who espouse the “openness of God” (or “open theists”) including evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock, William Hasker, Greg Boyd, John Sanders, and others.

While there is some diversity among them, those theologians within this last group—those who maintain the “openness of God”—make a number of characteristic claims:

[1] that God's love requires his being responsive to his creatures

[2] that creatures therefore truly influence God

[3] that human freedom sets a limit on God's sovereignty

[4] that God learns the future at it comes to pass, and

[5] that God is thereby dependent upon the world in various respects.

All in all, these kinds of claims, with their challenges to and modifications of classical theism, are not coming from some small group of quirky theologians working at the margins of mainstream theology. On the contrary, these claims represent the thought of some of the 20th century’s most important Christian theologians (Barth, Moltmann) and, in the case of the open theists, some of the leading figures in contemporary American evangelicalism. We will do well, then, to give their criticisms and claims due attention and careful consideration.