Saturday, September 23, 2017

sample of review article for JIRBS ’17 – “The Majesty of Mystery”

The Majesty of Mystery:

Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God,

A Review Article

Cameron G. Porter*



The modern theological landscape is such that most people in the pews, and many preachers in their pulpits, could not articulate what divine incomprehensibility is, nor could they comment on the historical significance of the doctrine [1; numbers in brackets indicate endnotes]. Nevertheless, it is a doctrine necessary to teach, preach, and uphold. A presupposition at the outset of theological inquiry, divine incomprehensibility is grounded in God’s own self-revelation in the Holy Scriptures, and confessed by the church throughout her history. Confessing God as incomprehensible is not to concede he cannot be known. God can be known, in fact, he has revealed himself unto that end. The confession rather is that God cannot be comprehended—he cannot be circumscribed within the confines of human contemplation. The positive affirmation of and proper approach to this essential component of theology keeps us on an orthodox path, preventing us from wandering into the forests of error on either side. Epistemic humility is the posture of the orthodox.


The Thesis and a General Overview of the Book


In The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God [2], author K. Scott Oliphint endeavors to spell out what divine mystery is in Scripture, what we are to believe regarding it, and how Christians are to worshipfully respond in light of it. Employing Romans 11:33-36 as a locus classicus, he presents the subject matter reasonably well in the first two chapters, acknowledging the priority of divine incomprehensibility in the order of theological discovery (4), highlighting the link between incomprehensibility and doxology (4-5), and dealing with two excesses associated with mystery—rationalism (6) and mysticism (8). Oliphint suggests a proper balance to these, noting divine mystery recognizes God’s loftiness in contradistinction to our lowliness, and that it does not militate against the Christian responsibility—truly the joy—to understand and know God.

In chapter three, “The Mystery of the Three-in-One,” however, Oliphint begins to drift into what appears to be the purpose of the book: setting his covenantal properties thesis [3] within the larger locus of divine mystery, and using mystery as the medium to propose his theological agenda. In the course of his proposals, he not only packages his arguments within the wrappings of mystery but, ironically, unravels divine mystery in attempts to uphold it. The scope of this review article will not be to analyze each chapter, providing counterarguments for every element of Oliphint’s presentation that is deemed objectionable. Instead, focusing on chapters three through five, I will offer a critical assessment of Oliphint’s approach to the mystery of divine condescension, and how he presents the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation of Jesus Christ in light of this.

The question governing Oliphint’s discourse for the chapters in question is: “How can the Infinite One relate to finite creatures?” (95). The resolution provided by him is the cause of our present concern:  God’s “covenantal condescension” (102). In the third chapter Oliphint begins to lay the groundwork for this, his principle interest, writing “there are truths about the Trinity that pertain to creation (and redemption) that do not pertain to the Trinity, in and of itself” and “we confess the Triune God as God, and . . . the Triune God as related to, and involved in, creation” (47, italics original). Using conventional language of “ontological” and “economic,” and seeking to distance himself from charges of presenting “two trinities” (48), Oliphint suggests that the expressions of God in creation are “not [the] expression[s] of the ontological Trinity” (48) but newly acquired and expressed attributes or characteristics of the economic Trinity that the ontological Trinity prior to creation had “no need or occasion for” (48-49). Though repeatedly disclaiming that he is positing mutability in God, no amount of qualification can dismiss the charges that Oliphint’s conception of the economic Trinity ascribes new things to God. For Oliphint, though remaining what he always was, God begins-to-be that which he was not before. Maintaining his eternal mode of existence, he unchangingly takes on what can only be deemed a temporal mode of existence in the execution of the economy. Oliphint believes it enough to maintain an immutability where the ontological Trinity does not change into the economic Trinity so as to lose anything of what he is prior to creation. God “in Himself” (49) does not change, but God “in creation” (49) has occasion to express himself in new ways because of his interaction “in and with His creation” (49). This language of Oliphint should strike the attentive reader as presenting a problem. If the ontological Trinity needs to take on a particular existing state by which he can engage with his creation, then his creatures are not in relationship with the eternal God but with a temporal version of that God marked by new and extraneous properties. Besides presenting a dilemma for Christian worship [4], this is not the classical view of divine immutability intended when our forebears, with the propriety and sanction of the Scriptures, echoed “in Him there is no Change” [5]. All that God is, he is essentially—“the Begetter may not undergo change . . . He may not be God first and God last, nor receive any accession” [6].

This distinction by Oliphint is further developed in chapter 5, “The Majesty of the Mystery of God’s Relationship to His People.” After only setting the stage in previous chapters, Oliphint arrives at the terminus to which those other chapters tend—God’s covenantal condescension whereby he takes to himself temporary and permanent characteristics in order to be in relationship with us (105). Labeling this condescension “the model of majestic mystery” (75, 102), Oliphint distinguishes between “essential” and “covenantal” characteristics (102) [7]. The former are those God has “whether or not there is creation . . . without which God would not be God,” and the latter are those God has because of “creation, and the entrance of sin.” The former are “primary” characteristics that “God has and is,” “as God”; the latter are “secondary” characteristics that God has “as he relates himself to us” (101) [8]. This should also strike the attentive reader as presenting a problem. If a distinguishing mark of the essential characteristics are that God has and is them as God, then as whom does he have the covenantal characteristics? If not as God, then it must be as creature. If, however, he has these characteristics as divine then was there lack in God as God prior to the acquisition of these characteristics? Or can he incur addition? If we accept Oliphint’s “model of majestic mystery” we are forced by necessity to confess that God can be, in some way, augmented or made better. However freely he may decree and actualize this ontological newness, if God as God does not change into but instead, by the acquisition of properties, becomes God in relation (which is still change), Oliphint is faced with a timeless quandary. Either the new reality is


for the better or for the worse. If for the better, then he must not have been infinite in perfection prior to the change, and therefore was not God. If for the worse, then he would no longer be infinite in perfection after the change, and therefore no longer God [9].


Oliphint would do well to resolve with Ambrose: “nothing can be added to Him, and that alone which is Divine hath He in His nature” [10].

These retooled ontological-economic and absolute-relative distinctions are given Christological precedent in chapter 4, “The Majesty of the Mystery of the Incarnation.” In this chapter, Oliphint employs the incarnation as a theological lodestar par excellence for understanding divine condescension. Labelling it the “substance” (205) and “climax of covenantal condescension” (76), Oliphint proposes that in the incarnation there is a “biblical distinction that is crucial to recognize, as it informs the way we must think about all of these biblical mysteries” (72). The stated distinction is the union of the two natures—divine and human—in the one person of Christ. Oliphint employs this distinction in order to draw parallels between it and the ontological-economic, absolute-relative distinctions that bookend this chapter. The doctrine of the incarnation is for him “an explanatory key” [11] to understand how God transcendent can also be God condescended. The argument goes like this: just as the Son of God freely took to himself human nature in the incarnation, so too has the Triune God since creation freely taken to himself certain properties in order to relate to his creation. In asserting the liberty by which the Son assumes humanity and for the express purpose of equating it with the voluntary condescension of God in essence becoming also God in economy, Oliphint writes:


There are significant and important differences, then, between the two natures in Christ. What is central in the incarnation is not the two natures, but the Person. It is the Person of the Son, even while He remained fully and completely the Son of God, who took to Himself a human nature in order to accomplish the salvation that we could not accomplish. The divine “nature” of the Son of God, therefore, is essential to who He is; the “nature” of man is who He is only because He freely decided He would take it. (73)


For Oliphint, the one person of Christ is to the divine and human natures as the one God is to the divine nature and acquired covenantal characteristics. Or, put another way, God-in-relation is God-in-Himself plus acquired characteristics in order to relate, just as Christ in the unity of his Person is “very God and very Man, yet one Christ” (2LCF 8.2) in order to redeem. The reader is encouraged to inquire whether or not this sort of formula has ever been put forward in the history of the church, prior to our modern theological climate. Oliphint’s proposal, inescapably, suggests that new things were added to God either essentially or according to some existential acquisition distinct from the divine nature. Isn’t it mysterious? Though God is unchangeable, he still changes. Though he is simple, he is still complex. Though he is independent, he still relies upon himself for decreed actuality. Though he is eternal, he still endures succession in relation.

In the service of this construct, Oliphint bridges the gap between Old Testament theophanies and the incarnation when he writes that “the Son of God had been appearing to the saints throughout redemptive history . . . by temporarily taking on various qualities and characteristics in order to be with his people” (74). Theophanies are, for Oliphint, not only God manifesting himself, or a revealing of the Son of God, but also and primarily instances of the Son assuming non-essential characteristics in order to reveal and to establish relational correspondence with his people. Similar to the permanent acquisition of characteristics that he keeps for eternity, the acquired temporary properties provide the existential parameters for God to properly relate to his people. This tends to inordinately maximize the nature of theophanies while simultaneously minimizing both the mode and uniqueness of the incarnation. This becomes most apparent when Oliphint writes that the Son of God


never permanently took on a human nature until the point of His conception. This helps us recognize both the continuities and the discontinuities of the incarnation throughout redemptive history. One of the continuities is in the truth that the Son had been condescending really and truly, but temporarily and partially, in types and shadows all throughout covenant history. One of the discontinuities is that the incarnation was a complete and perpetual addition of a human nature to the Son. It was the climax to which the rest of covenant history had been pointing to all along. (74-75; italics original)


Unless there needed to be some editorial corrections to the way in which that was written, Oliphint appears to be arguing that the pre-incarnate theophanic manifestations of the Son of God were marked by an incomplete and temporary addition of human nature to his divine nature. They were, it seems, prognostic dress-rehearsals for the main event. Additionally, rather than the incarnation being that exclusive and unrepeatable event “when the fullness of the time was come” (Gal. 4:4), Oliphint attaches to it a progressively unfolding character, suggesting that the incarnation is co-extensive with redemptive history—the temporary and anticipatory instances of the acquisition of properties on the part of the Son in pre-incarnational Christophanies prefiguring the permanent and climactic assumption of human nature in the incarnation. Though he qualifies the Christophanic assumptions as temporary and the incarnation as permanent, and while he gives the incarnation greater redemptive-historical significance than previous divine assumptions, Oliphint’s assertion that “the Son of God had been assuming, temporarily, certain characteristics . . . ever since creation” (74) justly incurs the charge of rendering the hypostatic union a common thing. However elevated in its quintessence it may be in the mind of Oliphint, if the assumption of human nature by the Son is in fact “another instance when God . . . assumes certain characteristics . . . in order to relate Himself to His creation and to us” (73), then the incarnation is no longer the “new and ineffable mystery” [12] confessed by the church catholic, but simply the greater anticipated stoop of previous divine condescensions.


Reformulations: A Price too High to Pay


We must conclude that the price of Oliphint’s reformulations is higher than the truth can afford. . . . [13]




* Cameron G. Porter is an elder at Free Grace Baptist Church, Chilliwack, BC.


[1] The doctrine served the patristics well in combating the Christological heresies of the first six centuries of the church, and served the Reformed well in opposing the Socinians and anti-Trinitarians of the seventeenth century.

[2] K. Scott Oliphint, The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[3] In God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), Oliphint proposes that God “takes on characteristics that determine just how he will interact with us, and with creation generally” (12). For a good critique of Oliphint’s thesis see James E. Dolezal, All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books; 2017), 91-97.

[4] For an examination of the serious implications for worship in light of Oliphint’s “covenantal properties” thesis, see James Dolezal, “Objections to K. Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Properties Thesis,” Reformation21, July 2014, Accessed 21 August 2015.

[5] Augustine, De Trinitate, in NPNF, First Series, vol. 3, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (1894; reprint, Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), 5.16.17. Taking their cues from the truths contained in passages such as Num. 23:19, Mal. 3:6, Heb. 6:17-18, and James 1:18, orthodox theologians have consistently upheld an essential, ontological immutability.

[6] John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, NPNF2-09, I.8.

[7] Also referred to as “absolute” and “relative” (101).

[8] God does not relate himself to us; rather, God relates creatures to himself, either by nature or by grace (or both, in the case of the elect).

[9] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, two volumes (reprint, from the 1853 edition by Robert Carter & Brothers; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1979, Eighth printing, February 1988), 1:331. Charnock was not the first, nor was he the last, to employ this biblically informed formula.

[10] Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, NPNF, Second Series, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (1894; reprint, Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), I.16.106.

[11] See James E. Dolezal, “Eternal Creator of Time,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (2015): 138.

[12] Alexander of Alexandria, Epistles on the Arian Heresy, ANF, vol. 6, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (1886; reprint, Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), VI.

[13] This is less than one half of the review article.

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