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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Great Immanuel: Defending Oliphint's Theology Proper Thesis, In Response to Dr. Richard Barcellos

Dr. Richard Barcellos is a wonderful Reformed Baptist scholar who has written great work especially in Reformed covenantalism and nomology, critiquing the so-called "New Covenant Theology" movement, and recently, editing a book specifically on the covenantal heritage of the Reformed Baptist tradition. I, on the other hand, am a pre-seminarian, theology-crazed "know-it-all" (or I can be). However, I thought I would offer some thoughts and push back a little bit, from my own very limited and less-than-formally-trained-yet perspective, against Dr. Barcellos regarding some of the things written in a post recently published at reformedbaptistfellowship.org (some material from which is supposed to appear in an upcoming title, No Wrinkle Upon the Brow of Eternity: Confessing God Without Passions).

In the post I'm referring to, Dr. Barcellos interacts briefly but lucidly with some concepts found in the theology proper work of Dr. K. Scott Oliphint (a professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA), criticizing Oliphint's basic understanding of how God relates to the world by way of covenant condescension, understood a very particular way, because of what he sees in Oliphint's work as some untoward implications and category confusions.

I'm writing this brief response to Dr. Barcellos not because I think I will successfully convince anyone, by my own doing, of Oliphint's views, but rather because I think I have at least some worthwhile things to say about Dr. Barcellos' arguments, and whether the wider theological discussion going forward is helped in the direction of affirming Oliphint's thesis, or is helped in the direction (unwittingly on my part, at this point) of discrediting his thesis, I hope to be part of the process of clarifying the issues and bringing out the best arguments for each position. Even if I successfully show the insufficiency of some of Dr. Barcellos' arguments in this short piece of his, it may very well lead the way to better-refined arguments that do suffice to show the (for now, alleged) bankruptcy of Oliphint's conception of covenant condescension.

In the background of all of this current discussion, at least in great part, is the unique contribution of K. Scott Oliphint in the last five or so years to the area of Reformed theology proper. In his important book Reasons for Faith and as the main focus of his book God With Us, Dr. Oliphint promotes a relatively novel articulation (opponents might say a novel conceptualization altogether) of God and the way in which He relates to the world, in time and space, in dynamic relationship with His covenant people, while all the while remaining the a se, independent, absolute, simple, and impassible God of heaven.

Oliphint takes for his model of theology proper in general the incarnation of Christ, and the categories and limits placed on and associated with it in the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries of the Church--and in specific, the incarnation as the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation distinctively (as over against Lutheran Christology, at least) understands it, with the affirmation of the so-called extra Calvinisticum. God, according to Oliphint, particularly in the person of the Son, the Logos, throughout redemptive history and then climactically and eschatologically in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, takes upon Himself, ad extra, contingently, and without changing His essential nature as the eternal "I AM," "covenantal" attributes, or attributes of creation, in order to relate truly and dynamically with His creation, especially His covenant people.

With this kind of theological underpinning, texts that speak of genuine relational dynamism and covenantal "discoveries" and "changes of mind" in God can be taken with greater force, and swept away less easily by facile appeals to "anthropomorphism," even while we retain a conception of God with His essential attributes intact as classically understood (aseity, simplicity, absoluteness, impassibility, omniscience, etc.) Another way one might sum up the exegetical and homiletical results of Oliphint's theology proper is that the incarnation of Jesus Christ teaches us to understand such "covenantal" texts that anticipate incarnational realities, as in one sense "anthropomorphic," yes, but as reified anthropomorphisms ultimately fulfilled in the incarnate Christ, who is truly "Immanuel," "God-with-us."

Dr. Oliphint refers to this theological dynamic as "covenant condescension," and connects it with the seventh chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the chapter that speaks of God overcoming the distance between Creator and creature by means of "voluntary condescension." It is specifically this connection that Dr. Barcellos takes issue with in his recently-published online article, as a programmatic way of attempting to show some of the more general weaknesses of Dr. Oliphint's conception. So with this background, let us take a look at some of the specific arguments found in the article, and assess whether they reveal a sufficient grasp of the fullness of the Christological-incarnational analogies employed in Dr. Oliphint's theology proper (as I have found, in my limited experience, few of the initial attacks on Oliphint's thesis have done), and whether they truly constitute a devastating blow to it.

Dr. Barcellos' main point throughout the short piece is that Dr. Oliphint's utilization of Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 in establishing the "covenantal condescension" activity of God in creation is inappropriate because, as his five initial observations spell out: 1) WCF/2BLCF 7 comes long after the sections on theology proper and creation and before the section on Christ as Mediator; 2) 7.2 relates to 7.1 as a kind of expansion of 6.1, regarding the Fall of Man into sin; 3) the phrase, "The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures [cf. 4.2] do owe obedience to him as their creator" is about what man as a creature owes to God as Creator simply by virtue of being a creature, and apart from any institution yet of the Covenant of Works, which covenant is the focus of 7.1 and 7.2; 4) the "reward of life" or "fruition of God as his blessedness" is in reference not to the bare Creator/creature relationship but... 5) it is in reference to the Covenant of Works which is that which the Confession(s) says was the result of God's "voluntary condescension."

Before going on to Dr. Barcellos' "Musings section" in which he integrates some of these ideas and aims them as an attack on Dr. Oliphint's overall thesis, let me say three things in brief, initial response (mere rebuttal, really) to the "five observations" above:

1) Even though the concept of "covenant condescension" does not appear explicitly in the Confession(s) until chapter 7, long after the sections on God and Creation, that in and of itself does not logically preclude a similar, analogous, or even identical principle or dynamic from functioning even back in those chapters, in describing the general way in which God always relates to His creation.

2) We must be careful, in fact, that we do not too sharply separate creation from covenant in the way we look at God and the world; and Dr. Barcellos acknowledges this by saying that Adam was created for (but not in) the Covenant of Works. In other words, Adam was created for the purpose of participating in God's covenant offerings and, on condition of perfect/perpetual obedience, would have inherited eschatological life and glory not only for himself and his posterity (as a "public person"), but for the whole of creation. Therefore we may say not only that creation (of Adam especially) was for the purpose of instituting the Covenant of Works, but also that the Covenant of Works was made ultimately (and even in Christ's person, in the layered covenant of grace) for creation.

Another consideration along these lines, which I am not 100% sure how to tie in, or if it ties in helpfully at all ultimately, is that even created man qua creation cannot really be considered utterly separately from all the terms of the Covenant of Works; for although the Covenant of Works included positive Law regarding the "cultural mandate" and the prohibition of eating of the one tree, the terms also include the moral law in general, which according to Romans 2 is found written even on fallen Gentile hearts. I think all this is just to say that the dynamics of Creator and creature, and Covenant Lord and covenant subject, are so integrally related, that it is not necessary--indeed not desirable, to overly sharply distinguish or differentiate the kinds of dynamics at play in each relationship.

3) The fact that the phrase about the "distance" between God and creature in 7.1 is concerned with what man as creature owes to God simply as a creature, apart from covenantal considerations (and therefore apart from at least the explicitly-mentioned "covenant condescension" in this chapter of the Confession(s)), still leaves in our theological wake an ontological discrepancy that must be overcome even in the pre-covenantal situation of man in the Garden (however long or short that period was)--that is, even for the sake of the success of general revelation (more on this later).

In the beginning of Dr. Barcellos' "Musings section" which follows, he basically repeats in a number of different ways his central argument for why he thinks Dr. Oliphint's application of WCF 7.1 to creation, in terms of God taking on "condescended, covenantal" attributes, is misguided: the Covenant of Works itself, which is spoken of explicitly in 7.1 and 7.2 (taken together) in terms of covenantal condescension, involves no change in God or addition of attributes, but is simply a matter of revelation to man. Let me list several of the different ways Dr. Barcellos states this, and make discrete comments along the way:

Dr. B: The Covenant of Works is a revelation to man, and does not involve a change in God in order to reveal Himself

My comment: Dr. Oliphint, of course, claims no essential change in God; the change is all ad extra and involves God's relationship to creation, acknowledging that apart from an incarnationally-patterned, ontological "stooping," interaction with creation would threaten God's essential attributes like aseity (God cannot be the "eternally-relating-with-creation" God, essentially, as so many philosophy of religion arguments have persuasively made clear over the decades).

Dr. B: The institution of the covenant produces a change in the created realm but demands no change in God.

My comment: Unless the change of relationship is understood as affecting God's being, at least ad extra, in some way (and by His own eternal, sovereign decree back of it), so many passages of Scripture that speak of true dynamic relational activity on God's part are emasculated, muted, silenced, and sucked dry of their homiletical force by this kind of paradigm. There's a passage somewhere in Turretin, Bavinck, or Calvin (sorry, it's obviously not that well-known to me yet) in which God is compared to a pillar, and it is expressed that whenever it is said (in Scripture) that the "pillar" moves, in fact, it is only really describing a change of the creaturely observer of the pillar in its position with reference to the unmoving pillar.

I apologize, but when I think of the literal glory cloud that came to dwell in the tabernacle, and when I think of a series of tweets Dr. Oliphint sent out a while back saying, in effect, "that kind of stuff won't preach," I have to wonder if that kind of approach truly constitutes submitting to the words of Scripture the way we Reformed pride ourselves on attempting to do consistently (and the difference between this claim and that of, say, open theists, is that Dr. Oliphint's approach upholds all the classical attributes of God, ad intra (where it counts), rather than jettisoning or radically redefining them.

Dr. B: The condescension/accomodation in the giving of the covenant of works is revelational only, not ontological or existential at all.

My comments: As I said, these statements mostly repeat Dr. Barcellos' main point a number of times in different ways. But when I read this particular statement, however precisely it is put in the original article (the above are paraphrases, I don't believe ever exact quotes), I couldn't help but to realize that the very language of "condescension" itself, utilizing a kind of spatial metaphor for God's activity in establishing covenant, very obviously presupposes some kind of ontological (in the sense of relational, if not "substantial") change. If God's activity creation-ward were solely revelational with regard to creation and the institution of the Covenant of Works, there would hardly be any need whatsoever for the language of "condescension."

"Condescension" and the establishment in time of a new relationship between God and His creation (namely, man) simply cannot be construed as a revelation of a relationship or arrangement that always existed! That's true on the face of it, but it implies, more directly than opponents of Dr. Oliphint want to acknowledge, a necessity of ad extra, ontological change on God's part.

Another thought that came to my mind when I considered this statement of Dr. Barcellos' assertion was that the incarnation of Christ, itself involving an existential, ontological "change" in the Logos' assumption of a human nature (whatever else we say about the Son's ontology in previous redemptive history), is explicitly spoken of in the New Testament as the very means of revelation itself! In other words, we may say that fundamental as revelation is to our "fruition of God as our blessedness," ontology precedes that revelation--and specifically, redemptive, Christological ontology precedes it. Consider John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (my emphases).

Also consider 1st John 1:1-3: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life--the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us--that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (again, my emphases).

As even Geerhardus Vos acknowledges in his biblical theology, the eternal Son appearing as the "angel of the LORD" in the Hebrew Scriptures makes use of created media (contingently and temporarily) in order to interact with His covenant people; should this not be understood as pointing ultimately to the permanent, sui generis event of the incarnation, wherein a created human nature is taken on contingently but permanently? And should this not be used as a paradigm of God's relationship to creation in general, since in Christ (the locus of epistemic authority for New Covenant believers [1 Cor. 1-2]), even God's self-revelation is founded first upon some kind of ontological condescension?

A little later in the "Musings" section, Dr. Barcellos turns to what he evidently sees as a problematic result of Dr. Oliphint's thesis in presenting us, in a way, with two modes of God's existence--one eternal, one temporal; one "condescended" and one which is God "in se." There seem to be two "orders" of being: one temporal/contingent, the other eternal and non-contingent. A further result of this, according to Dr. Barcellos is that "what gets revealed" in this scheme is "the condescended, covenanted mode of God's being which is not co-extensive with who God was prior to creation." In other words, Dr. Barcellos finds a revelation of a less-than-divine God in the logical outcome of Dr. Oliphint's paradigm.

I want to take great issue with this section, because it is consistent with the central thrust of a number of other early critiques lodged against Dr. Oliphint's theology proper that I have read, and I don't believe it fully accounts for the Chalcedonian-Christological analogy employed in Dr. Oliphint's work. Specifically, I think every attempt to construe the outcome of Dr. Oliphint's theology proper as "two irreconcilable kinds of gods," or, as Dr. Barcellos' seems to at least almost be claiming, a revealed God who is less than the classic God of Reformed/Protestant scholastics/(and dare I say, Thomas), fundamentally ignores the analogical application of the twin Christological doctrines of enhypostasis and anhypostasis to theology proper.

These twin doctrines basically teach that the human nature of Christ (the ontological set of "created attributes" contingently taken on ad extra by the Logos in the hypostatic union, if you will) has no personal (and obviously no divine) identity apart from the Logos itself; and, to state it positively, gains personal (and divine) identity in the hypostatic union with the eternal Word, the Logos.

The application of this Christological principle to theology proper, in Dr. Oliphint's system, is to say that "God-as-condescended," or God as He reveals Himself to His creatures through "covenantal attributes" He takes upon Himself ad extra, is no other than the eternal, infinite, a se God who is "I AM," and indeed His "covenantal attributes" have no divine or divine-personal identity apart from God's essential attributes (which are all one) of infinitude, incomprehensibility, etc. To put it another way, enhypostasis/anhypostasis applied to a Christological-incarnational paradigm of theology proper constitutes the protection of a kind of orthodox Reformed version of "Rahner's rule" (God is no other God than His self-revelation reveals), taking into account the extra Calvinisticum the Reformed (and the catholic church apart from Lutherans?) have historically insisted upon.

So God as condescended and then revealed is the revelation just of the eternal, a se God, albeit on an "image" level comprehensible to creatures. Is this not the trajectory of thought involved with the Reformed scholastic notion of the "archetypal" vs. "ectypal" knowledge of God? If so, given simplicity (entailing as it does the identity of God's being with God's knowledge), is Dr. Oliphint really so far off track here?

Skipping ahead a little bit here, because this is already longer than intended or than may be useful to many people, I want to address one more discrete statement of Dr. Barcellos', and then two more of his initially powerful arguments from his article.

Dr. B: God does not take upon Himself the attributes named in Rom. 1:20 (eternal power and divine nature) in order to reveal who He is. He has eternally had these attributes, obviously, and simply reveals them to us.

My comment: a) I would say that in the first place, these attributes are revealed to us in and by virtue of the created order which is itself a contingent reality, so it seems necessary to me to say that even in God's revealing to us of His essential attributes like eternal power and divinity, there is condescension involved in general revelation (or else we are forced to say that creation is necessary or inevitable and God's being, to be what it is, is in some sense, then, dependent on His creative activity [a theological absurdity for Christians]); b) even the words revealed to us which point beyond our limited comprehension to God's essential being are, in and of themselves, still "condescended"/"image" in a sense (we can only conceive of "eternity" in terms either of the succession of an incredibly large number of, or allegedly infinite, moments of time; or at best, in an insufficient abstraction of timelessness, depending on the precise sense of "eternity" which is in view).

Dr. Barcellos brings up the issue later on of creation ex nihilo and wonders whether, if we define God's "covenantal attributes," as Dr. Oliphint does, as "created," the doctrine can stand: "Was there a creation of covenantal properties prior to the creation of 'the world, and all things therein' in order for creation to occur? Or did the creation of covenantal properties occur subsequent to creation, since they, being created, would be part of the 'all things therein' (i.c., in 'the world')? If they did, who created them, the eternal or the covenanted God?"

I think this is a good question, and because of its weight, I might shy away from the precise language of calling God's condescended, "covenant" attributes "created," although I don't think that terminology is wholly improper or unworkable. My general response would be to say that a) (at least many of) God's covenantal attributes came into being by virtue of creation; it was neither a wholly prior thing to "creation" proper, nor a much later reality; b) the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is designed to protect from the idea that God used anything outside of Himself, especially creative substances, in order to carry out creation; it protects His absoluteness and the greatness of His creative work by fiat; I don't think it is really threatened by saying that God ontologically changed ad extra by taking on a new relationship to the created order right away, by virtue of creation itself.

I might go even further and say that at this point, unless there is an alternative to Dr. Oliphint's thesis yet to be articulated, his paradigm alone truly protects that which ex nihilo is designed to protect, namely, the absoluteness and aseity of God in se despite the things He does in carrying out creation and redemption in relationship to things outside of Himself. If there is no ontic-relational change in God ad extra when He decides to enter (that is, create and then enter) time and space, then we have a God who essentially is fluid, changing, and dynamically related to something outside Himself; such a God cannot be said to the be "I AM" of the un-burning bush of Exodus 3 (to use Dr. Oliphint's favorite biblical illustration of his view).

A final concern Dr. Barcellos raises in his short essay is that of Trinitarian creation. On Dr. Oliphint's reading, the "covenant condescension" by taking on creational attributes throughout redemptive history is primarily if not solely predicated of the Son. Dr. Oliphint spends a good bit of time in both books named above giving a convincing "old exegesis" reading of John 1 to say that the Son, the Logos, is the primary Person of the Trinity who has always "come into" the world to relate in covenant with the people of God. But if covenant condescension in this alleged sense is unique to the Son, Barcellos wonders, how can we say, as we must say biblically, that the act of creation itself was a thoroughly Trinitarian act?

I have three basic responses to this final question/concern.

1) We need to admit right up front our very limited knowledge, and in some ways outright ignorance, of the mechanics of Trinitarian creation as the Bible presents it. We are simply not given very much information about how it is that the Father created all things "through" the Son, or what it precisely means that the Spirit was "hovering over" the waters in the early Genesis account. Therefore let us be slow to place a lot of weight on arguments depending on a specific conception of Trinitarian creation, whatever it is we are arguing for or against.

2) I don't remember whether Dr. Oliphint admits this anywhere in his works, but I think it's clear from certain passages like those describing the baptism of Jesus that there are times when any or all three Persons of the Godhead "condescend" in certain ways for the sake of truthful and useful revelation to us: at Jesus' baptism, the vocal-chord-less Father speaks audibly from heaven, declaring Jesus to be His Son in whom He is well-pleased; at Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit (a spirit) also descends upon Him in the form of a dove. Therefore, might all three Persons of the Trinity at various stages of redemptive history, or even possibly throughout engage in some kinds of the covenant-condescension activity Dr. Oliphint describes? I've yet to see any powerful reason why not.

3) Nevertheless I think the admission in #2 above is fully consistent with maintaining a redemptive-historical focus on the Son who, as the One who comes into the world and "enlightens every man" according to Oliphint's "old exegesis" of John 1, and as the One who eventually becomes the eschatological Prophet and final Word Himself from God (Heb. 1:1-3), who takes on created, human flesh forever as our Great High Priest and Mediator, is the One whose name was prophesied to be "Immanuel," which means "God with us" (Matt. 1:23).

If this response of mine accomplishes my humble goal of causing parties on all sides of this current hot-button debate to sharpen up their arguments and understand one another better, I shall be eternally grateful. I'll even be grateful if, in light of the fact that I've yet to study the Reformed scholastic writings on theology proper in depth for myself, or even participate in any formal, seminary education, some of the more "T.R." camp on this issue "slap me over the head" with some obvious things I've missed in my studies or overlooked in my reading in this area thus far.

So for now I humbly submit this to whoever decides it worthwhile to read and maybe even consider its contents, and I'll consider myself a centimeter further in learning about this topic as I have spent time thinking and meditating on it in order to write this piece and interact with Dr. Barcellos' thoughtful criticisms. May God bless him, Dr. Oliphint, and all faithful ministers of the gospel, many of whom have taught me so much in the Reformed faith already, and built me up, for which I will be literally eternally grateful. I can only hope to leave a legacy some day like unto that which these two men and many of their faithful colleagues will be leaving.

Amen and Amen! Soli Deo Gloria.