Thursday, July 14, 2022

Book Review: God with Us by K. Scott Oliphant

The 2011/2012 book by K. Scott Oliphant entitled God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God had been withdrawn from publication, as part of the agreement made with Oliphant that resulted in his acquital before a court of the OPC. The background to this was the 2016 Trinity controversy signaling a resurgence in classical theism, and it is due to this that Dr. Oliphant was hauled up in 2019 on charges of heresy based on things he had written in this book. Being a dissenter from classical theism, I was interested to read this book, and thankfully a friend managed to get a copy for me.

So what does a Reformed theologians with Palamite influences think of the book? Well, here is my review of Oliphant's book. An excerpt:

The book is written as an exploration in the doctrine of God from a biblical theological and systematic perspective. Split into an introduction and five chapters, Oliphant attempted to formulate a theology of God that takes into account motifs of incarnation and accommodation, linking his doctrine of God and his doctrine of Christ. A key point of Oliphant’s view formulated here is using Christology to guide Theology Proper (the headings in one of his chapters), in which his unique spin on the doctrine of God is being presented.


Friday, July 08, 2022

The relation between the divine persons and the divine nature

God is God, supreme, creator, incomprehensible, beyond anything that anyone can ever think or imagine, beyond reality and unreality. To think of God is to think of the One who transcends all things, and to which we owe our lives. God is not an object for us to dissect and examine, but someone who stands over us. He dissects us, not the other way around. As such, in thinking about divine things, we ought to tremble in reverence and fear, noting that anything we can perceive if true is only known to us because God has made the knowledge of Himself available to us. We can know nothing of God except what is revealed, for God is utterly beyond us. Just like a 3-dimensional being is incomprehensible to a 2-dimensional being, so the God who transcends infinite dimensions is beyond our comprehension based upon natural knowledge. Only the revelation of God, coming from the transcendent being, can tell us anything about Him.

The Trinity is a concept at the limits of human understanding, for it reveals a God who is both one and three, and neither is in contradiction nor is one holding primacy over the other. The Trinity come about as a synthesis of basic biblical truths that would result in a contradiction if held without qualification. Thus, we hold that there is one God, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, yet neither person is the other (the Father is not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, the Spirit not the Father or the Son). Without qualification, these premises would be logically contradictory. Yet the Bible teaches all these to be true, thus the only way open to us is to qualify the "three-ness" and the "one-ness," thus we arrive at the formula that God is one essence and three persons. The term "essence" and "persons" are, on the one hand, partly placeholders in order to distinguish the divine oneness and threeness, and partly chosen because the concepts behind them approximate how the oneness and threeness operate in God. God is one in that there is one God, thus He has one essence. God is three because the three persons operate just like how three persons operate, with distinguishable voices and acts.

Recently, some internet Thomists have confidently rammed their doctrine of God into some questionable places. At issue is the doctrine of simplicity and inseparable operations. The intoxication of "retrieving classical theism" has resulted in reckless theologizing with little to no thought as to the problems they would face. The doctrine of God, being about God, is not easy. After all, it is about GOD. Whatever one thinks of classical theism or Thomas Aquinas, surely one ought to more careful about the things of God, and the internet Thomists are most certainly not helping matters for anyone.

If God is simple, then certainly there is a sense in which the divine essence can be said to be the divine persons. Specifically, God the divine essence IS God the divine persons. All are one in the essence of God. However, there is a problem when one carelessly states that the divine essence is the divine persons, and the problem can be found in a certain relation between the two, that can be perceived in the photo at the start.

One can see in the photo a different portrayal of the Trinity from that which is portrayed for teaching believers. Whereas other digrams have the persons in a triangle, mine is in the shape of an oval. Perhaps one day I will go through all the symbolisms in my version, but for now I want us to take note of the right side of the diagram, of the line from the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sanctus) to God (θεος; Deus). Note that the word "is" (est) is upside down. I made it upside down because I intend the sentence to be from the right to the left. Therefore, the three sentences (translating the middle to Latin as well) are:

  1. Pater est Deus
  2. Filius est Deus
  3. Spiritus Sanctus est Deus

The upside down nature of "est" also implies the following:

  1. Deus Pater non est
  2. Deus Filius non est
  3. Deus Spiritus Sanctus non est

Or, in English, God is not the Father, God is not the Son, and God is not the Holy Spirit.

All this seems counter-intuitive. If the Father is God, why is God not the Father? Indeed, the copula "is" normally functions symmetrically. But note that for the purpose of the Trinity, we can say that the Father is God, but we cannot say that God is the Father. The reason is simple: God is necessarily triune. That means that God is Father, Son and Spirit. God cannot be the Father without the Son or the Spirit. And since the persons are not three parts of one God but each person is fully God, the Father is God fully, yet the converse is not true - God is not the Father fully.

It is this thorny relation betweeen the one essence and the three persons, on top of a denial that the persons are parts of the one essence, that result in this weird asymmetrical identity relation. The basic foundation of Trinitarian dogma confess this asymmetry while recognizing that this creates a major tension in any theological system. This is why even though it "logically" makes sense for a belief in simplicity and inseparable operations to lead to an absolute identity between the divine essence and the divine persons, still we cannot go there. If the divine essence is the divine persons, then we run into this asymmetry and run foul of saying God is the Father, God is the Son, and God is the Holy Spirit. From there, it is a smaller leap to then move into full-blown modalism in equating the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit.

There are many problems with the internet Thomist. The major problem right now is their reckless play in the theology sandbox. They are not cautious, they think they know it all, and they run headlong into nonsense that even Thomas Aquinas would not say. Perhaps some caution is in order, and they need to realize that the doctrine of God is one fraught with many pitfalls, and embracing Classical Theism or what one thinks is Classical Theism does not make them supermen neither does it immunize any of them from heresy or false teaching.

Monday, July 04, 2022

The issue of divine relations and the issue of being

Rather, the issue is whether the Son is also the ontological source of the Holy Spirit, along with the Father. [Marc A. Pugliese, "How Important is the Filique for Reformed Orthodoxy," WTJ 66 (2004): 159]

In the one being of God, the three persons subsists, in an eternal and unique relationship. If the three persons are all God, then obviously it would be troubling to state that the relation is ontological. This was one reason why John Calvin hold to Christ being autotheos or "God in Himself." That is precisely why one needs to be careful when talking about the relations between the persons of the one God. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the monarchy of the Father states that the Father is the source of the persons of the Son and the Spirit, not the one divine essence. The divine being can be said to be "transmitted" from the Father to the Son and the Spirit only in the sence of an eternal perichoresis, with the understanding that there was never a logical moment that the Son and Spirit have not the one divine being. The monarchy of the Father, in its orthodox sense, does not separate the one divine essence or make the divine essence properly belonging to one person who must then transmit the being to the other persons in order for them to be. The divine relations must therefore just be a matter of stating emphasis or priority or order (taxis).

It is therefore not helpful when words like "ontology" or "essence" or "being" keeps on being thrown around casually. Or even the newfound fascination with the word "thing." We need to be careful about the words we use, unless we want to slide into either modalism, subordinationism or tritheism. Ontology or essence belongs to ontology, and the ontology of God is His "what-ness." We need to limit the use of ontology to only ontology instead of trying to make everything about ontology. The "what-ness" question merely circumscribes the issue of divine relations, which must be limited to the issue of either emphasis, priority and/or order, unless one makes nonsense of the biblical truths that God is both one essence, and three persons. If one make the divine relations ontological, then one either separates the relations (tritheism), makes the relations one of no real distinction (modalism), or makes the relations one of substantial dependence (subordinationism).

The divine relations are linked to the essence in the sense that they state how the persons can be three in the one essence. Therefore, by making the category of "persons" separate from ontology, one is free to show the "three-neess" of God in the divine persons, while using the divine relations to link the persons to the category of essence. That it seems to me is the correct way to go, as opposed to the internet New Thomists who are busy collapsing their doctrine of God into modalism.