Friday, April 19, 2019

Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God

WTS theology/systematics prof. Scott Oliphint is facing a heresy trial:

A few brief observations:

i) I lack in-depth knowledge of Oliphint's theology. It's one of those situations where you read enough of somebody to make a preliminary judgment about whether it's worthwhile to read more of their stuff. From what I've read of him, Oliphint doesn't strike me as a high-level thinker, so I haven't bothered to deepen and broaden my familiarity with his writings. It's my impression, from what I've read, that he's out of his depth. So my knowledge of his theology is admittedly cursory. Life is short, so we make investment decisions about where to put our time. He has a son (Jared Oliphint) who strikes me as having a sharper mind than his old man. 

ii) Ironically, WTS has made it very impractical to have a detailed knowledge of Oliphint's position by withdrawing his controversial book from circulation, which makes remaining copies prohibitively expensive. Not that I don't buy expensive books, but for the price of that one book I could buy several different books that actually interest me. 

Parenthetically, I question the ethics of WTS buying the rights to the book from the publisher, like a product recall. Is that an appropriate use of seminary funds? Likewise, is it appropriate to conceal his position from public view and scrutiny by making the evidence inaccessible? 

iii) Here's an excerpt from his controversial book:

When Scripture says that God changes his mind, or that he is moved, or angered by our behavior, we should see that as literal. It refers us to God and to his dealings with us. It is as literal or as real as God being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Scott Oliphiint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Crossway 2011), 123-24.

In a way this seems to be readjudicating the Clark controversy. To judge by the excerpt, Oliphint is adopting Murray's position, but taking it to a logical extreme. It becomes similar to open theist hermeneutics. Assuming that's a representative sample, he's staking out a position more characteristic of freewill theism than Calvinism. Calvinism and freewill theism are competing theological paradigms. A position that rejects divine aseity, immutability, and impassibility is on the opposing side of the spectrum.  

Now Oliphint tries to nuance that, but the question is whether he's attempting to have it both ways. Can you have it both ways? I don't think so. 

iv) In fairness to Oliphint, this goes back to perennial debates about the relationship between exegetical theology and philosophical theology. The role of anthropomorphism and all that. Certainly there's a danger, and not just a hypothetical danger, of filtering biblical theism through an extraneous interpretive grid. Take debates over divine simplicity, or the way Aquinas glosses Exod 3:14. 

v) This becomes, in part, an issue of theological method. Do we interpret narrative theology in terms of what Scripture says about the divine attributes in more didactic genres? If there are passages which teach divine aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, then those are logically and literally irreconcilable with narrative or poetic passages that depict God as shortsighted, short-tempered, blindsided, reactionary, &c. Take passages about absolute predestination. Well, that can't be true if God is surprised by the turn of events or angered by the outcome.    

By the same token, the OT indictment of pagan polytheism loses most of its force if Yahweh is typical of the high gods in the pagan pantheon, the primary difference being that there's just one deity of that kind rather than many–who happens to be the God of Israel. 

To be the absolute Creator, God had to exist apart from time and space if time and space are modes of creation. If everything unfolds according to a master plan, then there's an asymmetrical relation between God and creation, where the world has no effect on God. The influence goes one way. That's not philosophical theology. Rather, that's exegetical theology. That's biblical creation, predestination, and providence. Of course, freewill theists demur, but that illustrates the competition between two incompatible approaches. Different reading strategies, divergent theological paradigms. 

The alternative is to say that Scripture is inconsistent. But if we affirm inerrancy, then it's necessary to make allowance for anthropomorphism. And if, indeed, the God of classical theism is approximately correct, then we'd expect God to relate to us on our level. That's not special pleading. Admittedly, appeals to anthropomorphism can be too facile and reflexive. We need to be circumspect about that principle. But it's not imported from philosophical theology. 

vi) That said, the resurgence of Reformed Thomism and Nicene subordination is animated by tribal loyalties and crowd psychology rather than fidelity to the witness of Scripture. Perfunctory profession of sola Scriptura while chauvinistic tradition carries the day. There's blame to go around in this controversy. It's not one-sided. 


  1. Crossway sold the rights to the book to the seminary? How could they do that? I didn't think most author contracts allow such a thing.

  2. "In a way this seems to be readjudicating the Clark controversy."

    What did you mean by that statement ?

    1. It recycles the same hermeneutical issues: