Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Scott Oliphint: a reply to his rejoinder

In ‘Tolle Lege: A Brief Response to Paul Helm’ (Reformation 21) Scott Oliphint essays a rejoinder to the original article,  'What motivates Oliphint's proposals?' Here is my reply.

Thanks to Scott for his comments and the kind references to myself. Maybe not a lot more can be gained by going over the points of difference between us and any real or not so real misunderstandings that there may be. Nevertheless, I’ll take the opportunity to clarify the main points as plainly as I can.  

1. By ‘classical theism’ I mean (for example) the following statement of the Westminster Confession on God.

There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

I don’t believe that the Divines held that God ever behaved non-trinitarianly. Nevertheless, dogmatically, they discussed the triune God under separate heads: De Deo Uno, De Deo Trino: ‘Of God, and of the Holy Trinity.’

2. What I said in John Calvin’s Ideas about changes in belief seems defensible. Apart from the evidence of regeneration and new life a person has no reason to believe that he is eternally loved by God, and has some reason to believe that he is not; if he comes to have evidence that he is regenerated then he is provided with good reason to believe that he is. If so, has God changed him? Of course, he has regenerated him at t2, a state that he did not enjoy at t1. In doing so, has God changed? No.

3. I’m still puzzled by Scott thinking that accommodated language such as ‘God is angry with X’ means or implies ‘The Lord is not angry but X is angry’. ‘The Lord is angry with X’ also entails that ‘The Lord expresses anger at X’. Whether X is angry or not when God so expresses anger is another matter. In fact I find it hard to imagine that if the Creator-creature distinction is taken seriously, there can be anything other than accommodation, which includes theophanic appearances. Vos’s remarks reproduced by Scott are along this line. Think of how variously a human being can express his thought: why deny to God a parallel variety? If I express my doubt by shrugging my shoulders rather than by saying ‘I doubt that’, and speak differently to adults and children, and to the French, why does that necessarily convey falsehood or be in any other way off-centre?

4. Scott seems unnecessarily exercised by Tom Morris’s argument about reduplicative expressions. The argument may be generally correct, but it is inapplicable to the Incarnation as it is historically understood. Morris says

Consider any conjunctive reduplicative proposition of the form ‘x as A is N and x as B is not N’. If the subjects of both conjunct are the same and the substituends of N are univocal across the conjunction, then as long as (1) the reduplicative predicates being A of x and predicates being B of x, and (2) being N is entailed by being A and not being N is entailed by being B, then the reduplicative form of prediction accomplishes nothing but muddying the waters, since in the end the contradiction stands of x being characterized as N and not-N. (The Logic of God Incarnate 48-9, Oliphint 200-1)

In the case of the God-man, our two-natured Mediator, I don’t see any contradiction in saying that ‘The God-man in respect of his human nature does not know what in respect of his divine nature he does know.’

5. Finally, I re-emphasize the central problem. Scott appears to argue that the Logos’s taking on human nature at a point in history warrants us in saying that the second person of the Trinity possessed in the OT at least some of such properties, 'covenant properties', as later he has in virtue of being incarnate.

To begin with, such a suggestion seems speculative. Hardly strong enough to hang a substantive theological point on. 

But in any case, in working out his claim Scott is still faced with this problem – the covenantal properties which the eternal, omniscient Logos takes on:  are they divine properties or human? I suppose not divine properties, because they are contingent, and I think Scott means that the other two persons don’t possess them.  The Incarnate Logos’s covenant properties  (e.g. being ignorant of the future) are so in virtue of his union with human nature. So if the Logos reveals such properties in the OT, which Scott says are proleptic of the Incarnation, then it seems that they also must be human, contingent, creaturely  properties.  But are they? In any case we ought not to think that in the OT the Logos took on anything that would compromise the omniscience of his divine person.

On the other hand, if the covenantal properties are divine properties, then Father, Son and Holy Ghost each and together know what the Incarnate Son does not know. (But then what happens to the unity of the Trinity?) Scott does not show how taking on 'covenant properties' is possible, that is, how the adoption of such properties amounts to a logically coherent possibility.

So as it stands it is a very weak and unclear claim on which to develop a major dogmatic change, because the covenant properties are not clearly either divine or human properties. There is no other alternative. And neither is satisfactory, there are serious difficulties with each proposal. And if Scott says that what motivates the proposal are alleged difficulties that he finds with the idea of divine accommodation, in my view such a development is in any case unnecessary. Divine accommodation is of the essence of the Creator - creature relationship

So let us summarise this in the form of a dilemma: Either the 'covenantal properties' identified by Scott are creaturely or they are divine. If creaturely then they are possessed by God contingently, and the Logos, being God, nevertheless has human properties. This impairs the divine unity. If the 'covenantal properties' are divine they are necessary and God is both essentially omniscient and essentially ignorant, or perhaps the incarnate Son alone is essentially omniscient (being true God) and contingently ignorant (being true man). Are we improving things?

In view of these manifest difficulties it is much more straightforward to retain the age-old notion of divine accommodation; ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his [incarnate] Son’.

Still friends, Scott!