I am currently reading through Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son. Ellis’s thesis is, in part, that Calvin consistently defended the aseity of the Son by maintaining a distinction between two modes of predication relative to the triunity of God. The two ways of speaking, as noted throughout the text, are: essentially (as to essence) and relatively (as to personal distinctions). But Ellis equivocates, sometimes referring to a distinction between essential and personal modes, instead of essential and relative. My thought is that this equivocation invites problems, since, as it seems to me, a distinction between essential and personal predicates is unclear and difficult to maintain.
We might suppose that replacing relative with personal (as to person) allows us to name a rather more intuitive and more concrete distinction: essential oneness and personal threeness, and essential and personal ways of speaking about God. Relative to essence, in distinction from person, we affirm that there is one undivided, simple essence. But in order to respect the distinction between essential and personal language, we may either say only this, affirming the simple and numerical unity of the divine essence (little by way of tri-, much by way of -une), or we must affirm that there are also three essences, since something as to essence must be said relative to persons. But to affirm one essence and three essences is quite different from affirming that there is one essence that subsists in three hypostases or persons, since even if those persons possess the essence of themselves (even if they are a se, that is), they possess the one self-identical and undivided essence, not each one a unique essence. Nor is the one essence a fourth divine aseity, which is the complementary implication.
In terms of this essential/personal distinction, parallel oddities occur on the personal side. We affirm that there are three persons, and even that the persons are mutually identifying. That is, they are constituted by and known by their relations (generation and procession). A notion of a se personhood(s) is unintelligible. (Even the Father is the Father by virtue of being the Father of the Son.) But what may we say of personhood in terms of the unity of the Godhead? It is not within the traditional lexicon – or with only very few exceptions – to predicate one person and three persons. The notion of person as a subsisting relation itself precludes our speaking of a single person: what relationship would constitute this person? To whom would it relate? Who is the one person? And there is additional ambiguity in the sense that of persons it is on all accounts acceptable to predicate both in terms of oneness and in terms of threeness, or both in terms of unity and trinity. Speaking of the second person, we say that the Son is of the Father and that the Son is of the same essence as the Father. On both counts then, contrasting an essential mode of predication with a personal mode is problematic.
The two ways of speaking must be essentially and relatively. And to speak of the essence is to speak non-relatively, which is to say, where the essence is, it is of itself. And to speak relatively is to speak non-essentially: relations are not constitutive of the essence (nor is the essence possessed by virtue of relation, as Calvin contends), since this would be to say that deity itself is derived. Ellis wishes to say with Calvin that the three persons are “together,” he says, “the one self-existent God” (63).
The EPS has kindly posted “Necessity, Univocism, and the Triune God,” a response I wrote to Anderson and Welty’s much discussed “Lord of Noncontradiction.” I’ve interacted with their article numerous times here at P&T, but the piece for EPS is my most developed effort. I can’t help but think that in the end, my response boils down to simply pointing out the myriad complications that arise from claiming to speak of the God of the Bible without the aid of divine revelation. Historic Reformed theology has argued (1) that theology is only possible because God spoke first and true iff it depends upon that sovereign self-revelation of God, and consequently (2) that natural theology simply cannot speak truly of the God of the Bible. Van Til has sharpened considerably both claims: (1) he argues that all knowledge, not only theological knowledge, is true iff it depends on special revelation, and (2) that natural theology can only get us a finite God, one essentially inseparable from the creation, which is to say, any God but the triune, a se God of Scripture. Despite some renewed discussion of these issues (Plantinga’s “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology” and M. Sudduth’s text with the same title), I think these basic tenets of consistent Protestantism remain steadfast.
I’ve written a short piece on logic for Reformed Forum. Read it here.
My question is, what does it mean to glorify God? Or, what kinds of things glorify God? Do the good deeds of non-Christians glorify God? If not, do the good deeds of Christians glorify God, even though good works were prepared beforehand so that we would do them (Eph 2:10)? I was initially interested in the moral status of civic goods performed by Christians, such as restoring ‘urban beauty’. Also raised then is the question of the moral status of impersonal ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, of, for example, urban blight: what is the moral status of pollution or urban decay? Ought such things to trouble us in a moral sense? Does urban blight bring dishonor to God, and restoration bring him honor? This line of questioning can be expanded: does bad art dishonor God, and good art bring him glory? Is it possible to glorify God through the production of art or of ‘beautiful’ objects? What is the moral status of objects or of the making of them? Is it even legitimate to speak of the moral status of impersonal things? The technical question I will address is, specifically, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing’s glorifying God?
I have drawn a distinction between two ways in which this question may be answered, one in terms of glorifying God a se, the other in terms of glorifying God in covenant. I’ll address the former here, the latter down the road at some point.
The Glory of God A Se
My claim is this: If God is a se and self-consistent, a single sufficient condition for a thing’s glorying God is for a thing to be not God. (I’ll leave aside for now the question of whether God a se glorifies himself, which is why I haven’t called this a necessary condition.) That is, if God is a se and self-consistent, he exists necessarily as triune and personal rather than as abstract and impersonal; he is, we might say, a self-existent positive ontological fact: God is. And self-existence is exclusive to him. If all that is true, necessarily, all (other) things glorify him. Here’s a brief explanation.
If it is true that contingency cannot explain itself (the principle of sufficient reason), all contingent things are in some way derivative of and dependent upon the self-existent, triune, personal God. Therefore all things but God bring glory to God in the obvious sense that they ‘owe’ their existence to him. To put it perhaps crassly, God was ‘first’, and in the end, he’ll be the last one standing. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36). In terms of moral properties, this would mean that both good and evil glorify God, that even sin glorifies God. I think this is uncontroversial.
Romans 9 is a great place to see this, but once we make an initial recognition of the fact, it appears all over Scripture, esp. on the cross. In Rom 9:17, Paul quotes Ex 9:16 to the effect that “for this very purpose” God “raised up” Pharaoh, “that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Romans 9:22 is also relevant:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory . . .”
In these two verses, we see both specifically in terms of Pharaoh and broadly in terms of other agents of opposition, that God is glorified in wickedness.
Peter says at Pentecost that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and that Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). If the lawless, wicked murder of Jesus was according to the definite plan of God, then is must also be the case that this wickedness glorifies God (see Eph 1).
If God is a se and self-consistent, he is, we might say, a self-existent ontological fact: God is. We’ve seen that this is borne out in history. The ontological sovereignty of God—longhand for aseity—is the backbone of history and redemption such that all things, good and evil, glorify God. Even when the sinner subjectively refuses to glorify God, if God is a se and self-consistent, and if Christ the Lord is the alpha and the omega, even in his subjective refusal, the sinner objectively glorifies God. Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess.
When we say that God is glorified by both good and evil, that is not to say that God is equally pleased by good and evil or that all creaturely actions regardless of moral considerations meet equally divine approval. Surely not. I hope soon to address this question, glorying God in covenant.
In the following argument, I take sola scriptura for granted. That is, I take it for granted that Scripture is redemptively necessary. Furthermore, I’ll assume that the redemptive necessity of Scripture implies Scripture’s epistemological necessity, specifically in terms of theological method, and thus the Deus dixit structure of all predication that can justifiably claim truly to be about God or to in fact have a supernatural referent. I’ll also assume that Scripture has a single primary author, and that therefore we can speak of it as a unified revelation about God (and from God). It is indeed a collection of distinct writings composed by distinct human authors; but the primary author is the self-consistent triune God. I’ll expound on these assumptions in Part I below, but I won’t provide arguments for them. Readers familiar with Reformed teaching on general and special revelation may prefer to skip to part II.
Part I. Scripture and true knowledge of God
Let’s suppose that Scripture is the principle source of knowledge about God. (I take this to be implied by the redemptive necessity of special revelation.) I’ll expound this, briefly, in two parts.
(1) Scripture delivers true information about God in two ways: (1.1) directly, in propositional form (e.g. God created the heavens and the earth, God is love); and (1.2) by implication (God is one substance and three persons, God exists, God exists necessarily). WCF 1.6 describes (1.1) as “expressly set down in Scripture,” and (1.2) as that which “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” Note that theological predicates of either kind bear the authority of Scripture. More on this below.
(2) Let’s also take the (theological) epistemological priority of Scripture to mean that whatever we learn about God from other sources—a priori or a posteriori, apart from Scripture—falls under the governance of Scripture. The weakest interpretation of this is the following: only what is not directly or by implication denied by Scripture might be true of God. This means simply that whatever Scripture says (directly or indirectly) about God is true.
Part II. Sets of theological predicates
Now suppose that of all the things we learn about God from Scripture (directly or indirectly), these may be divided into two sets, A and B. (Depending on how we define the sets, obviously there may be more than two.) Given what we’ve said in Part I, we may infer a couple of things about the relative merits of the predicates included in A and B:
- The epistemic merit of A and B is equal. That is, both have equal claim on our affirming them. To put it deontologically, we are obligated to affirm (or deny, I suppose) both with equal confidence.
- The alethic merit of A and B is equal. That is, both are equally true. Predicates belonging to A and those belonging to B are equally true of God. The difficulty here is obvious: what do I mean by “true”? For the moment, let’s think of it in terms of hermeneutics:
- A and B enjoy equal interpretive priority. No interpretive leverage external to Scripture is on hand to privilege either A or B. To put it another way, no external consideration may grant either A or B unique interpretative priority so that A predicates would be in some sense alethically superior to B predicates with the result that B must be interpreted in light of A but never A in light of B. The reason for this is that A and B alike bear revelatory (Deus dixit) theological priority over any and all non-revelational theology.
In fact, epistemic, alethic, or hermeneutic prioritization of either class over the other requires exactly that: non-revelational (natural) theological considerations assuming a measure of methodological influence to which, in the theological structure outlined above, they have no defensible claim. All we’re saying, once again, is that there is canonical, inscripturated revelation, and then there is everything else, every other instance of the use of the term “God.”
Part III. Potential problems
Now consider this biblical theological nuisance, difficulty reconciling the claims of A and B. Suppose we take A to be the set of God’s genial properties and B to be the set of his ornery properties:
(A) God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abiding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and
(B) God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children. Memorable is 1 Sam 15:3 in which God commands Saul to destroy Amalek, saying, “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Given what we’ve seen in Part II, two possible solutions must be disallowed a priori. One is that either set is thought to be true in some sense that implies a diminution of the truth value of the other. For example, someone might say that theological claims of class (A) (God’s genial properties) are human and hopeful; they are religious expressions of a people in great fear of God, but they are not factual claims about God (religion, yes; theology, no). Or another: Perhaps (A) describes God as he would like to be, God as he understands he should be; (A) represents hopeful though sincere utterances on God’s part, and (B) records God’s moral failures.
Note that both alternatives alethically favor B, and adjust A in order to diffuse the difficulty that results when taking A and B as equally true. But again, there is no revelational warrant for such favoritism: it isn’t in the text. Introducing such an alethic or hermeneutic solution to the A/B problem means qualifying the single-author unity of the text with deference to extra-textual considerations, and it means suspending sola scriptura. So on a Reformed theological basis, we disallow such solutions to the problem; in fact, we deny that there is a problem. There may be at most an apparent problem. Given the single authorship of Scripture, it must be the case that both A and B are (equally) true of God. And in fact, Ex. 34:6-7 affirms both A and B. So the solution is to affirm both (epistemic) as equally ultimate in God (alethic), and to allow them to function as limiting notions in our systematizing of the data of Scripture (interpretive).
One additional example. Suppose we have a set of theological predicates exemplified by Mal 3:6 (“For I the LORD do not change”) and Jas 1:17 (“. . . the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”). Suppose we have another set of theological predicates, no doubt more numerous, exemplified by such texts as Gen 3:8 (“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day”) and Ex 2:24-5, “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew”), and so on. Call these sets of predicates set 1 and set 2. Let’s apply our three principles once again.
- Equal epistemic merit: Scripture affirms equally predicates of type 1 and those of type 2. Revealed theology then must also affirm predicates of both types with equal confidence.
- Equal alethic merit: Set 1 and set 2 are equally true of God.
- Equal interpretative priority: we cannot qualify set 1 or set 2 based on considerations external to Scripture in order to diffuse the S1/S2 difficulty. (The apparent difficulty must remain.)
Once again, we affirm that the difficulty is merely apparent. Thus, if Scripture takes unique priority in our theologizing, we affirm that God is unchanging, and thus uncontained by time or space, but also that he walked in the garden, leaving audible evidence as he went, and that he heard, remembered, saw, and knew the affliction of his people enslaved. We face on one side incomprehensible transcendence and holiness and on the other difficult anthropomorphisms. Again in terms of our three principles:
- We know (epistemic) both types of divine properties equally, or with equal clarity. In both cases we are confronted with mystery; but in both cases we receive authoritative self-revelation, i.e., theological truth.
- Both are (alethic) equally true of God. It is both the case that God changes not, and that at a point in time he heard, remembered, saw, and knew, etc., particular spatio-temporally limited sounds, events, and objects.
- In terms of interpretative priority, assuming there is no revealed means of prioritizing one or the other, we cannot say with set 1 that God is unchanging, so that set 2 is true only in a sense allowable by set 1 (e.g. set 2 represents religious but not a theological truth); nor can we say with set 2 that God heard and thus came to know what he previously did not know, so that set 1 is true only to an extent allowable by set 2 (e.g. explain set 1 away as Greek imposition on Christian thought). If we are to speak truly of God, Scripture would have us affirm the incomprehensible holiness of God (set 1) without hesitation, and the anthropomorphisms (set 2) with equal confidence.
Again, all we’re saying here, I think, is that whatever Scripture says about God is true.