On Helm’s Review of Oliphint: Theological Simplicism and Chalcedonian Theology ProperPosted: March 19, 2014
I. A Response to Helm’s Response
At Helm’s Deep, Paul Helm has interacted with Scott Oliphint’s God with Us. Helm raises several worthwhile questions concerning the views expressed in Oliphint’s text, but he does so without addressing the distinguishing thesis of Oliphint’s book. This discussion is worth having, and, in my view, Oliphint’s proposal is a biblically guided, confessionally sound attempt to ‘reform’ our understanding of God’s relationship to creation. If we can appreciate his approach somewhat more substantively, I think the conversation will be more fruitful. So instead of attempting to address specifically each or some of Helm’s concerns, what I offer here is clarification of the singular thesis of God with Us, in comparison with the Thomism Helm prefers, and which, to be sure, features so prominently in historical theology proper.
II. Oliphint’s Chalcedonian Method for Theology Proper
I have called Oliphint’s proposal a Christo-logic theology proper. Oliphint calls it a Chalcedonian theology proper. Helm says that Oliphint’s proposal leaves us with a choice between two Gods; he targets what he calls “a strong tendency to think of God ‘dualistically’.” In light of God with Us, the response is ready-made: we must choose between two Gods only insofar as we must choose between the two natures of Christ.
The issue Oliphint wishes to address in God with Us is the nature of God’s interaction with creation and that interaction as the cardinal test-case for one’s theological method and the biblical defensibility of one’s theology proper. It is important to keep the discussion focused on this specific question: how we are to understand God’s interaction with creation. Since God’s relationship with creation is redemptively and epistemically focused in Scripture, biblical theology and hermeneutics are central. Oliphint categorizes approaches to the question of creator-creature interaction in terms of ‘free will’ theism on the one hand and Thomism on the other. Examples of the former are Arminianism and Open Theism, and of the latter the metaphysical-simplicity theism of Thomas Aquinas, such as that defended by James Dolezal in his God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of Absoluteness (Helm wrote the forward).
Oliphint’s claim is simple: the authoritative teaching of Scripture gives us the a se God active in history. From Genesis through Revelation, Scripture presents an authoritative and trustworthy, progressive and organic, revelation of God and his interaction with creation. This revelation itself directs our attention toward Christ as its culminating statement, point of completion, and central interpretive key. Scripture gives us, as our hermeneutical and theologico-methodological starting point, the incarnate Son, two natures in one person. Jesus stands upon the earth, in the flesh, and claims to be the I AM. He and the Father are one. He is the full radiance of the Glory of God. And there he stood, like us in every way but without sin, our Lord and our God.
Chalcedon represents the fact that one must not choose between natures; affirmation of the unmixed and unconfused union of two natures in one person is a non-negotiable test of orthodoxy. Who is Christ? Two natures in one person, the holy one of God, the logos incarnate. There is not a lot of wiggle room here; orthodox Christology stands on the tip of a needle. Those who picked up stones in John 8:59 and the councils of the early church all knew that the stakes were high. Oliphint’s project is to take orthodox Christology as the hermeneutical rule for understanding what Scripture says about God.
III. Biblical Theology and Oliphint’s Chalcedonian Theology of Condescension
Certainly the incarnation is unique in its redemptive efficacy, redemptive-historical significance, and permanence; the Son assumes, once and permanently, a human nature. But the uniqueness of the incarnation does not disqualify a Christological read of Old Testament texts which reveal the historical activity of the a se, eternal I AM. So Geerhardus Vos in his Biblical Theology:
The most important and characteristic form of revelation in the patriarchal period is that through the ‘Angel of the Jehovah’ or ‘the Angel of God’ . . .
The peculiarity in all these cases is that, on the one hand, the Angel distinguishes himself from Jehovah, speaking of Him in the third person, and that, on the other hand, in the same utterance he speaks of God in the first person (72).
The problem is how to do justice to both. There is but one way in which this can be done: we must assume that behind the twofold representation there lies a real manifoldness in the inner life of the Deity (73).
. . . behind the Angel speaking as God, and who embodied in Himself all the condescension of God to meet the frailty and limitations of man, there existed at the same time another aspect of God, in which he could not be seen and materially received after such a fashion, the very God of whom the Angel spoke in the third person.
In the incarnation of our Lord we have the supreme expression of this fundamental arrangement (74).
The form in which the Angel appeared was a form assumed for the moment, laid aside again as soon as the purpose of its assumption had been served.
Finally, in regard to the much-mooted question, whether the Angel was created or uncreated, a clear distinction between the Person and the form of appearance suffices for an answer. If, as above suggested, the Angel-conception points back to an inner distinction within the Godhead, so as to make the Angel a prefiguration of the incarnate Christ, then plainly the Person appearing in the revelation was uncreated, because God. On the other hand, if by Angel we designate the form of manifestation of which this Person availed Himself, then the Angel was created. It is the same in the case of Christ: the divine Person in Christ is uncreated, for Deity and being created are mutually exclusive. Nevertheless as to His human nature Jesus was created. The only difference in this respect between Him and the Angel is that under the Old Testament the created form was ephemeral, whereas through the incarnation it has become eternal (75-6).
Oliphint’s view is this: you become a free will theist when you say that ‘God’ is in history and therefore cannot also be ‘God’. You become a metaphysical simplicist when you say, following Thomas, that ‘God’ is ‘God’ and therefore cannot also be in history. Oliphint argues that these are complementary Christological heresies in their Sunday best.
IV. Thomistic Simplicism
The metaphysical-simplicity theism of Thomas is faithfully articulated in Dolezal’s book. The basic idea is that whatever characterizes the metaphysical composition of created things according to a Thomistic substance metaphysic must be denied of God. Composition—in terms of, say, essence and existence or act and potency—is constitutive of finite (created) things; so, it (and other models of composition) must be denied of God. Two things are thought to be accomplished by the same methodology: demonstrative proof of God’s existence and theological predication, describing what God is actually like. (For Aquinas, we may know that God exists without knowing anything about God; and so we ask, what does “God” mean?)
This is to take a creaturely metaphysical system, reverse the color scheme, and call it theology. That is fine, but it is different: the Reformed have long affirmed that the first fact of theology is that God has spoken. And so it is the metaphysical simplicist who faces two Gods: one who undergoes nothing, eternally and unchangeably is whatever he is and does whatever he does, etc., and one who hears prayers, moves to save sinners, called Abraham, heard the cries of his people, met Moses on the mountain, dwelled in the tabernacle, grew angry, and revealed himself in Scripture. Since the former is a construct of Thomistic simplicism, the two cannot live happily together, and we see two results: (1) it is argued tirelessly that Thomistic simplicity is not inconsistent with triunity or with the incarnation or with divine freedom, and (2) metaphysical simplicism interferes with biblical hermeneutics by qualifying whatever the Bible says about God in relation to creation.
(1) The fact that a problem of consistency arises between Thomistic simplicity and triunity, the incarnation, and divine freedom is indicative of an aberrant methodology, a theology proper ‘ou kata Xriston’. And even if the metaphysics of simplicity are in fact ‘not inconsistent’ with biblical, orthodox trinitarianism (which I deny), this is a shamefully inadequate measure of theological acceptability. The metaphysical simplicist will say ‘we affirm this, and we affirm that’, and focus his energy on dispelling the worry of inconsistency. On the one hand, the awe-inspiring, metaphysically simple deity, of whom we can say nothing; on the other, the covenanting God, and Christ my savior: two Gods. This is theological schizophrenia.
(2) Once Thomism takes hold and this dualism appears, metaphysical simplicity begins to chip away at its counterpart, and at the trustworthiness of Scripture. Metaphysical simplicism renders all biblical teaching about God ‘metaphorical’, at best, or “not literally true,” says Helm: “On the theory of divine accommodation, statements such as ‘God repented’ are in a sense false, false if taken literally. For God does not literally repent and cannot do so” (God and Time, 45). Thomas Weinandy says, “[w]hile such statements are saying something literally true about God, they are, I believe, not to be taken literally” (“Does God Suffer?” Ars Disputandi, 2 (2002): Section 2). No one denies that there is metaphor in Scripture, but for the Thomist, metaphor (or accommodation or whatever) qualifies all biblical speech about God’s interaction with creation according to the rule of a metaphysic nowhere present in Scripture. When it is said that God does not do this or that in historical relationship to creation but rather eternally and unchangeably, or that Scripture does not give us true knowledge of God but rather revealed knowledge of God, in that case metaphysical simplicity is functioning as a hermeneutic of biblical god-talk. A substance metaphysic, in many cases helpful, in this case has been wedged in between Scripture and (1) what we may say that Scripture actually means, and (2) even what Scripture actually is.
And so Helm describes a dichotomy between eternal decree and historical event. “In short what God timelessly decrees is a complete causal matrix of events and actions” (Eternal God, 170). In his post he writes, “[b]iblical theism requires that we make a sharp distinction between what God has eternally decreed, and what as a result comes to pass moment by moment, stage by stage in time. Otherwise we confound the Creator with his creation. The coming to pass of what is eternally decreed is executed in time. But God is not in time, though what he decrees to come to pass most certainly is.” And he says, “may not such representations of God be anthropomorphic (or anthropochronic) in order to render his relations to his creation more intelligible to us?” (Eternal God, 2). The concern here is that by “more intelligible” Helm means ‘not strictly true’.
God decrees eternally; and we see this as God acting temporally. Following Thomas, Helm claims that God eternally decrees historical event E, and therefore we do not say that historical event E affects God in any way or implies the historicity of divine activity. This is an obvious non-sequitur which gently overlooks the entire economy of salvation, as a result of which Helm denies a historical transition from wrath to grace. He affirms instead a change “from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace” (John Calvin’s Ideas, 395). So why take this route? Thomistic simplicism requires it.
The Thomist option boasts a noble heritage, notably in historic Reformed literature. This presents a substantial psychological impediment for Oliphint’s thesis: disagreeing with one’s teachers, in a culture steeped in piety, is daunting. Rightly, it gives one pause. And many times it has ended badly. But to argue, or even imply—as Dolezal’s book does—that historical precedent wields compelling authority is to mistake the taught for the teacher, the normed norm for the norming norm, and to give historical sources the authority of a magisterium. This is a most un-protestant thing to do. As Helm himself says, “[r]eference to tradition, however hallowed, does not settle theological issues. And appeal to tradition ought not to be taken as an indefeasible argument for the truth of some Christian doctrine” (Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, 6).
Rather, we affirm with our Reformed predecessors that Scripture is our teacher, our norming norm, and we thus concur on a point more basic and essential than any of the theological details under discussion, and so the theological question becomes a hermeneutic one and drives us toward exegesis and biblical theology. But not for the Thomist. Instead of asking “is this biblical?” (or even “is it confessional?”) Helm says in his post, “[t]hat is certainly amazing, but is it coherent?” Distinguishing the psychological worry from the theological task, we ask: what does Scripture teach about God, and the ‘coherence’ of our theological method? Scripture points us toward Christ.
V. Theology and Models of Comprehension
We know that what Scripture says is true, and yet we know as well that we do not fully comprehend what it tells us. What does it mean that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? For all the theological import of this verse, what it says is a profound mystery. Nonetheless, it is the business of the theologian, under the guidance of historical theology and confession, using where helpful the tools of philosophy, to systematize or synthesize the data of Scripture and to search out the limits of our understanding of what Scripture teaches.
By all interested accounts, Scripture teaches an ontological ‘distance’ between the Creator and the creature. And by all accounts, Scripture also represents the Creator as at various times and in diverse ways subject to creaturely conditions—spatial and temporal limitations, the contingencies of the future and of the free actions of creatures, and so on. And God appears even to have ‘feelings’ toward historical contingencies. As Isaiah says of the manner of the Lord’s working salvation, “[t]he zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (9:7). We may thus understand the issue here in terms of hermeneutics and the orientation of the theological discipline relative to the data of special revelation, and, correlatively, we may note distinct conceptions of incomprehensibility and the limits of theological knowledge.
Chalcedonian theology proper and incomprehensibility. Scripture gives us the self-existence of the triune God as an implication of the doctrines of creation and providence, and Scripture teaches the self-existence of God as directly as such an idea can be taught: the I AM given in Exodus 3:14, appearing thousands of times in the OT (and as ‘kurios’ in the LXX and perhaps the NT), has been often taken to teach what we call aseity, the ontological independence of the triune God. If Scripture interprets Scripture, the God who reveals and bears this name is the triune God. The Father, Son, and Spirit, one God in three persons, is eternal and self-existent.
Scripture also represents God as active and as involved in his creation: he speaks, hears, regrets, waits upon the obedience or disobedience Israel, the church, and individuals, responds in anger or ‘zealously’ acts to redeem and restore—all culminating in the incarnation and the work of Christ. As taught explicitly in the NT, he acts in the lives of individual sinners to apply to them, by the activity of the Spirit, the redemption accomplished through the obedience of the incarnate Son. If Scripture is a self-consistent and trustworthy revelatory unit, and the incarnate Son is its culminating revelatory fact and its unifying hermeneutical principle, then the question of bringing together God as self-existent and God condescended (by way of covenant, according to WCF 7.1) may be answered according to our understanding of the incarnate Son: a Chalcedonian theology proper.
The hypostatic union is essentially incomprehensible, but it is the essence of Christian orthodoxy and biblical revelation. It cannot be comprehended, but it can be apprehended and affirmed, and so it is as it must be the foundational Christian confession. A revelationally driven theology proper takes the union of two natures in one person as its hermeneutical and methodological axiom, and the measure of Christian theological coherence is this: Jesus stood upon the earth and said, “before Abraham was, I AM.” This is Oliphint’s approach, and it has precedence in the biblical theology of Vos, as noted. And in fact, Eleonore Stump appears to say something similar when she attempts to explain divine simplicity in terms of “quantum metaphysics” (“God’s Simplicity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, 135-146).
Thomistic simplicism and incomprehensibility. Thomas articulates a theological ontology (he says what God or Godness is) in terms of his own Aristotelian metaphysic, following the maxim that ‘whatever createdness is, God is not’. This maxim functions as a philosophical (stipulative) definition of the word “God,” not dependent upon exegesis of biblical texts. Thus, Aquinas could (and did) borrow freely from Muslim philosophers, since the referent for both was a non-descript non-compositeness. In Dolezal’s second chapter, “Simplicity and Models of Composition,” the Thomist’s modified Aristotelian science of (created) thingness is applied as a template for denying things of God. Dolezal explains and denies of ‘God’ six kinds of composition that Thomas’s metaphysical system says characterizes created thingness.
Denying these features of created thingness gets us to a peculiar idea, that of a thing without any distinguishing features, with no parts that are not wholly and exhaustively the thing itself. Among other things, this includes the denial of act and potency composition in this thing, so that whatever this thing ‘does’ it must do without ever becoming anything it was not already (e.g. the doer of an action). (That this thing does anything is somewhat of a problem for the system. See below.) And whatever it will ever be, it must have always already actually been. So, for example, if we suppose this thing is to create this world, it can never ‘become’ the creator of this world, but must eternally be the creator of this world (and no other). ‘God’ as pure act means there is no passive potency in God, i.e. that there are no unrealized possibilities in God, and that therefore he has from eternity already been doing (and already was) whatever he will ever do (which is also what he is). It is one thing to say this of the divine essence; it is quite another to say that because God is pure act, the human authors of Scripture were confused or self-deceived.
This much is demonstrable and certain. Thomistic simplicism leads this way irresistibly. So for Thomas (and for Dolezal), God is this metaphysically simple thing: an unidentifiable Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical non-compositeness takes the place of the self-existent Father, Son, and Spirit, one God in three persons. We welcome philosophy in the service of theology; but in Thomistic metaphysical simplicism, theology is the servant of autonomous reason.
Incomprehensibility figures heavily for Thomas. Consider Dolezal’s position relative to divine freedom, the idea that God’s actions are uncompelled, that he was free to create or not to create, and free to create this world or a different one. Dolezal says, “I aim to highlight the importance of maintaining both divine freedom and the DDS [the doctrine of divine simplicity] while acknowledging their ultimate incomprehensibility” (188).
Now, we already know that anything divine is incomprehensible. Incomprehensibility is included in the word “divine.” So, comprehension is not the issue; no one expects that. Nor is ‘ultimate comprehension’ on the table, whatever that is.
Notice also that Dolezal calls “incomprehensible” not divine freedom itself, but the dual affirmation of divine freedom and Thomistic simplicity—“maintaining both,” he says. So by “incomprehensible” Dolezal means something other than the incomprehensibility of the divine nature. He means that maintaining both freedom and simplicity is, for his system, not ultimately coherent, or not ultimately rationally possible, but that he will do it anyway. Evidently he recognizes that he must affirm God’s free knowledge and will; Scripture demands as much. Thus the “importance” Dolezal wishes to highlight. But he is constrained by his metaphysic. So, “ultimately incomprehensible” here means ‘my system says I cannot affirm this, but I will do so anyway’. Dolezal concedes, indeed highlights, the fact that one cannot rationally affirm the freedom of the Thomistically simple God. Indeed he aims “to highlight” the fact. But he will affirm both regardless, and so we face Helm’s two gods which cannot be brought together.
So perhaps by “ultimate,” Dolezal means ‘at the end of this chapter’. Or perhaps he means, ‘even at the end of my study and the conclusion of my argumentation, and despite all my efforts, I can offer no account of divine freedom consistent with the metaphysical simplicity I have affirmed; but in order to distinguish my theology proper from Islam, I will affirm what the Bible says and do my best to keep the threat of inconsistency at bay’. Strictly speaking, where Dolezal says “ultimate incomprehensibility,” he should say “inconsistency” or “incoherence.” Dolezal’s Thomistic simplicism brings with it its own reductio.
The coherence of Oliphint’s Chalcedonian theology proper rests in Christ. The theological method he proposes is in this straightforward sense ‘kata Xriston’, in that it stands or falls with the hypostatic union. So, strictly speaking, his method affirms both ontological independence and condescended, covenantal activity of God as revealed mystery, and as Christo-logically coherent. Dolezal’s model is philosophically coherent until it faces the God of the Bible, and then it must agree to live with an incoherence he calls “incomprehensible.”
VI. Oliphint on Divine Simplicity
The one God subsists in three persons, each of these persons possessing the divine essence, so that each is rightly called God: one divine essence, three wholly divine persons. “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” we sing. The Son, himself fully and non-derivatively God, took to himself a created human nature, and dwelt upon the earth, like us in every way but without sin. He did so without surrendering or shrinking his essential deity. With Vos, we say that relative to the divine essence, he is uncreated; relative to the human nature, created. The person is divine; and it is proper to worship the Son of God in the flesh, and every creature will.
Oliphint distinguishes between essential properties of God, attributes of God’s essential Godness, and covenantal properties, properties God voluntarily takes to himself by virtue of covenantal condescension. Covenantal properties are understood and affirmed after the pattern of the incarnation, as we have seen. In God with Us, simplicity is the first topic in the section devoted to essential attributes. So a quick comparison is in order.
In Thomistic natural theology, metaphysical simplicity wields a great deal of influence over the theological enterprise as a whole; because of it, Thomas says that it is in the end not “proper” that we speak in subject-predicate form about God. Thomistic simplicity renders straightforward theological predication of the form God is P illegitimate—“improper,” Thomas says. Even the Bible’s own sayings about the activity and nature of God are “in a sense false,” as Helm says (God and Time, 45).
Oliphint acknowledges that speaking of God’s essence requires that we speak apophatically, but he affirms a notion of analogy which allows us to speak theologically after the pattern of God’s own trustworthy speech about himself. That is, Scripture affords true knowledge of God as he is in himself, even given creaturely epistemic limitations. “We can affirm that of which we cannot conceive” (63). For example: the Son of God walked upon the earth.
We should keep in mind a dual notion of divine unity: unity of singularity and unity of simplicity. In a triune notion of simplicity such as that affirmed by Oliphint, threeness always pushes up against oneness. The unity of singularity reminds us that we are not speaking of ‘three gods and one god’, but of a single three-and-one God. So it aids clarity to remember that “oneness” is ambiguous; it can mean either singularity—one and only one God—or it can refer to the oneness of the divine essence which thrice subsists.
- The unity of the divine essence signifies the fact that the personal relations in the Godhead are identical to the essence of God. Since these relations are identical to his essence, they do not constitute ‘parts’ in God. So it is false that if Father is God and Son is God and Spirit is God and Godness is singular, then there are three gods (three unities of singularity).
- And in terms of trinity, the fact that the relations are identical with God’s essence does not entail a denial of real relations. The three persons are God by virtue of their independent (a se) possession of the singular, self-identical divine essence. So it is false that if Father is God and Son is God and Spirit is God, then Father is Son is Spirit.
The triune Godhead, as self-existent, ontologically independent, etc., is who and what he is by virtue of nothing outside himself. God is his goodness, for example. God does not instantiate or exemplify or participate in a notion of goodness which exists outside of himself. That is to say that God does not depend upon anything that is not God in order to be God. We say this not in a circular way, as though offering a philosophical definition of “God” or Godness (as Thomistic simplicism does), but because it is an implication of the aseity of the God of the Bible. “The notion of simplicity is a direct implication of God’s independence” (66). And so “to deny simplicity is, at least by implication, to make God essentially dependent; it is to deny his character as ‘I AM’” (66). Simplicity is an implication of the self-existence of Father, Son, and Sprit. We might say that triune simplicity defines the manner in which the essential properties are predicated of the triune God.
It is always good to point out that ‘much more could be said’. But anyway, Thomistic simplicism is the essence of a purely philosophical notion of God. For Thomists, “God is metaphysically simple” means that metaphysical simplicity is God. Oliphint’s notion of simplicity is, more or less, that the self-existent one God in three persons is independently God, and thus is what he is by virtue only of his own nature, according to how he has revealed himself in Scripture: Father, Son, and Spirit, the eternal I AM.
Accordingly, since distinction and unity are equally essential to God as triune, God’s free actions are consistent with the simplicity of his nature. The pactum salutis is a single, inseparable action (unity of singularity) identical to the simple triunity of God (unity of triune simplicity), even as it involves the distinct roles of the persons, even the contingency of Jesus’ obedience unto death. In fact, as the Son becomes incarnate in history, in all that he is and undergoes, the fullness of his deity and the simple unity of the triune Godhead is not forfeited but at once confirmed and revealed. We see this most explicitly in the wondrous Father/Son sayings of Jesus throughout the gospel of John. And so, whereas free actions such as the incarnation proved “ultimately incomprehensible” for Thomistic simplicism, in the free actions of God covenantally condescended, ultimately in the incarnation itself, the triune simplicity of God is revealed in all its fullness.
VII. Nature/Grace Dualism: The Culprit
The problem for Thomistic simplicism is nature/grace dualism, which allows Thomas to speak and reason truthfully of a nameless, unidentifiable godness, without reference to special revelation. On the nature/grace scheme, special revelation perfects or completes natural knowledge of God, which is good and truthful as far as it goes. For this reason, the Thomist demands that the God of the Bible be consistent with the god of Thomistic simplicism. Reformed thought sees special revelation as supplanting the idolatry of unregenerate reason (Rom 1), and replacing it with true knowledge according to the Spirit (1 Cor 2), according to the Spirit and the very mind of Christ. Where Reformed theologians have incorporated Thomistic simplicism, they have been inconsistent with Reformed principia, and their understanding of God’s relationship to creation needs to be ‘reformed’. This, I think, is what Oliphint is arguing.