Saturday, December 30, 2006

OUTLINE for Attributes of God series

Attributes of God Series (Fall 2006):

Part One: NOTs (negative metaphysical attributes)
I. Simplicity (or unity) [Oct 4]
II. Infinity (or greatness) [Oct 11]
III. Immutability (or constancy) [Oct 18]
IV. Impassibility (or freedom) [Oct 25]

Part Two: OMNIs (eminent metaphysical attributes)
V. Omnipresence (or eternity) [Nov 1]
VI. Omniscience (or wisdom) [Nov 8]
VII. Omnipotence (or power) [Nov 15]

VIII. Love [Nov 29]
IX. Grace and Holiness [Dec 6]
X. Mercy and Justice [Dec 13]
XI. Patience and Goodness [Dec 20]

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Connections Preaching

I've begun to notice a pattern. Most of the Christmas sermons I've heard (and preached) in the last few years went out of their way to make a connection between Christmas and something else. Christmas and the life of Christ. Christmas and the expectation of Israel. Christmas and the Cross. Christmas and Easter. Christmas and the Holy Spirit. Christmas and the Christian life. Christmas and ...

The great thing about these "Christmas connections" is that it keeps things interesting. New insights are brought in. Deep Biblical themes are interwoven. We avoid repeating the same thing every year. The one sermon heard by the most people in a congregation is probably the Christmas sermon. Attendance is up: the regulars are there, family is in town, the fringe folk come out of the woodwork, and guests abound. Because of this, we preachers are understandably worried about repetition. We don't want to preach the "same old Christmas sermon" every year. So Christmas connections keep everybody on their toes.

However, I am beginning to ask myself whether this habit has an unintended and unfortunate side effect: preaching Christmas connections gives the impression that Christmas is not interesting enough on its own. If we must speak of "Christmas and ...", what does that tell us about the significance of Christmas itself? Why can't we just speak of Christmas ... period? Why can't we just remind ourselves that one day God became human and that in itself is a pretty big deal. Sure, that is not the whole Christian story. But this important part gets its own day, and maybe we should give it proper attention.

I do not wish to reject Christmas connections preaching. I practice them and appreciate hearing them. But I do want to identify this possible danger. Even as we seek to interweave Christmas into the larger tapestry of belief, let us be sure keep the main thing the main thing.

Keeping this possible danger in mind, I would love to hear back from you what Christmas connections you heard or preached this year.

Any thoughts?
What connections have you heard or made?
Were they fitting or forced?
Did they illumine Christmas or distract from it?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Attributes of God (XI): Patience and Goodness

This week we come to the conclusion of our semester-long exploration into the attributes of God. Before addressing our final pair of divine characteristics (patience and goodness), I would like to retrace our steps by means of an outline:

NOTs -
I. simplicity (or unity)
II. infinity (or greatness)
III. immutability (or constancy)
IV. impassibility (or freedom)

V. omnipresence (or eternity)
VI. omniscience (or wisdom)
VII. omnipotence (or power)

VIII. love
IX. grace and holiness
X. mercy and justice
XI. patience and goodness

Although reviewing the whole of our series has some inherent value, I have presenting this outline for a specific reason related to this week's post. The structure of our series relies upon a noteworthy distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes. This classical notion distinguishes between those attributes of God which can be shared with creatures (communicable) and those which cannot (incommunicable). Our first two categories (the NOTs and the OMNIs) are traditionally considered to be God's incommunicable attributes, whereas our final category (the CHARACTER attributes) are considered to be communicable. Creatures, including human beings, cannot be called simple, infinite, immutable, impassible, omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent. But creatures, at least human creatures, can be called loving, gracious, holy, merciful and just.

This distinction is of particular interest to our final pair of character attributes: patience and goodness. As this week's image reminds us, patience and goodness are found among the gifts of the Spirit. As a human being is filled with the divine Spirit, she shares in God's communicable attributes. God "communicates" these attributes to us by grace.

Although I find this distinction interesting and instructive, I need to register one criticism. My criticism has two aspects corresponding to the two sides of the distinction. On the one hand, I don't think we can so easily discern which attributes are incommunicable. On the other, I don't think we can so easily assume that we share in any of God's attributes. Let me address each in turn, the second aspect dealing directly with patience and goodness.

The first side of the criticism has been implicit throughout my treatment of the "metaphysical" attributes (the NOTs and the OMNIs). I have tried to suggest alternative terms that avoid some of the methodological problems involved in metaphysical God-talk (see outline above). Note that each of these alternative terms is apparently more communicable than the metaphysical term it is replacing. Even the attribute of eternity will be given to human beings, as God has promised to give us eternal life. This is an gift of grace beyond our natural ability, but we will receive it nevertheless. There seems to be a human way of sharing in many if not all of God's attributes. So the distinction runs into problems because of the difficulty of identifying any inherently incommunicable attributes.

The second side of the criticism comes into sharp relief when speaking of the patience and goodness of God. At first glance, these two seem to be obviously communicable. We comfortably speak of both God and humans being good and patient. So these must be communicable attributes. But the problem with such an easy assumption is that the manner of God's goodness and patience is radically different than the manner of our goodness and patience. Since I have already addressed this problem in connection with divine goodness in an earlier post, I will focus my comments on patience.

We often speak of our being patient with God. We learn to be patient as we wait for God's timing. But can this really be thought of as sharing a divine attribute? Is our patience so similar to God's patience? When God is patient with us, he is not waiting on our timing. Rather, he is waiting for us to learn and grow, giving time and space for our freedom, even mercifully overlooking our sins. This is the meaning of divine patience. Human patience, in contrast, trusts in the Lord as he works out his good will. In other words, we are patient with God because he is good, whereas God is patient with us because he is good and we are not (yet). Again, there seems to be a distinctively human way of sharing in God's attributes. So the distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes again runs into problems because even the most obviously communicable attributes are shared with us in a way that differs radically from God.

The bottom line of this criticism is that the more crucial distinction is not between incommunicable and communicable attributes but between God's way of being his own attributes and the human way of sharing in God's attributes.

The implication for our talk of patience and goodness is that we should begin with God's patience and goodness and only then, with proper distinctions in mind, speak of our human patience and goodness. I suggest that such a habit of mind would apply across the board to all the attributes explored these last few months, though defending or applying this suggestion is beyond the scope of this already long post. I'll leave that task to you.

Any thoughts?
What is your initial reaction to the distinction between incommunicable and communicable attributes?
Do the two aspects of my criticism of this distinction hit or miss the mark?
Is the notion of a human way of sharing in God's attributes helpful?
Would you agree that there is a distinctively human way of sharing in any of God's attributes, provided he chooses to share them with us? Why or why not?
Does my description of God's patience as ordered to the working out of his goodness ring true? Why or why not?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Attributes of God (X): Mercy and Justice

Our reflections on the attributes of God continue with another pair of characteristics: mercy and righteousness. These two attributes of God are often set alongside each other, and so it is not controversial to treat them together. However, there is no consensus on how to treat them in tandem. Consider the following as one way to think through the matter of their interrelationship in God.

Let's look first at God's righteousness. What does it mean to say God is righteous? Righteousness is liked to matters of justice, rights and law. To be righteous is to be found in accordance with law. When we say that God is righteous, we are saying that his being and action are in full accordance with law. But what law? Since God himself is the standard of justice and the ultimate law-giver, this attribute must be necessarily reflexive: God lives according to the standard of his law.

With such an understanding of righteousness, it should be obvious why we might encounter some choppy waters when we turn to God's mercy. Mercy is most basically understood as withholding the execution of what is just or right. You deserve one thing, but get another -- that's the heart of mercy.

If mercy is so understood, how can God be both merciful and righteous? For God to be perfectly merciful, there must be a lessening of his righteousness. For God to be perfectly righteous, there is a definite limit set on his mercy -- if he can be said to be merciful at all.

There are a number of solutions to this puzzle. We could abandon divine righteousness. We could abandon divine mercy. We could say God moves from righteousness to mercy (maybe by means of some kind of crude OT/NT distinction). We could try to hold them together as inherently paradoxical affirmations that bear witness to God's mystery. We could just give up on the theological task altogether, opting to speak haphazardly of both attributes in so-called "balance."

In the contrast of these alternative solutions, my approach (big surprise!) would be to redefine mercy and righteousness according to the history of God's dealings with us. Where is God in his mercy and righteousness revealed? In Jesus Christ, God deals with us rightly and merciful.

In Jesus Christ, God's righteousness is not a subservience to an abstract law. God's right is precisely his freely chosen covenant of mercy whereby humble and even sinful human beings are brought into fellowship with God and each other. God doesn't speak his law into a vacuum, but gives his law to his people. That God even has a people is a consequence God's merciful decision. Thus, God's mercy is the content of God's righteousness.

In Jesus Christ, God's mercy is not a lessening of the demands of righteousness. God's mercy is executed by God's righteous right hand, whereby he takes sin seriously and opposes it as his enemy. That God is righteous -- that God takes a stand for what is right between him and us -- is good news for us. It is through his righteousness that God enacts his mercy. Thus, God's righteousness is the form of God's mercy.

So, when understood in tandem with each other and in correspondence to God's history with us, the divine attributes of mercy and righteousness bear witness to the character of God as the one who is in himself for us and with us.

Any thoughts?
Have I misrepresented the general definitions of righteousness and mercy offered as foils at the beginning of this post?
Do my reformulations of mercy and righteousness sound right? On what basis would you judge them?
Has this exercise served to commend my preferred procedure (used throughout this series) of defining God's attributes in accordance with God's history with us in his covenant with Israel fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ? Does this particular example indicate any flaws or dangers in this procedure?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Attributes of God (IX): Grace and Holiness

As we continue the third and final phase of our series on the attributes of God, we will dedicate these last three weeks to three different pairs of character attributes: grace and holiness, mercy and justice, patience and goodness. There are numerous reasons for exploring these divine characteristics in pairs: (1) these attributes are easier to understand than the previously addressed "metaphysical" attributes, (2) they are less contentious and therefore less interesting unless brought into conversation with each other, (3) although not yet employed, the method of juxtaposing two seemingly contradictory affirmations is always an illuminating procedure, (4) such a procedure especially befits God, whose simplicity and perfection indicates that all his attributes describe him fully and thus modify each other, and (5) believe it or not, it was my plan all along. So here goes.

Our first pair of divine characteristics is grace and holiness.

Let's start with holiness.

What does is mean to say that God is holy? A common definition of holiness that accounts for most of its Biblical usage is "set apart for God's use." This general definition is great for creatures, but how exactly would such a definition be applied to God? Is God set apart for God's use? That's seems oddly reflexive.

I think this very oddity is illuminating. The attribute of holiness bears witness to God's distinctness, his set-apartness, his otherness. God is God. "God is not 'man' said in a loud voice," to quote a phrase. God is set apart from all that is not-God.

Although this may sound a bit empty, we must remember that what God is (in contrast to what he is not) has been revealed in the history of the covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So God's holiness doesn't just mean he is nothing like us; rather, God's holiness refers to the distinctive shape of life God takes in the history of his dealings with us. God is this God, and no other

But to even speak of God's holiness in this specified historical way, we are affirming that God has actually chosen to enter in history with us. God has condescended to us, coming among us by becoming one of us. The term which characterizes this act of condescension is grace. God is gracious. He doesn't abandon us in our sin, but enters into our sinful condition to overcome our plight and bring us back into relationship with him. That God has done this is sheer grace: God was not compelled to join with us, but he does it anyway.

God is God. He is set apart from all that is not-God. And so out of reverence we declare that God is holy.

God is this God. What sets this God apart is that he cares for us humans. And so out of gratitude we declare that God is gracious.

Any thoughts?
Do you have any misgivings about the procedure of pairing up divine attributes?
Does talk of holiness in terms of God's set-apartness make sense? Does it befit God?
What is missing from my account of God's grace? Is the act of condescension get to the heart of the matter, or is there a better point of departure?
How might God's holiness and God's grace further illuminate each other?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Attributes of God (VIII): Love

As a recent commentator noted "God is love. Does it get any simpler than that? Does it get any more magnificent? I think not." Thanks, anonymous, for supplying a segue to this third and final segment of our series on the attributes of God.

We began with the negative attributes (the NOTs) and then turned to the super-eminent attributes (the OMNIs). Now we come to what I will call, for lack of a better term, the character attributes. These terms attempt describe the quality of God's being and act. They are generally less "metaphysical" and thus require less explanation and/or criticism. However, they raise equally interesting and deep questions about who God is and how we come to know him.

We will start with that most famous appellation: God is love.

The love of God has earned its fame for good reason. It is one of the few things the Bible straightforwardly says God is (cf. I John 4:16). The Prophets state many divine attributes in the form of first person oracles. The Psalms declare many divine attributes in the form of second person praise. But the First Epistle of John states the attribute of divine love in the form of a third person proposition. God is love. In light of its unique character as a direct biblical statement, the attribute of divine love must be attended to with all seriousness despite contemporary romantic distortions.

But the very form of the statement raises a serious question. Can the statement "God is love" be revered to say "love is God"? It is certainly grammatically possible, since the verb "is" can function as an equals-sign, implying that the subject and predicate nominative can switch places without any change in meaning. The formula 5 + 7 = 12 is exactly the same as 12 = 5 + 7. That's the point of an equals-sign.

Although the phrase "love is God" may sound odd to some, the substance of this reversal can be found sprinkled throughout our God-talk. For example, we say that where there is love, God is there. We say that God is mysteriously present in the love between human beings. We wax eloquently about the superiority of agape and that we draw near to God when our love for others becomes agape in form. We talk about "seeing God" in the midst of loving acts. All these notions imply that God and love are equivalent terms: we can enter the proposition from either side and get the same result.

However, I would like to post a warning against reversing the statement "God is love." My warning is not because I do not believe God is present in genuine human love. It seems to me that divine omnipresence would take care of that. I raise a warning flag because I think it is crucial that in the case of divine love (as with every other divine attribute), we ought to let God himself define the meaning of love. The reversal of the phrase plays too easily into our inclination to control God by means of our pre-conceived definitions. A ubiquitous example of this kind of definitional control would be the rejection of a doctrine by identifying its inconsistency with divine love. This kind of argument is made so often that it makes one wonder whether love has been defined in a way that prevents the God of the Bible from ever fitting without significant remainder. When find ourselves cornered by such contradictions, we are better off going back to the drawing board in order to try to define divine love in accordance with the character of God revealed in the history of the covenant with Israel fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

In support of my warning, I dare to suggest that this procedure of definition is actually the logic of the Biblical proposition within its literary context. A few verses prior to saying "God is love," the First Epistle of John states clearly that God's love is revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God: "This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him" (I John 4:9). The apostle goes on to differentiate the content of this love from other human loves: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (I John 4:10). The apostle Paul concurs: "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Roman 5:8). So, at least the apostolic witnesses have tried their best to define divine love according to God's own self-defining action. Why should we do any different?

Any thoughts?
Can you think of examples where the statement "God is love" has been implicitly or explicitly reversed?
Do you see the implications of this reversal as negative or positive?
What other implications might there be?
Do you have any examples of rejecting a doctrine by appealing to God's love?
If we take our cue from the history of God with us when defining divine love, what might we say about the meaning of the statement, "God is love"?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Attributes of God (VII): Omnipotence

Our ongoing series on the attributes of God is approaching a turning point. We began with the NOTs -- the negative approach to God's attributes. We then turned to the OMNIs -- the positive approach. Both of these approaches are "metaphysical," in the sense that they begin with our knowledge of the world and try to think how God relates to us. Next we will turn to the attributes of character (love, mercy, etc.), which will consume us for the remainder of this series.

But first, we must add one last OMNI: omnipotence.

This may be the most well-known and most obvious divine attribute. Whatever God is, he must be the most powerful being imaginable, right?

In light of its familiarity - and also out of a desire to avoid a stylistic rut with this series - I think I will just raise a classic question about divine omnipotence and sketch some possible answers. You may have heard it before, but here goes:

Can God create an object too large to move?

Here are some classic answers to this classic question:

1) No. God's power extends to that which is logically possible. Omnipotence properly defined means that God is able to do anything that is not logically impossible. God cannot do something and also not do it. That's just logically impossible. God's power is not diminished by limiting it in this way.

2) Yes. God's power is exhibited precisely in his ability to limit himself in relationship to other creatures. God is able to create not only powerful forces but also free agents whom he cannot control. God's power is not limited but rather displayed by his free engagement with a free world. God need not coerce to be powerful.

3) Yes and No. The question reveals an absolute paradox that cannot be solved. If God is genuinely omnipotent, then he must be able both to create an object to heavy for him and to lift every possible object. This paradox may lead to three different conclusions: (a) God is not omnipotent because it would introduce contradiction into God's perfect being, (b) there is no God because the concept "God" requires omnipotence by definition, or (c) the contemplation of this paradox draws us into the mystery of the unknowable God, teaching us to affirm both his power and his weakness.

4) No comment. The question begins with a false premise and therefore should not be dignified with an answer. This false assumption is that God's power can be thought of in quantitative terms based on the analogy of created power dynamics. God is not human power multiplied to the nth degree. God's power is utterly unlike created power, as is shown by the Cross of Christ as the power of God. If we begin from the correct starting point (the revelation of God), we will avoid such speculative questions.

Any thoughts?
What answer would you give to this question?
Do you agree with any of the above answers?
How might you tweak them to fit more nearly your thoughts on God's power?
Is there an alternative answer that is not listed above?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Attributes of God (VI): Omniscience

During the discussion following last week's post on omnipresence, it was insightfully noted that omnipresence and omniscience seem to blur together. God's presence to all things and his knowledge of all things are related features of his being. The connection is even stronger if we speak of omnipresence as all things being present to God (as suggested last week). According to such an understanding, omnipresence and omniscience are very close indeed.

So what's the difference? Well, its important to remember that the difference between each of God's attributes are strictly logical differences. If we learned anything from the attribute of simplicity, it was that all God's attributes are unified within his one divine life. So God does knowing something today and become present to it tomorrow, nor is God righteous yesterday and gracious today. God is all his attributes all at once. We divide them up based on logical distinctions that make sense to us. It makes sense to distinguish between God's knowledge and God's presence because they are quite obviously distinct domains of activity.

Does this mean we should avoid making such distinctions entirely? I don't think so, because it is an act of faithfulness and obedience to use our minds as far as we able. Taking cues from Scriptural revelation, we ought to think carefully about how to talk about God intelligibly. We should be resist the temptation to throw up our hands and give up on God-talk. If we are to be faithful witnesses, then we should talk about God. Given that he has talked about himself, who are we to say we can't follow his lead and talk about him?

Enough prelimaries. We should say something about omniscience. Omni means all, and science means knowledge. Omniscience is thus God's all-knowing. I personally don't find this attribute to be that objectionable. Omniscience simply means that God knows all things. It would seem that this is exactly the kind of affirmation one would be inclined to make in light of God's dealings with us revealed in Scripture.

However, a common objection is raised that should at least be noted. Some have suggested that if God knows the future, then the future is determined, and therefore omniscience undermines human freedom.

In light of this objection, some have recommended an alternative understanding of omniscience. One could grant that since the future has not yet happened, then the future does not "exist" in the same sense as the past and present. Therefore, God can be said to know all there is to know without knowing the future.

I personally do not think the above objection sticks. Why would God's knowledge of the future determine it? Surely God knows things according to their nature, so that he knows which things are determined and which are not. Surely God can know something without controlling it. If I have missed the force of this objection, please let me know. But until I am convinced by it, I see no need to retreat to the alternative understanding of omniscience outlined above. Anyway, God knowing the future seems to be the "good news" about omniscience as a divine attribute.

My own beef with omniscience is not its classical definition but its language. As one of the OMNIs, it follows the via eminentia from the creation to the creator. I am suspicious of this line of reasoning. I would rather move from how the creator has engaged with us his creatures and learn from that how God is in himself. Omniscience sounds a lot like a human projection: we wish we knew more things (especially the future), and so we project this attribute onto God. The language of omniscience (and all the OMNIs) cannot easily escape this problem.

So what should we then say? How can we speak of God's knowledge? Scripture does speak of God's all-surpassing knowledge. The history of God with us hinges on God's gifts of promise and prophecy, both of which presuppose God's awareness of the future. The Bible repeatedly speaks of God's perception into the depths of the human soul, and it is such a perception as attributed to Jesus in the Gospels which signifies the deity of Christ. So we have every good reason to attribute something like omniscience to God. What linguistic alternative is there? I would recommend we reappropriate the language of God's wisdom. The wisdom of God in the Bible is not limited to God "knowing what is best for us" but also includes his knowledge of all things. God's providential care of the present in fact rests on his pre-eminent knowledge of the future. So God's wisdom seems to be an apt and sufficient alternative to the language of omniscience.

Any thoughts?
Does my mention of the unity of God's attributes help or hurt the sensibility of our God-talk?
Does my definition of omniscience ring true?
Do you feel the force of the objection discussed above? If so, why?
Is the language of God's wisdom a sufficient alternative to the langauge of omnisience? What is lost in the transition? What is gained?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Attributes of God (V): Omnipresence

This week we are entering a new phase in our series on divine attributes. We will turn our attention from the NOTs to the OMNIs. This shift is not only verbal (from im- to omni-), but also methodological. To discover the NOT attributes, we travel along the via negativa (way of negation), removing from God creaturely characteristics that do not befit him. To discover the OMNI attributes, we travel along the via eminentia (way of eminence), attributing to God creaturely characteristics which do befit him -- with the significant difference that they apply to him eminently (in the greatest possible degree). Hence the prefix omni, which means "all." So, by travelling along this path we will speak of God as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.

We begin with omnipresence. To say that God is all-present is to say that God is present to all times and places. We know what it means for us to be present in one particular place at one particular time. But the creator's presence to his creation is not limited to this place at this time. God is present to this place and that place, at this time and at that time. God is all-present: present-to-all.

As the above description shows, the term "present" is conveniently ambiguous. It refers to both time and place. Present means here rather than there. But present also means now rather than then. This should not surprise us, considering time and space go together: we can measure one by the other, and our awareness of one carries with it an awareness of the other. When a teacher takes attendance and a student says, "Present," it refers to both their presence in the room and their presence at this time. They are here-and-now. That's what presence means. So by virtue of his omnipresence, God is here and there, now and then.

Of course, this raises an obvious problem: What does it mean to say that God is present at a particular time and place? Is it really so special to say that God was present with his people Israel? Is it really so special to say that God is immanuel in Jesus Christ? Is it really so special to say that God is present in a sacred time and space? It seems like the significance of God's particular covenant history with his people is undermined by this notion of omnipresence.

This problem is far from insolvable. The key is to think of omnipresence as trans-presence. God is not simply everywhere in the way that we are somewhere. God is not just a human being writ large. Rather, God transcends space and time, and so in his freedom may engage with time and place as he wills. So God may be present-to his creation in a multiplicity of forms. Omnipresence doesn't set a limit on God, making it necessary that be "everywhere" in a strict sense. Omnipresence bears witness to God's freedom from such limitation (either the limitation of being only here or the limitation of being everywhere). God is so omnipresent that he is even capable of being present to this time and place in a way that he is not present to that time and place.

This modification seems necessary for those who believe in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God. But one may rightfully ask whether such a modification of omnipresence twists the term beyond its plain sense. Would it be better to just drop omnipresence? I don't think so (though I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter), because I am still affirming the point of the term: God's transcendence of time and space.

Furthermore, we can avoid an outright rejection of the term by turning the meaning of omnipresence on its head. Omnipresence focuses on God being present to all. But I am a bit more interested in saying that all are present to God. In other words, all things are laid before God. The term usually used for this God's eternity: God simultaneously engages all of time. Omnipresence also points to this divine reality, just from a different angle. I personally prefer the language of eternity, but see no reason to eliminate omnipresence from my vocabulary -- provided it is understood in terms of God's history with us.

Any thoughts?
Which way do you prefer: the way of negation or the way of eminence? Why?
Does my description of omnipresence make sense?
Do you think omnipresence is rightfully attributed to God?
How else might the attribute of omnipresence be reconciled with God's history?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Attributes of God (IV): Impassibility

This week we come to the conclusion of the first part of our long series on the attributes of God. In this first part we have been discussing the NOTs: simplicity (non-compositeness), infinity (not-finite), immutability (not-changing). These attributes of God are discovered by traveling along the via negativa, the way of negation: negating from God's being aspects we know about our own created being which are unbecoming of our creator. We have asked whether this is the best road to travel, and in the process offered some alternative affirmations (unity, greatness, constancy) which attempt to retain the truth of these negative attributes while (hopefully) avoiding the problems.

The last of the NOTs is impassibility. Technically speaking, impassibility is a secondary aspect of immutability, for passion is a sort of change. But because of its significance in the history of Christian thought and its current controversial status, impassibility deserves special attention.

What does impassibility mean? Impassibility is the negation of passion from God. Now this might seem a bit odd at first. Are we saying that God is dispassionate, uncaring, and boring? Although this may be an impression or implication of divine impassibility, it is certainly not the intended point of the attribute. A little vocab lesson will help here. Passion in its technical sense is to be contrasted with action. To be in a state of passion is to be acted upon by another. God is impassible in the sense that he is not acted upon by another but rather is the actor, or agent, of all his experiences.

Although this clarification of the meaning blocks a shallow dismissal of impassibility, there are still serious problems in attributing impassibility to the Christian God. Why? The God we worship is precisely the God of Israel who responds to the actions of his people and, in the fulfillment of their history, became human in order to suffer and die. The central place of the passion of Jesus Christ in any Christian theology worthy of the name makes impassibility a bit difficult to maintain.

The early church fathers were acutely aware of these difficulties. Their commitment to divine impassibility made them reticent about saying that God experiences death. This commitment of course made them very careful and attentive to Christological formulation, putting our sloppy and unreflective talk of divine suffering to shame. It forced them to be very precise. One could even say that the common Christian commitment to impassibility was the elephant in the room motivating the development of Christological dogma (from Irenaeus' battle with the Gnostics in the 2nd century through Nicaea and Chalcedon to the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century). But for all its contribution to Christian faith, this precision took to its toll: at the crucial point (the death of Jesus), the tradition consistently put some distance between God and Christ.

Because I believe that Jesus is God and that Jesus suffered and died, I cannot accept impassibility in the strongest sense. However, the attribution of impassibility to God is not without its grain of truth that must be retained. As shown above, divine impassibility bears witness to the fact that God is first and foremost the agent of his experiences. In other words, God is free. God freely engages in all his actions and passions. God initiates his history with his people. God is not drawn into relationship with creation as an outside force; rather, God creates the world in order to draw it into relationship with him. Now the history of this particular relationship includes God's passion: he undergoes suffering in the incarnation. But this passion is initiated by God's action. So we might even regard God's passion as a sort of action -- not out of an anxiety about attributing passion to the divine being, but out of a humble awe for God's free grace. God freely (without compulsion) engages in these actions and passions.

All this talk of freedom suggests that an alternative affirmation that retains the substance of impassibility while leaving behind its drawbacks is divine freedom. God is free. I am still open to the possibility of attributing impassibility to God, provided it is properly defined in accordance with the history of God's passion. But I am inclined to spend more of my energy proclaiming the freedom of God.

Any Thoughts?
Is my initial explanation of divine impassibility clear?
Do you agree with the criticism as I have outlined it?
Is my reformulation of impassibility in terms of divine freedom clear? Good? True?
At what point do you just drop a term if it requires such considerable redefinition?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Attributes of God (III): Immutability

We continue our series on the attributes of God with another of the famous NOTs: immutability. It seems like nowadays the language of immutability is found mostly on the covers of get-rich-quick books: "The 7 Immutable Laws of Real Estate Acquisition" and so on. But immutability has deep roots in the philosophical tradition. The idea that God is immutable comes from the contrast between him as creator and us as his creatures. For us, the norm (and bane) of our existence is that we are in perpetual flux and change. The secure bedrock or foundation of this chaotic creation, however, is the creator who is himself not subject to such flux and change. He is im-mutable, or not-changing.

The significance of immutabilty extends beyond the mere preference for continuity over change. As we learned in our first installment concerning divine simplicity, all of God's attributes characterize his being in toto. Thus the attribute of immutability conditions all the other divine attributes, such as love and justice and mercy. So the point is not only that God is immutable, but also that his character is immutable. God's love is unchanging, his justice is unchanging, etc.

This seems true enough on the surface, but there are some problems. I will outline one common objection, outline a possible response, then offer a thought experiment that may offer an alternative view of divine immutability.

Common Objection:

It seems that God is not immutable. Look at Scripture. God is repeatedly said to "change his mind." God is involved in history. He responds to his creatures. The praiseworthiness of the God of Israel is precisely his mutability: his ability to adapt in relationship to his beloved people. Immutability is a Greek philosophical concept that should be shed from a Biblical understanding of God.

Possible Response:

This objection bears witness to the deep truth that the God of Israel, the God who became human, is God precisely as the God who is involved in this history of his covenant. However, the doctrine of immutability, properly understood, need not be rejected wholesale from a Biblically-rooted doctrine of God. Immutability speaks to the constancy of God. In the Biblical idiom, God is faithful to his promises. Even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful to his covenant. Is this not a laudable characteristic of God? Can such a belief really be dismissed as a "Greek philosophical concept" foreign to Biblical faith? Is not the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, precisely the God who is faithful to his promises in history. The term "immutability" bears witness to the fact that God's involvement in history doesn't undermine his trustworthiness. He is trustworthy within history.

Alternative View:

I think this response is a sufficient reply to the objection as stated. However, the form of the reply reveals that there is more than one way to talk about immutability. First and foremost, there is the question of the means by which we come to know whether God is immutable. Is immutability the mere negation from the creator of the mutability of creation? Or is it a characteristic of the history of God's self-revelation in history? Which is the more reliable method? This question, of course, applies to all the NOTs. But it is still a good question to ask.

More specific to immutability is the question of the referent. When we say God is immutable, does this refer to his nature or to his will? Are we saying God's nature is so constructed that he is incapable of change? Or are we saying that God's will is immutable, insofar as what he wills corresponds to what he does? Here is where the thought experiment comes in. What if immutability is a characteristic of divine willing? God wills to be certain way, and he is that way. God wills a covenant history, and it is enacted by his initiative. God wills a law to guide the life of his covenant-partners, and it is upheld (even in the face of our willing against it). God wills to become human, and so it comes to pass despite the apparent logical difficulty of an incarnation. The immutability of God's will seems to secure God's action in history, in contrast to the immutabily of God's nature which seems to contradict (or at least condition) God's action in history.

Of course, even if this thought experiment succeeds, the question remains open: in addition to the immutability of his will, is God's nature also immutable? But this raises a deeper question: does God will his nature? Does God decide what he will be like? Or is his character defined by something else (logical deduction, contrast with the world, etc.)? And if God is so defined, is this God really God? I must admit that an appeal to God's will when speaking of his attributes can be a bit scary. But it may be the way to go if the God of whom we are speaking is really God and not just a figment of our imagination (or, perhaps worse, the result of an equation).

Any Thoughts?
Is my initial explanation of divine immutability clear?
Do you concur with the spirit of the common objection?
Does the reply satisfy the concerns of the objection while retaining an affirmation of divine immutability?
What do you think of my reformulation of divine immutability along the lines of God's will rather than his nature? Is this a wise road to go down, or are their consequences that I have not yet appreciated? What might those consequences be?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Attributes of God (II) - Infinity

Although the discussion of divine simplicity continues on the comment board, I will move along my series on the Attributes of God here. Feel free to participate in either or both discussions.

First, a note on the organization of the series as a whole. We are beginning (following Thomas Aquinas, the inspiration and silent conversation partner for this series) with the "metaphysical" attributes of God. These are what we shall call the "NOTs" and the "OMNIs". The "NOTs" are those attributes which remove from God properties belonging only to creatures, such as simplicity (not-composite), infinity, immutability, impassibility. The "OMNIs" are those attributes which are partial in us yet complete in God, such as omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. These two categories of attributes are "metaphysical" in that they describe God in some relationship (whether negative or positive) to the physical world. I am not necessarily committing myself to the procedure of beginning with these; actually, I intend to perform a little reformulation of these by offering an alternative term for each. But alas, we must begin somewhere, and the NOTs and OMNIs are often what folks first think of when one mentions the attributes of God.

God is infinite. Infinity does not mean God is really, really big, although that is often what comes to mind. Infinity is not the enlargement of a known quantity, but its negation. Infinity means not-finite. In order to understand this attribute, then, we must understand what it negates.

What does word "finite" mean? "Finite" is the word we use to set limits on reality. The related term "definite" brings out this meaning. A "definite" table means this or that table, rather than just tables in general. Finite has an even broader use, however, in that in encompasses ideas too. The idea or concept of a "table" is finite; it does not include every possible idea, but only the ideas pertinent to the concept of "table." Given this definition, we can see that creation as a whole is finite. Finitude is an attribute of creation.

If creation is finite, and God as the creator is other than creation, then God must be infinite. So the logic goes. It seems true enough. But a question must be raised at this point: Is God here being defined by creation? Is our knowledge of God utterly tied to our knowledge of the world? If so, how do we know which things in creation ought to be negated? Surely some aspects of creation are held in common with God rather than opposed to him. How do we know which is which? Also, if infinity draws its meaning from contrast with the world, does this mean God needs the world in order to be infinite? Furthermore, what if a created infinity were discovered? Would this too be God? If not, then what does infinity really tell us about God if it does not identify him in distinction from the world? Finally, how are we to know whether this infinite being is the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Although I think these and other serious problems can be raised, there is still something true about divine infinity. If God is truly the Lord, then he certainly cannot be contained by anything, unless, of course, he chose to be so. More to the point, infinity could be regarded as a conceptual restatement of the Biblical praise that God is great. "Great is the Lord," says the Law. "Great is the Lord," says the Psalmist. "Great is the Lord," says the Prophet. "Great is the Lord," says the Apostle. The greatness of God is a biblical theme. The God of the covenant is a great God. Greatness is a fitting attribute of God. It does indicate a comparison (God is greater than humanity, greater than other gods). But it is not limited to comparison. God is great whether or not there is anything small around with which to compare him. God simply is great. It is an attribute of his being. All his other attributes can be modified by this attribute: God's love is great, God's power is great, God's wisdom is great. [Note: this mutual modification of divine attributes is the payoff of the doctrine of divine simplicity]

I suggest that most of what is said about God with the term "infinite" can be said with the term "great." I also might say that what can be said by "infinite" that cannot be said by "great" should not be said at all. In other words, "infinity" may try to reach beyond the God who has revealed himself in the history of the covenant with Israel fulfilled by his Son Jesus Christ. This God has called himself "great." That's good enough for me.

Of course, as a traditional term, the burden of proof lies with one who wishes to reject it. I do not feel compelled to reject infinity as an attribute of God, although I am dubious about how we come to know his infinity. But don't be surprised if you find me saying "great" a little more often than "infinite." And when I say "infinite," I may be thinking "great."

Any thoughts?
Is my definition of infinity sufficiently clear?
What is your initial reaction to the notion of divine infinity?
How do we know whether God is infinite?
If one were to drop the language of divine infinity, what would be the ramifications for theology?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Attributes of God (I): Simplicity

I'm going to start a series of indefinite length on various attributes of God. This series is inspired by a seminar I am taking on Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of God. However, I will avoid any technical discussion of Thomas, and simply explain the attributes as classically formulated and raise a few questions about how they may be developed, reformulated, and in some cases rejected. So here goes...

When speaking of God, we must organize our thoughts into distinct attributes regarding his nature. But once we begin to distinguish these attributes, we run the risk of introducing a division within our talk of God that does not correspond to God’s singular unity. Nevertheless, we must speak discursively -- prodding along from point to point. In order to ensure that our discursive God-talk does not degenerate into a mere montage of irreconcilable attributes, we must choose our starting point wisely. Aquinas believes that divine simplicity is the best place to start, as it determines our understanding of all the attributes of God.

To see why simplicity is a good place to start, we must understand the meaning of divine simplicity. This attribute does not mean that God is simplistic in contrast to complex. God is certainly complex in the current sense of the word! Rather, simplicity classically conceived is set in contrast to composite. To be composite is to be an assembly of different parts; to be simple is to be wholly and completely what one is. God is simple (aka non-composite) because God is wholly and completely what he is, not admitting of parts or degrees.

The implications of divine simplicity for God's nature are far-reaching. Simplicity implies that the rest of God's attributes do not describe parts of God, but rather indicate God's whole character. So God's love does not describe part of God and his justice another part, nor does God move successively from love to justice, but God is his own love and is his own justice. Love and justice characterize his being. More precisely, one might say that God characterizes his own being in terms of his love and his justice. The same can be said of another other divine attribute.

The question for us today is whether simplicity is a good idea. Is it a genuine attribute of the God revealed in Scripture? Is it a useful conceptual tool for describing the God we worship? These normative questions immediately raise the question of method: How do we determine its appropriateness? Does it need to be explicitly stated in Scripture? Or may it be implied by other Biblical affirmations (monotheism for instance)? Is it simply sufficient that is does not contract Scripture? Because of its significance in the Christian tradition, the burden of proof lies on the one who wishes to reject divine simplicity. Yet, like any human affirmation about God, it is open to criticism -- at least in principle.

Any thoughts?
Is my defenition of simplicity sufficiently clear?
What is your initial reaction to the notion of divine simplicity?
On what basis might we evaluate the claim that God is simple?
If one were to reject divine simplicity, what would the ramifications for the rest of theology be?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Olson's Arminian Myths #8-10

This week I will conclude our summary and discussion of Roger Olson's book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities with myths #8-10.

Myth 8: Arminians Do Not Believe in Predestination.

Reality: Predestination is a biblical concept; classical Arminians interpret it differently than Calvinists without denying it. It is God’s sovereign decree to elect believers in Jesus Christ and includes God’s foreknowledge of those believers’ faith.

Comment: I loved this chapter because this is such a common myth. The debate between Calvinists and Arminians is too often framed as between predistination and free will. The fact of the matter is that both Calvinists and Arminians believe in both predestination and free will. The question is how to define and relate the two concepts. The Arminian position on predestination is characterized by assigning priority to God's foreknowledge. "Those he foreknew he also predestined." Olson dedicated the second half of the chapter to differentiating Classical Arminianism from Molinist "middle knowledge" and open theism. Although I am not committed to either Molinism or open theism, I do think it unfortunate that Olson has determined to cut such a narrow path for Arminians. Many Open Theist I talk to consider themselves "consistent Arminians" or at least "revisionist Arminians." Maybe they are wrong about that (and I think Olson makes a good case that the Arminian position requires an affirmation of foreknowledge), but the author's political intention to distance Arminianism from controversial territory even within the Evangelical camp is glaring.

Myth 9: Arminian Theology Denies Justification by Grace Alone Through Faith Alone.

Reality: Classical Arminian theology is a Reformation theology; it embraces divine imputation of righteousness by God’s grace through faith alone and preserves the distinction between justification and sanctification.

Comment: This chapter is especially helpful as a corrective to the claim that Arminian theologies are by definition a Catholic compromise. This comes from Calvinists in the form of an accusation (which is Olson's obvious concern), but it is oft repeated by Arminians as a strength. Although it is true that Wesley has a "Catholic spirit" and many Arminians are more comfortable drawing on the Catholic spiritual tradition than their Reformed counterpoints, Arminians are at bottom Protestants. Even if Arminians come to conclusions that make rapprochement with Roman Catholics more likely, the questions they are asking reflect typically Protestant concerns. Hopefully this chapter will remind Arminians to speak in a more nuanced way about their relationship with Roman Catholicism. Beware of easy ecumenism; reconciliation requires work!

Myth 10: All Arminians Believe in the Governmental Theory of the Atonement.

Reality: There is no one Arminian doctrine of Christ’s atonement; many Arminians accept the penal substitution theory enthusiastically while others prefer the governmental theory.

Comment: As a Wesleyan-Arminians who uses substitionary categories to understand the atonement, I found this chapter especially reassuring. I had worried that my move away from governmental to more substitionary (including but not limited to penal imagery) thinking put me at risk of abandoning my heritage. Olson collects sufficient evidence to the contrary. He does not outright reject the governmental theory, but his "enthusiastic acceptance" of penal substitutionition shows. Nevertheless, this is one of the strongest chapters simply because it (unlike some of the others) acknowledges and even explores the diversity within the Arminian tradition.

MISSING! - Myth 11: Arminian Theology Undermines the Assurance of the Believer

Reality: Not all Arminians deny the eternal security of the believer, and even those who do still teach a Biblical doctrine of assurance based on the internal testimony of the Spirit.

Comment: I am adding this myth because I find it almost ridiculous that a book on Arminian theology written in the American Evangelical context would not address the matter of eternal security. Olson is certainly right to turn his attention to other more foundation matters (eteranl security may be a major point of contention at the popular level, it is not the crux of the matter between Arminians and Calvinists). But it should not be ignored wholesale! In an earlier book co-written with Stanley Grenz, Olson posits a spectrum of theologies with folk theology on one extreme as that which should be avoided. Maybe Olson has identified the argument over eternal security as matter for "folk theologians" and can thus be safely set aside. Perhaps the publishers wanted an even 10 myths, and this one simply had to go. Whatever the reason, it's absence is disappointment.

Conclusion: Rules of Engagement for Evangelical Calvinists and Arminians.

(1) Understanding precedes evaluation.
(2) Avoid straw man arguments.
(3) Admit our own paradoxes and mysteries.
(4) Avoid attribution of beliefs not actually held by opponent; instead, identify perceived logical consequences.

Comment: Olson's conclusion contains the "payoff" of the book. He pleads with evangelicals to approach their polemics with proper charity. Following these four rules is a good place to start in treating each other with intellectual (and Christian) respect. Whatever one thinks of Arminian theology and/or Olson's version of it, any reader should heartily accept these rules of engagement. Olson has followed them in his description of Calvinists; I have tried to follow them in my description of Olson; I trust that we will follow them in the comment board and beyond.

Any thoughts?
Have you encountered these last three myths?
Are Olson's theses describing the Arminian position accurate? Are they compelling?
Why do you think Olson neglected to discuss eternal security?
What rules of engagementgment for dialogue would you add?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Olson's Arminian Myths #4-7

Continuing on the heals of last week's post, here are myths #4-7 about Arminian Theology according to Roger Olson's book.

Myth 4: The Heart of Arminianism Is Belief in Free Will.

Reality: The true heart of Arminian theology is the character of God as love and justice; the formal principle of Arminianism is the universal will of God for salvation.

Comment: This may be the most important constructive chapter in Olson's book. Why so? Whenever Arminians treat the abstract philosophical concept of “Free Will” as their starting point, they get into trouble. I may have a minor nit to pick over Olson's choice of the technical phrase "formal principle" to describe God's universal will for salvation (is this a "principle," and, if so, is it "formal"?). But this technical attribution does not over-determine the argument of this chapter. His point is quite simple yet significant: Arminians start with a particular understanding of God, which then leads them to affirm free will. Keeping this straight is not only helpful when dealing with Calvinist critics; it’s just a good idea to start with God in any theological discussion.

Myth 5: Arminian Theology Denies the Sovereignty of God.

Reality: Classical Arminianism interprets God’s sovereignty and providence differently than Calvinism without in any way denying them; God is in charge of everything without controlling everything.

Comment: Although for a thoughtful Arminian this myth is laughable, it is repeated so frequently that it requires attention in a myth-busting book. Of course a Calvinist might claim that Arminians logically undermine the sovereignty of God. But Arminians certainly do not deny it! The sovereignty of God is the Calvinist watchword, and they are correct to observe that Arminians do not place as great an emphasis on it as they do. But a different approach is not a denial. This distinction is easy to see but hard to remember. So this chapter performs a great service for the continued dialogue.

They only concern I would like to raise is whether a black-coffee Calvinist has an inherently more consistent position when arguing from a foundation in classical theism. Arminians (like many Christians before them) are forced to introduce subtle distinctions such as God's "ordained" versus "permissive" will (John Damscene) or God being "in charge" of everything without "controlling" everything (Roger Olson). Calvinists have an uncanny ability to cut through this mishmash and follow through on the deterministic implications of classical theism. I don't want to go there with them, but I don't care for all the cooked up distinctions either. Could it be that the whole way of thinking about God in the first place is creating the kinds of problems solved by Calvinists on the one side and Arminians on the other? Could a revised understanding of God's identity and his relationship to the world avoid determinism without introducing dubious distinctions?

Myth 6: Arminianism Is a Human-Centered Theology.

Reality: An optimistic anthropology is alien to true Arminianism which is thoroughly God-centered; Arminian theology confesses human depravity including bondage of the will.

Comment: This is another helpful myth-buster, simply for the wealth of textual evidence Olson brings to the table to establish that the Arminian tradition has strongly affirmed Total Depravity. Despite many charts and graphs to the contrary, the "T" in TULIP has never been a major point of contention between Calvinists and Arminians. Arminians are pessimistic about humanity and its sin; they are optimistic only about grace - which makes one very optimistic indeed! I have nothing to add to or subtract from this chapter.

Myth 7: Arminianism Is Not a Theology of Grace.

Reality: The material principle of classical Arminian thought is prevenient grace; all of salvation is wholly and entirely of God's grace.

Comment: Olson here presents the classical Arminian position on grace. This may be one of the clearest explanations of prevenient grace on the market right now. A must read. After reading this chapter, however, I am beginning to wonder whether this little term can really do all the work assigned to it. Arminians try to solve every problem by invoking prevenient grace as a one-size-fits-all soteriological concept. If you fall asleep in a theology course at a Wesleyan-Arminian college and are woken by a question from the professor, just say "prevenient grace" and you'll probably be right. Olson goes so far as to identify prevenient grace as the Arminian "material principle," which seems a bit heavy-handed. I do not wish to reject the notion of prevenient grace, but I am looking for an adequate reformulation set on more secure ground. Fletcher's Proto-Charismatic personalizing of Wesleyan soteriology by assigning to the Spirit (the third person of the trinity) the work of prevenient grace (a mediating term lacking semantic concreteness) is perhaps helpful, although we must remember that the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ and that he is the prevenience of grace. Some kind of robustly trinitarian personalizing of the concept of prevenient grace is needed to refuel Arminian theology at this point.

Next week: Myths #8-10 and the conclusion of the series on Arminian Myths in conversation with Roger Olson's new book.

Any Thoughts?
Have you encountered these four myths? Any funny stories?
Are Olson's theses describing the Arminian position accurate? Are they compelling?
Do my responses hit or miss the mark in their critical appreciation of Olson?
What do you think of my alternative problems regarding #5 (God) and #7 (Grace)?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Olson's Arminian Myths #1-3

Last week I began my review of Roger Olson's primer Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. The focus of last week's post was on the book's purpose, structure, and mode of argumentation. This week I will list and respond to Olson's first three myths and their contrasting realities. I am splitting up the ten myths in order to give me space and time to respond carefully to each one.

Myth 1: Arminian Theology Is the Opposite of Calvinist/Reformed Theology.

Reality: Jacobus Arminius and most of his faithful followers fall into the broad Reformed tradition; the common ground between Arminianism and Calvinism is significant.

Comment: This chapter is helpful because it reminds us that, at least genetically, Arminianism is a branch of the Reformed tradition. However, as a Wesleyan I find this version of the story a bit misleading, because although Jacobus Arminius and the Remonstrants are best understood as a revision within Calvinism, the Wesleyan tradition (fathering the world Methodist movement, grandfathering the American Holiness Movement, and great-grandfathering the Charismatic movement) is best understood as an independent tradition with its own spirit, governing ethos, and trajectory of development. Arminianism could be regarded as a speculative theological foundation commandeered by most (but certainly not all) Wesleyans. In other words, I'm not Wesleyan as an expression of my Arminianism; I'm Arminian because I'm Wesleyan!

Myth 2: A Hybrid of Calvinism and Arminianism Is Possible.

Reality: In spite of common ground, Calvinism and Arminianism are incommensurable systems of Christian theology; on issues crucial to both there is no stable middle ground between them

Comment: This was one of my favorite chapters, because it cut through the sloppiness of many attempts to resolve the tension between these two traditions of thought. Olson makes a great case for rigorous doctrinal reflection. I believe there may be resolutions to some of these problems, but not without revising the foundations upon which these systems of thought are built. For instance, Karl Barth performs a massive overall to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, but he does so by means of a Christocentric actualistic ontology that is a serious departure from classical theism. In the same way, there may be a distinctively Arminian (or at least a Wesleyan-Pentecostal) revision of these doctrines, but not without some kind of break from the traditions out of which these two systems emerged. So I am in complete agreement with Olson on the diagnosis of the issue: the two traditions are incommensurable and any Frankenstein Monster drawing on pieces from both will just terrorize the village. I differ with Olson only on the matter of prognosis: that we should consider revising the foundations that created these differences. Whether comparable differences will remain after the revision remains to be seen (because this work is unfinished).

Myth 3: Arminianism Is Not an Orthodox Evangelical Option.

Reality: Classical Arminian theology heartily affirms the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy and promotes the hallmarks of evangelical faith; it is neither Arian nor liberal

Comment: This chapter is probably the most important in achieving Olson's aim: making space for Arminian theology within the Evangelical movement. Dispelling the ridiculous myth that all Arminians are Arian in their Christology and Rationalistic in their approach to the Bible is particularly helpful. My only response is to suggest that Arminian forms of Evangelicalism may differ enough from their Calvinist brethren to justify an honest inheritance dispute. Olson implies that the Calvinist and Arminian accounts of the inspiration of Scripture are indistinguishable. Since the Arminian-Calvinist debate circles around the problem of divine and human agency, it would seem that each side would have a distinctive take on the divine inspirition of the human words of the Bible. This is a case were Olson - in order to achieve his primary purpose of de-stigmatizing Arminian theology - has managed to avoid the deeper issues at stake.

Any questions?
Have you encountered these three myths?
Are Olson's theses describing the Arminian position accurate? Are they compelling?
Do my responses hit or miss the mark in their critical appreciation of Olson?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Roger Olson's Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (part one)

The most recent issue of Christianity Today addresses the resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals. Accompanying any such Reformed resurgence is the re-appraisal of the status of Arminians within the Evangelical camp. Although it seems odd to even question whether Arminians are welcome among some of the very institutions they established, the question is being raised and cannot be ignored.

Roger E. Olson's timely book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities offers a sustained description of Arminianism as a genuinely Evangelical and Protestant tradition. His motivation is both theological and sociological. Theologically, he intends to clear up misunderstandings about what Arminians actually believe. Sociologically, he aims to prevent any impending squeeze-out of Arminians from the Evangelical camp that the recent Reformed resurgence may entail. The result is an accessible introduction to Arminian theology that could be used in both Arminian and Calvinist circles: as a formative textbook for the former and as a supplemental text promoting generosity among the latter.

I am in the process of a reviewing an advance copy of this book for Koinonia Journal. I am half way through it and would like to "think out loud" about its strengths and weaknesses. I may continue these thoughts next week after I finish reading the rest of the book.

Myth-Busting Structure. The structure of the book is particularly interesting. Instead of laying out a deductive presentation of Arminian theology, Olson walks through ten common myths about Arminian theology. This "response-to-critics" approach reveals the polemical context which generated this book (Olson works at Baylor, a moderate Baptist institution that has become a haven for fallouts of the fundamentalist forms of Calvinism in the recent SBC takeover). Unfortunately, some may read this book as overly defensive and so miss the alternative vision Arminianism offers. This defensive position may serve to perpetuate the assumption that Calvinism is the gold standard by which all theologies are to be judged. However, a generous reader will discern that Olson is wisely engaging in a strategy of ad hoc apologetics: address the common objections to one's position in order to show that it has been misunderstood. Thus read, Olson's book is less a defense of Arminianism than it is a description of Arminianism. Such an accurate description is much needed for all the parties involved.

Historical Mode of Argumentation. Within each chapter, Olson dispels the myth at hand by tracing the "true" Arminian position as exposited by Jacobus Arminius, Simon Episcopius, John Wesley, 19th Century Methodists, and 20th Century Evangelical Arminians (esp. Nazarenes). Thus he offers a historical mode of argumentation: he is identifying the tradition of genuine Arminian thought, distinguishing it from Calvinism on the one side and its supposed bad reputation on the other. Such a historical approach allows the classical authors to speak for themselves through copious quoting, and accordingly initiates the reader into the Arminian tradition. However, Olson's approach tends to give the impression of a united Arminian theological heritage that may overlook the genuine diversity of Arminians. Arminius, Wesley, Miley, and Dunning are all different thinkers working in different contexts with different approaches and assumptions. They form more of a web than a line, both in their relationship to each other and vis-a-vis Calvinism. Furthermore, the construction of a "true" Arminian line requires the exclusion of the "false" Arminians. For Olson, this includes the later proto-liberal Remonstrants, the "vulgarized" Arminianism of Finney, and contemporary process theology. The complex historical relationship of Arminianism to Protestant liberalism, progressive revivalism, and process philosophy is very real, and these marginal figures cannot be simply set aside as aberrant or fallen Arminians. Olson's explicit exclusion of Finney is particularly suspect. Can such a significant and influential evangelical Arminian can be so easily excised from the story of Arminian theology? This story serves Olson's ends well by distancing Arminian theology from figures and movements on the current Evangelical hit-list. But such exclusionary tactics beg the question: on what basis does Olson differentiate a "true" from an "false" Arminian? It seems that for Olson the current strictures of American Evangelical identity are in the driver's seat, rather than anything inherent to Arminianism. Thus, Olson ironically engages in the very theological politics practiced by Calvinists which drove him to write this book in the first place.

I hope to follow up these methodological comments with more material discussions of Olson's ten myths in the following week(s). In the meantime ...

Any thoughts?
What do you think of Olson's approach?
Is myth-busting the best way to present Arminian theology?
What are benefits and costs of constructing a history of the "best" of Arminian theology?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Trinitarian Heresies

I thought I would top off this month's series on heresies with the most heresy-haunted Christian doctrine of all: the Trinity. Augustine once quipped that to not think about the Trinity is to risk heresy, but to think about the Trinity is to risk lunacy. As for me and my house, we've chosen the second risk as the wiser venture. I think the Trinity exemplifies best of all the principle outlined in the previous post that the careful study of heresy illuminates Christian doctrine.

The heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is a four word theological affirmation: that God is one being, three persons. Despite the complaints of popular doubt promoters, understanding this is not the great barrier to belief. The real problem is grasping what is at stake in this affirmation. It just sounds like some kind of irrelevant and irreverent divine math. What makes this affirmation so much better than other ways of talking about the relationship between the Biblical names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Enter the trinitarian heresies. By comparing and contrasting the classic and contemporary trinitarian heresies, we can see what is at stake in affirming the Trinity. It's not so much that "one being, three persons" is the best possible thing we could say about God's inner life, but rather that all the other alternatives are much worse. If we don't say this, then we logically fall in one of four traps:

Once again, the doctrinal affirmation is found within the space between one-sided heretical options.

Any thoughts?
Are these terms and distinctions clear enough?
What other conceptual alternatives are there to speaking triple name of God?
What other doctrinal domains would you like to see this kind of analysis applied?
Which would you rather risk: heresy or lunacy?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Christianity's Natural Heresies

Last week I suggested an alternative view of heresy that points towards its redemption rather than mere rejection. Such a redemptive attitude and procedure is not the only benefit of this view. In the process of redeeming a heresy, we can actually come to a deeper and wider understanding of the whole of Christian truth. If heresies bear witness to an aspect of the truth, the study of multiple heresies in tandem can shine a light on the picture of the faith.

Heresies do not arises out of nothing. By definition they latch on to some aspect of the truth. They have some organic or natural connection to Christian doctrine. By analyzing a heretical claim, we can identify this core of truth. After performing such an analysis on opposing heresies, we can synthesize the insights into a greater whole. Thus the heart of Christian doctrine can be displayed in relationship to its natural heresies.

In pursuing this task, it is particularly helpful that most classical heresies have an opposing counterpart. For instance, in the earliest centuries of the church, emerging Christology naturally leaned in one of two directions: either toward Docetism (the notion that Christ was divine being who only appeared to be human) or toward Ebionitism (the notion that Christ was a only a human being). The fully developed Christian claim is found in the space between these two extremes: that Christ is both divine and human.

The procedure of finding the truth between the extremes is not limited to the inherently paradoxical domain of Christology. The same program yields insights in the realm of Christian anthropology. As the early Christians began to think about humanity which is saved by Christ, two natural tendencies emerged. On the one hand, humanity might be regarded as so sinful that it is irredeemable, such that salvation is understood as an escape from human life. This perspective was advanced by many gnostic groups, but most sharply by Manichaeans. On the other hand, humans might be regarded as so ready for salvation that they essential save themselves. This perspective was advanced most famously by the Pelagians (although Pelagius himself may have been more subtle, Pelagianism has become the "name brand" for this heretical viewpoint). Once again, the fully developed Christian claim is found in the space between these two extremes: that humanity is utterly sinful yet grace is powerful enough to overcome sin and redeem humanity.

By combining the insights drawn from both sets of extremes, we can paint a pretty good picture of the heart of the Christian faith in counterpoint to its natural heresies. Christians affirm Jesus Christ as the fully divine and fully human savior of humanity from its sin. According to this procedure, orthodoxy is not achieved by rejecting a long list of heresies. Rather, Christian faith is best expressed in the space between its natural heresies, as the whole truth God which reconciles such oppositions.

This diagram is of course just one possible way of expressing the complexities of Christian belief by means of a study of its natural heresies. This particular one was made famous by F. D. E. Schleiermacher in the introduction to his great work, The Christian Faith. By drawing on such a controversial modern theologian, this post intends to embody the very spirit it promotes: that we can learn from any Christian who takes the time to articulate affirmations about divine things.

Any thoughts?
Does this diagram illuminate how heresy can be used to gain deeper understanding of the faith?
What are some other natural heresies of Christianity?
Are there any heresies that do not come in such neat pairs?
Does such a procedure really work in the midst of a heretical controversy, or is it only possible as an after-the-fact reflection?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

What is heresy?

Heresy is a term used either too much or too little in Christian circles. Either Christians call everything they disagree with a heresy, or they are so afraid of offended or exclusing someone that they are unwilling to employ it even when its appropriate.

I think that some of the problem with our misuse of the term heresy comes from an misunderstanding of what heresy is. The word heresy comes from the word for "faction" or "party." Heresies are parties within the church that make one doctrine or one perspective on a doctrine the centerpiece of the faith to the exclusion of the rest. Thus, heresy is not exactly the opposite of orthodoxy ("right teaching"), but is more precisely the opposite of catholic ("universal, complete"). Accordingly, heresy is best defined as substituting part of the truth for the whole. This is why heretics are not completely wrong and often have much truth to share. The problem with heresy is not its utter falsity, but its one-sidenesses.

How might this change our attitude toward heresy? Heresies are not extra-Christian viruses to be eradicated, but intra-Christian parasites that feed off the truth. The solution to heresy is not to push it out, but to draw its one perspective back into the whole truth of the Christian faith. In other words, heresy is to be redeemed.

Let me give an example.

In the 5th century, a certain party called the monophysites claimed that Christ had only one nature: the divinity of Christ subsumed his humanity so that the humanity was rendered divine. This heresy witnessed to the truth that Christ was not a schizophrenic half-man/half-God, but one single person, the Son of God become man. Unfortunately, they did so at the expense of the complete humanity of Christ.

Simultaneously, there was another party who bore the brand name of Nestorians who claimed that within Christ there were really two persons: the divine son of God and the human son of Mary. This heresy witnessed to the truth that both the divinity and humanity of Christ were complete and unaltered. Unfortunately, they did so at the expense of the integrity of Jesus Christ as one single person.

At the council of Chalcedon (451), the church affirmed the truth on both sides of the argument: Christ is one person with two natures. The heresies were not so much rejected as assimilated into a larger whole. The truth on both sides was affirmed, while the error was left behind. In other words, these heresies were redeemed.

Any thoughts?
How does viewing heresy this way help us to approach views other than our own?
Do you have any other examples of heresy being redeemed?
Are there any heresies that come to mind that seem "unredeemable"?
How do we practice the art of redeeming heresy without becoming misled ourselves?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth (Part Three): Theological Ethics

And now for our third installment of "What Wesleyans Can Learn from Karl Barth."

We have learned that Wesleyans can take a cue from Karl Barth in matters of theological authority and in doctrinal procedure. But the significance of Karl Barth is not limited to these theoretical matters alone. Barth is also a beneficial guide for the practical world of Christian living.

Wesleyans are known for their concern for ethics. We have a strong heritage of ethical action, both personal and social. Our distinctive doctrine itself has an ethical thrust. To be sanctified is to be empowered for obedience to Christ by his Holy Spirit. Wesleyans don't need any help caring about ethics.

And yet Wesleyans face the same challenges as every other Christian in the modern and post-modern world: How do we know what is right? How do we determine best way forward? How shall we then live? Wesleyans certainly know that we should pursue righteousness; but how do find the path of righteousness?

A pre-modern Christian might simply say, "I do what the Bible says." Wesleyans have always known that although this approach testifies to the authority of Scripture over our lives, it is still too simple. The Bible does not address every possible situation. Christians must make decisions and develop ends that guide us through the complexities of our concrete lives. In the midst of this hermeneutical struggle, Wesleyans have far too often been enticed by the sense of security provided non-theological foundations for ethical decision-making. Whether it be classical forms of Plato or Aristotle, the modern calculations of Kant or Mill or Marx, or contemporary contextualism or pragmatism, Wesleyans have often been quick to ground their ethical decisions on some external structure. Our motivations have remained distinctively Christian, but our mode of ethical deciding and acting has been guided by seemingly brighter lights.

So who can lead us out of this valley of confusion? How can we learn to decide and act in a distinctively Christian way? Enter Karl Barth. In his unfinished life-work, the Church Dogmatics, Barth did the unthinkable: he concluded each volume with a part-volume on ethics. Now this was not simply to make an already impossibly long work even longer. The purpose was to render ethics an explicitly theological task. Just this structural decision alone is commendable: Christian ethics not an independent discipline with its own ground but rather flows directly from the word and work of God reflected upon by theology. This may seem obvious to those of us living in the wake of the 50-year development of theological ethics since Barth. But in Barth's day this was a radical approach. And despite the proliferation of theological ethicists, it remains a radical reminder of the distinctively Christian core of ethics.

The material benefits of this structural move are even more crucial. Barth discusses all the classic and contemporary "issues" from a center in Jesus Christ. The contours of each issue are shaped by the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ. All human action is under the Lordship of God's action in Jesus Christ. Any good that is done (whether explicitly or implicitly related to Jesus) is a witness to Christ's act of reconciling God and humanity. The basis of determining the rightness or goodness of an action is its alignment (or "correspondence") with the action of God. Accordingly, Barth can take unique views on issues ranging from abortion to war to economics that are seldom found held by the same person. How is able to keep this all in tension? By moving out from Jesus Christ to human action as a witness to him, rather than being guided by some non-theological foundation or partisan ideology.

What does Barth's radically theological approach to ethics have to say to Wesleyans? The first lesson is a negative one: we ought to repent of our unhealthy reliance on non-theological foundations. Like the Ephesian Church in the Book of Revelation, we have forsaken our first love. Although we should not burry our heads in the sand, we must certainly avoid using these external frameworks as a ground for our ethics. Jesus is Lord. Neither Plato nor Aristotle, Kant nor Mill, Left nor Right have lordship over us. We ought to be in constant conversation with these traditions, but they must never supplant Jesus as the Church's one foundation.

But the lessons from Barth are not wholly negative. We can take a positive cue from his work by developing explicit connections between doctrine and ethics. The doctrine of sanctification has only done half of its job if it merely informs us of the spiritual power that enables us to perform the duties we know by other means. We ought to be asking about the implications of a sanctifying God for concrete ethical issues. Rather than taking for granted what God desires in an individual case, we should think through from the beginning what sanctification looks like for the people involved in the situation at hand. These are the kinds of questions that guide ethics down an genuinely theological path.

Finally, Barth's bold structural move to include ethics within dogmatics raises a question about Wesleyan theological education. In my ministerial training, the two courses that seemed to have the least to do with each other where "Ethics" and "Theology of Holiness." It is telling of their separation that the former bore the registration category PHL, while the latter was designated REL. And the foundational status of Ethics was revealed by it being placed before Theology of Holiness in the recommended sequence of courses. Finally, the difference in content was striking, as anyone who had read Wesley and Kant on the same day can testify. The two courses were simply not aimed at the same student. One taught us how to reason through moral problems; the other formed us in a tradition that testified to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If Wesleyan ministers are going to not only profess holiness but live it out, there must be a more conscious connection between these two courses. What would this look like? It may be addressed simply by the Ethics and Holiness professors having a conversation about how these course form students. It may require more complex curricular solutions regarding designation, loading, and sequence. But whatever it looks like, the divorce between theology and ethics in Wesleyan institutions should be addressed.

So that’s the third reason why this Wesleyan has taken an interest in Karl Barth.

Any thoughts?
- What examples can you think of where Wesleyans having been enticed into drawing ethical reasoning from somewhere other than our Christian core?
- What specific ethical issues are illumined by a Christocentric starting point?
- How can we better connect theology and ethics?