Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Subordination? Another Shedd-load of Trinitarian theology

In an earlier post I wrote appreciatively of W. G. T. Shedd's handling in of the relationship between the single divine essence and the three persons of the Trinity. In this article I offer criticism of the theologian's argument that the Son is subordinate to the Father "in respect to order and relationship". He is clear that there is no subordination of essence,
While there is this absolute equality among divine persons in respect to the grade of being to which they belong, and all are alike infinite and uncreated in nature and essence, there is at the same time a kind of subordination among them....As a relation, sonship is subordinate to fatherhood. (p.  301).

Shedd distinguishes his position from Arianism, which teaches subordination of essence as well as person.  But he is clear that an element of subordination is intrinsic to the relation between the Father and the Son. Subordination cannot be limited to the Son's mediatorial role, "This... involves condescension and humiliation; but the trinitarian subordination does not. It is no humiliation or condescension for a son to be the son of his father." (p. 302). 

This subordination is rooted in the eternal relations of origin according to which the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. The external actions of the Trinity are undivided. That is because, "In every external operation of a person, the whole essence operates, because the whole essence is in each person. The operation, consequently, while peculiar to a person, is at the same time essential, that is, is wrought by that one divine essence which is also and alike in the other persons." (p. 304-305). But when it comes to the internal actions, only the Father may be said to beget and only the Father and Son may be said to spirate. Accordingly,

The internal characteristics include the order according to which the Father is immutably the first, the Son immutably the second, the Spirit immutably the third person of the Trinity, and the ground or foundation of this order in certain constitutional and necessary acts in the divine essence. (p. 302).  

The view advanced by Shedd is far from the Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission of the Father in relation to the Son that is advocated by some contemporary Evangelical theologians. Unlike them Shedd does not teach that will is an attribute of the persons, rather than the divine essence, and that the Son eternally submitted his will to that of the Father. Neither does Shedd suggest that the Father possesses a personal attribute of authority that the Son does not share. Divine authority is a perfection of God's being, which is possessed wholly and without division by all three persons. The the persons may be distinguished only in terms of the eternal relations of origin and in no other way. 

What Shedd does say is that being Son involves subordination to the Father according to the order of persons in the Trinity, "It relates only to the personal characteristics of paternity, filiation, and procession." (p. 303). He does not make this point, but it is commonplace in classic Trinitarian theology to hold that the economic missions of the Trinity reflect the eternal processions. The persons are not interchangeable and so it was fitting that the Son was sent into the world by the Father and that the Holy Spirit was poured out by the Son from the Father.  Herman Bavinck spells this out,

But this "being sent" in time is a reflection of the imminent relations of the three persons in the divine being and is grounded in generation and spiration. The incarnation of the Word has its archetype in the generation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Spirit is a weak analogy of the procession from the Father and the Son. The church fathers, accordingly, derived the eternal and imminent relations existing between the persons from the relations that were manifest before the human eye in time. (Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation Volume 2, Baker Academic, 2006, p. 320-321).

Unlike Shedd, however, theologians in the classic tradition have tended to avoid using the language of 'subordination', which smacks of Arianism. Although as already pointed out, Shedd is careful to distinguish what he calls 'trinitarian subordination' from any idea that the Son's essence is in any way inferior to that of the Father. The Particular Baptist pastor-theologian John Gill (1697-1771) better represents classic Trinitarianism. In his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity Gill explicitly rules out any notion of subordination when it comes both to the Son's essence and person, 

Christ, as all sound divines hold, is αυτοθεος, “God of himself”, and independent of any other, though he is the Son of the Father; and as the distinct personality of the Son of God arises from his relation to his Father as such, so the distinct personality of the Father arises from his relation to his Son as such; hence the distinct personality of the one, is no more dependent, than the distinct personality of the other; and both arise from their mutual relation to each other; and both arise and commence together, and not one before the other; and both are founded in eternal generation. (Gill, John. A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (With Active TOC and Bible Links) . E4 Group. Kindle Edition.) 

And he goes on to say,

As to subordination and subjection, and inequality, which it is supposed the Sonship of Christ by generation implies; it may be answered, that Christ in his office-capacity, in which he, as Mediator, is a Servant, and as he is man, and appeared in the form of one; it will be acknowledged, that he is subordinate and subject to the Father; but not as he is the Son of God: and whatever inequality sonship may imply among men, it implies no such thing in the divine nature, among the divine persons; who in it subsist in perfect equality with one another; and in particular, the Scriptures represent the Son of God as equal to his Father, as one who thought it no robbery to be equal with God; being of the same nature, and having the same perfections with him, and that he is equal to him with respect to power and authority; for with respect to power he says, “I and my Father are one”; and they represent him as having the same claim to equal honour, homage, and worship; since all men are “to honour the Son, as they honour the Father”; not as in subordination to him, but as equal with him. (Gill, John. A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (With Active TOC and Bible Links) . E4 Group. Kindle Edition.) 

What Shedd denies Gill affirms, namely that it is only in respect to his 'office capacity... as Mediator' that Christ may be said to be subordinate to the Father. The Son assumed the role of Mediator in eternity. The counsel of redemption was an expression of the one will of God differently appropriated by the three persons so that the Father would send the Son, the Son would be sent by the Father and the Spirit would be sent by the Father and the Son. The economic missions reflected the order of the eternal processions, but the processions do not involve any hint of subordination. The divine persons 'subsist in perfect equality' (Gill). The Son's subordination to the Father was official, not essential, or personal. Although the Son was 'in the form of God', he 'did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [held onto at all costs], but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:6-8). 

Quotations from Dogmatic Theology Volume I, Klock & Klock 1979 reprint. You can also find a e-copy online, but the pagination is different, here. See p. 5 of the PDF for clickable contents. Also, see here for an article by Michael Haykin on John Gill and His  Defence of the Trinity

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s Outlaws and the Invention of Freedom, by Stephen Tomkins

2020 Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, Audible edition

In September 1620 a band of intrepid pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and set off for a new life in the New World. The colony they founded helped to shape what became the United States of America. They were Separatists, that is men and women who had left the Church of England to gather themselves into congregations that were governed by their understanding of the biblical model of church life. That was a radical step during the late 1500's and early 1600's. The Monarch was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. To leave the Anglican Church was not to exercise a legitimate religious right, it was an act of sedition against the State. 

While the Puritans agitated for a further reformation of the Church of England from within as permitted by the authorities, Separatists advocated Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie, as Robert Browne put it in one of the key works of Separatism. The hostile attentions of government and the Bishops drove the Separatist churches underground, initially in London and then elsewhere in England. If caught Separatists leaders were left to fester in prison, or even faced execution. Henry Barrow and John Greenwood were hanged in April 1593 for writing seditious books. John Penry was similarly charged and executed one month later. 

Separatists were often labelled 'Brownists' after their leader Robert Browne. Browne fled persecution in England, founding a Separatist Church in Holland, but the work was riven by factions and infighting. Not finding Separatism to his liking after all, Browne returned to the Church of England. The Separatists hated being labelled with the name of a turncoat. 

Separatists longed to be free to gather their congregations composed of true believers and their children outside of the Church of England. Some regarded the Established Church as hopelessly corrupt and false, others as a true Church that was badly in need of further reform. Separatist thinkers noted that coercing people into belonging to a certain church was alien to the spirit of true Christianity. The New Testament model of church life was not that of the Bishop-dominated Church of England, but congregational, where church members had a say in the government of the church and the appointment of its leaders. 

Some like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys took Separatism to the next logical step and became Baptists. After all, if the church was to be composed of true believers covenanted together, infants could neither believe or willingly covenant to belong to a congregation. Smyth and Helwys came under the influence of Arminianism while in Holland. They were 'General Baptists', believing that Christ died for all people in general. Separatist Hanseard Knollys and others advocated believer's baptism, but within a Calvinistic framework. They were 'Particular Baptists'. teaching that Jesus laid down his life for the elect in particular. 

John Robinson (1576-1625) led a Separatist congregation in Leiden, Holland, where it was possible to 'do church' free from the persecution they would have faced in England. Robinson was a strong advocate of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The Separatist imagination was fired by the story of the children of Israel leaving oppression in Egypt in search of freedom to serve the Lord in the Promised Land. For Robinson and members of his flock the Promised Land was the New World. And so it was 'All aboard the Mayflower' in September 1620.

The governing document of their Plymouth Colony was the 'Mayflower Compact', in which 41 of the 101 passengers elected to covenant together to form a 'Body Politick' to govern the colony in line with 'just and equal laws'. The original Separatists often faced brutal harassment and persecution. They were regarded as a threat to the good order of church and state. But their key ideas would exert a powerful influence on the development of modern society. Ideas such as the separation of church and state, freedom of religion and the democratic right to self-determination. Congregationalists and Baptists are now sizeable groups in the global Christian family.

Ably read by Richard Burnip, Stephen Tomkins' account of The Journey to the Mayflower tells the compelling story of a despised sect who changed the world. Well worth a listen. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton

Baker Academic, 2020, 450pp

Even if you think Dogmatics is the name of the dog in Asterix the Gaul, you should probably read this book. That's Dogmatix to you, anyway. If you are a Christian who is struggling to hold fast to the faith in rapidly changing times, (and who isn't?) you will find a soul mate in good old Herman. If you are theologically aware enough to know that Dogmatics is not in fact the canine companion of Asterix, this biog is certainly just the thing for you. 

It took me seven years of on/off reading, to finish reading the English translation of Herman Bavinck's magisterial four volume Reformed Dogmatics. I appreciated the depth of Bavinck's scholarship, admired his orthodox yet original theological vision and valued his attempt at bringing Reformed theology into dialogue with the concerns of the modern world. Yes, Bavinck was a Presbyterian and I'm a Reformed Baptist, so there were points of disagreement, but I won't hold that against him. Catholic-spirited of me, I know. 

But what of the man himself? The English translation of Reformed Dogmatics carries a biographical sketch, which is a handy guide. In 2010 Ron Gleason published Herman Bavinck: Pastor,  Churchman, Statesman and Theologian. The Gleason effort was defective in a number of respects, leaving me hoping for a biography that would offer a more compelling portrait of its subject. See my review here.  Cue James Eglinton's Bavinck: A Critical Biography. 

It's a 'critical' biography not because the author keeps having a go at Bavinck, but because the work is based on a fresh reading of the original source materials, rather than being a rehash of earlier Dutch biographies. The picture that has emerged from previous accounts of Bavinck's life is of a somewhat conflicted figure. He was the product of the highly conservative Christian Reformed Church and yet he also desired to be a man of the modern world, moving ever closer to the centre of Dutch society. 

Eglinton challenges that take. The separatist Christian Reformed Churches had been coming in from the cold for some time. The beginning of the modern era in Dutch national life was signalled in 1848 when toleration was granted to other church groupings beyond the established Dutch Reformed Church. The life of Bavinck's father, Jan straddled the pre-modern and modern periods in Holland. He began his pastoral ministry in 1848. Members of the Christian Reformed Church no longer faced discrimination. Some Separatists welcomed the opportunities that their new-found freedom offered, Jan Bavinck was one. Others worried that their orthodox stance would come under pressure should they engage too closely with the modern world. 

Herman Bavinck began his theological training in the Christian Reformed Church's own Theological School in Kampen. It was not to his liking. He wanted to broaden his horizons and study under the modern theologians at the University of Leiden. Some more conservative, not to say reactionary members of his own denomination criticised him for the move. But with his father's support Bavinck enrolled at Leiden, while remaining a student at Kampen. Bavinck excelled in his studies, where he faced the challenge of maintaining his Reformed faith in an academic environment dominated by a critical attitude to the Bible and a revisionist approach to doctrinal orthodoxy. Friendships struck at Leiden were to endure throughout Bavinck's lifetime. 

The move to Leiden did not signal a move away from the Christian Reformed Church on Bavinck's part. On completing his studies both at Leiden and Kampen Herman accepted the call to pastor the denomination's congregation at Franeker, where he served from 1881-82. Following that short spell in pastoral ministry Bavinck was appointed to teach at the Theological School in Kampen, where he remained until 1902. It was during his time there that Bavinck wrote the original editions of his Reformed Dogmatics, which he continued to edit and revise over the years. His time at Leiden acquainted Bavinck with the modern philosophical and theological ideas with which he wrestled in his Dogmatics. That gives the theologian's writings a fresh feel, as he engaged with a wide range of thinkers, while maintaining an orthodox Reformed standpoint. His approach was that of 'theological theology', where the discipline justified itself on its own terms as faith seeking understanding of God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture.   

In the early phase of his teaching ministry Bavinck sought to advance Reformed distinctives over and against alternative versions of the Christian faith. He viewed Dutch society and culture as Reformed in nature, unlike America, where he did not see Reformed theology taking off in a big way. As Dutch society became increasingly secular under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsch and others, Bavinck shifted his emphasis. He urged the churches to engage in evangelism and devoted himself to defending the Christian faith understood more broadly, rather than simply championing the distinctive aspects of Reformed theology. 

Even before he became a Professor at Kampen Bavinck had come to the attention of Abraham Kuyper, who had established his Free University on Reformed principles in Amsterdam. Over the years Kuyper made several attempts at luring Bavinck to the University. It was only when Bavinck became weary of the tensions between fellow lecturers at Kampen that he eventually succumbed, taking up the position of Professor of Theology at Amsterdam. By that time the Christian Reformed Church had merged with the Doleantie churches associated with Kuyper to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Attempts at bringing together the Theological School and the Free University to form a single educational institution ended in failure, much to the frustration of all involved. Bavinck included.  

Kuyper and Bavinck were united in their quest to reshape Dutch society in line with a Christian worldview. Bavinck was active in the Antirevolutionary Party under which Kuyper became Prime Minister of Holland from 1901-05. Eglinton describes Kuyper as a Zeus-like figure, who viewed the world from a lofty Olympian perspective, confident of his ability to to reorder human affairs. Bavinck was ever the careful scholar, journeying like Odysseus from a starting point to the truth. He lacked Kuyper's political skills and did not make a success of his role as chairman of the Antirevolutionary Party. Bavinck was not always in theological agreement with Kuyper. He carefully distanced himself from the latter's stance on the presumptive regeneration of baptised infants and justification from eternity. Kuyper was very much a man of affairs. Even his death was a public event, while Bavinck was a deeply private character. 

That fact makes Eglingon's biography all the more impressive an achievement. His use of Bavinck's dagboeks (private journals) and correspondence enabled him to get under the theologian's skin. We feel for him as the young Bavinck falls in love with Amelia den Dekker. Any hopes of him marrying his beloved Amelia were dashed by her unyielding father. Bavinck later to marry Johanna Adriana Schippers, which whom he had a daughter. Bavinck had an enlightened view of the place of women in society and championed female suffrage in the face of opposition from Kuyper. He was capable of maintaining close friendship with people whose views were far different to his own, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. They became friends when they were students at Leiden. Snouck was a liberal skeptic who secretly converted to Islam. He questioned how Bavinck could hold to conservative views, given what he had learned under the liberal lecturers at university. Bavinck defended his position, but without alienating his freethinking friend. In polarised times like our own the two men provide a model of of critical, yet cordial engagement between people with wildly different views.

Herman Bavinck was born in 1854, just as the Secession Churches were adjusting the new-found freedoms offered by the modern world. He ended his life a scholar garlanded with academic honours and a statesman elevated to the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament. All the while Bavinck felt the ground moving under his feet as Dutch society became increasingly post-Christian in outlook. He sought to engage with the challenges of the modernity, rather than retreating into a ghetto mentality, a strategy favoured by some Separatists. Bavinck maintained his Kuyperian vision of a culture shaped in all its parts by the Christian faith, but he realised that Christianised society could not be achieved without Christians. Over the course of his lifetime theologian witnessed the Dutch element of Christendom becoming progressively estranged from the faith. With that in mind the older Bavinck rallied the churches to the cause of evangelism, which he defined as "the proclamation of the evangel (the good news of salvation in Christ) to Jews and gentiles." (p. 317). 

Eglington has produced a well-written and rounded account of Herman Bavinck's life set in the context of his rapidly changing times. By going back to the original sources the biographer corrects some of the inaccuracies present in previous biographies. Especially that the subject was painfully torn between his Seceder roots and the modern Dutch society in which he found himself. The author presents a compelling portrait of the man behind the voluminous writings. He was no conflicted soul, but a Reformed Catholic, faithful to the Calvinistic doctrinal heritage of his Church, yet concerned to address the challenges raised by modern thought. In fact as Bavinck claimed, "modern culture and Christianity are inseparable", a point ably demonstrated by Tom Holland in his Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind

Kuyper's all-embracing vision may be summed in his famous words, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Bavinck agreed. The two men poured a huge amount of effort into reshaping Dutch society in line with a Christian worldview. Meanwhile, Dutch society was drifting away from the faith. Bavinck saw, perhaps too late, that the great need of the hour was for the church to engage in evangelism. If that was the case in the early years of 20th century Europe, how much more urgent is the call to herald the evangel in the early years of the 21st century. 

Beyond renewed evangelistic endeavour, if lost ground is to be recovered for the gospel in the 'post-Christian' West, what is needed is a mighty outpouring of the Spirit in revival power. Bavinck seemed to be a little circumspect about revivals and the strange phenomena sometimes associated with them (see this post on Herman Bavinck and Evan Roberts). But he knew well enough that the preaching of the word needs to be accompanied by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit,  ‘[The Holy Spirit] always works through the word but not always in the same way…Hence the subjective activity of the Spirit has to be added to the objective word. In the nature of the case it cannot be enclosed in the word; it is another activity, an additional activity, a subjective activity, not through but along with the word’. (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, And New Creation, Herman Bavinck, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 459-460). Yes, we need to apply the Word of God to the whole of life and herald the gospel of salvation. But if we would see whole societies transformed, the church needs to be revived and the preaching of the gospel of empowered by the Spirit so that multitudes sinners are converted to Christ. 

If Bavinck was too optimistic in his expectation that Dutch society would maintain its Reformed character, he was too pessimistic in thinking that America would have little time for  Reformed theology. The publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English translation by an American publishing house has led to renewed interest in Bavinck's life and thought both in the USA and on this side of the Pond. James Eglingon has done a great service in producing this excellent account of the life and times of Herman Bavinck, whom he describes as 'an orthodox Calvinist, a modern European and a man of science'. 

* Most importantly, I get a footnote all to myself, n 13 on p. xx and a mention in the Bibliography, p. 428. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

On the divine persons: a Shedd-load of Trinitarian theology

W. G. T. Shedd (1820-1894) devotes a lengthy chapter in Dogmatic Theology Volume I  to Trinity in Unity. It's not my purpose to sketch out his teaching as a whole. Rather, I want to draw attention to his remarkable treatment of the relationship between the single divine essence and the three persons of the Trinity. 

The theologian takes the simplicity of God's essence for granted and denies that the essence is in any way 'chunked-up' (my words) between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, "this undivided essence is common to three persons" (p. 268). Further, "The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each and simultaneously the whole divine essence; so that while there are three persons, there is but one essence." (p. 275). Shedd admits, however, "that we have no adequate idea of what is meant by person when applied to God and use it only because distinct personal attributes and actions are ascribed to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Scripture". (p. 268). 

These "personal attributes and actions" are the eternal relations of origin within God, namely, "That immanent and necessary activity within divine essence whereby the Father begets the Son, and the Father and the Son spirate the Spirit, makes it to be self-contemplating, self-knowing, and self-communing." (p. 272). The divine persons are not interchangeable. The Father only is unbegotten, the Son alone is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit uniquely proceeds from the Father and the Son. But it is simply in terms of the eternal relations of origin that we may distinguish the persons. In essence they are one, 
The whole undivided divine nature is in each divine person simultaneously and eternally. The modifying of divine nature by eternal generation and spiration does not divide the nature, as temporal generation does, but leaves it whole and entire, so that the substance of the begotten Son and the spirated Spirit is numerically and identically that of the unbegotten and unspirated Father. (p. 278).

Shedd then proceeds to discuss how the three persons relate each to the others. I quote him at length, 

Revelation clearly teaches that these personal characteristics are so marked and peculiar that the three divine persons are objective to each other. God the Father and God the Son are so distinct from each other that some actions which can be ascribed to the one cannot be ascribed to the other. The Father "sends" the Son; this act of sending the Son cannot be attributed to the Son. The Father "loves" the Son; this act of loving the Son cannot be ascribed to the Son. An examination of the Scriptures gives the following series of twelve actions and relations of the three trinitarian persons, which prove that they are objective to one another, that one may do or experience something that is personal to himself and is not personal to the others. One divine person … loves another (John 3:35) dwells in another (John 14:10–11) suffers from another (Zech. 13:7) knows another (Matt. 11:27) addresses another (Heb. 1:8) is the way to another (John 14:6) speaks of another (Luke 3:22) glorifies another (John 17:5) confers with another (Gen. 1:26; 11:7) plans with another (Isa. 9:6) sends another (Gen. 16:7; John 14:26) rewards another (Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 2:9) Here are twelve different actions and relations which demonstrate that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not one and the same person. (p. 279). 

Each person of the Trinity stands in an 'I"-"Thou" relation to the others. Shedd teases out what that means for the divine self-consciousness, "And the three persons are so real and distinct from each other that each possesses a hypostatic or trinitarian consciousness different from that of the others. The second person is conscious that he is the Son and not the Father, when he says, "O Father, glorify me" (John 17:5). The first person is conscious that he is the Father and not the Son, when he says, "You are my Son, this day have I begotten you" (Heb. 1:5). The third person is conscious that he is the Spirit and neither the Father nor the Son, when he says, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (Acts 13:2)." (p. 282). 

But that does not mean that the divine persons are three individual centres of self-consciousness, akin to three human persons having a chat. Shedd is no social Trinitarian. He explains, "These three hypostatic consciousnesses constitute the one self-consciousness of divine essence. By reason of and as the result of these three forms of consciousness, divine essence is self-contemplative, self-cognitive, and self-communing. Though there are three forms of consciousness, there are not three essences or three understandings or three wills in the Godhead because a consciousness is not an essence or an understanding or a will. There is only one essence, having one understanding and one will. But this unity of essence, understanding, and will has three different forms of consciousness: paternal, filial, and spiritual because it has three different forms of subsistence, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit." Shedd draws an analogy between the divine essence in relation to the persons and the divine self-consciousness and the hypostatic/personal consciousnesses,  "As the one divine essence is the same thing with the three persons, and not a fourth different thing by itself, so the one divine self-consciousness is the same thing with the three hypostatic consciousnesses and not a fourth different thing by itself." (p. 282-283). 

Shedd's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity has relevance for debates within Evangelicalism on the Eternal Relational Submission (ERS) of the Son to the Father. Advocates of ERS sometimes argue that classic Trinitarianism fails to do justice to divine personhood, having little to say beyond the eternal relations of origin. As Shedd makes clear, however, Father, Son and Holy Spirit each stand in an "I"-"Thou" relation to the others. But that does not mean we should attribute an individual will to each person, or posit that each is a distinct centre of self-consciousness. As Shedd rightly underlines, will is an attribute of the divine being and there is only one self-consciousness in God. The theologian's distinction between the personal consciousness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the singular divine self-consciousness is a useful safeguard against social Trinitarianism. "The three hypostatical [personal] consciousnesses in their combination and unity constitute the one self-consciousness." (p. 283).  

You never know what useful stuff may be found lying around in the Shedd. I may rummage around a little more. 

Quotations from Dogmatic Theology Volume I, Klock & Klock 1979 reprint. You can also find a e-copy online, but the pagination is different, here. See p. 5 of the PDF for clickable contents. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

Unchanging Joy

The pandemic has deprived us of many of the things that fill life with joy. Until recently we were unable to see, let alone hug loved ones who live outside our area. Cinemas, pubs and restaurants were closed. Beauty spots were off limits. Many were furloughed and so deprived of the camaraderie of the workplace and a sense of job satisfaction. Children were unable to meet their friends in school. It’s been tough.

Thankfully, we are now emerging from lockdown and are free to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life once more. A welcome sign of a return to normality was the FA Cup Final featuring Chelsea vs Leicester City, with 21,000 fans in attendance. As is traditional, the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ was sung before kick off.  The words seemed to have added poignancy this year,

Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me

Whether the emergence of new Covid variants will hinder the removal of all remaining restrictions on 21 June remains to be seen. If our chief joy in life is based on circumstances, our happiness will fluctuate wildly as we encounter good times and bad. The hymn is addressed to the Lord Jesus, the source of unchanging joy.

Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead that we may have the hope of everlasting life.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. If our joy is in him, nothing on earth can touch it. Jesus shines through the gloom to point us to the skies. “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

* For June editions of local News & Views and Trinity parish magazines 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

New Studies in Dogmatics: The Triune God, by Fred Sanders

Zondervan, 2016, Kindle edition, 243pp

In many treatments of the doctrine of the Trinity the theologian's basic approach is to attempt to bring together the scattered bits and pieces of the Bible's teaching into a coherent whole. Something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The theologian will often begin by identifying Trinitarian hints in the Old Testament and then give attention to some of the key passages in New Testament Scripture. 

Fred Sanders proposes and alternative approach. He argues that God is revealed as three persons primarily in the redemptive historical missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The role of Scripture is to bear witness to and interpret those missions for us. Contrary to 'Rahner's rule' Sanders is not saying that the economic Trinity we encounter in the missions is the ontological Trinity. Rather, that the eternal processions within God are disclosed in the economic missions of the Son and Holy Spirit . 

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son and the Spirit are fully God, of the same divine essence as the Father. Given the eternal relations of origin, it was fitting that the Son should be sent into the world by the Father in order to save us from sin and that the Holy Spirit was poured out from the Father by the Son on the Day of Pentecost to give us new life. 

Hence the church confesses its belief in one God in three persons. But according to Sanders we can say no more of what it means to be a divine 'person' than that the Three have distinct eternal relations of origin. The Father in his person is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. We certainly should not suffuse the personhood with any notion that the Three are separate centres of self-consciousness, each with their own distinct will, who happen to cooperate together for certain ends. Any such account shatters the simplicity of God and veers in the direction of Tritheism.  

We need to tread carefully when it comes to defining what is meant by 'persons' and not lapse into social trinitarianism. But we should also factor in the way Scripture enables us to eavesdrop on communications between the persons of the Trinity, where the Father affirms his love for the Son (Matthew 3:17) and the Son expresses his love for the Father (John 14:31). God's love in Christ is poured into the hearts of his people through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The missions reveal the mutual love between the persons of the Trinity from eternity. The only begotten Son of the Father is the beloved Son of the Father. This has implications for our understanding of how as persons the Three relate to each other in loving communicative action. Certainly 'person' is to be preferred to some of the other alternatives such as 'mode of subsistence'. As Robert Leatham affirms, "Since God is personal, he is love, the living God, for life and love go together.' (Systematic Theology, Crossway, 2019, 9. 128). Louis Berkhof adds further clarity when he says, 'but [we] should not... lose sight of the fact that the self-distinctions in the Divine Being imply an “I” and “Thou” and “He,” in the Being of God, which assume personal relations to one another.' (Systematic Theology, Biblical edition, p. 95). 

While Sanders' treatment is enriched by the theological reflection of the church, he is keen to underline that, "Trinitarianism is a gift of revelation before it is an achievement of the church." (p. 23). Biblical exegesis is therefore the key factor on constructing a doctrine of the Trinity. But this does not mean exegesis of individual texts in glorious isolation. Biblical revelation as a whole is Trinitarian in character. The Old Testament sets the scene for the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament bears its witness to their coming into the world for our salvation. Individual texts need to be seen in that light.  This overall approach has has the advantage of rescuing Trinitarian theology from the 'jigsaw puzzle' method. 

Giving attention to the biblical materials, the author discusses 'New Covenant Attestation' to the Trinity, focusing on 'The Trinitarian Life of Jesus', 'Epiphany at the Jordan', 'The Threefold Name' and 'Paul and the Presupposition of Salvation'. He then discusses 'Old Covenant Adumbration'. Sanders is not happy to label manifestations of God in the Old Testament as 'christophanies'. Evangelicals have sometimes used that label on the basis that it is the Son's nature to be visible in a way that the Father is not, which is a contradiction of 'homoousios', that the Son has the same essence as the Father. Also, the idea that it was always the Son who put in a temporary appearance in Old Testament narratives deprives the eventual enfleshment of Jesus of its uniqueness. Better to say with Augustine that the theophanies represent, “simply the one and only God, that is the Trinity without any distinction of persons.” (p. 225). In the New Testament Isaiah's vision of the Lord seated upon the throne is predicated of both the Son (John 12:40-41) and the Father (Revelation 4:2, 8 cp. Isaiah 6:3). 

That is not to say that we cannot glimpse distinct revelations of the three persons in the pages of the Old Testament. Sanders commends the Fathers' 'retrospective prosoponic (personal)' reading of Old Testament Scripture. The author cites the examples from the writings of of Gerhohus the Great (1093–1169), 

Psalm 1: Wherefore: Glory be to the Father, Who knoweth the Way of the righteous; glory be to the Son, Who is the Way of the righteous, the Man Who is blessed, and prosperous in whatsoever He doeth; glory be to the Holy Ghost, Who is the Wind that scattereth the ungodly. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. (p. 236). 

Evangelicals have got themselves into something of a muddle on the doctrine of the Trinity of late. A narrowly biblicist approach has led to denials of eternal generation. Some have posited that the Son's will is eternally subordinate to that of the Father, attributing will to the persons of the Trinity rather than the divine nature. Sanders' approach provides a necessary corrective to these harmful tendencies. In an online article Adding Eternal Generation the theologian engages with Wayne Grudem's handling of the doctrine of the Trinity in the second edition of his Systematic Theology.  

Evangelicals are by definition people of the Evangel. That is why we need to get the doctrine of the Trinity right. The revelation of the Trinity is umbilically joined to revelation of the mystery of the gospel. For in the gospel is nothing less than the good news that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the World and to raise up ruined humanity by the power of his Spirit. In the words of the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 "which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him." (2:2). Sanders' study demands careful thought as he develops his argument and interacts with a range of other scholars, but the work is no way dryly academic. As he points out, to contemplate the Trinity is to seek the face of God and tune one's mind to doxology:

Glory be to God the Father, 
Glory be to God the Son,
Glory be to God the Spirit, 
Great Jehovah three in One.
Glory, glory while eternal ages run.