Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Deity & Decree, by Samuel D. Renihan

 Published in the UK by Broken Warfe, 2021, 134pp.

Evangelicals rightly demand theological precision and accuracy when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, or justification by faith alone. Any drift from biblical inerrancy is detected and rejected in short order. Similarly when it comes to including works in justification. 'By faith alone, by grace alone', we insist. The same theological care isn't necessarily displayed when attention turns to the doctrine of God. Some contemporary Evangelical theologians suggest that belief in divine impassibility makes seem God cold and remote. Others have argued that the Son stands in a eternal relationship of submission and authority to the Father. 

Part of the problem is that Evangelicalism contents itself with brief statements of belief, as opposed to elaborate confessions of faith. Compare the Doctrinal Basis of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches with the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689. Point 1 of the FIEC Doctrinal Basis has a 54 word statement on 'God'. What it says is perfectly fine and good. But by way of contrast, the 2LBCF Chapter 2 devotes three paragraphs totalling 408 words to 'Of God and the Trinity'. The older confession self-consciously echoes the creedal heritage of the church and gives expression to what is sometimes called the 'classic doctrine of God', 'The Lord our God is a... most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions'. Renihan wants to recover the older emphasis of the confession. 

If the doctrine of God is 'first theology' and of primary importance, we need to ensure that what we say of God is biblically accurate and informed by the theological reflection of the past. That is where Deity & Decree comes in. With impressive clarity and brevity Renihan gives attention to God's Unity, Triunity and Decree. 

God's Unity: God is self existent, with life in himself. He is uncaused cause of all things. God's attributes such as his omnipotence, holiness and love are not the bits of which his being is composed. God is simple, having no component parts. All that is in God is essential to God, because all that is in God is God. That is why he cannot change. An unchanging God is not susceptible to suffering. There is nothing within the being of the ever blessed God that could cause him to suffer. Suffering cannot be imposed upon him from without, as that would give the created order an advantage over him, compromising his omnipotence and immutability. The impassible God is not cold, or remote, however, for God is love, full of self-generated compassion and mercy towards lost sinners. The move towards attributing suffering to God's being risks compromising the uniqueness of the incarnation of the Son of God. In Christ as man God did what is impossible for him to do as God namely, to suffer and die for sinners. 

God's Trinity: The Bible reveals that in the one God there are three persons, or subsistences: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three persons are equally and fully God, yet the Three are not interchangeable. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is these personal properties alone that distinguish the persons. We may not ascribe an attribute such as authority to the Father and submission to the Son in terms of their eternal relations. The Son has the same power and authority as the Father because he is of the same essence as the Father. But there is an order in the Trinity and the missions of the three persons in the world of time reflect the eternal relations. The Father sent the Son into the world at his incarnation. The Father and Son poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church on the Day of Pentecost. Getting the Trinity right isn't theological hair splitting. As the Second London Baptist Confession states, "which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him." (2:3). 

God's Decree:  The decree is a simple, eternal and sovereign act of God's being. The Almighty's unchangeable decree, however, does not reduce creatures to the status of puppets in his hands. As the confession makes clear, "nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree." (3:1). The decree does not make God the author sin, which he willingly permits for his own ends. Neither does it  deprive human beings of  responsibility to God for their actions. God decreed the salvation of his people not because of anything in them, but because of his own free grace given them in Christ before the foundation of the world. Those not elected to salvation are passed by according to God's decree. The cause of the damnation of the wicked is not the divine will per se, but their own sin, which rightly deserves eternal punishment. 

In line with the Reformed Catholic tradition Renihan insists that God's decree is the expression of his will which is a property of the divine being, not the persons of the Trinity. This cuts across the idea proposed by some contemporary Evangelicals that the Son's will was eternally subordinate to that of the Father. The divine will is common to all three persons of the Trinity in the being of God. The Son, as well as the Father and the Holy Spirit was therefore party to the decree of salvation. The Son's submission to the Father in the economy of redemption cannot be read back into the eternal relations of the Trinity. 

Renihan handles the biblical materials underlying God's Unity, Trinity and Decree with insight and care. His treatment of these topics is enriched by the Great Tradition of Christian thought, especially writers of the Reformation and Puritan periods. The author's prose is limpid and precise, yet his tone  tone is meditative and devotional. A fine work of 'first theology' that demands a response of joyful doxology of the reader:
Glory be to God the Father. Glory be to God the Son. Glory be to God the Holy Spirit. 
Glory be to the only, living, true, and triune God.

Monday, December 12, 2022

‘Glory to the New-born King'

So says the chorus of a favourite carol, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. But why should glory be ascribed to the new-born Jesus? After all, he would have looked much like every other baby. Cute, yes, but worthy of the angels’ praise? I know artists often portray the infant in the manger as if he glowed in the dark with heavenly splendour, but that has no basis in fact. If anything, the Bible stresses how ordinary looking was Jesus. He ‘took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ wrote the apostle Paul. As with any other baby, Jesus was weak and totally helpless, ‘tears and smiles like us he knew’.

Yet Christians believe that he who as an infant was cradled in his mother Mary’s arms, was also the eternal Word of God who upheld the universe by his divine power. He is fully God, the Father’s only Son as well as fully human. That is why angels worshipped the new-born King. They recognised him as their Maker made flesh. Another reason for worship is what Jesus was sent into the world to do. As the angel of the Lord explained to startled shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’

God became man in Jesus because we needed a Saviour. That tells us something about the human condition. The Bible tells us, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. We are incapable of saving ourselves from sin, otherwise God would have left us to get on with it. Jesus came to live a life of perfect obedience to God on our behalf. He then laid down his life as a sacrifice for sin. His death was sufficient to rescue the world from sin. That’s because it was the Son of God in human form who suffered in our place at the cross.

Jesus is the King of love. He was born in the royal city of David. He was crucified as ‘King of the Jews’ to win us a place in God’s eternal kingdom. He rose from the dead and was exalted to the right hand of the Father, where he reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords. He is able to save completely those who put their trust in him.  Will you join the angels in singing, ‘glory to the new-born King!’?

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