Engaging the doctrine of God (review)

The underlying theme in this book is how to appropriate the teaching that God is impassible in light of the many Biblical narratives that seem to suggest otherwise, alongside numerous theological reflections.  The contributor fall among the spectrum of those advocating a classical substance-metaphysics (Paul Helm) and those who are quite critical of substance-metaphysics (Bruce McCormack).   Others, such as Oliver Crisp, offer penetrating critiques of several Christian thinkers on the doctrine of the Trinity.  This review will not cover every essay, but will focus on the more notable ones.

Paul Helm (“John Calvin and the Hiddenness of God”) seeks to defend the reading of the extra-Calvinisticum and a contention of classical metaphysics that “God” stands behind, if only logically, the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.   Of interest, though not the central point of the article, is Helm’s fine summary of the “extra calvinisticum.”  Helm is specifically challenging Barth’s reading of Calvin and thus proposes two theses (68):

Is the second person logically prior to the decree to become incarnate?  Helm, pace Calvin, says yes.
Does this necessarily infer a hidden “God behind God”?  Helm answers no.

As an aside, and I don’t think it fundamentally changes his argument, I think Helm is either guilty of ambiguity or the editor overlooked a typo.  On p.68 Helm affirms, as would I, that the Logos is asarkos at the decree.  Yet on the next page he says that Calvin and Barth “held that there was no time when the Logos was asarkos.”   Nevertheless, I get the gist of his argument.
Helm then gives a helpful summary of what the extra-Calvinisticum entails. He develops this as a foil against Barth, yet Barth never fully rejected the “extra.”  He simply says it is very badly phrased, which it is.


I don’t want to seem like I am nit-picking, and I cannot help but note a certain irony:  Barthian scholars like McCormack and Jenson are accused of being soft on divine simplicity, yet I can’t help but think that their readings of Barth best preserve it.   If God is simple, and there is not multiplicity of ideas in the mind of God, since this kind of discursive reasoning implies division (diastasis, to use the Origenist term), then every other idea, and hence an idea to act x, y, and z, must inhere in that one initial idea/act.   The importance of this will be seen later.


Helm’s reading of Calvin rightly wants to preserve the freedom of God against some external force necessitating God.  Hence, Helm argues, “So the Logos Asarkos was free not to become incarnate.  [U] Any additional choice that the Logos was free to make[/U]…is of secondary importance” (emphasis mine 72).  The problem here, as noted above, is that the doctrine of divine simplicity precludes any real talk of the Logos reasoning discursively in pre-temporal eternity.  If by this Helm means by this “logical priority” (which he indeed states on p.68) then he can avoid the difficulty posed by simplicity.  However, terms like “any additional choice” are time-sensitive and seem to suggest otherwise than his argument.  Barth’s model of election as the event of the Trinity’s modes of being, whatever legitimate difficulties it may have, is much closer to preserving simplicity.

Helm rebuts Barth’s charge that this view of God leads to speculation, and quotes Calvin for support (73).  Surely, anyone who has read Calvin knows he is blessedly free from speculation.  For myself, I think Barth is using the wrong term–speculation–and Helm is not seeing the real difficulty.   Per Barth’s reading of Calvin, which I am not necessarily endorsing at the moment, the Logos asarkos already has a fully-formed identity before the decision to save the world.  To be fair, McCormack, whose essay Helm is reviewing, further expanded these ideas in [I]Orthodox and Modern[/I].  This is tied in with Barth’s claim that Jesus is both the Object and Subject of election.    Helm says this is simply “incoherent” (79).  How can an object of an act be present as the subject of that same act?  It is a fair question and probably the best raised against Barth’s program.  Helm notes, “The act of electing is the act of someone; it cannot be the act of no one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes a someone.” By way of response one can ask if the Trinity is incoherent, for how can the Son be present in the eternal generation of the Son?  For Helm would agree that the Son, in the eternal generation, doesn’t come from a state of non-being to a state of being, yet is present in the Father’s very giving of being.

Helm ends his essay with different challenges to Barthians.  Overall, this is a fine essay, even if I have some critical reservations.  I think Helm filled in several lacunae that were missing from his John Calvin’s Ideas.  His discussion of the extra-Calvinisticum was quite lucid.  My only concerns are that he didn’t realize that Barth actually held to the Calvinist line over the Lutherans on this point.   Other good questions he has raised have already been answered by McCormack and Eberhard Jungel.

“The Actuality of God:  Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism” by Bruce McCormack.

McCormack gives us a very interesting critique of open-theism:  open-theism is simply parasitic on the very classical metaphysics it seeks to overcome.   True, it can find texts that posit a “moved God,” so to speak, but its opponents can do likewise to the contrary.  McCormack notes that open theists simply had no way of winning this debate:  they engaged in very little Christology and shared the same metaphysical presuppositions as their opponents.

To begin, it should be helpful to define classical metaphysics.  This these types of thinking “are all ways of thinking which would treat the ontological otherness of God as something that can be defined and established by humans without respect for the incarnate life of God and, therefore, as something complete in itself apart from and prior to all acts of God” (McCormack 201).  And Pinnock is very clear:  God doesn’t change in his essence (Pinnock 119).

The question for both sides to answer, and this is the brilliance of McCormack’s essay, is “Does the Logos undergo change?”  Answering this question is actually quite difficult.   No Christian tradition–even Open theism–is willing to say that the divine nature suffers (though I grant Moltmann and his disciples spoke this way).  This is also tied in with a discussion of claims about “God in himself.”  As McCormack notes, “Classical theologians wanted to say that God would have been the same in himself without his works–a claim that would make sense only if it could be known what God is in himself.  On the other hand, they wanted to say that what God is is essentially unknowable” (McCormack 203-204).  This problem found itself at the heart of the Christological controversies, to which we now turn.

For the fathers working in the Chalcedonian tradition, two values had to be preserved:  divine impassibility and divinization soteriology.  On one hand, God cannot suffer (even Arius agreed with this claim!), so the divine and human natures had to be kept far apart.  The clearest expression of this is found in John of Damascus, who, to borrow McCormack’s nice phrase, used the mind as a mediating principle between the two natures (219).  This is why Lutheran and Orthodox analogies of “fire and iron” fall short:   the fire never becomes “iron-ish.”

McCormack’s conclusion on this reading, which I think accurate, is that this commitment to impassibility inevitably drove even the more Cyrillene theologians to a Nestorian tendency.  Cyril, for example, might want to say that “God dies,” but even he won’t ascribe pathoi and suffering to the divine nature.  All of this reduces back to a classical ontology.  McCormack notes:  “To the extent that human predicates can be ascribed to the Person of the union without ascribing them at the same time to the divine nature, the person is being treated as something that can be abstracted from the divine nature and stand “between” the natures, mediating between them” (220 n.84).

Making it worse for the ancient tradition was its commitment to theosis.  In this model the Logos “instrumentalizes” the human nature and infuses it with life.  The problem, though, on this reading was that the communication goes only one way:  the divine is not humanized.

The above essay was perhaps not immediately relevant to McCormack’s larger argument; however, it does show that the problems open theists faced were there all along.  Even more, it shows that open theism’s project could not have gotten off of the ground without the very system it seeks to undermine.

Other essays:  D.A. Carson’s essay on the wrath of God is a helpful summary of key texts on the wrath of God.  He notes that for whatever problems critics of penal substitution may have, they all collapse on the fact that they really haven’t interacted with the idea of God’s wrath.  John Webster has a nice essay showing how the necessary doctrine of God’s aseity has been warped in recent years.  Instead of it being doxological in focus, it is defended–ironically!–by an appeal to contingent reality.  Donald MacLeod ends on a pastoral note, summing up the themes of the conference.

Some thoughts on the extra-Calvinisticum

When I was examining Eastern Orthodoxy I was especially impressed by their (and the Lutheran, also) critique of the so-called “extra-Calvinisticum.”  It means some of the Logos exists outside the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  The reasoning behind it is fairly obvious:  If we hold that Jesus has a really divine nature, and omnipresence is an attribute of divine nature, then it stands to reason that some part of Jesus will be outside Jesus.  The equally obvious critique is that this is Nestorian, since it posits a division in Christ.  If we left it at that, it would seem that the Calvinists have a unique problem.  What was equally problematic, though, was that many Eastern fathers held to precisely the same view!

So who is right?  I’ve gone back and forth on this, and for a while I was a closet-Lutheran on Christology, but I think the truth of the matter is that both sides make equally legitimate points.   The reason both can be right–and that I am not contradicting myself when I say that–is that both are holding to substance-metaphysics.  Both sides are positing a God behind God.   Palamas does this when he makes the divine nature (and divine persons) hide behind the divine energies.  Calvin does this, if McCormack’s reading is correct, when he posits the decree to save after the decree to elect:  this means that the Logos already has a fully-formed identity before the decree to save and become Incarnate.

What is a tentative response?  Let’s remember what the Cappadocians said in their better moments:  God’s ousia exists as his divine life, existing as Father, Son, and Spirit.   There can be no extra outside the persons because that “extra” is rather the Spirit and the Father.

Athanasius and the extra-calvinisticum

The guys at CalvinistInternational have done a decent job with the sources.

The Extra-Calvinisticum is the doctrine that Lutherans charged followers of Calvin for holding.  For the record, I still side with the Lutherans on this, but that’s not the point.   The point is that the extra-Calvinisticum is tied in with the Nestorian charge that people often throw at Calvinists.   The problem–of which I was aware when I was attacking Calvinist Christology–is that many Greek fathers held to the extra-Calvinisticum, if the anachronistic use of the term can be excused.  The quote by Athanasius is fairly common knowledge.   The rest is from the guys at CalvinInter.  Let’s keep in mind what the extra-calvinisticum is claiming.  It is claiming that there is a bit of the Logos’  divine nature not contained inside the incarnate Person.

The Word was not hedged in by being present elsewhere as well.  When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might.  No.  The marvellous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself.

On the Incarnation 17

Now it is impossible for any creature to comprehend the Divine Essence, as was shown in the FP, Q12, AA1,4,7, seeing that the infinite is not comprehended by the finite. And hence it must be said that the soul of Christ nowise comprehends the Divine Essence.

John of Damascus, qtd in Thomas Aquinas, Third Part, Q10, A1.

To put this into perspective, let’s keep in mind the doctrine of en-hypostatization.   Natures are contained within an hypostasis.