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.

Christology and the Instrumentalization Thesis

Chalcedon followed St Cyril in saying that the acting subject was the divine Logos, the Logos asarkos.  This was a clear rejection of Nestorius’ two-sons Christology and an admitted throwback to Apollinaris. This had the effect of viewing the human nature of Christ instrumentally (for a discussion of organon and its uses in Christology, see Anatolios, 71)..  The human nature on this model cannot act of its own. It has no acting principle.  Just how the Logos acts upon the human nature instrumentally is less clear, but the main point is already established.  Further, as Anchoretic apologists are wont to point out:  all of these fathers interpreted the union in divinization models.   I think they are correct with that reading, though they are largely unaware of the problems it entails.

Does this prove the death knell to Reformed Protestantism?  It is true that the Chalcedonian tradition operated off of divinization models.   Further, a strict divinization soteriology is at odds with forensic justification.  How can Protestantism be salvaged?  Protestants would be wise to avoid attaching themselves blindly to creeds.  We love to spout “sola scriptura” but few of us really know how that helps us.  I will try to show.  Before someone accuses me of rejecting the creed, I accept what Chalcedon coherently delivers: Christ had a two-ness element and he did represent humanity fully.  I reject the divinization presuppositions behind this model and will show how these presuppositions are in tension one with another.

1. Is the acting subject really the Logos asarkos or is it the God-man?  Formally, Cyrillians say the former, but then when we talk about the communication of attributes, we notice a subtle shift to the latter, and the reason is obvious:  any communication of human attributes to the Logos Asarkos destroys impassibility; therefore, the communicatio is simply the transfer of some divine attributes to the human side of the God-human Jesus.  But problems remain:  what right do they  have to shift terms midway in the debate?

2.  Apropos of (1), did God die on the cross? Anchorites love to make fun of RC Sproul Jr on this one, and true, I don’t think he really understands the Patristic issues in the debate, but any answer to this question will be a bad answer–at least while we are still on this plane of presuppositions.  On their gloss, Did God-the-Logos-Asarkos experience death on the cross? If so, how do you maintain your doctrine of impassibility?  Or did God-the-divine-human die on the cross, with only the human nature experiencing death? If the latter, can we really say that God died?  If not, how are you different from Sproul?  Further, how is this different from the charges that Reformed soteriology is Nestorian?  On both glosses, something is affirmed as true which is not true of the taxonomy.

3.  How does the Logos act instrumentally upon the human nature of Christ?   Anatolios attacks Grillmeyer’s contention that the Logos acts mechanistically, and perhaps Grillmeyer’s phrasing is a bit crude, but it’s hard to see any other alternative.  If the human nature of Christ does not have a self-determining principle, which it mustn’t if we are to avoid Nestorianism, and the only acting principle is the Logos asarkos, making the human body the instrument (organon, pace Athanasius et al), then how are we to avoid Grillmeyer’s conclusion:  the Logos acts mechanistically upon the human nature/body?

4.  If (3) then we have precisely the thesis that they attack Calvinists of.

5.  If (4), how is the 6th Ecumenical Council (Dyotheletism) not Nestorian?  Remember, in order to avoid Nestorianism, the Cyrillenes insisted that the human nature of Christ had no self-activating principle.  By the time of the 6th Council, however, we are moving closer to that position.  If the human nature has a will that always acts in synergy with the divine will, how is this not a self-activating principle?

6.  Further reflections on (5): modern understandings of the human person, though they may not always be biblical,  are the way we use the term person today.  Such a use, however, appears to posit a principle of emotional maturation and self-activation in that what it means to be human.  Further, the Jesus in the New Testament appears as a guy who underwent emotional maturation (grow in the knowledge of God, etc) and acted in the power of the Holy Spirit (of course, all the while remaining of one nature with the Father).


Is there a way out?  I think so, and I think we can still maintain the same truths that Chalcedon wants to.   In a future post I hope to reconstruct the doctrine of the Logos asarkos as the Logos incarnandus.  In any case, if any Calvinist is being attacked by Anchorites on these points, then hopefully this post will provide a handy cheat sheet.

Jonathan Edwards on “Necessity”

Robin Phillips had posted some problems on Edwards’ view of necessity and evil.  It made a lot of people at Orthodox Bridge excited.  Phillips, contra what some may think, wasn’t actually attacking Edwards.  He was showing, on his gloss, that Edwards’ reasoning was headed in a dangerous place.  Fair enough, but I don’t think it was.  I think the questions Edwards raised were already there.

I understand Phillips (and the more knowledgeable Anchorite apologists) want to avoid placing God under “necessity,” since that seems to move closer to Origenism.  But what if necessity is being used in a slightly different sense?  What if the urge to avoid necessity leads one to accidentally posit an agnosticism in the knowledge and being of God (this is precisely what “Prometheus” challenged these guys with.  I don’t think anybody caught on to it.  Everyone replied to him along the lines of cut-and-paste quotations from Palamas that answered nothing).  I will try to expand upon these two points:

1. Necessity:  The pleasant pagan P. Miller explains, “Edwards, we must remember, did not take cause in the positivistic sense of that which determines the effect, but rather as that which is necessarily and aesthetically antecedent” (Miller 257).  More could be said, but I think I have demonstrated that Edwards cannot be pinned as a necessitarian in either the Origenist or mechanistic sense

2.  Necessity anyway:  regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us, any Christian who refuses to embrace open theism has to face the problem: sin has happened.  Did God know that?  Is God’s knowledge of future contingencies real?  If not, you need to abandon omniscience (and probably omnipotence).  If yes, then we have another question:  if God knew it was going to happen, then that means it was going to happen.

Sidenote:  most of the NT talk of the second person of the Trinity rarely deals with the high Christology like Logos asarkos.  Rather, it speaks of the Son who was always-destined-for-Incarnation.