K. Scott Oliphint, God With Us: Divine Condescension and The Attributes of God. Wheaton: Crossway, November, 2011. 304 pp. Paperback, $21.99.
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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!
If you’re looking to do some heavy lifting this year in your personal reading, this book might be a great place to start. I was actually surprised and the density of God With Us, but then again I should have been surprised since it’s written by K. Scott Oliphint. It’s heavy plodding pretty much all the way through, but in the end, it is definitely worth the effort.
The book is well written and clear, however there is a good bit of Latin terms and the language is what you’d expect from a book that covering philosophical theology. Oliphint interacts deeply with the usual suspects, Calvin and Bavinck, but also is at home with Protestant Scholastics like Turretin as well as contemporary philosophers like Brian Leftow, Thomas Morris, and Eleonore Stump. While Oliphint can move effortlessly through this particular terrain of theological studies, the book does read like a dissertation. It’s almost 300 pages long, but there’s only 5 chapters. To his credit Oliphint appears to be going to great lengths to make his writings accessible. However, this is probably one of the densest areas of philosophical theology and even I found it to be a hard read in several places. That being said, I felt like the book was well worth the effort. I’ll explain why at the end, but first an overview of the journey Oliphint takes you on. As he says on the opening page of the Introduction:
The purpose of this book is to help us think biblically about who God is. More specifically, I hope to address some of the conundrums that arise when we attempt to think about God’s character in light of the fact that he has created and has covenanted to redeem a people. Our focus, therefore, will be first of all on that character of God, in order then to focus on that character given creation (p. 9).
Because of this purpose, while the genre of the book is philosophical theology, it is not driven by “pure deduction” but rather is trying to grasp God’s character and properties as they are presented in Scripture. He’s pursuing this in order to clarify our understanding of how God can be who he is as God, yet condescend to relate to humanity, even to the extent of becoming one of us. This is quite the task, but Oliphint is up for the job. After clarifying his hermeneutical approach in distinction to that of Peter Enns (as seen in Inspiration and Incarnation), Oliphint clarifies his specific concern (how God’s attributes are internally related and then how they are related to creation) before a brief discussion of the nature of antinomy and paradox. From there, he rounds out the introduction with a distinction between the Triune God’s essential attributes and his “covenantal” attributes that God has given creation. The introduction sets the tone for the book both in terms of giving an overview of the content, but also in terms of Oliphint’s penchant for laying out distinctions. In chapter 1, Oliphint prioritizes the revelation in Scripture by focusing on what God specifically says about himself and even more specifically, his own names. This distinction itself sets Oliphint’s work off from much contemporary philosophical theology. By using the Exodus 3 account of God’s revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses, Oliphint derives the chief attribute of absolute independence (or aseity) and then begins to explain those attributes which, properties, and characteristics that “define and develop what it means for God to be a se” (p. 62). Those would include primarily God’s simplicity, infinity (which involves eternity and immensity), and immutability (which involves impassibility). Having introduced the attributes, Oliphint begins chapter 2 with another distinction, this time between Eimi and Eikon. Eimi is the Greek for “I am,” while Eikon is the Greek word “image.” In Oliphint’s usage, Eimi is how God is designated because he is the only being that is self-existent and self-defining. We, as creatures, are “eikon” or images of this God. So, while the first chapter focused on God as he defines himself, chapter 2 begins moving the discussion to God in relation to creation. The issue at hand is how God’s condescension to be covenantally related to his creatures affects (if it does) his essential attributes as an absolute independent being. Or in short, how can the God who is, also be God with us? Chapter 3 then digs further up and further in concerning this tension that “revolves around the scriptural teaching on God’s aseity, on the one hand, and on the other, God’s real interaction with creation, especially man, all to the glory of his own name” (p. 133). Here, Oliphint introduces another distinction, this time involving “Christological constraints.” He also inserts an important caveat as we’re in the middle of the discussion:
We should keep in the forefront of our minds that the driving force behind a proper articulation of the incarnation and of Christ was the hope that the church would know and understand him better, and in knowing and understanding him better, be better able to serve and worship him – both in life and in thought (p. 136).
In other words, though we’re doing some deep digging here theologically, the end goal is accurate service and worship, which is one of the payoffs for reading this book I mentioned earlier. To that end, Oliphints digs into both Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 for clarifications on the person of God the Son. His general point is that “ontology defines and determines history” (p, 138). With this in mind, he surveys the controversies in the early church that led to our Christological creedal formulations. This is one of the places you want to up to date on your Latin shorthand. Luckily you can still make sense of his argument if you’re not, but it will definitely slow down the pace. You’ll eventually make it to his conclusion in that section:
But, particularly when it comes to a knowledge of God, one of the things we must do is look to the quintessential revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In him we have perfect union of God and creation in the uniting of the two natures in one person (p. 156).
In short, “in Christ, we have both ‘our God’ and ‘his people.’” From this understanding, Oliphint rounds out the chapter with some in depth exegetical work in John 1, and clarifies that while the second person of the Trinity is the quintessential revelation of God to us, by knowing Him, we know God truly as Father, Son, and Spirit. Chapter 4 then introduces Oliphint’s “primary ‘hermeneutic’ for understanding the relationship of God to the world” (p. 181). As you might have guessed (or perhaps not), in order for us to understand God’s relationship to his creation we need to look to Christ first and foremost. This means that Christology needs to guide Theology Proper in this area. Using this principle, Oliphint then seeks to navigate in the rest of the chapter between either a view that would have God giving up aspects of his essential character (his aseity) in order to relate to creation or a view that would read all passages in Scripture that imply constraint or limitation in God as merely “metaphorical.” Keeping in mind what we’ve said above, this means for Oliphint that in order to understand God’s condescension, we need to first keep in mind his aseity that is prior to creation and history. We then need to realize that the revelation of God in Christ is the starting point for understanding who God who is Eimi is related to all that is eikon (man and creation). This sets Oliphint’s approach apart from much philosophical theology, and I think, grounds it better in Scripture and in redemption history rather than other categories. As a case study in this chapter Oliphint looks at passages that talk of God being slow to anger and a subset of passages that describe God relenting or repenting of something he said he would do. His chief conversation partner in this exercise is John Owen and in the end, I think he achieves his goal of avoiding a minimalization of passages that talk of God’s real relations with man and abandoning attributes that are essential to God’s nature. In the final chapter, Oliphint seeks to set out a way of understanding God’s activity in general using the distinctions he introduced in previous chapters. Where this takes an immediately practical turn is the discussion of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. He interacts in depth with John Sanders’ perspective in Perspectives on the Doctrine of God. Sanders, who is an open theist, is probably the antithesis of Oliphint in his perspective, and represents someone who over-prioritizes the above mentioned passages of Scripture that talk of God’s real relations with his creatures. In the end, he does an excellent job of demonstrating that his proposal in God With Us makes much better sense of Scripture. In doing so, he actually demonstrates how many open theists are using a philosophical conception of free will to interpret Scripture. This ends the book on a note of irony, since for many, it is Calvinists who are forcing philosophy onto Scripture rather than Arminians (of whom open theists are a subset). In a round about way, Oliphint closes out the book with a devastating critique of the libertarian understanding of free will.
My overview above really does not do justice to the complexity of Oliphint’s book, but hopefully it gives you enough of an idea what he’s up to in his writing. This is a book to progressively work through and reflect on. In doing so, you may find that it reshapes both your understanding of who God is in Christ and your understanding of how to read Scripture in that light. In other words, I think this book is a paradigm-shifter when it comes to the theological categories you bring to your reading of Scripture and having them reshaped, or at least tweaked by Oliphint will move you to being “better able to serve and worship him” in whom you live and move and have your being.