Did God’s Essence Become Incarnate?

One of the most difficult questions in Trinitarian theology is how the essence/person distinction relates to the Incarnation. The classic formulations state that God is in essence one, and that one essence is shared fully and completely in the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The essence of God must be involved somehow in the Incarnation, but finding a way of expressing that is difficult. On the one hand, it is vitally important not to drive a wedge between the essence of God and the three persons. Otherwise, we wind up with the classic problem of a quaternity (essence plus three persons).

The way this problem has been avoided in the past is through the doctrine of perichoresis, or mutual indwelling of the persons. The three persons interpenetrate each other in such a way that the persons remain distinct, and yet share fully in the essence. Perichoresis is also the only resource we have for understanding how God can be one essence that is simple (not divisible), and yet also be three distinct persons.

Objections to this doctrine usually bring God down to man’s level. For instance, someone will object that an essence cannot be so shared. The objection will only prove true, however (upon close examination), of mortal and finite essences. An infinite essence such as God’s essence is not limited by such problems.

The other problem we will have to avoid is in saying that the essence of God underwent any change whatsoever in the Incarnation. Here the Chalcedonian formulations help us out. The two natures of Christ remain distinct, even though inseparable. Therefore, the divine nature of Christ did not change at all when the Son added a full human nature to Himself.

This helps us answer the question: did God’s essence become incarnate? We have to say that God’s essence did not change into something else at the Incarnation. At the same time, we have to say that God’s essence was involved in the Incarnation. The Reformed scholastics help us out here. Their formulation is that God’s essence is incarnated, but only in one of its hypostases or persons (see Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, volume 4, p. 211). The process of incarnation is one of addition. A full human nature is added, taken up in hypostatic union with the second person of the Trinity, the essence of God in the second person. This must not be understood in any way that would imply that a separate already-formed human person was joined to the divine person. The full human nature (body and soul) of Christ only ever exists in hypostatic union with the divine nature. This being said, the Father and the Holy Spirit were not passive spectators in the Incarnation either. All the outside works of the Triune God are indivisible (which means that all three persons of the Trinity are at work in everything God does). The Father sent both the Son and the Spirit in the process of incarnation, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary. This must qualify what was said about only the second person being incarnated. For while it is true that only the second person became incarnated, yet it is also true that the Father and the Holy Spirit were involved.

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An Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

Let it be known at the beginning of this post that I love the Psalms, and that I believe the Psalms should be sung in worship frequently, just not exclusively. I heard this argument recently from a new friend of mine in the OPC, by name, the Rev. Brett Mahlen. He used to be EP himself, and so he knows the position from inside, as it were. The argument goes like this: the way most EP proponents phrase the matter is that we can only sing in worship words that are inspired, and that the Bible commands us only to sing the Psalms (usually they interpret Colossians 3:16 to refer to the Septuagintal division of the Psalter into psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs). The argument from my friend addresses the first half of the statement. If we may only sing inspired words, then we cannot sing in English, since the translation into English is not itself inspired; only the autographs are inspired. If we then say that the English translation (into meter, which involves considerable paraphrasing!) is inspired, then we are undermining our doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration. English metrical Psalms, as beautiful as they can be (and most worthy of being sung, I might add!), are not inspired Scripture.

Furthermore (and this is now my addition to the argument), by saying that only the very words of the Psalter may be sung, proponents of EP commit a word-concept fallacy. To remind ourselves, the word-concept fallacy is an error in logic that happens when people believe that words are the same thing as ideas, whereas the truth of the matter is that we use words to express ideas, even though those ideas could be expressed with different words. To flesh it out a bit more, an idea can be present even though a specific word is not used. Similarly, just because a specific word is present does not mean that the idea is also present. In this case, the word-concept fallacy is committed by saying that what is meant in the Psalter can only be obtained by singing the very words themselves. Then the error is compounded by saying that the English metrical Psalters can fit the bill of singing the ipsissima verba (the very words) of Scripture. Ironically, in other places in their Reformed theology, EP proponents would not commit this fallacy. For instance, Reformed EP proponents all (as far as I know) hold that the Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, even though the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the Bible. They recognize that the concept of the Trinity is very much present (even obviously so!), and yet the word “Trinity” is not present. The word “Trinity” is our shorthand to express the fact that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. So there is not a consistency here with EP proponents: they say that we may only sing the very words of the Psalter, and yet they advocate English metrical Psalters to accomplish this, which English Psalters are not the very words of the inspired Psalms.

To push the point a little further, we may remember that several commentators on the Psalms have said that the Psalter is a mini-Bible. My description of the Psalter would be that it is an emotional commentary on all of Scripture, mostly in the form of prayers. The Psalter thus extends its influence on all the rest of Scripture in one way or another. If this is so, then it is by no means unreasonable to assert that any hymn that is biblical in content reflects the teaching of the Psalter.

Of course, no case whatsoever can be made for a position that says we must all learn Hebrew so that we will sing the Psalter in the original language. That would again commit the word-concept fallacy. The content of Scripture can be translated into other languages, and it is the content of Scripture that we want available to us. Translation of Scripture is implied in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, among other places.

So the EP proponent, if he admits the force of this argument, might respond by saying, “Well, as long as we have the content of the Psalter, then we are good.” However, once one has gotten over the hump of the word-concept fallacy, the whole game is given away, because of what I wrote two paragraphs ago. It seems to me that the claim that we must only sing the inspired Psalms is an essential linch-pin in the EP argument. Without it, the whole thing collapses to the ground. The EP proponents singing metrical Psalms in English are not singing the inspired Psalms, because they are not singing the original Hebrew.

My position is that we must sing only what is biblical. But by the term “biblical” I mean what is biblical in content. We do not need to sing only the very words of Scripture. Otherwise we would have to sing in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. We need to sing the content of Scripture. There is a continuum, therefore, of “biblicalness” when it comes to what we sing. Some can only marginally be called Scriptural. Songs like “In the Garden” have content that can be argued as being anti-biblical (really, an experience that none other has ever known? Are you the recipient of direct divine revelation or something? What kind of walking and talking with me is the song singing about?). We should aim, therefore, to ask the right question: is this hymn biblical in its content?

Up to Some Good (I Hope)

(Posted by Paige)

It’s been a while since I had time or thought enough to post anything here. Much of my brain space lately has gone into planning and carrying out the home-schooling of a high-schooler – I get to prep him for the English and History APs this year! – and much of my writing time has gone into building up an online library of Biblical Literacy materials.

But here is one thing I can share with you, as a resource to pass along to anyone who would like to gain a bit more knowledge of the big sweep of redemptive history. This is a 36-minute talk that I put together for a Bible conference this October, one of several short presentations that I’ve offered to introduce the Women in the Word Workshop in Willow Grove, PA. (Please note that while the context was a women’s Bible conference, the content is not gender-specific!) My creative entrée into the Big Picture this year was the progressive development of the figure and the idea of “The Christ” in Scripture.

This is on YouTube not because it’s a video of me talking, but ‘cause I made some snazzy slides to go with it. (But it’s possible to listen without looking, if you prefer to multi-task.) Enjoy!

S.D.G.

The Insider Movement and the Word-Concept Fallacy

Debate was rather heated in the PCA General Assembly this year over a motion to include a statement to the effect of saying that the Muslims and the Christians worship the same God. It is usually felt by people who believe this that such a statement can be an effective bridge for evangelism to Muslims. They will also usually state the obvious, that the Arabic word for God is Allah, and so Arabic translations have the word “Allah” in the Bible. Therefore they have the same God that we do.

There are a number of serious problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, the implication of such a statement is that the Trinity is not central to the Christian idea of God, but is an optional add-on. Folks, are we really willing to say that about the Trinity? That it is optional? I would think Athanasius would be rolling in his grave at the suggestion.

Secondly, the argument from the word “Allah” commits the word-concept fallacy. This fallacy happens when someone claims that because a word is present, therefore a particular concept is also present. In this case, the argument states that because we both use the same word for God in Arabic, that therefore we both pour the same meaning into the word. This is not a legitimate move. I can use the word “lie” to mean a falsehood. Just because someone else uses the word “lie” to mean recline does not mean that we have the same definition of the word “lie.” Now, it is a little more complicated than that with the example of “God,” because some things that Muslims believe about God resemble some things that Christians believe about God, whereas there is no overlap at all between “falsehood” and “recline.” Still, it remains true that Muslims and Christians mean something very different by the name “God.” I have no problem at all with Arabic translations using the name “Allah” for “God.” We do not argue about words, but about the meaning of those words.

I would argue that this very difference is an evangelistic tool. Why tell a Muslim something that we are just going to have to retract later on? The situation reminds me of the mentality of the seeker-sensitive movement, which winds up dumbing down the message of Christianity in the interests of getting them in the door. The problem is that they don’t stay in the door, because there is nothing very different between the church and the world. It is the worship that is extremely different from anything the world has that actually perks up people’s interest, to the point of them saying, “Why is this different? What do they have that I don’t have?” Similarly with Muslims, I do not believe it is helpful to start out by saying something that is grossly misleading at best, and heretical at worst. It is far better to tell them of the love of Jesus Christ, and to keep on directing them there. The love of God and the grace that Christianity offers in the Gospel is a far more effective evangelism tool.

East and West on Spiration

When discussing the doctrine of the Trinity, something that comes up very quickly is the difference between the Eastern churches and the Western churches on how the Holy Spirit is spirated (or breathed out, or processing). The West added a small modifier to the Nicene Creed (this happened at the third Council of Toledo in 589). The original ran “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.” The Council of Toledo added the phrase “and from the Son,” indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son. This clause is called “the Filioque clause.” The Latin “Filioque” means “and from the Son.” This procession, of course, happens in eternity, not in time, in parallel to the Son’s eternal begottenness from the Father. The East objected to this phrase, since they believed that the Father was the only fount (Latin, fons) of divinity. They equated “fons” with the person of the Father. The West believed that, aside from unbegottenness, everything that the Father has He gave to the Son. If that is true, then the Father also gave the power of spiration to the Son. Attempts have been made recently to try to reconcile the two positions. The usual formulation is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. This does not entirely solve the problem, since it could be interpreted to mean that the Son is a mere conduit through which spiration passes. It seems to me that there is a better way, and that is simply to make a logical distinction (not a distinction of essence, mind you) between the character of the Father’s spiration and that of the Son’s spiration. For it must be acknowledged, even by the most die-hard Westerner, that the Son’s ability to spirate the Spirit comes from the Father. So, why not simply say that the Father’s spiration is original, while the Son’s spiration of the Spirit is derived (eternally, of course, not in time, since we are speaking of a communication of essence)? That would preserve the East’s concern about the Father being the fount of divinity, while preserving the West’s concern that the spiration of the Spirit does not leave the Son “out in the cold,” so to speak. Spiration cannot be an attribute of the personhood of the Father, then, because, it is something that He communicates to His Son. The personal attributes are those that belong only to one of the three Persons. What do you think?

Ferguson’s Address

This address is entitled “Losing My Religion.” The text is Psalm 119:97-100. The goal of this address is two-fold: to increase our desire to read the Word of God, and then to read good books.

Christianity today is definitely a mile wide and possibly less than an inch deep. We need to be delivered from the notion that we have got it right in our churches. The real work of the church is to worship God, and seek His glory and majesty. We need to devote ourselves to intercessory prayer. We need to devote ourselves to the Word. At the end of Hebrews 5 (which deals with a very high Christology), it becomes evident that we have become hard of hearing.

Three reasons why we should pursue a greater knowledge of God. 1. This (the pursuit of a greater knowledge of God) is the reason for which God regenerated us. 2. Christ has specifically taught us about this. See Mark 12:28-34. Jesus adds to the Shema the phrase “with all your mind.” We are not in a culture that associates “love” with the mind. We will not have any affection for God without love of God in the mind. Psalm 119 emphasizes that we love the Word of God. In John 13-17, while the disciples need help because they are frightened and beleaguered, what does Jesus do but teach them about the Trinity? Jesus is saying that if they are going to get through this hardship and other hardships in the future, then they need to know who God is on a much deeper level. Far from being speculative and irrelevant, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most unspeculative, and one of the most relevant. But we won’t know this unless we dig into the Word of God. 3. Because this has life-transforming power. See especially Romans 12:1-2. John Stott said that the secret of holy living lies in the mind. Colossians 3:1 is important here as well. What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? This question has a tendency to reveal our utterly carnality. It is always a challenge to fill our minds with the things of Philippians 4:8.

There are three strategies for pursuing a greater knowledge of God. 1. We need to place our lives under the living ministry of the Word of God in a church. This is God’s central instrument that He uses to shape our lives. This is an argument for the regular means of grace. Some might say “But the preacher is no better than I am.” Calvin’s Institutes, however, would say that this is precisely the point. We sit under Christ. The minister is just an instrument. The Word does its own work. See Acts 6:7. The question should not be “What are we doing?” It should rather be, “What is the Word doing?” 1 Thess. 2:13 is also important. 2. We dig deeply into the Word for ourselves. Bible studies are not the same thing as digging for ourselves. 3. Learn together with all the saints (reading good books). There are great central books of Christian literature. Two great books is Calvin’s Institutes, and John Owen’s On Communion with God. Calvin taught Ferguson how to think Trinitarianly, and Owen taught Ferguson how to live Trinitarianly.

Is Van Til Orthodox on the Trinity?

This question has been a debated question in the blogosphere as well as in print. Van Til makes some startling statements in his An Introduction to Systematic Theology. In chapter 17 of that volume he makes the assertion that “God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person” (p. 363). This is not merely the same thing as saying that God’s essence has personality. Van Til says that “God is not an essence that has personality; he is absolute personality” (p. 364). In order to determine, therefore, whether Van Til is contradicting Trinitarian orthodoxy, the question that must be answered is this: does Van Til use the word “person” in the same sense in these statements of the uni-personality of God as he does in those statements concerning the tri-personality of God? If he uses them in the same sense, then he is unorthodox. If not, then he is merely guilty of difficult and confusing language (which is probably true regardless; I’ve never found VT easy reading!). Ultimately, I think Van Til is orthodox on this point, though I wish he had phrased himself more felicitously. My evidence is the following contextual clue that “person” does not mean the same thing in both contexts: “Yet, within the being of the one person we are permitted and compelled by Scripture to make the distinction between a specific or generic type of being and three personal subsistences” (p. 364). I believe that what Van Til means here is that the “specific or generic type of being” corresponds to the phrase “God is one person,” and that the phrase “three personal subsistences” refers to the tri-personality of the three persons. In other words, the distinction between “God is a person” and “God is three persons” is a distinction between a generic type of being (and therefore personality) as contrasted with the three relational persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is Van Til trying to safeguard here? The difficulty with traditional formulations is not that they are wrong, but that they can be understood wrongly to separate the essence of God from personality. It is not as if we can say that the essence of God happens to be personal, as if personality were an afterthought. I think the best way to say this is that God’s essence is absolutely personal. God is personal as His essence is divine personality. This is true in a generic sense, therefore using the adjective “personal” in a different way than in the tri-personality of the three distinct persons, although, by definition, the three persons are “personal” as well (not in the same sense).

The problem with Van Til’s language here is the confusion that can result from using “person” in these two different ways. He didn’t exactly make it clear that he was using the term in two different ways. Only by a judgment of charity can we come to that conclusion. Some are not willing to extend that judgment of charity to Van Til’s thought. I will close by quoting Bill Edgar’s footnote on Van Til’s statement, a helpful reminder of what VT was trying to do:

This is one of Van Til’s most original contributions to theology proper. As he said at the beginning of the chapter, to speak of God as one is to speak of God as a person. This fits our ordinary experience, as, for instance, when we pray, we pray to one person. It also fits biblical data that constantly refers to God as a person. By this reminder Van Til avoids two errors. The first is the tendency, found mostly in Western theology, of separating God’s essence, which becomes a remote inaccessible being, from the persons. The other is the neoorthodox error of reducing personality to relationship, rather than regarding it as the foundation of ontological consciousness.

The Trinity, Revisited

I have answered Doug’s previous post on his own blog. I am waiting for an answer to those comments. Meanwhile, we can move on to the Trinity.

My previous thoughts on the first major section are to be found here. I don’t have a whole lot to add. I wish to reaffirm the covenant of redemption as being the archetype of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. I believe that the articles in CJPM and BFA have established this position not only as exegetically tenable, but confessionally compelling. However, there is one massive caveat that must be issued with all such attempts at grounding covenantal theology in Trinitarian theology. We must be exceedingly careful to guard against a social Trinitarian doctrine in our formulations. In other words, we must say that there is One God, and that the intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption does not mean that the three persons of the Trinity somehow exist independently of each other and somehow need covenant in order to be considered one God. The Nicene formulation on this is clear: they have the same essence. They do not need covenant in order to be considered one God. They are one ontologically, even though the persons are distinct persons. This is a distinction that the aforementioned books have done very well. I do not think Ralph Smith has succeeded in this quite so admirably. I’m sure that if you were to ask Ralph Smith whether he believed in a social doctrine of the Trinity, he would say no. However, it does not seem to me to be apparent that he has sufficiently guarded against the social Trinitarianism implications. It should be fairly obvious, by the way, that this section on the Trinity is highly indebted to Ralph Smith’s books on the Trinity.  

Some Important Books on the Trinity

As some of you may know, I have been studying the Trinity rather extensively recently, and not just because it is important in the FV discussions. I have always loved this doctrine with my entire soul. So, I thought I’d put together a list of some of the more important books on the Trinity. In my opinion, the two most important are this book (volume 4 of the set) and this book. They complement each other very well, since one is a general historical, doctrinal study that does not pay much of any attention to the post-Reformation tradition, and the other fills that gap magnificently. So, if you read those two together, you will quite likely have a very adequte understanding of the Trinity, both in the Bible, and in church history (not to mention modern studies, as well!). For rounding out a yet more fully orbed study, I would recommend Augustine, Torrance, this book, which is a very nice collection of essays, and Aquinas. Yes, we should not neglect the Roman Catholics on the doctrine of the Trinity, because this is something we hold in common with them, and some of the more important theological reflection on the Trinity recently has been by Catholics (such as Rahner). For understanding the Trinity in the discussion of the FV, you need to start with Ralph Smith’s books here, here, and here. For modern feminist understandings of the Trinity, one could go with Lacugna. One cannot leave out Moltmann in modern discussion, or Pannenberg.

Trinity, Infinity, and Person

I am continuing to read volume four of Muller’s immensely important work, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume four deals with the Trinity. I came across this incredibly insightful and devastating analysis of Socinian theology (known today as Open Theism). Muller is talking about the definition of Person when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. The definition of Person has always been a description of one of the three subsistences within the Trinity. The Socinians objected to this, equating Person with Essence, such that if there was one essence, then there had to be only one Person.

As for the Socinian objection that a single essence implies a single person, Owen responds, “that in one essence there can be but one person may be true where the substance is finite and limited, but hath no place in that which is infinite.” This latter point is significant to the Socinian definition, inasmuch as the Socinian doctrine of God assumed a limited God… (Muller, PRRD IV, pg. 179)

Carl Trueman once told us in class that an error with regard to God’s sovereignty such as Open Theism would always lead back to a Trinitarian error. Now, I see why. Owen argued that the problem with the Socinian definition of person was that it assumed a limited substance. A limited substance obviously cannot have absolute authority over humanity. Therefore, a limited God such as the Socinian/Open Theistic God would be something less than a fully Trinitarian God.

Posted by Lane Keister

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