God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God
[This review is from the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.”]
K. Scott Oliphint. God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 302pp.
Review by Ryan Lister
To help understand the issue K. Scott Oliphint seeks to address in his new book, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God, imagine two parallel lines. The top line represents God as he is in himself (God a se). The bottom line symbolizes God in relationship with creation (God a re). Historically, there has always been a vast divide between these two aspects of God’s nature. In other words, God’s essential nature—that of his independence—has been held distinct from God’s covenantal nature, or the nature revealed in his free decision to draw near to his people. As a consequence, Christians have constantly struggled with how to answer the question, ““How do we, biblically, organize our thinking about God and his character, given the reality (1) of his independence and (2) of those texts in Scripture that indicate his dependence on creation?” (29)
In God With Us, Oliphint rethinks the whole structure of the argument. Instead of accepting the division between the two parallel lines—one line representing God’s essential properties and the other representing his covenant properties (what he also terms eimi/eikon)—Oliphint argues that these outwardly contradictory properties actually intersect in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. In his own words, “the properties of [the covenantal and essential] aspects of God’s character are properly attributed to his person, and that person is the Son of God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ” (221). So, according to Oliphint, we find in Christ’s incarnation a model and, even more, a means by which God can have both essential properties (those related to his own deity) and assume covenantal properties (those related to his relationship with creation) in himself.
To say the least, this is a fascinating thesis and so too is his approach. God With Us contains six major movements, beginning with an introduction and advancing through five very careful and thorough chapters. To begin, Oliphint clears the way for his central argument by using his introduction to define his hermeneutical approach, discuss the relationship of systematics and biblical studies, and make clear distinctions between antimonies and paradoxes.
With this groundwork laid, Oliphint turns his attention in chapter 1 to the nature of God as he is in himself. In a wise move, he highlights the divine names, specifically the name Yahweh, a name he argues points to God’s independence. The discussion then turns to God’s simplicity, infinity (eternity and immensity), immutability, and impassibility, all of which develop what it means for God to be independent. At chapter’s end, Oliphint ties these introductory matters to his overriding thesis, arguing that in order to understand the essential attributes of God, we must understand these attributes both “from the perspective of the character of God as God” and also from the “context of the person and work of Christ himself” (88).
In chapter 2, the focus shifts from a discussion of God as he is in himself in his independence to a discussion of the Lord’s voluntary covenantal condescension—meaning, God’s free decision to draw near to his people. Like chapter 1, this section concludes with Oliphint’s hinting at his thesis. Here he claims that the climatic, quintessential revelation of God’s condescension is found in Jesus Christ, whose very nature is the key to comprehending the relationship between God’s essential properties (the subject matter of chapter 1) and covenant properties (the subject matter of chapter 2).
To build his argument, Chapter 3 details the very nature of God in Christ and, more explicitly, how Christ is God’s supreme act of revelation. As one might imagine, this chapter’s theological content becomes quite rigorous as Oliphint moves his readers through such critical topics as the Chalcedonian definition of the hypostatic union, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, unio personalis, the reduplicative theory, a lengthy discussion of the communicatio idiomatum, and the extra calvinisticum. And though the technical elements of this chapter will no doubt cost Oliphint some readers along the way, the payoff is worth it if we keep the “big picture” of his thesis in mind. Remember that the purpose of God With Us is to show how Christ reveals God’s character and how God, in his independence, still relates to his creation in a way we can understand. The theological precision of chapter 3 is necessary because it forms a tight and meticulous argument to explain that “in [Christ], we have the perfect union of God and creation in the uniting of the two natures in the one person” (156) that he becomes “our guide as we attempt to understand and interpret God’s interaction with, and relation to, creation (172).”
With his christological argument in place, Oliphint’s begins his methodological assessment of how Christ actually helps us “organize and understand why Scripture attributes properties to God throughout covenant history that are difficult to reconcile with his obvious and essential character as a se” (220). In chapter 4 the thesis of God With Us comes alive because it is here that Oliphint argues that Christ is our “hermeneutic” for God. In other words, Christology should instruct theology proper. To justify this claim, he applies all that we learned christologically in Chapter 3 to our understanding of God and his relation to creation. Oliphint argues that the deity and humanity of Christ forms a type of analogy or model for understanding the relationship between God’s aseity and covenantal relationships. More specifically, he applies the christological properties of the communicatio idiomatum, extra calvinisticum, reduplicative theory, and the Chalcedonian classification of Christ’s two natures (Christ without confusion, change, division, or separation) to God himself. He believes that making this connection between these christological properties allows us to better understand why Scripture appears to ascribe apparent conflicting attributes to God. Oliphint, however, understands Christology to be more than just a paradigm for theology proper. As he explains later, he sees “all of God’s dealings with creation as necessarily entailing that God has assumed properties not essential to him” (221). For Oliphint, then, both the essential (God as he is himself) and covenantal (God as he relates to his creation) properties apply to God through the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God. Chapter 4 is what all of God With Us leads up to; it is the heart of his proposal. And though it takes a while to get to there, the challenge to the standard conceptions of God’s properties and our understanding of his relation to creation is worth the journey.
Finally in his last chapter, Oliphint takes time to apply his thesis to a few central areas of debate concerning the intersection of God’s independent and relational attributes. God With Us concludes by showing us how Christ interprets God, and, more specifically, how the Lord takes on “covenantal properties” and yet does not “confuse, change, divide, or separate his essential properties from those which he has freely chosen to take” (222).
In God With Us, Oliphint has done the church a great service. Here, you have an orthodox and reformed theologian working at the very crux of theology in an innovative, insightful and, even more, a christocentric way. Oliphint’s predominantly philosophical and theological approach (he leans heavily, at times too heavily, on Muller, Calvin, Van Til, and other reformed thinkers) demands a lot of his readers which I am sure will limit his audience. However, for those willing to work through the material there is much good to take from his proposal. He calls us to see the tension between God’s transcendence and immanence and helps “restart” the discussion on God’s independent and covenant properties in a way that is orthodox and biblical and also creative and adept. His application of Christology to theology proper is very promising and prepares the way for Oliphint and perhaps others to develop this thesis further.
Still, God With Us leaves us with a few questions. First, is Christ the only hermeneutic by which we understand God’s relationship to the world? Such an emphasis, at times, feels as if other avenues of revelation concerning God’s nature are overlooked. Specifically, does the emphasis on Christ’s revelation of God down play the importance of God’s revelation of himself in the rest of redemptive history and Scripture as a whole?
Similarly, though I think Oliphint is correct in seeing theology proper through the lens of christology, do we not also need to see christology through the lens of theology proper? This balance is worth emphasizing as it protects collapsing the Father into the Son and vice versa. There are distinctions between the three persons of the Godhead and applying the relationship of Christ’s divinity and humanity to God’s essential and covenantal properties needs to be cast in the light of these distinctions as well. I think Oliphint does this in his discussion of the reduplicative theory, the communicatio idiomatum, and the extra calvinisticum but some further barriers would benefit his thesis and audience.
Yet these issues are minimal compared to the good that will come from God With Us. It is a work that forces us to think hard about the Lord and his relationship to the world and reminds us of the importance of seeing God in light of Christ. Overall, Oliphint provides us with an exciting proposal for theology proper and a responsible call to engage this theological conundrum in an original and God-honoring way. In the end, God With Us is an insightful perspective demonstrating philosophically, biblically, and theologically how the seemingly parallel lines of God’s independent and covenant attributes intersect in the quintessential revelation of God, Jesus Christ.
Ryan Lister (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Louisiana College.
Read other reviews in the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations.”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) These words, spoken by Jesus after his resurrection, are famously known as The Great Commission. As disciples of Christ, it is our great joy to go and tell the nations about the good news of salvation for sinners through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. The March issue of Credo Magazine will seek to ignite a passion for missions. And what better timing as this year marks the 200th anniversary of Adoniram and Ann Judson setting sail aboard the Caravan with to take the gospel to Burma. Contributors include: Ted Kluck, Jason Duesing, Nathan Finn, the Housley Family (missionaries in Papua New Guinea), Kenneth Stewart, Brian Vickers, David VanDrunen, Matt Williams, and many others.