When Cornelius Van Til retired as an apologetics professor over 30 years ago, he and his apologetic method took a lot of criticism. While he was often touted by an erudite guard of academic supporters, effusing about his supreme and most biblical apologetic method, the feeling for many was: where's the argument?
But with Greg Bahnsen's potent entry as Van Til's finest advocate--this innovative method was no longer so quickly and mistakenly dismissed. You may or may not choose to be a presuppositionalist, but Van Til's contemporary admirers have shown that it's an effective way to defend the truth, a way to win debates, and, at times, an intellectual dynamism that produces outstanding books. Many of these books advocate an apologetic built and centered on Christian theology.
To these recognized distinctions, it is time to add one more: K. Scott Oliphint's "God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God."
Herein the reader discovers a powerful theological and apologetic resource built upon Christian philosophy in service to biblical doctrine. Professor Oliphint winsomely discusses God's ontology as the One who is wholly independent (His aseity) as the infinite omnipotent being. Oliphint offers outstanding explication concerning God's essential attributes and how the mysteries therein are answered in the person of Jesus Christ: the incarnation of the God who spoke to Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3).
The author discusses essentialism in relation to God's non-essential attributes: "Is it possible that God not create anything? The orthodox answer to this question is, of course, yes. To answer no would mean that God had to create the world, in which case there is no possible world in which God is not the Creator, and, therefore, the creation of the world would itself be necessary property of God's. But then God would have a necessary property (1) was not entailed by his own independence (since the necessity of God's creative activity would entail a dependence on something besides God) and (2) implied some kind of lack in God (since the necessity of something ad extra would mean that God was in need of it in order to be who he essentially is). So `being Creator' is not an essential property that God has."
Oliphint concentrates much of this volume on the revelation of Jesus Christ disclosing to His people God's character and His covenantal relation to them. The discussion concerning God's attributes utilizing Muller, Turretin, and Bavinck make this an important resource for the minister, apologist, theologian, and student. God's ontic stature revealed to men is the foundation for a suitable epistemic standing as one learns that epistemology necessarily relates to ontology.
"It would not be an overstatement to say that the way to a proper understanding of God and his character is given foremost in a proper understanding of the Son Of God come in the flesh, Jesus Christ" (p. 10).
The author opines regarding an aspect of the Creator/Creature distinction: "This should not be surprising, though it is tragic. It is the temptation par excellence for man to see himself as more exalted, or at least to desire such a thing, all the while seeking to place God on a par with his human creatures. The temptation, "You will be like God," was the undoing of humanity, and its infection continues to spread through human hearts in the course of history" (p. 12).
One of Professor Oliphint's aims: "I hope to avoid that temptation in this book. Assumed throughout will be the bedrock truth of God's essential character interests with ours. He is God, and we are not. He is God and there is no other. His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. (Isa. 55:9) His judgements are unsearchable and his ways inscrutable. No one has known the mind of the Lord, and no one has become his counselor. He is no man's debtor" (p. 12).
Oliphint rightly presses the importance of God and His attributes as the source of one's view: "The first thing that is necessary to grasp about the attributes, properties, or perfections (which I use as synonyms) of God, therefore, is that a basic distinction must be maintained between God as he is and exists in himself and God as he condescends. The theological (i.e., biblical) reason for this distinction is that it is obvious that before anything was created, there was and has always been God. That is, God himself is not essentially subject to time; he does not, according to his essential character, live, move, and have his being in a temporal context. He has no beginning and will have no end. Not only so, but before there was anything created, there was only God. It is not as though things existed- ideas, concepts, properties, and so forth-alongside God prior to creation" (p. 13).
"We should note here that to speak in temporal terms in referring to a nontemporal state of affairs (i.e., the existence of God) is still wholly accurate, given that God himself, in his Word, does the same thing (see Eph. 1:4, 20) There is no other way for finite creatures to refer to such things, be neither is there a need for such" (p. 13).
Some aspects of Oliphint's exposition, apropos God taking on covenantal properties (God, within His aseity, takes on properties that His eternal being did not have, distinct from His divine essence, before Creation), may be controversial, with good reason, in some circles; nonetheless the conversation needs to be advanced. How this concept relates to God's simplicity and immutability is problematic for finite men to designate. God acted in human history which culminated with divine condescension through the incarnation and its ongoing extension. This prompts questions regarding the utilization of theological categories like where do the new properties abide? How are they connected to God's immutable attributes? How does God retain His immutability if something is added to His ontic status? Are these ontic categories (covenantal) an aspect of God's substance, action, or thoughts? How is God an eternal Creator? These and other issues are not easily resolved; mysteries remain as finite men attempt to grasp truths concerning the infinite. Thus philosophical theology must press on as it proceeds from the revelation of God; philosophy is obligated to remain in service to theology.
The good professor observes: "So, in keeping with Reformed thought, how do we think of God's properties relative of his being? Perhaps the best we can do is to affirm that all these essential properties, while being identical to each other, are, nevertheless, I some way modally distinct. That is, their distinctions lie in their mode of existence within the Godhead. Somewhat analogous to our understanding of the Trinity, we can affirm both that there are distinctions within the Godhead and that there is only once essence, who is God. As in our understanding of the Trinity, therefore, we do not posit that what we have in God's properties are essentially different `things'; what we do posit that what we have is a distinction with no essential difference. God is, as tribune, both one (essence) and three (persons). So also we affirm that he is essentially both one (essence) and many (properties), without in any way allowing for essential composition in God or for a real essential difference in him."
Oliphint's Van Tilian theology, with its almost evidential void, would seem the very opposite of apologetic muscle. It's philosophy in subjection to theology! How essential is it to know about God's aseity? And how can that necessary truth properly be conveyed to a non-Christian?
But the theological force and philosophical care is precisely what makes "God with Us" a valuable resource. It provides a scripture-based foundation for theology and apologetics: God and His character, His power and utter uniqueness. All this in accessible prose, bestowed for the analysis of the budding theologian or apologist. Scholars have Muller for the historical view, Van Inwagen for the very minute philosophical exactitudes, Van Til for apologetic methodology, and now they have "God with Us" to understand how to communicate these truths to the non-specialist.
On God's Independence: "The aseity of God, therefore, must be the place on which we stand in order to assert anything else about him, given that anything else we say about him depends for its proper understanding and meaning on that aseity. Or, to put it a bit more succinctly, unless God is a se (of himself), he is not God, and no characterization of God that excludes aseity can be trust of him. Any theology that denies or otherwise negates this aseity cannot be sustained as a true, biblical doctrine of God. A god who is not a se, and thus who is essentially dependent, is god who is unable to be God. In order for God to be who is, he must be and remain essentially independent" (pp. 17-19).
Concerning proper interpretation, he author stresses Moises Silva's words: "Our evangelical view of the unity of Scripture demands that we see the whole Bible as the context of any on part... To the extent that we view the whole of Scripture as having come from one Author, therefore, to that extent a systematic understanding of the Bible contributes to the exegesis of individual passages" ( p. 23).
Oliphint on the selective difference between paradox and antimony: "Antinomy ... has to do with the state of affairs... Thus, it is more metaphysical than epistemological ... because the focus of an antinomy is on laws that are an essential aspect of certain entities, the primary concern has to do with the way thing are. As Van Til notes, it has to do with the way God is- his character as a se, his unchangeable decree, etc.- on the one hand, the way the universe or people in the universe are, on the other hand. This conflict of laws is something that obtains whether or not we believe it or able to formulate it. Paradox, in the way that I will use it, has to do with the articulation of antinomies, or the posting of things that seem contradictory. A paradox involves conflicting or seemingly contradictory propositions that themselves are presumed to be true" (p. 37).
* About the Attributes
* Hermeneutics and Theology Proper
* The I Am
* Essential Characteristics
* Eimi/Eikon Distinction
* Before Abraham was...
* Christology guides Theology Proper
* The Son of God With Us
* And more. 300 pages.
"The trinitarian argument leads to a distinction between incarnations as the common work (opus commune) of all person int he Trinity which terminates in the person of the Son and the assumption of human nature, which, in a restrictive sense, is the personal work of the Son alone. Inchoatively, the incarnation is a common work of the divine persons but terminatively it is the work of the Son. In this latter sense, incarnation is the opus proprium [proper work] of the Son, a personal rather than essential work, not a common but an economical or dispensative work" (p. 174).
Oliphint rejects any real contradiction in the revelation concerning Yahweh: "In all of this we must keep in mind, however, that there is no antinomy or contradiction in God. He is completely and exhaustively coherent in all that he says, does, and is.. Thus, the admission of antinomy and paradox in Christianity points us to the complexity of God's simplicity, the unfathomable depth that is God complete and incomprehensible perfection, for which, among other things, we worship him" ( p. 226).
"One final point must be made, however, with respect to my general methodology and critique. Suppose it is argued, given what I have said, that since God takes on covenantal properties, some of which appears to undermine his aseity (e.g., his give-and-take responses to us), it is no stretch of mind to affirm that God also takes on the covenantal property of risk, in which he, though essentially a se, determines to take a "hands off" approach in his relationship to us. Or more radically, suppose someone wants to argue that God's taking on covenantal properties includes, for example, the fact he does have a strong arm, and like. The answer to these kinds of arguments must be the beacon that drives all of our discussions of this sort. This answer is that God's character and properties-whether essential or covenantal- cannot be driven by pure deduction. They must be understood only in the light of Holy Scriptures" (pp. 278-279).
A couple of criticisms: Overall this volume is a smooth read for the non-scholar, nonetheless the author should have provided a Glossary for terms that selected readers may not be familiar with. Additionally, the author is generally very careful in his contentions, but in a few places, perhaps, he should have employed less universal assertions: "... God's condensation, which is expressed by way of covenant, has not been taken seriously enough" (p. 14). Yet it has been taken with deep gravity by countless scholars, so perhaps this statement, and a few others, could have been posited with greater precision.
"God With Us" is a rigorous and lucid presentation of the character of God revealed in Christ; its meaning and application. Oliphint's Reformed emphasis gathers from well-established scholars while adding his own insightful and discerning argumentation. He has brought Theology Proper to a new generation of readers as he engages current thought for use in the pulpit, classroom, apologetic encounters, and philosophy. This volume is a lively escort to an essential subject. My FULL review is on my site.
By Mike A Robinson
Author of "Truth, Knowledge, and the Reason for God."