Volume 30 - Issue 1
Most Moved MediatorBy K. Scott Oliphint
The current movement called, generally, ‘open theism’ seems to undermine or subvert the very Christianity that it wants to maintain. This is for at least two reasons.
In the first place, any view that minimises or reduces God’s ‘God-ness’, including his absolute sovereignty over his creation, appeals directly, though subtly, to our sinful hearts. We, in our sins, long to be autonomous. We long to have God at our beck and call, and then to offer him our worship once he is domesticated. Surely one of the primary lessons of church history is that to attribute absolute sovereignty to God is a most difficult mental and spiritual exercise. The view that God has given up his sovereignty for our sakes has, regrettably, been predominant in Christian history, and, conversely, holding fast to the teaching of God’s absolute sovereignty has been an unpopular and taxing effort in the church.
In the second place, behind a mask of concern for biblical truth, a supposed rejection of Hellenistic ideas, and an attempt to emphasise God’s relationality, lies either an ignorance or (perhaps worse) a rejection of the hard-fought richness of the controlling motifs of Scripture (and thus of theology), motifs that have demonstrated the beauty of orthodoxy while at the same time motivating the saints through the ages to worship and praise him for who he is. The god of open theism is not to be praised, but pitied; he is a pathetic excuse for a god, one that would fit well within the ancient Greek pantheon.
It is this second reason that will be pursued here. The first is equally important. There is an abundance of literature, however, going back at least to Augustine’s battle with Pelagius, that deals head-on with those who would want to assert their autonomy from God. In the second concern, there are subtleties, nuances and sub-texts that need to be displayed in order to see the openness view as the mess of pottage that it is.
It is beyond controversy among orthodox Christians and theologians that the motif of Scripture centres around the person and work of Christ. Christ himself rebuked the Pharisees for searching the Scriptures and not finding him there (John 5:39f.). The Scriptures of which he spoke were, of course, the OT. Though the details of God’s climactic revelation in his Son were learned progressively in redemptive history, those who looked to God’s special revelation were required, within the confines of the revelation present to them, to see God’s Messiah there.
One prominent example of this messianic or christological motif in the OT is found in that momentous passage in Exodus 3, a passage that was meant to form the context for all of God’s dealings with Israel under the Old Covenant.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lordappeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ And he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’ Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations (Exodus 3:1–15).1
There are a number of truths given to us in this text, some which we cannot elaborate here. At least three truths, however, that are evident in this passage, help us to see more clearly the superficiality of the minimised god of open theism.
First, how God initially identifies himself to Moses:
And he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
The first way in which the Lord describes himself, is as Moses’ God, the God of Moses’ father, Abraham. This is typical throughout the OT when God wants his people to know that he is their God (note Exod. 6:7, for example, as well as Jer. 7:23, 11:4, etc.). He identifies himself as the covenant God. Notice, just prior to this passage in Exodus 3, we read in Exodus 2:24–25:
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
The mention of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is meant to remind us of God’s relationship to his people, a people of his own choosing (John 15:16), and a people for God’s own possession (1 Pet. 2:9). Exodus 3 opens with the reminder that God is a covenant God, and that he knew the sufferings of his people in Egypt.
When God appears to Moses in the burning bush, he announces himself as the God of the covenant, more specifically, as Moses’ God, and thus as the God of Israel.
The passage is, therefore, replete with covenant language. Notice, Exodus 3:7, 9:
Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings … And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.
The openness movement would have us believe that the finite god of Israel just happened to glance at his people in Egypt and then, because what he happened to notice moved him to act, he determined to do something about it.
What God is actually saying to Moses, however, is an elaboration of his initial announcement to him. He is telling Moses just what it means that he is a covenant God. There is an intensity about the language that communicates clearly that God is identifying himself with the suffering of his people. That intensity is communicated, in the first place, when God says that he has ‘surely seen’ the suffering of his people.2 In the second place, we are told twice (once in 2:25 and again in 3:7) that God knows the suffering of his people. In the context of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people it would be impossible to understand God’s ‘knowing’ in these passages as something intellectual or strictly mental, as if God learned something at a given point in the history of his people. The ‘knowing’ here is covenantal knowing. It is the kind of knowing, for example, that we see in Genesis 4:1, where Adam ‘knew’ Eve and she conceived. It is a knowing of identity, a knowing of intimacy, a knowing that highlights the union of the ones known to the Knower (see Isaiah 63:9ff.).
God comes to Moses, then, and announces two things. First, he announces his covenant status; he announces that he is a covenant God and as the covenant God he has identified himself with the suffering of his people. Second, Moses has been chosen as God’s instrument to deliver the Lord’s people from their bondage.
The second thing to note in this text is that, as Moses is called to the task of deliverer, he claims to need more information. He may have realised the commitment of God to do what he said he would do, but he also realises that, if he is to be God’s instrument, he would need to know as much as possible about the authority of the One who is sending him. So, he asks for God’s name. He wants to know what God is like; he wants to know exactly who it is that is sending him into Egypt. And God says to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’
This revelation of God’s name has prompted significant discussion among commentators. Without reproducing the controversies surrounding this text, we should highlight a few points that are crucial for understanding what God is revealing here.
The medieval view of this text was that God is revealing himself here as the self-existent One. This is criticised by many contemporary OT scholars on the grounds that issues like the aseity of God would not cross the mind of an ancient Israelite. This, however, certainly cannot be the case, given the history of God’s dealings with his people. This interpretation speaks more about the influence of Immanuel Kant on current hermeneutics, than about the text itself.
We should note, however, that, without question, in this text God is declaring his self-existence. Though he initially announces himself as the God who is with his people, and thus in history, when he is asked to give his name, he announces himself as the God who is also above history; he alone is the ‘I am.’
One of the reasons that some commentators are confused about what God is saying here is due to their fascination with the etymology of the phrase, to the neglect of its revelational context. It is virtually impossible to discover simply by analysis of terms the significance of this divine name. Rather, the significance of the divine name is to be seen, not from etymological considerations, but particularly from revelational considerations. In part, what God is saying here is, ‘If you want to know who I am, watch and see my inner character from my mighty acts. I am who I am, in and of myself, and who I am to and for you.’ This is the presupposition of all Christian theology—that God is in himself, what he is to us and for us.
Rather than isolating the pronouncing of the divine name from the context in which it is revealed, we can only properly understand it within that very context. Yahweh does indeed reveal his divine independence. In the context of the Exodus narrative he proves himself to be unlimited, not constrained by temporal categories. More generally, he announces himself as one who is independent of the created order and therefore sovereign over it. ‘I am who I am’ indicates that, by contrast, for example, with Moses, who is what he was and will become what he is, who had a beginning and an end in human history, God possesses his existence without beginning, without end, without explanation beyond himself. The ultimate fact of divine revelation is that God is who he is, without cause, without beginning or end. Of God alone can it be said, ‘He is who he is’.
This is precisely what was modelled for Moses in the event of divine revelation that was given with the word-revelation. This ‘show and tell’ method of God’s revelation seems, too, to have been under-emphasised all too often. God often tells us who he is by giving us an earthly picture, or analogy, of who he is.3 It is not an insignificant detail that what draws Moses into God’s presence is a picture of who God is. There is no analogy in the creation for the independent and the uncreated. As a result God creates a picture of his character in the burning bush. The fire does not derive its burning from the context in which it burns. It is self-generated, contradicting all rules of creation. The bush is on fire, but the fire is not dependent on the bush; it possesses its own energy. There is, it seems, a deliberate and revelational sign given by God to unveil the significance, both of God’s covenantal revelation to Moses, as well as his revelation of the divine name—‘I am who I am.’
We should see then that the unburning bush shows on the one hand, the absolute independence of God, that he possesses being in and of himself in a manner that is without precedence in all of creation. It points to an ontological truth. The ultimate fact about God that makes the human mind stagger and reel, because we have no categories to describe or understand this element of the existence of God, is that he simply is. But it also shows, on the other hand, that, while remaining the ‘I Am,’ while remaining a se, while remaining God, God is nevertheless with his people, just as the fire was with the bush. The significance of the bush that did not burn, was that, in any other circumstance, the fire would need the bush in order to be fire. Not only so, but once used as fuel, the bush itself would be consumed by the fire. In what Moses saw, however, neither did the fire need the bush, nor was the bush consumed. The ‘I Am’ has covenanted with his people, therefore as he abides with them they are not destroyed.
Here, then, is the beauty of God’s character, a character that is nonexistent in openness theology. It is the wonderful mystery of the God who is a se, eternally and immutably dependent on nothing but himself, covenanting with us, relating to us, in such a way that we can know and love him.
Thirdly, once we understand this, once we see the supreme significance of God’s announcement of his name in the context of his covenant, the most important words to understand in this passage are the four in verse 8, ‘I have come down’.4 These four words could easily serve to frame the core of our understanding of God from Genesis to Revelation. There is no way to understand both who God is and his dealings with his creation without seeing this principle running throughout Scripture. It is the ‘Yarad’ (dry) principle; it is the Emmanuel (God with us) principle. It is the principle of the covenant.
This principle is nothing new in the history of theology. It has been set out clearly, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter seven:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (my emphasis).
What, then, is the principle of the covenant, according to the Confession? In order for God to relate to us, in order for there to be a commitment on the part of God to his people and more broadly to his creation, there had to be a ‘voluntary condescension’ on God’s part. In order for us to have anything to do with God whatsoever, God had first to ‘come down’, to stoop to our level. So, says Calvin:
For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.5
What does God’s divine ‘stoop’ look like? It looks like the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), it looks like the angel of the Lord (which is the Lord himself) calling to Abraham (Gen. 22), or to Moses (Exod. 3), or to Israel (Judg. 2). It is because of his voluntary condescension, that the Lord protects and delivers his people (e.g., Ps. 34:7), and fights for them (e.g., Is. 37:36). All of this ‘relationality’ on the part of Yahweh, the ‘I am’, can only happen because he willingly decided to condescend to our level, to the level of the created.
This is the ‘Yarad’ principle. It is unveiled explicitly in the symbol of the burning bush and its manifestation of God’s inner being. The transcendent One is not a prisoner of his own transcendence, but in his transcendence is able to dwell among his people. Here we have in miniature an extraordinary illustration of that undying biblical principle that God’s ultimate purpose in creation, while he maintains his ‘God-ness’, is to dwell with his people. Throughout all of Scripture, God creates holy space so to dwell with his people, to manifest his immanence until the consummation when there is no temple, for all is holy space and holy time—the ultimate manifestation of what we see in the burning bush. God is not a prisoner of his transcendence, unlike ourselves who are prisoners of our lack of it. As the transcendent One, he dwells among his people; he is transcendent while determining in his love to be immanent as well.
This visual revelation, the act revelation, of the burning bush is a sign, a parable revealing who God is. It is expressive of the principle of divine independence (aseity). The divine name is to be understood covenantally and redemptively. The exegesis of the words, ‘I am,’ implies that who God is may be seen and understood from the covenantal redemptive activities that surround the Exodus.
We see this again in the continuity that is stressed between the covenant revelation given to the patriarchs and the new revelation in and through Moses. Yahweh is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Exodus 3 and 6 make it clear that what is to take place in Exodus takes place in the light of the specifics of the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Note the significance of the words in Exodus 6:2–6:
God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement.
So if it is true that word and deed revelation are inextricably linked—the deeds exegete the words and the word illumines the deeds—then the revelation at the burning bush expresses not only God’s absolute independence (though that is clear enough), but also that in his absolute transcendence he is capable of immanence, and that as the immanent One he reveals himself as the covenant making Redeemer who depends on no one to be who he is and to do what he will do.
This ‘Yarad principle’ is, in one sense, quite basic to our understanding of all of Scripture. It is the principle that we must use in order to understand just how it is that God can remain who he is while at the same time interacting with his creation. The Yarad principle of the exodus becomes the Emmanuel principle of the new exodus, the deliverance from bondage to sin of the Lord’s people.
Note, for example, how devoid of this basic principle the openness folk appear to be. After stating that Scripture doesn’t speak of God as timeless, William Hasker notes:
The other main difficulty about divine timelessness is that it is very hard to make clear logical sense of the doctrine. If God is truly timeless, so that temporal determinations of ‘before’ and ‘after’ do not apply to him, then how can God act in time?… How can he know what is occurring on the changing earthly scene? How can he respond when his children turn to him in prayer and obedience? And above all, if God is timeless and incapable of change, how can God be born, grow up, live with and among people, suffer and die, as we believe he did as incarnated in Jesus (emphasis mine)?6
Or consider Gregory Boyd:
My fundamental thesis is that the classical theological tradition became misguided when, under the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, it defined God’s perfection in static, timeless terms. All change was considered an imperfection and thus not applicable to God. Given this definition of divine perfection, there was no way to conceive of God as entertaining real possibilities (emphasis mine).7
Or Clark Pinnock:
According to Scripture, God moves with his people through time. He is even described as wondering what they are going to do next! God says ‘I thought, after she has done all this, she will return to me, but she did not return’ (Jer. 3:7). God had thought he could bless his people but they proved unfaithful (Jer. 3:19–20). God had planted a pleasant vineyard and put a lot of effort into it but it yielded only wild grapes, and in Isaiah 5:1–4 he asks why. He had hope for things to happen which did not happen and he was disappointed. God existed before creation and before creaturely time but since then has related to the world within the structures of time. God is not thought of in terms of timelessness. He makes plans and carries them out; he anticipates the future and remembers the past. Since creation, divine life has been temporally ordered. God is participant, not onlooker; he enters the time of the world and is not just above the flow of history looking down, as it were, from some supra-temporal vantage point. God is inside not outside time, sharing in history—past, present, and future.8
Or, finally, Nicholas Wolterstorff:
If God were eternal, he could not be aware, concerning any temporal event, whether it was occurring, nor aware that it will be occurring, nor could he remember that it had occurred, nor could he plan to bring it about. But all of such actions are presupposed by and are essential to, the biblical presentation of God as a redeeming God. Hence God is presented by the biblical writers as fundamentally in time.9
Is it possible that the proponents of openness have not seen this Yarad-cum-Emmanuel principle? There are, as a matter of fact, (inadvertent) flashes of insight in some of the openness literature. Pinnock insists, against Robert Strimple’s criticism, that open theists are not Socinian since they are Trinitarian and orthodox in their Christology.10 John Sanders, even more explicitly, claims that his Christology actually organises his thinking about God.
Christology is the great stumbling stone to the classical view of omnipotence. Our views of divine power, providence and sovereignty must pass through the lens of Jesus if they are to come into focus regarding the nature of God. Metaphors such as king and potter must be interpreted in the light of Jesus rather than our normal understanding of kings and potters.11
This is exactly right, though the depth of it seems to escape open theists. The way in which we are to think about God finds its focus, as we have said, in the Yarad principle, which principle itself reaches its climactic expression in Emmanuel, God with us, the person of Jesus Christ.
Let us, then, take seriously the fact that our Christology organises our understanding of God’s relationality. How, specifically, does the person of Christ help us to understand who God is and how he relates to us?
We must first recognise that Christ is the climactic, quintessential revelation of God par excellence. He is the one who is, as Paul reminds us, ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15) and ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Col. 1:19). He is, as the angel announced, Emmanue/, that is, God with us (Matt. 1:21). ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Heb. 1:3).
Without working through a detailed exegesis of these texts, orthodox Christology has always understood these passages in a particular way, a way that negates open theism. We can briefly elaborate on that understanding by looking more closely at another passage, Philippians 2:5–8.
We should recognise at the outset that we do not do justice to this passage simply by concentrating on its Christology. The point the apostle is attempting to make by way of Christology is a point about our own sanctification; he is wanting us to model the behaviour exemplified in Christ, specifically the behaviour that culminated in Christ’s incarnation. Given our present concerns, however, we will focus our attention on the Christology at hand. First, the passage from Philippians 2:5–8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This has been a controversial passage, not so much because of what it says, as we will see, but because of what it has been twisted to say. There are two central ideas present in this text that relate to our concerns and that have been the focus of various controversies. We will see, however, that these ideas serve to confirm what orthodox Christology has affirmed. Those two ideas are ‘form (morphē) of God,’ and ‘made himself nothing (ekenōsen).12
What does Paul mean when he says that Christ was ‘in the form’ of God? We should note first that the word translated ‘form’ is used here alone in the entirety of Scripture.13 For that reason, the determination of its meaning finds its locus within its immediate context.14 We should also note, as Silva says, that the word itself is characterised by a broad range of meanings, making the immediate context all the more important.15
Within the context, we find two markers that help us to see just what Paul is telling us. The first marker is the correspondence that is apparent between Paul’s phrase ‘form of God’ and the phrase ‘equality with God’. Whatever one makes of the differences between these two phrases, there can be little question that the two are meant to point to the same reality, and that the one helps us see the meaning of the other. According to Silva, ‘it would be a grave mistake to ignore Käsemann’s point that in the literature of the Hellenistic religions morphē theou and isotheos physis “are parallel and even become synonymous.” ’16 Paul’s notion of Christ being in the form of God, therefore, is tantamount to the notion of equality. Being in the form of God means being equal to God.
The second marker that helps us to see something of Paul’s meaning in this passage lies in the parallel phrase ‘form of a servant’. What Paul has in mind in using this phrase is itself further explained by the ‘likeness of men’.
The word ‘form’ in this passage, therefore, is chosen by Paul, in part, in order to communicate two analogous, though not identical, situations.17 The ‘form of God’ is further explained as Christ being equal to God. But, as we noted above, Paul is not immediately concerned in this passage to give us a Christian-theistic ontology. He is concerned to present to us the quintessential example of how we as the Lord’s people are to think and live. The second use of ‘form,’ then, refers not so much to the being of Christ himself, but to his status as incarnate. In that case, ‘form’ is used to express the role that Christ agreed to when he agreed to be ‘born in the likeness of men.’
The clear and initial implication of this text is that the preincarnate Son of God, as the second person of the Trinity, determined voluntarily to come down in such a way that he would identify himself with humanity. He came by taking on our likeness and by taking the role of a servant of the Lord. According to Fee, therefore, the word ‘form’ can be best understood as ‘that which truly characterises a given reality’.18
What then does Paul mean when he says that this preincarnate Son, who was in the form of God but who took on the form of a servant ‘made himself nothing?’ Here controversy has raged, especially since, in some translations, the phrase is (properly) translated as ‘emptied himself’ (NASB). Paul explains to us what he means when he notes that this self-negation, whatever it is, had to do with the fact that the Christ did not count his own equality with God ‘a thing to be grasped’.
Whenever ambiguous words are employed, the only proper method of discovery lies in the (less ambiguous) context in which those words appear. The force of what Paul is saying, therefore, should not rest on a supposed resolution to the ambiguity, but, if possible, on clearer signs along the way. In this context and because of it, the meaning of the passage is quite clear.
We are, says Paul, to incubate within ourselves the same mind-set that Christ himself had when he chose to come down to us. More specifically, we are to do ‘nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves’ (Phil. 2:3). We are not, then, to hold onto whatever status or position we think we might own, but rather to consider that the position or status of others is more significant.
In this light, and because of this context, it becomes clearer to us just what Paul is saying about our Saviour. In his decision to take on the likeness of humanity, he did not simply look to his own position and status, nor did he count that position and status something that he should, in every way, hold onto. Rather he considered the position and status of those who are lower, who could not reach up to his position, and he determined to stoop down to their level.
We should be clear here. Paul is emphatically not saying that the reason the Son of God became man was because of something intrinsic in us. Christ did not come because we deserved it, or because there was something in us that motivated his coming. Rather, Paul is pointing out to us the depth and breadth of humility as it is expressed in the decision of the Son of God to become man. He is explaining to us just what humility and even humiliation is. It is the decision to give up what may be rightfully ours for the sake of others. It is to be for someone else rather than for oneself. It is, in a word, to be selfless.
The ambiguous phrases, then, become clearer. It is not as though Christ emptied himself of something; that is not Paul’s point. Paul’s point is that Christ emptied himself by becoming something that he was not previously, something that, by definition, required humility and, ultimately, humiliation (Phil. 2:8). For Christ to make himself nothing, says Paul, is for him to humble himself, and he humbles himself by being born in the likeness of men, and by becoming obedient to the point of death. The self-emptying is, in point of fact, a self-adding. Hence Turretin:
Here also belongs the verb ekenōse, which is not to be taken simply and absolutely (as if he ceased to be God or was reduced to a nonentity, which is impious even to think concerning the eternal and unchangeable God), but in respect of state and comparatively because he concealed the divine glory under the veil of flesh and as it were laid it aside; not by putting off what he was, but by assuming what he was not.19
We see this principle displayed for us, albeit in nascent form, in the OT as well. We remember Moses’ bold request that the Lord display the fulness of his glory to Moses (Exod. 33:18). This, Moses was told, would be certain death. Instead, the Lord, in his mercy, did show Moses his glory, but only as veiled; Moses could only glimpse the back side of the Lord as he passed by the cleft of the rock in which Moses was hidden. Was the Lord less than fully God as he passed by Moses? Certainly not. His proclamation as he passed by, what Luther called the ‘Sermon on the Name’ was meant to remind Moses that the ‘I Am’ was present. Rather he was accommodating himself to Moses in a way that demonstrated both his glory (The Lord, the Lord) as well as the veiling of the fulness of that glory. The Lord came down, and showed himself to, even as he hid himself from, Moses.
The ‘Yarad-cum-Emmanuel’ principle in Philippians should therefore be obvious. Christ made a decision. He made a decision of humiliation. It was not necessary for him to decide to humble himself; he had every right to continue without adding to himself the humiliating status of humanity. But he determined not to. The one who is equal to God, who is in the form of God, who is himself God (John 1:1), did not stop being God (such a thing would be impossible), but rather he took on something that was not previously a part of him. He took on human nature (John 1:14).
Christ does not become the opposite of himself by taking on human nature (contra Barth). It is not as though he gives up deity in order to become man. This pattern is given nowhere in Scripture; it is, in fact, an impossibility. Rather, just as the ‘I Am’ remains Lord while, at the same time, coming down to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so the second Person of the Trinity, remains God, while coming down to be the God-man. This is the covenant. And, as the Westminster Confession reminds us, Christ is the substance of the covenant (WCF 7:6, WLC 35; cf. Col. 2:8ff.).
The Christology we have been delineating here, as we have said, is nothing new. Any cursory glance at the church’s position on the hypostatic union will bring out the same points. Moreover, the position of the Chalcedonian Creed is ample evidence that the thinking of open theism is fatally deficient. That Creed reminds us that the incarnation has never been seen as God’s abandoning of any of his attributes at all. As a matter of fact, it is in the incarnation that we begin to see how it is that God can relate to his creation, without becoming less than God. The Creed affirms that the Son of God, as God, is to be ‘acknowledged in two natures inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably.’ The Creed goes on to affirm, concerning this hypostatic union, that with regard to these two natures:
the distinction of natures [is] by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature [is] preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Open theists do not seem to have seen the profound implications of this. They seem mired in a kind of theological Eutychianism, in which there is no way that God can take on another nature until and unless he abandons (at least part of) his own.
If we take the Chalcedonian Creed seriously (and the church, both Catholic and Protestant, has done so since the Creed was written), then the theological priorities of our thinking in this matter become clearer to us. First, we should be clear about the fact that there are two crucial concepts in the Creed, and thus in our thinking about God and his relationship to us, that define the parameters of how we are to understand God’s accommodation to us. Those two concepts are ‘person’ and ‘nature’.
For open theists, person and nature are virtually identical. To the extent that God takes on the nature of created reality, to that extent must he be subject to (different aspects of) creation. Historically, however, in orthodox theology, priority has always been given to ‘person’ over against ‘nature.’ The reason this is so is that what belongs to ‘person’ is independent and individuated in a way that what belongs to nature is not. God’s accommodation presupposes that he was, and was (Triune) person, before coming down to the created level. It is for this reason, it seems to me, that theology has historically attempted to delineate just who God is, quite apart from his accommodation, in order thereafter to explain God’s accommodation itself. God, as we have seen in the OT, or the second person of the Trinity, as we see more clearly in the New, just is a person with distinct characteristics and attributes, prior to his accommodation to and with his creation.20
While there are careful distinctions here that must be maintained with respect to God (e.g. that God’s essence is identical with God himself), there is absolutely no question that what orthodox Christology has always taught is that God came down, in the second person of the Trinity, who was and remains fully God, and he took on a human nature without thereby in any way changing his essential deity. To think, as open theists do, that because God interacts with creation he must necessarily change or in some way limit his essential deity, is, in effect, to fail to see the incarnation for what it is. While we cannot comprehend just what it means for one Person fully to possess two distinct natures, we must affirm it in order for the gospel, in its fullest biblical sense from Genesis to Revelation, to be what it is.21
A brief word of warning is in order, to myself, and to others who want to set forth and defend the orthodox view of God and his relation to the world. Among defenders of the orthodox view, there seems to me to be some confusion over the concept ‘anthropomorphic’. It is thought that, for example, when Scripture speaks of God changing his mind that we are to read that anthropomorphically, but that when Scripture says that God is not a man that he should change his mind, we are to read that ‘literally’.
It could perhaps be more helpful if we were to begin to see that all of God’s revelation to us is anthropomorphic. Or, to use the more classic terminology, all of God’s revelation to us is ectypal. It comes to us from he who is the Archetype, and thus is, by its very nature, ectypal.22 It is, then, essentially accommodated revelation; it is revelation accommodated to our mode of being and our mode of understanding.
Because all of God’s revelation is ectypal, however, does not mean that every truth given to us in Scripture automatically and immediately refers to God as accommodated. To paraphrase Kant, though all of our knowledge begins with God’s accommodation, it does not follow that all our knowledge arises out of accommodation. Our knowledge of God presupposes his accommodating himself to us, but the very knowledge that he gives us can and does refer at times to that which is non-accommodated, that is, to God apart from, ‘outside of,’ or ‘before’ creation.
It may be best, therefore, at least in these discussions, to drop the locutions of ‘literal’ and ‘anthropomorphic’ when referring to God and our knowledge of him, as if some of what we know of God has a direct reference point, and other things that we know are simply metaphorical. When Scripture says that God changes his mind, or that he is moved, or angered by our behaviour, we should see that as literal. It refers us to God and to his dealings with us. It is as ‘literal’ as God being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But we should also see that the God who literally changes his mind, is the accommodated God, the ‘Yarad-cum-Emmanuel’ God who, while remaining the ‘I am,’ nevertheless stoops to our level to interact, Person-to-person, with us. His change of mind does not affect his essential character, any more than Christ dying on the cross precluded him from being fully God. He remains fully and completely God, a God who is not like man that he should change his mind, and he remains fully and completely the God who, in covenant with us, changes his mind to accomplish his sovereign purposes. What else should we expect, when we realise the implications of what it means that God took on human nature for the sake of his people in order, as God, to accomplish their salvation?
God comes in Christ, one Person in two natures, in order that he might be the ‘most moved mediator’, who alone, as God and man, can accomplish what is needed for us and for our salvation.
1 All translations are from the English Standard Version.
2 The intensity of the language is clearer in the original Hebrew. For example, in v. 7, God says, translated literally, ‘Seeing, I have seen …’, an idiom that communicates resolve and intensity on the part of the one ‘seeing’.
3 This is understood more clearly in the NT. For example, we understand something of what it means that Christ is the true Bread as we see him miraculously feed five thousand. This ‘show and tell’ method of revelation should be seen more explicitly throughout Scripture
4 The four words in English are actually just one Hebrew word yhwy.
5 John Calvin, John T. McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics (London: SCM Press, 1961), I.13.1.
6 Clark H. Pinnock, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 128.
7 Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 17.
8 Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, Didsbury Lectures, 2000 (Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Patternoster Press/Baker Academic, 2001), 97.
9 Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘God Everlasting’, in God and the Good: Essays in Honor of Henry Stob, ed. Henry; Clifton Henry; Lewis B. Smedes Stob (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 200.
10 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 107, n. 122.
11 John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 116. Among the open theists, Sanders seems to give the most credence to the notion of anthropomorphic ideas and concepts in Scripture, but, because of his Enlightenment assumptions, is never able to frame his discussion in terms of orthodox theology. See, for example, Sanders, 21ff. For a fine critique of the open theist’s views of anthropomorphic language see Douglas M. Jones, ‘Metaphor in Exile’, in Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, ed. Douglas Wilson (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2001).
12 There other phrases and words in this context that offer some difficulty exegetically, among which is, for example, Paul’s speaking of Christ as not considering his own position as ‘a thing to be grasped’ (harpagmon). Our purpose in focusing on these two, however, is simply to place the ‘Yarad’ principle in the forefront of our discussion.
13 With the possible exception of Mark 16:12.
14 This is the case for all words, but is even more important exegetically with hapaxlegomena
15 Moisés Silva, ‘Philippians’, in The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, ed. Kenneth Barker (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 115. For the notion of semantic extension, see also Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 77.
16 Ibid, p. 114.
17 Again, given the semantic extension of the term, it is the perfect term to use in this case.
18 Gordon D. Fee, ‘Philippians,’ in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F.F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 204.
19 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. Jr James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1994), II:314. Though it cannot be pursued here, it is instructive to note that Turretin links an understanding of the Trinity to an understanding of the hypostatic union: ‘For as in the Trinity, the unity of essence does not hinder the persons from being distinct from each other and their properties and operations from being incommunicable, so the union of natures in the person of Christ does not prevent both the natures and their properties from remaining unconfounded and distinct’ (311). The serious point to be made here is that a confusion or ignorance, or worse, denial of the orthodox notion of Christology could imply the same with respect to the Trinity, such that Christianity could be replaced for another religion altogether.
20 As Turretin notes, a person or hypostasis is an ‘intellectual suppositum’, having its own incommunicable existence. A person participates in a nature, which itself (on the created level at any rate) is communicable. For the best summary of this terminology, albeit in a Trinitarian context, see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725: The Triunity of God, vol. Four (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), esp. 167–95.
21 It strikes me that one of the root problems with open theism is that they are, in the end, more rationalistic than the very ‘Hellenists’ they seek to oppose. To maintain that, in order to relate to creation God must essentially change, is to deny the unfathomable mystery that just is ‘God with us’.
22 For the best recent discussion of this idea see Willem J. van Asselt, ‘The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought’, Westminster Theological Journal 64, no. 2 (2002).
K. Scott Oliphint
K. Scott Oliphint
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA