Andrew Fuller on the Incomprehensible Trinity

A helpful reminder from 18th century Baptist pastor and theologian, Andrew Fuller:

A subject so great and so much above our comprehension as this is requires to be treated with trembling. Everything that we can think or say, concerning the ever blessed God, requires the greatest modesty, fear, and reverence. Were I to hear two persons engaged in a warm contest upon the subject, I should fear for them both. One might in the main be right, and the other in the wrong; but if many words were used, they might both be expected to incur the reproof of the Almighty: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Letters on Systematic Divinity)

John Sailhamer: In Memoriam

I learned on Twitter earlier that John Sailhamer has passed away.  Due to his failing health over the last decade, his last major project – The Meaning of the Pentateuchwas published way back in 2009. In our consumer-driven, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately American culture, that may as well have been a century ago. But Sailhamer’s influence has always been more about his positive impact on students than his publishing per se. If you read his books – The Pentateuch as Narrative, Introduction to Old Testament Theology, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, even Genesis Unbound, as well as his commentaries – it seems obvious that these arise directly out of his teaching. And if you talk to his students, they’ll confirm that this is in fact the case.

This is why I feel a great loss at Sailhamer’s passing, even though I never had him for a class. One of the greatest regrets of my life is not taking him for Hebrew or Old Testament my first year at SEBTS; he left the next year for Golden Gate. But in God’s providence I still feel as though I’ve been under his guidance, since during my time as a secretary at SEBTS I served two “Sailhamerites,” as we called them. Every day, for almost 4 years, I worked as an administrative assistant for these men, so that while I was making copies or filling out reimbursement sheets for them they were schooling me in the ways of Sailhamer.

At first I was skeptical; I hadn’t taken Sailhamer or anyone else that followed him during my M.Div, and it was only through serving these men that I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then I began my first semester of doctoral work and took a Hermeneutics seminar. Suffice it to say that Sailhamer’s hermeneutical idiosyncrasies came up a number of times, and I needed to find out why. I picked up Introduction to Old Testament Theology, and I was hooked. I was convinced that the shape of the canon is hermeneutically crucial, that meaning is text-centered, and that intertextual links between biblical texts are the building blocks of the canon and of good theology.

Due to other factors, I had already changed my concentration to biblical theology, and now I changed my dissertation topic almost immediately – the canonical shape of the New Testament. Jonathan Catanzaro and I started a “Canonical Theology” student group. My first published article, written mostly while I was still at SEBTS, was due to Sailhamer’s impact on how I read the NT. To say, therefore, that Sailhamer’s influence on me during my doctorate was substantial would be a vast understatement.

Over the years I’ve shifted a bit on some of these issues; for instance, I no longer agree that historical background is inconsequential in understanding particular texts. I sometimes don’t find Sailhamer’s intertextual connections, or, more often, his theological conclusions given those connections, convincing. But the foundations of Sailhamer’s approach, namely a close literary and intertextual reading coupled with canonical consciousness, still drive the way I read the Bible. Even though I never had a class with Professor Sailhamer, he remains one of the top five people who have influenced how I read and understand Scripture.

Because of this, I was incredibly excited to meet John a few years ago when I was still at California Baptist University. One of John’s close friends at SEBTS, Bob Cole, who also was one of those Sailhamerite faculty I served, took me with him to see Sailhamer in SoCal. At that point John’s health had declined such that he was consigned to what amounted to an electrical, driveable recliner; he fell asleep often, usually while one of us was talking to him; and he could barely speak. But I will, with the Lord’s help, never forget that he seemed to have the entire Hebrew Bible memorized, even in his condition. Bob and I would mention this or that text, and John would slowly but surely convey how that text was linked to other texts, parse the verbs, note other grammatical connections. He couldn’t walk, could barely talk, and couldn’t stay awake, but the man had hidden God’s Word in his heart. And it was because he did that over the course of decades he influenced so many to read the Old Testament as an eschatological messianic book, a book that’s goal and content is Christ.

Thank you, John, for your labors. May you rest in the peace of Christ.

Eternal Generation and “Monogenēs”

The doctrine of eternal generation does not stand or fall with how one translates “monogenēs.” Although Lee Irons has helpfully argued that the term probably had the connotation of “only begotten” in the fourth century and in the NT, this only gets us so far regarding classic Trinitarianism. Evangelicals who previously cast doubts upon eternal generation now seem eager to affirm it based on Irons’ lexicographical argument. While I am glad to see this shift, there are still a number of problems with the rationale given for such a change.

  1. Shifting one’s belief in eternal generation based on the translation of one word and/or the exegesis of one passage betrays methodological issues. While we should be ready to affirm any doctrine that is clearly taught in a particular passage or even by a particular word, this is often not how dogmatics works. A good theological method does not merely compile verses isolated from their context or other theological affirmations in Scripture. For a doctrine to be biblical, a whole host of other considerations are required. These include the exegesis of particular passages, the canonical context of each verse identified, and logical and dogmatic considerations of possible theological conclusions.
  2. Arius also affirmed that “monogenēs” means “only begotten.” Simply affirming that “monogenēs” means “only begotten” is the baseline not for affirming classic Trinitiarianism for what gave rise to the Nicene controversy in the first place. The Nicene debates were in many ways about what “only begotten” means, not the definition of a particular Greek word. Further, “monogenēs” itself was not necessarily the center of the exegetical debates; Proverbs 8:22, 25 functions much more prominently in many cases.
  3. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stood or fell with the translation of “monogenēs,” or the exegesis of passages that contain it. Because of the diversity of passages that Arius, Eunomius, and others cited in support of their position, the pro-Nicene exegetical arguments also ranged widely throughout Scripture. There was certainly focus on a few passages – Proverbs 8, John 5:26, and 1 Cor. 15:26 come to mind – but “monogenēs” itself, and the passages where it is found, comes up infrequently by contrast. This is because, again, the doctrine of eternal generation is not simply an affirmation that “monogenēs” means “only begotten,” but rather an exploration of what Scripture means by “begotten.” “Monogenēs” cannot answer that question by itself. In other words, eternal generation is not a doctrine that is summed up by the translation “only begotten.”
  4. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stands in isolation from classic Trinitarianism. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply affirm bits and pieces of classic Trinitarianism in isolation from consideration of the whole. Eternal generation is tied up with (of course) the broader articulation of the eternal relations of origin, but also with simplicity, aseity, appropriation, inseparable operations, and a whole host of other dogmatic affirmations. While some evangelicals may not have cast doubt upon these corollaries, there are those who have questioned eternal generation while also questioning other pieces of the fabric of classic Christian theism.
  5. Eternal generation does not fit with ERAS. This point is basically the negative side of the previous one. Some evangelicals appear to think they can have their ERAS cake and eat eternal generation, too. But this simply doesn’t work, not only for biblical reasons but also for dogmatic ones.

I am glad that there are evangelicals who want to shift on eternal generation. But for these reasons I think it will take a much more systematic reorientation of their doctrine of God to do so.

The Extra Cyrillicum: In the Bosom of the Virgin, Filling All Creation

The doctrine known as the extra Calvinisticum states that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature. Even “after” the incarnation, the eternal Son still continues to exist as God, upholding the universe by the Word of his power, along with the Father and the Spirit. The doctrine emerged out the Reformation controversies over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The Lutherans maintained that the Son’s human nature became ubiquitous by virtue of its union with the divine nature and could therefore be present “in, with, and under” the elements of the Eucharist (a misapplication of the ancient doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, or communication of attributes). The logic of the Lutherans seemed to be that wherever the divinity of Christ is, there also is the humanity of Christ. The Calvinists, on the other hand, maintained that the incarnation does not introduce a change or mutation to either the human or the divine nature of Christ; instead, since both natures retain their integrity, the Son must continue to exist in his divinity, even apart from his human nature. The Lutherans lampooned this view, labeling it Calvin’s extra, meaning, “outside of”–as if Christ’s divinity was sort of spilling out of him in a spatial sense (for more on the extra, see Paul Helm’s essay on it here).

But the Calvinists had the upper hand in this debate–in terms of both Scripture and the Christian tradition. On the latter, David Willis has argued convincingly that the Calvinist view is so well attested in the tradition that the doctrine is more properly termed the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum, rather than the extra Calvinisticum.

One of the most common objections to the extra is that it runs the risk of Nestorianism. If Christ has a divine life, so to speak, outside of his incarnate experience, then doesn’t this entail that he is functioning effectively as two persons, one divine and one human? Gerald Hawthorne, for example, argues that the early church fathers implicitly taught this view, namely, that Christ has a kind of “dual existence” as God and as man. According to Hawthorne, this view either risks Nestorianism or else a kind of “de facto Docet[ism], failing to estimate fully the humanity in which divinity made itself visible.”

cyril

Ironically, Hawthorne cites Cyril of Alexandria as an example of this view. I say “ironically,” because Cyril was, of course, the chief anti-Nestorian in the lead up to the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus (431), which denounced the two-persons heresy. So if Cyril himself affirms the extra, then it seems highly unlikely that it actually risks the error of Nestorianism. Here is the relevant portion on the issue from Cyril’s Third Epistle to Nestorius:

And we do not say that the flesh was changed into the Godhead, or again that the ineffable nature of God the Word was perverted into that of the flesh, for He is immutable and unalterable, ever abiding the same, according to the Scriptures; but while visible as a babe in swaddling clothes and yet in the bosom of the Virgin who bare him, He was filling all creation as God, and was enthroned with Him who begat Him. For the divinity is immeasurable and without magnitude, nor does it admit of circumspection.

The Word is united to flesh and so Christ is one person, but this does not mean that his divinity is contracted, so to speak, to his human nature. He remains the Word even in his incarnate state. Thus, because he has two natures, there is nothing improper in ascribing to him, as a single person, attributes and activities distinctive of his two natures: nursing at Mary’s breast, while at the same time filling all creation. So perhaps we could, with some justification, even speak of the doctrine as the extra Cyrillicum.

A Poetic Reflection on Endō’s “Silence”

 

Footprints

In the silence

I hear

The cacophony of

the groans of my brothers

and sisters

the groans of my mother

and father.

 

But from Christ

I hear

“If you love me,

Deny your brothers

and sisters

and deny your mother and father

And come after me.”

 

In the silence

I hear

The cacophony of

the calls of Black Friday

and Friends,

the calls of Nietzsche

and Wal-Mart.

 

But from Christ

I hear

“If you love me,

Obey my commandments

and my Word;

Abide in me and

deny yourself.”

 

In the silence

I hear

The cacophony of

the cry of my flesh

to protect it,

to preserve it,

to satisfy it.

 

But from Christ

I hear

“I have been crucified

with Christ and

it is no longer I who live

But Christ

who dwells within me.”

 

Whose voice do I heed?

Or rather,

Which silence is

More deafening?

The still silence

That comes from peace

with God?

 

Whose voice do I heed?

Or rather,

Which silence is

more deafening?

The maddening silence

That comes from the absence

of God?

 

Wisdom cries

Aloud in the street:

“The fear of the Lord

is the beginning

of wisdom.”

But Folly tells me

“Curse God

and die.”

 

How many of us

have not trampled

Christ’s face,

his blood,

with our sinful feet?

Who among us

is not Judas?

 

Who among us

has not denied Christ

three times

before the cock crows?

Have not

we all

Trampled the fumie?

 

But not out of love

for our brothers and sisters.

Not out of pain

and suffering

on Christ’s behalf.

But for childish

idols.

O Radix

If you don’t know about Malcolm Guite’s excellent little book of sonnets on the church year, Sounding the Seasons, you should remedy that. Guite is an Anglican poet-priest who has a knack for making the sturdy, permanent truths of the Christian faith as lively and relevant as they really are.

Guite opens with an extended selection of sonnets on Advent, including seven that match the great “O Antiphons” of the final seven days of Advent. Here is today’s sonnet, “O Radix,” celebrating the Root of Jesse:

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root,
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshipped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.

Incarnation Anyway?

A couple of years ago I read through Edwin Chr. van Driel’s important work, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology. In it, van Driel explores the question, would God have become incarnate even if there were no sin from which to rescue humanity? Or, to state the question differently, in the eternal plan of God, is God’s decree to become incarnate in Christ logically anterior to his decree to permit the fall (supralapsarian)?

Van Driel admits that in the Western traditions, the answer to this question is (for the most part) decidedly, no. Calvin is representative on this point:

One such [vague] speculation is that Christ would still have become man even if no means of redeeming mankind had been needed…But since all Scripture proclaims that to become our Redeemer he was clothed with flesh, it is too presumptuous to imagine another reason or another end. We well know why Christ was promised from the beginning: to restore the fallen world to succor lost men….In short, the only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would be a sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf (Institutes 2.12.4).

But van Driel suggests that this line of reasoning begs the question in some important respects. Is it actually the case that Scripture gives us no reasons for the incarnation other than those tied to Christ’s work of sin-bearing atonement? For example, does Scripture not also speak of the incarnation in creational and eschatological terms that transcend (without occluding) the incarnation’s redemptive rationale?

But what would a scriptural case for the “incarnation-anyway” position look like? What Scriptures have proponents of this view marshaled as evidence for their position? Many supporters of the position have pointed to the sweeping Christological claims of Ephesians and Colossians with regard to Christ’s place in God’s creational agenda. Ephesians 1:10 maintains that God’s purpose in Christ was “a plan for the fullness of time to unite (anakephalaioo; recapitulate) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Likewise, Colossians 1:16 speaks of Christ—not just the Son of God as such, but the incarnate Christ—as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. So it appears that the incarnation has a creational, not merely a redemptive, dimension.

Van Driel also makes three interrelated theological arguments in favor of the incarnation-anyway position. He suggests that there are a number of goods that we would not have apart from the incarnation:

  • The superabundance of the eschaton. The eschaton (the final state) is not merely a return to the proton (the first state). It transcends Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden because it involves an eternal, permanently sinless, face-to-face encounter with God in the face of Christ.
  • The vision of God. Relatedly, when we are transformed in the eschaton, we will experience the beatific vision. But how so? First John explains that the glorified saints will be like Christ, because they will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our experience of God will not merely be one of intellectual contemplation, but we will see our God in his incarnate state. As embodied creatures, we will know God in an embodied way.
  • Divine friendship. As van Driel argues, “for friends, presence is what counts.” God is not content to remain at a distance, but he makes himself “maximally available” to his creatures. This he accomplishes finally and fully through the incarnation.

So we have these superadded gifts only in light of the incarnation. But do we really want to say that these eschatological goods are entirely contingent upon the presence of sin? Was the fall, then, actually a felix culpa, a happy fault, that was necessary in order for God to bring about these final purposes for his creation? This view is problematic for van Driel, because it seems to make God’s good purposes dependent upon evil. Instead, van Driel maintains that these creational purposes were intended by God all along, with the added necessity of redemption entering into the picture posterior to the decree to permit the fall (I use the word “posterior” rather than “after” because we must remember that the decree of God is eternal; it is not as if the fall took God by surprise and only then did he determine to send a Savior; the decree to permit the fall and provide redemption was willed “before the foundation of the world” no less than the decree to create. So we are not dealing with a temporal but a logical priority here).

So what are we to make of this case for the incarnation-anyway position? I admit that I find many of these biblical and theological arguments quite compelling. The New Testament, especially Paul’s cosmic Christology, does seem to teach what Myk Habets has referred to as the primacy of Christ–that the incarnate Christ is preeminent in all of God’s purposes, for creation and consummation no less than redemption. But it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of texts that speak of the incarnation do situate it in terms of God’s redemptive work. And there may be other problems for the incarnation-anyway position that I need to think through more carefully. But at the moment I am inclined to think that incarnation has primacy in the eternal decree of God. So perhaps–wonder of wonders–God in his infinite love determined to be Immanuel, God with us, all along.

“An Invasion of God”

nativity-icon

Everything in Christianity centers on the incarnation of the Son of God, an invasion of God among men and women in time, bringing and working out a salvation not only understandable by them in their own historical and human life and existence, but historically and concretely accessible to them on earth and in time, in the midst of their frailty, contingency, relativity, and sin.

-T. F. Torrance

In other words,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

-1 John 1:1-4

What Kind of Incarnation? Mapping the Contemporary Options

He had not lost His former being, but He had become what He was not before; He had not abdicated His own position, yet He had taken ours.

-Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate 3.16

Advent is well under way and Christmas is nearly upon us. So Christians around the world are giving special attention to the glorious mystery at the heart of our faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. But what does it mean for God to become incarnate? How can a single individual be both God and man?

Even among those who agree upon the basic grammar of Christology enshrined in the Chalcedonian Definition–namely, that Christ is one person in two distinct but inseparable natures–there is often confusion and disagreement about what kind of incarnation we are talking about. What would it even mean for God to become incarnate? In what follows, I briefly map out some of the major options provided by contemporary theologians and philosophers in answer to this question (these two books have been especially helpful to me in thinking through these issues).

Kenosis vs. Krypsis

Many Christians assume that in order for God to become incarnate, he must surrender something–if not the possession of his divine attributes, at least the exercise of certain divine attributes (such as omnipotence or omniscience). After all, how can Christ be genuinely human, if at the same time he possesses all knowledge and all power? How can he be temporally and spatially located, if at the same time he is timelessly eternal and omnipresent?  It must be the case, on this reasoning, that the Son divested himself of certain divine attributes in order to become incarnate. This so-called kenotic theory of the incarnation–which takes its name from Phil. 2:7, he “emptied” (ekenosen) himself–remains popular among many Christians and has witnessed a revival of interest among academic theologians in recent years.

But the kenotic model is a relatively recent theory of the incarnation, with roots in 19th century German Lutheranism. Older interpretations of Philippians 2 understood the Son’s self-emptying, not as an actual divestiture of deity, but as a refusal to demand that his deity be recognized, if it should interfere with the divine purpose to save. It was, as Oliver Crisp has suggested, not so much an actual, metaphysical kenosis as it was a divine krypsis: a veiling of the Son’s forma Dei (form of God) under the guise of the forma servi (form of a servant). This understanding is consistent with the oft-cited Patristic formula that the Son of God became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was (e.g., see the Hilary quote above). It is also consistent with the so-called extra Calvinisticum: the notion that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature, even in his incarnate state, but instead continues to live out, so to speak, his immutable divine life along with the Father and the Spirit.

Transformational vs. Relational Models

Closely related to this first pair of options is a second set of categories, namely, what Jonathan Hill has termed transformational vs. relational models of the incarnation. In the transformationalist approach, as one might guess, the Son is transformed into a human being either by becoming a human body or a human soul. The most problematic version of transformationalism can be found in the heresy of Apollinarianism, which maintained that the Son simply replaced the human soul in Jesus Christ. But kenotic models can also be seen as a subset of the transformationalist approach, since, in kenoticism, the Son has restricted himself, as it were, to the constraints of an ordinary human life.

In contrast, relational models understand the incarnation in terms of the Son acquiring a particular relation to a particular human nature. This human nature is complete (body and soul) and would have constituted a distinct human person had it not been assumed by the Son. But since it is assumed by the Son from the moment of conception is does not constitute a distinct human person (anhypostasia) but is given its personhood in the hypostasis of the Son (enhypostasia). On the relational account, then, the Son need not surrender anything, nor undergo any kind of transformation in terms of his divine life, in order to assume a discrete human nature.

Abstractism vs. Concretism

The final set of categories tracks closely with the previous two. This final typology concerns the question, what kind of human nature did Christ assume? Did he assume a concrete human nature–complete with both body and soul–as the relational model suggests? Or instead did he merely assume a set of abstract properties that are common to human nature?  In other words, did he assume a human nature, viewed as a concrete particular, or did he assume human nature, viewed as an abstract universal? Alvin Plantinga appears to be the first to suggest this terminology (abstract vs. concrete human nature) but the positions go back much further (perhaps even to Chalcedon, as Plantinga suggests). As the tradition of the undivided church continued to clarify and expound upon Chalcedon, it became apparent that the orthodox position demanded something much closer to concretism, since the sixth ecumenical council affirmed that Christ has not only two natures but also two wills and two energies.

Conclusion

These sets of categories are obviously related. The first factor in each is related to the others. In other words, kenoticism, transformationalism, and abstractism can be understood as distinct ways of describing the same basic approach to the incarnation. Likewise, krypsis, relationalism, and concretism appear to hang together as a coherent model of the incarnation. If we were to state these contemporary options in terms of ancient Christological heresies, we might say that the first approach is eager to avoid Nestorianism (the two persons heresy) but perhaps skirts too closely to Apollinarianism (an incomplete incarnation). The second approach would run in the other direction: keen to avoid Apollinarianism but running the risk of Nestorianism. For my own part, I think the second approach–the kryptic-relational-concretist model–is the most consistent with both Scripture and the Christian tradition; can successfully avoid the charges of Nestorianism; and is superior to the first model in terms of broader dogmatic considerations. But that is an argument for another day!

Alliterative Trinitarianism

Over the last month or so, I read back through Athanasius and the Cappadocians in preparation for ETS and for an essay on theological method and Trinitarian doctrine. As I’ve worked my way once again (perhaps the fourth time?) through these texts, an organizing scheme for part of their argument came to me . And of course, since I’m a Baptist, this scheme came pre-packaged alliteratively. The following four affirmations, concerning each of the three persons of God, function for the pro-Nicene theologians as some of the main arguments for the full, equal, shared divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit.

  1. Appellations – The pro-Nicene theologians were at pains to show that, while Father, Son, and Spirit each have different personal names, they all are called by the divine name and its synonyms in Scripture. Because Son and Spirit are both called (along with the Father) Savior, Creator, Majesty, etc., they are equally God.
  2. Activities – Similarly, Father, Son, and Spirit are each identified by Scripture as the persons who do what only God does – creates, redeems, judges, and sustains.
  3. Attributes – Father, Son, and Spirit are each called or identified as possessing attributes that are only possessed by God alone, either as superlative communicable attributes (goodness, mercy, justice, holiness, etc.) or divine incommunicable attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.).
  4. Adoration – The three persons of the Godhead each receive worship in Scripture, something that is only applicable to and received by God alone.