Dr. Oliphint’s central assertion is that the real relationship and manifestations of human reality that embody the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ can be applied to the God of the Old Testament. The core of this assertion is the widely attested notion that it is in fact the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son, who is in relationship with the people of Israel and her prophets, priests and kings (p. 169 ff.). Many classic theists (who would disagree with Oliphint’s overall thesis) would agree with the notion that it is, somehow, the Son of God who is dealing with OT Israel. Oliphint’s reasoning, generally, is thus: if the Triune God is capable of maintaining His essential attributes, like immutability, atemporality, infinity, aseity and simplicity (theology proper) while nevertheless taking on a human nature that is mutable, temporal, finite, dependent and complex (hypostatic union) then we can read OT passages that indicate the latter properties to be real revelations of God as opposed to analogical, theoretical, or man-centered, since it is, after all, the same Person who is acting in each situation. That is, when Genesis 6:6 says that God “regretted” (יִּנָּ֣חֶם) making man, we can understand that in a sense that would be analogous with Jesus’ own sorrow in the garden of Gethsemane (p. 210; 273). That is, Jesus really prayed that He would not have to be crucified and God really regretted making man, in some sense.
Classical theists would deny the aforementioned claims in regards to God in the OT because it would imply a lack in God’s knowledge, impassability and it could be seen to construe God as being in time, rather than atemporal. They would, on the other hand, generally agree with the above in regards to Jesus’ prayer in the garden, because they attribute the truth of His petition to His human nature (and not to His divine nature). Since God, before the incarnation, does not have a human nature, these types of human predications cannot be made about Him. Interestingly, since some classical theists (like Ambrose, or Calvin, or according to Oliphint, Bavinck) would see the second person of the Trinity as the one who is behind OT theophanies (rather than God in general, or the Father specifically) it seems reasonable to conclude that if one were to ask Ambrose, for example, if it is by means of the second person that Moses received the revelation about God’s “regret” in Genesis 6:6, he would likely agree. (Wilhelmus a Brakel definitively says that it is the Son behind the manifestations of God in the OT – “One of the three angels which spoke with Abraham was Jehovah, the Son of God” The Christian’s Reasonable Service 1:143. Oliphint does not mention this but I find it interesting.) It seems that modern classical theists are more hesitant to attribute these OT events strictly to the second person. For example, Vern Poythress in Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing notes that the “Angel of the Lord” is surely foreshadowing Christ, but he stops short of saying that he is Christ (p. 417-18).
There is surely more impetus to attribute OT revelation to the second person rather than the first (the Father) since He is invisible. However, the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) is also an option (since He can speak through other beings), which is not discussed by Oliphint. Oliphint knows that it is a significant move to attribute OT theophanies solely to the Son and he seeks to substantiate his claims (see chapter 3). However, many readers sympathetic to the classical view will find it a hard pill to swallow. This is not because it is so outlandish, but because, though it does make sense, it seems to be unattributed scripturally. That is, it is intuitive to think of the angel of the Lord as the Logos working in history, but there are no specific passages we can look to in order to substantiate this claim. Oliphint looks to John’s use of λογος to do just that. However, all his exegetical work (based on Vos’ exegesis) substantiates is that the Son is active throughout redemptive-history, which no one would deny. This, in my estimation, falls short of definitively proving that it is the Logos who speaks to the OT prophets, and the Logos “alone” (in the sense that it would be proper to attribute this work to the Logos, and not the Father, like it is proper to attribute suffering to the Logos and not the Father). As has been stated, there are plenty of Reformed theologians who make the same claim. However, nothing is really staked on the claim historically (contra Oliphint who hangs a lot of theology on this point) and, as such, it has never really been exegetically substantiated (as far as I can tell) and there has been no dissenting voice (though there are plenty who do not make the explicit connection between OT theophany as the Son) because it has never been a significant point of doctrine. With this said, even if one does emphatically say that it is the Son who speaks in the OT, it does not necessitate that those revealed anthropomorphisms (like Gen. 6:6) are indicating real divine limitations.
At this point, speculation bubbles to the surface. Oliphint takes pains to prove on Biblical grounds that it is indeed the Son who is active in the revelation of the OT (attempting to show that Jesus’ use of “I am” is indicating that it was He who spoke through the burning bush in Exodus 3, p. 176). But, it seems that the proofs are inconclusive especially when so much hangs in the balance. When this much is at stake, you need proof beyond reasonable doubt, and the fact that the speaking at the bush, for example, could easily be attributed to the Holy Spirit is enough grounds to give us serious pause when considering this thesis. Of course, the Logos speaks in Exodus 3. But, this is because it is the Trinity who speaks in Exodus 3. In order to make this attribution to a specific person, it seems more exegetical evidence would need to be supplied. Just because Jesus identifies Himself with the God who spoke to Moses, does not mean that it was somehow His work to speak and not that of the Father and Spirit as well. This speculation increases when – and this is the real point of contention – we realize that accepting Oliphint’s theory means that, not only must we believe that it is explicitly the Son who is speaking in the OT, we must also believe that the Son had taken upon Himself created properties, like those of the incarnate Jesus Christ, before He was indeed incarnate (Oliphint says Jesus’ human nature assumed the already assumed properties; p. 199 fn. 32). This is where real difficulty enters for me. Again, this does not have, as far as I can tell, scriptural warrant (Oliphint would argue that anthropomorphisms are the scriptural warrant, but this seems to beg the question because reading these anthropomorphisms as real requires his view. Reading them as analogies does not, and it is this question of real or anthropomorphic that is debated). Further, on Oliphint’s view, we are to accept a hierarchy of incarnation in which pre-NT incarnations are proleptic “foretastes” of the future, permanent incarnation of Christ which seems to be a tenuous observation of God’s work in redemptive-history. Seeing the Son as active in theophany in the OT does not cause me as much (if any) concern as do these later points.
By way of a digression, it is interesting to note that one’s hermeneutic has a significant impact on this issue. Much like Oliphint’s Christo-centric theology proper, his hermeneutic seems to drive his thinking. That is, if we are to read the OT with the goal of understanding how Christ is its redemptive-historical center, then understanding anthropomorphic passages (like God’s “regretting” in Gen. 6:6) should be filtered through our doctrine of Christ. Furthermore, when we contemplate God’s relationship with man, moving from the garden forward, we should think through the lens of Christ, as it were, since He is the center of the Bible, the apex of all revelation, and our only access to theology proper (since without a Christ-wrought redemptive relationship with God, we cannot rightly think about God). In this regard, Oliphint cannot be faulted. Indeed, his desire to pursue theology proper properly by exalting Christ and glorifying God is palpable. Though his methodology and hermeneutic are sound, it is his motivation for undertaking this task that I take issue with. More on that later.
At the end of the book, Oliphint rehearses some issues in theology proper in order to present his covenantal properties thesis as the solution (basically all of the last chapter; the 5th). It seems to me that this approach is similar to the impetus for his thesis overall – it is a solution to some difficulties, but it’s not the best one. He cites the difficulty in squaring God’s essential knowledge with His free will (i.e. if God’s knowledge is identical to His necessary essence, how can He decree things, based on said knowledge of Himself, freely?) as well as the age-old difficulty in ascertaining how God can be sovereign yet human beings are culpable for their actions. Oliphint’s solution to these problems is, in a word, God’s covenantal properties. That is, if God can take-on, as it were, properties like limited knowledge (which is the case with Christ’s human nature, to be fair) then the difference between God’s essential (or natural) knowledge and his free-knowledge are understandable in human terms since we now have two modes of existence (p. 255) to which “each” respective knowledge of God can be predicated. Similarly, if human actions are based on God’s sovereign decree, God can relate with those actions – in a genuine manner – by means of created (i.e. covenantal) properties. At its core, Oliphint seems to be saying that God is wearing certain accoutrements that are humanly comprehensible in the interest of establishing and maintaining real relations. Here, I think, is a serious point to consider – how is it that we are not merely interacting with this “accoutrements” (as I’ve put it) instead of God Himself? Oliphint does engage this question (by appealing to the hypostatic union) but it seems that there is a better solution.
Oliphint rightly notices a penchant in Reformed thinking to ascribe neo-platonic ideas to the character of God. As such, many theologians today implicitly think about God in a static and unrelating way. From my perspective, this is visible in the OPC (in which Olihpint was ordained). Though their theology is (arguably) the best in the world, the affections (to harken the Edwardsian conception) do not seem to match the high level of intellectual understanding of God. To be sure, this is my estimation and not Oliphint’s. But, it seems that one can ascertain Oliphint’s milieu in reading his work. He regularly seeks to show that the transcendent, immanent and unchanging God is in a genuine, eschatological and even tangible relationship with His people. This is theological medicine for the church of Ephesus in Revelation. In this specific regard, Oliphint’s work is much needed. However, it seems that his goal is attainable without changing the conception of theology proper as aforementioned. All of the aforementioned seems to be Biblically possible. Personally, I am not convinced. But, attributing Oliphint’s ideas to heterodoxy, or describing them as ascriptural (as some have done) seems to be blatant mischaracterization. Furthermore, it should be noted that his system is both coherent and, I would say, rather ingenious. Attributing God’s relations to man in the OT to the person of the Son could be a real step forward in our understanding of God and His relationship with His creation. He utilizes a robust Christo-centric hermeneutic to understand God, and for that he should be applauded.
Before I discuss, what seems to me, to be a better answer to the issues Oliphint discusses, I want to briefly look at James Dolezal’s book All That is in God. Dolezal seeks to delineate the main tenants of Classic Theology Proper over against “theistic mutualists” (his term) with which Oliphint is grouped. Dolezal does an excellent job of explaining classic theism, but his interaction with thinkers like Oliphint seems to be overly harsh. When it comes to both process and open theism, his critique seems fair. But, when it comes to Reformed thinkers (like Oliphint, Frame and Grudem) he seems to make unnecessary associations. That is, the ideas of both process and open theism are disastrous for orthodox faith. However, proposals like Oliphint’s do not seem to be quite so dangerous. While the former group are willing to reject Biblical passages that explicitly teach things like God’s omniscience, Oliphint seeks to make sense of all passages in the Bible (including anthropomorphic ones). Contra process theologians, Oliphint is unwilling, at any point, to claim that a certain Biblical passage is not in accord with reality (of course, process and open theologians nuance their claims, but this seems to be the case at the core of it). However, Dolezal seems to think that Oliphint’s views are merely gateway drugs for process and open theology. Ironically, this type of “slippery slope” accusation is levied in both directions – both Dolezal and Oliphint see the other as failing to take the Bible at its word. Dolezal sees Oliphint further left than he is (as a process theologian, in the making) and Oliphint sees the likes of Dolezal (namely Thomists) further right than they are (as a neo-platonic deists, who might not know it yet). It is my view that neither side necessarily leads to their respectively attributed boogey man camp. Rather, each can be used within orthodoxy. The question is not which is heterodox or heretical; it is which is most accurate and glorifies God as superlative?
Dolezal’s refutation of the idea that God takes on temporal characteristics in order to create is only a page and a half. Rather than refuting Oliphint’s claims, he states the classical position and says that covenantal properties deny God’s simplicity (p. 97). To be sure, Dolezal’s work is quite limited at only 137 pages, but one would hope to see engagement with Oliphint’s assertion that temporal characteristics do not deny simplicity in just the same way that Christ’s human nature does not deny it. Dolezal generally does not grapple with these points at a deeper level. That is, he says Oliphint is right in regards to the hypostatic union (e.g. an added human nature does not deny simplicity) but he is wrong in regards to covenantal properties (e.g. added properties do not deny simplicity). These two claims seem very similar, but Dolezal does not explain how the former can be true while the latter is not. Therefore, the main take away from the interaction of these two ideas is that neither denies orthodoxy and both are Scriptural.
I see these options as analogous to the two primary views on baptism (paedobaptism and credobaptism) – neither is heretical and both are based on Scriptural evidence. But, one is better than the other. Dolezal’s mistake seems to be shared by Oliphint. When Dolezal sees Oliphint’s view as leading to process theology (which is not the case) Oliphint sees classical theism as leading to a situation in which God’s wrath for us is really our wrath since He is impassable (e.g. “When Scripture speaks of the anger of the Lord are we supposed to think not that the Lord is angry, but thatweare?” p. 190). But, this is simply not asserted by classical theists, and if Oliphint seeks to show that it is a necessary entailment of the classical position (albeit denied by classical theists) he fails to do so. Rather, like Dolezal, he simply asserts that this is the position of the “other side” and it must be rejected. Oliphint does spend time engaging with various classical theists, like Thomas Aquinas, but his extrapolation of Thomas is one in which it is very difficult to connect the dots from the Aquinas quote to Oliphint’s interpretation of said quote. That is, I have never read Thomas (in general or in Oliphint’s book) say that God’s wrath is really our wrath.
Rather than seeking to show why one approach leads to heterodox (or worse) theology, we should seek to understand which approach is better on its own merit. This is because, in my estimation, both views can be maintained in an orthodox manner (like both views of baptism). But, one must be more Scriptural and more glorifying to God. A general rule of thumb when doing theology is to select the option that portrays God in the best light. Since He is a maximally great being, the theology that is superlative is often the truest (note that the lesser theology might be simply less true, rather than completely false). To understand the debate in this manner is to give credit where it is due, to recognize that we are speaking with brothers in Christ (not heretics), and that our feeble attempts at comprehending the incomprehensible God will always be lacking this side of eternity (and, arguably, even in heaven).
Therefore, it seems to me at this juncture that the classical position is to be preferred because it does the best job of glorifying God. Both options require certain levels of mystery. However, the way in which an immutable God can relate to mutable creatures is shown to be most significant when we say that God’s immutability is the grounds upon which He relates to creation in an incomprehensibly immense way. Rather than asserting that God must take on human capacities to relate with us, we should say that God does not need human capacities to relate with us. Rather, He is capable of relating with mutable, temporal and finite creatures in an immutable, atemporal and infinite way. To say that God can only relate with us if He takes on characteristics like ours, seems to bend the knee to the philosophers’ critique and “demystify” something so incredible human thought could never fully understand it. So, God’s wrath against the ungodly is not wrath by means of some created properties, but it is wrath that is eternal and infinite and identical to His very essence. He does not need to change to dispense this wrath on mutable man, He simply need to place man under it. Man changes to experience the various properties of God. God does not “take on” various properties to experience man. Similarly, His love for the elect is so pure, so sublime, and so transcendent that it cannot even be described in terms of time. We do not want to say that God takes on temporal, covenantal properties in order to love us. We want to say that God’s love is so perfect, as it is identical to His inestimable essence, that it is capable of transcending the boundaries of human finitude and time. In a word, God’s relations with us are all infinite and, as such, they do not require finite covenantal properties to be real. This conception of God’s relations with us, to be sure, is much more mysterious than a relation through covenantal properties (e.g. what does it mean to have infinite and atemporal fury poured out on a finite and temporal sinner at a particular place and time?). But, it seems to me (and, much more importantly, to the teachers who have gone before me) that this is a better way of thinking about God’s relation to us.
This does not prove that Oliphint is wrong and it does not show that his views lead to theological error. Rather, it is to recognize that a classical interpretation of God’s interaction with us is more magnificent than an interaction that is mitigated by created properties. In this vein, I would follow Dolezal and this seems to be the thrust of his book – simply to illustrate exactly what classical theism says about God’s attributes. On the other hand, I would not say that opposing views (like Olihpint’s) are indicative of a theology that veers toward heterodoxy. Rather, I would say his view is valid but not needed because God can really relate to us, from infinity, without it.
Now, it is extremely important at this point to note that the primary means by which God has related to His creation is through created properties. Namely, the human nature of Jesus Christ. It is by this condescension that sinners are made right with God and this is the only means by which it is so. No man could ever be in a right relationship with God without the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ which is bestowed upon the elect in a meritless imputation of righteousness. However, the way in which we understand the benefits of that relationship to God won by Christ is not purely through human categories (1 Cor. 4:1). Rather, part of God’s relationship to humans transcends human categories. God does not love us solely with creaturely capacities (like Christ’s human nature) but He also loves us with infinite and divine capacities (like Christ’s divine nature). Indeed, to be loved by Christ is to be loved by the person of Christ who cannot be separated from either his human or divine nature. That is, we cannot be loved by one nature or the other, because they are both united to the person of Christ. The communicatio idiomatum shows us that the relation we have with Christ’s human nature necessarily entails that we have a relation with His divine nature as well because both natures cannot be separated from the Person of Christ, with whom we have a relationship. To be sure, Oliphint would never deny that we have a real relationship with the divine. However, his emphasis on God’s ability to relate to us through created properties seems to downplay the majesty of being loved by God as divine. With that said, he is an orthodox brother (father) in the faith and his conception of God’s relationship to us is glorious. However, it seems that the classical position is more glorious (even utterly glorious). Indeed, the relationship from God to man is so beautiful, so breathtaking, so consummately majestic that human words, and human thoughts, simply cannot fully comprehend it. Kudos to Oliphint for attempting to show just how it is that the immutable God relates with the mutable creation. But, it seems that his explanation is not necessary because there is no contradiction in the classical position (though he would argue that there is). Rather, there is a loftier conception of God, which is always to be preferred.
It seems to me that much of the polemic in this discussion is rooted in recognition of the church’s theological purification and extrapolation as the ages have gone by. Namely, when a piece of theology is presented to the church that does not accord with orthodoxy, the response has always been to prove how it is heretical, and to resolutely reject it (to oversimplify a bit). Oliphint’s claims do not seem to necessitate this treatment. Rather, his ideas seem to offer a solution to a problem within orthodoxy – namely, the problem of an infinite God relating with finite creatures. I think the solution to rejecting Oliphint’s thesis is not to point out its error but rather to point out the lack of a problem in understanding God’s relationship to us. Of course, there is deep mystery and with mystery there is always tension between two truths. But, work should be done (and is being done) to show how beautiful classical theism is. If this is accomplished, Oliphint’s proposals will simply not be needed. Of course, I am saying there are problems with his thesis, but I do not think that it can be rejected on those grounds because it is a scriptural and coherent thesis. If the best theology is to be maintained in the Reformed tradition, it must be done by highlighting its purity rather than pointing out the “unacceptability” of proposed supplementations. That is, once classical theism is genuinely understood, Oliphint’s book will not be necessary.
In closing, I would like to reiterate, though it should be clear by now, that I have the utmost respect for Dr. Oliphint and nothing I have stated above should be misconstrued as derogatory in any way. He is older and smarter than me and I stumble over words to (gently) disagree with him (not that my opinion is worth much, if anything at all). This post was the result of personal interest, and my recognition that a small group of Presbyterians have decided to use Oliphint’s ideas as an opportunity for inciting church discipline. I am not aware of all the proceedings nor the behind the scenes attempts at the reconciliation of opposing ideas. To my knowledge, the latter was limited (if attempted at all). Opponents of Oliphint’s ideas levied charges with his presbytery. One wonders if these brothers in Christ approached Oliphint first, or if they went directly to the church failing to consider the tarnishing of his reputation that would ensue (let alone the consternation in his soul). They are within their biblical and Presbyterian rights to raise such charges, but it seems impertinent to do so without seeking personal and quiet reconciliation beforehand. Perhaps unity was attempted and Oliphint was recalcitrant (this is not what I have heard) and in this case, these actions would seem inevitable. If this was not the case, let us pray that those opposed to Oliphint will take this opportunity to gather with their brother and seek unity not imposed from the top by church leaders, but embraced by brothers.