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Monday Morning Poetry

For this week’s installment of Monday Morning Poetry, I’d like to share William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes”:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless* cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising,
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate:
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

*The word “bootless” means “ineffectual” or “futile.”

I enjoy this poem because it recounts a change of perspective. As literary critic Leland Ryken points out, although the content is not explicitly Christian, the outlook it presents is consistent with a Christian attitude. As we all know, the comparison game is deadly, leading to either self-righteousness or self-loathing, depending on the circumstances. Neither attitude is Christlike and calls for repentance.

The only way out is to meditate on the wonder of grace and glory of Christ. Sometimes singing hymns is the medicine our soul needs.

Why Contemporary Evangelicals Struggle with Classical Theism: An Exploration

Introduction
In a culture that applauds vulnerability and acclaims sentimentality[1], hearing that God does not need us often engenders a negative visceral reaction that leaves a sour taste in our mouths. Such a reaction, I submit, should be met with a prolonged meditative pause: Why are truths that were once met with universal and joyful acceptance now greeted with a chorus of boos?

This question came to mind while reading James Dolezal’s All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. While I cannot do justice to the full range of his depictions of what he labels “theistic mutualism,” I agree with his thesis and think his arguments deserve a wider hearing. Accordingly, I would like to wade into some deep theological waters so that readers will obtain a clearer vision of who God is.

I begin by providing you with a glossary, followed by opening remarks to help orient you to the discussion. Also, I strongly encourage you to consult the footnotes as you read. Here’s what you need to know.[2].

Aseity – God is independent of the created order, self-sufficient, and self-existent. God is life in and of himself.

Immutability – God does not change in any way.

Impassibility – God does not experience suffering or emotional change. God does not merely choose to be impassible; impassibility is intrinsic to his very being. Impassibility follows logically from God’s immutability (see above).

Simplicity – God is not made up of parts; he is not composite or a compounded being. Consequently, it is not theologically precise to say God possesses attributes; rather, he is his attributes. His essence is his attributes and his attributes are his essence; all that is in God simply is God.[3]

Eternity – God is not a being who is bound by the limitations of time. There is no duration of God’s essence.

Substantial unity of the divine persons – God is one in essence and three in persons. Yet the three persons of the Trinity are only distinct with respect to their relations—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no distinction between the personal relations and the divine essence. The Athanasian Creed summarizes the orthodox position: “We venerate one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in oneness; neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. . . . The divine nature of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one. . . . Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and nevertheless they are not three gods, but there is one God” (emphasis mine). This view stands in contrast to Social Trinitarianism, a novel view that defines the Trinity not in terms of their eternal relations—Father, Son, and Spirit—but by certain social aspects like love or wills.[4] The fathers at Nicaea provided the theological grammar necessary to avoid the pitfalls of both Arianism and tritheism.

Univocal – A term that has only one meaning. In theological studies, this means that there can be a one-to-one correspondence between human words and realities as they exist in God.

Analogical – A term that can have more than one meaning. In theological studies, this means that since Scripture is accommodated to human finitude, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between God’s self-disclosure in Scripture and God’s being in himself.

Anthropomorphism – The representation of God with human characteristics.[5]

Anthropopathism – The representation of God with human emotions.

Pure Act, Pure Actuality – There is nothing in God that must be activated to reach its potential, as if God needs to become something more than he is eternally. Instead, God is maximally alive, fully actualized, absolute life in and of himself, and therefore incapable of change or improvement. Pure act is tied to attributes like infinitude, aseity, simplicity, immutability, and timeless eternity.

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Orientation to the Discussion
Two kinds of Christian theism are currently vying for the hearts and minds of evangelicals. The first is classical Christianity, as espoused by towering figures such as Athanasius (296–373), Augustine (354–430), Anselm (1033–1109), and Aquinas (1225–1274) (along with a host of others). The second is theistic mutualism—the version advocated by a litany of contemporary authors, both popular and scholarly.

Whereas classical theism is marked by a strong commitment to divine attributes like aseity, immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternity, and the substantial unity of the divine persons, theistic mutualism denies or misconstrues some of the attributes listed above, or modifies them so that their contemporary formulations are at odds with the classical construction.[6]

What is theistic mutualism? Theistic mutualists insist (or at least imply) that God is enriched by his relationship with people in some way. Just as human relationships entail reciprocity, so likewise there must be a symbiotic relationship between God and human beings. In short, authentic relationships require both parties to derive benefit from the other.

In what follows I sketch the differences between the two positions, arguing that contemporary evangelicals should embrace classical theism instead of theistic mutualism since it more accurately makes sense of the Bible and has strong support in the history of the church.

On the Nature of God’s Relationship with His People
Classical Christianity construes God’s relationship with his redeemed image bearers as an asymmetrical relationship, insisting that although God’s people are enriched through their communion with him, God is not enriched through his relationship with his people since he is self-sufficient.[7] These convictions are grounded in the notion that God is “absolute giver” and human beings “absolute receivers.”[8]

In accordance with Paul’s words in Acts 17, classical theologians concluded that human beings added nothing to God through their service and worship: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (vv. 24–25, emphasis mine).

Conclusion? Our worship of, and service to, God do not enrich him or contribute to his blessedness. Why? Because, to use the language employed by classical theologians, God is “pure actuality” (note Exod. 3:14 where God names himself “I AM,” from the verb “to be,” without any modifier, highlighting his aseity and simplicity[9]). Thus, Dolezal summarizes: “Classical theists insist that God is being, not becoming. He has no passive potentiality [that is, capability] or capacity by which He might become more or other than He is. God, as the first cause of all things, must be a being who is not susceptible to further actualization because He possesses fullness of being in and of himself. . . . Enrichment requires addition of actuality. God can have nothing added to Him because He lacks no perfection of being and actuality.”[10]

Univocal and Analogical Language
A key difference between classical theists and theistic mutualists is the way they construe the God-world relationship. Since theistic mutualists tend to think and speak of God as if his life, existence, and being is in some way similar to that of human creatures, they are rightly charged with conceiving of the God-world relationship through a univocal lens.

By contrast, classical theologians are committed to analogical thinking. What does that mean? Classical theologians hold that God’s revelation in Scripture is accommodated to human finitude, so that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between God’s self-disclosure in Scripture and God’s being in himself. Dolezal summarizes the classical position when he notes that in Scripture “God alters the revelation of Himself without altering Himself ontologically [in his essence/nature].”[11]

The motivation to interpret Scripture analogically stems from God’s revelation itself. Given God’s self-naming in Exodus 3:14, coupled with texts such as John 5:26 and Acts 17:25 (among others), theologians from early in the church’s history identified God as a se—that is, independent, all-sufficient, self-existent, and thus not dependent on anything or anyone for his fullness of life. He is, indeed, “the happy God” (1 Tim. 1:11, one may render the Greek word μακαρίου as “happy”[12]), who is “blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25; 9:5). In keeping with these classical theologians, Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) noted, “All that God is, he is of himself. . . . His whole identity was wrapped up in the name: ‘I will be what I will be.’ All God’s other perfections are derived from this name.”[13]

(Pause and note here that God’s aseity is a conclusion drawn from Scripture, rather than the result of reasoning from any Greek notion of Perfect Being.[14])

Since God’s aseity entails the notion that he exists on a different plane of being from humanity, in order for there to be some point of contact between finite creatures and a being such as God, he graciously condescends to our level by speaking to us in Scripture in a way that we can comprehend.

(Pause and note here that by speaking of God as a “being,” we are employing analogical language, since a univocal interpretation of the term “being” would imply that God is existentially correlative to human beings.[15] The same point holds, incidentally, when Christians speak of God’s “personality.” As Bavinck helpfully pointed out, “. . . personality is a concept borrowed from the human realm and hence, when applied to God, always to some extent falls short. The concept of personality, when applied to God, is not fully adequate and in principle no better than all other anthropomorphisms we use with reference to God. The Christian church and Christian theology, it must be remembered, never used the word ‘personality’ to describe God’s being; and in respect of the three modes of subsistence in that being [read: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit], they only spoke of persons reluctantly and for lack of a better term.”[16])

Anselm’s words are particularly insightful in this regard:

“For however great the difference is between the being who is through himself whatever he is and makes every other being from nothing [namely, God], and a being that through another is made from nothing to be whatever it is [namely, human beings], the difference is every bit as great between the supreme substance [God] and those that are not the same thing that he is [human beings]. And since he alone among all natures has from himself whatever existence he has, without the help of any other nature, is he not uniquely whatever he is, having nothing in common with his creatures? Accordingly, if any word is ever applied to him in common with others, it must undoubtedly be understood to have a very different signification.[17]

We can summarize Anselm’s point this way: Since God exists in a class by himself, he is not subject to the limitations of human thought and speech.

On the Bible’s Anthropomorphic Language
Still, the question persists: How should interpreters make sense of the Bible’s anthropomorphic language? For example, does God have a face (Ps. 27:8)? Does he “look down” from heaven (Ps. 53:2)? Is he right-handed (Ps. 89:13)?

What about depicting God through animal imagery? Does he have “feathers” and “wings” (Ps. 91:4)? What about through earthly objects? Is he literally a “rock,” “fortress,” and a “shield” (Ps. 18:2)?

Before dismissing such questions as nonsense, readers should recall the Anthropomorphites—a cadre of interpreters who took these verses literally, and thus argued that God had a body.[18] By contrast, classical theologians insisted on the “spirituality” of God—namely, that he is spirit (Jn. 4:24), and therefore invisible.[19]

(Pause and note here that in referring to God as “spirit,” we are using the word analogically and not univocally, since both angels and humans are spiritual beings, but composite in nature.[20])

Nevertheless, we must use analogical language because “[i]f as humans we may not speak of God in a human and analogical manner, we have no choice but to be silent.”[21] Since Scripture does not command silence, however, we proceed with caution and remain cognizant that human speech captures but a faint glimmer of God’s resplendent glory.[22] Yet—wonder of all wonders—the God who inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15) and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16), is also other-oriented by nature, and therefore purposes to share his life, love, and joy with creatures who have been stiff-arming his saving and sanctifying initiatives since Eden. Thus, when properly placed within the unfolding economy of the Triune God’s redemptive plan, it becomes clear that God communicates in Scripture with the aim of communing with his creatures.[23] To this end, Scripture employs anthropomorphic language as an accommodation to human finitude, serving at the Risen King’s behest in order to advance his lordly reign.

Divine Impassibility
While theistic mutualists accept this explanation regarding the Bible’s anthropomorphisms, they demur when confronted with Scripture’s anthropapathisms—that is, those biblical texts that attribute human emotions or passions to God.

For example, Exodus 4:14 indicates that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses.” Numbers 11:1 states:  “And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled.” Likewise, in Psalm 76:6, Asaph asks, “Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?” Further, Psalm 78:38–39 notes that God “restrained his anger often” because he “remembered that they were but flesh.”

Bearing these verses in mind, interpreters wonder: Does God have emotions? Does he change? Does he “repent” in the same manner in which he summons guilty sinners? (Gen. 6:6; Exod. 32:14).[24] If so, is he emotionally stable or do his emotions fluctuate like ours?

The classical understanding is that “the biblical depictions of change in God” are “figurative and accommodated expressions designed to convey something true about God, though not under a form of modality proper to Him”[25]—that is, they communicate something true about God without denoting the way God is in his being (read: the language is analogical, not univocal). The basis for interpreting Scripture’s anthropopathisms this way is the same as the motive for denying that God is composed of a body.

Divine impassibility neither indicates nor implies that God is detached, passive, static, or apathetic (as we understand the term). Furthermore, it certainly does not mean that he is unloving and devoid of compassion since Scripture abundantly attests to his active engagement in the world, highlighting him as the source of all blessing, the fountain of life and wellspring of all goodness, who is all-wise in his planning and all-powerful in his performing, superintending all things for the good of his people.[26] Rather, the doctrine of divine impassibility declares out of bounds any thought that God is acted upon from outside of himself so that he becomes loving, gracious, merciful, and wrathful, etc.[27]

To reiterate, the passages that seem to indicate that God is acted upon should be interpreted as “figurative and accommodated expressions” designed to convey something true about God but not understood univocally. Dolezal’s words are illuminating in this regard: “[I]t is not God who changes but rather the manifestations of God, which are perfectly suited to the needs and circumstances of His creatures—whether according to wrath or according to mercy—at any given moment of their lives.”[28]

The Christian church’s theological grammar deployed in highlighting God’s aseity, eternality, immutability, and impassibility were designed to safeguard its doctrine of God, prohibiting readers of the Bible from supposing that something or someone outside of God activates his perfections. If such were the case, God would not be self-sufficient. Rather, he would need creatures in order to be who he is since they would, in some way, contribute to his actuality. He would not be independent, but dependent upon creatures for his fullness of life. The Triune God of Holy Scripture, however, is a vast ocean of being who has no unmet needs and thus gives to all liberally without divesting himself of anything.[29.

Again, Bavinck: “He [God] is ‘pure form,’ ‘utterly pure act.’ He does not have to become anything, but is what he is eternally. He has no goal outside himself but is self-sufficient, all-sufficient (Ps. 50:18ff; Isa. 40:28ff.; Hab. 2:20). He receives nothing, but only gives. All things need him; he needs nothing or nobody.”[30] To affirm, therefore, as G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) did, that “Without the world God is not God,”[31] is to entertain a notion far more consonant with pantheism than Christianity. In the Christian tradition, “It is not God who finds his destiny in his creatures; rather, they find their destiny in him.”[32]

Wonderfully, breathtakingly, the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—bestows life upon us. We do not bestow life upon him. The beneficiaries of redemption do not remunerate the Benefactor in any way.

Theologian Scott Swain puts the matter precisely:

“Because God is perfect, he rests content in himself as his own final end. He desires no further completion, no further fulfillment from anything outside of himself. God lacks all desire,[33] reposing in himself in infinitely realized delight. God’s impassible happiness is fully actualized happiness. For this reason, God’s will toward anything outside himself is not an expression of desire but of pure benevolence. God wills and affirms the existence of creatures, without grudging, without envy.[34]

(Please consult the footnote below for an explanation of the way Swain uses the word “desire” here.) See another helpful essay by Swain: https://www.reformation21.org/blogs/zwingli-divine-impassibility-a.php

Why Contemporary Evangelicals Struggle with Classical Theism
Without intending to be comprehensive, I conclude this essay by providing three reasons I think contemporary evangelicals may struggle with these classical doctrines.

First, contemporary evangelicals have not sufficiently contemplated the fact that God has a life of his own, distinct from that of the world.[35] He exists, as Anselm noted, “in his own wonderfully unique and uniquely wonderful way.”[36] Practically, this means that even if God did not create the world, show compassion toward sinners, and enact a plan of redemption in space-time history, he would still be God. Indeed, he would still be all that he is—loving, gracious, merciful, kind, and abounding in steadfast love, living in “the happy land of the Trinity.”[37] In short, God is who he is apart from his creation of, and interaction with, the world or finite creatures. And, as the ancients would say, God is all that is in God. He is neither a human being on an infinite scale, nor “a sublime set of great-making properties all splendidly arranged together.”[38] Rather, he is, as Aquinas said, sui generis—in a class by himself.[39]

Secondly, contemporary evangelicals typically fail to appreciate the analogical nature of our God-talk and the accommodated nature of the Bible. Language is a gift of God and, in his wise and sovereign plan, Holy Scripture serves as the means by which he makes friends with his creatures.[40] Still, in light of the accommodated nature of Scripture, it is not a direct map on to God’s being. Remember, “God alters the revelation of himself without altering himself ontologically.”[41] God’s accommodated revelation in Scripture enables creatures to know the Triune God adequately, but not exhaustively.[42] Given the analogical and accommodated nature of God’s revelation, therefore, disciples of Christ must resist confusing the creature with the Creator.[43]

Thirdly—and building upon the previous point—contemporary evangelicals frequently think and speak of God as if he shares the limitations of his creatures. Although not explicitly stated, their internal dialogue goes something like, “We know what it means to be personal, therefore if God is personal he must be like X,” or, “We know what a good father is, therefore if God is a good father, he must be like X, and he would do X,” or (and this may be the most frequent), “We know what love is, therefore if God is loving he must be like X, and he will do X.”

In each of these examples, evangelicals unwittingly treat the human creature as if he is the standard of perfection to which God must conform. Given this mode of reasoning, it is no wonder that they think God’s impassibility (to take but one example) conflicts with his love. Most likely, they are operating out of a Romantic notion of personhood and conceiving of love as an emotion.[44] Such a conception, however, swims against the current of the classical tradition (and the Bible, incidentally) which defined love not as an emotion, but as a commitment. This conviction led the Christian monk Evagrius of Pontus (345–399) to state that “apatheia [impassibility] has a child called agape.”[45] Ironically, in denying God’s impassibility we denigrate his love. His love for his children is “so perfect that no perturbation or pathos can obviate its intensity.”[46] We can bank on his love, rest in his faithfulness, and cherish his promise that he “will never leave us nor forsake us” specifically because he is impassible.[47]

Conclusion
God is not needy. As the source of all enduring joy, the triune God who has life in himself, shares his life with us, his children, through his beloved Son. As the Holy Spirit sovereignly awakens us to his goodness through the gift of regeneration, he implants within us a solid faith, a lively hope, and a burning love.[48] The God who works all things together for the good of his people in this life also promises that the best is yet to come—a future marked by unalloyed splendor, unending bliss, and unfading glory, perpetually basking in the unutterable loveliness and radiance of our all-glorious Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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[1] Here I am thinking of William Placher who refers to God as “the vulnerable God strong in love rather than power” (“The Triune God: The Perichoresis of Particular Persons,” in Theology after Liberalism: A Reader, eds. John Webster and George P. Schner [Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000], 89).

[2] Definitions provided here are adapted from Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2019); Millard Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

[3] On this point, interested readers should track down Gavin Ortlund, “Divine Simplicity in Historical Perspective: Resourcing a Contemporary Discussion,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 16:4 (2014): 436–453.

[4] See further James E. Dolezal, “Trinity, Simplicity and the Status of God’s Personal Relations,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 16:1 (January 2014): 79–98; Thomas Joseph White, “Divine Simplicity and the Holy Trinity,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18:1 (January 2016): 66–93.

[5] J. Scott Duval and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 356.

[6] See further James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2017), especially the preface and Ch. 1.

[7] Edmund Runggaldier, “Divine Eternity and Timeless Perfection,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 8:2 (Summer 2016): 179, notes that Aquinas referred to humanity’s relation to God as a “mixed asymmetric relation.” Clarifying this point, John Webster notes that “God’s relation to creatures is non-reciprocal.” Understanding God’s relationship with image bearers as asymmetrical or non-reciprocal does not mean God is indifferent or unengaged. Rather, the life and blessings God bestows on his world “is the harmony and repose which, because it needs nothing, is capable of pure charity, giving life and righteous order in the works of creation and providence” (The Domain of the Word [New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012], 154, 155).

[8] See, e.g., Charles P. Arand, “Luther on the Creed,” Lutheran Quarterly 20 (2006): 1–25, esp. 4; Donald Wood, “Maker of Heaven and Earth,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 14:4 (October 2012): 381–395.

[9] For a contemporary presentation, see Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation: Cosmos, Creatures, and the Wise and Good Creator (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 75–76. For a brief snapshot of a classical treatment see Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” in Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, eds. Louis Dupré & James A. Wiseman (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 83.

[10] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 15, 16, 17n4. See the masterful treatment in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), Ch. 4. From other classical theologians, see Anselm, Monologion in Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007), Ch. 15 (21 et. al.); Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermons on the Song of Songs,” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Writings, trans. G. R. Evans (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 112.

[11] Anselm made the same point in his Monologion, Ch. 25 (p. 36).

[12] Anselm does this on multiple occasions. See e.g., Monologion Ch. 1 (p. 7); Proslogion (Ch. 5; p. 83).

[13] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:151, emphasis mine.

[14] Supposing that the early church fathers, and the classical Christian tradition more generally, borrowed from Greek philosophical thought uncritically betrays a lack of familiarity with not only classical Christian theism, but also of Greek philosophical thought. See, e.g., Janet Martin Soskice, “Naming God: A Study in Faith and Reason,” in Reason and the Reasons of Faith, eds. Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhard Hütter (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), Ch. 10; idem, “Athens and Jerusalem, Alexandria and Edessa: Is There a Metaphysics of Scripture?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 8:2 (April 2006): 149–162; Michael Allen, “Exodus 3 after the Hellenization Thesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3:2 (2009): 179–196; David Bentley Hart, “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility,” Pro Ecclesia 11 (2002): 184–206, esp. 193–196; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 607–610. Cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:183ff. For a helpful historical overview, see Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2013), 219–224.

[15] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 2n4. For a highly technical discussion on this topic, see Richard A. Muller, “Not Scotist: Understandings of Being, Univocity, and Analogy in Early-Modern Reformed Thought,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 14:2 (2012): 127–150.

[16] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:50, emphasis mine. In his treatment on the doctrine of the Trinity, Bavinck helpfully reminds readers that with respect to the person-nature distinction employed by the fathers, the word “‘person’ has a meaning of its own” (302). Anselm made this same point in his “Letter On the Incarnation of the Word,” in Anselm: Basic Writings, 230–232.

[17] Monologion, Ch. 26 (p. 36), emphasis mine. Cf. also Ch. 65 (p. 63–64), where Anselm picks up this discussion again.

[18] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:165, 174, 183–184. Additionally, Augustine admitted that one of his greatest metaphysical difficulties was not conceiving of God in a corporeal body. See, e.g., The Happy Life in Trilogy on Faith and Happiness, trans. Roland J. Teske, Michael G. Campbell, and Ray Kearney (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2010), 29, as well as The Advantage of Believing in ibid., 140. He also made the same point in his Confessions, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 5. 20 (p. 127–128).

[19] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:187.

[20] Ibid., 186.

[21] Ibid., 50.

[22] Ibid., 308. The citation comes from Bavinck’s treatment of eternal generation.

[23] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 16.

[24] With respect to God’s “repentance,” Calvin insightfully noted, “Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he appears to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience” (1. 17. 13, emphasis mine).

[25] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 20.

[26] B. B. Warfield, “Predestination,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia, PA: P&R, 1968), 280.

[27] As Hart points out, God’s love is not “a fundamentally reactive reality” (“No Shadow of Turning,” [191]). Additionally, Augustine noted that “when God is said to be angry, we do not attribute to Him such a disturbed feeling as exists in the mind of an angry man; but we call His just displeasure against sin by the name ‘anger,’ a word transferred by analogy from human emotions” (The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, trans. J. F. Shaw [Regnery/Gateway, South Bend, 1961], 42, emphasis mine).

[28] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 137.

[29] A number of church fathers refer to God as an “ocean of being,” but here I am drawing from Gregory of Nazianzus, “On the Theophany, or Birthday of Christ,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 7, Ch. 7, 346, where Gregory calls God a “great Sea of Being.” Additionally, Bavinck refers to God as a “vast of ocean of being,” in Reformed Dogmatics, 2:124.

[30] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:211, emphasis mine. Cf. 342.

[31] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, trans. R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson, and J. M. Stewart, with the assistance of J. P. Fitzer and H. S. Harris (Berkelely, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1984), 323.

[32] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:232. As a definition, Bavinck noted, “Pantheism . . . says that God and the world are correlates, and that God has no being, life, consciousness, and will of his own in distinction from the world” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:249).

[33] While readers may not initially approve of Swain’s choice of words, they must remember his overall point: In contemporary parlance, “desire” refers to lacking an unpossessed good, which cannot be true of God since he lacks nothing. Even when human beings obey God’s revealed will, they do not contribute to his beatitude. For further discussion on this understanding of the word “desire,” see Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America, 2009), Ch. 7. Bavinck, of course, speaks with his usual lucidity, noting that God’s revealed will for creatures arises “not because he needs them, but only for his own sake or name (Prov. 16:4). The creation, accordingly, is not to be conceived as an object existing outside of or over against him, which he lacks and strives to possess, or as something he hopes to gain, which he does not possess. For ‘from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Rom. 11:36). It is not God who finds his destiny in his creatures; rather, they find their destiny in him. . . . Therefore, his willing, also in relation to creatures, is never a striving for some as yet unpossessed good and hence no sign of imperfection and infelicity. On the contrary: his willing is always—also in and through his creatures—absolute self-enjoyment, perfect blessedness, divine rest. In God rest and labor are one; his self-sufficiency coincides with absolute actuality” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:232–233).

[34] Scott R. Swain, “That Your Joy May Be Full: A Theology of Happiness,” https://document.desiringgod.org/that-your-joy-may-be-full-en.pdf?ts=1524239424 (accessed 8 September 2019). Lest this language strike readers as odd, they should know that it was par for the course in the patristic literature. Again, see the brief synopsis in Culver, Systematic Theology, 219–224. For a patristic example, see Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 63.

[35] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:177, 299. From this fact alone one should be able to deduce that God in no way depends on anything or anyone to be who he is. If he is the Creator of all things, it makes sense that he has no limits. See, e.g., Runggaldier, “Divine Eternity and Timeless Perfection,” 170.

[36] Anselm, Monologion, Ch. 28 (p. 37).

[37] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 68. Cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:342; also Wilhemus á Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, God, Man, and Christ, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 124–125.

[38] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 43.

[39] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Vol. 2, ed. Timothy McDermott, 35–37 (1a. 3. 5). Though I have heard this quote attributed to Thomas many times, I am following the citation of Michael Allen, Sanctification, New Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 57.

[40] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 50.

[41] Dolezal, All That Is in God, 20.

[42] This is why our Reformation forebears distinguished between archetypal theology (God’s knowledge of himself) and ectypal theology (God’s accommodated revelation of himself). See, e.g., Willem J. van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 319–335; cf. Muller, “Not Scotist,” 139–144.

[43] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, God, Scripture & Hermeneutics: First Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 33n42; Scott R. Swain, “The Being and Attributes of God,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), Ch. 6. See esp. 225.

[44] Stephen R. Holmes, “The Attributes of God,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Ch. 3. See esp. 57, 67.

[45] Cited in Hart, “No Shadow of Turning,” 193–194. I have not consulted the original source.

[46] Hart, “No Shadow of Turning,” 194.

[47] Ibid., 197.

[48] The language of a “solid faith, lively hope, and burning love” comes from Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, in his The Happy Life, 53.

 

Monday Morning Poetry

Since we’re just coming out of the Easter season, for this week’s selection of Monday Morning Poetry, I have chosen “Most Glorious Lord of Life” by Edmund Spenser (1552–1599):

Most glorious Lord of Life, that on this day
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
And having harrowed hell didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
And grant that we for whom thou diddest die,
Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
May live for ever in felicity.
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again,
And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy,
With love may one another entertain.
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Monday Morning Poetry

Several years ago on a different blog I began a series of posts titled “Monday Morning Poetry.” Why? Well, 1) because I like poetry, and 2) because it felt right. I’m not sure I need a deeply philosophical reason for doing so. After all, it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

My plan is to share a poem that I have enjoyed reading in hopes that you will appreciate it as much as I did.

For this first installment I have chosen “Leave Me, O Love, Which Reachest but to Dust,” penned by Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586):

Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust,
And though, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust;
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be,
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That both doth shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide
Who seeketh heav’n, and comes of heavenly breath.
Then farewell, world; thy uttermost I see:
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.

Reflections on Driving Past an Estate Sale

My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations (Psalm 102:11–12).

Some months ago I drove past a sign emblazoned with the words “Estate Sale,” adorned with arrows directing interested passersby to make a left turn and find their way to the proper address. Instead of turning down the street, however, my mind drifted toward the person whose belongings would be rifled through by complete strangers.

What was the person’s life like? Was he or she married? What about his widow or her widower? What about his or her children? How will they remember their loved one?

We all want to be remembered. We want to leave a legacy. We want to leave our mark on the world.

Where do these desires come from?

In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker notes that underneath all of our attempts to make a mark lies “the ache of cosmic specialness.” Though we may deny it, each of us lives with a deep-seated need to be known, recognized, and loved. We hope that someone, somewhere will find us significant.

Did you notice the words of the Psalmist cited above? He declares that although he will “wither away like the grass,” the LORD will be “remembered throughout all generations.” Why? Because “he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the LORD looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die” (vv. 19–20). While the writer’s words recall the exodus from Egypt, Luke records that during Christ’s transfiguration, he spoke with Moses and Elijah about his “exodus” (Lk. 9:31)—a reference to his future death, resurrection, and ascension, events that spotlight his saving work, triumph over death, and future reign at the Father’s right hand.

The King of kings laid down his life for those who by nature strive to usurp, rather than surrender to, his Lordship. Whereas the end result should have been eternal banishment from his presence, the radiant Son will usher his redeemed servants into their heavenly homeland.

When all that we have accomplished and acquired recedes from view, at long last we will learn that we could never achieve our way into significance, but receive it through faith-union with the Significant One—the Father’s beloved Son, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Matt. 3:17; Col. 2:3).

Typical of Adam’s descendants, our desires are often too weak, and our ambitions fueled by an inordinate sense of self-concern. We want to be remembered throughout all generations. But it is far more precious to be known, forgiven, loved, and cherished by the God of the universe.