A Matter of Trust, Or, What's God's Middle Name?

(The following is a solicited interaction with points raised in a debate between Professors K. Scott Oliphint (Westminster Theological Seminary) and Paul Helm (Regent College) - who blogs at "Helm's Deep" - over Dr. Oliphint’s recent book, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God [Crossway, 2012]. I’ve tried to make sure that the reader who is unaware of that discussion can still follow the basic lines of argument below without difficulty, but if interested one can read the interaction between Professors Oliphint and Helm here, here, and here.)

I’ve been asked by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint to offer a third voice to the interesting exchange underway between Professors Oliphint and Professor Paul Helm regarding Dr. Oliphint’s book, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God[1]. (All references to page numbers below are to Oliphint's book.) In what follows, and with shameless selectivity, I will try to restate Oliphint’s proposal and raise questions for both Oliphint and Helm along the way.


Naturally, it’s an honor to be asked to join a conversation between two scholars whose work I admire so much. But it’s also appropriate that these are the two scholars discussing this lofty subject matter. Consider: When Gregory the Great sat down to pen his brilliant commentary on the Book of Job, he soon realized the task was far more difficult than he had expected it to be. While the text was there, right in front of him, readable and fairly straightforward at one level, he found that the words were at the same time inexhaustibly rich and beyond his full grasp. The result was his famous line, “Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” We now can say with confidence that Gregory's Latin has been missed for centuries: rather than “elephant” and “deep river,” clearly it should be rendered “Oliphint” and “Helm's Deep.” Close enough, but I'm glad we finally have that sorted out.

But seriously, Professors Oliphint and Helm are considering some of the most profoundly mysterious features of the orthodox Christian faith, questions that are truly difficult, prompted by the heart of the Christian confession that "Jesus is Lord," and elemental to the Gospel. Of course this also means they are participating in an ancient conversation within the Church, not inventing one themselves.

A Matter of Trust

From the outset, I invite you to tether this discussion to a facet of the Christian faith so critical to our modern situation: trust. I admit I am reconfiguring the Oliphint-Helm conversation by doing this, but I hope in a helpful way. The issue lurking just below the surface of their debate over the nature of God’s freedom, action, and relationship to creatures, is the pastorally urgent question whether or not the God revealed in history, and especially in Jesus of Nazareth, can be trusted. And the question of trust is itself an ineradicably Christological question for every human being. And so, for all its apparent detachment from “real life,” the debate over the nature and mode(s) of God’s relationship to creatures is deeply pastoral in importance. How you think about this affects how you handle doubt and damaged trust within the Church, your own or among the members of your congregation.

Let me try to make that case before raising some specific questions for the Oliphint-Helm exchange.[1] In Voltaire’s “Story of a Good Brahmin” the traveling narrator meets a very wise and educated man. He is clearly struck by the man’s intellect. “Furthermore,” we read in the next sentence, “he was rich and, consequently, all the wiser, because, lacking nothing, he needed to deceive nobody.” These first two sentences of Voltaire’s story are pungent with the stink of so much human trouble. Note the link in Voltaire’s description: “all the wiser, because, lacking nothing, he needed to deceive nobody.” Voltaire is tapping into a dark, universal human reality that dates back to Gen. 3:16 and the entrance of sin into human relations. We lack something, and so we deceive. And the possibility of deceit, which the presence of lack points to, compromises trust.

Now contrast this with the opening affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Is it a good thing that God is an Almighty Father? Why do we think it is? We don’t even have to leave the pages of Scripture to be reminded that there are awful fathers. Nor should we assume that people today hear “almighty father” and necessarily think a good thing. We know too well that fathers, as sinners, can use their power for ill rather than for good. The notion of an almighty father might very well be a scary thing, rather than a comforting one, and we pastors would do well to remember that.

But this isn’t all the Creed says. We immediately go on to read, “Maker of Heaven and Earth.” In other words, this almighty Father-God has made everything that exists. Everything outside himself is the result of his free decision to create. In his freedom, he has made something that he does not need in order to be who he eternally and necessarily is. This means that the God of Christian faith, lacking nothing, does not need to deceive anybody in order to acquire what he needs. And having no intrinsic need, he can be trusted. No creature could ever be trustworthy in the utterly thoroughgoing sense in which God the Creator is trustworthy, because every creature, by definition, is not the Creator. Every sinful human being since the Fall is liable to the temptation to deceive in order to acquire what he or she lacks. But not God the Father Almighty. That he is the Creator of everything, and therefore needs nothing, grounds (in part) our confidence in his trustworthiness.

What’s God’s Middle Name?

Enter, now, Oliphint and Helm. Are God’s free acts of condescension – throughout history, and supremely in Jesus of Nazareth – true disclosures of who he is, or are those acts a series of dramatic words and deeds in some sense “out in front” of the God who is but not identifiable with him? When he reveals himself to us, what is God’s middle name? Is it “God is x” or “God is as-it-were x”? Should we understand God is loving (or wrathful) toward me, or God is as-it were loving (wrathful) toward me? Using a conventional (but not the only) meaning for divine “accommodation,” Helm’s position seems to be that as-it-were is God’s middle name, whereas Oliphint is proposing a way of saying “is.” More on this shortly.

Unsurprisingly, though, the ghost of modern Christology, and especially Barth, lurks in the background of the Oliphint-Helm exchange. Horrified by some perceived implications of the “as-it-were” way of relating God to the incarnate Christ, Barth pushed hard in the opposite direction: God is who he is in his free determination (itself an act) to be the incarnate, suffering, dying, rising Jesus Christ of the covenant of grace. He comes quite close, and some would say he goes all the way, to saying there is no God but Christ, at least in terms of revelation. In Christ, the God you “see” is the God you get, simpliciter. Arguably, Barth is so adamant in carrying this “is” model through to its fullest implications that, as Oliphint argues in his book, one loses any meaningful God who, existing necessarily and eternally, is doing the free acting and willing. We might put it this way: lacking the orthodox framework which understood that divine “freedom” is only meaningful if God is “first” (in a theoretical sense) necessarily who he is and therefore acting freely as that God, Barth’s push toward God’s beingas free act put at grave risk any reason to trust the God who is acting. After all, with no stabilizing ground in his eternal, necessary Triune being, there is no stability for my trust in his free acts.

Many writers, therefore, rush to the polar opposite conclusion from Barth’s, one that weakens the connection between the God who is and the incarnate Logos, Christ, as his revelation. And when we hear and see the busyness of God in the OT Scriptures and the story of Israel, when we see him putting lots of pictures in front of us and showing love and anger, it is suggested that these are not really connected to God’s identity, and still less to the identity of the Son in particular. Until the Incarnation, we are told, God reveals himself in this “as-it-were” fashion.

But, for Oliphint (and here is his critical move), the problems with Barth's program notwithstanding, it is no more helpful to detach God’s eternal, necessary being from his words and deeds in history in the “as-it-were” fashion. And in this I believe he is exactly right, particularly in his focus on the Word, the Logos, the eternal Son. Despite the real (and widespread) temptation to over-react to Barth, orthodox Christology must resolve to do full justice to how Jesus himself addressed the crisis of trust among his disciples in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me” (v. 1). The statement is remarkable: Jesus claims that trust in himself (the incarnate, historical, concrete, flesh-and-blood, speaking and acting Son) is as well-grounded as trust in God the Father, a claim that can only be intelligible if what he says a few verses later is also true. “If you know me, you know my Father as well” (v. 7), and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9). Let’s never forget that Jesus speaks here into a context of anxiety, of nearly-harmed trust, provoked by his announcement that he is going away. The disciples are assured that to know him is to know the Father, the God of the patriarchs and of the OT Scriptures. Of course we will never fully grasp this, but we must do our best to do justice to this claim.

But of course we are speaking of the incarnate Son, and few dispute that he is the revelation of God which requires no middle name, no "as it were." The disagreement largely concerns the ways God revealed himself before the incarnation, and in distinction from its historical particularity. What then?

It's a worthy nuance, but, with Oliphint, I suggest the two are not unrelated. Alongside the words of Jesus in John's Gospel we must place the words of the Apostle Peter to Cornelius when they met in Caesarea. In this world-changing encounter, Peter identifies Jesus of Nazareth not only with the the God-man Peter himself knew for years as Rabbi and Master, but with the LORD of covenant history, the LORD who was active, in words and deeds, with the patriarchs and the children of Israel. Specifically, Peter argues that the impartial LORD of all in Deuteronomy 10 who spoke to Israel of old, and is now speaking words of peace to Israel through Peter, is none other than Jesus Christ. The Greek of Peter’s affirmation of this in Acts 10:36 is awkward; it doesn't fit the syntax of the verse. Modern translations end up putting the words into parentheses because it’s that obvious they don’t fit the natural flow of his statement. Indeed, Peter forces the identification tag, “Jesus Christ is LORD of all,” into his speech so that we can’t miss its significance: “… the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) …” (Acts 10:36). And to these examples we can add the familiar high Christology of John 1, and of Paul in Philippians 2, and other NT passages as well.

One is driven, then, to acknowledge that in a mysterious way Jesus is One who acted in covenant history. This is a particularly critical point Oliphint is keen to make, and of course it has an eminent antiquity, not only in Church history but within the Scriptures. Jesus, as the eternal Logos, is the “I am” of Exodus in which Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were called to trust. Christ is, as Paul famously put it, the spiritual rock who followed Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4). There is a recognizable pressure throughout the Scriptures to go beyond identifying the speaking and acting God of Israel’s history as merely “God” or exclusively as God the Father. The NT writers are quite persuaded we must speak, too, of the Son’s speaking and acting there. But how do we relate all these biblical features to one another in a coherent and responsible way?

Let’s Be Real About This

Thus Oliphint’s proposal. Oliphint is concerned to do justice to this “realism” in the relationship of identity (“is” and not merely “as-it-were”) between the God who necessarily and eternally is who he is, and the God who has condescended freely to speak and act in history, and finally in his Son. Secondly, and related to this first conviction, the realism of Yahweh’s revelatory words and deeds in the OT is not merely theological (of God) but more specifically Christological (of Christ). In other words, the unchallenged and indispensable uniqueness of the act of the Incarnation of the Son needs to be contextualized by what Oliphint sees as the many OT “proleptic” intimations of the coming incarnation. Importantly, Oliphint is arguing the following valid point: As soon as God acted to create, he necessarily “condescended” to do so, and he adopted a modality of action that fits the fact that he is relating to something outside of himself, and, further, fits what he would ultimately do in the incarnation.

Oliphint’s use of terms for this may be thought ambiguous for some of today’s readers, since the use of “properties” to identify this modality might be confused with God’s essential “attributes.” But Oliphint does take pains to explain himself and, as he amply demonstrates, his nuanced use of “properties” (as a kind of modality) is consistent with its use among the Reformed Orthodox. The key, then, is that we learn the proper meaning (and value) of the terms, rather than over-react to the prospect of confusion. For Oliphint, when God creates and relates actively to his creation, he is doing something that is not necessary to his being as God. After all, he is eternally and necessarily who he is apart from creation. But when he so acts, he adds to himself these new modalities of action which – in all of those words and deeds in covenant history – truly disclose him: they are not merely a persona or façade. For Oliphint, this is more than God simply loving variety as the spice of his divine life – now as one walking in the Garden, then in a chat with Abraham, now in a whirlwind, then in a donkey, now as happy, then as angry. No, this varied but deeply unified story of God’s revelatory acts of condescension reaches its climax in the incarnation of the Son which, as a unique event, remains organically related to how God necessarily must relate to anything outside of himself and has in fact done so, namely, in a modality of action which he freely “adds” to himself.

It remains, though, to specify this organic relationship. This captures something of Oliphint’s intention when he speaks of God adding “properties.” (Oliphint also speaks specifically of covenantal properties, maintaining that the mode of God’s condescension has the recognizable structural features that distinguish it, at all times, as covenantal. While I think this requires more defense and explanation than Oliphint has provided so far, we note it appears to be for him a natural consequence of the Westminster Confession’s characterization of God’s relationship to Adam at creation as covenantal, and should be explored at that level.) If my understanding of Oliphint’s model is correct, he is pointing us to a fairly simple but easily overlooked fact of the organic unfolding of God’s revelation in history: the incarnation of the Son is a unique event on a continuum of God’s historical words and acts of revelatory condescension.

This is a nuance of his proposal that I believe merits further attention than Oliphint was able to give it in his book. I suggest, for instance, that it may help us relate more satisfactorily the words and events of Israel’s story to the eschatological embodiment (and thus inclusion) of them in Christ, and thus help us better appreciate the implications of Jesus as the true Israel.

His proposal, therefore, is a proposal for a form of realism, over against the “as-it-were” tendencies in our rhetoric in which we are so concerned to keep from collapsing God into history that we compromise the very possibility of knowing him truly. With Cornelius Van Til, Oliphint heartily affirms we cannot know God as he knows himself, yet insists we must affirm that what God reveals about himself truly is a revelation of himself and thus entails real knowledge of him.

Don’t Look At That God Behind the Curtain!

Helm notes Oliphint’s dissatisfaction with aspects of classical theism and the way it has typically handled talk of God’s emotions and actions. Oliphint, notes Helm, is concerned with a kind of “theological docetism, in which Scripture’s ascription of God’s interaction with creation is relegated to appearance of such interaction, rather than something that really takes place” (emphasis is Oliphint’s). This is a correct reading of a principal concern which guides Oliphint's work. Theologians who evidence this problem do tend to speak only of changes in creation or among creatures. They only speak of a change in God in terms of what changes his eternal decree has determined shall be, and of his external relations to those changes in history. Oliphint shares their concern to safeguard God’s immutability, of course, but has concerns for how this rhetoric may compromise the reality of his emotions and, more generally, of his revelation of himself in them and in other forms and contexts. The “appearance” model, or what I’m calling the as-it-were model, Oliphint states, “fails to ring true to what Scripture affirms of God” (190).

But even in the course of the exchange, Helm makes statements that suggest such a concern would be warranted. As an example, consider Helm’s reply to Oliphint’s question, “When Scripture speaks of the anger of the Lord, are we supposed to think not that the Lord is angry but that we are?” Helm answers: “The Lord is angry, right enough, but that anger is not the outcome of a change in God…” (okay so far) “… but is manifested to us (out of the fullness of God’s being) as the result of God eternally decreeing (and so changelessly decreeing) to be angry with us at that time.” Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that Helm’s reply strangely blends together the two opposite and incompatible sides of the picture which Oliphint is seeking to navigate: an as-it-were model which uses the language of appearance (and, in that sense, accommodation) on the one hand, and Barth’s model which, we recall, made God’s decision his being, on the other. Helm here locates so much in God’s decree that what God has decreed is what he is (decreed to be angry), but this is not to be identified with what he actually is in some sense in history (angry and revealing himself to be so). Put differently, Helm seems to suggest (read his statement above again) that it is God’s eternal decree that is manifested, not his actual or real anger. For Helm, God’s “anger” in Scripture = the manifestation to us of the result of God’s eternal decree to be angry at that time.

Helm continues, “It is not simply God being angry, but manifesting anger on a certain occasion and for so long. This is what is eternally decreed.” But this only rearranges the issue; it doesn’t answer it. Is the anger God is manifesting something true of himself or not? Granted that God decreed it, but is God manifesting anger “on a certain occasion and for so long” because he is in fact angry? Can we speak of his being angry in any meaningful way, or only of his manifesting anger, but which manifestation in point of fact bears no relationship to God himself, to his true identity as the angry God? The confusion is present elsewhere when he deals with the same passage in Oliphint. Helm says,

“To put the point baldly, for God to eternally decree to express anger in the morning but not in the afternoon is to eternally decree a change over time, but it does not follow that God is in time, and that the change from the absence of anger to anger is a change in his own life. The change is a change in the course of the cosmos.”

The concern to protect God’s immutability is necessary and laudable, and Oliphint is clear that God is not in time in the sense that he thus ceases to be outside of time as well, but we can see the danger of which Oliphint is warning. When God says he’s angry, is he, really? Or are two spiritual fingers tied behind his spiritual back? Can we trust that what he says he is, he is? This is the problem of the as-it-were way of speaking.

Oliphint proposes that there is a better way than speaking only of changes “out there” or, worse, of God only appearing to be x or y (imagine the use of a mask, like the modalists used to – which Helm is not!). The better way of protecting God’s immutability and his real and personal activity in history is to speak of his free and contingent assumption to himself of those “properties” or modes of relating authentically which obtain in the creation he has made. Once again, these are largely my words, but I think they capture Oliphint’s intention. So Oliphint asks, as I do,

“Does Helm mean to say… that when Scripture says that God’s people were under wrath prior to their conversion (e.g., Eph. 2:3), that we’re meant to think [it] is only that we believed we were under wrath? And are we then meant to read Scripture so that, at conversion, our belief changed to thinking we are under grace? We are surely not to think, says Helm, that God’s disposition toward us has changed from wrath to grace.”

But, in Van Til terms, this would mean no real transition from wrath to grace in history, only the appearance of it. To which prospect Oliphint appropriately reacts, “It denies the reality of salvation in history.” That was perhaps Barth’s most critical blind spot.

I have a similar question when Helm uses a light analogy in reply to Oliphint. Oliphint asks, “Is God’s anger to one person an identical disposition as his grace and covenant love toward another?” (191). Helm replies,

“Is the sunlight that is refracted through the varied colors of the stained glass window one and the same sunlight? Of course it is. The colors in the glass make the difference. In a similar way the eternal goodness of God is differentially experienced by one person at different times, or by different persons at the same time.”

But Helm is missing the point of Oliphint’s question, which is a question of identity: is God’s anger to one person an identicaldisposition as his love is toward another? The as-it-were model has to say yes, since while the appearance may change (at one time wrath, at another time love), the God “behind” them is not in truth - or in any meaningful respect - at one time wrathful and another time loving. So when Helm says the “eternal goodness of God” is the light that is refracted in a variety of ways in human experience, that is fine, but, in terms of Helm’s reply, is it really the eternal goodness of God which finds expression in his anger too? Is God’s anger only a manifestation of his un-anger? If so, how does this manifestation or revelation still qualify as a meaningful revelationof God? How can we trust that the God “behind” this manifestation of love isn’t really angry, or vice versa?

The irony is that Helm is himself concerned with the trust issue. He is concerned that the notion of God entering time and having passions, while remaining eternal and immutable, in some sense results in two gods, and who can know which one is the true one? This is the very question Oliphint is attempting to illumine by accenting the poverty of the as-it-were model which provokes this very real dilemma.

Ruling Out the Incarnation?

Helm denies that orthodox Christology fits within Oliphint’s proposal. Whereas Chalcedon, says Helm,

“proposes the union between God in se, in the person of the Logos, and human nature, not between Oliphint’s novel construction, a God who has taken on covenantal properties, and human nature. It is this union between God who is unqualifiedly eternal, and human nature, that for Chalcedonian theology makes the incarnation truly and amazingly condescending.”

Regarding Chalcedon’s formulation, I’m not sure what Helm has in mind in his characterization of the Council’s intentions. I cautiously suggest Helm is simply mistaken, though it is more likely I have misunderstood him here. Rather than an “unqualifiedly eternal” God who, on Helm’s understanding, is empty of the kind of condescensions Oliphint has in view, Chalcedon formulates the incarnation of the God of the OT who, as such, had already condescended in many times and ways. This, of course, echoes Hebrews 1 language, but it is also part of Chalcedon’s work more narrowly. The Chalcedonian Definition certainly did criticize the Eutychian error which taught that the divine and human natures became merged in such a way that each lost its distinctive properties, and thus the divine nature became passible. But it was demonstrably concerned to avoid condemning Cyril’s Second Letter to Nestorius (a text formally approved in the Definition) and did not condemn Cyril’s general defense of a kind of theopaschite idea. Cyril’s Second Letter urged that all human experiences are to be ascribed to the Word of God (the Logos), a concern which, when put alongside the clear rejection of Eutychianism, at least tells us that the Council did not regard one as synonymous with the other.

To be sure, as scholars have long argued, the Definition didn’t ultimately come down hard in support of one side or the other in the debate between (Cyrillian) Alexandrians and Antiochenes, but, whatever we may think of these ideas ourselves, at minimum historically it over-reaches to suggest that the Council intended to rule out of orthodoxy a positive relationship between the eternal Logos and the emotional life (if we want to call it that) of Yahweh in the OT. (On Chalcedon, see the three-volume The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, ed. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis; Liverpool University Press, 2005.)

But I wonder, too, what Helm means by “unqualifiedly” eternal. Does this mean Helm, to be consistent, could not affirm the incarnation of the Son of God if the Son had (has) related, in any way, to something outside of himself before the time-point of the Incarnation? If not, was the Son still truly the “unqualifiedly” eternal God Helm has in mind if he became, from creation forwards, the Son who “accommodated” – to use a term Helm prefers – in his revelations toward Israel? Do not the Son’s actions toward Israel in the OT sully his “unqualified” eternal divinity in just the way Helm is concerned about?

In fact, Oliphint’s proposal is an attempt to carry out a more deliberately Christological model of God’s relationship to creation and history, one anchored self-consciously in the fact of the Incarnation. The incarnation of the Son being true, it determines for Oliphint what it is possible for Christians to affirm – always as a matter of faith – regarding God’s relationship to creation and history. I suspect all would agree this is precisely the correct approach, and one demanded by Scripture and historic orthodoxy. But this gives me pause when I consider some of Helm’s objections to Oliphint’s proposal that the God of Israel assumed to himself, contingently, certain modes of condescending which figure the coming incarnation and are organically continuous with that unique event. In short, reading Helm’s objections, I fear that if he were consistent, he would have to rule out the incarnation itself, and not just the pre-incarnation, covenantal-historical intimations of the incarnation that Oliphint is exploring. Oliphint himself notes this problem, and it has been my impression through reading the exchange as well. Consider this for yourself when Helm states the following:

“So if the Logos reveals such properties in the OT, which Scott says are proleptic of the Incarnation, then it seems that they also must be human, contingent, creaturely properties. But are they? In any case we ought not to think that in the OT the Logos took on anything that would compromise the omniscience of his divine person.”

But this proves too much. How does this way of arguing avoid rejecting the possibility that the eternal Son assumed a human nature in the Incarnation?


“Either the ‘covenantal properties’ identified by Scott are creaturely or they are divine. If creaturely then they are possessed by God contingently, and the Logos, being God, nevertheless has human properties. This impairs the divine unity. If the ‘covenantal properties’ are divine they are necessary and God is both essentially omniscient and essentially ignorant, or perhaps the incarnate Son alone is essentially omniscient (being true God) and contingently ignorant (being true man).”

But if the Logos’s contingent possession of human properties impairs divine unity, how is the Incarnation, classically conceived in Chalcedonian terms, and affirmed here by Helm, possible?

Thinking With the Reformed Tradition

There are several instances where I would press Prof. Helm to think with Reformed Christology and sacramentology in sorting out what Oliphint may be up to.

For example, take Oliphint’s controlling concern that God’s assumed modality of revelation correspond truly with his identity, in other words, that God truly reveals himself in his self-characterization as angry or happy, rather than merely putting forward a face or façade. In the sixteenth century, the Lutherans accused the Reformed of believing in union with a fiction or a phantom - or, at best, union with the Spirit - rather than with Christ. Their reasoning was quite straightforward. Unlike the Lutherans, the Reformed had denied that Christ’s Eucharistic presence is the result of the communion of Christ’s human and divine natures. They thus denied that the divine nature imparts a kind of omnipresence to Christ’s humanity. Instead, when it came to how we can commune with the real flesh-and-blood Christ, the Reformed insisted that the Spirit is the bond of a real union between communicants and the ascended (and still incarnate) Christ who remains at the Father’s right hand. In reaction to this, the Lutherans argued that the Reformed didn’t really believe in a Eucharistic union with Christ after all, only with the Spirit. Of all the writers who addressed this accusation, Calvin was the most adamant, arguing strongly that only union with Christ, not the Spirit, saves, and that it is the Spirit’s ministry to unite things otherwise distant (namely, Christ in his ascended glory and the communicant at the Table). Similarly, in the context of salvation, Calvin was also insistent to these same Lutheran theologians that one is not united to benefits such as justification or sanctification but to Christ who, in himself, is our justification and sanctification. The difference between these two ways of speaking was immensely important to Calvin, since the notion of union with this or that part of Christ, or to the Spirit rather than to Christ himself, is tantamount to violently “tearing Christ to pieces,” as he puts it often in his writings.

But upon reflection, what was Calvin's concern but a concern for communion with the real Christ? Think about it. Oliphint is pressing his readers to do fuller justice to the fact that the “I am” of Exodus reveals himself, and not merely an as-it-were self, in his emotional life with his creation. Further, he urges an appreciation of the distinct presence of the Logos in the condescending acts and words of God in the OT. If the early Reformed refused to allow that even an encounter with the divine Spirit (!) could substitute for, or be confused with, an encounter with Christ himself at the Table, then Oliphint’s concern with weak, façade-like notions of accommodation (the as-it-were model) should be recognizable as a distinctively Reformed impulse. Oliphint is rejecting a phantom God who is not really revealed in his biblical passions, which are part of his activity.

I might suggest another example. Helm also asks, rhetorically, if what Oliphint proposes with respect to time also holds with respect to space. Does the covenantal God have spatial properties, asks Helm, when he speaks to Moses at the burning bush? And so on. Helm appears to expect a negative answer. I don’t know how Oliphint would respond, but for my part I’m intrigued at the question, since I think this evidence pushes even harder in Oliphint’s direction. Consider how the God who fills all things is “especially” present in various sacred spaces and times throughout the Old Covenant. The tabernacle and temple are the most obvious examples, but the burning bush, even the Land, also come to mind immediately. These instances of “special” sacred space, where the presence of God is real, self-identified, and self-determined but without compromising his exhaustive presence in all places at the same time – are they organically related to the Son, even proleptically so, when John identifies the incarnate Son as the climactic location of God’s tabernacling with us (John 1:14)? This pulls us into the Reformed so-called extra Calvinisticum as well, the teaching that the Christ is present within his flesh as incarnate but “also outside (extra) his flesh,” being still divine, filling the cosmos. Would Oliphint consider his model a variation on the extra Calvinisticum idea, a way of locating the Son’s real presence in the OT also outside (in this case before) his flesh? This is what Oliphint in fact suggests, proposing that “the extra calvinisticum is applicable across the entire spectrum of God’s mediatorial work in redemptive history, culminating in the climax of that mediation as expressed and fulfilled in the person and work of God incarnate” (198; cf. pp. 145-51, on the heels of perceptive remarks on the communicatio idiomatum). I think he’s right, but has Helm thought through this facet of Oliphint’s proposal? And what would the consequences be of denying it?

Lastly, I suggest some thinking about the image of God. What are the consequences for our doctrine of God when the creature which is uniquely in his “image” is an emotional creature? To be sure, a common tendency among those who do in fact collapse God into his creation, such as process and open theists, is to move in precisely the opposite direction theologically. For them, God is, in the end, made in our image. But what does it mean to speak properly, in the right theological direction? God is not like us, but we are made like him. God is not angry or loving in exactly the same ways we are angry or loving, but our anger and love are rooted in who we are as God’s image-bearers. We remember the psalmist, “Does he who fashioned the ear not hear? Does he who formed the eye not see?” (Psalm 94:9). God doesn’t have an ear, but the Creator of the ear is the original, archetypal Hearer. God does not have our eyes, but the Creator of the eye is the original, archetypal Viewer.[2] In his essence, he is “behind” our emotional life as the One apart from whom the “what” and “why” of our emotions are utterly unintelligible. Our hearing and seeing are creaturely analogues of his “truest” hearing and seeing. Our hearing and seeing is that of the creature, but his is that of the Creator. They are not identical, but they are analogous, ours reflecting the Creator’s. But can we speak meaningfully of human creatures as made in the image of God if our invariably emotional life bears no relationship at all to the God who is?

None of this suggests that Oliphint’s model of freely assumed contingent-covenantal properties (or, again, modalities of relation) is the solution. At this point, I am inclined to believe that it is the solution, or at least the best one dealing patiently with the biblical and theological data. Oliphint’s book definitively advances (and redirects) us down the proper path. With others, Oliphint recognizes that we do need a better metaphysics for working with the data of Scripture in the terms of classical orthodoxy. Reformed theology was born of just this concern. The Reformed tradition doesn’t have its origins in debates over predestination or depravity or even justification but in Christology and the mode of Eucharistic communion. We’re still sorting out the most faithful way to express the mystery of God with us. And, again, some readers may conclude that Oliphint’s argument is not yet the answer. But a close reading suggests that his particular proposal, while including new ways of formulating the mode of divine relations with the world, has not suddenly appeared out of the blue on the head of Zeus like the birth of Athena. It is not, at least to me, strangely novel, though it is undoubtedly fresh and requires careful exploration to see if it’s right. No, as a model it works with old, orthodox, and distinctly Reformed convictions. Whether or not it proves ultimately to be the most compelling way of looking at a difficult question, in its own way it communicates, like a quality Bordeaux or Burgundy, the recognizable terroir of Scripture and the Reformed tradition.


[1] The following illustration from Voltaire (and compare the similar opening to Goethe's Faust) is pulled from a small book I’m writing on confessing the Apostles’ Creed in a world of distrust.

[2] This point is brought out carefully and compellingly in Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Speech and the Image of God: Biblical Reflections on Language and Its Uses,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple (P&R, 2004), 181-93. Gaffin appropriately situates his study in the Reformed concern to be “radically non-speculative” in theology.