Blogging the Institutes | 1.13.6 | The Father is NOT the Son and vice versa

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

The Father is NOT the Son and vice versa

Let’s stop talking about mere labels and talk about what they actually mean. When I use the term “person” I mean this: a subsistence within the divine essence. This subsistence, while related to the other two, is distinguished from them by certains properties which aren’t shared by the others. Let’s be clear: the term “subsistence” is different than “essence.” For example, if the “Word” was identical to God in every way, then John would have not said that He was always “with” God (John 1:1). Yet, when John immediately adds that the “Word was God,” he draws our attention back to their shared essence (“God-ness”). But notice the unity and distinction in the passage. The Word is God and shares in the same “essence” as the Father. But the Word is distinct from God in some way: the way of person or “subsistence.”

So each person in the Trinity is related to the others but also each one has its one distinction properties. When the term “God” is used, it can rightly be applied to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. But when the Father is compared to the Son, the particular properties of each person distinguishes one from the other. The Father is NOT the Son. Each person (Father, Son, Spirit) carries with itself its own properties which are not part of the other persons. Whatever properties are solely possessed by the Father can be transferred to the Son. I have no objections to adopting Tertullian’s definition, if it is properly understood: “There is a certain arrangement or economy within God , which does not affect the unit of essence.”

An Effective Template for Preaching Christ-Centered Sermons

The “gospel-centered” movement has swept through many churches. This is a good thing. It’s even impacted preaching as many pastors now strive to preach Christ in every message. The bankruptcy of merely preaching a message on how to be a “good” person has been exposed. But when you actually read the Bible, you are confronted with a lot of commands! Even the New Testament contains many sections where believers are exhorted to live a new live in Christ. So how can preach these commands to our churches without resorting to rank legalism?

Read the rest at Rookie Preacher.

 

“The Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher–Reflections

Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, has been something of a lightning rod (pun intended) in current discussion. Some have taken an enthusiastic liking to it, while others have not been so favorable towards it. Much of the concern seems to cluster around the idea that Dreher is advocating for Christians to withdraw from the wider culture. To some, it sounds like old-school fundamentalism: “Leave the corrupt world behind and only spend time with Christians!”

I think such a reading misses Dreher’s point. Dreher acknowledges that the Benedict Option is really about the church being the church. The church must stop compromising with the world and be a distinctive community: “A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist” (121).

Dreher’s strongest points come when he addresses the internal life of the church. He calls for the church to hold the line on sound doctrine and practice. She needs to stop being influenced by the world and reclaim its tradition and heritage. She must grow deeper “roots” to weather the cultural storm.

Reflections on Church and Culture

Dreher goes beyond calling the church to reform herself, however, and expands his discussion to how the church should relate to the wider culture. The church-culture relationship is something which theologians have argued about throughout the history of the church. (Tertullian famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” trying to relate reason and faith). Although there may be some growing consensus in the broader evangelical world,  one position on the church’s cultural engagement will probably never win over the majority of the church. Consequently, Dreher’s ideas will always be open to critique. Two key assumptions drive Dreher’s proposal for cultural engagement.

First, Dreher assumes that “Christendom” is a good thing.

For centuries, western society was upheld by a Christian social “imaginary.”  The church heavily influenced the culture so much so that certain beliefs were woven into the very fabric of daily life. Dreher sees three key beliefs as part of the western Christian social imaginary, especially in medieval Europe:

  • God created the world which order and meaning. All things are signs which point to God
  • Society is grounded on this higher reality
  • The world is infused with spiritual force and reality

Dreher sees these beliefs as good things. He also thinks that Christendom was a good thing. But was it? Even Dreher admits that medieval Europe had significant problems: “Medieval Europe was no Christian utopia. The church was spectacularly corrupt, and the violent exercise of power–at times by the church itself–seemed to rule the world” (25). Yet Dreher sees the social cohesion and integration of the medieval worldview as being worth enduring the difficulties and atrocities perpetuated by the church.

It is at this point where Dreher’s proposal runs into trouble in my estimation. There may have been greater social cohesion within medieval Europe because nations were “Christian,” but at what cost? Great violence? Early death?

When the church adopts the the sexual libertarianism of the contemporary culture, it is compromised. It is no less compromised, however, when it uses violence to enforce its will. The church is defiled when she gets in bed with political power and becomes the religion mandated by the state.

Christianity is a “faith.” One thing faith cannot be is coerced. Faith, although a gift from God, is also an act of the will. Christendom, in my estimation, encourages widespread nominalism: people are “Christians” because they were born into it, not because they were born again by God and exercised true faith in Christ. This is the problem with the Bible Belt! People attend church or even take on the label of “Christian” without having ever been made new by the gospel.

Second, Dreher assumes a sacramental view of life.

According to Dreher, the people of the medieval ages believed that, “All things that existed, even time, [were] sacramental. That is, they believed that God was present everywhere and revealed Himself to us through people, places, and things, through His power flowed” (24). Dreher sees the erosion of a sacramental view of life as sucking out the meaning and significance of life: “The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered to us a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection” (46).

Is a sacramental view of life true? It is true that the, “Heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). It is true that all people everywhere at all times know God exists, but suppress the truth in unrighteous (Romans 1:18-23). But such verses in Scripture do not support a sacramental worldview.

If God reveals Himself through people, places, and things, it seems that superstition and idolatry can abound. If God truly reveals Himself through things other than Scripture, then those things could be worthy of worship. Medieval Christians would often make pilgrimages to all over Europe just to be in the presence of relics. The Protestant Reformers, especially John Calvin, rightly saw such veneration of objects and icons as idolatry.

If God’s revelation of Himself is untethered from His word, then people can find “signs” in all kinds of things. But God explicitly gives us the proper interpretation of events in His word. Unless we have special revelation, we cannot interpret the course of history or particular events as being “of God.” Of course, God is sovereign. Of course, God is directing history for His own purposes. But that is a long way of being able to properly interpret the events of one’s life as being God’s hand. Why did you get sick last week? Was it because God is punishing you for some sin? Or for some other reason? We will probably never be able to know this side of eternity.

Rather than adopting a sacramental worldview, I think a better construct is to adopt a “typological” worldview. Typology, first and foremost, is a way of interpreting the Scriptures. The Bible speaks of “types” where people, places, and institutions point to Christ. Adam is a famous example (Romans 5:14). Just as Adam was head of the human race and his actions affected all people, so Christ is head of the new humanity and His actions bring justification to all who believe. In this sense, Adam points to Christ.

It’s important to note that in typology, the types are real, historical things. They do not lose their meaning and become obliterated because of the fulfillment in Christ. Types point us to Christ and remind us of aspects of His person and work.

A typological worldview, then, see this world as certainly declaring God’s glory. But it also acknowledges that we need God’s word to give a proper interpretation of the “facts.” As Dreher puts it, in a Reformational view, the meaning of life is “accessible to humans by faith in [God] and His revelation of alone” (28). So although a “table” may remind us of the Lord’s table and the communion we have with Him through faith, a table is not a means of grace and way of coming to know God.

Conclusion

Dreher’s book is definitely worth reading. Although I have focused on some points of critique here, there is so much good in this book. In fact, one of the great positives of this book is that so many people have reacted strongly to it that it forced me to read it for myself and come to my conclusions!

 

Blogging–1.13.4–Ambiguity is the Lifeblood of Heresy

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

Ambiguity is the Lifeblood of Heresy

The novel use of theological terms (if you can even call it novel) becomes necessary to preserve the truth against those who try to distort it. Right now, we have way too much experience of having sound doctrine attacked. These slippery snakes escape being pinned down by their quick tongues and torturous explanations. Therefore, the early Christians had to develop terms which were very clear as to what they meant. They could not give an inch to the heretics because ambiguity is the lifeblood of heresy. For example, even Arius confessed that Christ was God and the Son of God. The Bible was just too clear on those points. He then pretended to agree with others. Meanwhile, he kept saying that Christ was created and had a beginning like other creatures did.

To drag Arius’s scheme out of hiding, the ancient Church took things a step further and declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father, cosubstantial with the Father (having the same “essence” or “substance,” i.e. the same “God-ness.”). Arius’ degradation of God was shown when he began disparaging the term “homousias.” If someone is sincere in his confession that Christ is God, then he won’t protest the idea that the Son is cosubstantial with the Father. Would you really criticize those ancient Christians for debating the use of the term homousios? That little word distinguished the true Christians from the blasphemous Arians!

Next, Sabellius came on the scene. He pretty much believed the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were non-entities. He maintained that the terms didn’t mark distinctions but were different attributes of God. When the issue was debated, he agreed that the Father was God, the Son was God, and the Holy Spirit was God. But he had his evasion from the truth ready: he argued that naming God was doing the same thing as calling Him powerful, just, and wise. He also sung a different tune. He argued that the Father was the Son, and the Holy Spirit was the Father without order or distinction. In order to defeat Sabellius’ dishonesty, the early church leaders who wanted to preserve the true worship of God proclaimed that three persons must be acknowledged in the one God.

To protect themselves from crafty scheming, they sought to simply state the truth: they affirmed that a Trinity of Persons existed in the one God.

Blogging the Institutes–1.13.3–Terms Explain Divine Mysteries

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

Terms Explain Divine Mysteries

Heretics bark and howl over the use of the term “person.” Yet they have no ground to do so since Scripture demonstrates that three persons are named but all are perfect God. There is no plurality of gods. It’s not cool to attack a term which merely summarizes what the Bible actually teaches. The heretics argue back that it’s best to only use words found in the Bible. Otherwise, Christians keep arguing about these technical theological terms and love is lost because of it.

Now, if these heretics call the use of theological terms as being foreign to the Bible and advocate for only using Biblical terms, then they put themselves in a bind: they could propose only an interpretation of Scripture unless it used only use words found in the Bible! If they call the use of theological terms as being foreign to the Bible because they think that the terms were thought up carelessly and then become superstitiously defended, then I agree with their sober-mindedness. If theological terms offend good Christians and lead them away from the simplicity of God’s Word, we must be careful. We must speak about God with as much reverence as we think about Him! To the extent that our thoughts of Him are foolish so will our words be foolish. Still, some kind of language must be used.

The standard of truth for both thinking and speaking must come from Scripture. The Bible should test every thought we think and every words we speak. But some parts of Scripture–to our limited minds–are hard to understand. In those cases, as long as we use various terms reverentially and in submission to Scripture, I think it is ok to use them sparingly and modestly. There are many examples of this. If it is proved that the Church has used the terms “Trinity,” and “Person” as a matter of necessity will people still rail against those terms? The person who does so should be suspected at arguing against the light of truth. The only reason why he is upset is because the truth has been made plain for all to see.

Blogging the Institutes–1.13.2–God in Three Persons

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

God in Three Persons

There is another special mark by which God designates Himself in order to give more knowledge of His nature. While God proclaims His unity, He sets it up as existing in three persons. These truths must take hold us. Otherwise, knowledge of God will only flutter on top of our brains without actually implanting itself within us. Moreover, I don’t want anyone to think that we worship three Gods. Nor do I want anyone to think that God’s united and simple essence is divided in three ways among the persons. Therefore, we must seek a brief and easy definition to guard us from error. Some people criticize the use of the term “person” in discussion of God as being a merely human invention. Let’s consider whether this is so.

When the author of Hebrews calls the Son of God “the exact imprint of His nature (hupostasis)” (Hebrews 1:3), he assigns to the Father some mode of existence (“subsistence”) in which He differs from the Son. Some interpreters argue that the term is equivalent to “essence” as if the Son represented the essence of the Father like a seal upon wax. Such an interpretation is absurd. God’s essence is simple and undivided. It is contained in Himself entirely, with full perfection, without being divided up or diminished. It is therefore ridiculous to call it His express image.

The Father can distinguished by His own particular properties. Yet, He has wholly expressed Himself in the Son. He is therefore said to have rendered His person (hupostasis) manifest in the Son. Such a statement fits perfectly with what comes next in the verse–that Christ is the “brightness of His glory.” The implication is that there is a proper subsistence (mode of existence) of the Father which is reflected by the Son. From this, it is easy to see that there is a kind of subsistence/mode of existence/person of the Son which is distinguished from the Father. The same is true for the Holy Spirit. He is God. He is also a separate subsistence/personhood from the Father. This is not a distinction of essence (“God-ness”). If we take the author of Hebrew’s words seriously, then we will come to believe that there are three persons in God.

The Latin word persona has been used in the same way that the Greek word hupostatis was used. We must not argue over these terms. The most literal translation would be “subsistence.” Many theologians have used the word “substance” to mean the same thing as “subsistence,” i.e. “person.” The person wasn’t confined only to the Latin church. The Greek church has taught that there are three “aspects” (prosopa) in God. All the churches, no matter what terms they use, are united in the same belief!

Blogging the Institutes–1.13.1–God is Immense and Spirit

“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List

God is Immense and Spirit 

The teaching of Scripture about the immensity and spirituality of God’s essence should not only drive away pagan religion but also profane philosophy. One ancient thinker thought he was profound when he said that everything we see and everything we don’t see is God. He thought God was infused into every part of the world. Although God doesn’t indulge us with a lot of information about His essence, two of His attributes should suppress all of our speculations. His immensity should deter us from measuring him according to human standards, while Him being a spirit should keep us from human speculation about what He is like.

In Scripture, He frequently tells us that heaven is His dwelling-place. It is true that although He is incomprehensible, He also fills the earth. He knows our minds are sluggish and bound to the earth so He raises us up above to world to shake us free of those things. Here we have a refutation of the Manichees. The Manichees make the devil almost as great as God! They did this to restrict His immensity and destroy His unity. They twist Scripture to “prove” their points. What they actually prove is their own shameful ignorance. The Ampophromorphites, on the other hand, dream up a material God because eyes, ears, and mouth are said to describe God in the Bible. Such line of thinking is easily refuted. They are so stupid! God speaks to us in “baby babble” like mothers do to their children. Such descriptions of God do not accurately represent God’s essence. They are God’s accommodation to us so that we can understand something about Him. In doing so, He must, of course, bend down way below His proper height.