In some of my previous posts I have pointed out the strong tendency to think of God “dualistically.” In the work of Rob Lister, for example, God is both impassible and impassioned. This builds on what Bruce Ware says of God, that we must understand

God’s relation to time as comprising both his atemporal existence in himself (in se) apart from creation, and his “omnitemporal” existence in relation to the created order that he has made. . . . Since God chose to become immanent within the creation he had made, he chose, then, to “enter” fully into both the spatial and temporal dimensions of creation. In so doing the same God who in himself is intrinsically and eternally both nonspatial and atemporal chose to “fill” all of the space and time he created. Amazingly, then, at creation God became both omnipresent and omnitemporal while remaining, in himself and apart from creation, fully nonspatial and timelessly eternal (God’s Greater Glory, 136).

What is clear, however, is that Ware teaches that at creation God became both omnipresent and omnitemporal  while remaining, in himself and apart from creation, fully nonspatial and timelessly eternal. God remains timelessly while being (at the same time?) omnitemporal, present at all times, or perhaps present time after time.

This is modified classical theism, as it is called. The motive, in Lister at least, is to safeguard the reality of divine emotion. In Ware, to facilitate the ascribing of real change to God who nevertheless remains timeless. God is really in time, he really changes, and is able to do this while remaining the God of classical theism because he is both timelessly eternal and temporal. Here we note the tendency to want to have one’s cake and eat it too with the help of expressions in inverted commas—“enter” and “fill”—on another occasion we may look at the incoherence of this “amazing” state of affairs.

9781433509025mA similar tendency is at work in K. Scott Oliphint’s, God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. He offers a strongly covenantal and Christological understanding of the character of God. Christ is the climax of the covenant, the culmination of God’s disclosure of his covenant with Abram and the development of this in the Old Testament. And Christ being God he is God’s fullest revelation of this covenant-God.  It is an interesting book, weaving together this scriptural theme, and utilizing historically important and contemporary thinkers to do so.

He also raises critical questions about the doctrine of God that he believes that this theme raises. I think it is fair to say that he does not go so far as do Lister and Ware in favoring a “duality” in God. Nonetheless he is unhappy with aspects of classical theism, and these take their rise from the fact of the Incarnation, and his unhappiness is over what he reckons to be the adverse implications that classical theism has for God’s becoming incarnate in time, and of the reality of God’s emotion.  There are interesting similarities and differences with Lister and Ware. Though Oliphint does not go so far as to say that God “becomes” temporal, his view may nevertheless imply this.

The Incarnation

Perhaps the best place to begin is with his discussion of the event of the Incarnation in Chapter 1. Oliphint objects to the idea that there was no time when the eternal God was Jesus of Nazareth. His criticism of this view is I think based on a misunderstanding. To say that is to affirm that the Logos had no life history independent of and prior to the Incarnation. That must be the case if the Logos is God and God is timelessly eternal. As the Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381) puts it, “We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time.” But of course there were times when the Son was not incarnate, namely those times in history before AD 1. When in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, “through whom also he created the world….[who] upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:2-3). So we must distinguish Christ the Mediator’s own life-history, and his incarnation at a time in world-history, “born of a woman, born under the law.”

So we must distinguish the years of created history and the life of eternal God. It is probably misleading to refer to this life as forming God’s “life history,” since an eternal being has no history, while we, and the Incarnate One, necessarily have one. Nevertheless, it makes the point (in a negative way) that God eternally decreed to become incarnate in 1 AD.

A stage further

Let us take this a stage further. Later in the book, Chapter 4, Oliphint deals with Christology, “which guides theology proper” (183). In this chapter he stresses the full deity of the Son, and he is concerned with  God’s interaction with covenant history in which God relates to human creatures, and particularly the constraint or limitation of God in the interaction (183). Here I think he wavers quite a bit. He thinks that this approach, which he does not characterize or describe in any detail, is “akin to theological docetism, in which Scripture’s ascription of God’s interaction with creation is relegated to an appearance of such interaction, rather than something that really takes place” (183).

He is particularly concerned about figures in theology who have expressed the relationship of God to creation in such a way as to undermine its reality, that is the relationship’s reality (hence “Docetism”). For example, consider Thomas Aquinas (188), as well as Puritan and Reformed theologians such as Stephen Charnock and Peter Martyr Vermigli. (Calvin seems to escape Oliphint’s strictures, but it is not clear why he is so lucky.) What the views of such theologians have in common is that according to them creation does not require or result in a change in God, but only a change in the creation, and only a change in God in that when what is eternally decreed comes to pass God has an external relation that he does not have absent creation. He is now related to his creation.

Oliphint  recognizes the concern of such theologians to safeguard God’s essential immutability (189, 190). He does not do a very good job in explaining this in the case of Aquinas (188-9), saying that in creation it is the “idea” of God as Creator that is predicated of him. This is not quite accurate; it is the relation of God to the creation that is predicated of God, but this relation does not terminate on God’s part in a change in him, but it consists in the creation coming to be, and what is decreed to follow from this, changes in the creatures.

Where he becomes really concerned is in the implications of this for divine emotion. This picture of Incarnation “fails to ring true to what Scripture affirms of God” (190). To shift the focus from God to ourselves “does not do justice to the reality of God’s real and gracious condescension since the beginning of creation” (191). He says this: “When Scripture speaks of the anger of the Lord, are we supposed to think not that the Lord is angry but that we are?” (190).

The answer is: neither of these. The Lord is angry, right enough, but that anger is not the outcome of a change in God, 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. And we may change in time by responding to that anger with fear, or penitence, or indifference, or some other response. Perhaps the problem is that Oliphint is thinking of God’s anger, say, in an abstract way. It is not simply God being angry, but manifesting anger on a certain occasion, and for so long. This is what is eternally decreed.

God’s simplicity

At other times Oliphint seems to be concerned not only with God’s eternality, but also with his simplicity. “Is God’s anger to one person an identical disposition as his grace and covenant love toward another?” (191). 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.

With the thought that God changes and initiates some state of affairs that brings about changes in us, and we in turn bring about changes in God, the same worries are here as in Lister about personal interaction and emotions. In asserting that “He is both immutable and in his condescension takes on covenantal properties in order to really and truly relate himself to us” (191), Oliphint is teetering close to Listerism, but unnecessarily so.

The problem

The problem (in case you’ve not twigged it) is that once, besides eternal God, there is a God who has entered time, and can change and have fits of passion and so on. The question very naturally rises, which of the two Gods is God? Or are both Gods God? In which case God is both eternal and in time, both aspatial and yet in space, and so on. That is certainly amazing, but is it coherent?

Biblical theism requires that we make a sharp distinction between what God has eternally decreed, and what as a result comes to pass moment by moment, stage by stage in time. Otherwise we confound the Creator with his creation. The coming to pass of what is eternally decreed is executed in time. But God is not in time, though what he decrees to come to pass most certainly is.

This is not my saying so, but the Reformed faith, in her Confessions, and through her doctors. Doctors such as John Owen. In his book the The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed Owen has a wonderful chapter (III) on the immutability of the divine purposes. This is how Owen describes the positions he goes on to defend, biblically and polemically, in the course of the chapter.

It is, then, of the decrees and purposes of God, with respect to the matters about which they are, whereof I speak: in which regard, also, they are absolute and immutable; – not that  they work any essential change in the things themselves concerning which they are, making that to be immutable from thence which in its own nature is mutable; but only that themselves as acts of the infinite wisdom and will of God, are not liable to nor suspended on any condition whatever foreign to themselves, nor subject to any change or alteration….That the determining purposes or decrees of God’s will concerning any thing or things by him to be done or effected do not depend, as to their accomplishment, on any conditions  that may be supposed in or about the things themselves whereof they are, and  therefore are unchangeable, and shall certainly be brought forth unto the appointed issue, is that which we are to prove (Works, XI 144).

And the Westminster Confession:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeable ordain whatsoever comes to pass (III.I).

This is a somewhat different world from that of Ware, Lister and Oliphint. Next time we shall set out the differences more explicitly.

Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.


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