Covenantal Relations in the Trinity

One of the Reformed Thomist criticisms of Kuyper, Vos, etc., is that they posited covenantal relations in the Trinity.  And this is bad because of Hegel or something.  I want to do two things: actually see what they say and see what Scripture says. And perhaps note why Reformed Thomists resist this point so much.

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We always come back to him for some reason

By way of prep reading I recommend Ralph Smith’s website.

First of all, what is a covenant?  Answering this question is a nightmare, but we can give it a try:

 

 

 

 

From the beginning of God’s disclosures to men in terms of covenant we find a unity of conception which is to the effect that a divine covenant is a sovereign administration of grace and of promise. It is not compact or contract or agreement that provides the constitutive or governing idea but that of dispensation in the sense of disposition…. And when we remember that covenant is not only bestowment of grace, not only oath-bound promise, but also relationship with God in that which is the crown and goal of the whole process of religion, namely, union and communion with God, we discover again that the new covenant brings this relationship also to the highest level of achievement. At the centre of covenant revelation as its constant refrain is the assurance ‘I will be your God, and ye shall be my people’. The new covenant does not differ from the earlier covenants because it inaugurates this peculiar intimacy. It differs simply because it brings to the ripest and richest fruition the relationship epitomized in that promise. [Emphasis added.]

So we can at least get the term “relationship” derived from it.  Following Van Til I argue (Or posit) that the relationships between the persons of the Trinity is covenantal:

The three persons of the Trinity have exhaustively personal relationship with one another. And the idea of exhaustive personal relationship is the idea of the covenant (“Covenant Theology” in The New Twentieth Century Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge).

Let’s take Jesus’s words in John 17: “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (This is often taken to prove the divine oneness of the Trinity, but I don’t think that is the point of this passage).  That Jesus is using covenantal relation language is evident from verse 11:  that they may be one even as We are.  Jesus isn’t asking the Father that we have the same divine nature as they do.  Rather, it is that we have the same covenantal relation in unity.

Kuyper on Covenant:

If the idea of the covenant with regard to man and among men can only occur in its  ectypical form, and if its archetypical original is found in the divine economy, then it
cannot have its deepest ground in the pactum salutis that has its motive in the fall of
man. For in that case it would not belong to the divine economy as such, but would be introduced in it rather incidentally and change the essential relations of the Three
Persons in the divine Essence (quoted in Hoeksema 295).

I think Kuyper is saying something like the following:

  1. If the covenant is ectypal, then it isn’t part of God in se (if you want to use those categories).
  2. Therefore, it is accidental to the being of God.
  3. Therefore, it would call into question the Pactum Salutis, which must refer ontologically and not economically.

Ralph Smith concludes and sums up Kuyper’s position:

If Father, Son, and Spirit do not relate to one another in covenant essentially in their fundamental intratrinitarian fellowship, why should the contemplation of man’s fall and redemption introduce something new and different in their relationship? And how should we think of God as the unchangeable God, if intratrinitarian relationships have been fundamentally and essentially changed in the pactum salutis? (Smith 23).

Mutual Exhaustion in the Covenant

Van Til said the members of the covenant mutually exhaust the scheme.  Granted, there probably is a better way to say it, but I think it is worth unpacking.  Smith writes,

First, the covenant idea, he says, is nothing but the representative principle applied to all of reality. This makes the whole creation covenantal in the nature of the case. God does not enter into a covenant with man after creating him, for man is created as God’s image. Man is God’s representative and therefore a covenantal being from the first. The same is true in a general way for the rest of creation, since all the creation is a revelation of God, representing Him in a secondary sense. As Van Til says, the representative idea must be applied to all reality.

I think what CVT is saying is that when God creates, he creates covenantally.  It is a representational principle, but who is representing what?  CVT doesn’t specifically state it, but the covenantal relation in the Trinity is being represented. Smith again,

Second, Van Til sees the source of this representative, which is to say, covenantal
principle in the eternal relations of the persons of the Trinity. The covenant in God is not merely a covenant between Father and Son, nor is it merely an agreement entered into for the sake of the salvation of the world. To quote again one sentence from the previous paragraph: “the Trinity exists in the form of a mutually exhaustive representation of the three Persons that constitute it.”

In this sentence Van Til clearly defines the eternal, internal relations of the Persons of the Trinity as representational and therefore covenantal.

In conclusion, Van Til:

In the Trinity there is completely personal relationship without residue. And for that reason it may be said that man’s actions are all personal too. Man’s surroundings are shot through with personality because all things are related to the infinitely personal God. But when we have said that the surroundings of man are really completely personalized, we have also established the fact of the representational principle. All of man’s acts must be representational of the acts of God. Even the persons of the Trinity are mutually representational. They are exhaustively representational of one another (Survey of Christian Epistemology. 52-53).

Why do Reformed Thomists get up in arms about this?  My guess is that a covenantal ontology really doesn’t mesh with Thomism.  It’s hard to square covenant with the idea that relations = persons, for then the covenantal relations between the persons would also be persons.

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Review: Vos, Redemptive History

Vos, Geerhardus.  Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation.  P&R, 1980.

While a collection of individual essays, in many ways this is a coherent whole of Vos’s larger theology.  We can review the material around several themes: biblical theology, covenant, and eschatology.  While the prose is dense, and Vos does spend quite a bit of time dealing with dead Germans, there are numerous insights of biblical wisdom.

Biblical theology

The first feature of supernatural revelation is its historical progress (7).  God doesn’t communicate the calm light of eternity all at once. God’s self-revelation proceeds in a sequence of words and acts. “By imparting elements of knowledge in a divinely arranged sequence God has pointed out to us the way in which we might gradually grasp and know Him” (7). Revelation is interwoven and conditioned at every point by the redeeming activity of

Eschatology

The two ages are increasingly recognized as answering to two spheres of being which coexist from of old, so that the coming of the new age assumes the character of a revelation and extension of the supernal order of things (28). Contrary to Platonism, where there is an ideal first and a physical (and probably inferior) copy later, Paul’s resurrection thought places the pneumatikon last, not first.

Covenant

His essay on the Covenant in Reformed Theology is worth the price of the book. The covenant idea dominates the work of redemption.  Is this the equivalent of positing a central dogma?  Maybe, but so what if it is?  The question is whether it is correct or not. The work of salvation corresponds to the unfolding of the covenant and proceeds in a covenantal way. The CoR is the pattern for the CoG. Covenantal relation unfolds as the essence of the riches of the ordo. Image of God in man: for the Reformed image is not identified with the moral qualities of the soul.

Nota Bene

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is Vos’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4, which overturns older manuals.  Vos argues this can’t refer to two existing states in the constitution of the Messiah, but rather to two eschatological modes (104). The two prepositional phrases have adverbial force: they describe the mode of the process. The resurrection is a new status of Sonship.

Problem with the older view: it has to restrict σαρξ to the body, because Spirit is already psychologically conceived and thus takes the place of the immaterial element.  Yet, this is the Apollinarian heresy. Secondly, it is compelled to take the κατα clauses in two different senses.

Conclusion:

Like all of Vos’s work, this is difficult, but it repays careful reading.

Clowney review from 11 years ago

I found this in my old email archives.

Jacob Aitken

Sermon Preparation

Prof. Alan Hix

29 April 2005

Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1961), 124pp.

Biographical Information

The late Edmund Clowney is renowned throughout the Presbyterian world for his teaching and church leadership. Serving at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA for several decades, he has written largely on preaching and ecclesiology. His present book, Preaching and Biblical Theology, draws heavily off the theological method of New Testament scholar, Geerhardus Vos. Using such a method—which will be mentioned shortly—he analyzes the various attempts to integrate biblical theology into the life of the church.

Purpose of the Book

While appreciative of the necessary work of systematic theology, Clowney sees the danger in mere doctrinal moralizing and offers the pastor a fresh alternative that is faithful to the scriptures. He seeks to rescue biblical theology from false dichotomies with systematics on one hand, and liberal distortions on the other hand. Clowney also hopes the budding preacher will read the works of Geerhardus Vos.

Organization and Content

In lieu of recent liberal scholarship on biblical theology, Clowney does the necessary groundwork in providing the pastor with a working definition of biblical theology. Recent works had defined biblical theology along the lines of the “History of Religions” school of thinking. Or, the scholar might look at the text along evolutionary lines, thus negating the aspects of redemption and revelation. To have a working definition of biblical theology, Clowney notes, biblical presuppositions are necessary. Following Vos Clowney defines biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible” (15). This definition opposes any form of liberalism or neo-orthodoxy that denies prepositional truth. It also presupposes, against evolutionary views of revelation, a unity and objectivity in the Bible.

On the conservative side, some will object that such a definition will bring biblical theology into opposition with time-honored disciplines like systematic theology. Not so, Clowney argues, if the pastor recognizes the tension between the two disciplines as necessary. The tension can be properly understood when the pastor recognizes the distinct nature of both disciplines. Systematic theology approaches the text in a linear fashion, while biblical theology traces out the historical developments within God’s redemptive history. The tension can be eased, although never done away with, if the pastor sees the “sensitivity to the distinctiveness of both the form and the content of revelation in each particular epoch [in biblical theology]” (16).

If one is to write on preaching in the modern age, he must justify the authority of preaching over against the autonomy of the post-Christian West. Clowney then does a brief survey of New Testament scholarship with respect to the proclamation of the text. In each setting Clowney notes the challenges to biblical theology that current fads in New Testament studies would pose. Many liberal scholars saw their hope in the “kerygma” of the early church. The scholars sought to emancipate the kerygma of the New Testament form the myth the Church had placed on the gospels. Such thinking immediately led to the “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” which was more indicative of liberal presuppositions than it was of concern for the truth. Regardless of what shape the challenge might take, all presupposed an impossibility of prepositional revelation. God’s message to man was personal, not prepositional. Clowney refutes: “Personal communion with communication is impossible between human subjects, and it is a strange conception of revelation in Christ which denies to him revelatory communication in making known the Father” (27).

Having a covenantal groundwork in the Old Testament, Clowney applies this to the New Testament to establish authority for biblical theology and preaching. Christ is prophet, priest, and king in the New Testament—the self-interpreted Word of John 1 (51). Besides being the Son of God, his authority is first seen as that of an Old Testament prophet proclaiming the message of God. But not only is he a prophet, he is the fulfillment of prophecy. Furthermore, the apostles are endowed with authority as they, being witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, proclaim the whole counsel of God, which has been fulfilled in Christ. “Their apostolic ministry,” says Clowney, “is the foundation of authority in the New Testament church, for by their witness the word of Christ is given to the church” (59).

The character of preaching, if it is to be driven by biblical theology, must enrich the listeners with the full scope of God’s redemptive work. Such preaching is driven by biblical eschatology. The preacher thus realizes that he is living in the last days, knows Christ’s kingdom has been established, and is driven with an urgent message of the grace of God in the person of Christ. Clowney exults, “The evangel of the prophet Isaiah is that which is fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. The year of Jubilee has come, therefore we must proclaim liberty to the captive…the latter days have come, the days in which the Lord is glorified, and he has poured out his Spirit upon men” (67-68).

The only flaw in the book comes in the middle of this otherwise edifying chapter. Clowney notes the mission-orientation of the Church was lost upon the establishment of Constantine. He writes how the church has lost much of her vigor in missions. Clowney: “No doubt this came about through the confusion of church and state which began in the age of Constantine” (69). Now, one can legitimately roast Constantine on a number of issues, but this overlooks the gospel’s explosion on the island of Britain, for example. Granted, much of the Roman and Grecian church lost their power due to state control, but he tries to put too much historical commentary in one paragraph. Clowney ends his chapter on the character of preaching with a challenge to the pastor to balance the ethical and the redemptive element in his preaching.

What does a sermon driven by biblical theology look like? The pastor has two tasks before him. He recognizes the unity of God’s salvation throughout biblical history. He proclaims to his flock that Abraham rejoiced to see Messiah’s day and we too long to feast with the prophets when the kingdom of God is consummated at the end of the ages. He also notes the “epochal structure” of redemptive history. This prevents him from arbitrarily chopping unity of God’s revelation and redemption, as the early dispensationalists did (88). However, the pastor does pay attention to the historical nature of the God’s acts in history. The preacher who would preach along the lines of biblical theology takes note of symbolism and typology in the scriptures. God’s revelation is laden with types and shadows that point to the future redemption accomplished by Christ. “Until the heavenly reality is manifested, the covenant fellowship is mediated through earthly symbols, ‘like in pattern’ to the heavenly archetype (Heb. 9:24, 25)” (100). Clowney guides the bible student in interpreting symbols and types: 1) They symbol is distinct from that which it represents; 2) There is a relation between the symbol and the reality symbolized; 3) The reference of the symbols is divinely established in revelation; 4) The symbols may be classified in various groups (103-108).

Evaluation

Clowney’s book is written along the lines of heroic disorder. His thoughts and guidance to the reader are superb and Clowney himself appears to soar at times. His passion for his subject is not lost on the reader. Nevertheless, there were times where one wondered where he was going with an idea. He did repeat a number of times several of his best ideas and phrases throughout the book, although to the delight of the reader. Writing from what appears to be an amillennialist interpretation of scripture, it is curious as to why he did not address dispensational challenges more often than he did. The book is extremely edifying and relevant to the church at large. It is a book that will stay on the pastor’s desk as he searches the scriptures. Clowney achieves his goal in exciting students to take up the task of biblical theology.

Application

Clowney’s work is utterly relevant to the church and those who long for their sermons to be clothed with the Spirit’s power. What else could enflame preaching but the glorious proclamation of what God has done in Christ in history? Whether he goes into the pulpit or the lectern, Clowney provides both a tonic to the tired preacher and a caution to the theologian who might divorce systematic theology from biblical theology. It provides the bible student with a hermeneutic that sees Christ, properly interpreted, in all scripture, thus avoiding trite moralizing.

Review of Dennison on Van Til

Dennison, William.  In Defense of the Eschaton.  Wipf and Stock, 2015.

This is a collection of essays dealing with Van Til and Education, with a few other themes thrown in.   Some essays are quite good, particularly the one on Genesis 2:15.  Unfortunately, it manifests all the weaknesses of Van Tillian thought:  inability to interact with recent developments in philosophy, attacking other schools because they don’t use the same jargon, refusing to understand what other Christian thinkers are getting at.

Some flaws aren’t as serious.  In the chapter on Plato, much of it was good but I am not sure what the pay-out was.  We got a good summary of Plato’s view on the soul, and we saw that some philosophers weren’t “Platonic” (though he never says who).  But all of this could have been found elsewhere.  Other flaws are found in most Van Tillian works: broad-brushing all of the opposition as “autonomous thought” without always spelling out how it is bad.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note. Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult. So we commend Dennison for that. Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought? Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that. For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story. So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic? I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom. So what does this have to do with Vos? I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts. However, hee takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23). I’m not so sure. Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig. Where do they fit? They do not belong to either category. Even more, what does “Possible Worlds Semantics” have to do with Wittengstein or Vienna? Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach. Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some perceived problems with Reformed Epistemology. It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69). Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either. He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function. But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214). Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?. Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism. Okay, so what is the problem exactly? In fact, what is Common Sense Realism? How are beliefs formed? That’s the issue. Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed. And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.

Criticisms

His review of Keller’s book was fine and I agree with most of his concerns. It was odd at a point. Dennison attacks Keller for holding to the “neo-Calvinist” scheme (168ff). What is this scheme? It is the story-line of Creation-Fall-Redemption. So what is bad about this? I think he wants to say that it makes us lose sight of heaven as our homeland? Let’s look at it.

Neo-Calvinist: Creation-Fall-Redemption and Jesus came to put the world to right.

Puritan Pietist: Heaven is our true homeland.

As it stands there is no contradiction between the two statements. Maybe all he is saying is that some Neo-Calvinists denigrate heaven. I guess. That’s an entirely different argument.

I would take it a step further: what or where exactly is heaven? Is “heaven” the final destination? How does this tie in with the New Earth? Elsewhere Dennison says that we are already in the age to come of a sorts (107). I agree. If that’s so, then there is no contradiction between Neo-Calvinism and Vosian eschatology.

The Good

Despite my criticisms, several essays are quite valuable. His notes on anthropology highlight man as an image-bearer (39). The imago dei is often missing from treatments on man’s essence.

He has some outstanding suggestions on the role of the Reformed apologist in light of his eschatological existence (107ff).

Conclusion:

This collection of essays is strong where Van Tillians have always been strong: eschatology, piety, and culture. It is weak where Van Tillians have always been weak: interacting with recent philosophy, fleshing out their views, etc. This is actually a three-star book, but Dennison’s essay on Genesis 2:15 was so good I bumped it up a star.

Van til and analytic philosophy

This is from the first chapter of William Dennison’s In Defense of the Eschaton.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note.  Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult.  So we commend Dennison for that.  Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”  

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought?  Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that.  For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story.  So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic?  I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom.  So what does this have to do with Vos?  I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts.  Sadly, he went on.  He takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.  

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23).  I’m not so sure.  Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today:  Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig.  Where do they fit?  They do not belong to either category.  Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach.  Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some problems with Reformed Epistemology.  It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69).  Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either.  He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function.  But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214).  Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?.  Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism.  Okay, so what is the problem exactly?  In fact, what is Common Sense Realism?  How are beliefs formed?  That’s the issue.  Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed.  And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.