How NOT To Be Christ-Centered: A Review of God With Us – Part I

"It Is Finished"

Theologians throughout Church history have used the concept of divine accommodation to account for everything in Scripture that seemed “unworthy” of God. Whatever didn’t line up with what we know about God was seen as God accommodating his revelation to our limited and fallen framework. The trouble is, theologians have, by and large, used the classical conception of God as their standard against which everything else was assessed. This is the view that God is pure act, devoid of potentiality, atemporal, immutable and impassable. Hence, anything in Scripture that didn’t conform to this depiction – which happens to be the majority of Scripture – was viewed as a divine accommodation.

In the book I’m currently working on, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, I argue that Christ – should be seen as the definitive revelation of God and on this basis I argue against the classical view of God. I also contend that Christ – especially Christ on the cross – should be the criteria by which we assess Scripture. Every depiction that falls below the revelation of God in Christ should be seen as an accommodation.

I was initially excited to recently find a book that seemed like it was doing this very thing. Scott Oliphint’s God With Us proposes a Christ-centered reframing of divine accommodation. [1]  Unfortunately, as I will recount in this four-part review, I believe Oliphint’s book serves to perfectly illustrate the problem with classical approach to accommodation rather than a truly Christ-centered alternative to this approach. 

Oliphint begins by arguing that the classical theological tradition’s use of divine accommodation has not been sufficiently Christocentric. His book is, among other things, intended to correct this. Throughout his book, Oliphint correctly stresses that Christ is “the climatic quintessential revelation of God” (e.g. 116, cf. 11, 136, 156, 174-76). He thus holds that “the way to a proper understanding of God and his character is given foremost in a proper understanding of the Son of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ” (11). Hence, “if we want to know how God can relate to his creation,” he writes, “we should look to the example of that relationship in the person of Christ” (156). Since God is truly revealed in Christ, Oliphant insightfully observes, we must embrace the truth that “what God has done in Christ through condescension he has been doing from the dawn of time” (191-92, cf 226). I couldn’t agree more!

Unfortunately, immediately after announcing his Christocentric methodology, Oliphint states that we must distinguish between God as he “exists in himself and God as he condescends” (13), and he proceeds to argue that all of our thinking about God as he “exists in himself” – that is, all of God’s “essential attributes” — must be anchored in his “aseity,” which means, “his independence” (17). “[T]he aseity of God must be the place in which we stand in order to assert anything else about him,” Oliphant notes. And the reason is that,  “anything else we say about him depends for its proper understanding and meaning on aseity” (19).  The circularity of this reasoning seems to have gone unnoticed.

It is already apparent that when Oliphant argued that all our thinking about God should be centered on Christ, he was referring not to God as he exist in himself, but only to God as he exists in relation to creation. To understand what God is like in himself, it’s evident that Oliphint doesn’t think we should stand on Christ, but on the philosophical concept of God’s aseity. And from this philosophical starting point, Oliphint goes on to argue that, “we are to think of the Lord as essentially a se (53) – that is, as possessing “self-existence” (58) and as “”being, not becoming” (18). According to Oliphint, God is “pure act,” which means, among other things, that he possesses no potential to change in any respect (82).

In support of this conception, Oliphant rehearses an age old (and, I contend, fallacious) argument. “If we assume God to be perfect, in that he lacks nothing, any change in God would have to be a change from perfect to less than perfect” (82). It’s a remarkably weak argument, though we find it throughout history, going back at least as far as Plato. A being who possessed perfect love could change dispositions simply to empathize with others, not to improve. Nevertheless, Oliphint goes on to engage in circular reasoning as he insists that, “there is no way in which there can be any potentiality in [God]” for “if God were mutable, he would change from actuality to potentiality. But then God would not be pure actuality” and “would be one who is less that perfect” (84).

Oliphint argues along similar lines for God’s impassibility, which he takes to essentially means that there is nothing that can affect him outside of himself.  He grants that, since Christ suffered, “there must be some real and fundamental sense in which God can experience passions.” At the same time, however, he argues that  “[w]hat God ‘feels,’ he does so according to his own sovereign plan and not because he is dependent or because something independent of him caused him to re-act to something outside himself” (87). Clearly, in this view, only God can affect God. He argues the same for God’s knowledge. God’s knowledge of contingent realities can’t be dependent on the contingent realities, he claims, for this would mean that God was dependent on something outside himself, which the classical understanding of God’s aseity of course rules out. Instead, God’s knowledge of contingent realities is anchored in his eternal decrees that determine these realities (97).

This knowledge of God as he exists “in himself” obviously did not arise from God’s revelation in Christ. Where then did it come from?  While Oliphant insists this conception is rooted in Scripture (he cites several classic proof texts), he is admirably forthright in acknowledging that his interpretation of Scripture is governed by the Reformed tradition and therefore carried out with a presupposed conception of God as wholly immutable (19).[2] Quoting Richard Muller, he writes:

The orthodox line of thought is guided not by a totally open or unbiased exegesis of texts, but by an ontological conception of the immutability of God. This guiding conception in turn leads to an interpretation of Scripture that gives priority to those texts stressing the unchangability of God over those texts which indicate change, priority to those texts which stress God’s otherness over those which indicate emotion, passion or other kinship with humanity.[3]

Given that “an ontological conception of the immutability of God” is driving his exegesis, it’s not terribly surprising that Oliphint believes Scripture bears witness to this conception of God – although I confess I have trouble seeing how these proof texts support this conception of God even when this view is presupposed. In any event, Oliphint goes on to offer further support of the classical conception of God by appealing to our intuition as people made in the image of God.  He contends that the conception of God as pure act is “embedded in the human constitution, by virtue of our being created in the image of God.” This, he argues, is why passages that (allegedly) express God’s immutability, impassibility and aseity (he cites Ex. 3:14 as an example) “intuitively resonate with us,” while passages that speak of God changing his mind, for example, “automatically raise questions” (27, 29).

Oliphint’s contention that Exodus 3:14 reflects a conception of God as “self-existence” and “above history” (59) is dubious in the extreme, as most current OT scholarship stands against it. But it is much less questionable than his subjective claim that passages reflecting his conception of God “resonate” in us while passages that disagree with his conception “automatically raise questions.” One wonders what warrant Oliphint feels he has for projecting his subjective impression on humanity in general. It’s hard to know how to respond to such a claim other than to simply register my disagreement. I, for one, don’t experience Scripture the way Oliphint says a person made in the image of God should. As I noted above, I don’t find any passage of Scripture that causes me to “resonate” with his conception of God. Nor do I find myself automatically having questions when I encounter passages that depict God changing his mind.  Oliphint seems unaware of how conditioned our intuitive reactions to Scripture are.

Be that as it may, it is only after Oliphint has meticulously unpacked the classical view of God that we learn what Oliphint means when he says he intends to work out a Christ-centered understanding of divine accommodation. In my next post I’ll flesh out what this understanding amounts to. But you can already probably already tell where this is going. When Oliphint affirms that Christ is “the quintessential revelation of God,” he unfortunately does not mean that he actually derives his understanding of what God is really like from Christ. And in this respect I’m afraid Oliphint is making the same mistake classical theologians have been making throughout history.  They affirm Christ is the definitive revelation of God, but then embrace an understanding of God that has very little to do with Christ.

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