K. Scott Oliphint Misses Karl Barth’s Critique: God With Us

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other…. [Jan Rohls, Reformed Confessions: Theology from Zurich to Barmen, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 1998) 48 cited by Bobby Grow in his Chapter 4 of Myk Habets’ and his book, Evangelical Calvinism, 108.]

This quote comes from the last section in my chapter for our book. In this section of my chapter I have been comparing and contrasting some Reformed Confessions; of note, The Belgic Confession of the Faith & The Westminster Confession of Faith exemplify the kind of division that Rohls highlights for us. This division, between discussing God, and then God as Triune is something that both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (and others) have noticed as a methodological problem inherent to classical theistic prolegomena (or theological method)—because it starts with abstract philosophical reflection about “what” God is, instead of starting where God starts in his Self-revelation of himself, in Christ (and in the ‘who’ of what he is); and it is a division that I develop, a bit, in my chapter. K. Scott Oliphint also understands this to be an important issue, and touches upon it in the introductory chapter of his book God With Us. He defends the classical approach against its detractors, like Karl Barth; his mode of defense is to try and contextualize this methodology to a particular period of church history and theological development. He writes (and against Barth, ultimately):

A focus on the oneness of God with respect to his attributes may be one of the primary reasons that much of what we discuss in coming chapters has developed the way it has. The question could be posed, If we understand God’s attributes in the context of his three-in-oneness, is it easier for us to see that God can remain who he is a se and at the same time take on covenantal properties? So much of this discussion about the relationship of God’s attributes vis-á-vis creation seems to miss the fundamental note of his triunity, and thus of his ability, as we will see in the incarnation, for example, to condescend, all the while remaining who he essentially is.

This point must be kept in mind throughout, especially given some of the modern-day criticisms lodged against an “abstract” consideration of God’s essential nature prior to, or even apart from, a discussion of God’s triunity. Karl Barth, for example, complains that,

it is … hard to see how what is distinctive for this God can be made clear if, as has constantly happened in Roman Catholic and Protestant dogmatics both old and new, the question who God is, which it is the business of the doctrine of the Trinity to answer, is held in reserve, and the first question to be treated is that of the That and the What of God, as though these could be defined otherwise than on the presupposition of the Who.

Barth expresses here a legitimate concern about a problem that must be avoided whenever Christians set out to think carefully about God and his character. If what is discussed in any way obscures or undermines the truth of God’s triunity, then to that extent the doctrine of God discussed is not the doctrine of the Christian God. But as Muller notes, Barth’s concerns were misplaced, given the history of discussions and developments in theology proper after the Reformation.

The order of the older dogmatics, in moving from proofs to essence and attributes and then to Trinity, was not a movement from “that” (or more properly, “whether”)), to “what,” to “who” …, but from “whether” … to “what” … to “what sort”—with the “whether” (Barth’s “that”) corresponding to the proofs; the “what” corresponding to the essence and essential properties (attributes of the “first order”) and, in the arrangement of some of the orthodox writers, to the Trinity as well, not as Barth would seem to imply, to the essence and attributes generally; and the “what sort” referring to the relational attributes (attributes of the “second order”) and, in other of the orthodox, to the Trinity. The locus [doctrine of God] does not segment Trinity off from the discussion of essence and attributes: the issue addressed by this order is not a movement from an extended philosophical or speculative discussion of “what” God is to a biblicistic, trinitarian “who” God is, but the movement from a statement of “what” (or “who”) the existent One is, namely, God, to a lengthy discussion in terms of attributes and Trinity, of precisely “what sort” of God has been revealed, namely, a triune God who is simple, infinite, omnipotent, gracious, merciful, and so forth.

In other words, we should keep in the forefront of our minds that everything we say about God generally in our discussion applies to the triune God; it does not apply in abstraction, but to God as one in three. [K. Scott Oliphant, God With Us: Divine Condescension And The Attributes of God, 39-40.]

**Sidebar: Oliphint footnotes the Barth quote above, he writes in fn. 75, ‘We should be clear here that Barth’s theology, including his doctrine of God, is unorthodox at every point. While his emphasis in the quote above is correct, the ways in which he sought to construe theology serves only to undermine and negate orthodoxy.’**

I object. I think historical context is very important, but that’s not what’s at stake here, and historical development (especially in the Reformed tradition which sees fidelity to scripture—and not a magesterium of history and its interpretation, per se; its interpretation absolutized that is—as the sine qua non of what it means to be ‘Orthodox’) is not the canon by which we determine whether something or someone is orthodox; being faithful to the trajectory, implications, and theo-logic of scripture is the rule by which we would ever presume to test orthodoxy. And what is a stake in this discussion is not fidelity to a procrustean body of truth bequeathed to us in sterile and static wrapping; INSTEAD, the glorious truth of who God is in all of his Triune plenitude and fullness as revealed in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ is at stake. While Oliphint, through his parroting of Muller, is trying to assert that a pre-developed ‘what-sort-of’ based upon a prior ‘whether’ conception of God is the ambit through which we understand God’s person revealed in Jesus Christ; he severely misses Barth’s critique!! In fact he makes Barth’s point, it is a simple one; you cannot conceive of a concept of God before you meet Jesus, and yet Oliphint says it is okay to do this because that’s how orthodoxy did it (basically).

I don’t think Oliphint or Muller escapes Barth’s critique whatsoever, in fact he illustrates it.