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I want to start off saying that I have profited from the books that I have read from Dr. K. Scott Oliphint on apologetics, and I am not arguing that his resources and writings are altogether useless. However I do want to present the concern that his denial of the classical doctrine of God pertaining to Divine Impassibility undercuts the immutability of God and as a result opens up a can of worms that if followed consistently undermines the biblical foundation for apologetics.  This view is most explicitly presented in Dr. Oliphint’s tenet referred to as Covenantal Condescension.

For an overview of divine impassibility see some of the following resources on my blog:

https://1689reformedbaptist.wordpress.com//?s=divine+impassibility&search=Go

Divine Impassibility is not merely a scholarly debate about abstract concepts of God, but as Puritan Thomas Manton affirmed is a comfort to saints since our hope in God’s gracious provision to sinners in the Gospel rests on God’s immutability, that God doesn’t change.  Otherwise our justification and all of the benefits of redemption are contingent and mutable with no sure promise that they will last for tomorrow if God Himself is mutable,

“God, and all that is in God, is unchangeable; for this is an attribute that, like a silken string through a chain of pearl, runneth through all the rest: his mercy is unchangeable, ‘his mercy endureth for ever,’ Ps. 100:5[1]”.

“But God doth not change; there is no wrinkle upon the brow of eternity; the arm of mercy is not dried up, nor do his bowels of love waste and spend themselves.  And truly this is the church’s comfort in the saddest condition, that however the face of the creatures be changed to them, God will still be the same.  It is said somewhere that ‘the name of God’s immutability is an ointment poured out.’  Certainly this name of God’s immutability is an ointment poured out, the best cordial to refresh a fainting soul[2]”.

I now proceed to examine some statements regarding Dr. K. Scott Oliphint’s view of Divine Impassibility present in his most recent book on apologetics, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith.  I found Dr. Oliphint’s other book on apologetics useful that I read, the Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending our Faith[3], which was a good introduction to apologetics, but has the same problem as Covenantal Apologetics because it is impossible to separate your understanding of theology from you apologetics since your theology determines you apologetic methodology, and since Dr. Oliphint’s view of covenantal condescension and a modified view of divine impassibility play a predominant role in his understanding of Christology and Doctrine of God, they will make an impact on his apologetics.  A key tenet to Dr. Oliphint’s apologetic is that in Christ’s condescension/incarnation he laid aside the use of certain attributes and took on new covenantal attributes in the incarnation part of his interpretation is based on a misinterpretation of Philippians 2:6-11,

“The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, did not unduly hold on to what was rightfully his, but instead he “emptied himself.”  By that Paul means that the Son became what he was not; he, as Paul says elsewhere, “became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9) that we might become rich.  He did not, we should emphasize, become something other than God.  God cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13).  But he emptied himself of his prerogatives as God in order to take on the burdens, and ultimately the penalty, that sin brought into the world[4]”.

While Dr. Oliphint’s interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11 by itself may not appear like much, but it paves the way for a modification of the classical doctrine of divine impassibility by admitting that Christ’s attributes have in some way changed in the incarnation because he no longer had the divine prerogative to use them freely.  He makes it appear harmless, that Christ merely limited himself, so that there is no limitation in God, but he doesn’t follow this through consistently in his methodology.  Oliphint further expands on his view of divine condescension in response to an atheist objection by Anthony Kenny that God cannot be immutable and omniscient (all knowing) because in order for God to know time he would be gaining knowledge of time, and therefore changing and no longer immutable.  Dr. Oliphint uses his view of covenantal condescension in his attempt to explain how humans can have knowledge of God,

“In other words, the only reason that any of us, Kenny included, can have any knowledge of God is that he has seen fit to “condescend” to us.  Now what might condescension mean?  As we have seen, it surely does not mean that he determined to occupy a place, or space, in which he was initially absent.  Instead, it means that God took on characteristics that were required (by him, not by us) for him to interact with that which he had made.  Those characteristics were properties that he did not have to take on, because he did not have to create.  This is what “voluntary” means.  But given his determination to create, and because his character is so “wholly other” than creation (in that he is immutable, infinite, eternal, etc.), he “stoops down” (as Calvin put it) by relating himself to that creation and to us.  And that “stoop” requires that we be able to relate to him, to know him, to interact with him, and he with us as people made in his image.  But in no way, or at any moment, or on any occasion does it change who God is as God.  He does not stoop down simply by becoming one of us.  He stoops down by remaining who he is, even while he takes on characteristics that did not obtain when there was no creation[5]”.

Although Dr. Oliphint claims that Calvin argues for a similar position he did not, and argued for a more consistent view of the Greek verb kenaō “to empty”.  Calvin argued that Christ veiled his glory, not that there is any ontological change in the person of Christ in the act of emptying,

“Christ, indeed, could not divest himself of Godhead; but he kept it concealed for a time, that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it[6]”.

A common objection to this position might be that Christ did show his glory via his miracles and signs during his earthly ministry, so how can it be claimed that he veiled his glory?  Calvin explains that Christ made a clear distinction in terms of his glory shown to his disciples before and after his resurrection, and even with the transfiguration they were not allowed to tell anyone about it until he had been raised from the dead,

“It is also asked, secondly, how he can be said to be emptied, while he, nevertheless, invariably proved himself, by miracles and excellences, to be the Son of God, and in whom, as John testifies, there was always to be seen a glory worthy of the Son of God? (John 1:14.) I answer, that the abasement of the flesh was, notwithstanding, like a veil, by which his divine majesty was concealed. On this account he did not wish that his transfiguration should be made public until after his resurrection; and when he perceives that the hour of his death is approaching, he then says, Father, glorify thy Son. (John 17:1.) Hence, too, Paul teaches elsewhere, that he was declared to be the Son of God by means of his resurrection. (Rom. 1:4.)[7]”.

I accept Calvin’s view as the most consistent with the flow of the passage taking into account the flow of the discourse (Philippians 2:1-11), while also avoiding dangerous ontological speculations.  Tota scriptura (all of Scripture) must be taken into account when exegeting this text, so that an artificial theology is not constructed on this single verse while ignoring and contradicting the rest of scripture.

Despite Dr. Olihpint’s claim that God does not change as a result of covenantal condescension his view clearly undermines both the classical doctrine of God’s impassibility and God’s immutability since God is contingent upon creation to take on new properties to be able to relate to his creation.  God is therefore not eternally God because he has gained new attributes to relate to his creation, this makes Oliphint’s whole approach wide open to assaults from opposing worldviews and if Kenny, the atheist objector he is responding to, is perceptive enough to pick up on this he could easily employ it as an argument against Christianity because Dr. Oliphint’s divine condescension view undermines God’s immutability, and by implication, that would make the Bible unreliable and therefore there would be no foundation for apologetics because there would be no foundation for Scripture if it is based on the nature of a mutable god.  Dr. Oliphint makes his denial of divine impassibility and immutability even more explicit later in his book in response to an atheist objection he uses his covenantal condescension tenet as a means to account for how God reveals himself to his creation,

“Now, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, once this God creates, he also condescends to relate to his creation.  To put it simply, he takes on the property of Creator, which he did not have prior to his creating activity; God is now related and (self-)bound by something that did not previously exist.  Not only so, but as he issues commands to his creation, he takes on the property of sovereign authority over what he has made[8]”.

It might appear that this statement by Dr. Oliphint is acceptable since he makes it less explicit by saying that God is (self-)bound, to avoid making it appear that God is somehow bound or limited by his creation.  However this is a direct assault on God’s immutability and impassibility because God is limited in his attributes, which would make God cease to be God, and be more like his creation.  We cannot take the doctrines of God’s immutability and Impassibility for granted as Thomas Manton states that it is a comfort for saints in the midst of temptation, likewise it is a necessary foundation for evangelism and apologetics because no other worldview can account for God’s immutability, and since the doctrine of God’s immutability also presupposes the doctrine of the Trinity both are closely connected for us to have a solid foundation for the Gospel and for the Christian worldview.

[1] Thomas Manton,  A Geneva Series Commentary: James (Litho, Great Britain: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962), 113

[2] Ibid, 114

[3] K. Scott Olihpint, The Battle Belongs to the LORD: The Power of Scripture for Defending our Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 2003

[4] K. Scott Olihpint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 65

[5] Ibid, 82

[6] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 56–57

[7] Ibid, 57

[8] K. Scott Olihpint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 190