Trinity & Paradox (A Defense of Christian Orthodoxy Against Claims of Modalism and Polytheism)

If God is one and all three persons of the Trinity are God, how does orthodox Christianity adequately deflect charges of modalism and polytheism? In other words, if the Father is God and the Son is God, how is the Son not merely an appearance of the Father if there is only one God (monotheism). Yet if the Father and the Son are not transitory manifestations of God but coexist as distinct divine persons, how is orthodox Christianity not another religion of the gods?

Before trying to address this conundrum, it might be helpful to consider some implications of an ancient Trinitarian creed.

We may distill these catholic claims from the Athanasian creed:

1. The Father is God
2. The Son is God
3. The Spirit is God
4. The Father is not the Son
5. The Father is not the Spirit
6. The Son is not the Spirit
7. There is only one God

An apparent contradiction is in view:

A. f = g (premise)
B. s = g (premise)
C. f ≠ g (premise)
D. f = s (from 1 and 2, by the transitivity of identity)

Contradiction or Paradox?

Does Christianity entail the following paradox:

The Father is not the Son (from 4), but because the Father and Son are both God, the Father and Son are the same person (from D).

It seems to me that these conundrums can be dealt with adequately by supplementing additional biblically informed premises alongside the ambiguous ones. Simply augment some of the abbreviated premises with more biblical truth and paradox disappears, yet without being able to uncover the mysteries of the Trinity. (The solution is rational but ought not to be considered rationalistic.)

Is, =, and the law of identity:

It should be noted up front that there is a semantic difference between is and =, for x is y in common parlance does not necessarily imply y is x. Whereas x = y always is equivalent to y = x. For instance, Jim is human obviously does not mean the same thing as human is Jim. However, in some instances, the word is can imply a bidirectional truth or equivalent identity. For instance, there is an equivalence between Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS, and the 46th POTUS is Joe Biden. All that to say, we must be careful to discern what is intended by the verb is. Sometimes the meaning is one directional (e.g., Jim is human), and at other times the meaning is bidirectional (e.g., Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS). In the latter sense, is can be substituted with equals (=).

With that appreciation in place, we can now observe an undisclosed disconnect from what x is, (found in 1-7), to what x equals, (found in A-D). The basis for the inferences found in A-D is sufficiently vague, which I trust will become apparent below. In other words, what does it mean that the Father is God? Does it, also, mean that God is the Father?

Points 1-3 (which utilize “is”) may merely suggest that three distinct persons all share the one divine essence and occupy “the same divine space” (perichoresis). Moreover, there is a qualified difference between each of the three persons when they are individually identified as God. Accordingly, the word “is” ought not to be taken to imply strict philosophical identity (in a creed no less!) without having first defined “God”.

Points A-D that follow (which utilize “=” instead of “is”) either creates, or uncovers, confusion (and possible paradox). Points 1-3 and A-D must be nuanced, for 1-3 does not imply the conclusion of A-D, which entails not only an apparent contradiction but rather, in light of 1-7, an ambiguity that keeps it (A-D) from being either coherent or contradictory. Because A-D suffers from an improper inference from 1-3, it needs clarification in light of the creed.

The creed is not saying anything like God is not God, or the Son is not the Son! Hence, we may with confidence accept 1-7 without assuming it entails the paradox or actual contradiction implied in A-D.

Vague terms lead to unreliable conclusions:

If by God we mean the triune God, then obviously it is false that any divine person is God (i.e., the triune God). For instance, the Holy Spirit is not the Holy Trinity. Consequently, 1-3 is clearly false if God as Trinity is in view.

If by God we mean a divine person among other distinct divine persons, as opposed to a notion of the divine person, then 1-7 is orthodox, and D’s: f = s is not implied, alleviating the paradox in view. In other words, if each person of the Trinity is a distinct divine person (e.g., D1, D2 and D3), qualifying each as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit respectively, then the personal properties of each person undermine the transitivity maintained in A-D.

Implicit modalism put to rest:

Not only can God mean Trinity, which the Son is not, God can also mean the person of the Holy Spirit, which the Son is not. Finally, God can mean the person of the Father, which the Son is not. Accordingly, to say that “the Son is God” and the “Father is God” without further qualification can be equivocal; if taken in light of the law of identity, (as inferred by A-D without defining God), it can imply modalism because identity is transitive. The Son and the Father would be one and the same person, which the creed does not imply.

We may say in a colloquial-theological sense the Father is God just as we may say the Son is God, as long as we have the biblical backing that an unshared and distinguishing personal property of the Father is that he is unbegotten while the Son is eternally begotten etc. Being distinct persons, there are differences of eternal origin among all three persons of the Trinity who are one in being. The Father is divine but doesn’t exist apart from his intra-Trinitarian begetting of the Son. That to say, the Father is not God apart from being a distinct divine person of the undivided Trinity. These Trinitarian relationships are necessary and eternal properties of personhood, not essence (lest the Father is the Son etc). They undermine any serious charge of modalism.

Eternal origin of necessary persons also lays the theological groundwork for monotheism, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

If we don’t distinguish personal properties in this way, we don’t do justice to the theology of the creed with respect to distinguishing divine persons. Indeed, it is true that f is g and s is g, and if that were the end of the story, we might be in trouble. Without further elaboration, f is g conjoined with s is g might imply modalism; so, we needn’t be surprised that such constructs, though true, must be interpreted through a biblically informed theological grid in order to avoid apparent contradiction if not implicit heresy.

Mystery and rationality:

Whether there are prima facie intuitive notions surrounding 1-7 that can lead to a conundrum, it can be maintained on the consistency of God, and his intent to communicate to his people, that such intuitive notions, which at first might appear logically problematic, can disappear when we presuppose additional revelation. That is not to say that mysteries can be solved! Logic cannot solve true mysteries, but biblically informed philosophical pursuit can demonstrate that certain doctrines are not actually contradictory. It’s when we think intuitively, which is to say apart from Scripture, we can get in trouble. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that’s an insight of Van Til’s apologetic, which may be carried into discussions around paradox. (For instance, when we use only experience unaided by further revelation we may think that one essence necessarily implies God is one person; when we presuppose Scripture we can know that proposition is false.)

Not to oversimplify or belabor, but to summarize: f is g and s is g can suggest f is s. If is implies =, then we must refine our definition of g. I think we have addressed that horn of the conundrum in a way that satisfies a charge of modalism, but perhaps not without inviting a charge of polytheism.


We’re not out of the woods yet. If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?

One in creation, providence and grace.

Each divine person is operative in the Trinity’s works of creation, providence and grace. The works of the triune God are harmoniously indivisible, a reflection of the ontological Trinity, which establishes the doctrine of inseparable operations.

One Being (including mind, will, consciousness), with no analogy:

The one pertains to the triune God subsisting, whereas the three, to the tripersonal divine being. Each mode of subsistence is divine and consubstantial (without personally identifying as another or as all). Each is one and the same in being, with due consideration given to the theological entailment of three personal modes of subsistence mutually indwelling each other. Mysterious, yes. Contradictory, absolutely not.

A doctrine of three distinct divine persons does not leave us with three gods, for there is numerically one divine essence, which contemplates one mind, will, and center of consciousness existing eternally in three ordered modes of subsistence or persons. The nature of God is disanalogous to the human nature and polytheism, for no two humans or deities have the identical mind etc. Furthermore, no false god or human being is essential to the existence of another. (Traducianism presents no problem).

Eternal origins and necessity of persons:

God is not one in the same manner in which God is three. God is one tripersonal being, whereas tritheism would not entail a Trinitarian conception of essence and all it contemplates, which exceeds mere consubstantial generic unity. Again, the divine nature contemplates one mind, one center of consciousness, one will etc. in a plurality of persons. That’s not a feature of polytheism (or the humanity of, say, Peter, James and John). Related and perhaps more significant is that it is impossible for the Father to be himself apart from eternally and necessarily begetting the Son, which is not at all analogous to the disunity in plurality within a pantheon of independent Greek gods. In other words, polytheism does not contemplate a generic unity of persons of one mind, center of consciousness and will, that eternally exist in an indivisible unity of ontological origins of relations (unbegottennes, begottenness and procession). Additionally, a plurality of gods definitionally and conceptually could exist without godlike equals. Not so with the modes of subsistence of the ontological Trinity. Consequently, for Christianity to be tritheistic, polytheism would have to be radically redefined in order to include a monotheistic doctrine of Trinity! In other words, even if Christianity were to appear paradoxically as a religion of three gods, it would have no relevant resemblance to polytheism. In the final analysis, a false charge of tritheism equivocates over the notion of polytheism.

Perhaps the most absorbing aspect of it all is that the personal properties that defend against the charge of modalism appear to be the same ontological realities that establish the philosophical-theology of Trinitarian monotheism. (The exegetical foundations are, of course, less controversial.)

Back to our question above: If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?

That each person of the Godhead are divine doesn’t lead to three gods, for three gods would entail independent beings that aren’t numerically one in the way in which God is numerically one.


If modalism has been overcome, and the charge of polytheism does not stick due to all the entailments of divine essence (e.g., numerically one mind, conscience, will etc.), along with the eternally necessary inseparable-origins of personal properties that exist in perichoresis, then the coherence of Trinitarian orthodoxy is not affected. Of course, one can always dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, but I don’t believe it may be justifiably dismissed on the grounds of contradictory doctrine.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Nicene Creed

John Davenant, Another Enticement For The “Reformed” (in name only)

“If it be denied that Christ died for some persons, it will immediately follow, that such could not be saved, even if they should believe.”

I can understand Arminians saying such a thing but when those who profess to be Reformed say things like that, more than bad theology is at play. (And by the way, why do latent Arminians insist upon being considered Reformed?)

At the risk of addressing the obvious, such a sentiment assumes what must be proven, that those for whom Christ did not die can believe. From a Reformed perspective, how does this not deny irresistible grace and inseparable operations of the Trinity?*

“if nothing else is judged possible to be done, except those things which God hath decreed to be done, it would follow that the Divine power is not infinite.”.

John Davenant, Dissertation on the Death of Christ, n.d., 439

God having already decreed that the boulder would fall from the cliff entails that God could not prevent the boulder from falling from the cliff. The “could not” is due not to a lack of divine power but a want of divine will. Because God cannot deny himself (or act contrary to how he has determined he will act), God’s inability to act upon the boulder either directly, or through secondary causes, is ascribable not to finite power in the Godhead but the outworking of God’s internal consistency, from decree to providence.

That God’s omnipotence and decree are not mutually exclusive entailments implies that the latter does not diminish the former, though it will certainly curtail and redirect its decretive unleashing in ordinary providence. Davenant and his recent followers not only miss this. Is there any indication they’ve even considered it?

“The death of Christ is applicable to any man living, because the condition of faith and repentance is possible to any living person, the secret decree of predestination or preterition in no wise hindering or confining this power either on the part of God, or on the part of men. They act, therefore, with little consideration who endeavour, by the decrees of secret election and preterition, to overthrow the universality of the death of Christ, which pertains to any persons whatsoever according to the tenor of the evangelical covenant.”

Davenant, Loc. Cit.

In other words, for Davenant, it is possible for those not elected unto salvation to be saved. Indeed, it is possible for those not chosen in Christ to be baptized into the work of the cross.

Pelagian connotations aside as they relate to faith and repentance, if Davenant is correct, then it is possible that God’s decree not come to pass. It is possible that more are saved than predestined unto salvation. It is possible that God can be wrong! Or does God not believe his decree will come to pass?

Possibility with zero probability of occurring:

Simply try to imagine a possible world in which Esau is not elect but enters into everlasting life contrary to God’s will of decree. In other words, is there a possible world in which some are redeemed yet the elect are less in number than they? If not, then so much for this already rejected view of the atonement that posits incoherence by implicitly denying exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution, and the inseparable operations of the Trinity.** That’s what Davenant “possibility” gets you. (Enter now the sophistry of Molinism with its might-counterfactuals and possible-feasible worlds distinction.)


Regarding confessional status, any extra-confessional teaching that leads to confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards, (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system(s) of doctrine.

A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. So, for instance, any view of free will that by necessary implication entails that God is contingently infallible must be rejected as non-confessional. So it is with all forms of hypothetical universalism that lead to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence.

I find it a stretch to call a doctrine “within the Reformed tradition” merely because a delegate held to it. When a confession is not already internally contradictory, let’s not allow it to be! For a doctrine to be considered confessional it must be explicitly taught or necessary implied by the confession and cannot introduce contradictions to other confessional doctrines. Again, we may not introduce teachings that are not inferable or would undermine other confessional doctrines, even though our confession is a consensus document of sorts. After all, what does it mean for a teaching to be “within the bounds of a Reformed confession” if it entails an implicit denial of another doctrine of the same confession? Roman Catholics are often constrained to speak that way (vis-à-vis Trent and Vatican ii) but why should the Reformed make such concessions? Can a doctrine be incoherent and Reformed? How about contra-confessional? We’re discussing what it is for a doctrine to be confessional or Reformed. That should be an objective consideration, unlike whether one wants subjectively to label someone else as Reformed. Is John MaCArthur “Reformed”? He’s certainly not confessional!

Clichés that obfuscate:

It’s inescapable, the atonement is a matter of divine intent, which is equivocally obscure within Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.

Little clichés like Christ’s death is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” have no place in rigorous systematic theology. A sufficient condition entails a state of affairs that if met ensures another state of affairs. In that sense, the cliché implies actual universalism. Sufficient and efficient become functionally indistinguishable and the cliché, tautological. Yet if “sufficient for all” is intended to convey that Christ’s death would save you if you believe, then redemption becomes necessary for saving faith, which isn’t very interesting. That one cannot have saving faith without the work of the cross, although true, doesn’t advance the discussion. Accordingly, we are back to election and irresistible grace, which are anything but sufficient for all! The historia salutis and ordo salutis must coincide.

In closing:

It would be helpful if those with positions of influence (I’m only referring to them), who claim to be Reformed while showing sympathy to Davenant’s view of possibility, would acquire a contemporary philosophical taxonomy and better grasp of modal concepts. If these historical types who promote not just aberrant but incoherent views would improve upon their equivocal notions, and gain a bit more philosophical understanding, consistency and theological trajectory, they might develop some semblance of appreciation for their modal claims; they might begin to see that they neatly align with Molinism and not confessional Calvinism given (at best) a Davenant underdeveloped version of the “logical-possible chasm” of Molinism.

Upon the Reformed (in name only) becoming better informed on necessity, possibility, metaphysical contingency, compatibilism etc., and thereby becoming self-consciously (or at least more consistently) Molinists, non-libertarian Calvinists might then refer these historical types (who too often show insufficient interest in understanding theological compatibilism) to the preponderance of refutations of the most sophisticated form(s) of Arminianism, if not also to some of the better Molinism arguments out there. Until then, we weep and pray, perhaps most of all for the relatively few Reformed institutions that are towing the line, as well as for those institutions that are not equipping the capable while simultaneously enabling the philosophically disinterested to gain a seat at the Reformed table.***

Footnotes that might surprise:

* A similar informal fallacy is committed here by perhaps the most notable popularizer of Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism: 

“The logic goes something like this: ‘The gospel offer, which ministers are called to proclaim, must indiscriminately include this proposition: God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.’ For this proposition to be true, it then must be the case that God in Christ made a remedy for every person such that God is able to fulfill the antecedent condition proclaimed in the gospel—viz., God is able to forgive the sins of any person. In order to claim that God in Christ made a remedy sufficient for every person, we must affirm that God intended that Christ make a remedy for every person.” (Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism: Another Look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 134-5).

This is another example of assuming what needs to be proven. Consider the author’s proposition:

“God is, according to his divine justice and on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, able to forgive any person of their sins.”

If the doctrine of limited atonement is true, then it is false that God is “able to forgive *any* person of their sins.” Accordingly, the author has begged the question and traded in ambiguity by not recognizing that God’s “ability” to forgive any particular person is predicated upon full satisfaction having been made for any particular person who would be forgiven. Consequently, the proposition doesn’t establish a doctrine of unlimited atonement. Rather, it assumes it!
** Of course no Davenant disciple will acknowledge her denial of orthodox Theology Proper. But I suppose that’s due to a failure to recognize the implications of one’s own position.

Regarding exhaustive omniscience, penal substitution and inseparable operations of the Trinity in light of the alleged possibility:

If God had known non elect persons would convert, they would have been elect. They were not elect (yet would convert), therefore, God did not know they would convert (though they would). 

If Christ dies for some whose sins will be paid for in hell, then Christ’s sacrifice is not vicariously propitiatory for at least some. 

If the Spirit converts (or aids in converting) contrary to the Father’s choosing, it is unreasonable that the Father acts with the Spirit in conversion. In fact, the Covenant of Redemption is undermined. 

(Molinist might-counterfactuals can’t save this.)
*** I won’t name seminaries or professors but Modern Reformation, Reformation 21 and Greystone Institute are examples of giving credence to Davenant’s hypothetical universalism and consequently a seat at the Reformed table. Why is that not deemed outrageous by NAPARC churches and Reformed seminaries? (Shortly after publishing article, Greystone Institute removed linked article by Mark Garcia that looked favorably upon the incoherence of Davenant’s hypothetical universalism.)

Moreover, many seasoned pastors in the Reformed tradition will say things like “God knows the future because he transcends time and the future is all before him.” That’s a direct denial of the determinative nature of divine decree and an implicit affirmation of God being eternally informed by the self-existing wills of uninstantiated essences. Why that is not deemed as outrageous is telling.

Even a relatively recent commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith looks favorably upon Middle Knowledge, which is another example of giving non-confessional views a seat at the Reformed table.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that rarely have I read a theological exam of a seminarian seeking licensure or ordination (and rarely have I had a discussion on theological compatibilism with such a person) that demonstrates a minimally thoughtful rejection of libertarian freedom or an understanding of combatibilist freedom and the determinative nature of the Divine Decree. After all, it’s rare for students to be acquainted with, let alone internalize, concepts they haven’t yet been exposed to.

John Frame had similar experiences: “I don’t know how many times I have asked candidates for licensure and ordination whether we are free from God’s decree, and they have replied ‘No, because we are fallen.’ That is to confuse libertarianism (freedom from God’s decree, ability to act without cause) with freedom from sin. In the former case, the fall is entirely irrelevant. Neither before nor after the fall did Adam have freedom in the libertarian sense. But freedom from sin is something different. Adam had that before the fall, but lost it as a result of the fall.”

Calvinist Paul Manata has noted, “One often finds misunderstandings disseminated by laymen on the Internet. This should not be surprising, for a cursory look at what Reformed teachers have said on the subject gives evidence of at least a surface tension among Reformed thinkers.”

I appreciate my article might come across as contentious to some. My concern that constrains me to write as I have is that I desire not to eclipse the problem I hope to further unearth, which extends beyond this particular stripe of hypothetical universalism. The doctrinal infidelity in “confessional” churches is, I believe, at an all time low. That Reformed folk are entertaining hypothetical universalism is just an indicator of a much larger problem. For more on that, read on.

Jonathan Edwards on the “necessity” of the divine decree

Our acts are free, though triggered by intentions that are caused according to God’s sovereign determination of the relationship between prior states of affairs and our intentions to act. Moreover, we approve of our intentions that cannot be other than what they will be.

Like us, God approves of his intentions and cannot act contrary to them. Yet, unlike us, God is most free, at least because his acts proceed from intentions that are not the effect of preceding states of affairs. So, unlike us, God is ultimate sourcehood and can do anything he can possibly desire.

There is no time in eternity, but even if time were uncreated, there could not have been enough time to have sequentially chosen a decree according to an intention that was chosen according to a previous intention ad infinitum. No, the divine intention is eternal, and a chosen intention is unintelligible.

Unsatisfactory objections with no solution:

With respect to Richard Muller and others, the world from an Edwardsian perspective is not (from itself) necessary but given the eternal decree, it is not narrowly-logically necessary but causally necessary being secured by the divine intention. Notwithstanding, creation itself isn’t essential to God, for creation is not a property of God, and God existed without creation. Should we find it strange that God cannot exist without some eternal intention to create or not create? Can God have no intention, even an intention not to have an intention? Surely God must exist with an intention he never did not have. That’s just built into God being God! Notwithstanding, that which God’s free intention contemplates is not a cause that acts upon God or his intention.

Room for freedom:

In conditional (Classical Compatiblist) terms, God could have not created this world had he so willed. Or, rather than contemplate hypotheticals that change a fixed future by altering the past, we might contemplate a different future that would entail a different past: Had God not created this world, he would have intended not to create. Either way, God’s intentions and acts are most free and agreeable to God according to a “mesh” of undivided will.

What’s the alternative, (i) a non-eternal intention? (ii) An eternally chosen contingent-intention (according to an eternally chosen or unchosen intention)? (iii) An eternal yet metaphysically contingent intention? But how does (iii) not make creation and God’s eternal will contingent, which is bound to lead back to (ii).

Impassibility of the contrary?

If nothing outside God acts upon God resulting in an intention to create, then God’s ultimate freedom to create is intact. That said, what’s the problem with Edwards on the necessity of the divine decree? What does the charge against Edwards even mean, that God is not most free unless another eternal intention could have been formed in God contrary to the eternal intention God eternally approved of for himself? Again, what’s the alternative to such freedom? If libertarian freedom is a philosophical surd, then how can God be libertarian-free and not free in an Edwardsian sense? That God’s act of creation was a free act does not imply that God did not have to create. After all, even our free acts don’t imply ability to act contrary. God determines all free acts, even his own, which are ultimately sourced in him alone.

As we teach our children, God can do all his holy will. (WSC 13)

RC. Sproul, Impeccability of Christ & Broadly Logical Modality

The Sproulian view of the peccability of Christ ends in either in an abstraction of the human nature from the second Person or else it attributes human personhood to the Son. Either way the denial of the impeccability of Christ implicitly, yet unwittingly, denies Chalcedon. (At the 21 minute mark I interact with Sproul, though I don’t get into modality in the Sunday school class.)

It’s really as simple as modus tollens.

1. If it is possible that Jesus could sin, then it is possible that God could sin.

2. It is false that it is possible that God could sin.

3. Therefore, it is false that it is possible that Jesus could sin.

Given the validity of the form of the argument, which premise (1 or 2) is disputed by those who’d deny Christ’s impeccability? It’s hard to say given that the focus is typically on the possible sin of Christ’s humanity, and not on the possible sin of Christ in his humanity. Notwithstanding, in order to deny impeccability one must affirm that it’s possible for the Son to sin. Otherwise the debate is misunderstood.

Possible world semantics are also useful here. Consider, is there a possible world in which the incarnate Son of God sins? (The answer to the question is kind of built into the definition of God, but I won’t get ahead of myself.)

Modality considerations:

We would do well to distinguish (a) narrow or strict logical possibility from (b) broad logical possibility or metaphysical possibility. One might say that “God sins” is logically possible in a strict sense because the proposition does not immediately entail a logical contradiction. But that would not imply that it is broadly logically possible, metaphysically speaking, for God to sin.

An analogy might be useful here. A state of matter cannot be solid and not solid at the same time and in the same way. To affirm the contrary would entail logical impossibility in a strict sense, as it would violate the law of non-contradiction in an immediate inferential sense. (It’s critical to grasp at this point that one needn’t know what solid, gaseous, liquid and plasma states entail for it to be known that such a phase of matter (a form that is both solid and not solid…) is a strict (or narrow) logical impossibility. The logical contradiction in view is formal and according to the law of non-contradiction (aside from any semantic considerations). It merely pertains to: something cannot be x and ~x…

However, it would not immediately entail a logical contradiction for a phase to be simultaneously solid and gaseous; yet how is such a state of being relevantly possible? Well, it’s not. It can’t be actualized. We might say that such a form of matter is not strictly (or narrowly logically) impossible, but that’s merely because no formal law of logic is immediately violated by the term solid-gas. What’s lacking in the immediate or strictly logical inference of the possibility of a solid-gas is the meaning, or qualitative differences, of two distinct truths about forms of matter. Yet once we know the semantic implications of solid and gaseous states, then we may infer from additional premises that no solid can be simultaneously gaseous. Accordingly, we may then further deduce that a phase that is both solid and gaseous is more broadly logically (or metaphysically) impossible. Furthermore, a solid-gas is just as relevantly impossible as a solid that is not a solid!

Back to impeccability. Like a solid-gas, a God-man who can sin is a contradiction in terms. Such contemplations are broadly illogical due to the nature of things.

2 ways one might go:

Without grasping the relevant implications of divinity as it relates to the doctrine of Christ, one might assert the metaphysical possibility of Jesus sinning. Furthermore, it’s not immediately inferable that it’s logically impossible for all possible humans, including Jesus, to sin. Yet if one grasps Chalcedon and incorporates God’s nature into the deduction, one may more modestly concede the latter option, that it is narrowly logically possible for Jesus, a human being, to sin. Whereas the former option lacks the use of relevant information about God’s nature, the latter, although more sophisticated, would have little or nothing to do with the doctrine of Christ’s impeccability, which is a metaphysical, broadly logical consideration. (Moreover, I’ve never seen such a subtle distinction of modality articulated as the basis for one’s denial of the doctrine of the impeccability of Christ, which is not to say that some haven’t had such reflections without having the semantic categories to articulate such a position.)

Those who hold to a doctrine of peccability either are confusing modalities or else they’re latent Nestorians:

Christians who affirm a doctrine of peccability typically do so without any self-conscious reference to a modality maneuver. Notwithstanding, to assert peccability as true doctrine entails a misunderstanding of temptation that in turn undermines the two natures in one subsistence. It’s not as though they affirm only strict logical possibility over possible actuality. Rather, in affirming peccability, they affirm the actual (metaphysical, broadly logically) possibility of an unfaithful Christ (and consequently affirm strict logical possibility too). In doing so, they abstract the human nature from the divine person, which falls to the same type error as positing a solid gas. In confusion, they might additionally attribute distinct personhood to the human being, Christ (Nestorianism).

Further reflection:

Christians embrace the incarnation of the divine Son as a union of two distinct natures in one hypostasis. Yet given a doctrine of peccability, is it further supposed that the human nature could possibly have sinned apart from the Person having sinned? In other words, by sinning would the Second Person (God) have committed sin only in his humanity but not personally? It’s hard to tell whether people like Sproul think that the whole person of Christ could possibly sin in his humanity. After all, Sproul’s position entails an unorthodox abstraction that “Satan was not trying to get God to sin. He was trying to get the human nature of Christ to sin, so that he would not be qualified to be the Savior.”

Wrapping up:

Given the meaning or ontological import of Jesus is Son, we may safely maintain it is metaphysically or broadly logically impossible for Jesus to sin in any actualizeable (feasible) world, which is the only relevant scope of possibility in this regard. Since God cannot possibly actualize a world in which the Son sins, in what Christological sense might Christ possibly sin? Given God’s nature, an implication of Chalcedon is Jesus was indeed impeccable.

There are other missteps Sproul makes. I’ll briefly touch on a few.

“But if Christ’s divine nature prevented him from sinning, in what sense did he obey the law of God as the second Adam?”

False dichotomy: When God prevents us from sinning in the face of temptation, are we not truly obeying? Accordingly, operative grace does not undermine either obedience or true temptation.

Moreover, God’s free knowledge of the divine decree presupposes the causal divine determinism of ordinary providence. Consequently, Sproul’s question smacks of Incompatibilism for God cannot but ultimately and causally determine the incarnate Son’s willful intentions through the intentional ordering of states of affairs, about which God pre-interprets the particulars consistent with a Reformed understanding of concurrence.

“I may be wrong, but I think it is wrong to believe that Christ’s divine nature made it impossible for his human nature to sin. If that were the case, the temptation, the tests, and his assuming of the responsibility of the first Adam would have all been charades. This position protects the integrity of the authenticity of the human nature because it was the human nature that carried out the mission of the second Adam on our behalf. It was the human nature uniquely anointed beyond measure by the Holy Spirit.”

What is it to be “uniquely anointed beyond measure by the Holy Spirit” other than to attribute something additional to the Second Adam that was not granted to our first father by the Holy Spirit? Moreover, how might Sproul capitalize on the Spirit’s anointing in a way that distinguishes it in any relevant sense from the ordinary empowering of the human will that might have come to Christ’s humanity from the Son’s ubiquitous divine nature, which is shared with the Father and the Spirit? How many divine beings are there after all? Moreover, the incarnation entails a perichoresis in the sense that the omnipresent divine nature of Christ penetrates his human nature, as it does ours yet to a lesser degree, though always without a transfer of properties. The penetration is also one directional and never from the human nature to the divine nature.

Lastly, regarding the human nature and Christ’s mission, was it the human nature that kept itself from sinking under the infinite wrath of God? Moreover, did the human nature alone give worth and efficacy to the sufferings of Christ? No to both. A human person could not have possibly redeemed! Accordingly, Sproul is not only wrong for abstracting the humanity of Christ from Christ, he’s also mistaken in thinking that the divine nature of the Son contributes nothing to our salvation. (See my post on strict vs. pactum justice.)

We are saved by a divine Person, not by an abstracted impersonal nature or even a human person. Accordingly, Sproul simply is incorrect that “the human nature carried out the [redemptive] mission.” Rather, it was requisite that a person carry out the mission, and that the person be God incarnate, as Sproul’s confessional Standards rightly teach:

Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?

A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them…

(As with the false doctrine of Christ’s peccability, so it is with Molinism. As I argue here, Molinism posits true narrow-sense possibilities that cannot be actualized even though there are an “infinite number” of these “logical” possibilities. And here, I made a passing remark about impeccability in a post primarily pertaining to Dabney’s unhappy employment of Middle Knowledge. That passing remark was a seed thought to the current post.)

Trinitarian Heterodoxy Eclipses Marriage (once again)

A pair of books were recently released entitled: Let The Men Be Men & Let The Women Be Women. As the subtitles disclose, the respective books pertain to God’s Design For Manhood And Marriage & God’s Design For Womanhood and Marriage.

This is not a review of the books but instead I offer a brief analysis on the theological appropriateness of using unqualified persons of the Trinity as an analogy for marriage.

My wife was reading to me a portion from Chapter 2 of one of the books, wherein a passing reference to the Trinity was made. The author said he’d develop the reference more in Chapter 10. Naturally, I took a quick peak at chapter 10 because some otherwise good material on wives and husbands has been disregarded over the years due to missteps having to do with Trinity analogies. One particular egalitarian Anglican-theologian who’s well versed in Trinitarian theology has capitalized on such missteps. Others have as well. Neither Baptists nor Presbyterians should want to throw the baby out with the bath water (pun intended).

In the hope that such books are a success in bringing clarity to the complementarian discussion, I thought I’d make a few comments on some direct quotes from the book on women.

My thoughts as they relate to the doctrine of God, I think, would be shared by most Reformed theologians and pastors. We might recall that they are the ones (along with an Anglican or two) who went after Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and others for their Trinity analogies to marriage in the summer of 2016. What I have, also, found unfortunate is that some biblical teaching on marriage has been dismissed, if not even scorned in the process, due to mistaken Theology Proper.

More than in Reformed Baptist circles, there are thin complementarians in the Reformed Presbyterian community. Many of these men have their Trinitarian theology down pat. So, any Trinity misstep by otherwise good men of God provides occasion for some to dismiss biblical complementarianism. This is understandable, which should cause certain Reformed Baptists to be more careful, if not solely for the sake of putting forth a biblical view of God, and secondly so that others might give attention to sound marriage doctrine.

From chapter 10:

The Trinity As A Model Of Submission

“The Trinity” is a term that defines the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – one essence and attributes, yet three in distinct work and purpose. (Emphasis mine)

We don’t want to eclipse Divine Simplicity and the inseparable operations of the Trinity. (We might recall, that was a big deal in the Trinity debate in the summer of 2016.)

Each divine Person is operative in all God’s works. Which is to say, the works of the Trinity are indivisible. Indeed, it was the Son who died on the cross, but God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (by the Spirit). In redemption there is one distinct work and purpose, carried out through the inseparable operations of Persons when Christ, by the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without blemish to God.

Trinity is not a term that seeks to define God by “relationship” within the Godhead, if by relationship we mean personal distinctions of authority and submission. The historical Christian creeds discriminate not by eternal relationships (or economic functions) but by personal properties. Accordingly, any orthodox reference to “relationship” must be interpreted as personal properties ad intra that cash out as eternal modes of being. Any eternal relationship may only be conceived of in terms of relations of eternal origin, not subject to temporal-sequence or personal roles. Historically, the church has defined Trinity in terms of the eternal origins of existence: unbegogtenness of the Father; eternal generation of the Son; and procession of the Holy Spirit.

God uses that aspect of the trinity to teach us how marriage is to work. This is the truth of 1 Corinthians 11:3 “I want you to understand the Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”As Paul is about to discuss the role of women he makes a statement about the trinity is the reason for different roles in marriage…

Paul is not making a theological statement about the Trinity but rather making application about Christ, a divine human being, submitting to his Father. In other words, the focus isn’t on the economic Trinity per se but more narrowly on economic relations of the incarnate Son as he submits as the God-man in his humanity to God, who is Christ’s head. (Matthew 27:46; John 20:17; Revelation 3:2,12) Paul’s focus is on congruous order, not Theology Proper.

Not to parse things too fine, but some have pressed the analogy too far. There is an ordering that is natural and fitting – the woman to her husband; the husband, as head, to Christ; and Christ to God.

We may glean, because Christ is Divine, there is no necessary loss of worth or dignity in personal submission, for even Christ submitted. Indeed, biblical submission is revealed in the harmony of creation. Notwithstanding, this principle of ordering mustn’t be pressed too far with respect to ontology. There are stark differences in the ordering that must be maintained, yet without losing the force of the apostle’s point.

How the analogy breaks down:

Wives and husbands share a human nature yet with distinct and separate wills, making submission not only feasible but functional. Whereas we cannot find the same ontic analogy of authority and submission in the immanent Trinity because God is of one divine essence and thereby of numerically one will (since will is indexed to essence, hence Christ’s two wills). If submission entails a plurality of wills, then there can be no submission in the ontological Trinity by the nature of the case, for one will cannot submit to itself. Accordingly, no marriage analogy may be drawn from the ontological Trinity, nor may we read submission back into the ontological Trinity from the economic Trinity in an effort to establish principles for marriage. (That should be the easy part.)

Regarding inferences relating to persons of the economic Trinity, things can get a bit trickier:

There is indeed authority and submission application to be made from 1 Corinthians 11:3, but, as already observed, we must be precise by not reading submission back into the ontological Trinity.

What I find key in the text is the reference to Christ, referring to the Son as the mediatory God-man. In other words, we may not draw application from the economic Trinity per se, but rather we must place the focus on the incarnate Christ as mediator who submits his human will to will of God. The ordering pertains to beings, not to persons without reference to being. That’s key.

Within the context of the economic Trinity there is submission of equal divine persons, but it is misleading to extend that submission, in an ontological sense, to the principle of a wife’s submission to her earthly head. The reason being, it is a divine Person as a human being who submits to a divine Being who is not a human being! In other words, Christ Jesus submitted only in his human nature to the divine will, just as we are to submit our human wills to God. Although the divine Persons are equal, the two respective wills in view are not equal in being, which is not the case with marriage. So, the ontological analogy breaks down once we tease out the relevant will of submission in the economic Trinity. I’ll try to elaborate even further.

Regarding marriage we are talking about two distinct human wills – among equal beings – that are to be brought into harmony through submission. Yet the submission of Christ does not entail equal beings. In Christ’s submission to the Father, although the persons are equal, the relevant beings are not. As a human being with a human will, Christ submits to his Father, a divine being. Therefore, that a human being, who is also a divine Person, submits as a divine Person to another divine Person (who is solely a divine being) lacks ontic analogous force as it relates to one human being who must by God’s design submit to another equal human being in marriage. Consequently, the Christ submission-analogy to marriage is not one-to-one; it cannot pertain to an equality of beings or persons, but nonetheless to a congruity and harmonious ordering of distinct and separate wills. In other words, with respect to submission in marriage, the two wills are different yet belong to equal beings. With respect to Christ’s submission to God, the wills are different too, yet of unequal beings. Therefore, the analogy is not at the point of being.

In sum, within the economic Trinity there is no ordering of wills of equal beings, but rather an ordering of a human will under the one undivided will of God. Consequently, the taxis of persons as it relates to submission in the economic Trinity is established not by persons without further qualification but by another property found in the plurality of natures of the Second Person. Christ submits to God.

(The Presbyterians seemed to grant a marriage submission analogy from the economic Trinity, which is not a concession I’d make without further qualification.)

The principle and practice of submission has been around as long as God has existed.(Emphasis mine)

“As long as God has existed” draws application not from the economic Trinity but rather the immanent Trinity. The sentiment literally implies submission exists in the eternal and one undivided will of God prior to the hypostatic union, but the Scripture proof-text refers not to the eternal Son but to the incarnate Christ. Apart from the human will, the Second Person cannot submit his will to the Father given that it’s the identical will. (God is a simple being, not composite.)

It won’t do to appeal to the ordering or taxis of the eternal and undivided will of God. For no amount of ordering of the one undivided will of God can result in a willful coming under lest we equivocate in our analogy. Even if we recognize an ordering of the one will in terms of the Son’s willingness to become man, while the Father willed that he himself not become the mediator, it’s at best a misnomer to consider a will of concomitance in terms of authority and submission. For the Son delights in the plan of God for it is the very eternal plan of the undivided Trinity. He can do no other. It’s His will! Accordingly, the triune God willed that the begotten Son be sent by the Father, which is a fitting reflection of eternal origins (given the plan of redemption).

In closing:

Given that the divine Persons of the ontological Trinity are differentiated by their eternal, personal properties of paternity, filiation and spiration, the ontological Trinity analogy should be forsaken altogether; any analogies and application should be limited to Christ in his humility per 1 Corinthians 11:3, yet I’ve just challenged how far we might be able to take even that analogy.

Within the economic Trinity there is a Divine Person with a non-divine will that makes Jesus’ submission to God both possible and fitting. Accordingly, the Christ to God authority and submission is not a Trinity consideration per se but a limited consideration grounded in the union of two natures in one hypostasis. Yet the submission of wife to husband finds its analogy to Christ to God not in an ordering of being but in creative design nonetheless.

Again, Reformed Presbyterians need this teaching on marriage. I believe we may learn much from our Calvinistic Baptist brothers and sisters. To that end, my hope is Trinity analogies would be reconsidered in new light, as I wish there to be no dismantling of any reasonable core thesis on marriage.

Simplicity, Attributes and Divine Wrath

God is a simple being or he is not. If God is not a simple being, then he is a composite of parts, in which case God’s attributes would be what he has rather than is, making his attributes abstract properties that self-exist without ultimate reference to God. God would be subject to change and evaluation against platonistic forms without origin. Yet if God alone self-exists, then God is a simple being. As such, God is identical to what is in God.

There are at least four traps or ditches we must avoid when considering divine simplicity:

  • One is to say that each attribute is identical to each other because God is his attributes.
  • Another trap to avoid is the denial of divine simplicity on the basis that “God is love” obviously means something different than “God is holy.”
  • A third trap to avoid is trying to resolve the conundrum presented by the first two ditches by positing a kind of penetration or infusion of attributes using propositions like, God’s holiness is loving holiness. (Although helpful and in a sense unavoidable to a point, the infusion of attributes eventually breaks down when we consider, for instance, omniscience and spirituality, or more strikingly love and wrath. Attempts to qualify attributes with other attributes do not save divine simplicity but instead, if taken too far, end in its denial.)
  • And finally, a fourth trap to avoid, which is an advancement of the first, is saying that x-attribute is identical to y-attribute in God’s mind even though the transitivity of attributes is unintelligible to human minds. That particular mystery card reduces each attribute to meaningless predicates when played. Attributes become vacuous terms. The law of identity was never intended for such use.

Like creation ex nihilo divine simplicity is derived negatively, not positively. (Creation ex nihilo is deduced by the negation of eternal matter and pantheism.) Given that divine simplicity is entailed by God’s sole eternality, God is not comprised of parts. Accordingly, God’s revelation of his particular attributes is an accommodation to our creatureliness. It’s ectypal and analogical, not archetypal and univocal.

Theology and the creator-creature distinction:

When we consider God’s attributes we must be mindful that we are limited to drawing theological distinctions that pertain to the one undivided and divine essence that eternally exists in three modes of subsistence or persons. Given our finitude we cannot help but draw such theological distinctions, but we should be mindful that such doctrinal nuance, although proper in its place, does not belong to any division in God.

God is unequivocally knowable yet incomprehensible. Notwithstanding, the God who is simple we only know analogically, discretely and in part. Because our understanding of God is analogically theological and not original or intuitive, we shouldn’t expect our compartmentalized creaturely understanding of God is love and God is holy to imply that at the univocal or analogical level love = holy.

As a simple being, God is one divine, undivided and incomprehensible essence – yet revealed to us through created things (e.g., language) because God’s simplicity is too complex to take in all at once due to the creator-creature distinction. Accordingly, God’s self-disclosure comes to us as particular attributes, as an accommodation to our creatureliness. Notwithstanding, God isn’t particular attributes, nor is the divine revelation of God’s particular attributes, which are revealed in a manner to accommodate our creatureliness, identical with each other (lest omniscience means love). Moreover, we mustn’t confuse God’s revelation of himself with himself. Indeed, we would have to share in the divine essence to know God originally or intuitively as a simple being. It may be said that we can apprehend God, but we can never comprehend God. To comprehend God is to know God exhaustively, as God knows God. God is his essence in three persons, yet the essence is revealed to creation in discrete and sometimes interpenetrating attributes.

Theologizing of special revelation:

With that as a backdrop, we may consider that many of God’s revealed attributes are further distinguished by their relation to creation, which are sometimes called relative attributes (or secondary attributes, which is not the happiest of terms). Although all God’s attributes are eternal and ultimately one, at least some of God’s revealed perfections are inconceivable to us apart from considering them in relation to something other than God. For instance, God is long-suffering, but what is it to be pure patience in timeless eternity without objects of pity? That an attribute such as long-suffering is revealed in the context of created-time and patience toward pitiful creatures does not imply that God is not eternally long-suffering in his being. The same can be said of God’s holiness, for what is holiness without created things? God cannot be separate from himself; yet God is eternally holy. That is to say, God does not become holy through creation, or long-suffering through the occasion of sin and redemption. Is omnipresence a spatial consideration dependent upon creation or is it an eternal reality that is expressed or not expressed apart from creation?

We are limited in our creaturely understanding, but we can be certain God’s Trinitarian self-love includes love of his relative attributes, such as his patience towards sinners he’d instantiate, and his creativity apart from having yet created. God loves himself for who he is, not what he does (or what we might imagine he “was” eternally “doing”).

(We understand this in a limited sense by analogy. One reason I love my wife is because she is a self-sacrificing servant of God, family and neighbor. My love for her isn’t released by her acts or temporal acts of serving. I love Lisa as the servant she is even when she is not serving or even being served. I love her for who she is, not what she does.)

Wrath is an attribute no less than long-suffering and holiness. It’s a perfection of God without which God would not exist. If it is not, then what is it?

I’ll now try to address some common rejoinders to wrath as an attribute:

1. To say wrath is not a divine perfection because there are no objects of wrath toward which wrath may be expressed within the self-existing ontological Trinity proves too much. It presupposes a criterion that would undermine other divine perfections such as holiness, mercy, creativity, patience etc.

It also confuses God as timeless pure act with a notion of God’s timeless doing. That there’s no potential with God does not mean God’s existence entails an eternal expression of his divine attributes – for our only conception of expression entails time-sequence, which in turn entails creation! So, that God does not “express” wrath in the ontological Trinity in a way that we can understand does not undermine wrath as a divine perfection, for neither can we begin to conceive how love is expressed in a timeless eternity! So, just as relative attributes are only understood in relation to things outside of God, what are classified as absolute attributes (e.g., Love) cannot be conceived other than analogically and relatively.

Since time is created, and eternal expressions of love in the ontological Trinity are human contemplations of the eternal in temporal terms, it’s special pleading to dismiss wrath as an eternal perfection while simultaneously affirming love as an eternal perfection. To do so on the basis of analogical contemplations of time-function intra-Trinitarian expressions of non-temporal Trinitarian existence is philosophically arbitrary and inconsistent. It also ends in Social Trinitarianism by introducing time into the eternal life of God.

2. Others have pointed to the the impassibility of God as a reason to reject wrath as a divine attribute. That also proves too much. If wrath is akin to human passion, then God cannot release wrath (or take on a mode of wrath) whether it’s an attribute or not. Therefore, since it is possible for God to exhibit wrath it must be passionless wrath, which leaves no place for an orthodox-evangelical to deny wrath as a divine attribute strictly on the basis of God being without passions. The line of reasoning that dismisses wrath as an attribute this way confuses the spontaneous reactions of humans with the determinately measured responses of God. It implies God can be acted upon.

3. Others have suggested wrath is merely an outworking of God’s holiness and justice. The problem with such a construct is that if God exercises wrath, he must exercise wrath (lest he deny himself). Where there’s occasion for wrath, there’s an eventuality to it. In other words, wrath is not purely a free act of the will but has a necessary aspect to it, in that it must be freely discharged against transgressors (or in vicarious substitution). Furthermore, if the dispensing of wrath has this necessary quality to it, then given a freely divinely-determined state of affairs that contemplates sin, how is wrath itself not a necessary property of God? To suggest God necessarily expresses wrath because of his holiness and justice is ambiguous. It’s either to divide the one essence of a necessary being, or else rightly affirm the one essence while distinguishing how particular revealed attributes relate theologically.

Given that it is necessary that God respond to sin in his wrath, we either have to reduce wrath to a covenant property that God necessarily takes on or becomes, which is heresy, or else we we should conclude that wrath naturally flows from himself in relation to other attributes such as holiness and justice. So, either we end up denying God’s immutability by implying God necessarily becomes the consuming fire he actually is, or else we must infer wrath to be no less an attribute than those attributes from which wrath would naturally arise alongside in full expression in the ultimately one attribute of God, which is himself. To say that God necessarily becomes wrathful, or merely has wrath (because he is holy and just) leads to mutability and parts in God. Whereas to say that God doesn’t become wrathful but rather is wrathful and, also, takes aim with his eternal wrath in the context of sin because he is holy and just is to affirm, under good regulation, logical (not temporal) relations with respect to three analogically understood attributes. In sum, God either has, becomes or is.

(In anticipation of those still pointing to wrath not being eternally expressed in the ontological Trinity, see rejoinder #1 above, which addresses the arbitrariness and inconsistency of the special pleading for the eternal perfection of love while dismissing wrath as an eternal perfection.)

4. Some have wanted to label particular attributes essential, and others non-essential. That’s a philosophical howler because divine attributes are properties without which God doesn’t exist. Accordingly, non-essential divine attributes is an oxymoron. (God has no accidental perfections.) So-called non-essential attributes are either attributes or they are not. If they are attributes, then they are not only essential but necessary.

(Maleness is an essential property I possess. In all possible worlds in which I exist, I am male. It’s not a necessary property because I do not exist in every possible world. What can be contemplated as God’s essential properties, if they are divine properties at all, are necessary properties because God is a necessary being.)

The employment of “contingent attributes” functions similarly. God being a necessary being has no contingent properties.

5. Although rare, some have denied wrath is an attribute while wanting to affirm wrath as a divine perfection. Attributes and perfections are terms that pertain to God’s nature, his very essence. Accordingly, we mustn’t try to parse divine attributes from divine perfections or properties, for there is no relevant difference between these terms:

God reveals Himself not only in His names, but also in His attributes, that is, in the perfections of the divine Being.

Louis Berkhof

The perfections of God are called his attributes, because they are ascribed to him as the essential properties of his nature.

Robert Shaw

To the divine essence, which in itself is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, belong certain perfections revealed to us in the constitution of our nature and in the word of God. These divine perfections are called attributes as essential to the nature of a divine Being, and necessarily involved in our idea of God.

Charles Hodge

There are indeed precise theological distinctions we can make regarding divine attributes – like communicable and incommunicable, absolute and relative – but we may not invent a taxonomy that undermines sound philosophical theology.

Wrapping up:

Scripture is clear that God can only swear by himself because there is none greater by whom he might swear (Genesis 22:16; Hebrews 6:13). Added to this we can know that for God to swear by his holiness and in his wrath, God is swearing by himself since what is in God is God (Psalm 89:35; 95:11).

Lastly, if God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29), then wrath is indeed a divine attribute. (Apply modus ponens.)

Let’s hear from some others:

Some [relative] attributes are related purely to sin: wrath is the prime example…However, the relative attributes, as well as the absolute ones, are characteristics without which God would not be God.

Robert Letham

A third element in the idea of holiness is the element of wrath. [The biblical writers] spoke of God’s wrath, obviously considering it one of God’s perfections.

James M. Boice

Though divine wrath presupposes the existence of sin, it expresses what is always true of God’s will: he abhors evil. Divine wrath is indeed a divine perfection.

Scott R. Swain

D.A. Carson calls wrath an secondary attribute, but then walks it back when denying that God is wrath, which of course denies that wrath is an attribute at all. Carson then tries to draw a distinction between God is love and God is not wrath. Carson is initially correct, then contradicts himself per rejoinder #4 above.

Kevin DeYoung recognizes such inconsistency, noting such attempts as “distinctions without a difference.” DeYoung draws attention to the folly of saying God is love but that God only has wrath.

Ligon Duncan quoting J.I. Packer favorably could not be more clear that he believes wrath is a divine attribute.

This SS class addresses: Attributes; Impassibility; Simplicity; Univocal; Analogical.

Impassibility, Incarnation and 2 ditches

The impassibility of God pertains to the question of whether God can suffer or be acted upon by any created thing. For God to change would require that God become something other than he is. God would either have to become perfect (at least for a while), fall from perfection and remain imperfect, or vacillate between perfection and imperfection. It would, also, be possible that God would never reach and maintain divine potentiality.

God doesn’t have potentiality. His attributes cannot develop or diminish. It is impossible for God to become more or less of what his attributes contemplate. God cannot reach his potential or forgo it. Rather, God exists eternally in his divine potential. That’s why theologians speak of God’s actuality. God is pure act. For instance, God is maximally loving in and of himself. God is forever unchanging in his love. Better yet, God’s love is unchanging. Or even better still, Love is unchanging (because God is simple and love is a divine attribute. God is love).

God’s unchanging character (his immutability) does not undermine his affections. Rather, God’s immutability establishes his affections. It is because God is impassible that he shows forth his pure affections. Because God is unchanging in his mercy, he expresses or releases the actuality of his mercy toward those who by grace seek it through his Son. God’s maximum mercy doesn’t get turned on. Rather, it gets willfully directed and from our perspective released at divinely appointed times.

Unhappy alternatives

Some have suggested that God decreed that he be acted upon. Others have mused that God willingly takes on properties that allow him to change in relation to his covenant promises. Both positions are attempts to affirm divine impassibility while trying to avoid attributing too many biblical texts to anthropomorphic language. Notwithstanding, both theories are outside the pale of orthodox Christianity since in both cases God’s nature would be mutable even if by decretive condescension.

When God takes aim with his affections, he does so consciously and without change. He is merely responding (not reacting) to changes outside himself – changes he has ordained in others. God does not change, but the ordained states of affairs do change according to God’s will and providence, to which God responds appropriately according to his unchanging attributes. Accordingly, God’s immutable attributes ground his dynamic responses in relationship to his ever changing creation.

Without impassibility, no incarnation

For man to be saved he needs a mediator who would learn obedience through suffering. Redeemable creatures need a high priest who can be tempted in all ways like them but without sin. Yet God cannot learn obedience nor be tempted. Yet if God were passible, he could have ordained that he be tempted and suffer apart from the incarnation of the Son.1 Therefore, if God is passible, the hypostatic union is unnecessary. A body for the Son would not have been prepared for him. There would have been no need for Messiah. Yet it is precisely because God is impassible that the cup of wrath could not pass from Jesus as he petitioned. In other words, it would have been possible for the cup to have passed if God could suffer. Therefore, Jesus’ petition in his high priestly prayer affirms God’s impassibility, hence the need for a suffering Messiah.2

In discussions over impassibility we must stay clear of two ditches – deism and process theology, divine apathy and divine vulnerability. However, we must be sure that in our avoidance of the one, we don’t stumble into the other.


1I’m speaking in a reductio ad absurdum fashion, since obviously if the incarnation were not necessary to save because God is passible, then our reconciliation would be to a God who is less than eternally perfect. Christianity unravels.

2Redemption required the Son of God to empty himself, not by subtraction but addition. In the incarnation the Son remained God. And although he remained a divine person, he added to himself our humanity yet without confusion, change, division or separation. One person was now two inseparable beings. Through the incarnation God the Son could now suffer in his humanity.

In predicating to the Son his actions, we must distinguish which nature is the source. The Son thirsts in his humanity whereas he calms the storm in his divinity. Divine acts can be done by the Son through his human nature but not by his human nature. All acts, whether divine or human, may be predicated to the Son, but not all acts of the Son may be predicated to either nature.

Incomprehensible Yet Knowable

Although we cannot define God, we can describe God. Our descriptions of God will be proportional to what God desires us to know. Yet being finite, there are of course limits to what we can know of God. With respect to mode or manner, God cannot have us know him as he knows himself. We’d have to share the divine essence to know God originally or intuitively. We can apprehend God, but we can never comprehend God. To comprehend God is to know God exhaustively, as God knows God.

We know God partially and imperfectly, yet we can know God sufficiently. Although we do not know God univocally, as there is no identity between God’s self-knowledge and our knowledge of the Divine, we are not left to equivocal knowledge either. There is true correspondence at the point of the analogical. Notwithstanding, the perfect revelation of God is revelation of the original. God’s revelatory self-disclosure is an accommodation to created beings. The reality behind the revelation is greater. God’s revelation of himself is not himself. God transcends his revelation.

Although God is incomprehensible, God is not “wholly hidden.” What should humble us should not lead us to despair. Although God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our thoughts can never attain to the heights of God’s thoughts, the things God has revealed belong to us and to our children forever. (Isaiah 55:8,9; Deuteronomy 29:29)

God is knowable. If nothing else, we know God is incomprehensible(!), but by grace and pure condescension we know much more. For God has spoken to us in Christ, who is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb. 1:2,3)

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

John 14:9

Univocal Of The Analogical (part ii)

When ectypal knowledge obtains, the object of it must be true. If the object is true, then God must believe it (since God believes all truth). God believes it as it truly is, an analogy of the archetypal knowledge, which only God has (knowledge of the archetypal).

Assume all our thoughts of God are analogical. Although we cannot know God as God knows himself, we can know God as he has revealed himself to us in “baby talk.” Per my original post, the controversy of the 40s missed a distinction. If I may simplify, Clark thought that if we don’t know the content of a proposition as God believes it (not exhaustively yet at least minimally for knowledge to obtain), then we can’t have knowledge. Whereas Van Til maintained that we cannot know a proposition even minimally as God believes it lest we become like God. 

It appeared that Clark was saying that the intersection was at the archetypal level. Van Til (CVT) was correct in denying that interpretation. Yet in saying all our knowledge is analogical (CVT), it left the impression that we can’t know anything given that if we are to know anything our minds must obviously intersect God’s (Clark). (Many Van Tillians often deny this, which leads to skepticism. What is knowledge after all? Many Van Tillians compound the error by allowing for apparent contradiction in an extreme sense of logical contradiction and equivocation. These sorts do Van Til’s thought harm.) 

The solution is, God knows the original and the analogy. Did either side acknowledge that?! The creator-creature distinction does not imply that there is no similitude between God’s thoughts and man’s thoughts, but rather that the point of resemblance is at a point of true analogy, not at a point of univocation. I think both sides missed it. To my knowledge CVT did not acknowledge that God knows the objects of our ectypal knowledge whereas Clark dismissed analogical knowledge altogether.