Ten Truths about God’s Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes

joshua-fuller-9QF90iLO0q0-unsplashIn his theological summary of Christian doctrine, Our Reasonable Faith, Herman Bavinck provides a number of illuminating points about the attributes of God—namely, their incommunicable and communicable attributes. Here are some of Bavinck’s observations listed under ten points.

1. The Language of incommunicable and communicable is most effective in holding together God’s transcendence and immanence.

The effort to take account of all the data of Holy Scripture in its doctrine of God, and to maintain both His transcendence of and His relationship to the creature, led the Christian church to make a distinction very early between two groups of the attributes of the Divine being. these two groups were variously designated from the early church on. The Roman church still prefers to speak of negative and positive attributes, the Lutheran of quiescent and operative attributes, and the Reformed churches of incommunicable and communicable attributes.

At bottom, however, this division amounts to the same thing in all of these churches. The purpose for each of them is to insist on God’s transcendence (His distinction from and His elevation above the world) and on God’s immanence (His community with and His indwelling in the world). The Reformed names of incommunicable and communicable attributes do better justice to this purpose than the names which the Catholics and the Lutherans employ. The insistence on the first group of attributes saves us from polytheism and pantheism; and the insistence on the second group protects us against deism and atheism. (134–35) Continue reading

What’s in a Name? How Names in the Bible Reveal Meaning and Lead Us to Trust in the Name above All Names

namesFor to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government
shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  
— Isaiah 9:6 —

What’s in a name? In the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, we find a helpful introduction to the way names are used in the Old Testament. Here’s what it says,

In the OT names not only looked to the circumstances of a birth (e.g., Jonathan means “Yahweh has given [a son] ”; Reuben means “Look! A son”) but could also wish a blessing (e.g., Isaiah means “Yahweh’s salvation”; Immanuel means “God be/is with us”). Royal names could change when a person attained the throne. Several Israelite kings had their names changed by their overlords, showing that they were under authority of an outside power (e.g., the name of Eliakim was changed to Jehoiakim by the Egyptians, 2Ki 23:34). Others seem to have adopted their own throne name, as some have suggested for Azzariya/Azariah (meaning “Yahweh aided”) adopting the name Uzziah (meaning “Yahweh is my strength”). King David was identified at his death by four titles: son of Jesse, man exalted by the Most High, anointed by Jacob’s God, Israel’s favorite singer (2Sa 23:1).

Sentence names in the ancient Near East. Most names in the ancient world make statements, i.e., they are self-contained sentences. Many of the statements are about a deity. One can easily recognize the deity name in names such as Ashurbanipal, Nebuchadnezzar, or Rameses. Anyone even casually familiar with the Bible has noticed how many Israelite names end in -iah or -el, or start with Jeho- or El-. All of these represent Israel’s God. This type of name is called a theophoric name, and affirms the nature of the deity, proclaims the attributes of the deity or requests the blessing of the deity. One way to interret the titulary of this verse [Isaiah 9:7] is to understand it as reflecting important theophoric affirmations: The Divine Warrior is a Supernatural Planner, The Sovereign of Time is a Prince of Peace. (Note: the word “is” is not used in such constructions, as all names demonstrate). Continue reading

Sinai and Zion: How Learning the Terrain of God’s Holy Hill Helps Us Read Isaiah

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[This blogpost is one of many on Isaiah, this month’s focus book in the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. For more resources on Isaiah, see here].

In the book of Isaiah, the word “Zion” and the concept of the Lord’s holy mountain is prominent. Yet, Zion is not something that only appears in Isaiah, it is a theme that runs through Scripture. In the days ahead, I hope to put a few notes down on this concept.

For starters, consider the observations of Stephen Dempster, author of Dominion and Dynasty: A Study in Old Testament Theology. Describing the connection between Zion and Sinai, he writes (on an old blog that had so much promise . . . but little fulfillment :-):

I have been just reading and thinking about the whole relation between Sinai and Zion. Hartmut Gese’s chapter on The Law in his book Essays in Biblical Theology is extremely stimulating. . . . Gese makes the point that the Torah given at Sinai was given to one nation and there was an exclusive emphasis on it—a wall of separation was erected between the Holy and the Unholy. When the covenant was made and the atonement was made, representatives of Israel were allowed to ascend the mountain and eat and drink with God. The text clearly says that they saw God and were not harmed (ch. 24). They had unbroken fellowship with their Creator. Continue reading

The Literary Structure of Isaiah: Five Tour Guides to Help You Stay the Course

pexels-photo-697662.jpegThe book of Isaiah is sixty-six books, just like the Bible. And it is divided into 39 chapters and 27 chapters, just like the two Testaments–old and new. Therefore, we should organize Isaiah around this bipartite division, right?

Well, maybe . . . not.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve heard this line of thinking. And for years, I operated with this basic understanding that there is one seismic break between Isaiah 39 and 40, making the one book two. Add to this a number of well-worn proof texts for systematic theology—e.g., verses about Christ’s virgin birth (7:14 and 9:6–7), his sacrifice (52:13–53:12), and the grossness of sin (64:6)—and I accumulated a lot of disconnected knowledge about this glorious book.

It was not until I began reading Isaiah as whole book, however, that the message of Isaiah began to come to life. I am still learning that message, but having a mental map of the whole book has been a game-changer. And thankfully, that map has been aided by a number of tour guides—books and teachers that have helped me find my way in Isaiah.

The Need for Teachers . . . According to the Bible

This is how it should be. God gives teachers to the church to instruct in God’s Word (Eph. 4:11–12). And we would be fools to ignore them.

With the wisdom of ages past and those who have devoted themselves to the study of the Bible in the present, we can and should gain a better understanding of Scripture. Indeed, whenever we enter a new book of the Bible, one we do not know well, our best course of action is not to hide ourselves away in our room until we determine its meaning. We should seek the assistance of those who have gone before us. Such dependence on faithful teachers does not put human wisdom above the Bible, it listens to the Bible, acknowledges the gifts of God, the goodness of reading the Bible in community, and seeks to know God’s word with the help of others.

With that in mind, here are five scholars, tour guides, who have provided an outline of Isaiah. While each organizes the book differently, their collective witness gives us insight into things we should be looking for when we read. At present, I am persuaded Barry Webb’s outline is the most persuasive, but I am still learning. Continue reading

How Royalty Changes the Abortion Debate

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3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
— Psalm 8:3–9 —

The “royals,” Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, are in the news again, making a splash about “de-throning” themselves, or at least trying to take a less prominent role among British royalty. That news, coupled with this month’s anniversary of Roe v. Wade—the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to abortion on demand and led to more than 61 million unborn babies being killed in the womb—made me think of an article I wrote a few years ago.

When The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) revamped their website, this post was lost. So I’m posting it again. The argument still stands and we should consider the damaging effects of “de-throning” the image of God and treating babies as less than royal. By contrast, when we recognize that babies—unborn, born, and grown—as the image of God are “royal” by nature, it has massive implications for how we consider abortion in our day.  Let’s consider. Continue reading

When Did the Kingdom of God Begin?

war“The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.”
Psalm 103:19

32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
Acts 13:32–33

In his excellent little study on the title ‘Son of God,’ (Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed), D. A. Carson asks the question: When did the kingdom of God begin? In typical fashion, Carson tears down any reductionistic answer and provides a vision of God’s kingdom that acknowledges the ongoing, sovereign rule of God over all creation (Ps. 103:19) and the kingdom of God that came when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth (and rose again to heaven).

Drawing on passages that cover the range of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, Carson shows how Christ inaugurated the kingdom. And it’s here where Carsons shows the polyvalent ways the Gospels speak of Christ’s kingdom. Indeed, his kingship is seen at his birth, in his life, and on the cross. Yet, it is in his resurrection and ascension where the exalted Christ “receives” his crown, if you will. While the New Testament bears witness to the forthcoming consummation of the kingdom, Christ’s service is rewarded with his crown in his resurrection (cf. Phil. 2:5–11).

Carson shows how this works and his thoughtful answer to the question of the kingdom’s beginning is worth considering and remembering as we read passages like Acts 13:32–33; Romans 1:4; and Hebrews 5:5–6, to name only a few. Here’s his answer to the question, “When did the kingdom of God begin?” Continue reading

Seeing Christ in All of Scripture: A Few Words from Herman Bavinck

enoc-valenzuela-WJolaNbXt90-unsplashThus the whole revelation of the Old Testament converges upon Christ,
not upon a new law, or doctrine, or institution, but upon the person of Christ.

— Herman Bavinck —

As Herman Bavinck closes out a section on special revelation in Our Reasonable Faith, he reminds us that the goal of Scripture is not a law, nor a religious belief or practice, nor even a gospel, as in an impersonal message of good news. Rather, the unified goal of Scripture is a single person—Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In recent years (and for all of church history), there has been debate about how much Christ we can find in the Old Testament. This sort of thinking, one that sets limits on how much of Jesus we can see in the Old Testament, seems fundamentally at odds with the tenor of Scripture. Yes, we cannot turn every word, object, or event into a mystical revelation of Christ. But as Christ and his church is the mystery once hidden now revealed, the canon of Scripture leads us to see how every parcel of the Old Testament belongs to Christ and brings us to Christ.

For Bavinck, this is exactly how he sums up the Bible, as he states, “in the Old Testament everything led up to Christ,” and “in the New Testament everything is derived from Him.” Truly this is what is at stake when we, a priori, set limits on seeing Christ in all the Scriptures. Here’s the full text of Bavinck’s conclusion, Continue reading

At Christmas Don’t Lose Jesus’s Divinity: Celebrating the Incarnation with ‘Extra’ Care

pro-church-media-kSjsDWDn3WM-unsplashWhat happened was that at the incarnation, while continuing to exist eternally in the form of God, He added to that by taking the form of a servant.
— J. N. D. Kelly —

 Given the importance of the extra in historical theology, it is surprising how quickly it is rejected or replaced with something else. The extra is crucial in helping the church to explain the full scope of the Scriptural presentation of the incarnation and how the Son functioned in and through both natures,
— Stephen J. Wellum —

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. And with candles glowing and carols singing, we draw near to the babe born of Mary and celebrate the fact that God is with us—Immanuel.

At the same time, when we celebrate Christ’s condescension, there can arise a significant misunderstanding about Christ’s humanity. In song, as well as sermon, we find lyrics that describe Jesus “leaving heaven,” or not knowing about why he is coming to earth—“Baby Jesus, do you know you will die for our sins?”  These boilerplate Christmas tag lines, but are they true? Do they faithfully represent the miracle of the Incarnation?

On the surface, they may sound fine. They praise God for Christ’s birth and his sacrificial mission to bring salvation. Yet, when we probe more deeply, it becomes apparent lyrics like these and many unchecked thoughts about the birth of Christ assume beliefs that have often been described as heretical in church history.

In particular, Christmas has a way of unwrapping the kenotic heresy—the belief that when Jesus emptied himself (ekenōsen) and became a man,  he also left many (or all) of his divine attributes behind. The theory, expressed in many ways, asserts that for the Son of God to become human, he must set aside his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his omnipresence. After all, true humanity does not uphold the universe, right?! For Jesus to be fully human then, his humanity must be fixed in one place, ignorant of many things, and unable to do all the things that God does. Continue reading

Seeing the Streams of Scripture: A Biblical-Theological Approach to Philippians 2

trail-wu-2a1TKBuc-unsplash.jpgBy myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’
— Isaiah 45:23 —

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:8–11 —

Whenever we read the letters of Paul we are sure to encounter quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. Often in the same passage, there are multiple layers from the Law and the Prophets. Commentators are usually in agreement when there are explicit citations or linguistic repetitions. Interpreters of Scripture are much more at odds when there are not direct biblical parallels.

One example of this kind of interpretive difference is found in Philippians 2:5–11. In Paul’s famous “hymn,” there is an unmistakeable quotation from Isaiah 45:23 in verses 10–11. There are also many connections with the Servant in Isaiah 53. But one connection that is more tenuous is the relationship between Christ who obeyed God unto death and Adam who disobeyed God unto death.

In a remarkably balanced presentation on Adam and Christ in Philippians 2:5–11, Matthew Harmon rightly affirms the many conceptual connections between Adam and Christ. At the same time, he rightly denies any linguistic connections between Philippians 2 and Genesis 1–3. This helpfully sets up a discussion concerning what it takes for allusions to be recognized in the Scripture.

Yet, instead of siding with a narrow reading of Philippians 2 which denies all connections between Christ and Adam (a Pauline theme developed explicitly in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), Harmon shows how the explicit connections between Philippians 2 and Isaiah 53 stands a servant typology that goes back to Israel, and from Israel to Adam. Continue reading

Rhythms of Grace: Three Reflections on Worship

sarah-noltner-F5-Z1H7lJaA-unsplash.jpg[This post is written by Matt Wood with a little help from me. Matt is a member at Occoquan Bible Church, where you will often find him engrossed in discussion about theology and leading our congregation in song.]

Do you find yourself in God’s gospel story week to week?

How does the gospel inform worship?

What should we include and exclude in our Sunday morning services?

These are just a couple of the questions Mike Cosper answers in his book, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. Written by a pastor who has led music in the church for decades, his book is fantastic for all worshipers in the church. In what follows, we will see three points about worship from Cosper’s illuminating book. Continue reading