Redemption as a Touchstone for Right Theology in the Nicene Controversy

Arianism [the ancestral fountainhead of modern day Jehovah Witnesses] posed a dangerous threat to the Church in the 4th century when it challenged the orthodox doctrine of the deity of Christ. In his refutation of Arianism, Athanasius the orthodox theologian displayed rare insight by identifying the doctrine of salvation as the heart of the dispute and cogently demonstrating that soteriology is a touchstone to determine the acceptability of any theology for the Church.

Arianism initially gained popularity because it offered an attractive path to salvation, that is, by imitation of Christ who perfected his own virtues through self-discipline and then enables his followers to do likewise. Christ as the first of the perfected creatures and his perfection is the promise of the heights that believers may aspire to achieve. Christ is the pioneer and perfector of our faith since he perfected his virtues while possessing the same human weaknesses as we have. Naturally, Arianism emphasized the human characteristics of Christ at the expense of his divine qualities, to which Athanasius retorted, “For looking at the human characteristics of the Savior, they have considered him to be a creature.” Continue reading “Redemption as a Touchstone for Right Theology in the Nicene Controversy”

The Eternal Generation of the Son: Francis Turretin on the Trinity

TWENTY-NINTH QUESTION: THE ETERNAL GENERATION OF THE SON
Was the Son of God begotten of the Father from eternity? We affirm
I. The preceding question established the consubstantiality (homoousian) and essential identity of the Son with the Father. This question will demonstrate his personal distinction from him, his ineffable and eternal generation against the blasphemies of anti-Trinitarians.
Statement of the question.
II. The question is not whether Christ can be said to be begotten of God by the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit; or whether he can be called the Son of God by a gracious communication of existence, power and divine glory (for this the adversaries readily grant and acknowledge no other cause of his filiation). But the question is whether he was begotten of God from eternity, and whether he may be called Son on account of the secret and ineffable generation from the Father. The Socinians blasphemously deny this; we affirm it. Continue reading “The Eternal Generation of the Son: Francis Turretin on the Trinity”

The Eternal General Generation of the Son: Louis Berkhof on the Trinity

[Recapitulation: On the Trinity]
a. There is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence (ousia, essentia). God is one in His essential being or constitutional nature. Some of the early Church Fathers used the term “substantia” as synonymous with “essentia,” but later writers avoided this use of it in view of the fact that in the Latin Church “substantia” was used as a rendering of “hupostasis” as well as of “ousia,” and was therefore ambiguous. At present the two terms “substance” and “essence” are often used interchangeably. There is no objection to this, provided we bear in mind that they have slightly different connotations. Shedd distinguishes them as follows: “Essence is from esse, to be, and denotes energetic being (Augustine On the Trinity 5.2). Substance is from substare, and denotes the latent possibility of being.… The term essence describes God as a sum-total of infinite perfections; the term substance describes Him as the underlying ground of infinite activities. The first is, comparatively, an active word; the last, a passive. The first is, comparatively, a spiritual, the last a material term. We speak of material substance rather than of material essence.” /1/ Continue reading “The Eternal General Generation of the Son: Louis Berkhof on the Trinity”

The Coherence of the Trinity (Updated 2020)

The Coherence of the Trinity
We refer to the Athanasian Creed which gives us a useful starting point for our discussion: “We worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity, without either confusing the persons or dividing the substance; for the person of the Father is one, the Son is another, and the Spirit is another; but the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty equally eternally. Thus, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; yet there are not three gods but one God…And in this Trinity there is no before or after, no greater or lesser, but all three persons are equally eternal with each other and fully equal.”

We may break down the above statement into the following propositions:
(1) The Father is God.
(2) The Son is God.
(3) The Holy Spirit is God.
(4) The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not the Father.
(5) There is one and only one God. /1/

Critics have attacked the Trinity on two counts: Continue reading “The Coherence of the Trinity (Updated 2020)”

Doctrine of the Trinity: A Primer

The doctrine of trinity teaches that the one true God of the Old Testament has in the New Testament further revealed himself in three ways of being (Persons) in his work of redemption: as the Father who is the source of all things, as the divine Word who came in flesh to reveal the Father and redeem the fallen race, and as the Holy Spirit who gives new life to the church and unites all things in heaven and earth under God’s rule.

The premises of the doctrine of the Trinity are: (1) The unity of God taught in both the Old Testament and the New Testament and, (2) The full deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit revealed in God’s final revelation, the New Testament.

A proper biblical view of the Trinity balances the concepts of unity and distinctiveness. Two errors should be avoided: (1) Tritheism which emphasizes distinctiveness of the Godhead to the point that the Trinity is seen as three separate Gods, or a Christian polytheism, (2) Unitarianism which disregards distinctiveness within the Godhead as it gives special focus to God the Father so that Christ and the Holy Spirit are relegated to less than divine categories. Both errors compromise the effectiveness and contribution of the activity of God in redemptive history. Continue reading “Doctrine of the Trinity: A Primer”

Pluralism and the Particularity of Salvation in Christ (Print Edition)

In response to many requests, I am posting the print edition of an article written when I was much younger, “Pluralism and the Particularity of Salvation in Christ,” Transformation (1998), pp. 10-15. Ah, how time flies and I don’t seem to have grown wiser.

To download the pdf version of this print edition:

Pluralism Particularity Salvation Christ Transformation1998

Throughout this paper, it is my assumption that Christianity promotes and practices social tolerance and affirms plurality. What I dispute is the contention that social tolerance is possible only if Christians embrace a prescriptive form of religious pluralism. I shall further address the issue of prescriptive pluralism, henceforth referred to as religious pluralism within the framework of Christian discourse, and analyze the logic under-girding religious pluralism. In particular, I shall argue that religious pluralism is not only internally incoherent but that in seeking the least common denominator, pluralism offers a religious faith that is too dilute to meet religious needs. Finally, religious pluralism entails the abandonment of the central beliefs that historically define Christian identity such as normative revelational truths and the historical particularity of the incarnation of God in Christ. As such religious pluralists represented by major thinkers like John Hick and Paul Knitter have no basis to speak on behalf of Christianity….

 

…But why should God need to intervene in the human predicament in the first place? How does the Christian teaching of the Incarnation of Christ fit in? Following White I would like to propose the “Criterion of Moral Authenticity” as a means to shed light on this issue. To begin with, estrangement between God and man is overcome not by special knowledge but by a demonstration of perfect love. Given the magnitude of the human predicament, surely such a revelation demands a costly love which does not compromise God’s holiness. It has to be costly love to win over human sin and rebelliousness. But as White asserts, “Unless and until God himself has experienced suffering, death, and the temptation to sin, and overcome them, as a human individual, he has no moral authority to overcome them in and with the rest of humanity.”[Vernon White, Atonement and Incarnation (CUP 1991), p. 38] Continue reading “Pluralism and the Particularity of Salvation in Christ (Print Edition)”

Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing

Comment from a reader: I hope to see in a subsequent post the question answered as to whether Barth has a place within orthodoxy if he denies that God moves from wrath to grace in the history of the believer.

Response: Ah, Barth reminds me of my previous life when I wrote my doctoral thesis on him 30 years ago. Sadly, I have not continued my engagement with Barth since coming back to Malaysia. I just simply could not find someone who is interested even to survey the imposing theological Alpine Mount Blanc (yes! Barth was a Swiss, not German) from a distance using a telescope, much less climb its treacherous cliffs and dizzying heights. No one can theologize alone. Hence not much Barthian rumination in my life for the last 28 years. Pastoral necessity forced me to stay in the lowly valleys and grasslands of theology. To theologize Barth would indeed be an indulgence. But then why not once again for a change? Maybe just a quick shot at the problem?

Barth sounds like an evangelical when he talks about the cross. He deploys words like judgment, wrath, representation and substitution. He writes, “the Son of God fulfilled the righteous judgment on us men by Himself taking our place as man and in our place undergoing the judgment under which we had passed. That was why He came and was amongst us.” (Church Dogmatics CD 4.1.222). Barth adds, “His doing this for us, in His taking to Himself – to fulfil all righteousness – our accusation and condemnation, in his suffering in our place and for us, there came to pass our reconciliation with God.” (CD 4.1.223) But then in his usual and confusing dialectics he differentiates his position from that of Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Continue reading “Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing”

The Council of Nicea Rap Battle

The Council of Nicea (AD 325)

The Nicene Creed is arguably the most succinct statement of the doctrine of Trinity. It is the Christian ‘Diamond Sutra’* that cuts through the deception of the slogan of Arian heresy/illusion about Jesus Christ, “There was when he was not”.

*[“Sutra”: In Sanskrit literature, a rule or aphorism, or a set of these… expressed with maximum brevity (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). The comparison is about the quality of sharp, incisive and acute critique of the Creed rather than about ’emptiness’ of all phenomena.]

Arianism asserts that  (1) the Son must be a creature, (2) the Son must have a beginning, (3) the Son can have no communion with, or direct knowledge of, His Father, and (4) the son must be liable to change and even sin.

Hence, the Nicene Creed declares, Continue reading “The Council of Nicea Rap Battle”

God, Christ & Humanity: Christian & Muslim Perspectives (Part 1)

Part 1: God and Humanity in Islam & Christianity

Thesis: Ultimately, the difference between Islam and Christianity is that the former views the relationship between God and man within the field of power. The Divine-human encounter becomes a contest of strength where human submission is a matter of expediency in the face of sheer dominant power. In contrast, Christianity views the relationship as one that is moral: God, despite his sovereignty, treats human beings as persons with inherent dignity (since they are created in His image). God seeks allegiance from man based not on expediency but as a grateful response to a God who passionately cares for his welfare (c.f., pathos in Abraham Heschel’s work).  Man may fail to perceive the depths of divine pathos. Without a personal revelation from God, man can only be dimly aware of divine pathos in pale and fragmented forms, described as divine sorrow, pity, wrath, and compassion because of his psychological limitations, although divine pathos must be perfect and complete within the divine Trinity. However, these partial perceptions of divine pathos are fully revealed and experienced as divine love when manifested at the cross. Hence the glorious declaration in 2 Corinthians 5:19 – in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself. Continue reading “God, Christ & Humanity: Christian & Muslim Perspectives (Part 1)”

Limits to Logical Analysis in Doctrinal Debates

Only a handful of critics go beyond merely asserting the charge of incoherence of the Trinity and provide logical arguments to support their claim of incoherence. . . In any case, the task of logical demonstration is not so straightforward. Note that we assume that the propositions are clear and unambiguous. For example, we assume that the particular statement P or Q adequately and accurately and precisely represents essential aspects of God. But the fact is, we do not have any clear account of human nature that has gained consensus, let alone an account of divine nature. In reality, propositions P and Q are read differently (though implicitly) by different protagonists in logical debates.

Only a handful of critics go beyond merely asserting the charge of incoherence of the Trinity and provide logical arguments to support their claim of incoherence.

In general, a logical demonstration of incoherence may include the following steps: Given propositions P and Q, one may demonstrate a contradiction between these two propositions by positing another proposition R (which is presumably true) such that Q and R taken together will lead to a fresh proposition S which clearly contradicts P. Conversely, one may claim that P and Q are coherent if S is evidently coherent with P. For examples of such an exercise, I refer to my earlier articles

In any case, the task of logical demonstration is not so straightforward. Note that we assume that the propositions are clear and unambiguous. For example, we assume that the particular statement P or Q adequately and accurately and precisely represents essential aspects of God. But the fact is, we do not have any clear account of human nature that has gained consensus, let alone an account of divine nature. In reality, propositions P and Q are read differently (though implicitly) by different protagonists in logical debates. Continue reading “Limits to Logical Analysis in Doctrinal Debates”