So Is the Bottomless Pit

Few things are as potentially as dodgy as deep Trinitarian theology in a postmodern age. Now Trinitarian theology really is deep, and no one should contest that. Only the Spirit can search out the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). But in a postmodern age, the cat sat on the mat is also deep, but for different reasons. We don’t want to affirm the consequent, right? God is deep, but so is the bottomless pit. Not the same thing at all.

You may take my word for it — much Trinitarian theology theseadays is simply laying down cover fire for those who have another agenda entirely, one that has nothing whatever to do with historic Trinitarian theology. Kierkegaard once said that Christians use commentaries the same way a little boy stuffs his britches with padding to ameliorate the effects of a spanking. Trinitarian theology can serve the same noble function — confronted with the fact that the whole world is laid up guilty before God (Rom. 3:19) . . . I mean, Perichoresis magazine is at least eighty pages thick. Whhummff!

Let us take the phrase the Trinity is the gospel — which is wonderful on the face of it — and see if there could possibly be any problems with it. One of the best books I ever read was John Piper’s book God is the Gospel. When I finished it, I just started right over again at the beginning. So there is a way to say this kind of thing that is perfectly orthodox, and which is a blessing to every hungry heart. What is the gospel? God is the gospel. But there is also a way of saying it that is highly problematic.

I would like to reapply a phrase that Samuel Johnson once used when he said a particular activity was like “rowing without a port.” This is human relativism in a nutshell; this is postmodernism, squeaking oars and all. In many sectors of the theological world, Bartley’s “retreat to commitment” is almost complete, and when people talk about the social Trinity, they are actually talking about their society, not His.

A litmus test for whether this is happening or not is found in the laws of thought. If predication is possible about the Trinity as the Trinity is, was, and ever shall be, and if the truth of such predication is what Schaeffer used to call “true truth,” and if the timeless nature of this expressed truth is rooted and grounded in the nature and character of the triune God Himself, then we are good. The laws of thought are descriptive attributes of God. The law of identity means the Father is the Father. The law of non-contradiction means the Father is not not the Father. The law of the excluded middle means that the Father is the Father or He is not, and no alternatives. Because all of this is true truth, living truth, it comes to pass that down here in the world that God created we are blessed to be able to say that the orange is the orange, the orange is not not the orange, and the orange is or the orange is not, and no third options.

Without these glorious limitations (on human vanity and pride), Trinitarian theology collapses in on itself and becomes nothing more than the customs of discourse in this particular faith community or that one. At the end of this sordid tale of logic denial, what we will get is a handful of Trinitarian academics rowing away on an endless sea of nothingness.

What was the triune God before there was a world? What was He before there were any creatures? Theologians rightly distinguish between the ontological Trinity and the economical Trinity, and by this they are not maintaining that there are two Trinities. Rather they are pointing to an understanding that is essential for all of us to preserve in our hearts and minds, at least if we don’t want to drown in that vat of postmodern etiolated treacle, which is sitting over there so invitingly.

If we may speak in shorthand, the ontological Trinity refers to what God is, and the economical Trinity refers to what He does. But a difficulty arises almost immediately when discussing this issue of God as He was before the cosmos was created, because there are intra-Trinitarian aspects of the economical Trinity that are independent of the creation. In short, God was not doing “nothing” before He made the world. Therefore, when it comes to intra-Trinitarian actions, the economical Trinity in this sense has to be understood together with the ontological Trinity.

But things that God does in the world (which presupposes that the world is actually there) are not necessary to His being. This would include His Incarnation and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. If there never had been a Bethlehem, Jesus wouldn’t have been born there, and if there never had been a Jersualem, the Spirit would not have been poured out there. In this sense, such descriptions of the economical Trinity presuppose a created world over which God is the everlasting God, and in which God does things.

The ontological Trinity refers to God as He is, God as He exists, God as He subsists, without reference to anything that He does “for us men for our salvation.” What God was like when the world had not yet been created refers to I AM THAT I AM.

Now we know what this God is like because He has been fully revealed to us in Christ. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that what is necessary to have God revealed to us in our sinful condition was necessary for God. The gospel is necessary if sinners are to know the Trinity. But the gospel was not necessary for God to know Himself. Our limitations are not His.

In His eternity, God is what He is, and that eternality is what relates to a particular state of creational affairs, once those creational affairs have been spoken into being. But it was never necessary for them to be so spoken. It was necessary because God decreed it, but not because there was any lack in His being that made Him incomplete without a creation. Put another way, the cosmos was optional. It came into being as a result of the good counsel of His will.

Now since the cosmos was optional, not essential, this means that no essential attribute of God can be linked necessarily to an optional world.
So what does this do to the characteristics of mercy and justice? Lest we be thought to be outrunning our own theolgical headlights, Paul discusses these divine traits — traits thrown into high relief in a world full of sinners and sin — in Romans 9.

“Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Rom. 9:21–23).

Why did God create this world, when He knew perfectly well how screwed up it was going to get? The answer Paul gives here is that the historical manifestation of two of God’s characteristics was not possible without a screwed up world. Without a world of sin, we would never have seen God’s mercy toward sinners. In a world without sin, we would never have seen God’s terrifying wrath toward sinners. Since this is obviously intolerable, God created a world in which those characteristics could be showcased.

This means that what we see and experience as mercy is manifested because some characteristic of God, that is part of His eternal character, interacts with a world like ours in such a way that mercy occurs. This does not make mercy an essential attribute of God because the same thing is true, equally true, of damnation. The God of the Bible is a God who damns. But it would be perverse to postulate a damning God independent of a world in which damnation would be necessary. The end of that line of thought leaves us with God needing to create because He needs to damn somebody.

So God is eternally holy, just, loving, and infinitely wise. When His holiness, justice, love, and wisdom interact with a world like ours, He elects some to eternal salvation and He rejects others, and all for His glory.

All of this is staggering and glorious. But it cannot be dragged down here and made to fit within our own faith traditions and faith commitments. The point of such traditions and commitments is always to make ourselves cozy, and these are truths that are not cozy at all.

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Eric StampherJane DunsworthRFBMatthew Paul AbelRob Steele Recent comment authors

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Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Pastorally speaking, can you point to specific places where such suspect Trinitarian theological land mines exist?

Also — when you say we know truly what God is like because of Christ, is this not also true because of, say, flowers? I.e., does not the natural world reveal Him?

RFB
Guest
RFB

Eric, I would love to be able to say it like the following, but I am not nearly sufficient. Thankfully, those men did say it: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for… Read more »

RFB
Guest
RFB

And the following is not a puff piece; it is maybe a confession regarding my own lack. I just recently started Pastor Wilson’s “Westminster Systematics”. I just finished chapter two and the effect upon me was profound. This was not an experience whereby I did not know these things. I was steeped in Trinitarian dogma from my earliest years as a RC, and not in a bad way. Nonetheless, this brief recitation of Who God is, and His attributes was mentally staggering along the lines of Isaiah saying “I am disintegrated”. This was not in a negative way, because Christ… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

RFB

What precisely does His creation then lack?

Of course they lack, in and of themselves, the Spirit. But so does any and all ink on parchment.

prayersofadoration
Member

Not cozy at all is right. Glorious is right too. Let me pick this one bone with you. [A] difficulty arises almost immediately when discussing this issue of God as He was before the cosmos was created You seem to presuppose time into being here, as if it were God’s natural habitat the way it is ours. I think we must insist that it is part of creation and has its being in God rather than the other way round. “I am the beginning and the end” and all that. Then again, maybe you mean “before” logically and not temporally?… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Rob,

Can’t antecedent existence = both temporal and logical?
Does its presumption require time to be back there, since His “natural habitat” = Himself alone?

Do you have more specific infor where your Lewis idea can be found?

prayersofadoration
Member

Eric,

Don’t really understand your questions except for the last one, the answer to which is no. I hunted for the quote a while back and came up empty. Maybe I dreamed it.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Someone recently & gloriously noted:

“what we are told by every sunset is that Christ is the ultimate sunrise

Nature lacks no informational content.

http://dougwilson.wpengine.com/the-church/marjorie-becker-r-i-p.html

prayersofadoration
Member

Eric, it’s a pretty big leap from saying creation contains information to saying it contains all information. Surely you’d allow that God is more awesome than anything he made?

jigawatt
Guest
jigawatt

One other thing. C. S. Lewis says somewhere that God does not encourage us to speculate on his being in himself, apart from creation. I expect he’s on to something there. If he did, it would be difficult to reconcile with something he said in “The Problem of Pain”: “There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by it self as a ‘self’, can exist except in contrast with an ‘other’, a something which is not the self. It is against an environment and preferably a social environment, an environment of other selves, that the… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Rob,

You are correct.

Nature holds only a squiggle of informational content.
Just like Scripture.

Shall we say that Scripture holds just enough more information than nature — that it is sufficient for salvation, whereas nature is by comparison insufficient?

I am trying to contradict the point of the WCF when it implies that Scripture can save us, while nature cannot.
Neither can.
We need the Spirit.

But neither nature nor scripture lack any needed content the Spirit might choose to use to save.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

jigawatt — I believe Rob was simply resonating with Doug’s acknowledgment that only the Spirit can search out this stuff.

bethyada
Member

What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory Remember also, And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions… Read more »

RFB
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RFB

Eric, The Word of God is inspired (as you know), God-breathed. The Word of God is the final and complete “more sure Word”, and He is pleased by the seemingly “foolishness of the message preached”. And He says “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” I think that the arithmetic presented by the conflation of those is a clear and definitive statement of God’s intent to save by the Word of God, and… Read more »

timothy
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timothy

bethyada,

Thank you, those verses are apropos.

t

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

But it is the Spirit Who testifies of Christ, The Word of God.

Yes — and that Word can be heard in scripture and in nature.

Every sunset tells us that Christ is the ultimate sunrise.

kentwarrenmcdonald
Member

I am looking forward to the day when I will behold Him in all His Glory. Although some songwriters wonder whether they will shout or sing or fall on their face, I have no doubt whatsoever in my own case. I will fall as one dead in awe of His Majesty.

Jane
Member

Perhaps the operative word here is “us.” Every time I look at my wedding ring, I am told the whole story of my husband’s love and faithfulness over the last 26 years. No one who doesn’t know me or know us well enough to know how long we’ve been married knows that. It does give some true information — it is a reasonable assumption that I am either a married woman or a widowed one with a positive memory of my marriage that makes me want to continue to bear this symbol, and so to some degree it testifies positively… Read more »

Jane
Member

Sorry, I meant to add that for those who know the story, the wedding ring tells the whole story every time they see it. For those who do not, it tells much less. So every sunset tells us that Christ is the ultimate sunrise because we know the whole story in which He is. Doug’s statement doesn’t entail the idea that it tells that to everyone, though it does make plain to all that there is a faithful God who makes the sun rise and set.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

“… so far as it goes

Neither nature nor scripture tell all.

Right now, right here, we know only in part.

prayersofadoration
Member

Right now, right here, we know only in part.

Ain’t that the truth!

Matthew Paul Abel
Guest
Matthew Paul Abel

As a starboard, I’m sure thankful for the ports.

Jane
Member

Neither tell all, but scripture tells what is sufficient for walking with God, while nature does not.

A man who grows up blind and deaf in an urban apartment can hear gospel preaching and believe and live by faith. A lover of creation who is sensitive to its many aspects, but who never hears the gospel in words, cannot believe it.

Jane
Member

Perhaps “hear” is not the best word choice, but there are means of communicating words to the deaf-blind at any rate.

RFB
Guest
RFB

And I think that our marching orders are very specific: ““All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;”

All authority has been given to Me…Go therefore…I have commanded you…”

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Jane,

Do tell — what sufficient thing does scripture tell that nature does not?

Methinks you’ll put the sufficiency in us.

Jane
Member

“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures…”

A blind man and deaf man who has no contact with nature can apprehend that by the Spirit. I cannot imagine how nature could tell that, but perhaps you can?

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

All persons are themselves part of nature, hence inexorably connected.

That Jesus died, nature can’t know.

That He would die, nature knew.

RFB
Guest
RFB

Eric,

It would be helpful if you would support your assertions with Scripture, since absent that, I (for one) remain unconvinced.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

RFB —
Which of these assertions do you have trouble finding in the Book?
And since you’re not buying — what alternative do you hold?
That an input of propositional content not found in nature is necessary for the Spirit to affect salvation?

Creation = nature.

Scripture testifies: creation longs for / groans for our adoption & its completion & restoration.
Creation longs for its creator to finish His work.

Therefore creation wanted Christ to do His work.

Jane
Member

That an input of propositional content not found in nature is necessary for the Spirit to affect salvation? Speaking for myself, it’s not that the content doesn’t inhere in nature, it’s that a man will not find it there unless it is revealed to him by the spoken/written Word. Once you are told it’s there, you see it there. If you are not told it is there, you will not deduce it from its more veiled manifestation in natural revelation. What does Romans 10:14 mean, after all, if natural revelation is sufficient unto salvation? Yes, the Spirit can use whatever… Read more »

RFB
Guest
RFB

Eric,

“…what alternative do you hold?”

This:

“What does Romans 10:14 mean, after all, if natural revelation is sufficient unto salvation?”

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

RFB, This passage has nothing to do with a lack of missionaries or absence of Word! v18 — have they not all heard?! — yea verily!! The words have gone everywhere! You’re relying on a passage about Jews who’ve been preached to out the kazoo, but have not heard. v 14 = They haven’t heard because they won’t believe. v 15 = Who has the ability to clean out their ears? — to make them believe?! vs 15 = look at Isaiah 52:6 & 7 = “therefore they shall know in that day that I am he that doth speak:… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Jane, “Once you are told it’s there, you see it there.” Yet the point of Romans 10 is that being told over & over & over again brought no sight or hearing. Having Scriptures (sans faith) brings no knowledge. (v2) But if you have faith, you’ll be able to call on Him & become saved! (v6-13) But what if the heart has no faith — how will the Word get in & open up the ears and swim down to the heart to deposit that faith? (v14) Well — what we need here is a real Preacher! (v14&15) And His… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

So Romans 10 says Scripture (by itself) has been a miserable failure.

Totally insufficient for enacting salvation.
Despite “sufficient” content.

Nature also is inept for enacting salvation.
Despite equally “sufficient” content.

Well … unless you have the Spirit working & Jesus as Preacher.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

What then is sufficient content?
What adequate content / tool does God “need” to create faith?
Does He need words — propositions or stories or poetry?
No.

In the beginning, He started with Word.
Himself creating our hearts by Jesus’ will & word.

He does that now — creating new “ears”, then faith to receive Him, the Word (Jesus).

He needs no words (small w = Scripture), when He is the Word.

Jane
Member

Eric, I was assuming the work of the Spirit when I said “Once you’re told it’s there, you see it’s there.” Those who have ears to hear, do hear, but scripture says, they need a preacher. The point isn’t that scripture by itself apart from the work of the Spirit contains what is sufficient for salvation, it’s that scripture itself contains what is sufficient for salvation, and by the work of the Spirit, we apprehend that. But on the other hand, the work of the Spirit does not cause us to apprehend what is sufficient for salvation from nature, because… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Jane —

Scripture contains what is sufficient

And what’s that?
Propositional truths?
Historical stories?

What specifically do you find there in the words of Scripture that you don’t find in nature?

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Jane,

The preacher mentioned in Romans is not us — it’s the Preacher = Jesus.

He speaks through Scripture often (if it’s available), and nature always — but always by the Spirit.

RFB
Guest
RFB

Eric,

“The preacher mentioned in Romans is not us — it’s the Preacher = Jesus.”

The context does not show that: “And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”

And: “that is, the word of faith which we preach”

And Paul, personally, again in 1 Corinthians 9:16 “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Yes RFB. But all that means is we’re standing in for Jesus. Do say, RFB, what is it about preaching you think can bring faith? Or say what it is in the Bible that can put flesh on bones? – and if you want to say the Word of God, do say how its record actually works. Magic? No – you’ll say the Spirit. Ok, then why does God need to use a record of what He said? You’ll say He just chooses to. It’s like a certain protocol He just decides to follow. Very well – then there is… Read more »

Jane
Member

Eric, you speak as though the written Word does not contain everything necessary to salvation, but needs the Spirit to somehow “put” it there. But that’s not how it works. The Word contains everything necessary, and is perfectly clear; it is man’s lack, not the scripture’s, that is the reason that it can only be comprehended by the Spirit’s aid. The Spirit opens the ears of the deaf to what is already being plainly declared, He does not make clear something that is not already clear. “Christ died for your sins and arose according to the scriptures” is there in… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Jane, You say Bible has “precise content” that is sufficient for salvation. Your creation doesn’t have this precise content. May I guess you mean by “precise content” = a description of Who Jesus is and what He did on the cross? Do tell, how reading such a description can save someone? You’ll say, I think — “It can’t, just by reading. You need the Spirit plus that description.” I’ll ask — “So the Spirit is dependent upon written/verbal descriptions if He wants to save folk?” You’ll say — “No. He just chooses that method.” I’ll then ask: “So He could… Read more »

RFB
Guest
RFB

Eric, There is no doubt that all regeneration comes by the Spirit, Who blows where and when He wants. Without it, no one can see the Kingdom of God. His salvation was bequeathed to us before the foundations of the earth, but came in the fullness of time as an event with the Incarnation, life death, burial and Resurrection, and as our own in our own times. Unborn infants or otherwise, all the elect of God are chosen from before the foundations. How that works with unborn or prior to exhibition of faith is beyond our ability to know; the… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Can we agree that salvation comes by the Word, not words?

Jane
Member

Do tell, how reading such a description can save someone? Questions like this make me think you’re not reading what I’m writing, you’re arguing with what you think I think, and trying to make me agree with what you think I must deny. I didn’t say anything about how “reading” words saves, it’s believing that saves. As for the rest, I think I’ll let RFB take over from here if he cares to pursue it. I’ll just add that your unborn child question is an odd one if you’re trying to raise it to make your own point — yes,… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

An embryo is a part of nature, however.
No Scriptural contact occurs.
It’s just nature under Spirit – and what do you know! – salvation!

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

It’s almost like a fella can’t do anything to gain salvation.

He could be nothing but a bag of bones, for goodness sake.
Even only that much nature plus Spirit.