Sunday, 21 September 2008

Blogging the Confession 7 - God: absolute and transcendent

The WCF begins with Scripture, but the following chapter moves to focus on God. God is by far the most important theme of the confession. Have a look at how many of the following chapters start with a statement about what God has done, sometime expressed in terms of the work of Christ. Even when God is not mentioned directly at the start of a chapter it does not take much reflection to see that an view of his purposes shapes every chapter of the confession.

Aquinas spoke of theology treating all things "sub ratione Dei" (in relation to God). He taught that theology is a unified science because it “does not treat of God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning or end” (
ST  I.1.3. ad1). (The graphic is from a 15th C edition of Aquinas' Summa). The WCF seeks to do the same thing.
So it is no surprise that chapter 2, offers a very full and impressive doctrine of God, albeit stated tersely. It is a statement of the indisputable majesty and greatness of the only God.

The doctrine of the Trinity is left to section 3. If I was given the chance to rewrite the confession I’d probably put the Trinity at the beginning of the chapter and let it shape the rest. That might have avoided some of the ways people read the chapter. I’ll look at the Trinitarian doctrine in the next post.

The best way to get an idea of the Chapter, specially the first two sections, is to write it out in a flow diagram. I’ll put my version in a later blog.

 Section 1 begins by affirming the unity and transcendence of God (one only living and true God … most absolute). The Reformed tradition along with all orthodox theology has always made it clear that there is a great ontological distinction between God and creation. More than some traditions the Reformed were ready to focus on this and to spell it out in biblical terms.

 It then deals with God’s character as he deals with his creation (working all things … will by no means clear the guilty). He freely and personally enters into a relationship with all he creatures, and specially all his human creature. Chapter 7 will fill this out in terms of relations which come from creation and from covenant.

 Chapter 2 again to stresses God’s self-sufficiency, and sets his relationship with his creatures in the context of this: he is glorified by them but does not need this, he is  sovereign over them, and knows all fully and necessarily. It conclude with the proper response of humans to God, which is grounded in God’s will (cf 7.1 and 21.1).

 The expression that God does not have “passions” is often taken to mean that God is apathetic or without anything like human feelings. However John Murray explains that the phrase refers either to “sufferings or to violent motions in the sense of bad temper” or to “passive qualities or properties applicable to a physical object “ (J. Murray, “The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 132). This squares with the Confession also saying that God is “loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering”. These terms have to be understood analogically when applied to God, but the scriptural precedents exclude a claim that the analogy removes anything like human affections from God.

 There is little expression here of God’s immanence, though the phrase “of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things” would include the thought that “in him we live and move and have our being”. It is perhaps here that a Trinitarian statement would add to the treatment, since it is only that doctrine which allows us to affirm that God is truly transcendent and absolute and yet also present to and involved with his creation. Related to this concern is the observation that the confession has little to say at this point about God’s love for all his creation. Again I agree that more could be said. However I’d still defend the confession’s emphasis on God’s majesty over against creation. How strong this emphasis should be leads us into a discussion about Classical Theism (a discussion I am not going to go into here!).

No comments: