Statement from Dr. Peter Lillback on the Doctrine of God and Westminster Theological Seminary

Theology recognizes the greatness of God.  And theology, the study of God, was for centuries considered a royal science, in fact, the queen of the sciences. In this spirit, on January 7, 1855, the minister of New Park Street Chapel, Southwark, England, opened his morning sermon declaring,

The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.

There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity . . . No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God . . .

C. H. Spurgeon’s remarks are a fitting introduction to my message today. He challenges us with the grandeur of studying God that leads to true worship and authentic Scriptural theology. Indeed, there are scarcely any better theological documents to consult on the doctrine of God than our own Westminster Standards.

Thus today, I wish to address you with three statements:

  1. A Statement of Our Confessional Standards.
  2. A Statement of Recent Events at Westminster.
  3. The President’s Statement of His Sense of the Faculty.

I. A Statement of Our Confessional Standards Concerning Theology Proper.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #4 asks, “What is God?”  The Answer is “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”  Here we see the connection and distinction between what have been well termed the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God.  God in His aseity is infinite, eternal and unchangeable.  Yet these properties of absolute deity inform his communicable properties, as we see in the phrase, “in his”.  This phrase modifies the entire list of the seven identified communicable attributes.  Clearly there are not two Gods—an absolute God and a God who relates.  There is one God who has attributes uniquely His own attributes which in turn fully inform these attributes that He has given to his creation.  Thus we love because God loves.  But God’s love is far different from our finite, temporal and changeable love.  His love is an infinite love, an eternal love, an immutable love.

This complex of attributes are more fully identified in Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter II, paragraph one that tells us that

There is but one only, living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, the rewarder of those that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

This passage is clear that this “one only, living and true God” who is “immutable” and “most absolute” is simultaneously the same God who is “working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will”.  Thus in His working with His creation and His creatures, He is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering abundant in goodness and truth.”  He is “forgiving”, and a “rewarder” yet also “terrible in His judgments.”  This “most absolute” and “immutable” divine being who is “without body, parts or passions” is nevertheless revealed as the One God who can be characterized by both emotions and actions.  Thus He is characterized as “hating all sin” and One “who will by no means clear the guilty”.

We might stumble over the Confession’s statement that affirms hatred in God.  Yet, Westminster’s great founding theologian insisted that this was thoroughly biblical.  John Murray wrote,

p. 22 “We must, therefore, recognize that there is in God a holy hate that cannot be defined in terms of not loving or loving less. Furthermore, we may not tone down the reality or intensity of this hate by speaking of it as “anthropopathic” or by saying that it “refers not so much to the emotion as to the effect”. The case is rather, as in all virtue, that this holy hate in us is patterned after holy hate in God.”

p. 35 “. . . It is unnecessary, and it weakens the biblical concept of the wrath of God, to deprive it of its emotional and affective character . . . Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness . . . To question the reality of wrath as an “attitude of God towards us” and construe it merely as “some process or effect in the realm of objective facts” is to miss the meaning of God’s holiness as he reacts against that which is the contradiction of himself.”

John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), 22, 35.

And of course, God’s love is a real act of the “most absolute” and “immutable” God who has chosen to act in history.  The stalwart defender of the Westminster Standards, Charles Hodge put it this way as he spoke about the absolute God of the universe and His engagement with His creatures through prayer:

The God of the Bible, who has revealed Himself as the hearer of prayer, is not mere intelligence and power. He is love. He feels as well as thinks. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. He is full of tenderness, compassion, long-suffering, and benevolence. This is not anthropomorphism. These declarations of Scripture are not mere “regulative truths.” They reveal what God really is.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 699.

All of this, of course, confronts us with mystery.  It is the mystery of our transcendent, self-contained, ontological, Triune God who has revealed Himself by His mighty acts of providence, Scripture and incarnation to His creation.  Consider here how God’s relationship with His creation is described in the Westminster Confession, Chapter Seven, “Of God’s Covenant with Man”, paragraph one.  Our Confession declares,

The distance between God and the creation is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

Thus our Confession presents to us the one and only true and living God who is simultaneously the immutable, most absolute God.  This God, the God of the Bible,  who is without body, parts and passions, who nevertheless also works, loves, forgives, rewards, hates and judges sin and does all this by means of His “voluntary condescension” that He has expressed as His “covenant”.  The covenant of our most absolute God is the means through which He manifests His love, grace, mercy, long-suffering, goodness and truth in relationship with His creatures.

Indeed, we are dealing here with mystery.  And it is precisely these great mysteries that give us the Gospel.  Engaging such profound mysteries is the work of the Church and such great mystery is at the heart of the theology of salvation according to the Apostle Paul.  We read in 1 Timothy 3:14–16:

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.  Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:  He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

In Romans 11:33-36 Paul begins his doxology with the short word “Oh”, “a holy gasp of wonder”.  And then he continues in unspeakable awe as he describes the majesty of His God of sovereign grace:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!   How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever. Amen.

Mystery means that which cannot be known unless God reveals it.  But Paul teaches us that the riches of divine revelation never plumb the depths of the infinite undisclosed mysteries of God.

As some of you might expect, I address the topic of Theology Proper today for a very specific reason.  Allow me to explain.  This brings me to my second point.

II. A Statement of Recent Events Concerning the Doctrine of God at Westminster.

Just recently, two members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, neither of whom are voting members of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, have filed charges in the Presbytery of the Southwest of the OPC. The charges concern the views of Professor Scott Oliphint, who is a member of that Presbytery.  The Charges pertain to the Confession’s doctrine of the immutability of God. Having  received the charges, the Presbytery will determine what steps it will take in addressing them.  I am aware that students and members of our community have learned of the charges directed toward Dr. Oliphint’s views. I have received communications indicating that these matters are being discussed and critiqued on campus, in public lectures at other institutions and globally through social media and podcasts.

In this context, I would like to offer a bit of background.  Dr. Oliphint has addressed the issues of divine immutability for some years in his classes. Also, the first edition of his book, God With Us, presented his own understanding of this doctrine perhaps five or six years ago.  Perhaps you know that this first addition and the rights to it were purchased by Westminster Seminary from Crossway. These volumes were removed from the market and destroyed in order to permit Dr. Oliphint to perfect his views. During this extended season, he has received substantive counsel from several faculty members. He has a manuscript currently in the hands of another publisher. The work continues to be edited but is not yet scheduled for publication.

Meanwhile, the faculty is meeting to discuss these issues. Moreover, Dr. Oliphint has manifested a humble spirit and is willing to interact and respond to questions.  And thus, on an ongoing basis, he has requested faculty who have questions or concerns to speak directly with him and to encourage students to do likewise.  This we believe is a superior approach than individuals speaking about these issues without sufficient understanding of his actual views.

I am pleased to report that there is a sincere faculty commitment to conduct themselves with integrity, order and with mutual respect. There is an expressed desire to avoid any sense of division or appearance of faculty conflict.  Our professors have pledged to avoid creating student factions by not addressing the matter in their classes, while Dr. Oliphint will strive during this period to teach with classic theological language while the matter is adjudicated.

I have urged the faculty to respect the ecclesial process and await the outcome of the deliberations in the OPC judicatories. This seems to me to be wise as a good deal of confusion could result from a simultaneous process. In addition, the faculty wishes to avoid any interference or appearance of interfering with the Presbytery process by their actions.

Please uphold the faculty in prayer during this likely to be prolonged season of discussion and differing perspectives. Please intercede for the faculty and the church before the throne of grace for Christ’s glory.

In my mind, a positive approach would be to ask Professor Oliphint if his views are consonant with the Westminster Standards, or if they are consistent with the views of John Murray or Charles Hodge.  Perhaps we all might profit by reflecting on such citations as the following from Herman Bavinck, a magisterial and orthodox Reformed theologian.  Bavinck writes,

Relative terms, such as “Lord,” “Creator,” “Sustainer,” “Savior,” and so on, belong to God only on account of, and upon the coming into being of, the creation. But all these names, though relative, metaphorical, and positive, nevertheless definitely denote something in God that exists in him absolutely, “properly,” and hence also “negatively,” that is, in another sense than it exists in creatures.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol.2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 133-134.

Or again, another text that one might profitably contemplate states:

God himself, Elohim, Creator of heaven and earth, came down to the level of the creature, entered into history, assumed human language, emotions, and forms, in order to communicate himself with all his spiritual blessings to humans and so to prepare for his incarnation, his permanent and eternal indwelling humanity.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 221.

So as I conclude, recognizing both the mysteries that we proclaim as Reformed confessional Christians as well as the challenges of the ecclesial issues before us, please carefully consider the following statement that I now present to you, the beloved Westminster Community, that I believe well captures my sense of the Westminster faculty at this juncture.

III. The President’s Statement of His Sense of the Faculty Concerning This Controversy in Regard to the Doctrine of God.

Since its first day, Westminster Theological Seminary’s faculty members have solemnly sworn adherence to the Westminster Standards. Each of your faculty today takes with utmost seriousness his vows to those confessional standards. The seminary also continues to be a vital community for ongoing scholarship, as faculty members seek to refine and improve upon the language and theology of our forefathers. At times new paradigms stir up disagreement within the faculty or among our various constituencies. Such disagreements are not inherently negative, and in fact, can prove fruitful for either refining or for reinforcing the enduring value of our rich, theological legacy. However such fruitful controversies prove to be in the end, working through them can be both difficult and unsettling. Accordingly, enduring seasons of controversy require grace and patience, and call for manifest spiritual maturity. Today I call on each of us to bear out the fruit of the Spirit in a present time of new theological and institutional challenge.

Just recently, two members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, neither of whom are voting members of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, have filed charges in the Presbytery of the Southwest of the OPC. The charges concern the views of Professor Scott Oliphint pertaining to the immutability of God. Having received them already, the Presbytery now will determine what next steps it will take in addressing these charges.

Since an ecclesiastical court case operates outside the jurisdiction of Westminster, it is our duty to pursue and retain the highest standards of honor and respect as we allow the church courts to adjudicate the matter. In our behavior and our attitudes, we must each abide by the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. We urge you along with all in our community to maintain mutual respect and collegiality throughout this process. To that end, despite alluring temptations to draw conclusions and align with one side or another, I ask you to avoid all actions which would stimulate factions or foment controversy either inside or outside the classroom. As your president, I intend to encourage and promote such standards.  I am hoping that it will be unnecessary for me to enforce appropriate conduct regarding both acts and speech, whether on or off campus, in relation to this matter.

In this context, I request that you commit this matter to prayer for:

  1. Godly wisdom for those involved so that needed theological clarity surfaces on these doctrinal issues;
  2. Gospel grace and humility for all involved in the ecclesiastical court process;
  3. Christ-honoring peace, mutual honor and godly charity among brothers and sisters, and
  4. The advance of Christ’s kingdom and the glory of His name in and through us during and at the conclusion of this time of controversy.

To close, I remind you of these deeply important and timely words from James 3:13–18:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.